Beyond Haiti: Race and the Limits of Revolutionary Freedom in France’s Global Empire, 1789–1815

AHA Session 47
Western Society for French History 1
Society for French Historical Studies 1
French Colonial Historical Society 1
Thursday, January 4, 2018: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Columbia 10 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
Jean Hébrard, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales
Malick Ghachem, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Session Abstract

In 1804, revolutionaries in the French plantation colony of Saint-Domingue rejected slavery and imperial rule, to declare their new nation, Haiti, a “Black Republic.” The Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) arose from the failure of France’s political elite to incorporate non-white colonials into their new legal order as equals of other Frenchmen. This panel interrogates the unstable and changing meanings of race and freedom in the period 1789 to 1815 across different parts of the French empire. Historians have long signaled the tension between the egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution and the pervasive racism of its slaveholding empire. Studies of the Haitian Revolution in particular have exposed the racialized contradictions of French republican universalism. In moving “beyond Haiti,” we make the case that the limits of revolutionary freedom in this era are best understood in an imperial and global context. The meanings of freedom and of various racial categories were hardly consistent between the French metropole and its slaveholding colonies in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds.

With reference to the Lesser Antilles (Martinique and Guadeloupe), the Mascarene Islands (Réunion and Mauritius), metropolitan France, and Haiti, the panel reveals the extent to which race shaped revolutionary politics while the revolution disrupted and transformed racial thinking across the empire. These papers explore the political culture of race and freedom as it differed according to place while revealing the imperial interconnectedness that underlay those divergences. By putting the events of the French and Haitian Revolutions into a global framework, this panel invites a broader conversation about the uneven historical geography of race and freedom in Europe’s early modern slaveholding empires.

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