War and Revolution in the Caribbean – The Lesser Antilles, 1789–1815
For the last twenty years, scholarship on the Age of Revolutions in the Caribbean has been booming. The focus of this scholarly attention lies on the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), the only successful slave rebellion in world history. It did not only lead to the downfall of the most important sugar colony, in which half a million African slaves had been worked to death, but also to the independence of Haiti, as the former French colony of Saint Domingue henceforth had been called. In his award-winning studies, Laurent Dubois has argued that the Haitian Revolution was the direct result of transatlantic discourses on the universal character of citizenship and the rights of men, in which free men of colour and slaves actively participated. He claimed that former slaves in the French colonies were the leading figures of these discourses and vigorously defended their principles against Napoleon’s forces, which tried to re-establish slavery and metropolitan authority over the Caribbean colonies in 1802/3. Scholarship on the Age of Revolutions in the Caribbean thus mainly focuses on the agency of African slaves and the ways in which they broke the chains of their bondage.
Rebellions and (civil) wars challenged European colonial rule over the archipelago in the French and British colonies of the Lesser Antilles as well. However, most of these conflicts did not center on slave rebellions but on questions of governance and political loyalty of the colonial plantation elite to the imperial metropolis. For the first time the study Krieg und Revolution in der Karibik: Die Kleinen Antillen, 1789–1815, examines these conflicts in their longue durée– from the outbreak of the French Revolution until the end of the Napoleonic Wars.
The book primarily focuses on the French colonies of Martinique and Guadeloupe. After the outbreak of the French Revolution, white plantation owners quickly usurped the authority of the colonial state in both colonies. They successfully undermined metropolitan attempts to re-establish authority over the islands. The plantation elite had set three goals that were closely interwoven: political self-government, free trade and escaping their debts to metropolitan merchants. During the first years of the revolution, they had been supported by free men of color, many of whom owned plantations themselves and believed that an alliance with the white plantation elite was a promising way to end their political and legal discrimination. On the other side of the political spectrum were the merchants of port cities and the white urban proletariat – the so-called petit blancs. The events in both colonies were closely connected. Due to the proximity of the British colonies in the archipelago the latter were drawn into the revolutionary turmoil as well, hereby igniting social conflicts which soon erupted in bloody civil wars. In all this, African slaves fought on both sides. Their loyalty basically depended on local circumstances and the question which side offered them a better prospect to flee from their misery. More often than not, however, slaves were simply recruited by force to fill up the ranks of yellow-fever stricken European armies.
The abolition of slavery in the French Empire in February 1794 was certainly an important turning point. The decision of the National Convention to do so was however not motivated by the philosophical principles of the Revolution, according to which all men were equal. After news had reached Paris that colonial elites in Martinique and Guadeloupe had handed over both colonies to the British, the reasons of the French government were much more tangible: The abolition was a useful instrument for punishing the colonial elite by effectively destroying their socioeconomic foundation. Therefore, it was not by accident that the French expedition force destined for the Lesser Antilles also had a mobile guillotine on board. Its commander, Victor Hugues, was ordered to relentlessly pursue disloyal colonists no matter what their color of skin was and to reestablish metropolitan control over the colonies. Abolition and terror were thus two sides of the same coin. It was telling that the abolition of slavery never became the driving principle for the French forces in the Caribbean. In their war with their British opponents, the abolition was only used when no other option was available. And even when slavery was abolished, it was usually replaced by a brutal force labor regime that was only marginally better than the former slaves’ old bondage.
The abolition of slavery did not end the problems of imperial governance. In fact, the French empire continued to silently dissolve. In Guadeloupe, Victor Hugues and his followers started a corsair war that soon got out of hand, as the French sails attacked neutral and even allied shipping in Caribbean waters. All metropolitan attempts to end this illegal privateering war were on the spot undermined by colonial officials who were financially involved in it. With their corsair war, authorities in Guadeloupe single-handedly provoked the so-called Quasi-War with the United States, a war neither side was actually interested in. It was only with the Convention of Mortefontaine in 1800 and the subsequent Peace of Amiens in 1802 that the French metropolis could temporarily end the conflicts with the United States as well as the British Empire and re-establish control over its empire overseas.
With peace finally established, Napoleon Bonaparte picked up older attempts of the Directory to give new life to the colonial plantation economy and to transform Guadeloupe from a quasi-independent corsair state back to a plantation colony. He believed the only way to do so was to regain the loyalty of the disgruntled white plantation elite, a social group that was part of the royalist opposition to his regime. The price for the loyalty of the latter was the reintroduction of slavery and the repossession of their plantations. Contrary to Napoleon’s failed attempt in Saint Domingue, French forces in Guadeloupe managed to re-establish slavery – not least thanks to British help. However, Napoleon’s hope for reconciliation with the plantation elite proved to be naïve. Contrary to his wishes, they did not support the French war effort in the Caribbean after war against the British broke again. In fact, they undermined it as best as they could. With no material support from Europe, colonial officials proved to be almost powerless in face of the planters’ disloyalty. Thus, the conflicts of loyalty lingered on and seriously hampered the global French war effort in the Caribbean until the end of the global conflict in 1815.
Flavio Eichmann, Krieg und Revolution in der Karibik: Die Kleinen Antillen, 1789–1815, Berlin (De Gruyter) 2019.
Flavio Eichmann is an Associated Researcher at the University of Bern, Switzerland. His study was awarded with the prestigious Erster Förderpreis für Militärgeschichte und Militärtechnikgeschichte by the German Bundeswehr in 2017 and the prize for the best dissertation of the University of Bern’s Institute of History in 2016.
Citation: Flavio Eichmann, War and Revolution in the Caribbean – The Lesser Antilles, 1789–1815, in TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 28.05.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/18693.