Slave economy in Saint-Domingue
Much of Caribbean economic development in the 18th century was contingent on Europeans' demand for sugar. Plantation owners produced sugar as a commodity crop from cultivation of sugar cane, which required extensive labor. Saint Domingue also had extensive coffee, cocoa, and indigo plantations, but these were smaller and less profitable than the sugar plantations. The commodity crops were traded for European goods.
Starting in the 1730s, French engineers constructed complex irrigation systems to increase sugarcane production. By the 1740s Saint-Domingue, together with the British colony of Jamaica, had become the main supplier of the world's sugar. Sugar production depended on extensive manual labor provided by enslaved Africans in the harsh Saint-Domingue colonial plantation economy. Saint-Domingue was the most profitable French colony in the world, indeed one of the most profitable of all the European colonies in the 18th century. An average of 600 ships engaged every year in shipping products from Saint-Domingue to Bordeaux, and the value of Saint-Domingue's crops and goods was almost equal in value to all of the products shipped from the Thirteen Colonies to Great Britain. The livelihood of 1 million of the 25 million or so people who lived in the Kingdom of France in 1789 depended directly upon the imports of coffee, indigo and sugar from Saint-Domingue, and several million indirectly depended upon trade from France's richest colony to maintain their standard of living.
Slavery sustained sugar production under harsh conditions, including the unhealthy climate of the Caribbean, where diseases such as malaria (brought from Africa) and yellow fever caused high mortality. In 1787 alone, the French imported about 20,000 slaves from Africa into Saint-Domingue, while the British imported about 38,000 slaves total to all of their Caribbean colonies. The death rate from yellow fever was such that at least 50% of the slaves from Africa died within a year of arriving, so the masters preferred to work their slaves as hard as possible while providing with them with the barest minimum of food and shelter. They calculated that it was better to get the most work out of their slaves with the lowest possible expense possible, since they were probably going to die of yellow fever anyway. The death rate was so high that polyandry – one woman being married to several men at the same time – developed as a common form of marriage among the slaves. As slaves had no legal rights, rape by masters, their unmarried sons, or white overseers was a common occurrence on the plantations.
The white planters and their families, together with the petite bourgeoisie of merchants and shopkeepers, were outnumbered by slaves by a factor of more than ten on Saint Domingue. The largest sugar plantations and concentrations of slaves were in the North of the islands, and whites lived in fear of slave rebellion. Even by the standards of the Caribbean, the French slave masters were extremely cruel in their treatment of slaves. They used the threat and acts of physical violence to maintain control and suppress efforts at slave rebellion. When slaves left the plantations or disobeyed their masters, they were subject to whipping, or to more extreme torture such as castration or burning, the punishment being both a personal lesson and a warning for other slaves. Louis XIV, the French King, passed the Code Noir in 1685 in an attempt to regulate such violence and the treatment of the enslaved person in general in the colony, but masters openly and consistently broke the code. During the 18th century, local legislation reversed parts of it.
In 1758, the white landowners began passing legislation restricting the rights of other groups of people until a rigid caste system was defined. Most historians classify the people of the era into three groups:
The first group were white colonists, or les blancs. This group is generally subdivided into the plantation owners and a lower class of whites who often served as overseers or day laborers, artisans and shopkeepers.
The second group were free persons of color (gens de couleur libres), usually mixed-race, and sometimes referred to as mulattoes, of African and French descent. These gens de couleur tended to be educated and literate, and the men often served in the army or as administrators on plantations. Many were children of white planters and enslaved mothers, or free women of color. Others had purchased their freedom from their owners through the sale of their own produce or artistic works. They often received education or artisan training, and sometimes inherited freedom or property from their fathers. Some gens de couleur owned and operated their own plantations and became slave owners.
The third group, outnumbering the others by a ratio of ten to one, was made up of mostly African-born slaves. A high rate of mortality among them meant that planters continually had to import new slaves. This kept their culture more African and separate from other people on the island. Many plantations had large concentrations of slaves from a particular region of Africa, and it was therefore somewhat easier for these groups to maintain elements of their culture, religion, and language. This also separated new slaves from Africa from creoles (slaves born in the colony), who already had kin networks and often had more prestigious roles on plantations and more opportunities for emancipation. Most slaves spoke a patois of the French language known as Creole, which was also used by island-born mulattoes and whites for communication with the workers.
