This disagreement on the extent of free-colored willingness to extend rights to black slaves indicates the ambiguity of the relationship between the French Revolution and the gens de couleur. If white colonists resisted racial equality, at moments of crisis they saw free men of color as potential allies in their ruthless factional struggles to control the colonies. Examination of these crises suggests that while white colonists in Martinique and Guadeloupe qualified or even abandoned their opposition to free-colored equality in the heat of revolutionary conflict, their alliances with the gens de couleur were always intended to help control the servile labor force and maintain the slave system.
The gens de couleur were an intermediate group within colonial society who stood between the mass of black slaves and the white minority. Racial ambiguity was further complicated by different patterns of manumission. A broad range of racially restrictive legislation reflected not only concern about numbers, but also the expanding free-colored role in the colonial economy.
In September news of revolution in metropolitan France reached Martinique and Guadeloupe.
Passengers and crews of merchant ships brought tricolor cockades and accounts of Louis XVI accepting one from the people of Paris. He also recognized the dangerous implications of flaunting a symbol of liberty in a slave colony: in August rumors that the king had abolished slavery inspired a slave revolt in Martinique.
When the governor-general supported a request by free-colored militia to participate, citing their key role in putting down the slave revolt, he touched off riots in the town of Fort-Royal. Armed free men of color supported these operations. Patriots and mutinous soldiers seized control of the towns of Fort-Royal and Saint-Pierre, while Damas and members of the colonial assembly retreated to an interior stronghold under the protection of white and free-colored militia.
The colonial assemblies in Martinique and Guadeloupe claimed they had complied with the new law and urged the Minister of Marine not to send troops to enforce it. In September the naval squadron stationed at Martinique took the drastic step of repelling the convoy from France bringing new representatives of metropolitan authority.
Histoire de Toussaint-Louverture
Acting on rumors of counter-revolution in Paris, the colonial assemblies in Guadeloupe and Martinique completed the schism by striking the revolutionary tricolor and raising the white flag of the old monarchy. Gens de couleur backed the royalist rebellion initially, but representatives of the new Republic in France undermined this support with promises of unconditional equality. Discovering that Martinique and Guadeloupe were in the grip of counter-revolution, Lacrosse made contact with patriot refugees in British Dominica before sailing to the French colony of Saint-Lucie which had remained loyal to metropolitan authority.
Beyond contradicting claims of counter-revolution in France, and announcing the success of republican arms in Europe, he sought to reassure planters that the Republic would guarantee their property: it had no intention of abolishing slavery. His broadsheets urged men of color to desert the rebels, who would return them to segregation and inequality, and to claim their rights as new citizens. If planters previously appealed to free men of color to back them against patriots, radicals now sought to turn the new citizens against their moderate republican rivals.
In March General Collot arrived in Guadeloupe to take up the post of governor and to replace Lacrosse who had assumed those duties in January.
Although the assembly rejected these charges, many new citizens began to fear that their rights were at risk. Following its suppression, Collot alleged that the committee of general security had stirred up the ringleaders with the calumnious accusation that he opposed a supposed new law allowing illegitimate mulattos to inherit property from their white fathers. There was no truth to this charge while the evidence suggests that Collot was in fact committed to free-colored equality.
On 4 February the National Convention in Paris decreed the abolition of slavery throughout the French empire.
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Royal administrators valued free men of color as defenders of colonial security and the slave system, and grands Blancs welcomed them as allies against petit Blanc patriots and even against metropolitan revolutionary authority. Republicans succeeded in winning over gens de couleur with the legal guarantee of equality. The subsequent struggle between republicans resulted not only in conflicting appeals for free-colored support, but in radical accusations that the moderates were not sincerely committed to racial equality.
Free people of color in Guadeloupe and Martinique were themselves divided, not only politically but economically. Standard UK delivery is currently free , no matter how many items you have in your basket. You can find out more about delivery and returns in our help section.
Transformative Mobilities and the Non-dit: Constructing Whiteness Across Two French Colonial Spaces
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