Saint-Domingue and the French Abolition

Less than three weeks later, throngs of enslaved men and women rushed from the mountains and took on the city of Cap in Saint-Domingue. Their victory led to the evacuation of 10,000 whites, who fled the island. In September, the French commissioners, under pressure from the black population — and in an effort to counteract Spain, which gave slaves their freedom if they fought against the French — proclaimed the end of slavery. “Equality of epidermis” representatives were elected: three blacks, three mulattos, and three whites. They were dispatched to Paris to bring the news and see to it that the measure would not be rescinded.

On February 4, 1794, three of them were received by the Convention in Paris: a white former slaveholder, Louis-Pierre Dufay; a black man, Jean-Baptiste Belley; and a mulatto, Jean-Baptiste Mills. Belley, a Senegalese, had been deported to the island as an infant. He had bought his own freedom and later fought in Savannah, Georgia, alongside the Americans during the War of Independence. Belley was an infantry captain and had been a leader (he was wounded) in the battle of Cap seven months earlier.

Right after the deputation speech given by Dufay — in which he extolled the black population who saved the revolution from the colonists allied to the British Crown — France abolished slavery and the slave trade (which had been subsidized until 1793) in all its colonies.

The uprising in Saint-Domingue and, to a lesser extent, the activism of black abolitionists and their allies in France, had put an official stop to the slave trade and slavery. It is now recognized that without the impulsion of the revolt in Saint-Domingue, the French Revolution would not have decreed the abolition. The Haitian Revolution had radicalized the French Revolution on the question of slavery.

But the story was far from over. On May 20, 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte re-established slavery and the slave trade. He excluded black officers from the army, including General Toussaint L’Ouverture and General Alexandre Dumas. In July the French territory became off-limits to "blacks and people of color"; and in January 1803, mixed marriages became illegal. The violent fights that followed the reintroduction of slavery in Guadeloupe and French Guiana resulted in thousands of deaths.

Hundreds of people from Guadeloupe and Saint-Domingue were then exiled to France and imprisoned or enrolled by force in the army. Among the prisoners were Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean-Baptiste Belley, and Jean-Baptiste Mills. Toussaint died in 1803 and Belley in 1805.

France outlawed the slave trade in 1817, but it continued illegally until at least 1831. Slavery was finally abolished in 1848.

Sylviane A. Diouf
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture