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

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

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

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


The idea of universal rights is often understood as the product of Europe, but as Laurent Dubois demonstrates, it was profoundly shaped by the struggle over slavery and citizenship in the French Caribbean. Dubois examines this Caribbean revolution by focusing on Guadeloupe, where, in the early 1790s, insurgents on the island fought for equality and freedom and formed alliances with besieged Republicans. In 1794, slavery was abolished throughout the French Empire, ushering in a new colonial order in which all people, regardless of race, were entitled to the same rights.

But French administrators on the island combined emancipation with new forms of coercion and racial exclusion, even as newly freed slaves struggled for a fuller freedom. In 1802, the experiment in emancipation was reversed and slavery was brutally reestablished, though rebels in Saint-Domingue avoided the same fate by defeating the French and creating an independent Haiti.

The political culture of republicanism, Dubois argues, was transformed through this transcultural and transatlantic struggle for liberty and citizenship. The slaves-turned-citizens of the French Caribbean expanded the political possibilities of the Enlightenment by giving new and radical content to the idea of universal rights.


On June 30, 1997, a public ritual took place in the town hall of Pantin, just outside Paris. It was organized by members of the sans-papiers movement, which had emerged as the most important defender of the rights of undocumented immigrants in France. The assistant to the Socialist mayor presided, wearing his tricolor sash to signal that he was acting as a Republican official. One by one, ten sans-papiers presented themselves, each accompanied by two French citizens who declared their wish to become his or her godparents. All three then signed a document that was given to the sans-papiers to be carried as an unofficial identity card, the mark of a symbolic and legal bond meant both to help them in their dealings with state officials and to make a political statement of solidarity. Each of the godmothers and godfathers was given a pin composed of a black and a white string tied together in a knot, whose peculiarity was (as the maker of the pins put it) that the more you pulled on it, the tighter it became.

When all ten groups had signed the documents, the mayor thanked them and invited them to champagne and orange juice. Before he broke up the assembly, however, a young Haitian sans-papier named Erol Josué interrupted him and asked whether he might speak. Josué was a musician and a dancer as well as an oungan— Vodou priest—who had lived in France for four years and who conducted ceremonies in Paris and its suburbs. “I—we—want to thank all those who have come forward to help us,” he said, then launched into a praise song to Agwé, a lwa, or deity, of Vodou who lives under the ocean and protects those who are on journeys. Josué then sang to Lasirèn, Agwé’s consort, who is the patron of musicians. It was a call for help that told the lwa that the assembled group was blocked at the crossroads and needed guidance to move forward. When he stopped singing, Josué told the crowd: “Just as you help us, we will help you, in our own way.”

This event was part of the larger sans-papiers movement, through which victims of restrictive French immigration laws publicly announced their status as sans-papiers residents and challenged the laws excluding them from documentation and the rights that flowed from it. Through a wave of church occupations and demonstrations in 1996 and 1997, the sans-papiers phrased their demands in a universalist language of Repub-

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