The Web of Tension

Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.

So, last time, we introduced Saint Domingue, the French colony that occupied the western third of the island of Hispaniola. We also introduced the main groups who inhabited the island: the whites, the free coloreds, and the slaves. And I did my best last week to discuss each group in isolation from each other, because today I want to focus in on the relationships between and within the groups. Relationships that formed a complicated web of tension that defined the island in the late 18th century as France approached the French Revolution, and Saint Domingue approached what would one day be known as the Haitian Revolution. Now, we could start practically anywhere. But let’s start first with the tension between Saint Domingue collectively and the mother country, France. And in the context of this relationship, France is always called the Metropole, which simply means the parent state of a colony. So when I say metropole, I just mean France proper. We’ll start here because it is the tension between Saint Domingue and the Metropole that will eventually kick start the revolution in 1791. 

So, in the big picture, the French overseas empire was governed by mercantilist theory, which essentially means that trade between the mother country and the colonies should be done entirely in house and operate for the benefit of the Metropole. The purpose of a mercantilist colonial empire was to produce goods that could then be exchanged with other mercantilist empires the British, the Dutch, the Spanish, with the balance of trade, hopefully in your favor, that is, you wanted them to give you more gold for your stuff than you gave them for their stuff. The object of the mercantilist system was to accumulate more gold than everyone else. 

In the French colonial context, this meant that the planters of Saint Domingue labored under a restrictive framework called the Exclusive. Promulgated by the Great Controller General Jean-Baptiste Colbert during the reign of Louis XIV, the gist was that all colonial exports had to be sold back to France and all colonial imports had to be bought from France. And it’s safe to say that in the whole history of Saint Domingue, the colonists hated the Exclusive because it depressed the price of their exports and increased the price of their imports. Without any outside competition, the French merchant houses in the Atlantic port cities paid less for sugar, coffee and indigo than the planters believed they could get in an open market. And then those same merchant houses charged more for goods and provisions and machinery than the stuff was really worth. It was incredibly frustrating for the colonists. And what was doubly frustrating was that fully 3/4 of Saint Domingue’s sugar and coffee were destined to be reexported to other countries. So rather than the colonists selling directly to British traders, they had to sell it for far less to French merchants, who then marked up the price and pocketed the profits of exportation. And since the merchants back in France were growing incredibly rich, thanks to their monopoly, they had way better access to the inner circles of court. And so, despite colonial protests, the Exclusive stayed put. 

Now, key point: how did the colonists know they were being undercut and overcharged? Well, that’s easy. Despite the Exclusive, the colonists carried on a robust contraband trade with everybody. There was a thriving internal economy in the New World, and Saint Domingue was right in the middle of it. Buying and selling with Spanish Cuba, British, Jamaica, the British colonists up in America – it was all off the books and winked at, but it was a key part of everyone’s colonial economy. And even more than that, it was critical to those economies because sometimes French merchants couldn’t meet colonial demand. And where else were you going to get the stuff you needed to survive but from the British and the Dutch and the Spanish, who were all quite happy to trade with Saint Domingue and try to break the Exclusive? 

Now, the first true revolt that hit Saint Domingue was actually in opposition to restrictive trade policies set by the Metropole. In the 1720s, one of those odious state chartered monopolies so beloved by mercantilists, the Company of the Occident, was granted all kinds of special monopoly privileges over Saint Domingue. Tension in the colony finally blew up in late 1723, as a group of angry women stormed the company headquarters in Le Cap and smashed it up. Then the next night, there was further rioting and a company owned plantation was burned to the ground. This unrest then spread out over months until the powers that be back in Versailles decided to back off and withdraw some of the privileges. 

Now, if this incident sounds a bit familiar, you’re right, because this resembles nothing if not the conflicts between London and its North American colonies in the run up to the American Revolution. This mob action in 1723 is precisely the same sort of action that the Boston merchants got up to over the Tea Act. Which was what? Trade privileges for a state chartered monopoly. And as we will see in almost every way, almost, the big whites in Saint Domingue are basically the same type of colonists with the same basic ideas as the men who ran the American Revolution. These are the major planters and the principal local merchants. Their aims are going to be free trade and self government. George Washington and John Hancock were big whites. 

So that brings us to our next big tension, which is between the royal administrators who ran the colony and tried to enforce the exclusive and the big whites who were starting to believe that they should run the colony. 

