Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Pearl of Rights

The Revolution of St. Domingue can be seen as the surest refutation of the success of the philosophy of human rights. St. Domingue exposes the collapse of an economic system. It does not show a triumph or advancement of a doctrine of rights. The intersection of French and British political and economic forces at St. Domingue is the perfect lens through which to examine how a philosophy can disguise the selfish tendencies of countries and whitewash the truly revolutionary forces of another.

The revolt in St. Domingue occurred in 1791, but it took the French government until 1794 to declare the official freedom and equality of the slaves. By then, events had already been set into motion, and importantly the rhetoric did not match the reality. Hochschild briefly mentions that rights were not part of the language used by the slaves in the revolts, “rarely did they demand freedom as an inherent right (Hochschild, 264).” But the French meanwhile had drafted up their Universal Declaration, and were scrambling to find the logical conclusions that stemmed from it. This is far more important than Hochschild gives it credit for. Rights weren’t part of the revolution. St. Domingue’s rebellion was escalated by the contradictory messages sent to it by the tumultuous French homeland (Hochschild, 266). The language of rights, and the granting of certain powers, was up in the air during the entire period, making it rhetorically irrelevant.

What was relevant? It was clear for the revolutionaries that they were tired of being exploited by foreign powers. The slaves called for their freedom and equality irrespective of a doctrine of rights. In fact, Hochschild freely admits that the majority of Toussant’s army was composed of illiterate slaves. Rights, as a doctrine, do not exist for the St. Domingue revolutionaries. “The slaves of St. Domingue…undirected by any of the [French] revolution’s architects in Paris, made universal and immediate its promise of freedom (Hochschild, 259).” Freedom and equality, self-determination; all exist as rights in our modern philosophy, but the slaves did not put them in that structure. The forces that did use rights used them not as tool for freedom or to grant the slaves their requests. France actually used rights as a way to control their slaves and protect their economic interests. In 1794, in hopes of containing the rapidly spreading unrest in the colonies, “slavery was abolished and equal rights granted at least in principle to slaves (Hunt, 149).”

This is important to note, the French government granted certain rights to the slaves as a way of maintaining colonial powers; in principle. The French interest in maintaining the economic powerhouse of St. Domingue actually led to the use of rights as a form of oppression. It was oppression in the sense that by creating a peaceful (at least temporarily) situation, the general economic business of St. Domingue could be allowed to continue. Almost perfect proof of this comes in the form of Napoleon’s reinstitution of slavery in Guadeloupe in 1802. This signified that slavery was not abolished, and that the people of St. Domingue were not free under a government that could rescind rights at will.

Granting rights was thus not about freedom; rather, it was economic. St. Domingue was the most valuable colony in the West Indies. By granting rights through the New French government to the slaves; France could hold onto its economic interests longer. The use of rights, as handed down through the ‘formerly’ oppressive government, was enough to keep the rebellion from fully succeeding until 1804.
Hochschild and Hunt both try to downplay the oppression by citing the French sympathizers. The revolt “was blamed on outside agitators (Hochschild, 257)” namely the Society of the Friends of the Blacks. Amongst the members were famous revolutionaries, “Brissot, Conderorcet, LaFayette, and abbe Baptiste-Henri Gregoire…campaigners for human rights in other arenas (Hunt, 161).” Realistically these sympathizers did not support the revolts, and Hochschild mentions that even during the French Revolution, the new government (supported by those very same individuals) did what it could to keep St. Domingue from a full-on revolution. The slaves visibly did not identify with their white counterparts in France, “most rebel slaves…did not generally wear the tricolor cockade…they wore the white cockade, signifying loyalty to King Louis XVI (Hochschild, 265).” They identified with the King because they believed, “the king had already freed them (Hochschild, 264).” This indicates an assumption that the ruler is benevolent and divine. Freedom, under this doctrine, is exclusive of the material world of rights. This divide showed the political nature of rights, and the failure of rights to supersede economic imperatives or classic governing structures.

