The French Revolution: Slavery

Figure 1.--Haiti would prive to be the key island when the French Revolutionaies began to address slavery in its colonies. News of the Revolution in France with its ideals of 'Libert�, �galit�, fraternit�' electified the French West Indies. Initially it was not the slaves that were affeted. They were not literte or educated. Th group most affected were the free people of color, nostly mulatoes. Under the Code Noir many were educated anf had acquited property and other possessions, but had no political rifhts. The whiye planters refused to make commin cause with them. Slowly the news from France and the ideals of the Revolution began to tricke down to the slaves. Half the slaves in the Caribbean were located on Saint Domingue (Haiti)--some 0.5 million people. And because of the brutality and death rate of the plantation system, many were recently enslaved arrivals from Africa -- a population strongly primed for revolt. The island was essentially a powder keg. A Voodoo houngan named Boukman launched the ininital slave rebellion (1791).

African slavery became well estanlished in European colonies, including French colonies, during the 17th century. African slavery was an important economic institition by the 18th century, especially important for the Caribbean sugar islands which were a major element in Western European economies. France lost most of its empire to the British, but retained imporant Caribbean islands. Liberty was a byword of the French Revolution as it had been in the American Revolution. But like the Americans, the leaders of the French Revolution did not move toward abolition. In America any step toward abolition during the Revolution or the frameing of the Constitution would have meant disunion as it would have been unacceptable to the southern colonies. In France it appears to redlect the bouergoise character of the Revolution and the economic importance of Caribbean slavery to the French economy. While France did not move toward abolition, the Revolution did have substantial reverbreations, both in the Caribbean and in England which affected slavery. Neither the Revolutionaries or Napoleon moved yoward abolition. Neither did the restored French momarchy after the Naoleonic Wars. This in fact posed a problen for Britain which after abolishing slavery gave the Royal Navy the task of ending the Atalantic slave trade.

Atlantic Slave Trade

A new outlet for Aftrican slaves appeared in the 15th century. Portuguese explorers began voyages south along the Atlantic coast of Africa. The Portuguese were looking for a route to Asia, but as they moved south they began setting up trading posts. First the Portuguese established trading posts along the coast of West Africa, but gradually moved further south along the coast. Other European maritime powers followed suit. This was the beginning of the African slave trade. The Europeans differed from the Arabs in that they did not normally conduct raids themselves, but usually bougth slaves from Arab slave brokers and African chiefs. Europeans built trading post and forts all along the coast of West Africa. From Senegal south to Cameroons there were about 60 forts that served as trading posts for the slave trade. The Europeans exchanged rum, cloth, guns, and other trade goods for their human cargo. The slaves were transported across the Atlantic Ocean primarily to Brazil, the West Indies and the English colonies in North America. Imense fortues were made in the trade. As the demand for slaves expanded, whole areas of Africa were depopulated. Scholars estimate that 10-15 million Africans were transported to the New World. The European African slave trade began during the mercantalist era. It continued well into the industrial era. In fact because African slaves played a major role in the industrial revolution in Europe. The ememse profits from West Indian sugar islands helped to finance the industrial revolution. And the raw material for the first real modern industry, cotton textiles, was produced by slaves. The slave trade was finally ended by the Royl Navy in the mid-19th century.

Britain Before the Revolution

Attitudes toward slavery began to change in Britain after the American Revolution and the loss of the American colonies (1776-83). America had been Britain's principal colony. Its loss resulted in a review of imperial policies. British merchants were shocked to learn that they were making larger profits after the abolition of the mercantile system which had been established to regulate trade with America. This was rigid trade rules which had required the American colonies to onlt trade with Britain and restricted the development of manufacturing. As a result, the British moved toward free trade policies as postuklated by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. The British also began to focus more on India, a prise won from France in the Seven Years War.

