After the 1695 Ryswick Treaty between France and Spain, France took control of St. Domingue (Willie 2001, p 36). The legal rights bestowed upon the French gave them the jurisdictional capacity to reign over the western region of Hispaniola. Government officials from France took care of the administrative and governing bodies of St. Domingue. The Ryswick Treaty paved way for the French to colonize St. Domingue and take preeminence in virtually every fundamental aspect of the region. The social, economic and political realms of the people of St. Domingue were largely defined by the French colonial systems in place (Willie 2001, p 36). The weighty colonial systems of the French in St. Domingue led to a stratified social system, dividing the people into social classes.
The Les Grand Blancs were the superior whites who consisted of the planters and royal officials of the colony. The Les Petit Blanc, considered as the lowest group of whites consisted of the artisans, shopkeepers and bookkeepers in St. Domingue. By 1789, the total umber of whites in St. Domingue was 30, 000. The Mulattoes or free coloreds, numbering 28,000 by 1789, consisted of children fathered by white French men with black women (Willie, 2012, p 38). Emancipation of the free coloreds gave them an opportunity to own slaves as their white counterparts. They possessed one third of the real estate in St. Domingue. The slaves, who numbered 450, 000 by 1789 were the least in the social ladder (Ghachem 2003, p 4; Willie 2001, p 38). They literally owned nothing and were devoid of any degree of liberty compared to the other social classes.
The social stratification structure in St. Domingue resulted into social, economic and political disparities that constantly caused friction among the social classes in the social ladder. Every social class sought to defend its rights and freedoms; the quest for justice and liberty was deeply engraved in each of the social classes (Geggus 2002, p 14). A critical analysis of the perceived economic and social injustices experienced by the groups is ultimately significant in understanding the causes and aims of the St. Domingue Revolution. Indeed, a critical evaluation of the social ladder in the French colony is imperative in comprehending the causes and aims of the St. Domingue Revolution from 1791-1804.
The economic demography of St. Domingue in the late 18th century
One cannot talk about the St. Domingue Revolution (1791-1804) without expounding on the economic demography of the then, largest French colony. Dominated by agriculture and trading relations, the French colony was indeed export motivated. The colonial economy maximized on sugar, coffee, cotton and indigo plantations. The colony had 3000 coffee plantations, 800 sugar plantations, 800 cotton plantations and 2950 indigo plantations (Willie 2001, p 36). The expansive plantations placed St. Domingue strategically among the French colonies; in fact, it was the richest plantation colony of the French. The second half of the 18th century saw St. Domingue expand to become the largest exporter of coffee and sugar in the world; this placed France at a strategic place in the world economy (Willie 2001, p 36).
The increased growth and demand in the colonial economy in St. Domingue triggered the colonialists to continually restructure the plantation systems. A constant increase in the number of slaves in the colony by the colonialists fueled the destabilization of the social balance in St. Domingue. In a bid to maintain a robust and thriving colonial agricultural economy, the colonialists subjected the slaves into hard labor, which consequently eroded their state of freedom and liberties. The lowest social class in the French colony experienced social and economic deficiencies that exacerbated their poor living standards. The poor living standards meant that the mortality rate of the slaves, sky- rocketed and necessitated the capture of more slaves for the further expansion of the colonial economy. The complicated economy in late century St. Domingue saw an increase in the number of slaves, which led to slave insurrections prior to 1791(Marsh and Nicola 2011, p 21). The desire of the slaves to attain freedom and liberty precipitated the St. Domingue revolution that historians claim changed the landscape of world affairs, and contributed to the demise of slavery. Hence, the social imbalance created by the economic demography of St. Domingue led to the inception of the revolution.
The economic and social disparities of the social groups
Economic and social disparities were at the height of the causes and aims of the St. Domingue revolution (Geggus 2002 p 14). The social classes often clashed with one another in a bid to secure their social, economic and political justices. However, this was not an easy endeavor; hence, precipitating repeated crises that brought social and economic imbalances in the colony. The colonial masters sought to maintain the colony’s economic valor, and for this to happen, the relentless friction among the social clashes continued inevitably. Certainly, the social ladder triggered disparities that heightened the imbalances in the colony.
The Les Grant Blancs who were born in the colony expressed feelings of discontent against the whites born from France, their motherland. The whites from France took charge of the most important government offices in the colony. The whites born in the colony (creoles) expressed dissatisfaction because they wanted to participate effectively in the government (Geggus 2002, p 6). The inability of the Les Grant Blancs to have a greater autonomy in the running of the colonial administration affected their social status in the colony. The group perceived that being on top of the social ladder deemed it right to have autonomy over the affairs of the colony. The planters and wealthy members of the group perceived that the ceremonial positions they were given in the assembly was not tantamount to their social status. The reduction of their status to minor aristocrats precipitated their desire to command more grounding against the European-born colonialists. As a result, there was a social struggle and imbalance as the group sought to gain the legal rights of controlling the colony.