Now, as we discussed last time, Saint Domingue started out as an unruly pirate base. So the administration of the colony reflected the need for a strong hand to impose order. The governor general was a soldier and the colony was essentially run under military rule, which is to say that justice was heavy handed and verdicts arbitrary. As time progressed and the colony evolved into being a settled planter society, the leading big whites came to resent their treatment and started advocating for more self government and more respect for their individual rights. I mean, they were reading their John Locke about property in Montesquieu, about constitutional government and they were looking on jealously at their British counterparts in Jamaica and North America who enjoyed a degree of self government. And they said, why not us too? 

So to keep the big whites in check, the royal administrators tended to exploit one of the main lines of tension within the colonial white community: the mutual loathing of the big whites and the small whites. The small whites were the guys who struggled as direct overseers and managers out on the plantations or as low level clerks in the cities. New arrivals who dreamed of making a fortune were themselves thrust into an exploitative world of their own that kept them locked in place while the big whites made all the money. Now, it was of course possible to rise up through the ranks. Men did it all the time. But as often as not, the small whites wound up stuck in a demoralizing job with no way out. So the small whites resented the hell out of the wealthy and arrogant big whites. And recognizing an opportunity to contain big white ambition, and to carry some popular support, royal administrators were eager to side with small whites when they filed grievances or brought lawsuits against the big whites. 

Now, the big whites in turn despise the uncouth small whites who were always lying and stealing and loafing around drunk instead of doing their jobs. And this particular tension between the big and small whites is going to be really important once the French revolution gets going, because guess who the small whites are? That’s right, they are the Sans-culottes, and they are going to be just as eager as their cousins back home to pin on a revolutionary cockade and overthrow the hated old order. But just remember, the big whites are not counterrevolutionary royalists. They are the liberal nobles and the rich bourgeoisie who represented the first revolution, the revolution of 1789. The small whites, meanwhile, represent the second revolution, the revolution of 1792. So, in effect, the course of the French revolution is going to play out in miniature in Saint Domingue, with the added bonus of armed free coloreds and slave armies running around. 

Okay, so let’s bring in the free colors into our web of tension. Now, as I said last week, Saint Domingue was not an explicitly racist society for the first 70 odd years of its existence. It was far less racist than British or Spanish colonies, for example. And this is one of the reasons why such a large free colored community was allowed to grow up. The Code Noir specifically granted free coloreds the same rights as anyone who had been born on native French soil, even if they themselves were freed slaves who had been born in Africa. Now, this did not make them immune to racial prejudice, and they were never assimilated into the white elite of the colony. But despite various social slights, they were able to prosper nicely. But it was this very prosperity that did finally introduce codified racism into the colony after the end of the Seven Years War in 1763. 

Now, if you remember from last week, one of the defining features of the big whites is that they were seeking their colonial fortunes with the express intention of them getting out. Now, this did not apply to all of them. They were for sure rooted Creole big whites, but as prominent white families now being born in and staying in Saint Domingue. But many were taking the money and running, and many others along the way were at least making regular trips back to France, which was expensive, or spending a bunch of money on European luxury goods to make their colonial homes feel as European as possible. Well, guess who wasn’t doing any of this? 

The free coloreds. As the generations unfolded and free colored wealth accumulated, they tended to reinvest it in the colony, buying more land or improving their existing estates. They had no great urge to return to France, and they were far less interested in blowing money on European luxuries. And because they were staying put and their children were being born and raised in the colony and then they were staying put, the free coloreds started to naturally accumulate more power and influence inside the colony. And it’s one of the reasons newly arrived whites were happy to marry into one of these prosperous free colored families. 

So this was all very troubling to the big whites who felt their political and social dominance threatened by the rising free coloreds. But no one hated the prosperous free coloreds more than the small whites. As a class, the small whites really latched onto racial superiority as the one thing they really had going for them. They did not like that their lives were so crappy, while inferior, ex slaves, barely better than animals, had it so good. And of course, the prosperous free coloreds had no love for the small whites, who were little better than slaves and who acted high and mighty without cause or justification. The free coloreds derisively referred to the small whites as negro blancs, black whites. 

