Revolutionary France Attempts to Rectify the Situation: Civil Commissioner Sonthonax
By early 1792, Haiti’s rebellious slaves controlled a third of the colony’s territory, and the once thriving local economy was in tatters. France was in the throes of revolutionary fervor and turmoil at the time, assailed by a coalition of foreign invaders from without, and beset by internal insurrections within. Even so, the revolutionary authorities in Paris could not ignore what was going on in Haiti: the colony’s sugar industry and the revenue it generated was vital to France’s overall economy.
Accordingly, the French Legislative Assembly addressed Haiti with yet another round of legislation, this one in March of 1792, confirming the grant of full civic rights to all free people in the colonies, regardless of race. However, the legislation did not free the slaves, and sought to return them to their plantations. The authorities also sent out a new colonial governor, Leger-Felicite Sonthonax, whose official title was Civil Commissioner. He was accompanied by 6000 French soldiers to restore order.
Sonthonax (1763 – 1813) was an abolitionist, a Jacobin, and a true believer in the Revolution and its Enlightenment ideals. His sympathies were with the colony’s slave population, and he viewed Haiti’s white settlers, most of whom vehemently resisted sharing power with the colony’s people of color, as royalist reactionaries. Accordingly, Sonthonax set out to curb the settlers’ military powers, which further alienated the whites and hardened their opposition to the new governor.
Many of Haiti’s mulattos tried to convince Sonthonax that they could form the colony’s homegrown military backbone if they were armed and trained, but he countered that the slave uprising had rendered that impractical. Instead, he sought to enlist former slaves into the colony’s armed forces. Sonthonax reasoned that the only way to tamp down the revolt would be to win over the rebels, or as many of them as possible.
The colony’s Civil Commissioner sought to remove the rebels’ main grievance, so he issued a declaration in 1793, freeing all the slaves in northern Haiti. By then, however, the slaves in that part of the colony had already freed themselves, and were in full control of that territory. As a result, Sonthonax’s decree failed to gain him as much support as he had hoped it would. It did, however, further enflame the whites against him, and alienate those mulattos who owned slaves, and who saw the revolutionary governor’s policies as a menace to their property rights and economic interests.
Sonthonax’s position was made more precarious by the outbreak of war in February of 1793 between Revolutionary France and Britain. At a stroke, all those whom he had alienated were presented with the option to join counterrevolutionary emigres in the nearby British island colony of Jamaica. Then in June of 1793, a military commander named Francois-Thomas Galbaud took the side of the white settlers, and mounted a coup. It failed, but in the process most of the colonial capital of Cap Francais was destroyed.
Galbaud was forced to leave Haiti, and most of the colony’s whites left with him. Between those killed, the push factors of the turmoil and dangers in Haiti, and the pull factors of active British recruitment of French counterrevolutionary, the colony’s European population took a nose dive. The number of white settlers went from about 30,000 in 1791, on the eve of the slave uprising, to less than 6000 by June of 1793.