Free People of Color as Counterrevolutionaries: Power Struggles in Saint-Domingue and the Twists of Racial Thinking in Republican France, 1794–99

Thursday, January 4, 2018: 3:50 PM
Columbia 10 (Washington Hilton)
Manuel Covo, University of California, Santa Barbara
“The Whites were to the Free People of Color what the latter were to the Whites in the old regime: Europeans were being reduced to the condition of the manumitted. The lot of the Blacks had not changed: they were being subjected to the same tortures, and the barbarity of the new masters surpassed that of the former.”

This was how Léger Félicité Sonthonax, the Jacobin who had proclaimed the abolition of slavery in Saint-Domingue, described what one part of the colonial society had become four years after his groundbreaking decree. This surprising rhetoric indicted the “mulattoes” for acting as counterrevolutionaries, perpetuating an alternative version of the prejudice of color and discriminating against the Whites. In other words, the “regeneration” of the free people of color had failed, justifying the supervision of the colony by “civilized” Europeans. The paper explains how Sonthonax, the revolutionary abolitionist par excellence, came to articulate a new form of republican racism different from the polygenist racism which would prevail in the Napoleonic era.

I argue that competing forms of racial thinking emerged in response to the power struggles unfolding in Saint-Domingue and France from 1794 to 1799. In the context of legal “assimilation,” conflicts between the leaders of the revolution – that culminated in the Saint-Domingue’s civil war of 1799 – brought new racial discourses into being and transformed the rationale for imperial domination. The paper illuminates the global repercussions of local struggles in Saint-Domingue upon the longer intertwined history of French republicanism and colonialism.