French West Indies

France at the time of thec French Revolution had several colonies in the Caribbean as well as nearby French Guiana. France had lost most of it colonies in the Seven Years War / French and Indian War (1756-63). But in the peace negotiations that followed, Frnce insisted on retaining its Caribben islands, such was the value of a sugar island. They gave up Canada rather than lose a sugar island. The islands included Guadalupe, Martinique, and Saint Domingue (Haiti). By far the most important was Saint Domingue. France had won and lost other islands like St. Lucia. There were approximately 1 million slaves in West Indies. Slaves provided the labor for the plantations producing sugar, coffee, cotton, and other plantations. Sugar was, however, the preemenent commodity produced.

Code Noir

The legal basis for slavery in the French West Indies was the Code Noir, actually a series of royal edicts. The code has been described as "one of the most extensive official documents on race, slavery, and freedom ever drawn up in Europe". [Stoval] The Frnch Code Noir regulated the behavior of slaves and the perogatives of the slave owners throughout the French Empire. It was the French slave code. King Louis XIV issued the central royal decree (1685). The Code Noir not only defined the conditions of slavery, but also governed the activities of free slaves. In addition to slavery the Code Noir also forbade the exercise of any religion other than Roman Catholicism in he colonies. And all Jews were ordered out of the colonies. While to our modern olitically correct sensativities the Code Noir may sound offensive, the results were actually of some nenefit to French slaves. As aesult of the Code Noir a substantially higher percentage of Frmch slaves transitioned to free people of color than in the English colonies. Noy only were literacy rates much higher, but so was the number of former slaves owning business and properties as well as slaves of heir own. We do ot have data comparing the various islands, but availavle data comparing Louisiana to states like Mississippi without a French heritage are striking.

The Caribbean before the Revolution

The economy of the 18th century was fueled by Caribbean sugar, almost all of which was produced by slave labor. Sugar made even small islands of great economic importance. A large island like France's Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti) was enormously profutable. This is not well understood today, because modern Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the workd. Data shosws that at the time of the Revolution Saint-Domingue exports totaled about $20 million. This was about half of all French exports (1789). Notably exports from all of Britain's colonies was only about $10 million. Saint-Domingue alone produced about 40 percent of all the sugar and 60 percent of all the coffee (an increasingly important crop) consumed in Europe. Britain at the time was also the most important country involved in the Atlantic slave trade. French sugar planters were dependent on the British as a source of labor. About half of all the slaves imported into the British-controlled islands were then sold to the French colonies, most going to Saint-Domingue. In terms of power politics, the British slave trade was in effect strengthening the country's orincipal adversary--France.

British Abolition Movement

A key role in ending the African slave trade was the development of an abolition movement in Britain. And this was crucial because only Britain'd powerful Royal Navy had the capability of ending the maritime shipment of captive Africans. Here Christians played a cerntral role. The movement might be dated from the publication of John Wesley's Thought upon Slavery (1774). Wilberforce and Clarkson were two other key figures. The movement founded the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1787). Debates in Parliament commenced shortly afterwards (1789). French Caribbean sugar production and the wealth it brought may have been a factor in leading Prime Minister William Pitt to encourage Wilberforce to move his first motion in Parliament calling for the abolition of the slave trade. But the Bitih also obtained important revenue from its sugar island. The measure failed as Pitt failed to support it. It was, however, the beginning of the British abolition movement.

Amis des Noir

Even before the Revolution, there was criticism of the slave trade and slavery in the colonies. The French abolition movement was, however, much less important than the British movement. It began with the founding of the "Amis des Noir" (The Friends of the Blacks) just before the Revolutionn (1787). With the outbreak of the Revolution, the Friends became the principal group advocating abolition. The Friends basic argument was that The Rights of Man, the essence of the French Revolution, applied to all people. As part of the complicated politics of the Revolution, they plunged into the controversial issue of equal and full rights of citizenship for all free people of color in Saint-Domingue. Amis des Noir is believed to have gad about 0.5 million members. They faced the poweful Massiac Club, the well-financed voice of the French planters and marintine French bourgeoise. [Cooper]

The Revolution (1789)

