1902 Encyclopedia > Slavery > Movement Against the Slave Trade: France.

(Part 16)

Toussaint l’Ouverture (image)

Toussaint l’Ouverture (1743-1803), the leader of the rebellion that ended slavery in St Domingo (part of modern day Haiti)


Movement Against the Slave Trade: France.

The abolition of the French slave trade was preceded by stormy struggles and by many deplorable excesses. The western part of St Domingo, nominally belonging to Spain, had been occupied by buccaneers, who were recognized and supported by the French Government, and had been ceded to France at the peace of Ryswick in 1697. So vast was the annual importation of enslaved negroes into this colony before 1791 that the ratio of the blacks to the whites was as 16 to 1. In that year there were in French St Domingo 480,000 blacks, 24,000 mulattoes, and only 30,000 whites. The French law for the regulation of slavery in the plantations, known as the Code Noir (framed under Louis XIV. In 1685), was humane in its spirit ; but we are informed that its provisions were habitually disregarded by the planters, whilst the free mulattoes laboured under serious grievances and were exposed to irritating indignities. A "Sociéte des Amis des Noirs" was formed in Paris in 1788 for the abolition, not only of the slave trade, but of slavery itself. The president was Condorcet, and amongst the members were the Duc de la Rochefoucault, the Abbé Gregoire, Brissot, Clavière, Pétion, and La Fayette; Mirabeau was all active sympathizer. The great motor of the parallel effort in England was the Christian spirit; in France it was the enthusiasm of humanity which was associated with the revolutionary movement. There were in 1789 a number of mulattoes in Paris, who had come from St Domingo to assert the rights of the people of colour in that colony before the national assembly. The Declaration of the Rights of Man in August 1789 seemed to meet their claims, but in March 1790 the assembly, alarmed by rumours of the discontent and disaffection of the planters in St Domingo, passed a resolution that it had not been intended to comprehend the internal government of the colonies in the constitution framed for the mother country, and added that the assembly would not cause any innovation to be made, directly or indirectly, in any system of commerce in which the colonies were already concerned,—a declaration which could only be interpreted as sanctioning the continuance of the slave trade. Vincent Ogé, one of the mulatto delegates in Paris, disgusted at the overthrow of the hopes of his race, returned to St Domingo, and on landing in October 1790 addressed a letter to the governor announcing his intention of taking up arms on behalf of the mulattoes if their wrongs were not redressed. He rose accordingly with a few followers, but was soon defeated and forced to take refuge in the Spanish part of the island. He was afterwards surrendered, tried, and sentenced to be broken on the wheel. When the news of this reached Paris, it created a strong feeling against the planters ; and on the motion of the Abbé Gregoire it was resolved by the assembly on 15th May 1791 "that the people of colour resident in the French colonies, born of free parents, were entitled to, as of right, and should be allowed, the enjoyment of all the privileges of French citizens, and among others those of being eligible to seats both in the parochial and colonial assemblies." On the 23d August a rebellion of the negroes broke out in the northern province of St Domingo, and soon extended to the western province, where the mulattoes and blacks combined. Many enormities were committed by the insurgents, and were avenged with scarcely inferior barbarity. The French assembly, alarmed by these scenes, and fearing the loss of the colony, repealed on 24th September the decree of the preceding May. This lamentable vacillation put all end to all hope of a reconciliation of parties in the island. Civil commissioners sent out from France quarrelled with the governor and called the revolted negroes to their assistance. The white inhabitants of Cape François were massacred and the city in great part destroyed by fire. The planters now offered their allegiance to Great Britain; and an English force landed in the colony. But it was insufficient to encounter the hostility of the republican troops and the revolted negroes and mulattoes; it suffered dreadfully from disease, and was obliged to evacuate the island in 1798. On the departure of the British the government remained in the hands of Toussaint l’Ouverture, the noblest type ever produced by the African race. Slavery had disappeared; the blacks were employed as hired servants, receiving for their remuneration the third part of the crops they raised ; and the population was rapidly rising in civilization and comfort. The whole island was now French, the Spanish portion having been ceded by the treaty of Basel. The wish of Toussaint was that St Domingo should enjoy a practical independence whilst recognizing the sovereignty and exclusive commercial rights of France. Of the violent and treacherous conduct of Bonaparte towards the island and its eminent chief we cannot here give an account; the final issue was that the blacks drove from their soil the forces sent to subdue them, and founded a constitution of their own, which was more than once modified. There can be no doubt that the Government of the Restoration, in seeking to obtain possession of the island, had the intention of re-establishing slavery, and even of reopening the slave trade for the purpose of recruiting the diminished population. But Bonaparte abolished that trade during the Hundred Days, though he also failed to win back the people of St Domingo, or, as it was now called by its original name, Hayti, to obedience. The Bourbons, when again restored, could not reintroduce the slave trade; the notion of conquering the island had to be given up ; and its independence was formally recognized in 1825. Thus France lost her most important colonial possession, which had yielded produce to an amount almost as great as that of all the rest of the West Indies; and the negro race obtained its first and hitherto its only independent settlement outside the African continent.

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