- You Are All Free: The Haitian Revolution and the Abolition of Slavery
Popkin's brilliant new study of the events surrounding the emancipation of slaves in the French colony of Saint Domingue in June 1793 is a masterpiece of micrological historiography. Popkin has elected to forgo the sweeping interpretive gestures that characterize much work on the Haitian Revolution, instead bringing his formidable erudition to bear on a mere few months in the complex, thirteen-year course of the Haitian Revolution. The author's previous work on metropolitan France makes this book among the most informed analyses to date about the complex relations between the revolutionary metropolis and its Caribbean colony, a vision of a greater, Atlantic Franco-Haitian Revolution.
Strictly speaking, the book's focus encompasses the period from the arrival of Léger-Félicité Sonthonax and Étienne Polverel, the Jacobin civil commissioners, in St. Domingue (September 1792) to the National Assembly's abolition decree (February 1794). The bulk of the book, however, offers an even more minute investigation of the events surrounding a single night—the burning of Cap Français (today Cap Haïtien) on June 20, 1793, and the attendant emancipation of its slaves, which the commissioners hoped would save their positions and the colony itself from the conspirations of General François Galbaud. Among his many novel conclusions, Popkin convincingly argues that Galbaud's initiative was not a counter-revolutionary plot, nor even one directly related to the struggle for emancipation, but a "fight between rival groups of French republicans" (190).
An introductory chapter argues for a document-based model of historiography that forgoes interpretive daring to underscore the radical contingency of all historical facticity (in the limited sense of that which resists interpretation). The first chapter addresses the early period following the insurrection of August 22-23, 1791; succeeding chapters focus closely on Cap Français (Chapter 2) and the conflict between the Jacobin commissioners and the colonists (Chapter 3). A fourth chapter describes in fascinating detail the ambiguous, fluid, and conflicting views of [End Page 491] the former slaves and the Jacobin commissioners about emancipation, though Popkin's argument that the re-promulgation of the Code Noir on May 5, 1793, constituted a "challenge to the bases of slavery"—simply because it reaffirmed the "protection of the law"—is hardly convincing (143). Chapter 5 describes Galbaud's mission to St. Domingue that would culminate in the tumultuous night of June 20, 1793. Throughout, Popkin casts revealing light on the ambiguous role of French sailors in supporting Galbaud's ill-fated revolt, drawing a vastly different picture from the image of a revolutionary quasi-proletariat than, for example, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker's The Many-Headed Hydra (Boston, 2000) presents.
The book's central chapters are its sixth, seventh and eighth, which narrate the days and hours of that momentous week in painstaking detail. Popkin's principle claim is that the 1793 emancipation decree might never have occurred, with all of its world-historical consequences, if any of a multitude of minute, chance events had unfolded differently. Above all, Popkin shows that Sonthonax and Polverel "hesitat[ed]" before every liberatory step, forced by circumstances against their own inclination and desire, "with little choice" but to issue their famous emancipation decrees (248, 268). The picture that Popkin draws is ultimately, like the chaos of that famous night, one of "universal . . . disorder," in which events continuously escaped the intentions of their subjects (230).
The book's concluding description of the complex lobbying and reversals that led to the abolition of 16 Pluviôse, An II demonstrates with unrivalled clarity the degree to which the elimination of slavery was simply irrelevant (when not inimical) to the metropolitan Jacobin leadership. This rich concluding discussion reinforces the book's more general, yet studiously silenced implication—that general abolition was the doing not of Jacobin egalitarianism (as Jean-Pierre Gross, Fair Shares for All: Jacobin Egalitarianism in Practice [New York, 2003] described it), nor of...