Financial problems forced King Louis XVI to call the Estates General. This set in motion a series of unforseen events. TheEstates General did not prive to be a compliant assemblage and their sessions soon spun beyond the ability of Louis to control. The French Revolution erupted in Paris with the storming of the Bastille (July 1789). The force of the events which flowed from the initial action in France have led historians to refer to it as THe Revolution. The American Revolution is often given short shift by European historians. It is the French Revolution which is the turning point in European history. It sent shockwaves which were to end feudalism in France and eventually other countriesc and lead to the decline of monarchial government in Euope. The Revolution also promoted the rise of nationalist sentiments which would mark 19th and 20th cebtury events.

Impact on Britain

The British were at first unsure as to how to respond to the Revolution. Unlike Austria, there was no rush to support King Louis XVI. The British adopted a kind of semi-neutral position. Prime Minister Pitt at first saw opportunities in Britain's century-old struggle with France. The British in particular saw an oppirtunity to acquire more of France's colonies. Just as the French had attempted to use the American Revolution to weaken Britain, the British saw opportunities with the French Revolution. Others were interested in seeing a British-style constitutional monarchy energe in France based on the British model. British attitudes began to shiftvas the Revolution began more radical and violent. The modest bourgeois movement began to spin out of control as the Paris sans-culottes mobs began to drive the revolutionary process. The Revolutionary ethos of 'liberty, equality, fraternity' caused profound disquiet in Britain even among the bourgeois.

Electrifying News (1789-91)

News of the French Revolution had an electrifying effect, especially in the French colonies. While slaves may have had an imperfect knowldge of the course of events, the Revolutionary slogan 'liberty, equality, fraternity' was not difficult to understand. There were uprisings in both Guadeloupe and Martinique, but they were supressed by the French authorities (1789). These were small islands. The core of France's much reduced empire at the time was Saint-Domingue where most of the sugar was produved and most of the slaves were located. French srttlers on Saint-Domingue differed as regards the develioment in France. This split was largely between the 'small whites' and the large platation owners. The immediate issue was over the status of free mulattoes (mixed-race people). Some mulattoes even owned plantations and slsves themselves. The 'small whites' generally opposed any movement toward equal legal rights for the mulattoes. The small whites were not wealthy. Their social status was based on race. The slaves gradually learned of events in France and divisions among whites on the island, giving some hope that their condition might improve. French Republican soldiers arrived on Saint-Domingue (March 1791). They embraced the principles of the Revolution and declared that and declared all men free and equal. The Revolutionary Government had not, however, abolished slavery.

National Assembly

France's new Revolutionary Governent, the National Assembly, considered both feudalism and slavery. Feudalism was easy. By ending feudalism, Revolutionary authorities undercut the aristocracy and strengthened the bourgeois elements that backed the Revolution. Slavery was an entirely different matter. Slavery was a very difficult problem for the Revolution. How were they to deal with slave ownership. The Assembly faced a wrenching choice. Clearly the principle of the Revolution led unquestionablt to abolition. But the Revolution was under attack from powerful external and internal enemies. Organizing the armies of the Republic had to be financed and massive amounts of fiunds were needed. Freeing the slaves meant the destruction of rwo major sources of funds. First the vast income from sugar exports. Second income from the slave trade. [Cooper] In the end the slave revolt and the Royal Navy would end both, but these were the stark options considered by the Assembly. And there were the personal interets of the Assembly delegate, It was the French bourgeoisie that had benefitted from the slave trade and sugar exports. Thus conservative Revolutionaries, especially the maritime opposed abolision. Even radical Revolutionaries hesitated because of the importance of sugar exports and respect for property. The sans-culottes, however, pushed for abolition. The issue rose to the surface as aresult of news from Saint Domingue. French settlers there arrested a spokesman for the island's mullato populatiom. His name was Og. Settler tortured and murdered him. When this news reached Paris, Og became a hero of the sans-culottes. The most radical faction of the National Assembly was led by Robespierre. In a speech before the National Assembly during debates on the colonial question, he challenged thee delegates, "You urge without ceasing the Rights of Man, but you believe in them so little you have sanctified slavery constitutionally". He was not, however, demanding abolition. The Assembly debated the colonial question for 4 days. Finally they decided that every person of mixed-race whose parents were both free should be declared free. This in reality avoided the central issue of slavery, It affected very few people, only about 400 individuals.

