Thomas Clarkson - Thoughts on The Haitian Revolution

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Portrait of Thomas Clarkson.
Medallion of the British Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade of which Clarkson was a member.
The following is an excerpt of a 1823 book by Thomas Clarkson: Thoughts on the Necessity for improving the Condition of the Slaves in the British Colonies.... It illustrates the importance many observers gave to the Haitian Revolution.

Clarkson, a British abolitionist, was not only a contemporary of Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Toussaint Louverture, but was also directly involved in the struggle in Saint-Domingue, for example through his support of Vincent Ogé in the years leading up to the start of the Haitian Revolution after the 1791 vodou ceremonies of Bois Caïman.

To do justice to this case [the end of slavery in Haiti], I must give a history of the different circumstances connected with it. It may be remembered, then, that when the French Revolution, which decreed equality of rights to all citizens, had taken place, the free People of Colour of St. Domingo, many of whom were persons of large property and liberal education, petitioned the National Assembly, that they might enjoy the same political privileges as the Whites there. At length the subject of the petition was discussed, but not till the 8th of March 1790, when the Assembly agreed upon a decree concerning it. The decree, however, was worded so ambiguously, that the two parties in St. Domingo, the Whites and the People of Colour, interpreted it each of them in its own favour. This difference of interpretation gave rise to animosities between them, and these animosities were augmented by political party-spirit, according as they were royalists or partizans of the French Revolution, so that disturbances took place and blood was shed.

In the year 1791, the People of Colour petitioned the Assembly again, but principally for an explanation of the decree in question. On the 15th of May, the subject was taken into consideration, and the result was another decree in explicit terms, which determined, that the People of Colour in all the French islands were entitled to all the rights of citizenship, provided they were born of free parents on both sides. The news of this decree had no sooner arrived at the Cape, than it produced an indignation almost amounting to phrensy among the Whites. They directly trampled under foot the national cockade, and with difficulty were prevented from seizing all the French merchant ships in the roads. After this the two parties armed against each other. Even camps began to be formed. Horrible massacres and conflagrations followed, the reports of which, when brought to the mother-country, were so terrible, that the Assembly abolished the decree in favour of the Free People of Colour in the same year.

In the year 1792, the news of the rescinding of the decree as now stated, produced, when it reached St. Domingo, as much irritation among the People of Colour, as the news of the passing of it had done among the Whites, and hostilities were renewed between them, so that new battles, massacres, and burnings, took place. Suffice it to say, that as soon as these events became known in France, the Conventional Assembly, which had then succeeded the Legislative, took them into consideration. Seeing, however, nothing but difficulties and no hope of reconciliation on either side, they knew not what other course to take than to do justice, whatever the consequences might be. They resolved, accordingly, in the month of April, that the decree of 1791, which had been both made and reversed by the preceding Assembly in the same year, should stand good. They restored therefore the People of Colour to the privileges which had been before voted to them, and appointed Santhonax, Polverel, and another, to repair in person to St. Domingo, with a large body of troops, and to act there as commissioners, and, among other things, to enforce the decree and to keep the peace.

In the year 1793, the same divisions and the same bad blood continuing, notwithstanding the arrival of the commissioners, a very trivial matter, viz. a quarrel between a Mulatto and a White man (an officer in the French marine), gave rise to new disasters. This quarrel took place on the 20th of June. On the same day the seamen left their ships in the roads, and came on shore, and made common cause of the affair with the white inhabitants of the town. On the other side were opposed the Mulattos and other People of Colour, and these were afterwards joined by some insurgent Blacks. The battle lasted nearly two days. During this time the arsenal was taken and plundered, and some thousands were killed in the streets, and more than half the town was burnt. The commissioners, who were spectators of this horrible scene, and who had done all they could to restore peace, escaped unhurt, but they were left upon a heap of ruins, and with but little more power than the authority which their commission gave them. They had only about a thousand troops left in the place. They determined, therefore, under these circumstances, to call in the Negro Slaves in the neighbourhood to their assistance. They issued a proclamation in consequence, by which they promised to give freedom to all the Blacks who were willing to range themselves under the banners of the Republic. This was the first proclamation made by public authority for emancipating slaves in St. Domingo. It is usually called the Proclamation of Santhonax [Sonthonax], though both commissioners had a hand in it; and sometimes, in allusion to the place where it was issued (the Cape), the Proclamation of the North. The result of it was, that a considerable number of slaves came in and were enfranchised.