Meanwhile, back in the Metropole, the Colonial Office in Versailles was trying to figure out how to consolidate what was left of their overseas empire after the disastrous losses in the Seven Years War. They just had to cede Canada to the British. Specifically, they wanted to make sure they didn’t lose what they had left to, for example, native independence movements. To address this issue, they turned to a guy named Émilien Petit. Petit had written a book back in 1750 called “American Patriotism” that outlined pretty clearly the threat posed to the Metropole by an emerging Creole population in the colonies. Now, Creole just means somebody who was born in the Americas. So there were white Creoles and colored Creoles and black Creoles. And the concern was that the Creole collectively would start to create a united local interest that was in opposition to the Metropole. Petit said if the home government didn’t start making reforms, these guys are liable to try to break away from France. Being a liberal reformer, Petit said we need to treat these people not like uncivilized pirates, but like full subjects of the crown. We need to end arbitrary military rule and give them a measure of self government. We need to respect their private property rights. We need to end the Exclusive and open up the colony to free trade. That way the colonists will feel like full participants in the system rather than oppressed cogs in a tyrannical machine. 

But the other key part of Petit reforms was to introduce a system of proto apartheid that divided the whites from the coloreds. Petit believed that if those two groups joined forces, then it would be a matter of when, not if the colony broke away from France. So one side of the coin was building up the self esteem of the white colonists by treating them better. The other was abusing and denigrating the free coloreds so that the two groups would never recognize how much their interests actually intersected. 

So around about 1763, an officially racist regime started being implemented in Saint Domingue. In 1764, coloreds were forbidden from certain prominent professions: medicine, law, government jobs. In 1773, a freed slave and his or her family was forbidden to take the name of their white patriarch. This was to break the lines of inheritance and any family connections that might bind together prominent whites from their colored relatives. In 1777, blacks were barred from the Metropole completely, and free coloreds were forced to register upon arrival. In 1779, the coloreds were hit with a sumptuary law forbidding them from wearing swords in public or dressing in European style, which meant wearing the good silks. They were also forbidden from being addressed using formal titles like Madame and Senior. Manumission papers proving freedom were required for wills and marriage licenses. And, oh, by the way, there’s now a huge tack on manumission, freeing a slave, to prevent the free colored population from growing too quickly. Local notaries were ordered to keep track of racial identifiers on legal paperwork so the colonial government could start keeping a record of who was white and who was colored. After all, sometimes a colored was whiter than a white, and you never could be sure who was inferior to whom. 

Before the racial identifiers, the colonists turned to the work of a guy named Moreau de Saint-Méry, who was a white Creole and who was best known for writing a massive work called ‘The Description of French Saint Domingue’, which remains a principal primary source for information on the colony before the revolution. The work was intended to guide colonial administrators, but it was unfinished by the time that the revolution swept through and made it all obsolete. Moreau de Saint-Méry had worked up a classification system that identified 128 shades of color: from the standard mulatto, which was one white parent, one black parent, though there were actually twelve different combinations that produced a mulatto, and we’re not going to worry about those. Then, in English, you have a quadroon, which is three white grandparents and one black grandparent. So, for example, Alex Dumas, the great revolutionary general, was a mulatto, while his son, Alexandre Dumas, the great novelist, was a quadroon. This system goes out to 1/128th part black, and it provided pages of tables to determine what combination makes what. 

Now, in practice, a lot of this, like a lot of everything decreed by the Metropole, was just ignored. Notaries didn’t bother to note race, weddings and wills were duly approved without asking for documentation. But the official racism was odious and offensive to the prominent free coloreds, who believed themselves in every way the full equal of a white. I mean, that’s what the Code Noir had always said. And then, of course, just as these racist laws were hitting, they were landing on the first generation of coloreds who had been educated back in France. If a free colored family got enough money together, they would send their sons back to France to be educated. And back in France, at that point, racism was practically not even a thing yet. So these guys would go off, get a fully modern education, be treated as equals for a few years, and then come back to a colonial world of humiliating slights. 

Now, the epicenter of the tensions between the whites, the coloreds, and the royal administrators was the issue of militia service. Service in the colonial militia was incredibly unpopular. It took time that was better spent running your property. It cost money because you had to outfit and arm yourself. And it was dangerous, for all the reasons military service is dangerous. No one liked it and reforming militia service requirements was hopefully going to be a part of the transition from military rule to enlightened civilian rule envisioned by guys like Petit. So in that pivotal year of 1763, the Metropole made a deal with the colonists: pay us a one time tax of 4 million livre, and we will abolish the militias. We’ll use regular troops to defend the colony. 