Haiti: The Key Island

Haiti as concerns the French Revoluion was the key island. Half the slaves in the Caribbean were located on Haiti, then called Saint Domingue. About half were located on Haiti alone. They constituted about 90 percent of the population. The free population consisted of both whites and free prsons of color--almost all mulattoes. Some of the mulattoes unnder the Code Noir who acquired considerable land and other holdings and owned slaves. The mulattos (free persons of color) were, however, denied political rights. The other French islands and French Guiana were valuable to France, but Haiti was the real prize. And Haiti was a powder keg. The plantation system in the Caribbean was incredibly brutal. The plantation were essentially highly profitable death camps. The death rate was so high that constant deliveries of healthy African captives were needed to maintain the labor force. This was different than the English North american colonies which had become the United States here the slave population was self sustaining. Besides being a moral outrage, there were significant conseuences for the white planters. Newly nslved Africans were much more resentful and prone to violence than the more subservient individuals born and grown up as slaves. Given the high death rate, there was a very latge number of African-born slaves who would be willing to participate in a lave rebellion. And given the fact that half the slaves in the Caribben were concntrated on this one island it was essentially a powdr keg. And the white planter class made the situation evn more dangerous bu not mking common cause with the free people of color. Inlike the slaves they wre oten educated and had significant leadrship as well as the ability to travel, organize, and agitate.


What became Haitian Voodoo/Vodou developed among the African diaspoa (16th-19th centuries). There is no central Vodou religious authority or published religious tracts contoled by authoritis. Thus enormous diversity exists among practitioners. Vodou revolves around spirits described as lwa. Their names came from traditional West and Central African divinities, which in Vodou are are equated with Roman Catholic saints. There are different groups (nanchon/nations). Various myths and stories are part of the Vodou tradtion involving traditionl African beliefs often put into a pseudo Christian context. Rituals involve drumming, singing, and dancing -- asll to call forth lwa to possess woeshipers and thus communicate with them. Offerings were important. Healing rituals and herbal potions are also important. Vodou developed a result of the Atlantic slave trade. It was especially strong in Haiti, the French colony of Saint-Domingue, where the largest number of enslved Africas were concentrated under especilly brutal condition. There was no real effort to convert them, but they were exposed to European reigion and culture . Many were were Yourba, Fon, Kongo, and other Nigerian tribes. It developed through a process of melding traditional African religion with the Roman Catholic beliefs of the French settlers and to an lesser extent Freemasonry. Vodouists were involved in the slave rebellions neginning (1791). Scholars debate Vodou's actual role in the Haitian Revolution. [Thylefors, pp. 76-77.] It is undeniable, however, that Vodou was the only somewhat orhaized force and powerful non European belief system among ythe slavs. While scholars debate, it is widely accepted in Haiti today that Vodou played a vital role in the sklave uorisings. [Thylefors, p. 74.] Two who led the slave uprisings and were the revolution's early leaders, Boukman and Francois Mackandal, were reputed to be powerful oungans. [Fernández Olmos and Paravisini-Gebert, p. 118.] The slaves overthrew the French colonial government, abolished slavery, and ultimately Saint-Domingue was transfirned into the Haitian Republic. Roman Ctholic priests were among the settlers targeted. The Roman Catholic Church cut ties with Haiti (1805). [Desmangles, p. 42.] This meant that for several decdesd there were no Catholic or other Chridstian presence kn Higi. Vodou during this period became the country's dominant religion.