Soon after this transaction Polverel left his colleague Santhonax at the Cape, and went in his capacity of commissioner to Port au Prince, the capital of the West. Here he found every thing quiet, and cultivation in a flourishing state. From Port au Prince he visited Les Cayes, the capital of the South. He had not, however, been long there, before he found that the minds of the slaves began to be in an unsettled state. They had become acquainted with what had taken place in the north, not only with the riots at the Cape, but the proclamation of Santhonax. Now this proclamation, though it sanctioned freedom only for a particular or temporary purpose, did not exclude it from any particular quarter. The terms therefore appeared to be open to all who would accept them. Polverel therefore, seeing the impression which it had begun to make upon the minds of the slaves in these parts, was convinced that emancipation could be neither stopped nor retarded, and that it was absolutely necessary for the personal safety of the white planters, that it should be extended to the whole island. He was so convinced of the necessity of this, that he drew up a proclamation without further delay to that effect, and put it into circulation. He dated it from Les Cayes. He exhorted the planters to patronize it. He advised them, if they wished to avoid the most serious calamities, to concur themselves in the proposition of giving freedom to their slaves. He then caused a register to be opened at the Government house to receive the signatures of all those who should approve of his advice. It was remarkable that all the proprietors in these parts inscribed their names in the book. He then caused a similar register to be opened at Port au Prince for the West. Here the same disposition was found to prevail. All the planters, except one, gave in their signatures. They had become pretty generally convinced by this time, that their own personal safety was connected with the measure. It may be proper to observe here, that the proclamation last mentioned, which preceded these registries, though it was the act of Polverel alone, was sanctioned afterwards by Santhonax. It is, however, usually called the Proclamation of Polverel or of Les Cayes. It came out in September 1793. We may now add, that in the month of February 1794, the Conventional Assembly of France, though probably ignorant of what the commissioners had now done, passed a decree for the abolition of slavery throughout the whole of the French colonies. Thus the Government of the mother-country, without knowing it, confirmed freedom to those upon whom it had been bestowed by the commissioners. This decree put therefore the finishing stroke to the whole. It completed the emancipation of the whole slave population of St. Domingo.

Having now given a concise history of the abolition of slavery in St. Domingo, I shall inquire how those who were liberated on these several occasions conducted themselves after this change in their situation. It is of great importance to us to know, whether they used their freedom properly, or whether they abused it.

With respect to those emancipated by Santhonax in the North, we have nothing to communicate. They were made free for military purposes only; and we have no clue whereby we can find out what became of them afterwards.

With respect to those who were emancipated next in the South, and those directly afterwards in the West, by the proclamation of Polverel, we are enabled to give a very pleasing account. Fortunately for our views, Colonel Malenfant, who was resident in the island at the time, has made us acquainted with their general conduct and character. His account, though short, is quite sufficient for our purpose. Indeed it is highly satisfactory 6. "After this public act of emancipation," says he, (by Polverel,) "the Negroes remained quiet both in the South and in the West, and they continued to work upon all the plantations. There were estates, indeed, which had neither owners nor managers resident upon them, for some of these had been put into prison by Montbrun; and others, fearing the same fate, had fled to the quarter which had just been given up to the English. Yet upon these estates, though abandoned, the Negroes continued their labours, where there were any, even inferior, agents to guide them; and on those estates, where no white men were left to direct them, they betook themselves to the planting of provisions; but upon all the plantations where the Whites resided, the Blacks continued to labour as quietly as before." A little further on in the work, ridiculing the notion entertained in France, that the Negroes would not work without compulsion, he takes occasion to allude to other Negroes, who had been liberated by the same proclamation, but who were more immediately under his own eye and cognizance 7. "If," says he, "you will take care not to speak to them of their return to slavery, but talk to them about their liberty, you may with this latter word chain them down to their labour. How did Toussaint succeed? How did I succeed also before his time in the plain of the Cul de Sac, and on the Plantation Gouraud, more than eight months after liberty had been granted (by Polverel) to the slaves? Let those who knew me at that time, and even the Blacks themselves, be asked. They will all reply, that not a single Negro upon that plantation, consisting of more than four hundred and fifty labourers, refused to work; and yet this plantation was thought to be under the worst discipline, and the slaves the most idle, of any in the plain. I, myself, inspired the same activity into three other plantations, of which I had the management."

