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Saint-Domingue: Changing Concepts of Race in the Graveyard of the Enlightenment

Posted on Jul 1, 2013 by in Abstracts | 0 comments

Brian J. MottBrian J. Mott
Utah State University
Published in Utah Historical Review, Vol III.

The Haitian Revolution is often overlooked in Historical analysis, but had far reaching effects. The Revolution changed perceptions and attitudes toward race in Western culture, and saw the failure of the Enlightenment. In pre-revolution Saint-Domingue, race was very fluid, and had less to do with skin color and ancestry than it did with an individual’s legal status, bond or free. This was a major barrier, which prevented previous slave revolts from succeeding, as the free people of color were just as strong of opponents of slave rebellion as were the white colonists. The Haitian Revolution did change that though, by first, abolishing slavery in Saint-Domingue, bringing all people onto a level playing field, without heed for former legal status, or even the color of their skin; however, what ultimately unified them, was the attempted reinstitution of slavery, as they all now had a great deal to lose, and a common enemy. As a result of the Haitian slave revolution’s success, there was a great deal of fear in the other Western slave societies, such as the US and Great Britain, with responses such as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1794 in the US. The Enlightenment policies of the newly republican France failed in Saint-Domingue. Too drawn by the specter of vast wealth from slave driven sugar plantations, the French government struggled at first, came to a decision to offer citizenship to free men of color, then abolished slavery, but ultimately, re-instated slavery. The war, at that point, became, fundamentally, a race war, once again, perpetuating fears of slave revolt in the United States, or in Britain’s colonies

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Brian Mott is a sophomore studying history at Utah State University, with an emphasis on European History. He has worked as an historical interpreter, specializing in mid-19th century material culture and trades for the This is the Place State Heritage Park.

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