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Tearing the White Out: The Haitian Revolution: The Oppressors

Array ( [0] => ENGL 6330 Spring 2018 [1] => no-show [2] => student exhibit )

"At one time, as many as six warring factions were in the field simultaneously: slaves, free persons of color, petits blancs, grands blancs, and invading Spanish and English troops, as well as the French vainly trying to restore order and control. Alliances were made and dissolved in opportunistic succession."

—Franklin W. Knight, The Haitian Revolution, 112


citizens of haiti.jpg
Citizens of Haiti. [6]

The Petits Blancs (Small Whites)

The petits blancs, or small whites, were those who were largely established in the Saint Domingue economic and social spheres for no other reason than the color of their skin.  They were the poor and uneducated, and history has referred to them as the "white negroes" of Saint Domingue.[1] These men were “vagabonds, fugitives from justice, escaped galley slaves, debtors...adventurers seeking adventure or quick fortunes, men of all crimes and nationalities.”[2]  They came from countries where social mobility was impossible. Yet here—in Saint Domingue—they found that “whatever a man’s origin, record or character, here his white skin made him a person of quality.”[2]  They had no great love for the grands blancs, nor for the French bureaucracy.  Nor for the Mulattoes who for the most part had surpassed them in wealth and education. 

As the ideals of the French Revolution swept across the Atlantic, the small whites let loose their rivalry against the grands blancs.  Largely ignoring the Mulattoes, the small whites clamored for political equality and active citizenship. They wanted an equalizing of wealth, while maintaining the racial status quo.  Yet as rebellion broke out amongst the slaves, the small whites banded with the great whites—even as many Mulattoes joined the ranks of the slaves.  For the one thing, the small whites had in common with the great whites was their share “degrees of fear and mistrust of the...gens de couleur [people of color].”[3]  For the small whites, the distinction between a white man and a man of color was fundamental—“it was their all”—and they would defend it even to the bringing “down the whole of their world.”[2]

Slaves cutting sugar cane. [7]

The Grands Blancs (Great Whites)

The most economically prominent citizens of the island were the grands blancs, or great whites.  These were those who had prospered economically in the colony. They were the owners of the plantations, the great merchants, and the wealthy agents of the maritime bourgeoisie. The planters on the island often “hated the life and sought only to make enough money to retire to France or at least spend a few months in Paris, luxuriating in the amenities of civilisation [sic].”[2]  They wanted greater control over their island and felt as though they were being held back in their trading by the French bourgeois.  

These grands blancs sought to maintain the status quo on the island, while simultaneously increasing their wealth.  This proved nigh impossible leading up to the revolution due to the French bureaucracy and legislation that often limited the great whites trading power. This bureaucracy had a vested interest in keeping power over Saint Domingue.  With few troops to back them up, they worked to gain the favor of the small whites.  This in turn helped to keep the grands blancs in check.[2]

The grand blancs wanted freedom from the French bureaucracy.  They wanted more "colonial autonomy, especially in economic matters.”[3]  They hoped for self-governance and spurned the bureaucratic leash that held them in check and yearned to buy and sell as they pleased. It wouldn’t be until the rebellion broke out in its entirety that the three white factions would pull together in an attempt to salvage their fractured hierarchical way of life.


Napoleon Bonaparte and French soldiers. [8]

The French Bureaucracy 

The French bureaucracy of French noblemen came directly from France for one reason: to govern.  They were largely hated by the colonists—both great and small.  The bureaucracy was headed by the Governor and the Intendant. These had complete political control of the colony.  They and their staff represented the King’s authority.  They had what was akin to ultimate power.  They could “arrest without warrant...force members of the local advisory councils to resign, could grant favours [sic], pronounce confiscations, increase taxes” and in short, do anything they wished.  For as their saying went, “God was too high and the King too far.”[2] 

Any attempt at local government went through the Intendant—and he could accept or deny any request he pleased.  The French bureaucracy represented “the traditional hostility of the absolute monarchy” of France.[2]  The very thing that caused the French people to rise to revolution.  It would be the French bureaucracy that would ultimately try and quell the rebellion.  In 1802, years after the initial uprising, Napoleon Bonaparte, sent an expeditionary force to "reassert metropolitan power and to reestablish slavery and white supremacy in Saint Domingue.”[4]  Ultimately the campaign was a failure. Napoleon lost fifty thousand men.  

It wouldn't be until the 17th of March 1825 that France officially recognized Haiti's independence.[5] Had Napoleon been more tactful, he may have succeeded.  Yet when the riotous slaves discovered that Napoleon’s force had come to the island to restore the French bureaucracy and slavery, “something snapped in black circles,” and it was only then that the once-slaves truly set their collective mind to independence.[1]



[1] Klooster, Wim. Revolutions in the Atlantic World: a Comparative History. New York University Press, 2018.

[2] James, Cyril Lionel Robert. The Black Jacobins.(1963). Vintage, 1989.

[3] Knight, Franklin W. “The Haitian Revolution.” The American Historical Review, vol. 105, no. 1, 2000, pp. 103–115. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2652438.

[4] Blackburn, Robin. “Haiti, Slavery, and the Age of the Democratic Revolution.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 63, no. 4, 2006, pp. 643–674. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4491574.

[5] Sansay, Leonara, and Michael J. Drexler. Secret History or the Horrors of St. Domingo and Laura.Broadview Press, 2008.

Image Credits

[6] The British Library. “Image Taken from Page 58 of 'Las Antillas. Cuba, Puerto-Rico, La Martinica, Santo Domingo, Haiti, Jamaica, Guadalupe, San Thomas, Trinidad'.” Flickr, Yahoo!, 1 Dec. 2013, www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/11151594233/in/photolist-hZqQs6-i92B1t-icSNn1-icXkT9-i8QsdG-icU8wF-i8WyDA-i8YSrM-id4vDv-hZr9Zh-hZp9R4-hZygWi-hZUDAn-icUeq5-hZtGJe-i19AVH-hZh2yK-hZp9Ua-hZNABu-i8LKDo-icWMSC-id1AvG-hZqKrh-i6mvd8-hN9p87-hN8MoH-hNazGH-hNhKLe-hNhg1b-hNavKA-qk3J43-hYaGQ1-hXf4TP-hNf7Zp-hNcuyk-hNhnaf-hNd8p6-hNfR3o-hN8QTi-hNhkQF-hNapbJ-hNdXbE-hNet9e-hNbdtM-hNcBUW-hNhgHH-hNi9PE-hNa2eq-hNg7PH-i621Ee.

 [7] "File:Slaves cutting the sugar cane - Ten Views in the Island of Antigua (1823), plate IV - BL.jpg." Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. 5 Apr 2018, 23:16 UTC. 17 Apr 2018, 21:01 <https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Slaves_cutting_the_sugar_cane_-_Ten_Views_in_the_Island_of_Antigua_(1823),_plate_IV_-_BL.jpg&oldid=295715217>.

[8] "File:Napoleon Bonaparte auf Elba.jpg." Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. 20 Feb 2018, 07:25 UTC. 17 Apr 2018, 21:57 <https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Napoleon_Bonaparte_auf_Elba.jpg&oldid=288241847>.