The purpose of this research paper is to follow the path of the French Enlightenment through its internal revolution, and, consequently, its revolutions in its New World colonies. Upon doing so, it will be determined that ideologies present in the French Enlightenment are present in the following revolutions. Furthermore, it will be concluded that the French Revolution not only resulted in revolutions in its colonies, but it served as the catalyst due to faulty trans-Atlantic bureaucracy.
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The Age of Enlightenment was a period in Europe that has deep roots in France. The ultimate goal of this movement was to reform society, pursue knowledge, and enforce the new humanist and liberal ideologies the Enlightenment gave birth to (Hyland et al., 2003). Great works from Descartes and John Locke advocated for the equality of all men and women and an end to government corruption and abuse of power (2003). While these ideas have been posited in the past, the social and political conditions of France demanded they be answered. The end of the Enlightenment directly coincides with the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789.
The French Revolution began in 1789 due to a myriad of causes ranging from the tangible to the philosophical: with ideals from the enlightenment being the catalyst (Anderson, 2005). Combine this with France’s debt problems, its attempt to solve the problem through raising taxes, and the history of broken promises from the Monarchy, a revolution of the proletariat with ideas of equality was bound to happen (2005). When Paris was consumed by riots and the French Guard took sides with the revolutionaries, the motion had begun which would have drastic implications for France’s territories abroad. To briefly summarize the effects of the French Revolution in its territories, the dissolution of the monarchy, lack of control over its foreign operations, and the resources needed domestically to manage the revolution, resulted in France losing its power hold over its colonies (2005).
The historical significance of Haiti will be discussed heavily; however, it is important to recognize that while France was having its own internal changes, the development of the colonies carried its own set of problems that would greatly aid in the revolutions against France. It was not a question that since the French Revolution was explicitly built on the war cries of liberty and equality that this mentality would find it in the mechanisms behind the French slave trade and colonial system.
There were several French colonies in the Caribbean in which slavery was the modus operandi for their plantation based economies. The plantations typically produced sugar, coffee, and, later, cotton. Due to the size of Saint Domingue, present day Haiti, it will receive the most emphasis. Saint Domingue had approximately 500,000 slaves (Fick, 1990). Ironically, approximately one third of all slaves owned were owned by previously freed slaves; however, these free slaves were not allowed to hold any office or practice in any profession.
The slave system in the French colonies was regulated by a series of edicts from the King, the most important being the French Code Noir proclaimed in March of 1685 (Fick, 1990). While this code presented the terms and conditions of slave owning and managing through a strictly religious perspective, they outline how slaves would be sold, how their family life would be dictated, forms of punishments, and life after slavery: unlike British slaves, many French slaves could eventually become free (The Code Noir, 1687). Saint Domingue was France’s most profitable colony and most pivotal in its Atlantic slave trade. At this point, it is essential to emphasize two key points. The first is that Saint Domingue was France’s most profitable colony. The second is that France was entering a period of Enlightenment at this time.
Due to the importance of the slaves in the islands and the rise of enlightenment in France, many French diplomats began to attempt to understand the slaves for which they were responsible for. One notable individual is Mederic Louis Elie Moreau de Saint Mery, who approached the slaves from an almost anthropological and social point of view. Upon doing so, he realized several key tenants that would dictate how the French treated the slaves and their future role in the Haitian revolution. He concluded that many slaveholders feared the threat of “slaves running away, try to poison them, and a great fear for their religious which many viewed as barbaric and rooted in African voodoo” (de St. Mery, 1947).
Saint Domingue’s Response to the French Revolution
Upon hearing of the enlightenment movements and the quest for liberty and equality taking hold in France, the colonies were quick to take part by sending delegates to France to demand representation in the new National Assembly that would be formed. The purpose of this movement was to ensure the economic interests of white planters would be accounted for. The mulattos, or previously freed slaves, also sent delegates to France, but they were ignored for the most part. The main agent of action would come from the Society of Friends of the Blacks whose members included Jacques-Pierre Brissot and the leader of abolition in Britain, Thomas Clarkson. Branching off of enlightenment ideologies, the sought the commencement of abolition and to pursue better public relations with slaves including more rights and government positions. As Fick would suggest, however, their efforts “fell on deaf ears” and quickly became “overshadowed by the crisis of the First French Republic” and the outbreak of the Haitian Revolution (Gaspar et al., 1997).
