The French Revolution was a bourgeois revolution, and the basis of bourgeois wealth was the slave trade and slave plantations in the colonies. Though the bourgeoisie traded in other things than slaves, upon the success or failure of the traffic everything else depended. Therefore when the bourgeoisie proclaimed the Rights of Man in general, with necessary reservations, one of these was that these rights should not extend to the French colonies.
There was the abolitionist society to which Brissot, Robespierre, Mirabeau, Lafayette, Condorcet, and many such famous men belonged even before 1789. But liberals are liberal. They were ready to compromise. They would leave the half million slaves in slavery, but at least the Mulattoes, men of property (including slaves) and education, should be given equal rights with the white colonials. The white colonial magnates refused concessions and they were people to be reckoned with, aristocrats by birth or marriage, bourgeois in their trade connections. They opposed all change in the colonies that would diminish their domination. The maritime bourgeosie, concerned about their millions of investments, supported the colonials, and against eleven million pounds of trade per year the radical politicians were helpless. It was the revolution that kicked them from behind and forced them forward.
First of all the revolution in France. The Gironde right wing of the Jacobin club overthrew the pro-royalist Feuillants and came to power in March, 1792. And secondly the revolution in the colonies. The Mulattoes in San Domingo revolted in 1790, followed a few months later by the slave revolt in August 1791. On April 4, 1792 the Girondins granted political and social rights to the Mulattoes. The big bourgeoisie agreed, for the colonial aristocrats, after vainly trying to win Mulatto support for independence, decided to hand the colony over to Britain rather than tolerate interference with their system. All these slave owners, French nobility and French bourgeoisie, colonial aristocrats and Mulattoes, agreed that the slave revolt should be suppressed and the slaves remain in slavery.
The slaves, however, refused to listen to threats. Led from beginning to end by men who had themselves been slaves, they fought one of the greatest revolutionary battles in history.
The island of San Domingo was divided into two colonies, one French, the other Spanish. The colonial government of the Spanish Bourbons supported the slaves in their revolt against the French republic, and many rebel bands took service with the Spaniards. The French colonials invited Pitt to take over the colony, and when war was declared between France and England in 1793, the English invaded the island.
The English expedition, welcomed by the white colonials, captured town after town in the south and west of French San Domingo. The Spaniards, operating with the famous Toussaint Louverture, an ex-slave, at the head of four thousand black troops, invaded the colony from the east. British and Spaniards were gobbling up as much as they could. On June 4th, Port-au-Prince, the capital of San Domingo, fell. Another British expedition had captured Martinique, Guadeloupe, and the other French islands. Barring a miracle, the colonial trade of France, the richest in the world, was in the hands of her enemies and would be used against the revolution. But here the French masses took a hand.
August 10, 1792 was the beginning of the revolution triumphant in France. The Paris masses and their supporters all over France, in 1789 indifferent to the colonial question, were now striking in revolutionary frenzy at every abuse of the old regime and none of the former tyrants were so hated as the “aristocrats of the skin.” Revolutionary generosity, resentment at the betrayal of the colonies to the enemies of the revolution, impotence in the face of the British navy — these swept the Convention off its feet. On February 4, 1794, it decreed the abolition of Negro slavery and at last gave its sanction to the black revolt.
The news trickled through to the French West Indies. Victor Hugues, a Mulatto, one of the great personalities produced by the revolution, managed to break through the British blockade and carried the notice of manumission to the Mulattoes and blacks of the West Indian islands. Then occurred the miracle. The blacks and Mulattoes dressed themselves in the revolutionary colors and, singing revolutionary songs, turned on the British and Spaniards, their allies of yesterday. With little more from revolutionary France than moral support, they drove the British and Spaniards from their conquests and carried the war into enemy territory. The British, after five years, were finally driven out in 1798.
Few know the importance of that defeat sustained at the hands of Victor Hugues in the smaller islands and Toussaint Louverture and Rigaud in San Domingo. Fortescue, the Tory historian of the British army, estimates the loss to Britain at 100,000 men. In the whole of the Peninsular War Wellington lost from all causes — killed in battle, sickness, desertions — only 40,000. British blood and British treasure were poured out in profusion in the West Indian campaign. This was the reason for Britain’s weakness in Europe during the critical years 1793-1798.
The black revolution in San Domingo choked at its source one of the most powerful economic streams of the eighteenth century. With the defeat of Britain, the black proletarians defeated the Mulatto Third Estate in a bloody civil war. Immediately after, Bonaparte, representative of the most reactionary elements of the new French bourgeoisie, attempt to restore slavery in San Domingo. The blacks defeated an expedition of some 50,000 men, and with the assistance of the Mulattoes, carried the revolution to its logical conclusion. They changed the name of San Domingo to Haiti and declared the island independent. This black revolution had a profound effect on the struggle for the cessation of the slave trade.
• C L R James (1901-90) was an anti-Stalinist revolutionary socialist of Trinidadian origin who was active for decades, mainly in the US and the UK. He wrote The Black Jacobins, a history of the Haitian revolution. This is an excerpt from his 1939 article “Revolution and the Negro”, published in the Trotskyist journal New International under the name J R Johnson. In the article James also discusses the American Civil War, the struggle against slavery in the British empire and 20th century working-class and anti-colonial struggles.
• For more on the Haitian revolution and C L R James, see this by Dan Davison.