The above account is far beyond any thing that could have been expected. Indeed, it is most gratifying. We find that the liberated Negroes, both in the South and the West, continued to work upon their old plantations, and for their old masters; that there was also a spirit of industry among them, and that they gave no uneasiness to their employers; for they are described as continuing to work as quietly as before. Such was the conduct of the Negroes for the first nine months after their liberation, or up to the middle of 1794. Let us pursue the subject, and see how they conducted themselves after this period.

During the year 1795 and part of 1796 I learn nothing about them, neither good, nor bad, nor indifferent, though I have ransacked the French historians for this purpose. Had there, however, been any thing in the way of outrage, I should have heard of it; and let me take this opportunity of setting my readers right, if, for want of knowing the dates of occurrences, they should have connected certain outrages, which assuredly took place in St. Domingo, with the emancipation of the slaves. The great massacres and conflagrations, which have made so frightful a picture in the history of this unhappy island, had been all effected before the proclamations of Santhonax and Polverel. They had all taken place in the days of slavery, or before the year 1794, that is, before the great conventional decree of the mother country was known. They had been occasioned, too, not originally by the slaves themselves, but by quarrels between the white and coloured planters, and between the royalists and the revolutionists, who, for the purpose of reeking their vengeance upon each other, called in the aid of their respective slaves; and as to the insurgent Negroes of the North, who filled that part of the colony so often with terror and dismay, they were originally put in motion, according to Malenfant, under the auspices of the royalists themselves, to strengthen their own cause, and to put down the partizans of the French revolution. When Jean François and Biassou commenced the insurrection, there were many white royalists with them, and the Negroes were made to wear the white cockade. I repeat, then, that during the years 1795 and 1796, I can find nothing in the History of St. Domingo, wherewith to reproach the emancipated Negroes in the way of outrage 8. There is every reason, on the other hand, to believe, that they conducted themselves, during this period, in as orderly a manner as before.

I come now to the latter part of the year 1796; and here happily a clue is furnished me, by which I have an opportunity of pursuing my inquiry with pleasure. We shall find, that from this time there was no want of industry in those who had been emancipated, nor want of obedience in them as hired servants: they maintained, on the other hand, a respectable character. Let us appeal first to Malenfant. "The colony," says he 9, "was flourishing under Toussaint. The Whites lived happily and in peace upon their estates, and the Negroes continued to work for them." Now Toussaint came into power, being general-in-chief of the armies of St. Domingo, a little before the end of the year 1796, and remained in power till the year 1802, or till the invasion of the island by the French expedition of Buonaparte [Bonaparte] under Leclerc. Malenfant means therefore to state, that from the latter end of 1796 to 1802, a period of six years, the planters or farmers kept possession of their estates; that they lived upon them, and that they lived upon them peaceably, that is, without interruption or disturbance from any one; and, finally, that the Negroes, though they had been all set free, continued to be their labourers. Can there be any account more favourable to our views than this, after so sudden an emancipation.

I may appeal next to General Lacroix, who published his "Memoirs for a History of St. Domingo," at Paris, in 1819. He informs us, that when Santhonax, who had been recalled to France by the Government there, returned to the colony in 1796, "he was astonished at the state in which he found it on his return." This, says Lacroix 10, "was owing to Toussaint, who, while he had succeeded in establishing perfect order and discipline among the black troops, had succeeded also in making the black labourers return to the plantations, there to resume the drudgery of cultivation."