The majority of the slaves were Yoruba from what is now modern Nigeria, Fon from what is now Benin, and Kongo from the Kingdom of Kongo in what is now modern northern Angola and the western Congo. The Kongolese at 40% were the largest of the African ethnic groups represented amongst the slaves. The slaves developed their own religion, a syncretic mixture of Roman Catholicism and West African religions known as Vodou, usually called voodoo in English. This belief system implicitly rejected the Africans' status as slaves.
White colonists and black slaves frequently came into violent conflict. Saint-Domingue was a society seething with hatred. The French historian Paul Fregosi wrote: "Whites, mulattos and blacks loathed each other. The poor whites couldn't stand the rich whites, the rich whites despised the poor whites, the middle-class whites were jealous of the aristocratic whites, the whites born in France looked down upon the locally born whites, mulattoes envied the whites, despised the blacks and were despised by the whites; free Negroes brutalized those who were still slaves, Haitian born blacks regarded those from Africa as savages. Everyone—quite rightly—lived in terror of everyone else. ...Haiti was hell, but Haiti was rich". Many of these conflicts involved slaves who had escaped the plantations. Many runaway slaves—called maroons—hid on the margins of large plantations, living off the land and what they could steal from their former masters. Others fled to towns, to blend in with urban slaves and freed slaves who often migrated to those areas for work. If caught, these runaway slaves would be severely and violently punished. However, some masters tolerated petit marronages, or short-term absences from plantations, knowing these allowed release of tensions.
The larger groups of runaway slaves who lived in the hillside woods away from white control often conducted violent raids on the island's sugar and coffee plantations. Although the numbers in these bands grew large (sometimes into the thousands), they generally lacked the leadership and strategy to accomplish large-scale objectives. The first effective maroon leader to emerge was the charismatic François Mackandal, who succeeded in unifying the black resistance. A Haitian Vodou priest, Mackandal, inspired his people by drawing on African traditions and religions. He united the maroon bands and also established a network of secret organizations among plantation slaves, leading a rebellion from 1751 through 1757. Although Mackandal was captured by the French and burned at the stake in 1758, large armed maroon bands persisted in raids and harassment after his death.
Slavery in Enlightenment thought
French writer Guillaume Raynal attacked slavery in his history of European colonization. He warned, "the Africans only want a chief, sufficiently courageous, to lead them on to vengeance and slaughter." Raynal's Enlightenment philosophy went deeper than a prediction and reflected many French Enlightenment philosophies, including those of Rousseau and Diderot. It was written thirteen years before the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which highlighted freedom and liberty but did not abolish slavery.
Jean-Baptiste Belley, as depicted by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson.
In addition to Raynal's influence, Toussaint Louverture, a free black, would become a key "enlightened actor" in the Haitian Revolution. Enlightened thought divided the world into "enlightened leaders" and "ignorant masses"; Louverture attempted to bridge this divide between the popular masses and the enlightened few. Louverture was familiar with Enlightenment ideas within the context of European colonialism. He attempted to strike a balance between Western Enlightened thought as a necessary means of winning liberation, and not propagating the notion that it was morally superior to the experiences and knowledge of people of color on Saint Domingue. Louverture wrote a Constitution for a new society in Saint-Domingue that abolished slavery. The existence of slavery in Enlightened society was an incongruity that had been left unaddressed by European scholars prior to the French Revolution. Louverture took on this inconsistency directly in his constitution. In addition, Louverture exhibited a connection to Enlightenment scholars through the style, language and accent of this text.
Like Louverture, Jean-Baptiste Belley was an active participant in the colony's insurrection. The portrait of Belley by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson depicts a man who encompasses the French view of its colonies. The portrait creates a stark dichotomy between the refinement of French Enlightenment thought and the reality of the situation in Saint Domingue, through the bust of Raynald and the figure of Belley, respectively. While distinguished, the portrait still portrays a man trapped by the confines of race. Girodet's portrayal of the former National Convention deputy is telling of the French opinion of colonial citizens by emphasizing the subject's sexuality and including an earring. Both of these racially charged symbols reveal the desire to undermine the colony's attempts at independent legitimacy, as citizens of the colonies were not able to access the elite class of French Revolutionaries because of their race.