- A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787–1804 by Laurent Dubois
Laurent Dubois’ provocative new monograph examines revolutionary- and post-revolutionary era debates about race, citizenship and freedom. Although his scholarship is focused on Guadeloupe, Dubois moves beyond a simple micro-history to connect events in Guadeloupe with larger forces at work in the French Atlantic. As he correctly notes, “[n]either histories that focus narrowly on the ‘contagion’ of French revolutionary ideas into the region nor that deny the importance of such ideas to the actions of the enslaved can tell the full story of this Caribbean revolution (28).” He challenges historians of eighteenth-century French political culture to incorporate the colonies into the political work of the revolutionary decade: “This work focuses to a large extent on, and therefore risks privileging, struggles surrounding political forms—citizenship, rights, the Republic—that are still powerfully associated in the minds of many with European political and intellectual history. Like other scholars who have worked on the Caribbean in this period, I hope to help make it impossible in the future to screen out the profound contribution made by events in the Caribbean to the development of these political forms (6).”
Dubois’ focus on Guadeloupe is significant. Moving attention away from Paris and Saint-Domingue, he argues, “highlights the dramatic possibilities opened up in the 1790s—when France and the Caribbean were united in a Republican colonial project based on granting rights to people of all colors—and the contradictions at the heart of this project, which led to its brutal demolition in 1802 (8).” His emphasis throughout is on black agency. The slaves’ political activism paralleled that of contemporary French women: “[B]oth groups sought to deploy and expand the universalist language of rights wielded by those who excluded them (7).” This black activism featured both the appropriation of the “ideologies and symbols of republicanism (89)” and violence first against “monarchical” forces and later against the Republic itself as self-proclaimed “new citizens” when it threatened their liberties (121).
Gens de couleur demands for freedom and meaningful citizenship were countered by “Republican racism,” which Dubois characterizes as an ironic appropriation of French gradual abolitionism to argue that the freedmen were unprepared for freedom and still in need of the civilizing discipline of the plantations. To appropriate the title of Eric Foner’s classic study of American Reconstruction, “Republican racism” worked to assure that blacks received nothing but freedom and then, over time, took even that away. Dubois’ reading of events leading to 1802 seeks to nuance Yves Benot’s La démence coloniale sous Napoléon, which insisted on the Emperor’s personal antipathy towards blacks as being central to the reinstitution of slavery. Dubois argues that implicating Bonaparte as the sole responsible party in the backlash obscures larger sociocultural forces: “Rather than see Bonaparte as the motor of the reversals of the early 1800s, I argue that his policies in fact emerged from a general consensus that emancipation had led to chaos and barbarism and that the metropole needed to assert firmer control over the ex-slaves in their colonies (323).”
Dubois’ tour de force opens up intriguing new possibilities for studies of democracy, Diasporan identity construction and black agency. Although A Colony of Citizens features impressive original scholarship, perhaps its most immediate contribution for non-specialists will be its succinct presentation of current scholarship. Dubois deftly braids together a broad range of secondary sources. Specialists will, of course, be able to find omitted works with which Dubois might have engaged or note ways in which areas of historiographical contention have been simplified, but none is so egregious as to undermine his credibility. For example, this reviewer did not see mention of Claude Wanquet’s La France et la première abolition de l’esclavage, 1794–1802: Le cas des colonies orientales, Ile de France (Maurice) et la Réunion, a work that assesses Republican France’s effective failure to emancipate those slaves in...