A Colony of Citizens

A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804

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  • Book Info
    A Colony of Citizens
    Book Description:

    The idea of universal rights is often understood as the product of Europe, but as Laurent Dubois demonstrates, it was profoundly shaped by the struggle over slavery and citizenship in the French Caribbean. Dubois examines this Caribbean revolution by focusing on Guadeloupe, where, in the early 1790s, insurgents on the island fought for equality and freedom and formed alliances with besieged Republicans. In 1794, slavery was abolished throughout the French Empire, ushering in a new colonial order in which all people, regardless of race, were entitled to the same rights.But French administrators on the island combined emancipation with new forms of coercion and racial exclusion, even as newly freed slaves struggled for a fuller freedom. In 1802, the experiment in emancipation was reversed and slavery was brutally reestablished, though rebels in Saint-Domingue avoided the same fate by defeating the French and creating an independent Haiti.The political culture of republicanism, Dubois argues, was transformed through this transcultural and transatlantic struggle for liberty and citizenship. The slaves-turned-citizens of the French Caribbean expanded the political possibilities of the Enlightenment by giving new and radical content to the idea of universal rights.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0105-2
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. xi-xi)
  4. Maps and Illustrations
    (pp. xii-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    (pp. 1-15)

    On June 30, 1997, a public ritual took place in the town hall of Pantin, just outside Paris. It was organized by members of the sans-papiers movement, which had emerged as the most important defender of the rights of undocumented immigrants in France. The assistant to the Socialist mayor presided, wearing his tricolor sash to signal that he was acting as a Republican official. One by one, ten sans-papiers presented themselves, each accompanied by two French citizens who declared their wish to become his or her godparents. All three then signed a document that was given to the sans-papiers to...

  7. Maps
    (pp. 16-20)

    • Chapter 1 Insurrection and the Language of Rights
      (pp. 23-29)

      During the night of Saturday, April 20, 1793, hundreds of enslaved blacks revolted in the area surrounding the village of Trois-Rivières, Guadeloupe. They killed twenty-two whites and ransacked a chosen set of plantations. They then locked up those plantations, posted sentries to prevent further looting, and marched out of Trois-Rivières toward the nearby capital of the island, Basse-Terre. There, soldiers and citizens heard news of the massacre, formed an armed troop, and marched out of town to put down the revolt. At dawn, the two groups met.

      The soldiers prepared to fight, but the rebels were quiet, orderly, and unaggressive...

      (pp. 30-84)

      In Alejo Carpentier’s novel of the Haitian Revolution,The Kingdom of This World, an enslaved man named Ti Noel visits the maroon leader Makandal in his hideout and sees “an account book stolen from the plantation’s bookkeeper, its pages showing heavy signs drawn in charcoal.” Out of this stolen register, whose purpose had been to order the daily labor of the enslaved, Makandal has created something very different. Across a landscape divided into plantations, each with its population of human property, he has identified those who are willing to help him terrorize slave masters. The register maps out a network...

    • Chapter 3 PROPHETIC RUMOR
      (pp. 85-123)

      In August 1789, groups of slaves began gathering on the waterfront of the town of Saint-Pierre, Martinique. Many of these slaves were employed in the town in various trades, but, on Sunday, August 30, they headed out of town for a large meeting held in a valley between two plantations, where they were joined by others from the surrounding region. They were inspired to action by the news—spread by what some insurgents later described as “black doctors”—that the king of France, encouraged by some of the slaves’ distinguished friends in Paris, had abolished slavery. Local slaveowners, according to...

      (pp. 124-154)

      In 1993, Carlomann Bassette, a teacher, poet, and activist from the town of Trois-Rivières, organized a series of tours of the sites where the insurrection of 1793 took place. Following the path the slaves took that night is easy enough, since the town is still laid out along the topography defined during the eighteenth century. The Brindeau plantation, where the insurrection began, sits along the road that heads eastward toward Basse-Terre, winding its way around steep hills and by a series of waterfalls. The first floor of the house where Brindeau was killed still stands. A plaque placed there in...

      (pp. 155-168)

      In Saint-Domingue, two months after the insurrection in Trois-Rivières, the civil commissioner Léger Félicité Sonthonax granted freedom and citizenship to those slaves who would fight for the Republic. As a representative in the colony for Republican France, Sonthonax was besieged not only by insurgent slaves but also by the English, the Spanish, and, perhaps most seriously, anti-Republican whites. His call to the slaves was a last-ditch effort to defeat the new royalist governor François-Thomas Galbaud, who on his arrival from France had rallied sailors and other whites in the town to take over the government from the commissioners. Although Sonthonax...


      (pp. 171-188)

      Are we born into citizenship? Can we be naturalized into it? Does citizenship reside in our blood, or must it be learned? Is it a territorial concept, based on borders? Is it a political concept, based on an abstract “cité”—an “imagined community”? Is it beautiful?¹

      The French Revolution played a crucial part in shaping the ideas and practices surrounding national citizenship. As the political theorist Étienne Balibar has suggested, the key document of the Revolution, the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, brought about the “constitution of citizenship—in a radically new sense.” The power of...

    • Chapter 7 WORTHY OF THE NATION
      (pp. 189-221)

      In 1955, the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier was traveling from Cuba to Paris when his plane broke down and made a forced landing in Guadeloupe. There, Carpentier learned about a historical figure who fascinated him: Victor Hugues. Over the next years, Carpentier searched for accounts of Hugues’s life and the history of the period in libraries and archives in France, Mexico, Guadeloupe, Barbados, and Cuba. In Mexico, he chanced upon a copy of Auguste Lacour’s nineteenth-centuryHistoire de la Guadeloupe. With its detailed descriptions of Guadeloupe under Hugues’s rule, it became Carpentier’s key source. The result was Carpentier’s novelEl...