The philosophical doctrine that was sweeping France at this time certainly influenced the revolution, but as for practical application beyond what was signed into law, it was either retracted or revised to lose meaning. Rights for slaves in France seldom made it beyond the paper on which they were signed. This is a product of an overriding economic drive; it gives lip service to rights while taking them away.
Britain declared war on France in 1793, and in an attempt to secure British economic interests, attacked St. Domingue. “Conquering the colony…would both gain Britain an immense treasure house…and stop the virus of rebellion from spreading (Hochschild, 268).” Britain’s interest in the area was to secure its economic future in the region. The protracted war that Britain waged against France in the colony of St. Domingue was a fight for economic security and superiority. During the course of the war a few things became apparent though.

Fighting in St. Domingue was tough. More people died of disease than actual warfare (Hochschild, 279). Slavery was becoming too expensive. To illustrate the economic imperative over the moral and philosophical; consider the many years it took Clarkson, Equiano, and Wilberforce to get any concessions out of Parliament. Their crusade started in 1789. It took until 1838 for slaves in Britain’s empire to be freed. It is important to note that slavery was on its way out regardless of the moral implications. “Insurrection in the crown jewel of Britain’s Caribbean colonies” showed “the country’s ruling establishment…that the price for maintaining slavery might be too high (Hochschild, 344).” Reform, the loud voice of the electorate, was still a whisper. Only one out of five adult males in England could vote. And working-class labor movements distrusted the upper-class fueled “politics of aristocratic benevolence (Hochschild, 352).” “Freeing the slaves, they have charged, was a much easier pill for the country’s ruling elite to swallow than permitting trade unions, banning child labor, recognizing the rights of the Irish, and allowing all Britons to vote (Hochschild 352).”

What was clear was that the costs of maintaining slavery as an institution far outweighed the profits. What was once a booming trade had dwindled into resource pits for the state. “Freeing the slaves was the only alternative to a widespread war…beyond the government’s military capacity (Hochschild, 344).” By 1832, it was a matter of saving face for the industries and institutions built around slaves. Upper class MPs saw abolition not as a “vote to redistribute political and economic power in England (Hochschild, 350)” but as a political maneuver. The emancipation bill passed in 1833 with a provision for compensation to the empire’s slave-holders. Slaves were given no compensation, and conservative MPs walked away with the satisfaction of “bowing both to public opinion and to [preserving] the sacredness of private property (Hochschild, 347).” The abolition of slavery, thus took on a different form in parliamentary politics. It was about preserving the security and economy of the nation, it was not the moral cause that the original abolitionists had spent so much of their time on.

So what worked? The French philosophical approach resulted in an immediate revolution that emancipated slaves within five years of its beginning. The slave revolts in St. Domingue avoided the philosophy of rights but produced extraordinary results—the Europeans left and eventually gave the slaves of St. Domingue autonomous control. The British took a traditional political stance: lobbying, making concessions, backdoor deals, large public displays, cost benefits analysis, etc. Ultimately they all have drawbacks. The French were unable to form a long-lasting government, and often wavered on whether slaves were free or not (1792, 1794, and 1802), and resorted to using rights as a tool for continued abuses. In St. Domingue, without a solid philosophy, the slaves found themselves in limbo until the final revolution of 1803. The British pragmatism ensured that the rights revolution happened fairly peacefully. Today, that is the legacy celebrated. But was it a victory when concessions were made to the perpetrators? By ending the institution it did not rectify the harms done. The force of the rights doctrine and the British approach are called into question by the compromises made to get it passed. Certainly there were plenty of moralists screaming from their soapboxes, but the most effective advances came from the economic imperative. It is a tragedy if the lesson is that institutional change must always be quantified in dollars or concessions.


Hochschild, Adam. Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005.

Hunt, Lynn. Inventing Human Rights. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2007.