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Eighteenth-Century Studies 37.1 (2003) 113-122

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Race, Slavery, and the French and Haitian Revolutions

Jeremy D. Popkin
University of Kentucky

Yves Bénot and Marcel Dorigny, eds. Grégoire et la cause des Noirs (1789-1831) . Combats et projets(Saint-Denis: Société française d'histoire d'outre-mer, 2000). Pp. 191. FF120.00.
David Geggus. Haitian Revolutionary Studies(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002). Pp. xii + 334. $49.95.
Stewart R. King. Blue Coat or Powdered Wig: Free People of Color in Pre-Revolutionary Saint-Domingue(Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001). Pp. xxvi + 328. $45.00.
Jean-Daniel Piquet. L'émancipation des Noirs dans la Révolution française (1789-1795) (Paris: Karthala, 2002). Pp. 509. €34.00.
Claude Wanquet. La France et la première abolition de l'esclavage 1794-1802. Le cas des colonies orientales Ile de France (Maurice) et La Réunion (Paris: Karthala, 1998). Pp. 724. €40.00.

In the spring of 2002, the Paris city government renamed the Rue Richepanse, a street which had honored the Napoleonic general who reimposed slavery in the Caribbean colony of Guadeloupe in 1802. Richepanse's disgrace showed that current debates about revolutionary and Napoleonic France's treatment of the people of color in its overseas colonies are of more than purely academic interest. These issues go to the heart of our understanding of the revolutionary project and its relationship to contemporary values. Does this history show that the principles of the French Revolution were indeed universal in scope, implying freedom for people of color as well as whites? Or does it demonstrate that racial prejudice undercut the soaring rhetoric of the Declaration of the Rights of Man [End Page 113] and Citizen? The present-day relevance of these questions has sometimes led to hasty conclusions: some historians have proclaimed the National Convention's abolition of slavery in 1794 as the Revolution's noblest moment, while others have seized on the National Assembly's failure to take such action and on Napoleon's reimposition of the slave system to argue that the French remained mired in racism, and that only the black insurgents of Saint-Domingue truly fought for a universal notion of human rights. Recent historical scholarship shows that the reality was more complex than any of these simple propositions would suggest.

Bringing questions of race and slavery into the history of the revolutionary era has required a major refocusing of scholarship. Slavery and colonial issues were neglected in almost every general work on the Revolution published in the last century. Yves Bénot's pathbreaking La Révolution française et la fin des colonies appeared in 1987, but, lost in the crowd of other publications about the Revolution issued in connection with the bicentennial, it escaped the notice of most historians. In the decade and a half since its appearance, however, the historiographical picture has changed considerably. The five books reviewed here, three published in France and two in the United States, are only part of a rapidly growing literature that has fundamentally altered our perspectives on the French and Haitian Revolutions. This new interest certainly reflects contemporary developments: the end of colonialism and current concerns with race have evoked new interest in earlier challenges to European rule and white hegemony. Bénot and his successors have shown, however, that these issues were of vital concern during the revolutionary era as well.

Why these issues should be regarded as essential to understanding the French Revolution is not immediately obvious. Unlike so many leading figures in the American Revolution, the French revolutionaries did not encounter black faces every day. Metropolitan France had only 5000 black residents in 1789, out of a population of some 28,000,000, and French legislation had long banned slavery in the kingdom, although colonial planters found ways to bring a few of their human possessions home. After the defeats of the Seven Years' War, France's remaining overseas empire occupied only a few scattered spots on the map: three major colonies in the Caribbean—Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti...


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