- Blue Coat or Powdered Wig: Free People of Color in Pre-Revolutionary Saint Domingue
France acquired title to the western third of the island of Hispaniola in 1697. As the colony of Saint Domingue, this seductive land of rugged mountains and fertile coastal plains became in the eighteenth century one of the most densely populated spots on earth and the most precious jewel in France’s imperial diadem. Before transformation by slave revolution into the nation-state of Haiti in 1804, Saint Domingue led the world in sugar and coffee production and served as a locomotive, powering a dramatic expansion in France’s foreign trade. No country absorbed more of France’s overseas investments; only England surpassed Saint Domingue in absorbing the exports of the fledgling United States. Slave traders from such booming ports as Nantes and Bordeaux responded to the colony’s voracious demand for labor by supplying enslaved Africans in numbers that peaked at about 40,000 annually. By the census year of 1788, Saint Domingue, although only twice the size of Jamaica, had thousands of plantations and more than 400,000 slaves, more slaves than the contemporaneous states of Georgia, Virginia, and South Carolina combined.
At the same time, however, the free population amounted to little more than ten percent of the total, and a rapidly growing minority of free people of color was closing in on parity with the 28,000 or so white inhabitants. Stewart King’s book [End Page 811] concentrates on elite elements within this free-colored class as revealed largely through an exacting and imaginative analysis of 3250 notarial acts. These records represent the work of eight notaries from 1776 to 1789 in six parishes (Cap Francais, Fort Dauphin, Limonade, Port-au-Prince, Croix des Bouquets, and Mirebalais), located in two of Saint Domingue’s three provinces. The free people of color merit attention because they not only predominated in building the colony’s coffee industry, they also exerted disproportionate economic influence in urban trades and crafts and filled the ranks of the colonial militia and rural constabulary. When the slaves of the North Province revolted in 1791, free people of color owned about one-quarter of the colony’s slaves and about one-third of the land in plantations.
King points out in the first of twelve chapters that Saint Domingue’s free coloreds had more reason than whites to legitimate their lives by availing themselves of the costly services of notaries, for a rising tide of legally-sanctioned discrimination was attempting to regulate, among other things, what clothes they could wear, what jobs they could hold, and even what surnames they could use. Based on his sampling of the notarial acts, King proceeds to argue for the existence in prerevolutionary Saint Domingue of two distinctive free-colored elites: one, a mixed-race planting elite, had close ties to big whites and owned substantial property in land and slaves; the other, a phenotypically darker military elite, also more entrepreneurial and urban oriented, advanced largely without white support but benefited from networks forged with other people of color. In devoting most of the rest of the book to comparing these groups to whites and to each other, King has many fresh things to say about free-colored marriages and families, manumission practices, entrepreneurship, housing, religiousness, color consciousness, godparenthood, status aspirations, social mobility, and sexual behavior. He explores the vital role of free-colored women in the accumulation of property that sustained many of the elite families. He also adds to and revises portraits of three free-colored notables: Julian Raimond, the loudest free-colored voice in the momentous debates about human rights in the French National Assembly in 1789; Vincent Ogé, a mulatto plutocrat who died in Saint Domingue one year later leading a free-colored revolt against the whites; and Toussaint Louverture, the most famous leader of the slave revolution, who before 1791 owned and managed slaves as a freedman in an extended family of slaveholders...