The Les Grant Blancs also wanted to have the freedom of trade. As the plantation owners, they wanted to have more economic autonomy from the proceeds of their produce. Apparently, the colonialists controlled the produce from the island, which was its major asset because of the strategic economic benefits associated with it. The French government introduced the Exclusive trade system, which ensured that the control of goods had to come exclusively from France. Moreover, the high taxation levied on the colony did not auger well with the group. The white plantation owners continually sought to have economic independence from the French government and the colonial administrators. The economic struggles between the Les Grant Blancs and the royal French colonial administrators brought economic imbalances that often threatened the integration of the groups. The white planters saw that the economic advances were creating injustices that needed to be addressed. According to Willie (2001, p 39), the Les Grant Blancs believed that the colony officials wasted St. Domingue’s resources. Therefore, the plantation owners and members of the assembly constantly attacked the executive officials from France. It was widely acknowledged that the wealth of the French colonies was primarily meant to benefit France, but not the colonies. This brought mixed reactions in the colony, with the superior whites advocating for the abolishment of heavy taxes and a greater control of the colony’s trade relations.
The Les Petit Blanc consisting of poor white men did not have good relations with their rich counterparts. The social disparities between the two groups caused sharp conflicts that often resulted into physical violence. The Les Petit Blanc did not like the fact that their rich counterparts had immense wealth, which they could only imagine. The privileges that the Les Grant Blancs enjoyed created a stratified social structure that made the Les Petit Blanc inferior. The Mulattoes or free coloreds were also inferior to the wealthy planters and civil officers. The interaction between the poor whites and the Mulattoes as well as the slaves made the rich whites to perceive them as less important in the economic status of the colony. The economic and social superiority of the rich whites resulted into strained relationships between them and the “Les Petit Blancs”. Undoubtedly, the strained relationships stemmed from the economic and social disparities of the colony’s structure.
Of importance still, is the relationship between the whites and the Mulattoes/ free coloureds. The disparities between the social classes came because of the economic and social characteristics of the Mulattoes. The free coloureds were seen as extremely ambitious and a threat to the social and economic dominance of the whites. They were strong and showed great prospects of social mobility and capacity to compete with the whites. Additionally, most of the Mulattoes were highly educated; hence, posing challenges to the dominant whites. The whites did not like the fast-rising nature of the free coloureds; they wanted them to remain inferior to them and settle at the bottom of the social class ladder. The social and economic disparities between the groups caused numerous conflicts that destabilized the power of the colonial administration. Due to the massive influence of the Mulattoes/free coloureds, the colonial legislature introduced strict laws to limit their influence (James 1963, p 97). The enacted laws forbade them from holding public office, joining the colonial army, wearing European clothes, organizing social functions, marrying whites and residing in France. They were also forced to work for free for a certain number of days per year, according to the French law. The free coloureds were economically and socially deprived of their rights because of their race and their prospects of social mobility. The Mulattoes did not agree with the social and economic injustices committed against them; hence, they sought to find for their rights (Ott 1987, p 67). These factors caused tensions between the whites and the Mulattoes and consequently led to the intense fighting between the groups in 1791.
The slaves, majorly from African origin were subjected to hard labor and deprivation of their rights as humans. They were the lowest in the social ladder, and yielded nothing in respect to their social and economic statuses. They experienced harsh conditions subjected to them by the superiors. The economic and social disparities between them and the other groups denied them the opportunity to enjoy their rights and dignity. In 1791, as the Les Blancs, Les Petit Blanc and free coloureds were fighting one another because of the prevalent social and economic disparities, the slaves maximized on the opportunity to start revolts in St. Domingue (James 1963, p 110). The slaves, favored by their numbers, fought against the whites and free coloureds because of the torments they faced as inferiors in St. Domingue. Undeniably, the social and economic disparities among the social classes in the colony contributed greatly in the St. Domingue Revolution.
The Declaration of Rights of Men
The Declaration of Rights of Men of 1789 was an instrumental document of the French Revolution in the expression of human rights. The document played a vital role in the establishment of the fundamental human rights that have continued to influence the modern world. In the wake of the French Revolution, there was need for setting up of laws that recognized the basic human rights and the equality of all people before the law. The declaration came at a time when rights and liberties were highly violated at the merit of a few. The French Revolution sought to fight for liberty, equality and fraternity rights (Manigat 1977, p 420).
Certainly, the Declaration of the Rights of Men played a dominant role in the start of St. Domingue Revolution. After the document brought the realization of human rights and universal laws in France, the social classes in St. Domingue sought to fight for their rights and privileges in a highly stratified colony. The Les Blancs wanted the right to makes laws, the abolishment of trading restrictions from France and wanted to have social equality with the French whites. They also wanted the scrubbing off, of royal bureaucracies in St. Domingue. The Declaration of the Rights of Men inspired the free coloureds to fight for social and political rights and the abolishment of discrimination. On the other hand, the slaves fought for their personal freedom from the oppression by the other social classes. Based on the discussion above, it is worth noting that the Declaration of the Rights of Men inspired the St. Domingue Revolution.
In conclusion, it is notable to assert that the St. Domingue Revolution (1791-1804) was because of various factors. Social and economic disparities in the colony were a major factor in the start of the revolt that certainly ended slavery in the island. The social classes that lived in St. Domingue often clashed in respect to the economic and social factors defining them. The deprivation of rights and liberties among the social groups led to conflicts that often turned physical. The need for economic and social rights and the quest for justice in the late 18th century St. Domingue led to a successful slave revolt that resulted into the birth of the nation of Haiti. As historians put it, the St. Domingue Revolution was significant in defining the history of European colonialism. Indeed, the upheaval is significant in understanding the history of French imperialism.
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James, C. L. R. “Parliament and Property.” In The Black Jacobins; Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. Second Ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1963
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