Ogle on RÖ©gent, 'Esclavage, MÖ©tissage, LibertÖ©: La RÖ©volution FranÖ§aise en Guadeloupe 1789-1802'

FrÖ©dÖ©ric RÖ©gent
Gene Ogle

FrÖ©dÖ©ric RÖ©gent. Esclavage, MÖ©tissage, LibertÖ©: La RÖ©volution FranÖ§aise en Guadeloupe 1789-1802. Paris: Bernard Grasset, 2004. 507 pp. EUR 22.00 (paper), ISBN 978-2-246-64481-1.

Reviewed by Gene Ogle (John Cabot University, Rome) Published on H-Caribbean (January, 2005)

In 1794 the French plantation colonies of Guadeloupe and Saint-Domingue were the chief location for the first general emancipation of slaves in the Atlantic world. In the years immediately following, both societies experienced a kind of legislated racial equality never before seen in the Americas.[1] But in 1803 the two colonies went in different directions. By that time a Napoleonic expedition had disarmed Guadeloupe's "black" and "colored" soldiers and restored slavery. In contrast, in that same year Saint Domingue's armies defeated a similar expedition, founding the independent state of Haiti on January 1, 1804.

In Esclavage, Métissage, Liberté, Frédéric Régent proposes a compelling explanation of why Guadeloupe did not become another (or even the first) Haiti. Namely, Guadeloupe's Revolution was not terribly revolutionary. After France abolished slavery in 1794, distinctions based on skin color persisted in the colony, as did forced labor and the plantation economy. For Régent, the Revolution resulted in "social transformations only for a minority of individuals," and "the colored population [remained] divided between those free before the [1794] decree and former slaves, between sang-mêlé [i.e., people of mixed race] and Blacks" (p. 19). The basic social structures and patterns of behavior that characterized Guadeloupe's Old Regime were not transformed, Régent argues, even as some formerly "free people of color" rose to positions of prominence and significant numbers of formerly enslaved people struggled in various ways to realize their own, more radical, visions of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Through a nuanced analysis of notarial records and censuses, Régent suggests that the persistence of pre-Revolutionary social forms (as well as the relative ease with which slavery and racial discrimination were re-imposed after 1802) largely resulted from two interrelated features of Guadeloupean slave society: at a micro level, the flexibility and complexity of individual relations of domination, and at a macro level, colonial society's elaborate hierarchization. The first created long-lasting bonds between at least some masters and slaves and between white patrons and their free colored clients. The second, which according to Régent produced a "cascade of disdain," assured the "absence of unity among the popular classes" and thus "the primacy of the grands Blancs [i.e., rich and powerful whites]" (p. 108).

These features of late-eighteenth-century colonial society also help to explain the behavior of Guadeloupeans of African descent during the period of "general liberty" from 1794 to 1802. Régent argues that the aforementioned personal ties, along with other pre-Revolutionary solidarities based on residence and shared trades, played greater roles in determining political choices than racial or class allegiances. Such factors seem to have been key in the decisions of some formerly free people of color and slaves to emigrate with their patrons or masters instead of remaining in a Republican colony that had officially ended both slavery and racial discrimination. The hierarchical fragmentation of Guadeloupe's popular classes, along with new Revolutionary-era divisions between the black and mixed-race military and former slaves who were still bound to their plantations, does much to explain the failure of leaders such as Louis Delgrès to forge more successful alliances opposing the return of slavery and racial discrimination.

The greatest strengths of Esclavage, Métissage, Liberté lie less in Régent's overall arguments, however, than in the book's wealth of detail and the subtlety with which he calls forth the variety of life conditions of Guadeloupe's non-white population while setting the many exceptions into the context of larger patterns of domination and discrimination. Of equal importance, despite the emphasis placed on the continuity of Guadeloupean society over the turbulent years of the French and Haitian Revolutions, Régent highlights the agency of the enslaved and the formerly enslaved in their attempts to better their situations as individuals and families.

