iv. the civil commissions, the free people of color, and abolition (1791-1793)


First civil commission to restore order
22. Saint-Domingue, Proclamation des commissaires nationaux-civils, Amnistie générale, invitation à la paix, et rappel des Emigrans (Cap-Haïtien, 1791).

In November 1791, the first of what would become three separate civil commissions dispatched by French metropolitan assemblies to manage the chaos of colonial events arrived in Cap Français.  The first commission, consisting of Philippe Rose Roume de Saint-Laurent, Frédéric Ignace de Mirbeck, and Edmond de Saint-Léger, was charged with restoring order in Saint-Domingue and enforcing the decrees of the National Assembly, including the controversial May 1791 decree that granted full political rights to a limited segment of the free people of color.  The commissioners had been initially appointed in July, before the slave revolt broke out; their arrival in the colony under radically changed circumstances only strengthened the pre-existing planter suspicion of metropolitan interference.


End the oppression of free people of color in St. Domingue!
23. Marguerite-Elie Guadet, Opinion … sur les colonies (Paris, 1792).

For a brief but critical period after late August 1791 the white planters of Saint-Domingue and their allies in France seemed to forget all about what they had earlier insisted was the necessity of maintaining a strict regime of racial discrimination against the free people of color.  Marguerite-Elie Guadet, a deputy from the Gironde, entered the debate in the National Assembly to argue that the oppression of free people of color must end in Saint-Domingue.  Only by doing so, he observed, would whites be able to secure the cooperation of the free people of color in suppressing the slave revolt.


Whites and free people of color partner to keep slaves on the plantations
24. Saint-Marc (Haiti), Réflexions politiques sur les troubles et la situation de la partie françoise de Saint-Domingue  publiées par les commissaires des citoyens de couleur de Saint-Marc (Paris, 1792).

In April 1792, the Legislative Assembly (the successor to the National, or Constituent, Assembly in France) ended all racial discrimination against free people of color in the colonies.  The decision vindicated those who believed that the Declaration of the Rights of Man ought to extend across racial lines, but also gave the free people of color a reason to ally themselves more fully with the white planters at a time of great mutual insecurity.  In this June 1792 pamphlet, Juste Chanlatte (1766-1828) and several other prominent free people of color from Saint-Marc argued that only a “constitutional union between whites and people of color” could return the slaves to the plantations.  Violent conflict between whites and free people of color continued as before, but the 1791 revolt also greatly intensified the hostility between free persons of color and the slaves.


Second civil commission to restore order
25. Saint-Domingue, Proclamation.  Au nom de la Nation (Cap-Haïtien, 1792).

A second civil commission was dispatched to the colony in June 1792, with the ongoing task of “restoring order” to Saint-Domingue, but also to enforce the April law granting full political rights to the free people of color.  Léger- Félicité Sonthonax, Etienne Polverel, and Jean Antoine Ailhaud arrived with 6,000 soldiers in Saint-Domingue in late September, only a week after the monarchy was abolished and the first French republic was declared.  Their momentous tenure in Saint-Domingue, which lasted until the summer of 1794, witnessed the overlapping radicalization of both the French and Haitian revolutions.  In this pamphlet, they made clear their determination that henceforth only two classes of people would exist in the colony: slave and free.


French Revolution opens a “Pandora’s box” in St. Domingue
26. Prospectus pour le rétablissement des Affiches américaines (Port-au-Prince, 1792?).

This short-lived effort to resume publication of the Affiches americaines in Cap Français, after it had been disrupted by the August 1791 slave revolt, revealed volumes about the anxieties of white planters towards the middle and end of 1792.  The prospectus argued that the Revolution, while liberating the oppressed in France, had opened a “Pandora’s box” in the colonies.  Among the causes of the colony’s distress, the author singled out the explosion of printed material (pamphlets and newspapers) since the beginning of the Revolution.  But it was the characterization of the newspaper’s hoped-for audience – both whites and free people of color, united by a “common interest” – that most neatly illustrated the changing nature of colonial politics in the new Saint-Domingue.


Role of the petits blancs (poor whites)
27. Baillio, aîné,  Mémoire pour les citoyens . . .  déportés de Saint-Domingue. Contre Léger-Félicité Sonthonax (Paris, 1793).

Far less is known about the role of the petits blancs (or poor whites) in the early phases of the Revolution than about the planter and mulatto elites.  They seem to have played an important role in the emergence of “patriot” Jacobin clubs in Saint-Domingue though membership in such groups at other levels of society was driven at least as much by the changing political climate in France as by local political conviction. In this pamphlet, a petit blanc, Baillio, and his associates condemned Sonthonax for sponsoring a race war in Saint-Domingue and failing to enforce the April 4 decree.  Baillio’s charges were entirely hypocritical; he and other petits blancs had been deported by Sonthonax for encouraging a December 2, 1792 race riot in Cap Français.


Sonthonax proclaims emancipation
28. Saint-Domingue.  Au nom de la République. Proclamation (Cap Haïtien, 1793).

Sonthonax’s decision on August 29, 1793, to free the slaves of the northern province of Saint-Domingue is one of the most famous and also most ambiguous moments of the Haitian Revolution. Announcing that a “new order of things will be born” and that the “old servitude will disappear,” the emancipation is often seen as one of the great humanitarian vindications of revolutionary ideology. A onetime lawyer and a committed Jacobin, Sonthonax was also an ambitious revolutionary politician determined to make his mark on the course of events.  His proclamation came at a time when a dramatic augmentation of French forces was desperately needed to counter the combined Spanish and British military threats.


Emancipation proclamation in Kreyòl and French
Panel 2. *Proclamation nous, Étienne Polverel & Leger-Félicité Sonthonax, commissaires civils de la République, délégués aux iles frainçaises de l’Amérique sous le vent, pour y rétablir l’ordre & la tranquillité politique, (Haut-de-Cap, 1793).  In French 

Panel 3. Proclamation nous, Étienne Polverel & Leger-Félicité Sonthonax, commissaires civils, que nation française yoyé dans pays-ci, pour mettre l’ordre et la tranquillité tout-par-tout, (Haut-de-Cap, 1793). In Kreyòl.

Commissioners Polverel and Sonthonax fulfill the promise in their emancipation proclamation of June 21, freeing those slaves who came to the defense of the French Republic during the traitorous uprising led by Governor Galbaud.  Article XI spells out the process by which rebel slaves could secure their freedom in return for future military          service. The commissioners devote most of the proclamation to outlawing French military officers, whom they accuse of counter-revolution and support for a Spanish takeover of the colony. The copy on the right is one of the few published documents of that period written in Kreyòl, the lingua franca of Haiti.


Me free, too!
29. Simon-Louis Boizot, Moi libre aussi (Paris, ca. 1790).

The widespread depiction shown on this medallion reveals that even sympathy for the cause of racial equality could come shrouded in condescension and a subtle form of racism. The “me free too” ideology reflected here essentially denied that free people of color (not to mention slaves) could think and act out of their own sense of political and social interests and goals.

  Exhibition prepared by: Malick W. Ghachem (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), guest curator, with assistance from Susan Danforth (Curator of Maps and Prints, John Carter Brown Library).