Even though French colonists, freed slaves, and slaves alike attempted to gain greater rights and were promptly ignored, the necessity for dramatic changed intensified. The complete disregard of the homeland French from the French colonialist resulted in the radicals, supporters of the enlightenment, to fight for complete civil and political equality of blacks and slaves in the colonies. Needless to say, this was met which much fervor and opposition from the white plantation owners who had their economic and business interests to protect.
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As the French Revolution began the movement in favor of granting rights to free blacks and abolish the slave trade, the uncertainty of Saint Domingue became increasingly evident. Success of the working classes in France created a mentality that there was hope among the free blacks and mulattos in the colonies (Fick, 1990). The uncertainty for the future of Saint Domingue resulted in an ever increasing polarization of the colony in which there was no middle ground to be found or settled upon. French radicals promised freedom for all, while white planters, fearful of this movement spreading, demanded complete independence from France and an abolishment of the Code Noir in favor of a much stricter code (Fick, 1990). Very is little known amount the internal mechanisms of the slave rebellion fomenting, but an excerpt from Henry Christophe’s slave paints squalid conditions when he writes, “Have they not forced them to consume faeces? And, having flayed them with the last, have they not cast them alive to be devoured by worms, or lashed to stakes in the swamp to be devoured by mosquitoes” (Heine, 1996). With a sentiment like this, it is certain that slaves wanted to be free.
Another point to consider is the economic impact of freeing the slaves on the island; this was the one issue the white plantations holders feared the most. Whether slavery was still utilized after the French Revolution or not, the fact of the matter is the burden would be placed upon the white plantation owners. These sentiments were reaffirmed by America’s ability to maintain a system of slavery despite British edicts to end the slave trade previously. They went even as far to petition the National Assembly to remove themselves from the French Constitutional powers and prosecute anyone by death who attempted to create a slave based rebellion: this was granted, however it would prove not to be enough. Furthermore, initially blacks and mulattos believed their National Assembly would benefit them as it was going to benefit their counterparts in France; however, this was not the case. The French governments, before during and after the revolution, had no intention to relinquish any power of its territories.
As the National Assembly attempted to quell the opposition from the white plantation owners, unrest began to ferment in Saint Domingue. Most notably, the National Assembly and their March 1790 Decree failed to address the needs and political rights of free blacks: this would be a major mistake (Brown.edu, 2012). While the free blacks had a strong understanding of what was occurring, the slaves did not: yet the French Revolutionary slogan of “liberty, equality, and freedom was easy to understand and began to ferment rebellious attitudes. The one key factor they had, that ultimately resulted in their success, was that slaves and free blacks accounted for a significant majority of the population. As a result, slaves began to plan and coordinate how they were going to overthrow their owners, blacks and white alike.
The first slave rebellion took place in October of 1790 in which 350 mulattos rebelled against their plantation owners (Brown.edu, 2012). This resulted in very violent killings in which owners were massacred and tortured in some cases. The rebellion was quickly quelled when the French militia aligned with plantation owner resulting in the public execution of James Oge in 1791 (Brown.edu, 2012). Rather than quell rebellious sentiment, this action added fuel to the fire and served as an irreparable incident for the island.
In order to combat any future rebellions, the de factor leaders Francois Dominique Toussaint-Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines prompted the National Assembly in France to enact progressive laws. As a result, on May 15, 1791, the National Assembly granted equal political rights to all free mulattos and blacks provided they were born from free parents (Brown.edu, 2012). This did very little to appease the majority slave population, and research shows that this law, although progressive, only applied to a few hundred individuals. Needless to say, it was not want the slaves and former slaves needed nor wanted. As a result of this law, white plantation owners utilized more aggressive and abusive policies to their slaves paving the way for the point of no return.
The Haitian Revolution
Despite repeated efforts on all sides to address the issue of slavery, the demands on all parties were not being achieved. Fed up with government bureaucracy and familiar of France’s growing decline in the region, even more slave rebellions began to occur. The most notable occurred on August 22, 1791, in which the slaves began an approximate 7 years war against their colonialists (Anderson, 2005). It is important to note that during this time, the French National Assembly rescinded the rights given to free blacks and mulattos which only worsened relations and caused the slaves to burn down plantations, destroy government buildings, and massacre all whites and government officials. While the government in France, no matter the form, was unable nor unwilling to do anything about the slavery situation in Saint Domingue, the slaves were becoming more organized and began to make pacts with British and Spanish navies for freedom. The growing fear of losing its colonies to foreign powers during its revolution forced France to abolish slavery on February 4, 1794 (Fick, 1997). This marks the first successful revolution of slaves against a foreign power.
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