But the same author tells us, that in the next year (1797) the most wonderful progress had been made in agriculture. He uses these remarkable words: "The colony," says he 11, "marched, as by enchantment, towards its ancient splendour; cultivation prospered; every day produced perceptible proofs of its progress. The city of the Cape and the plantations of the North rose up again visibly to the eye." Now I am far from wishing to attribute all this wonderful improvement, this daily visible progress in agriculture, to the mere act of the emancipation of the slaves in St. Domingo. I know that many other circumstances which I could specify, if I had room, contributed towards its growth; but I must be allowed to maintain, that unless the Negroes, who were then free, had done their part as labourers, both by working regularly and industriously, and by obeying the directions of their superintendants or masters, the colony could never have gone on, as relates to cultivation, with the rapidity described.

The next witness to whom I shall appeal, is the estimable General Vincent, who lives now at Paris, though at an advanced age. Vincent was a colonel, and afterwards a general of brigade of artillery in St. Domingo. He was stationed there during the time both of Santhonax and Toussaint. He was also a proprietor of estates in the island. He was the man who planned the renovation of its agriculture after the abolition of slavery, and one of the great instruments in bringing it to the perfection mentioned by Lacroix. In the year 1801, he was called upon by Toussaint to repair to Paris, to lay before the Directory the new constitution, which had been agreed upon in St. Domingo. He obeyed the summons. It happened, that he arrived in France just at the moment of the peace of Amiens; here he found, to his inexpressible surprise and grief, that Buonaparte was preparing an immense armament, to be commanded by Leclerc, for the purpose of restoring slavery in St. Domingo. He lost no time in seeing the First Consul, and he had the courage to say at this interview what, perhaps, no other man in France would have dared to say at this particular moment. He remonstrated against the expedition; he told him to his face, that though the army destined for this purpose was composed of the brilliant conquerors of Europe, it could do nothing in the Antilles. It would most assuredly be destroyed by the climate of St. Domingo, even though it should be doubtful, whether it would not be destroyed by the Blacks. He stated, as another argument against the expedition, that it was totally unnecessary, and therefore criminal; for that every thing was going on well in St. Domingo. The proprietors were in peaceable possession of their estates; cultivation was making a rapid progress; the Blacks were industrious, and beyond example happy. He conjured him, therefore, in the name of humanity, not to reverse this beautiful state of things. But alas! his efforts were ineffectual. The die had been cast: and the only reward, which he received from Buonaparte for his manly and faithful representations, was banishment to the Isle of Elba.

Having carried my examination into the conduct of the Negroes after their liberation to 1802, or to the invasion of the island by Leclerc, I must now leave a blank for nearly two years, or till the year 1804. It cannot be expected during a war, in which every man was called to arms to defend his own personal liberty, and that of every individual of his family, that we should see plantations cultivated as quietly as before, or even cultivated at all. But this was not the fault of the emancipated Negroes, but of their former masters. It was owing to the prejudices of the latter, that this frightful invasion took place; prejudices, indeed, common to all planters, where slavery obtains, from the very nature of their situation, and upon which I have made my observations in a former place. Accustomed to the use of arbitrary power, they could no longer brook the loss of their whips. Accustomed again to look down upon the Negroes as an inferior race of beings, or as the reptiles of the earth, they could not bear, peaceably as these had conducted themselves, to come into that familiar contact with them, as free labourers, which the change of their situation required. They considered them, too, as property lost, but which was to be recovered. In an evil hour, they prevailed upon Buonaparte, by false representations and promises of pecuniary support, to restore things to their former state. The hellish expedition at length arrived upon the shores of St. Domingo:—a scene of blood and torture followed, such as history had never before disclosed, and compared with which, though planned and executed by Whites 12, all the barbarities said to have been perpetrated by the insurgent Blacks of the North, amount comparatively to nothing. In fine, the French were driven from the island. Till that time, the planters retained their property, and then it was, but not till then, that they lost their all; it cannot, therefore, be expected, as I have said before, that I should have any thing to say in favour of the industry or good order of the emancipated Negroes, during such a convulsive period.

