About this Project

2016 – 2017

On 4 February 1794, the first French republic (1792-1804) became the first state ever to proclaim the universal abolition of slavery. By this act, slightly over a half of a million slaves in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti)—the single largest producer of sugar and coffee in the West Indies, and hence the most economically valuable colony in the world—suddenly became free. An earlier act passed in February 1792 sequestered the property of émigrés who had fled the Revolution and refused calls to reconcile with the new regime in France. Their property, including hundreds of plantations in Saint-Domingue, fell under the administration of the French government. These plantations were leased out and the profits split between their new managers and the revolutionary state. This collaboration between University of Chicago Professor Paul Cheney and 2016-2017 Neubauer Collegium Visiting Fellow Allan Potofsky examined in detail the functioning of Saint-Domingue’s plantation economy in an era of ostensibly free labor between 1794 and 1803, including the role of the French revolutionary state in managing sequestered properties. In aggregating administrative reports about the leasing of sequestered properties, the two hoped to shed light on a related set of questions, including:

The Evolution of Labor Regimes.  Successive civil and military governors in Saint-Domingue took different views of how the transition from enslaved to free labor on the plantation should take place. These included attitudes about self-governance by ex-slaves on the plantation; the division of revenues between managers, the state and cultivators; discipline and the ideology necessary to maintaining it; and eventual ownership of plantation property by cultivators.

Labor Force Demography and Geography. The single largest issue for administrators and plantation managers during the revolutionary period was that of labor supply: lease prices—and hence state revenue—hinged on the presence or absence of cultivators on their former plantations. In 1794 Saint-Domingue exported 1/24th the amount of sugar it had done in 1789, while in 1800 exports bounced back to 1/3 of previous highs—all thanks to the revolutionary state’s success in returning cultivators to their plantations. So far there has been no systematic study of the timing, geographic distribution and duration of this return to the plantation.

Class Structure and the Evolution of New Elites.  It is a commonplace of the historiography of the Haitian revolution that the new military elites of Saint-Domingue and Haiti (Toussaint Louverture, Jacques Dessalines, Alexandre Pétion and their captains) appropriated large tracts of the best sugar-producing land for themselves. Beneath this crust of high military officials lay a much more numerous group—many of them white plantation managers who worked for absentee proprietors before the revolution, others small landholders of all races—who also sought to gain control of the agricultural property that was the key to most wealth and power in Saint-Domingue. Lease data provides a glimpse into the identity of this aspiring group.


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