Enslavement and Empire in the French Caribbean, 1793–1851

June 18, 2021 | Blog
Home > Enslavement and Empire in the French Caribbean, 1793–1851

by Joseph la Hausse de Lalouvière (Institute of Historical Research)

This Blog is based on the author’s dissertation which won the Thirsk-Feinstein PhD Dissertation Prize, 2021


Nègres et Négresses de la Martinique dansant la Chica. Arch. dép. Martinique, 15 Fi 136


The nineteenth century was an age of emancipation and enslavement in the Atlantic world.  This blog, which derives from my doctoral research at Harvard University in 2020, contributes to historians’ understanding of this paradox by studying the re-enslavement of free black people in the French Caribbean following the French and Haitian Revolutions.

The French National Convention abolished slavery in 1794 in response to slave uprisings in France’s Caribbean colonies and the French Revolution.  This radical act made France the first imperial nation to universally outlaw slavery.  Yet, just eight years later, France became the only state in the history of the Atlantic world to comprehensively re-establish slavery in its empire.  While black citizens resisting the return of slavery established Haiti as the Caribbean’s first postcolonial nation in 1804, colonists in Guadeloupe, Martinique, and French Guiana, orchestrated the mass enslavement of free people of African descent who claimed French citizenship.  The imperial authorities reinstated slavery and the slave trade and empowered colonial settlers to hold freed people as property until 1848.

My research indicates that colonists harnessed the institutions of the French state to actively dismantle the legal and economic regime underpinning black people’s freedom.  There is a persistent popular and scholarly narrative that people freed from slavery by the 1794 abolition decree experienced ‘general liberty’ as a continuation of slavery in all but name.  This account overlooks the transformation in the status of people emancipated during the Revolution and elides the decade of liberty with the period of re-enslavement that followed.   In contrast, I show how general emancipation dramatically changed  societies within the French Caribbean. Emancipation  increased the power of those formerly enslaved but provoked a hostile reaction against black liberation within and beyond the French empire.  The seismic collision between abolitionism and mass re-enslavement became the defining political, ideological, and economic struggle of the post-revolutionary era  in the French empire and across much of the Americas.

Mass re-enslavement was concomitant  with French reinvestment in a range of imperial institutions: bureaucracy, armies, private property, patriarchy, and merchant corporations. Colonial administrators, for example, instituted an empire-wide regime for the inspection of personal documents to force freed people back into slavery.  They ruled that all black people, or people of colour, who claimed to be free needed to present papers that proved their free status, or else face enslavement.  This policy was a ploy to enslave citizens who had been freed by the emancipation decree of 1794 but who lacked manumission papers.  Under this bureaucratic regime, property-holding — and generally white colonists —  could lawfully enslave undocumented people of African descent without having to demonstrate any historic ownership of those individuals. This dynamic of officially ratified private violence was replicated across a range of institutions, thereby weaving slavery and racial ideology more deeply into the fabric of the French imperial state and economy.

Unsurprisingly, the re-establishment of slavery encountered mass opposition, not just among the revolutionaries of Saint-Domingue/Haiti, but also in the French Antilles and Guiana. The possibilities for resistance varied according to local conditions in each colony and depended significantly on freed people’s access to kin networks, money, arms, property, and land.  Captives from Africa, recently arrived in the colonies and liberated during the Revolution, were most vulnerable to being taken as slaves.  Poor field workers were similarly exposed to the predations of slave-hungry planters.  By contrast, black families fortunate enough to have acquired some cultivable land were better positioned to resist colonists’ efforts to enslave them.  Surprisingly, some black and ‘mixed-race’ people also enslaved others – including members of their own extended families — to assert their legal freedom.  Inspection of a diverse range of sources, including notarial documents, civil registers, court records, and administrative papers, on three continents, provided a detailed perspective on these local and household struggles, and allowed me to delineate the social processes underlying the categories of ‘free’ and ‘slave’.

Triumphalist accounts of the Haitian Revolution and the overthrow of slavery in the French empire have tended to overshadow the history of re-enslavement.   Yet it is precisely by grappling with re-enslavement that we can better understand the power relations, institutions, and practices, that underpinned Atlantic slavery.  Historians and social scientists ought to pay greater attention to reactionary movements in seeking to understand the nature of social and political change.  Slavery was not an institution that was isolated from other economic and imperial institutions; indeed, it depended on such institutional linkages. Furthermore, slavery endured because a range of groups continued to support it. As my dissertation illustrates,  France devised new techniques to maintain racial hierarchy and legalised bondage in the modern era — a hostile reaction to black liberation, even as the memory and future prospect of general emancipation remained in the popular consciousness.


To contact the author: josephlahausse@gmail.com