In the year 1804, Dessalines was proclaimed emperor of this fine territory. Here I resume the thread of my history, (though it will be but for a moment,) in order that I may follow it to its end. In process of time, the black troops, containing the Negroes in question, were disbanded, except such as were retained for the peace-establishment of the army. They, who were disbanded, returned to cultivation. As they were free when they became soldiers, so they continued to be free when they became labourers again. From that time to this, there has been no want of subordination or industry among them. They or their descendants are the persons, by whom the plains and valleys of St. Domingo are still cultivated, and they are reported to follow their occupations still, and with as fair a character as other free labourers in any other quarter of the globe.

We have now seen, that the emancipated Negroes never abused their liberty, from the year 1793 (the era of their general emancipation) to the present day, a period of thirty years. An important question then seems to force itself upon us, "What were the measures taken after so frightful an event, as that of emancipation, to secure the tranquillity and order which has been described, or to rescue the planters and the colony from ruin?" I am bound to answer this, if I can, were it only to gratify the curiosity of my readers; but more particularly when I consider, that if emancipation should ever be in contemplation in our own colonies, it will be desirable to have all the light possible upon that subject, and particularly of precedent or example. It appears then, that the two commissioners, Santhonax [Sonthonax] and Polverel, aware of the mischief which might attend their decrees, were obliged to take the best measures they could devise to prevent it. One of their first steps was to draw up a short code of rules to be observed upon the plantations. These rules were printed and made public. They were also ordered to be read aloud to all the Negroes upon every estate, for which purpose the latter were to be assembled at a particular hour once a week. The preamble to these regulations insisted upon the necessity of working, without which everything would go to ruin. Among the articles, the two the most worthy of our notice were, that the labourers were to be obliged to hire themselves to their masters for not less than a year, at the end of which (September) [the start of the year in the French Republican Calendar], but not before, they might quit their service, and engage with others; and that they were to receive a third part of the produce of the estate, as a recompense for their labour. These two were fundamental articles. As to the minor, they were not alike upon every estate. This code of the commissioners subsisted for about three years.

Toussaint, when he came into power, reconsidered this subject, and adopted a code of rules of his own. His first object was to prevent oppression on the part of the master or employer, and yet to secure obedience on the part of the labourer. Conceiving that there could be no liberty where any one man had the power of punishing another at his discretion, he took away from every master the use of the whip, and of the chain, and of every other instrument of correction, either by himself or his own order: he took away, in fact, all power of arbitrary punishment. Every master offending against this regulation was to be summoned, on complaint by the labourer, before a magistrate or intendant of police, who was to examine into the case, and to act accordingly. Conceiving, on the other hand, that a just subordination ought to be kept up, and that, wherever delinquency occurred, punishment ought to follow, he ordained, that all labourers offending against the plantation laws, or not performing their contracts, should be brought before the same magistrate or intendant of police, who should examine them touching such delinquency, and decide as in the former case: thus he administered justice without respect of persons. It must be noticed, that all punishments were to be executed by a civil officer, a sort of public executioner, that they might be considered as punishments by the state. Thus he kept up discipline on the plantations, without lessening authority on the one hand, and without invading the liberty of individuals on the other.

Among his plantation offences was idleness on the part of the labourer. A man was not to receive wages from his master, and to do nothing. He was obliged to perform a reasonable quantity of work, or be punished. Another offence was absence without leave, which was considered as desertion.

Toussaint differed from the commissioners, as to the length of time for which labourers should engage themselves to masters. He thought it unwise to allow the former, in the infancy of their liberty, to get notions of change and rambling at the end of every year. He ordained, therefore, that they should be attached to the plantations, and made, though free labourers, a sort of adscripti glebae [being tied to the soil/ a serf] for five years.

He differed again from the commissioners, as to the quantum of compensation for their labour. He thought one-third of the produce too much, seeing that the planter had another third to pay to the Government. He ordered, therefore, one-fourth to the labourer, but this was in the case only, where the labourer clothed and maintained himself: where he did not do this, he was entitled to a fourth only nominally, for out of this his master was to make a deduction for board and clothing.

