A petition is submitted to Saint-Domingue's Provincial Assembly requesting “political rights for free persons of color.” In November, another, similar petition is submitted by a white colonist, who is then “arrested at his residence, dragged through the streets, and brutally killed by a furious mob of petits blancs who cut off his head and paraded it through the town on a pike.” A respected elderly mulatto suspected of having a copy of the petition is shot and dragged through the streets.
A white colonist later writes in 1789, “What preoccupies us the most at this time are the menaces of a revolt . . . Our slaves have already held assemblies in one part of the colony with threats of wanting to destroy all the whites and to become masters of the colony.”
Slaves in Martinique revolt, partly due to the influence of the French Revolution. Saint-Domingue is increasingly unstable as well: at the end of the year the colony experiences a devastating drought and marronage increases as slaves escape their plantations at higher rates. In reaction, whites become even more violent toward mulattoes, free blacks and white sympathizers.
On the eve of the French Revolution, the Third Estate assembles in the tennis court at Versailles to write a new constitution and declares itself “the nation, the true representatives of the people,” swearing “as a body, never to disperse.” Nearly all colonial deputies participate, “and in the general euphoria and enthusiasm” the Third Estate recognizes the principle of colonial representation and votes to seat six delegates from Saint-Domingue.
Following the Tennis Court Oath, mulattoes and free blacks in Saint-Domingue pursue representation and equal rights as free persons and property owners, but are blocked by white colonists. In the National Assembly, absentee planters prevent the reemergence of the “mulatto question” to avoid a debate that could grant these rights. Meanwhile in the colony free blacks are now richer, more numerous and more militant than in any of France's other colonies. Planters, fearful of giving up any control and increasingly divided amongst themselves, become more abusive, executing mulattoes whenever possible.
Image: The National Assembly taking the Tennis Court Oath (sketch by Jacques-Louis David, 1791). Link.
The French Revolution begins with the fall of the Bastille. France’s political and social structures descend into chaos as violence breaks out.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens is adopted by the National Assembly. The Declaration’s articles include:
Image: The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens. Link.
Louis XVI assents to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens, saying that the rights are “granted to all men by natural justice.”
Meanwhile in Saint-Domingue during this period, the Colonial Assembly forms to combat actions the French National Assembly has taken on behalf of free blacks and mulattoes.
The French National Assembly accepts a petition of rights for “free citizens of color” from Saint-Domingue.
"In the colonial period, the French imposed a three-tiered social structure. At the top of the social and political ladder was the white elite (grands blancs). At the bottom of the social structure were the black slaves (noirs), most of whom had been transported from Africa. Between the white elite and the slaves arose a third group, the freedmen (affranchis), most of whom were descended from unions of slaveowners and slaves. Some mulatto freedmen inherited land, became relatively wealthy, and owned slaves (perhaps as many as one-fourth of all slaves in Saint-Domingue belonged to affranchis). Nevertheless, racial codes kept the affranchis socially and politically inferior to the whites. Also between the white elite and the slaves were the poor whites (petits blancs), who considered themselves socially superior to the mulattoes, even if they sometimes found themselves economically inferior to them.
Of a population of 519,000 in 1791, 87 percent were slaves, 8 percent were whites, and 5 percent were freedmen. Because of harsh living and working conditions, many slaves died, and new slaves were imported. Thus, at the time of the slave rebellion of 1791, most slaves had been born in Africa rather than in Saint-Domingue."
- Richard A. Haggerty, ed. Haiti: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1989. Link.
A new decree in France grants full legislative powers to the Colonial Assembly, giving the colony almost complete autonomy. The decree sidesteps "the mulatto issue," leaving it to the planters to interpret and declares that anyone attempting to undermine or to incite agitation against the interests of the colonists is guilty of crime against the nation.
Image: 1814 Map of Saint Domingue. St. Marc is located slightly north of Port-au-Prince on the coast. Link.
News of the March 8 decree reaches Saint-Domingue. The Colonial Assembly in Saint Marc begins issuing radical decrees and reforms, pushing the colony further toward autonomy from France and creating conflict between the colony’s royalists and patriots. Saint Marc planters also vow that they will never grant political rights to mulattoes, a “bastard and degenerate race,” and expressly exclude them from the primary assemblies. Mulattoes continue to be frustrated in their attempts to secure their rights and a new Colonial Assembly is elected without a single mulatto or free black vote.
The Colonial Assembly at Saint Marc issues one such decree declaring that its laws, like those made by the National Assembly in France, are subject only to the sanction of the king; that any National Assembly law regarding colonial affairs are subject to colonial veto; that the colony is from now on to be a “federative ally” and not a subject; and that the functions of the National Assembly colonial deputies are suspended.
Image: Free West Indian Creoles in Elegant Dress. Link.
The French National Assembly dissolves the Colonial Assembly at Saint Marc. The governor of Saint-Domingue amasses troops to dissolve it by force. The colony is now divided between royalists and patriots; both groups court mulattoes’ support. The Colonial Assembly refuses to disband and issues a call to arms of all citizens. At last, outnumbered by the governor’s forces, the 85 assembly members realize they’re trapped. They manage to board a ship, the Léopard, and sail to France to plead their case to the National Assembly. There they attempt to reaffirm their right to legislate free persons of color.
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