Haitian Slave Revolt and Independence Struggle (1791-1803)

The National Assembly in Paris had a major impact on the direction of events on Saint Domingue (1789-94). First the white settlers were driven toward succession from France because of the modest victories of abolitionist forces. The reaction on Saint-Domingue to the National Assembly's decesion on the status of mulattos was an outburst of violence. Settlers ran riot. They lynched mullatoes they could lay their hands on and n=burned the Tri-Color flag of the Republic. Seemingly unconsidered was the reaction of slaves which constituted the great bulk of the population. Unlike North America where slaves were a minority, even in the South, the white and mulatto population on Saint-Domingue was very small. THe slaves, however, had some knowledge of events in France and were quietly organinizing. The slave revolt that took place exhibited a surprising degree of planning given the restrictions on the slaves limited their movement and activities. Thousands of slaves were involved in the initial revolt (1791). A Voodoo houngan named Boukman launched the ininital slave rebellion (1791). The fact that there was no leak from such alarge group is one indicator of organization. The insurections killed their masters and their families and burned the plantations to the ground. This in effect destroyed the foundation on which a national economy could be based, but the slaves were motivatedby a desire to destroy slavery not to build a nation. Toussaint l'Ouverture quickly joined the insurectionists and emerged as a powerful leader. He organized unruly bands into an actual army. This was the beginning of a 12 year struggle for liberty. The slaves not only defeated the white settlers, but invading British, Spanish, and French armies. The Haitan Revolution is one of the few successful slave rebellions in history. This long complicate revolutionary struggle carried on by the slaves of Saint-Domingue finally ended with freedom and the founding of the Republic of Haiti (January 1, 1804).

Slavery and the Napoleonic War

Napoleon recinded the abplition of slavery. It was not that he had any commitment to slavery as an institution. What he waanted Saint Domingue (Haiti) back. It was a colony of emense value and thus important to the French economy and war effort in Europe. It was also stepping stone needed to prepare for his planned rentry into the vast Louisina territory in force. And the only way that he could retake Haiti and turn it into a profitble colony was to defeat the Haiti army of former slaves and force them back into slavery. It should be rememvere that in the period before Trafalgur (1805) that the Riyal Navy was not in complete control of the Atlantic. Britain at the time was locked into a life and death struggle with Napolonic France. Saint Domingue back in French hands would be a an important economic assett. Prime-Minister Pitt was determined to deny Napoleon this assett. British provided the slave army commanded by Jean Jacques Dessalines with military advisers. We note one author that suggests the British encouraged Dessalines to massacre the French whites who remained on the island. We know of no evidence of this and see it as part of the tendency to attempt to blacken the reputation of Western political leaders by some historians with modern hidden agendas. It is true, however, tht the British had a real interest in keeping Saint Domingue out of Frenh hands. The British Parliament after Napoleon had given up on Haiti, sold Louisiana, and lost most of its fleet at Trafalgur decided to outlaw the slave trade (1807). The United States in an unrelated action did the same. Some authors claim that that the British action was a largely economic action aimed at France. We are not at all sure of this. Given the Royal Navy's command of the sea after Trafalgur, abolishing the slave trade would seem to hurt Britain more than France, especially as France no longer held Saint Saint Domingue and Spain's colonies were in revolt. This needs to be investigated further.

