“There Will be a Toussaint Louverture Here among Them”: Race and Rumor in France’s Indian Ocean Colonies in the Era of the Haitian Revolution

Thursday, January 4, 2018: 4:10 PM
Columbia 10 (Washington Hilton)
Nathan Marvin, Johns Hopkins University
This paper discusses the repercussions of the Haitian Revolution in the French slave colony of Réunion, in the Indian Ocean. Historians of France’s Indian Ocean colonies have shown how planter elites exploited fears of a Caribbean-style slave revolt to justify blocking France’s 1794 abolition decree and maintain more than 90,000 people in bondage. But lawmakers on Réunion Island in particular also used the moment to entrench racial segregation within the island’s free population, citing the developing Haitian Revolution as evidence of the grand failure of racial equality. At the heart of that segregationist imperative were lingering anxieties about race on Réunion, where three-quarters of “whites” had Malagasy, African, or Indian ancestry—a fact that would have qualified them as “free-colored” in the Caribbean. At the beginning of the French Revolution, the dominance of Caribbean voices in debates about the relationship between color and citizenship had forced Réunion’s leaders to reconsider local meanings of race against Antillean definitions. In 1791, the island’s Colonial Assembly unsuccessfully petitioned the National Assembly to recognize their unique tradition of whiteness even as it advocated barring “Free Blacks” (former slaves and free South Asian laborers) in the colony from full citizenship. Réunion’s leaders only reluctantly admitted Free Blacks as political equals a year after Paris issued a 1792 decree enfranchising free people of color throughout the empire. Soon after, however, the Colonial Assembly began reversing its commitment to the law and targeting Free Blacks. Examining the records of the surveillance and law-enforcement arm of the Colonial Assembly, the Committee of Public Safety, this paper reveals how lawmakers on Réunion arrested and deported dozens of Free Blacks based on the accusation that they were spreading dangerous information about the ongoing revolutions in the Atlantic world.