The above is all I have been able to collect of the code of Toussaint, which, under his auspices, had the surprising effect of preserving tranquillity and order, and of keeping up a spirit of industry on the plantations of St. Domingo, at a time when only idleness and anarchy were to have been expected. It was in force when Leclerc arrived with his invading army, and it continued in force when the French army were beaten and Negro-liberty confirmed. From Toussaint it passed to Dessalines, and from Dessalines to Christophe and Petion, and from the two latter to Boyer; and it is the code therefore which regulates, and I believe with but very little variation, the relative situation of master and servant in husbandry at this present hour.

But it is time that I should now wind up the case before us. And, first, will any one say that this case is not analogous to that which we have in contemplation? Let us remember that the number of slaves liberated by the French decrees in St. Domingo was very little short of 500,000 persons, and that this was nearly equal to the number of all the slaves then in the British West Indian Islands when put together. But if there be a want of analogy, the difference lies on my side of the question. I maintain, that emancipation in St. Domingo was attended with far more hazard to persons and property, and with far greater difficulties, than it could possibly be, if attempted in our own islands. Can we forget that by the decree of Polverel, sanctioned afterwards by the Convention, all the slaves were made free at once, or in a single day? No notice was given of the event, and of course no preparation could be made for it. They were released suddenly from all their former obligations and restraints. They were let loose upon the Whites, their masters, with all the vices of slavery upon them. What was to have been expected but the dissolution of all civilized society, with the reign of barbarism and terror? Now all I ask for with respect to the slaves in our own islands is, that they should be emancipated by degrees, or that they should be made to pass through a certain course of discipline, as through a preparatory school, to fit them for the right use of their freedom. Again, can we forget the unfavourable circumstances, in which the slaves of St. Domingo were placed, for a year or two before their liberation, in another point of view? The island at this juncture was a prey to political discord, civil war, and foreign invasion, at the same time. Their masters were politically at variance with each other, as they were white or coloured persons, or republicans or royalists. They were quarrelling and fighting with each other, and shedding each other's blood. The English, who were in possession of the strong maritime posts, were alarming the country by their incursions: they, the slaves, had been trained up to the same political animosities. They had been made to take the side of their respective masters, and to pass through scenes of violence and bloodshed. Now, whenever emancipation is to be proposed in our own colonies, I anticipate neither political parties, nor civil wars, nor foreign invasion, but a time of tranquillity and peace. Who then will be bold enough to say, after these remarks, that there could be any thing like the danger and difficulties in emancipating the slaves there, which existed when the slaves of St. Domingo were made free? But some objector may say, after all, "There is one point in which your analogy is deficient. While Toussaint was in power, the Government of St. Domingo was a black one, and the Blacks would be more willing to submit to the authority of a black (their own) Government, than of a white one. Hence there Were less disorders after emancipation in St. Domingo, than would have probably occurred, had it been tried in our own islands." But to such an objector I should reply, that he knows nothing of the history of St. Domingo. The Government of that island was French, or white, from the very infancy of emancipation to the arrival of the expedition of Leclerc. The slaves were made free under the government of Santhonax and Polverel. When these retired, other white commissioners succeeded them. When Toussaint came into power, he was not supreme; Generals Hedouille, Vincent, and others, had a share in the government. Toussaint himself received his commission from the French Directory, and acted under it. He caused it every where to be made known, but particularly among his officers and troops, that he retained the island for the French Government, and that France was the mother-country.

Note 6: Mémoire historique et politique des Colonies, et particulièrement de celle de St. Domingue, &c. Paris, August 1814. 8vo. p. 58.

Note 7: Pp. 125, 126.

Note 8: There were occasionally marauding parties from the mountains, who pillaged in the plains; but these were the old insurgent, and not the emancipated Negroes.

Note 9: P. 78.

Note 10: Mémoires, p. 311.

Note 11: Ibid. p. 324.

Note 12: The French were not the authors of tearing to pieces the Negroes alive by bloodhounds, or of suffocating them by hundreds at a time in the holds of ships, or of drowning them (whole cargoes) by scuttling and sinking the vessels;—but the planters.

See also


  • Clarkson, Thomas Esq.. (1823) Thoughts on the Necessity for improving the Condition of the Slaves in the British Colonies, with a view to their ultimate emancipation; and on the practicability, the safety, and the advantages of the latter measure. London: Richard Taylor. (Project Gutenberg Online text)