A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804

By Mahase, Radica | Journal of Haitian Studies, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804


Mahase, Radica, Journal of Haitian Studies


A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804. By Laurent Dubois. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. ISBN 0-8078-5536-7. 466 pp. $22.50 paper.

A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804 examines revolution and emancipation of enslaved Africans in the French Caribbean during the seventeen years period, 1787 to 1804. It tells a "different history of the Republic: how at the end of the eighteenth century, the actions of slaves-turned-citizens in the Caribbean transformed Europe and the Americas."(2) The book was published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture - an institute sponsored by the College of William and Mary and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Dubois' interest in the topic goes back to his years as a graduate student and the research actually started as his doctoral dissertation. He examines the movement from enslavement to freedom and to citizenship with a focus on Guadeloupe, specifically the Basse-Terre and Trois-Rivières communities. Dubois' work is significant in its analysis of Caribbean/European linkages and colony/metropolis relationships. It can be distinguished from other historical writings by its examination of the ideological importance of the colony and how the ideas expressed and enacted by the colonized have shaped metropolitan political imagination. As he noted, "developments in the Antilles outran the political imagination of the metropole in the transformation - and universalization - of the idea of rights." (2)

There are 16 chapters including an introduction and an epilogue. The chapters are organized into three parts, structured along chronological lines: "Prophecy, Revolt, and Emancipation, 1787 - 1794," "The meaning of Citizenship, 1794 1798" and 'The Boundaries of the Republic, 1798 - 1804." Parts one and three comprise five chapters each, while part two is made up of six chapters. The structure of the book makes it easy to read and follow sometimes complex and over-lapping issues. This book asks and offers answers crucial to the development of societies throughout the West Indies and in other areas where colonization has featured predominantly in history. Who is a citizen? Can ex-enslaved Africans obtain full citizenship rights in a society where historically colour was the main basis of discrimination? What happens when these 'second class' citizens had worked towards an equal place, according to Republican ideologies?

Dubois' work is seminal in its focus on the subalterns - the enslaved Africans. He manages to give them a very clear voice in the emancipation process. This general focus on the role of enslaved Africans in the abolition of slavery is not completely new to the existing historiography on African enslavement, as the literature on resistance in the British Caribbean shows. However, Dubois' detail accounts of resistance in the French Caribbean are a significant addition to the existing historiography on resistance and emancipation in the French West Indies. He shows quite clearly, the participation of enslaved Africans in the emancipation process in Guadeloupe and demonstrates their successes as a direct result of the fact that they acted as citizens in the colony. Enslaved Africans resisted the system that controlled their lives through various struggles and insurrections. Consequently, the island's history from 1787 to 1794 was characterized by a history of resistance and uprisings. In the process, they were engaged in debates concerning rights, equality and citizenships and were thereby carving a space for themselves in the colony. According to Dubois, "their actions brought about the victory of a form of colonial assimilationism that insisted the rights of man and the laws that flowed from them were equally applicable in the metropole and the colonies." (9)

Another important contribution of Dubois' work is the manner in which he analyzes the inter-relationship between the metropole and the colony. …

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