The first half of Régent's book is devoted to a description and analysis of free and enslaved "black" and "colored" society in Guadeloupe from 1789 to 1794. Chapter 1 explores the law and everyday practice of colonial slavery, highlighting the gap between the two and the extent to which as a result of differing relationships with their masters, "each slave experienced his or her own servile condition" (p. 68). In it, Régent also explores the strong correlation between degrees of "métissage" and manumission, noting that "the greater the degree of white ancestry, the greater the possibility of being freed" (p. 56).

Chapter 2 examines the economic side of slavery, demonstrating, based on the prices of the enslaved, the existence of a clear hierarchy according to occupation. Strikingly, this hierarchy coincided with others based on degrees of métissage and place of birth. Slaves with more European ancestry tended to occupy higher occupation brackets (such as domestic service or artisanal work) and as such demand higher prices, just as Creoles had greater opportunities for advancement (to positions such as driver) than people born in Africa.

Chapter 3 treats everyday life and culture. Régent emphasizes that, in general, Guadeloupe's slaves were poorly housed, poorly fed, and poorly dressed. Nonetheless, individual conditions varied significantly according to a slave's place within race-based and occupation-based hierarchies and her or his personal relationship with her or his master.

In chapter 4, Régent turns to the population of color that was already free before 1794's emancipation. Individuals with European ancestry were more likely to be freed from slavery, and relationships between many of Guadeloupe's free people of color and white patrons or family members were key factors in their relative success. In this chapter, Régent also highlights the extent to which the ever more humiliating discriminatory legislation passed from the 1760s forward was often ignored in everyday practice.[2]

The second half of Esclavage, Métissage, Liberté is devoted to the French Revolution in Guadeloupe. Chapter 5 traces the course of the Revolution from 1789 to the arrival of Victor Hugues and emancipation in 1794. Compared with Saint Domingue and Martinique (and France for that matter), Guadeloupe's free people of color were less militant and organized in claiming their rights. According to Régent, this hesitance resulted from their limited numbers and their ties of clientage to white planters. More generally in this chapter, Régent insists on the fact that local circumstances did more to determine political alliances than class or color.

Chapter 6, "Blacks, Whites, Reds: The Three Colors of Liberty?," analyzes the effects of Revolution and the official abolition of slavery and racial discrimination on Guadeloupean society. Whites declined economically, demographically, and socially, but under Victor Hugues and his successors, Europeans maintained their political predominance. The shift of the colony's main economic activity from the production and export of tropical commodities to privateering favored the social rise of the "reds," or people of mixed race. But these were primarily those sang-mêlé who were already rising economically before 1789. For the majority of the colonial population, i.e., the predominantly black former plantation slaves, emancipation brought limited improvement, as evidenced by the colonial population's natural growth during the "general liberty." Hugues replaced slavery with a system of forced plantation labor. Notably, pre-Revolutionary patterns of resistance persisted as well. As slaves became "cultivators," "divagation," or "straying," replaced "marronage" as the official term for the practice of escaping the plantation.

In chapter 7, Régent chronicles revolutionary developments from 1794 to 1803, highlighting the rise to power of the "colored" military and its ultimate defeat by Napoleon's forces in 1802. Taking issue with nationalist traditions in Guadeloupean scholarship, Régent insists upon the divisions between colored military leaders and the great majority of cultivators as well as the limits of those military officers' opposition to French imperial rule. He contends that most were partisans of order who admired Bonaparte and ultimately only rebelled out of fear of losing their positions and possibilities of future advancement in the French army.

