Black revolutionary currents of the Atlantic

  • December 4, 2018

Race & Resistance

The tempest created by Haitian revolutionaries and communicated via slave societies across the Atlantic was a major turning point in the history of the Americas.

This is an excerpt from “The Common Wind” (Verso, 2018) by Julius S. Scott

In the summer of 1792, just three days before the third anniversary of the storming of the Bastille in Paris, three volunteer army battalions waited anxiously at the French port of La Rochelle to ship out to the French Caribbean. Eager, loyal to the French republic, and firmly committed to the ideals of the revolution which continued to unfold around them, these soldiers nevertheless possessed only a vague notion of the complex situation which awaited them in the colonies.

Once the French Revolution began in 1789, inhabitants of France’s possessions overseas perceived the sweeping governmental and social changes in the mother country to represent an opportunity to advance their own interests. Planters and merchants pursued greater freedom from the control of colonial ministers, free people of color sought to rid the colonies of caste inequality, but the slaves, who made up the vast majority of the population in all the French territories in America, mounted the most fundamental challenge to metropolitan authority. Inspired by the ideas of “liberty, equality, and fraternity,” sporadic uprisings of slaves occurred in the French islands as early as the fall of 1789.

While white colonists managed to contain these early disturbances, in August 1791 a massive rebellion of slaves erupted in Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti), France’s richest and most important Caribbean slave colony. Even as these young troops massed at La Rochelle, French forces continued to fight in vain to subdue the revolution of slaves in Saint-Domingue, which had now lasted almost a full year. The volunteers faced a difficult task: to re-establish order in Saint-Domingue in the name of the French National Assembly.

Before departing, the young recruits underwent an inspection by one General La Salle, himself ready to leave for Saint-Domingue as part of the same detachment. Two of these newly raised units had, after careful democratic deliberation, adopted slogans describing their mission and their commitment, as did many of the battalions raised in the days of the French Revolution. They emblazoned the precious words across their caps and sewed them upon the colorful banners which they held aloft. La Salle examined the slogans with special interest. The flag of one of the battalions read on one side “Virtue in action,” and “I am vigilant for the country” on the other, watchwords which La Salle found acceptable. But the slogan chosen by the Loire battalion caught the general’s discerning eye: “Live Free or Die.”

Concerned that the soldiers may not understand the delicate nature of their errand, the general assembled the troops and explained to them the danger which such words posed “in a land where all property is based on the enslavement of Negroes, who, if they adopted this slogan themselves, would be driven to massacre their masters and the army which is crossing the sea to bring peace and law to the colony.” While commending their strong commitment to the ideal of freedom, La Salle advised the troops to find a new and less provocative way to express that commitment. Faced with the unpleasant prospect of leaving their “richly embroidered” banner behind, members of the battalion reluctantly followed the general’s suggestion and covered over their stirring slogan with strips of cloth inscribed with two hastily chosen new credos of very different meaning: “The Nation, the Law, the King” and “The French Constitution.” In addition, those sporting “Live Free or Die” on their caps promised that they would “suppress” this slogan.

To the further dismay of the troops, the general forced other changes on them. Instead of planting a traditional and symbolic “liberty tree” upon their arrival in Saint-Domingue, the battalions would now plant “a tree of Peace,” which would also bear the inscription “The Nation, the Law, the King.” Writing ahead to the current governor-general in Saint-Domingue, La Salle concluded that all that remained was to “counteract the influence of the ill-disposed” and keep the soldiers’ misguided revolutionary ardor cool during the long transatlantic voyage.

As La Salle recognized, recent developments in the Americas, especially the revolution in Saint-Domingue, had demonstrated convincingly the explosive power of the ideas and rituals of the Age of Revolution in societies based on slavery. For three years, French officials like La Salle had attempted to keep revolutionary slogans and practices from making their way across the Atlantic to circulate in the French islands and inspire slaves and free people of color, but their efforts had failed. Apparently determined to “live free or die,” black rebels in the French colony had initiated an insurrection which, despite the opposition of thousands of troops like those who boarded the ships with General La Salle in July 1792, would succeed in winning the liberation of the slaves and culminate in the New World’s second independent nation in 1804.

Officials in the British, Spanish, North American, and other territories where African slavery existed shared La Salle’s problem. Just as the news and ideas of the French Revolution proved too volatile to contain, accounts of the black rebellion in Saint-Domingue spread rapidly and uncontrollably throughout the hemisphere. Through trade, both legal and illicit, and the mobility of all types of people from sailors to runaway slaves, extensive regional contact among the American colonies occurred before 1790. By the last decade of the eighteenth century, residents of the Caribbean islands and the northern and southern continents alike had grown to depend upon the movement of ships, commodities, people and information.

Prior to, during, and following the Haitian Revolution, regional networks of communication carried news of special interest to Afro-Americans all over the Caribbean and beyond. Before the outbreak in Saint-Domingue, British and Spanish officials were already battling rampant rumors forecasting the end of slavery. Such reports gathered intensity in the 1790s. While planters viewed with alarm the growing prospect of an autonomous black territory, fearing that a successful violent black uprising might tempt their own slaves to revolt, the happenings in Saint-Domingue provided exciting news for slaves and free coloreds, increasing their interest in regional affairs and stimulating them to organize conspiracies of their own. By the end of the decade, rulers in slave societies from Virginia to Venezuela moved to short-circuit the network of black rebellion by building obstacles to effective colony-to-colony communication.

While General La Salle understood in 1792 the potential impact of the revolutionary currents in the Atlantic world on the minds and aspirations of Caribbean slaves, neither he nor his charges could have anticipated the extent to which the winds of revolution would blow in the other direction. Sweeping across linguistic, geographic and imperial boundaries, the tempest created by the black revolutionaries of Saint-Domingue and communicated by mobile people in other slave societies would prove a major turning point in the history of the Americas.

The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution by Julius S. Scott is now available from Verso.

Julius S. Scott

Julius S. Scott is Professor of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan.

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