In both France and its Caribbean colonies, the course of the revolution
took strangely parallel paths. The revolution
truly began in both with the calling of the Estates General to Versailles in the year of 1789.Immediately, conflict over form and representation developed, although it affected metropolis and colonies in different ways.
Things seemed to be going well for the French colonial representatives, as the Estates General declared itself a National Assembly in 1789 and the National Assembly proclaimed France to be a republic in August 1792.
In France, as James Billington puts it, `the subsequent history of armed rebellion reveals a seemingly irresistible drive towar
d a strong, central executive. Robespierre`s twelve-man Committee of Public Safety (1793–94), gave way to a five-man Directorate (1795–99), to a three-man Consulate, to the designation of Napoleon as First Consul in 1799, and finally to Napoleon`s coronation as emperor in 1804.`42 In the colonies, the same movement is discernible with a major difference—at least in Saint Domingue. The consolidation of power during the period of armed rebellion gravitated towar
d non-whites and ended up in the hands of slaves and ex-slaves or their descendants.
With the colonial situation far too confusing for the metropolitan legislators to resolve easily, the armed revolt in the colonies started with an attempted coup by the grands blancs in the north who resented the petits blancs–controlled Colonial Assembly of St. Marc (in West Province) writing a constitution for the entire colony
Both white groups armed their slaves and prepared for war
in the name of the revolution
.43 When, however, the National Assembly passed the May Decree enfranchising propertied mulattos, they temporarily forgot their class differences and forged an uneasy alliance to forestall the revolution
ary threat of racial equality. The determined desire of the free non-whites to make a stand for their rights—also arming their slaves for war
—made the impending civil war
an inevitable racial war
The precedent set by the superordinate free groups was not lost on the slaves, who comprised the overwhelming majority of the population. If they could fight in separate causes for the antagonistic free sectors of the population, they could fight on their own behalf. And so they did. Violence, first employed by the whites, became the common currency of political change.
Finally, in August 1791, after fighting for nearly two years on one or another side of free persons who claimed they were fighting for liberty, the slaves of the Plain du Nord applied their fighting to their own cause. And once they had started, they refused to settle for anything less than full freedom for themselves. When it became clear that their emancipation could not be sustained within the colonial political system, they created an independent state in 1804 to secure it. It was the logical extension of the collective slave revolt that began in 1791.
But before that could happen, Saint Domingue experienced a period of chaos between 1792 and 1802. At one time, as many as six war
ring factions were in the field simultaneously: slaves, free persons of color, petits blancs, grands blancs, and invading Spanish and English troops, as well as the French vainly trying to restore order and control. Alliances were made and dissolved in opportunistic succession.
As the killing increased, power slowly gravitated to the overwhelming majority of the population—the former slaves no longer willing to continue their servility. After 1793, under the control of Pierre-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, ex-slave and ex-slaveowner, the tide of war
turned inexorably, assuring the victory of the concept of liberty held by the slaves.It was duly, if temporarily, ratified by the National Assembly. But that was neither the end of the fighting nor the end of slavery.
The victory of the slaves in 1793 was, ironically, a victory for colonialism and the revolution
in France. The leftwar
d drift of the revolution
and the implacable zeal of its colonial administrators, especially the Jacobin commissioner Léger Félicité Sonthonax, to eradicate all traces of counterrevolution
and royalism—which he identified with the whites—in Saint Domingue facilitated the ultimate victory of the blacks over the whites.Sonthonax`s role, however, does not detract from the brilliant military leadership and political astuteness provided by Toussaint Louverture. In 1797, he became governor general of the colony
and in the next four years expelled all invading forces (including the French) and gave it a remarkably modern and democratic constitution. He also suppressed (but failed to eradicate) the revolt of the free coloreds led by André Rigaud and Alexander Pétion in the south, captured the neighboring Spanish colony
of Santo Domingo, and freed its small number of slaves. Saint Domingue was a new society with a new political structure. As a rewar
d, Toussaint Louverture made himself governor general for life, much to the displeasure of Napoleon Bonaparte.