NewsOne is celebrating February 4 as the 219th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the French Empire.
It was on this fateful day that the French National Convention under Jacobin influence took the bold step of becoming the first major European power to abolish slavery in its colonies.
The NewsOne article focuses exclusively on Saint-Domingue, which later became independent Haiti after 1804, but slavery was temporarily abolished across the entire French Empire in 1794, which at that time included the slave-based plantation colonies of Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guiana, and Île de France (Mauritius) and Réunion in the Indian Ocean.
Slavery was only effectively abolished by this decree in Saint-Domingue, Guadeloupe, and French Guiana which remained under the control of the French Republic. Martinique was occupied by the British during the War of the First Coalition. Réunion and Île de France resisted the implementation of abolition.
In 1802, the abolition law of 1794 was revoked under Napoleon and slavery was later restored in Guadeloupe and French Guiana. Napoleon dispatched the Leclerc and Richepance expeditions to restore the authority of the French Republic over Saint-Domingue and Guadeloupe.
In Guadeloupe, Richepance succeeded in defeating the black insurrection led by Louis Delgrès on the slope of the Matouba volcano. In Saint-Domingue, which is a far larger and more mountainous colony, the resumption of hostilities with the British in 1803, the topography of the country, and the toll of malaria and yellow fever on French troops led to the defeat the Leclerc expedition.
Haiti became the world’s first black republic. It also become the world’s first post-colonial society. In Guadeloupe, Martinique, Réunion and French Guiana, slavery would continue to exist until 1848, and white supremacy and colonialism were never completely eliminated, as these colonies became departments of France in 1946.
This schism of the French Empire – Saint-Domingue becoming an independent black republic with a free labor peasant economy, Guadeloupe and Martinique returning to their status of slave-based plantation societies with a capitalist economy under white supremacy and colonialism – is arguably the ultimate example of the lack of capacity of black people to maintain a White level of civilization.
In both Saint-Domingue and Guadeloupe, the abolition of slavery in 1794 sent the plantation economy into a tailspin, which was the lifeblood of the wealth of both French colonies:
“Between 1790 and 1799, the total surface farmed on the island of Guadeloupe decreased dramatically, from 51,279 hectares to 18,469. Here, cotton was hardest hit, despite the increase in the number of plantations: after a rapid expansion in the 1780s, there were 8,766 hectares in 1790 and only 2,214 in 1799, a drop of 75 percent. Overall production of coffee decreased as well, though not as markedly: the number of hectares dropped from 8,607 in 1790 to 5,281 in 1799 (61 percent). And the amount of land cultivated in sugar decreased from 22,620 hectares in 1790 to 7,288 in 1799 (68 percent). Statistics on the amount of sugar actually produced are difficult to come by because its distribution was not very well controlled, but the available numbers note a drop from 18,300 metric tons of sugar produced in 1784 to only 3,900 in 1799. These calculations probably underestimated the total output on the island because they did not account for commodities that were stolen from plantations and sold in the active underground economy described below. They do, however, suggest that, even as land defined by the administration as coffee and cotton plantations multiplied in numbers, cultivateurs focused on growing provisions rather than on producing crops for export.”
Laurent DuBois, A Colony of Citizens: Revolution & Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804, p.214
In The Beauties of Negro Rule: The Present and Past of Hayti, we learn that Saint-Domingue exported 93,573,300 pounds of raw sugar, 47,516,531 pounds of white sugar, 76,835,219 pounds of coffee, 76,835,219 pounds of cotton, and 7,004,278 pounds of indigo in 1789. The commodities generated by Saint-Domingue’s agricultural sector made it the richest colony in the world at the time.
By 1801, seven years after the abolition of slavery, Haiti’s production of raw sugar had declined to 8,016,540 pounds, white sugar to 18,517,381, coffee to 29,510,450, and cotton to 2,170,440 pounds. The decline in Haiti’s agricultural sector mirrored the decline in production in Guadeloupe.
In both cases, the cause of the decline was the same: free blacks preferred to abandon the plantations or refused to work with the same discipline and intensity as they had as slaves. They preferred to shift their energies to growing food crops in their garden plots for their own consumption rather than growing commodities for export in disciplined gangs on large scale plantations.
The restoration of slavery in Guadeloupe reversed the economic decline of the 1790s by forcing blacks to return to work on the plantations. In the early nineteenth century, Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guiana, and Réunion (Île de France was ceded to Britain in 1810 and became Mauritius) would later go on to produce more sugar than Saint-Domingue at its height of production in 1789.
Just the opposite was true in Haiti: by 1850, raw and white sugar, cotton, indigo, and tobacco had completely disappeared as articles for export, and while coffee production had actually risen to 80,608,343 pounds, the coffee exported from Haiti was wild coffee of inferior quality harvested from the ruins of abandoned plantations. The epicenter of world coffee production had long since shifted to the slave plantations in south central Brazil which was producing half the world’s coffee by 1868.
In 1995, Haiti’s exports were worth less than Saint-Domingue’s exports in 1788:
“In the first half of 1995 Haiti exported $65 million, a figure that, 207 years later, falls far short, when adjusted for inflation, of the $41 million in exports of Saint-Domingue (French colonial Haiti) in 1788. During the same period, its imports amounted to $265 million, or four times its exports. Haiti has to import all petroleum products, machinery, processed goods and the bulk of even the simplest consumer goods. In only four years of the last fifty has Haiti enjoyed a favorable balance of trade.”
In terms of technology, independent Haiti in 1995 had retrograded to a level that compared unfavorably with the Roman Empire:
“Few countries have regressed so far or been so misused by man. In 1789 a flourishing Haiti, France’s richest colony, ran its mills and ground its grains by waterpower. In 1995 – an anthropological regression measurable in centuries – the waterwheel and flume were largely forgotten and the Biblical ox and beam prevailed.”
In 2012, the average per capita income in Haiti was $1,300, whereas Guadeloupe (where slavery, white supremacy, and colonialism was restored) has a per capita income of $21,780 and Martinique has a per capita income of $24,118.
To put this in perspective, the Bahamas has a per capita income of $30,400, Barbados has a per capita income of $25,000, and Puerto Rico has a per capita income of $16,300. Even Cuba under communism and American sanctions has a per capita income of $9,900. All of these neighboring countries have a longer experience with slavery, white supremacy, and colonialism than Haiti which was the second country in the Western hemisphere to win its independence in 1804.
The one area where Haiti differs from its Caribbean neighbors is that it is the longest running experiment in black freedom in the world. Nowhere else in the Americas were black people as successful in preserving their own African culture or as unmolested by Europeans as they were in Haiti after 1804.
In Haiti, blacks used their freedom to recreate the richest colony in the world in the image of the primitive African societies in which the majority of Haitians had been born and were then only a few years removed. Elsewhere in the Caribbean such as in Barbados, the European impact was much more enduring and those colonies have been much more successful since independence.
OD celebrates Black History Month 2013 by remembering Feburary 4, 1794 – the day on which slavery was abolished in the French Empire – as one of the most important milestones on the road to the creation of modern Haiti which is by far the most impoverished and dysfunctional country in the Western hemisphere.