      (pp. 222-248)

      In the middle of 1794, as British troops attacked Pointe-à-Pitre in a failed attempt to wrest it from the control of Hugues’s Republican troops, a captain leading a troop of grenadiers into the town was severely wounded by an exploding ammunition depot. His “brother officers” pulled off his burning clothes, but his “face and hands were rendered entirely black by the explosion.” In the confusion, a group of his own grenadiers, “taking him for one of the French blacks, attacked him with charged bayonets and wounded him in three places before he could make himself known to them. The instant...

    • Chapter 9 THE MARK OF FREEDOM
      (pp. 249-276)

      In December 1783, the holy father of the Capuchin order at Basse-Terre granted three women a ninety-nine-year lease on land bordering his monastery. Marie-Anne, a métisse libre, organized the contract and took the largest portion of land for herself. The two other women, Fatime and Hedezie, both nègresses libres, received slightly smaller portions of land. At the time, Hedezie was still a slave, though she was to be freed “at any moment,” so Fatime stood in for her as the actual subject of the act, which stipulated that Hedezie would gain her right to the land once her master officially...

      (pp. 277-307)

      In Alejo Carpentier’sExplosion in a Cathedral, the Cuban character Esteban, disappointed with the excesses of Victor Hugues’s regime, leaves Guadeloupe to serve as a sailor on a corsair. Traveling the seas in the service of the Republic, Esteban and the rest of the crew—led by a first mate who is “a mixture of Carib and negro, born in Marie-Galante”—often spend days harbored along abandoned stretches of coast, where he confronts various forms cast up by the Caribbean Sea: pieces of European glass perfected by the water and the indigenous spiral snail shells that speak to him of...

      (pp. 308-314)

      In March 1797, a revolt erupted against the regime of Victor Hugues. The insurgents, most of them cultivateurs working on plantations in the region of Lamentin, responded to leaders who traveled from plantation to plantation. According to Hugues, these men evoked the example of Saint-Domingue, where “all those in command are blacks,” saying:

      Aren’t you tired of being poor? If you are free, why are you working on the land of the whites? Why doesn’t all the fruit of your labor belong to you? . . . Where does the money of the colony come from? From the sugar and...


    • Chapter 12 THE ROAD TO MATOUBA
      (pp. 317-323)

      The road curves over a narrow ravine, and, on the other side, at a fork, lies a small, inconspicuous marble plaque mounted on a stone. It commemorates the May 1802 defeat and suicide of Louis Delgrès. Off to the left you can head along fields that once composed the D’Anglemont plantation, which Delgrès and his troops mined and blew up in their last, resounding gesture. To the right a road goes higher in the mountains toward the town of Matouba. The plaque reads simply, “À la mémoire de Delgrès et de ses compagnons, 28 mai 1802”—“To the memory of...

      (pp. 324-348)

      “I am a friend of liberty, though I once owned slaves,” declared the colonial administrator Daniel Lescallier in 1798. A decade before, Lescallier had been a manager on Lafayette’s experimental Guiana plantation and drew on this experience to argue for gradual emancipation in the colonies. He had remained on Lafayette’s plantation through most of the 1790s, experiencing firsthand the changes brought on by an emancipation very different from what he had advocated. “Since the revolution that made France a Republic” had abolished slavery and given back to the oppressed the “enjoyment of the Rights of Man and Citizen,” he wrote,...

      (pp. 349-373)

      In the middle of 1801, Napoléon Bonaparte received a letter from Guadeloupe. Written by the citizen César-Dominique Duny, it lamented the fate of an island that, since 1790, had seen “a constant war against property, industry, individual liberty, reason, and humanity.” The property-owners and merchants of the island—the “most interesting portion of its inhabitants”—had been attacked and either killed or forced to flee, and the remaining whites were languishing in “disorder and anarchy.” Duny hoped that the Consulate would soon come and “repair all the evils and heal all the wounds of the French colonies.”¹

      Several months earlier,...

    • Chapter 15 “VIVRE LIBRE OU MOURIR!”
      (pp. 374-401)

      In January 1801, Marie Huard and two of her former slaves, Marie-Françoise Sophie and Alexandre, went to visit a notary in the town of Basse-Terre. Huard stated that, “a few years before the Revolution,” content with the services of these slaves, she had “renounced all the rights that the laws then accorded her over” them and permitted them to freely dispose of their time and labor for the rest of their lives. Therefore, she noted, “the laws of the Republic, in abolishing slavery in the colonies, only ratified the particular disposition.” Responding to the threat against both individual and universal...

    • Chapter 16 THE EXILED REPUBLIC
      (pp. 402-422)

      In Saint-Domingue, Leclerc had been battling fierce resistance since he disembarked in February 1802, but by May he had secured the surrender of most of the major rebel leaders and their followers, including Henri Christophe, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and—most important—Toussaint L’Ouverture. Worried that L’Ouverture’s submission was only illusory, Leclerc had him arrested and deported in June 1802, and he died the next year in a prison in the Jura mountains. The months of hard campaigning, however, had taken their toll: many thousands of French soldiers had been killed in battle, and an increasing and alarming number were succumbing to...

    (pp. 423-438)

    In the Panthéon—the French temple of heroes, in the heart of Paris— is a crypt containing several graves. Victor Schoelcher, the architect of the 1848 abolition, lies near Jean Jaurès, the nineteenth-century Socialist political leader and historian who was one of the first to mention the Caribbean in a history of the French Revolution. The crypt also contains the grave of Félix Eboué, the Guyanese-born colonial administrator. Eboué was one of the first to rally to Charles de Gaulle’s call for resistance during World War II. These graves have lain together for several decades, but, in 1998, the hallway...

    (pp. 439-442)
    (pp. 443-444)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 445-452)