Academic journal article MACLAS Latin American Essays

Fleeing the Nightmare: French Emigres in Cuba and Louisiana during the Haitian Revolution, 1791-1810

Academic journal article MACLAS Latin American Essays

Fleeing the Nightmare: French Emigres in Cuba and Louisiana during the Haitian Revolution, 1791-1810

Article excerpt

The reality of slave insurrection was a constant fear in slaveholding societies, but a new urgency materialized during the latter half of the eighteenth century. This new urgency was a result of both the increased social tensions borne by slaveholding societies and of the general commotion spread by anti-colonial and bourgeois unrest in the colonies, the prime example was the revolution in North America. Latin American nations were not immune from the effects of the American and French Revolutions, but were also contending with a "reorganization" of empire sponsored by the Bourbons. These reforms which encompassed economic, political, religious and military changes did not go unchallenged and in many cases led to insurrection. The Tupac Amaru Rebellion in Peru and the Comunero Revolt in Columbia highlight the diverse responses to the imposition of a "new" governing system. The incidents, that pre-date the French Revolution, were signals to Spain of the growing unrest in the empire and the challenge to the existing order from all sectors of colonial society. The repercussions of the Haitian Revolution added yet another dimension, the spectre of a large scale slave revolt.

The French diaspora resulting from the black insurrection in St. Domingue and from events in Europe during the period from 1791 to approximately 1810 affected the host societies in numerous ways. The refugees usually sought places with an established French population, but in many cases that would prove impossible. Louisiana and Philadelphia were the most attractive for refugees because they housed large numbers of French; Louisiana was the obvious choice for the majority--until its sale to the United States in 1803. Cuba, on the other hand, attracted some French emigres due to its geographical proximity. With the sale of Louisiana, many sought residence in that Spanish colony. The Napoleonic invasion in 1808, which turned the French into enemies of Spain, led many to leave Cuba, unless they were naturalized citizens or married to naturalized citizens. This article will examine the migration of French emigres to Louisiana, Cuba, and parts of the United States, and the events surrounding their arrival.

Newspapers throughout the 1790s reported the developments in St. Domingue, and boatloads of refugees from the island afforded the circulation of firsthand accounts in the slaveholding nations. United States ports, especially after the burning of Cap Francais in 1793, saw the arrival of thousands who had fled St. Domingue and now joined the French already residing in those cities. This is especially true of Philadelphia, Charleston, and New Orleans, which had large French populations prior to the 1790s.

United States interest in the Caribbean evolved as a result of the Triangular Trade, and continued after American independence in 1776. United States ships visited Caribbean ports frequently and profited from the clandestine commerce with the European colonies in the Caribbean. The importance of the West Indian trade is illustrated by the fact that in 1790 alone "31.3 percent of all United States exports went to the West indies." Although it was precarious, the West Indian trade accounted for a third of all United States exports during the period 1790-1814. States all along the eastern seaboard were heavily dependent on it for their economic well-being. Massachusetts, for one, in 1791 sent 77 percent of its fish, 48.8 percent of its beef, and 11.9 percent of its pork to the West Indies. (1)

Within the West Indies the importance of the French colonies to the United States was notable. For example, during the years 1794 to 1797 "the French colonies took between 39 percent and 44 percent of all United States exports to the Caribbean and South America." (2) The importance of St. Domingue, the premier French colony, to the United States was spectacular: it accounted for more United States exports than did all other islands in the Caribbean combined. …

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