Caribbean Project: States’ Rights In The French West Indies

The Jacobins in France were the forerunners of the Black Republicans in the United States

French West Indies

Turning our attention to the French West Indies, we find the same debate over states’ rights vs. centralized government, conservatism vs. liberalism, racialism vs. humanism, white supremacy vs. negro equality in the 1790s that we can find between the Confederacy and the Union in the 1860s.

In the United States, Black Republicans in Yankeeland sought to destroy slavery, elevate the negro to political and social equality, and centralize control of the government in their own hands. In the French Empire, the Red Republicans in metropolitan France aimed to impose their own Jacobin utopian ideals on the French Caribbean during the French Revolution.

The following excerpt comes from Laurent DuBois’s A Colony of Citizens: Revolution & Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804. This book focuses on the triumph and downfall of abolition in Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Eastern Caribbean.

“To justify a perspective that went so openly against the ideas of political equality that were at the heart of the French Revolution, those who resisted granting gens de coleur rights argued that the colonies were crucially different from the metropole and therefore required different laws. Such laws, they asserted, could only be created by the inhabitants of the colonies themselves. Unlike metropolitan abolitionists and administrators, these inhabitants understood from experience the complexities of maintaining peace and order in these societies. Monsieur de Cocherel, one of the deputies representing Saint-Domingue, argued that the local assemblies should have the right to form a constitution “appropriate for our customs, our traditions, our products and our climate” and that this constitution would necessarily have to be different from that of France. “France is inhabited and can only be inhabited by a free people; the colonies, in contrast, are inhabited by a mixture of Africans and Europeans. Their system is not and cannot be the same as that of the Metropole.”

Cocheral felt that the constitution of the colonies should be decided in local assemblies that would have the advantage of “local knowledge” in crafting the new laws. Dutrône de La Couture similarly argued that, although an integral part of France, the colonies needed – because of the contrast in climate, agricultural production, and the Africans themselves – a different, racially defined administration. The well respected Martinique born journalist Médéric Louis Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry, who had worked as a lawyer and a judge in Saint-Domingue in the 1780s and, as president of the Assembly of Paris, presented the keys of the city to Louis XVI in 1789, also defended this viewpoint.”

Note: Does this sound familiar?

The existence of the Union between the French Caribbean and Revolutionary France proved to be a racial and cultural disaster for the White population of the French West Indies. In Saint-Domingue, the colonists were so alienated from the Jacobins that they invited the British in Jamaica to intervene and take over the colony.

By siding with the British, the Jacobins portrayed the French colonists as traitors to France. The metropolitans sided with the black slaves who were in rebellion in the mountains. In 1794, the French National Assembly officially abolished slavery in all the French colonies. The Jacobin administrator Léger-Félicité Sonthonax had already abolished slavery on his own authority in 1793.

The Golden Circle was ultimately destroyed because it was divided between so many competing national sovereignties that were being swept by democratic republican revolutions that institutionalized the ideology of the Enlightenment.

7 Comments

  1. The French went so badly wrong. It’s all
    the fraternity and liberty crap. Oh and the egality!

    Bunch of saps. Hierarchy, Loyalty, Order, Wealth!

  2. They were doomed by demographics and by competing national interests as we must not allow ourselves to be doomed.

  3. I thought the Yankees destroyed “The Golden Circle” at Appomattox ? Whatever happened to Appomattox Courthouse?

  4. Joe, Appomattox marked the military surrender of Army of Northern VA and essentially the end of Lincoln’s war against the CSA. However, the Golden Circle concept was for all practical purposes ended prior to this.

  5. This is interesting history I didn’t know about, thanks. I do think for the French colonists though, any such project was doomed in a way that Southern states rights and other regionalisms and decentralized powers aren’t necessarily in the Anglophone world.

    France had long had a tradition of tightly controlled central rule from Paris under the Bourbon crowned heads, while the United Kingdom and its colonies were always a far more loose knit affair, given the special status of Scotland with its own established church separate from the English throne, yet headed by the same royal person. This allowed Scots to have a stronger regional identity that made the Jacobite rebellions possible in a way that regions of France could not have maintained.

    The French have been a centripetal society in the course of their history, while the various peoples of the British isles have been centrifugal since the beginning of the New World colonization.

    The one counterexample I can think of is Québec, which on closer examination is an exception that proves the rule, I believe. Québec only was able to begin its drive for independence under the Commonwealth, while the other French North American possessions, while Saint Pierre & Miquelon are still firmly in the grasp of the metropole, with the Prefect directly appointed from France.

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