This money was raised practically overnight and sent back to France, except right away, the Metropole about faced and decided it was too expensive to defend the colony with regular troops. Plus, new arrivals to the garrisons kept dying of tropical diseases the minute they stepped off the boat. So by 1764, they had backtracked and reinstated the old system. The big whites in particular went nuts about this, and they resisted all attempts to reinstate the militias. The principal court in Le Cap ran basically like a colonial parliament, and new laws had to be registered there to take effect. And resistance by the big whites in the Le Cap Council was so strong that it took five years to get the militia laws officially re-registered. And that was just the beginning of the real trouble. 

After the militia laws were set to go back into effect in 1769, a full blown revolt broke out in the South Province. Prominent white Creoles got together with their free colored neighbors to resist service, going so far as to kidnap a militia captain, gathered together in the hundreds, armed and ready to fight. Now, this little rebellion was put down inside of six weeks, but it is of critical importance for two reasons. First, it was the last major uprising on the island before things started slipping inexorably towards revolution in the late 1780s. And second, it was the last time that big whites and free coloreds joined forces to fight a common cause. Despite the fact that their natural economic interests aligned, they would henceforth be on opposite sides of all future political confrontations. It would not be until far too late that the big whites realized, “Hey, those guys are actually slave owning planters just like me. And skin color aside, we have a ton in common. Maybe we should…” But by then, it would be too late. 

The upshot of all this is that the big whites were basically exempted from military service completely by the 1770s, and the free coloreds wound up being the backbone of the local military. They were required to serve three years in the police force tasked with tracking down runaway slaves, and after that, they would graduate to the militia, which they could not exempt themselves from in ways that whites could. 

Now, the coloreds did not like militias service either, and they were really unhappy about the new racist laws that barred them from serving as officers. But militia service was a visible way of demonstrating that they were ready and able to be full contributing citizens of the colony. So they endured their service with grudging obedience and as a part of this visible display of patriotic loyalty, when volunteers were called for in 1779 to go off and fight in the American War of Independence, almost no local whites joined. But 941 free coloreds showed up to enlist, and ultimately, 545 sailed off with the French army. And then they served with distinction in the siege of Savannah, which I mentioned back in episode 2.10 ‘Turning South’. 

Just as the end of the Seven Years War changed colonial policy, the end of the American War of Independence changed it again. With the colony once again booming in the aftermath of wartime recessions, and with the white planters and merchants in the North American colonies having successfully broken away from the British empire, the French royal authorities started seeing the coloreds as potential allies rather than enemies. Though the existing racist laws were not repealed, the spread of the apartheid was arrested after 1783. With the big whites in North America having thrown off the British, the royal authorities decided that maybe the free coloreds could be a bulwark against a similar revolt in Saint Domingue. 

Aside from dividing whites from coloreds, one of the other stated goals of all the racist laws in the 1760s and 1770s was to stop the contagion of liberty from slipping over to the slaves. The whites were deathly afraid that once they started treating freed slaves like full members of society, it wouldn’t take long before an enslaved slave started saying, “Hey, there’s no difference between him and me but a piece of paper.” But this was never actually much of a threat. The free coloreds and the black slaves did not really identify with each other at all. Prominent free coloreds, no different than the big whites, treated slaves as property to be used and discarded. And slaves knew damn well that the free coloreds were not their brothers, they were just another class of master. 

So that brings us to the slaves, because in Saint Domingue, the mother of all tensions, the tension at the center of the web of tension was between master and slave. The singular fear of the free population was a slave revolt. In total, slaves outnumbered the free population ten to one, and then out on the individual plantations, this could run much, much higher, with just a few overseers surrounded by black slaves. And though masters ran the gamut from generous to sadistic, there was a common belief that the only way to make sure that the slaves didn’t rise up was to keep them in constant terror. 

In Saint Domingue, exemplary torture was the order of the day, and the masters were creative and unrelenting. Aside from standard cracks of the whip out in the field, lashing was the most common form of punishment. And there were different types with cute little names. There was ‘the forepost’, which was laying the victim face down on the ground and tying out their hands and feet. Then there was ‘the ladder’, which was hanging them from a ladder before whipping them. Then there was ‘the hammock’, which was hog-tying them to the limb of a tree. The lashes would be delivered by the slave drivers, and the number varied with the crime. But one astute planter advised that the number of lashes was less important than the length of time the lashing went on. Fewer lashes delivered over a longer period of time was more agonizing and thus more instructive to everyone than a bunch of lashes issued quickly. Either way, during a severe session, it was not uncommon for the victim to simply be whipped to death. Their body would be discarded, and a new slave would have to be purchased. 

