The ideals embedded within the French Revolution – liberty, fraternity, equality – spread easily to other parts of the world. France’s Haitian colony, then known as Saint-Domingue, proved especially receptive to ideas of freedom. Laurent Dubois’ Avengers of the New World uses new discoveries concerning slave resistance “and the process of emancipation” to “highlight their crucial importance in the broader struggles over the meaning of freedom and citizenship that shaped the Atlantic world during the eighteenth and nineteenth century.”
Dubios argues that ideas of liberty, fomented by the French Revolution, inspired free-coloreds and slaves alike in colonial Saint-Domingue. In this way, similar to Cassandra Pybus’ work, free blacks and plantation slaves inculcated revolutionary ideals to an extent that was unexpected by French planters and officials. Nearly as serpentine as the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution consisted of a dizzying array of alliances and betrayals. Race did not serve as the broad unifying factor one might expect. Instead, free coloreds, many of whom owned slaves themselves, actively discriminated against Haiti’s slave population. Divided by class Haiti’s free black population sought to establish their citizenship and equality at the expense of the enslaved. Even Toussaint Louverture consistently abrogated the rights of former slaves by ordering them back to cultivation. Louverture’s political and economic intrigue led him to adopt dictatorial methods that created a “society based on social hierarchy, forced labor, and violent repression.” By the time of his capture, Napoleon’s emissaries had enlisted the aid of blacks resentful of Louverture’s actions. Though Napoleon captured the French leader his attempts to regain the island failed.
European intrigue greatly complicated matters. Spanish, British, and French governments all attempted to gain control over the island, issuing questionable promises of liberty to the island’s black population. Still, the idea of liberty held such potency that Louverture himself, at various moments, had fought either for or with all three European powers. Even the United States involved itself in hopes of continuing trade with Haiti while weakening French power in the New World. Yet, Thomas Jefferson and others’ fears of slave revolt in their own nation, tempered U.S. policy.
[see review essay on Slavery and Revolution in the Atlantic World - -- in the review essays section for more depth and comparison