The Royal Navy: Fighting the Slave Trade

It was the Royal Navy that eventually ended the slave trade. The slave trade had been a lynch pin in thr triangular trade that has been a key element of the British economy and helped bring great wealth to Britain. It had in part helped to finance the growth of the Royal Navy. The expansion of the British merchant fleet under the protection of the Royal Navy resulted in Britain dominating the slave trade by the 18th century. British ships beginning about 1650 are believed to have transported as many as 4 million Africans to the New Wiorld and slavery. The British Parliament during the Napoleonic Wars banned the slave trade (1807). This was a decession made on moral grounds after a long campaign in Britain against slavery at considerable cost at a time of War. After Trafalgur (1805) the powerful British Royal Navy could intercept suspected slave ships under belligerent rights. After the cesation of hostilities this became more complicated. The only internationally recognized reason for boarding foreign ships was suspected piracy. Thus Britain had to persue a major diplomatic effort to convince other countries to sign anti-slavery treaties which permitted the Royal Navy to board their vessels if suspected of transporting slaves. Nearly 30 countries eventually signed these treaties. The anti-slavery effort required a substantial effort on the part of the Royal Navy. The major effort was carried out by the West Coast of Africa Station which the Admiralty referred to as the 'preventive squadron'. The Royal Navy from this station for 50 years conducted operations to intercept slavers. At the peak of these operartions abour 25 ships and 2,000 officers and men were deployed. There were about 1,000 Kroomen, African sailors, operating West African Station. The Royal Navy deployed smaller, shallow draft vessels so that slavers could be persued in shallow waters. Britain also targeted African leaders who engaged in the slave trade. A British forced in one operation deposed the King of Lagos (1851). The climate and exposure to filthy diseased laden slave ships made the West African station dangerous. The officers and men were rewarded with Prize money for both freeing slaves and capturing the ships. The Royal Navy's task in East Africa and the Indian Ocean was even more difficult. This was in part because of the support for slavery among Islamic powers (both Arabian and Persian). The slave trade persisted into the 1860s, in part because of the continued existence of slavery in the United states. Eventhough thecslave trade was outlawed in America, the American Navy was not used to aggresively inters=dict the slave trade. This did not change until President Lincoln signed the Right of Search Treaty in 1862, a year before the Emancipation Proclamation. The Cuban trade ended (1866).

British Abolition

It would be a slave revolt on Britih Jamaica four decades after the Revolution that would ultimately undercut opposition in Britain to abolition. Jamaica like Haiti was a large island. This meant that slaves could run away and as a result there was a Maroon population. The British had the miltary power to supress any slave revolt and they did so in 1831. But military operations are expensive and there was no way of preventing another rebellion without naintaining a substantial permanent ,ilitary presence on Jamaica which would also ne expnsive. This and the growing influence of the British Abolition Movement would eventually lead to the British abolition of slavery. Parliament legally abolished slavery throughout the Empire with passage of the Emancipation of Slaves Act (1833). This did not end, however, the British connection with slavery. The Industrial Revolution which negan in Britain (late -18th century) was still to a substantial degree based on textile manufcure, mostly cotton textiles. And the major source of that cotton was the slave platations of the American South. A British journalist boted in 1850, "That the prosperity of Manchester is dependent on the treatment of slaves in Texas, Alabama and Louisiana is as curious as it is alarming".

American Civil War (1861-65)

Slave produced cotton was America's principal export commodity. It was imported by textile producers in Briatain and France. America had about 4 four million slaves of whom about 60 were employed on cotton platations. Many British industrialists wanted the Government to support the South. Prince's Albert's final gift to the British ntion before his untimely death was to recommend against that. British industrial workers sided with the slaves despite the personal cost as aesult of the Norther blockade of the South.


Cooper, Anna Julia. Slavery and the French Revolution, 1788-1805 (The Edwin Mellen Press, 1988). Translated with forward and introductory essay by Frances Richardson Keller. Anna Julia Cooper is as interesting as her book. She was born into slavery in the United States just before the Civil War (1859). At the age 66 she presented her study as her doctoral dissertation at the University of Paris (1925).

Fernández Olmos, Margarite and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert. Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santería to Obeah and Espiritismo ( New York and London: New York University Press, 2011 second ed.).

Desmangles, Leslie. The Faces of the Gods: Vodou and Roman Catholicism in Haiti<>/i> (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992).

Stoval, Tyler. "Race and the making of the nation: Blacks in modern France," in Michael A. Gomez, ed. Diasporic Africa: A Reader (New York University Press: New York, 2006).

Thylefors, Markel. "'Our Government is in Bwa Kayiman:' A Vodou Ceremony in 1791 and its Contemporary Significations," Stockholm Review of Latin American Studies Vol. 4, (2009), pp. 73–84.


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Created: 8:44 AM 10/31/2007
Last updated: 5:21 PM 5/10/2022