Aside from whipping, there were all manner of more permanent punishments. Heavy irons tied to the feet or hands or hung around the neck. Blocks of wood chained to the body to be worn around at all times. Iron face masks to stop slaves from eating the sugar cane. As we discussed last time, regular work duties often led to accidental mutilation. Well, intentional mutilation was also a standard punishment for theft or for running away. Hacking off of hands, feet and ears was pretty standard. Genitals could also be destroyed in circumstances, and often this was done with hot wax or boiling sugar. And to make matters worse, masters would rub open wounds with salt and pepper or hot ashes to jack up the misery. Full on executions were also designed to be creative and horrible. There are accounts of slaves being buried up to their necks, their faces slathered with sugar for the bugs to come eat them alive. And then there are particularly gruesome stories about tying slaves up, stuffing their anus with gunpowder, and blowing them up. It was called ‘putting a little powder up the arse of a Negro’. The point of all this was to terrorize the slaves into believing that there was no hope and that the slightest misstep meant torture and death. 

But despite all this terror, slaves did resist in what small ways they could. On the most basic level of daily work, slaves might intentionally work slowly, sabotage machinery or break tools. They often acted dumb or unable to comprehend anything without explicit instructions and constant oversight. Descriptions of slaves as naturally stupid and lazy were universal and probably reflected nothing so much as why on earth should I be smart and hardworking? Bleep, you bleep hole. 

A step above intentionally jamming up the works was running away. In Saint Domingue, this was called marronage, and runaways were called maroons. And there are two basic types of marronage: petit marronage and grand marronage. So again with the little and big, so it’s better to distinguish them as temporary and permanent. Temporary marronage was often a deliberate strike tactic to force changes or extract slightly better treatment from the masters. Occasionally, there would be mass walkouts, protesting a particularly bad manager or overseer. And as often as not, a negotiated settlement would be reached, and the slaves would return with a promise that the runaways would not be punishef. While gone, the runaways might simply lurk on the outskirts of the plantation and might even sleep in their own beds at night. But if you got caught without having negotiated your return, please refer to the horrible punishments that I just described. 

Permanent marronage, on the other hand, was an attempt to flee slavery altogether, and it took two basic forms. First, a slave might make it to one of the bigger cities, where they would pass themselves off as a free black laborer. Forged manufacturing papers were available on the black market. Women runaways would generally seek employment in a brothel, and if they were incredibly lucky, they might make the transition from prostitute to mistress to wife. Now, this was all doable, but with every slave bearing a brand and with wanted fugitive notices constantly making the rounds with quite specific descriptions of the runaway, this was not very easy to pull off. If the permanent runaway didn’t make for one of the cities, they headed in the opposite direction, up into the unpopulated mountains along the border between French Saint Domingue and Spanish Santo Domingo. For the whole history of the colony, there were always free maroon communities living up in the mountains. In 1720, for example, there was a mass breakout of about 1000 slaves who formed one of the largest communities on record. Usually, they numbered 100 or fewer. These guys would survive by a combination of living off the land, raiding nearby plantations, or trading with the Spanish side of the island. By the middle of the 1700s, there was an estimated 3000 maroons living out in these communities. And despite the efforts of the militias and the runaway slave police, they would never be eliminated. And completely eliminating the maroons wasn’t even in the master’s best interest. It was better for the truly rebellious slaves who could not be controlled, to find an escape hatch out the back door, then feeling trapped and then forced into violent resistance. 

Now, the deadliest form of resistance and the one most feared by the masters, was poison. If a slave had some basic knowledge about herbs, they could concoct a poison. And because they handled all the food and water, murdering a household would be a snap. Or at least that’s what the owners believed. People and livestock dropped dead in Saint Domingue all the time, and separating the times, it was just regular old disease, from the times where it was deliberate, poisoning was practically impossible. But the owners were really super paranoid about being poisoned by their slaves. 

Now, compared to other Caribbean colonies, there was not much in the way of organized slave rebellions prior to the spectacular revolt of August 1791. But there was one famous failed uprising in the late 1750s that stood at the intersection of marronage and poison. An African born slave named Mackandal started gaining a reputation for himself in the slave communities as a great orator and leader. He mixed magical elements of various religions and presented himself as a slave prophet. Eventually, he ran away and became the leader of a Maroon community. He then spent upwards of six years building an organization with members in all the plantations, in cities, and at all levels of the slave hierarchy. There was a chain of command and a plan, and any fellow slave who learned of the brewing conspiracy and did not join it would be ruthlessly killed. Mackandal’s plan was ambitious. He was going to poison every well in Le Cap, and then when the population was decimated by tainted water, he would lead his armed followers into the city for a general massacre and the overthrow of the French slavers. 

