The Black Men Who Owned Slaves in Saint-Domingue

When Americans elected Barack Obama President of the United States in November 2008, people around the world marveled at the fact that a black man was elected president of the world’s most powerful nation. However, according to a recent Pew Research Center study, a majority of Americans do not even consider Barack Obama black. In their view, he is a person of “mixed-race.” Is there really a difference, however? Have the struggles of “authentically black” men and mixed-race men been much different? A look at the history of one of the most prosperous French colonies, Sainte-Domingue, can help us to answer that question.

Before the French Revolution, Sainte-Domingue had one of the largest populations of mixed race men in the Americas, and those men were derogatorily called “mulattoes.” Even though they did not share the same rights as the white colonists and were often debarred from intermingling with the white society in Sainte-Domingue, they were free, unlike most black men. They comprised a group of people called the gens de couleur, or “free men of color,” and, as such, were able to own land and, ironically, even slaves. In fact, many of them had inherited vast sums of money and, by 1789, the gens de couleur owned one-third of the plantation property and one-quarter of the slaves in Sainte-Domingue.

Since the mulattoes were slave-holders and owned so much land throughout Sainte-Domingue, their relationship with the blacks was just as strained as their relationship with the whites. To make matters worse, the mulattoes openly prided themselves on European culture and their European descent. They spoke French like any other well-educated Frenchman and spurned the slaves’ Creole language. They were Roman Catholics and denounced the Voudoun religion, which the slaves brought with them from Africa. On May 15, 1791, the National Assembly in France even voted to give full French citizenship to the gens de couleur. It was a positive step for the gens de couleur in Sainte-Domingue, but one that was short-lived.

Months later, a slave revolt broke out in Sainte Domingue and the mulattoes, seeing that the white colonists were losing, quickly aligned themselves with the black slaves. Later still, the mulattoes, led by André Rigaud, and the black slaves, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, would fight the War of the Knives, which the former gens de couleur lost. Aftewards, the mulattoes fled to Puerto Rico, Cuba and France.

Even though it is true that the election of Barack Obama in the United States was a remarkable event, not just for the Americas, but for the entire world, the history of Sainte-Domingue (now modern-day Haiti), demonstrates that there has been a historical difference between black and mixed-raced men, and that there might still be a distinction today.

Credit: Steven Bonhoeffer