If the great strength of Régent's work is his skillful use of notarial records and other sources to elucidate the rules and the exceptions governing Guadeloupean social relations, its most significant limitations are rooted in those sources. Not all contracts and other economic and social relationships were registered with notaries.[3] Such records also rarely indicate the existence of illegal or extralegal, but frequently significant activities such as smuggling and unregistered manumission. On a similar note, while Régent briefly treats the terminology of race and race mixture used in late-eighteenth-century Guadeloupe and notes cases of individuals whose race changed from one official record to the next, he engages in little discussion of the complex negotiations involved in applying such categories to individuals and the frequent gaps between appearance and official terminology.[4] The "cascade of disdain" Régent describes very well may be as much a product of dominant racial ideologies having skewed individuals' official identification as a reflection of social reality.[5] These criticisms, however, do not take away from Régent's very impressive achievement in providing one of the fullest portraits we have of a Caribbean slave society during the era of the French and Haitian Revolutions.

In closing, Régent's emphasis on continuities in Guadeloupean society from 1789 to 1802 contrasts markedly with the picture drawn by Laurent Dubois in A Colony of Citizens, the other major recent study of Revolutionary Guadeloupe. Dubois highlights change, illustrating how the actions of free and enslaved people of color expanded and universalized the very definitions of French Revolutionary rights. To a much greater extent than Régent, he examines how the Revolution opened up new possibilities for people of African descent and how they seized those opportunities.[6] Much of the difference between the two results from their differing foci and perspectives. Régent is primarily concerned with drawing a fuller portrait of Guadeloupe itself while Dubois focuses on the place and effect of Guadeloupean events in the French empire and the Atlantic World; Esclavage, Métissage, Liberté analyzes social structures while A Colony of Citizens concentrates on political culture and discourse. Hopefully, the disjuncture between the two will invite further meditation upon the relationship between social structures and political cultures, between ties of clientage and ideological choices, in sum, between the world of discourse and that of everyday practice. In the meantime, taken together the two books greatly enrich our understandings of the meanings and limitations of the French Revolution in the Caribbean.


[1]. French Guyana was the only other French colony in which 1794's emancipation decree was put into action. The British occupied Martinique during the period of "general liberty" and planters in France's Indian Ocean colonies successfully resisted attempts to bring about an end to slavery. On Guyana, see Yves Bénot, La Guyane sous la Révolution Française; ou L'Impasse de la Révolution Pacifique (Kouro, French Guyana, 1997).

[2]. In doing so, he takes Yvan Debbasch's classic study of this question to task for not investigating the extent to which legislation was acted upon in practice. Yvan Debbasch, Couleur et Liberté: Le Jeu du Critère Ethnique dans un Ordre Juridique Esclavagiste (Paris: Dalloz, 1967).

[3]. As John Garrigus and Stewart King have suggested for Saint Domingue, some sectors of colonial society such as free people of color probably used them disproportionately. John D. Garrigus, "A Struggle for Respect: The Free Coloreds of Pre-Revolutionary Saint Domingue, 1760-69" (Ph.D. diss., Johns Hopkins University, 1988), pp. 69-178; Stewart R. King, Blue Coat or Powdered Wig: Free People of Color in Pre-Revolutionary Saint Domingue (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001), pp. 3-15.

[4]. See R. Douglas Cope, The Limits of Racial Domination: Plebian Society in Colonial Mexico City, 1660-1720 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994), especially pp. 49-67.

[5]. His other main sources for this "cascade of disdain" are the writings of planters and European visitors. Recent work by Dominique Rogers has seriously challenged the commonplace assumption that such a "cascade of disdain" existed within Saint Domingue's non-white population. Dominique Rogers, "De l'origine du Prejudge de Couleur en Haïti," Outre-Mers 90 (2003): pp. 83-101.

[6]. Laurent Dubois, A Colony of Citizens: Revolution & Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=10193

Citation: Gene Ogle. Review of RÖ©gent, FrÖ©dÖ©ric, Esclavage, MÖ©tissage, LibertÖ©: La RÖ©volution FranÖ§aise en Guadeloupe 1789-1802. H-Caribbean, H-Net Reviews. January, 2005. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=10193

Copyright © 2005 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at hbooks@mail.h-net.org.