(Part of Four Conceptions of Freedom.)
“Freedom for the ex-slaves would mean the freedom to possess and till their own soil, to labour for themselves and their families, with no constraints other than their own self-defined needs, and to sell and dispose of the products of their labour in their own interests” (Carolyn Fick, 2007)
“The Haitian Revolution has often been described as the largest and most successful slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere. Slaves initiated the rebellion in 1791 and by 1803 they had succeeded in ending not just slavery but French control over the colony.”1 On 1 January 1804, the Haitian Revolution culminated in the birth of the world’s first republic that was led by former slaves. “The Haitian Revolution, however, was much more complex, consisting of several revolutions going on simultaneously.”1 The complexity reflected the social composition of Haitian society and the different competitive interests over the control of the island. The French fought over Haiti and so did the British and the Spanish. The majority of the population on the island was made up of the African slaves. The rest were the “small whites”1 who were artisans and hairdressers, “big whites” or the planter class that owned the agricultural estates or plantations and the “mixed race” population known as the mulatto. The series of events in Haiti were also “influenced by the French Revolution of 1789, which would come to represent a new concept of human rights, universal citizenship, and participation in government.”1 In the course of the 13 years of Haitian revolution, three different conceptions of freedom emerged. We shall deal with these in turn.
1. Freedom from above - emancipation without property
The first conceptions of freedom emerged from above and specifically from the French emissaries sent by the metropolitan colonial government to quell the resistance of the slaves, recruit them to fight on the side of the French in its competition with Spanish and British forces over the island. The two French emissaries deployed on different parts of the island – Sonthonax in the North and Polvorel in the South and West – had similar ideas about what freedom meant for the slave population. Contained in both the French emissaries’ declarations to end slavery in August and October 1793 were these conditions:
- The slaves would be freed but they would have no right to individually access the land for their own reproduction and livelihood.
- They still had to work on the plantation, under conditions that didn’t differ that much from the slave labour regime. This meant working from sunrise to sunset for 6 days a week with only 2 hours per week to work on their gardens. The only exception from work was on Sunday, which was considered a holiday across the colony.
- They could be free on Saturdays and one extra day, but only if they were willing to get lower wages. They would not be paid for these days
- The whip would be abolished and punishment for disciplinary offences was in the form of taking away a part of their wages.
- Imprisonment would be the punishment for those who chose not to work the land
- Under the Sonthonax declaration, the former slaves would receive 33% of the production earnings.
- Polverel was not as generous. Their wages would amount to 16% of the revenues of the plantation, with the rest going to the owners. If they chose to work for only four days a week, they would forfeit this. The owner would also be free to expel those who chose to work for four days a week.
For Polvorel, freedom did not mean individual or collective ownership of land by the former slaves. In a letter he wrote to the former slave population on the island, he was quick to say “Africains, listen well. This land does not belong to you. It belongs to those who purchased it or to their inheritors.”
In both instances where slavery was abolished with declarations, freedom meant that slave labour would be transformed to waged labour. This has led some scholars to say that this form of freedom was intricately tied to their exertion on the plantation. It was also a form of freedom without property ownership. Under these conditions, the emancipated slaves were subjected to a labour regime that too closely resembled that of slavery and this undermined their efforts to reshape their lives as free individuals – according to their needs and aspirations. The rights to liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression were but a dream for the mass of former African slaves.
2. Freedom as plantation citizenship
The second conception of freedom emerged from the leadership of the slave resistance. It was a combination of a conception from above but also reflected sensibilities to the slave condition. Freedom meant the abolition of slavery but not anything beyond this. Freedom did not include the extension of individual liberties like ownership of property. The fate of the former slaves would be tied up to the plantation. There were no prospects for social mobility or freedom to move from one plantation to the next as a worker. There was no residential mobility and strict punishment was meted out on those who broke the rules. This type of freedom was at odds with the aspirations of the slave population. It was a conception of freedom that was bound up with the need to keep the plantations running, profitable and able to export to the international market. This was important for safeguarding the colony from imperialist powers. It was a form of plantation citizenship legitimised through appeals to self-determination for the black race.
3. Freedom as self-ownership, independence from the plantation economy and ownership of land
The third conception of freedom emerged from the African slave population in their hundreds of thousands. What did freedom mean to the slaves? Did it mean emancipation and a formal end to the system of slavery? How did the slaves shape their own conceptions of freedom from below?
The slaves defined their freedom in terms that highlighted their relationship to the land, the labour regime on the plantation and their aspirations to ultimately own what is produced from the land and enjoy the freedom to decide what happens to the fruits of the land.
These aspirations were put into practice in a number of ways. Slaves expanded ‘kitchen gardens’ and annexed parts of the land that had been abandoned by the French planter class. Under the laws of slavery, the kitchen gardens were supposed to be used by the slave population for their nutritional needs and nothing more than this. But the slaves found ways of expanding these gardens and cultivate crops to sell at the market on Sundays. Some stole produce, crops and commodities like coffee, sugar and syrup from different plantations and sold these for their own profit at the market on the only day they were not allowed to work. They often used transport belonging to the plantation owners to move the goods from the plantations to the market.
The African workers on the plantation found all sorts of ways to evade the backbreaking work at the plantation. They limited their days of work to five, even if this meant a loss of wages. They went on go-slows, damaged the sugar-cane and other crops and even absconded duty altogether. The slaves also used abandoned plantations to build homes and establish families – something that had been denied to them previously. They preferred to work their kitchen gardens as this helped them to gain some individual independence from the plantation and the strict labour regime that prevailed there.
Freedom was not only the absence of slavery, it was about creating the conditions necessary for the former slaves to live meaningfully after their emancipation. Self-sufficiency, independence, ownership of one’s self and body, ownership of one’s labour and the fruits of that labour became defining features of the slaves’ conception of freedom. They also fought for the right to have 3 days to tend to their kitchen gardens – something that some scholars have dismissed as a limited conception of freedom. But this demand had the ability to change the relationship between the former slaves who were now agricultural labourers and their former masters in radical ways. It would mean that the ex-slaves had 4 days in total to themselves as Sunday had never been a working day. This would translate to 60% of the week belonging to people who had previously been only regarded as instruments of production and property under the ownership of others. This conception of freedom included emancipation and much much more.
What this shows is that meanings of the words we have come to associate with ‘freedom’ – ‘liberty, citizenship, independence’ were not self-evident before the start of the 13-year revolution. They were given concrete meaning in the course of struggle and determined by the social forces on either side of the rebellion.