Saint-Domingue, Slavery, and the
Origins of the French Revolution
Jeremy D. Popkin
Every history of the French Revolution acknowledges that the monarchy’s financial crisis was the trigger that set off the chain of events leading to the summoning of the Estates-General and the storming of the Bastille. However, few note that the financial crisis was a direct result of two wars fought largely over colonial issues: the Seven Years’ War and the War of American Independence. If French leaders had not felt compelled throughout the eighteenth century to engage in a worldwide contest with Britain for colonies and trade, the state of the royal treasury might not have become critical enough to bring down the monarchy.1 One can thus hardly dispute the relevance of the colonial empire in understanding the origins of the French Revolution. Nevertheless, other than brief mentions of the problem of war debts, standard histories of the Revolution’s origins rarely consider how colonial concerns contributed to the collapse of the monarchy.
Current scholarship increasingly recognizes both the significance of colonial issues in the French Revolution itself and the massive impact of the Revolution in France on the country’s overseas colonies, culminating in the uprising in Saint-Domingue that led to the creation of the independent black republic of Haiti and to the experiment to turn Guadeloupe