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French sugar colonies were wealthy areas where slavery was the foundation of the economic system. The colonies were as much inspired by the ideas of the French revolution as Paris itself, but the development of revolutionary movement took quite different forms as people fought against slavery, monarchy, social injustice as well as for their state’s independence, equal rights and economic gains (Trouillot 94). Many historians note that the Caribbean became a place where ideas of the French Revolution were tested. It is possible to agree with this statement and add that the test involved revealing the controversies of French society with its focus on the economic well-being and interests of different groups.
Ideals of the French Revolution
Prior to discussing the peculiarities of the revolution in the Caribbean, it is important to consider the major ideas of the French Revolution. France had been an absolute monarchy up to the end of the 18th century when the king’s rule was overturned. Importantly, the French Revolution was not only about abolishing the monarchy as it was more about the establishment of a just society where people (or rather citizens) were equal and enjoyed equal rights. The right to practice any religion, free speech, and voting rights were some of the cornerstones of these ideals. Clearly, after the outbreak of the revolution in the metropole, colonies were also “intoxicated with freedom” (qtd. in Kadish 19).
Caribbean Events and Controversies
However, this intoxication was with a specific flavor. First, it is necessary to note that the fight for freedom had started long before the French Revolution as slaves had tried to stand up to white oppressors (Reinhardt 25). The revolts were often preceded by various acts of disobedience that included refusal to work, sabotage, spoiling tools, spoiling and even poisoning the food of masters, and so on. The revolts were often oppressed, and the participants were punished severely while their leaders were usually tortured and executed. By the 18th century, however, slaves, as well as abolitionists or simply people who were against slavery, became more organized. For instance, Toussaint Louverture managed to become a leader who created a force that stood up to the colonial rule developing alliances with major French rivals (Spaniards) (Kadish 5).
As has been mentioned above, the revolution unveiled numerous tensions in society as well as the hypocrisy of many revolutionists. Different groups in colonies (as well as France) tried to achieve their goals. For instance, white slaveholders, obviously, wanted to maintain the order as slavery was the foundation of their wealth (Mintz, Sweetness, and Power 66). White middle-class wanted to achieve more rights and limit the power of the aristocracy and wealthy landowners. Slaves, 60% of whom were born free men, were eager to retain or win their freedom and abolish the cruel system. Free people of color (and people of mixed descent) wanted to enjoy equal rights with the rest of the free society as only white men could vote.
French Universalism and Groups Left out
At this point, it is essential to consider the major peculiarities of French universalism. The ideals of the French Revolution were based on such notions as liberty, brotherhood, and equality (Reinhardt 19). However, these principles and values were quite limited in terms of gender and race. For example, it was a norm to apply these principles to whites as slaves and Africans were not regarded as men, which made it possible to deprive them of the basic rights (Buck-Morss 826). Importantly, affranchis (freed slaves, free people of color, or mulattos) were not regarded as men as well although many of them managed to become wealthy landowners or capitalists.
Reasons for the Controversies
One of the major reasons for such inconsistency was the desire to safeguard certain groups’ interests. Clearly, slaves were the major group left out in the process of gaining rights due to economic reasons as slavery was a way to maintain the economic advantages of the region (Mintz, Caribbean Transformations 280). However, other groups (mainly affranchis) also had to participate in a severe fight for their rights. This can be explained by the conflict based on the scarcity of resources. Different groups tried to gain (or rather maintain) their control over as many resources as possible. Therefore, white landowners and the middle class tried to limit the access of people of color (even free and wealthy) to certain rights as it was a gateway to gaining resources.
In conclusion, it is possible to note that the Caribbean can be regarded as a land where the principles of the French Revolution were tested, and controversies of the French society were unveiled. Although many victories were achieved (such as slavery abolishing), various groups still tried to pursue their own interests. White landowners and the middle class appeared to be more successful in this fight, which led to a disproportionate distribution of resources as well as social injustice. The major obstacle to the end of slavery and manifestation of the principle of true equality was the economic system that was based on cheap (or rather free) labor. The region was dependent on the sugar production industry, and people needed a certain time to come up with new business and economic models.
Buck-Morss, Susan. “Hegel and Haiti.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 26, no. 4, 2000, pp. 821–865.
Kadish, Doris. “Introduction.” Slavery in the Caribbean Francophone World: Distant Voices, edited by Doris Kadish, University of Georgia Press, 2000, pp. 1-18.
Mintz, Sidney. Caribbean Transformations. Aldine, 1974.
—. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin, 1986.
Reinhardt, Catherine. “French Caribbean Slaves Forge Their Own Ideal of Liberty in 1789.” Slavery in the Caribbean Francophone World: Distant Voices, edited by Doris Kadish, University of Georgia Press, 2000, pp. 19-39.
Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Beacon Press, 1995.