- Vincent Ogé Jeune (1757–91): Social Class and Free Colored Mobilization on the Eve of the Haitian Revolution
Vincent Ogé jeune (the younger) was one of the wealthiest free men of color in Saint-Domingue, but his behavior in the year before the Haitian revolution (1791–1804) was a puzzling anomaly. Returning to the colony from Paris in October 1790, Ogé quickly emerged at the head of a group of free colored militiamen demanding voting rights. Colonists labeled this a “revolt” and four months later they executed Ogé and three of his colleagues, breaking their bodies bone by bone in a public square and mounting their severed heads on posts.
Ogé’s actions were surprising because Saint-Domingue’s wealthy free people of color were politically conservative. The colony’ s free colored planters and merchants, 100 to 200 individuals out of Saint-Domingue’s roughly 25,000 free people of color in 1789, had much to lose by taking an aggressive stance against the colonial establishment, which they hoped would later permit them to rejoin its ranks. Until the end of the Seven Years′ War in 1763, white officials in many parts of the colony had treated the richest of the free colored planters as members of the colonial ruling class. It was only in the 1770s that authorities began to systematically label even free-born people of color as affranchis (freedmen), a term that meant “ex-slave.”1
A desire to turn back the clock explains why most members of this group supported the efforts of Julien Raimond, Ogé’s colleague in Paris, who, like Ogé, was of one-quarter African ancestry. A prosperous indigo planter, Raimond moved to France in 1784, partly to persuade Versailles to reform colonial racism. In 1789 it was Raimond who persuaded Parisian abolitionists to break [End Page 33] with the British model and attack colonial color prejudice, rather than the slave trade, in their first reform campaign. In 1791 and 1792, Raimond supplied the ideas and illustrations that convinced the French National Assembly to give political rights to wealthy free men of color. He argued that basing colonial society on a hierarchy of property, not skin color, would strengthen slavery rather than weaken it.2
Raimond introduced controversies from Saint-Domingue into French Revolutionary debates; Ogé brought French Revolutionary debates back across the Atlantic to Saint-Domingue. Why did Ogé abandon Raimond’s gradualism, horrifying other free colored planters, merchants, and slave owners? The question is important, for by breaking ranks with his own social class, Ogé brought a much larger and more volatile population into the political arena, with profound consequences. These were poorer free men of mixed ancestry, with less to lose than Raimond’s propertied supporters. After Ogé’s death, they continued to assemble in armed groups to insist on their political rights. Their conviction and military stance led to a civil war with whites in 1791. Ogé was the critical link between Saint-Domingue’s wealthy free colored elite and this more aggressive group. Their actions, not Raimond’s pamphlets, helped inspire free colored revolts throughout Spanish America and created the “spectre of pardocracia” that frightened wealthy white creoles.3
Despite his importance, few scholars in the last century have looked closely at Ogé.4 Historians have used the biographies of individuals like Toussaint Louverture, Léger Sonthonax, or even François Galbaud to explore why—or at least how—such men made choices that changed the direction of the Haitian revolution. 5 But they have regarded Ogé’s behavior as self-explanatory: a free man of color led a revolt against the discrimination suffered by his class. This article illuminates Ogé’s situation before and after 1789, explaining why—or at least how—he abandoned the conservative politics of his class. This approach is possible now because new research techniques of the past several decades have [End Page 34] revealed the hidden complexities of pre-revolutionary Saint-Domingue.6 Since 1977, for example, we have known that Toussaint Louverture in 1791 was not a rebel slave but a free man who had leased slaves to grow coffee.7 Such insights about individuals and social...