"Sonthonax’s Proclamation" by Nick Nesbitt, Ph.D.

Nesbitt is Professor of French at Princeton University. He is the author of Universal Emancipation: The Haitian Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment (2008) and Voicing Memory: History and Subjectivity in French Caribbean Literature (2003).

Léger-Félix Sonthonax arrived in Saint-Domingue on September 20, 1792 with instructions from the French revolutionary government to enforce the decree of April 4 of that year granting full political and civil rights to free people of color. Sonthonax had openly and quite radically for the time called for the immediate abolition of slavery in the revolutionary journal Révolutions de Paris in 1790-91. The 1793 abolition decree is there prefigured in Sonthonax's (unsigned) text of September 25, 1790 where he writes: "It is absolutely essential to yield to the torrent that will inevitably carry away former abuses. Yes, I can predict with confidence that a time will come, and the day is not far off, when we will see an African with curly hair, with no other entitlement than his common sense and virtue, come to participate in the legislation of our national Assemblies."

Upon his arrival in Saint-Domingue, however, Sonthonax and his co-commissioner Etienne Polverel had no mandate from the French government to eliminate slavery, and they immediately sought to silence suspicion to the contrary by swearing to uphold the slave order and to put down the slave uprising that had begun a year before. In the ensuing months, the commissioners increasingly ran up against the suspicions and resistance of the white plantation owners to increasing the rights of free blacks, and by December 1792, to counter this resistance, they began encouraging the formation of free-colored militias that the commissioners led to attack the rebel slaves after January, 1793. Unable to mount a decisive campaign against the former slaves, on May 5, 1793, they issued a decree that reinstated the infamous Code noir, with the intention to enforce its stipulations offering limited protections to slaves from the worst abuses of their masters. They also at this time took the fundamental step of having the text of the Code translated into Kreyòl, so that slaves might know exactly what measures of protection it afforded them.

The immediate context of the 1793 emancipation decree was the struggle between the commissioners Polverel and Sonthonax and colony's new governor, General François-Thomas Galbaud. On June 20, Galbaud led a group of sailors in an assault on the capital city of Cap Français in the attempt to overthrow the commissioners' power; this disorganized and misguided attack was quickly put down by the commissioners and the free blacks in the city who supported them when they issued a decree on June 20 to emancipate the city's adult, male slaves on the condition that they fight against Galbaud's rebellion. Amid much confusion and some 3,000 deaths, the revolt was put down, but the splendid colonial city was itself burned to the ground. The extremely limited and targeted emancipation of June 20 failed to bring the rebels outside the Cap to the French cause. On July 11, the commissioners then extended their emancipation decree to encompass the wives and children of men who had joined their army, and on August 24, 15,000 men voted in favor of emancipation in the North. Finally, on August 29, 1793, Sonthonax decided that nothing short of an immediate, general (that is, encompassing all slaves in the colony) emancipation would rally the blacks to the French republican cause. Despite the absolute novelty and radicality of this decision, Sonthonax nonetheless sought to preserve the functioning of the plantation system, accompanying the decree with a series of work-ordinances tying former-slaves to a forced labor system. The declaration was itself translated in Kreyòl and posted across the island. The scope of this emancipation was unprecedented in history, taking place in the most profitable colony of the eighteenth century, and potentially encompassing some half-million subjects of the African diaspora, granting them not just liberty, but race-blind, unreserved citizenship in what was by August, 1793 the most radically egalitarian democracy the world had yet seen.

Even then, the rebels refused to come over to the French, recognizing that this was only a unilateral decree made without the accord of Paris, and Louverture and his troops would hold out until the following summer when France's abolition decree of February 4, 1794, became known on the island.