Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

Gendering the June Days: Race, Masculinity, and Slave Emancipation in Saint Domingue

Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

Gendering the June Days: Race, Masculinity, and Slave Emancipation in Saint Domingue

Article excerpt

In 1816 honorée Marie-Louise, Queen of Haiti, lauded by the archbishop as "the perfect model of mothers and wives," smiled down upon an elaborate fête, complete with theatrical performance, formal ball, fireworks, and magnificent dinner, where King Henri Christophe announced plans for a memorial to commemorate in perpetuity the Haitian people's emancipation from slavery.1 He would erect a column engraved with the declaration of independence and names of its male signatories in the Place d'Armes of the Citadel to honor Liberty and Independence. Each year, on the anniversary of independence, it would be the site of a funeral oration to honor the warriors who died in defense of liberty.2

So enmeshed had been the struggle for freedom with a state of war that the association of emancipation and the martial hero already had taken deep root in political culture and the historical imaginary by the turn of the century. In 1791, a year before the people of France unseated their king, slaves rose against their masters in Saint Domingue. In June 1793 French commissioners Sonthonax and Polverel emancipated male slave insurgents in exchange for their enlistment in the republican army, charting an unprecedented course toward emancipation. In February 1794 delegates from the North Province appeared before the French Convention and defended the emancipation decrees in a speech that extolled the military valor of the "new citizens"; that same day, the Convention abolished slavery in the French colonies.3 By 1 January 1804, another mass military mobilization had successfully resisted Napoleon's attempts to restore the slave regime and declared Haitian independence.

Given this history, it is not surprising that the story of revolution and emancipation in Saint Domingue should be remembered and recounted in succeeding decades primarily as the story of war and its male combatants. The exemplary figure of the martial hero - whether in the guise of insurgent general, metropolitan soldier, or colonist in defense of family and honor - has long served as a conceptual force field in the historiography of emancipation and revolution.4 One might even say that the "naturalization" of the soldier as emblem of freedom and independence has allowed him, in a sense, to elude critical analysis, while the gendered legacies of the emancipatory process often slip beneath the scholarly radar.

This essay places war, its heroes, and its victims under the analytical lens by focusing on one historic moment in the course of emancipation: the insurrection of Le Cap in June 1793 - a moment when the battle over rights and race was joined through claims to manhood and military valor. In the years that followed, white men of privilege and diverse political perspectives relived and refashioned the insurrection and its world-shaking consequences as they spun personal memories into written chronicles of the June Days. Such narratives, littered with martial heroes and sacrificial wives, performed a colonial labor at once political, personal, and literary, as they generated what Ann Laura Stoler has called "grids of intelHgibility" from "uncertain knowledge" about the practice of rule in a revolutionary moment. In those most uncertain times, narratives of the June Days helped to forge the "lineaments of common sense"5 that would delimit the terrain of debate over slavery and freedom. Indeed, the tropes of masculine heroism and honorable war that permeated these texts expose something of the gendered logic manifest in the process of emancipation for both women and men - a logic that would long constrain the boundaries of republican citizenship.


The French commissioners' proclamation, dated 21 June 1793, which legally emancipated black insurgents who agreed to fight for the French Republic, served as a watershed in the prosecution of war, the course of emancipation, and the destiny of the colony. By the time of this decree, the exchange of manumission for military service had a long history both within and beyond the French colonies. …

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