But just before the plot was about to be executed in January 1758, Mackandal was betrayed to the authorities and captured. He was tortured and then burned alive. But having sworn to his followers that he could change shape, the myth emerged that Mackandal, in fact, turned himself into a fly and floated away before the flames got him. And the legend of Mackandal, I mean, who knows the actual extent or aim of the conspiracy, lived on in both the imaginations of the master and the slave. The former terrified it might happen again, the latter cherishing it as a dream that might one day yet be realized. 

As the slaves dreamed of maybe one day overthrowing the system from the inside, another group on the other side of the world dreamed of dismantling it from the outside. And this will bring us back full circle to the tension between the big white masters and the powers that be back in France, who started possibly coming under the sway of a dreaded new intellectual movement: abolitionism. The idea that human beings should not be held as property got going with the Enlightenment. And in France, there were two particular works that really took root. The first was a book called “The Year 2440” by Louis-Sébastien Mercier, which is an original Rip van Winkle story with the author waking up in the far future and exploring the new fantastic world he discovers. The important bit for us in this work of utopian science fiction comes when the time traveling author comes across a statue in honor of the man who led the colonial slaves to freedom. It was a statue dedicated to the Avenger of the New World. This theme was then picked up by the enlightened clergyman, Abbe Raynal, in his work “The Philosophical and Political History of the Establishment and Commerce of the Europeans and the Two Indies”, which was nearly continuously in print after its first publication in 1770. The work was a general survey of colonial history and economics, but it contained scathing passages denouncing slavery and promising that if the system was not dismantled slowly, it would eventually explode violently. 

After the end of the American War of Independence led to the massive influx of new slaves into Saint Domingue (as we said last week, imports jumped to nearly 40,000 a year), the colonial authorities decided to take measures to curb the worst abuses of slavery and start possibly enforcing the provisions of the Code Noir. So in December 1774, and then again in December 1775, the Colonial Office issued decrees on the treatment of slaves. Owners were to keep compliance records of the provisions, clothes and food they provided their slaves. There were now to be maximum limits on the amount of hours a slave could work in the day, and they were also supposed to get Sunday afternoon off, too. Slaves were also to be protected if they justly complained about mistreatment. Without the slightest hint of irony, the colonial masters were incredulous and denounced the despotism of the Metropole. Mostly, though, they said, if you get between us and our slaves, you’ll be the one fermenting slave insurrection, not us, because they’ll start thinking they have rights, and that will be the ballgame. In an almost exact replay of what was about to go on back in France, the Le Cap Council refused to register the edicts. And in 1787, the exasperated intendant had had enough. He abolished the Le Cap Council and moved its functions down to Port-au-Prince. This all happened one year before the great battles over the closure of the Parlements rocked France in 1788. That soon led to the Day of the Tiles. 

Now, in fact, in 1788, all of this tension came to a near head when a paranoid master named Le Jeune suspected some of his slaves of trying to poison him. He tortured two suspected women and then chained them to a wall to die. Under the new rules, 14 slaves presented themselves to the royal officials, described the crimes that had taken place, and then the officials opened up an inquiry against Le Jeune. After the alleged box of poison was found to contain nothing but tobacco, they were set to prosecute him for murder. So this is going to be a major test of these new slave laws. But as the prosecution progressed, the big whites rallied behind Le Jeune. They provided testimony of their own that contradicted the slaves account. And they hinted darkly that if he wasn’t acquitted, the royal governor would soon have a revolt on his hands. Le Jeune was duly acquitted. The big whites had flexed their muscle, cowed the local officials into backing down and kept firm control over their slaves. 

So this all brings us right up to the edge of the French Revolution. And next week, the Metropole will be rocked by the events of 1789. Everyone in Saint Domingue was going to try to take advantage of the crisis. The big whites will send representatives back to France to make sure that their rights were protected and maybe even expanded. The free coloreds will send their own representatives back to lobby for full political and social equality. And while no one was there representing the slaves, they too recognized the possibilities opened up by the revolution. In the midst of Abbe Raynal’s denunciation of slavery in the history of the Two Indies, he wrote, “A courageous chief only is wanted. Where is he? That great man whom nature owes to her vexed, oppressed and tormented children, where is he? He will appear, doubt it not. He will come forth and raise the sacred standard of liberty.” And Raynal was right. That man is coming.

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