The ideas of the French Revolution reached the shores of St. Vincent in 1795 due to the concerted efforts of one man. Victor Hugues, French revolutionary commander and Commissioner of Guadeloupe. Hugues, who was officially sent out to the Windward Islands to implement the ‘le Decret du 16 pluviôse’ in France’s colonies in the eastern Caribbean, made a proclamation that was communicated to the Black Carib (Garifuna) Paramount Chief Joseph Chatoyer (one of the princpal characters featured in my upcoming historical fiction novel Children of the Ocean God) in St. Vincent via an emissary, recorded in the historical record as Citoyen Touraille. This proclamation read as follows (as translated from French by Prof. Curtis Jacobs in his conference paper The Brigands’s War in St Vincent: The view from the French records, 1794-1796):
LIBERTY – LAW – EQUALITY
The Commissioners, delegated by the National Convention to the Windward Islands, to
General Chatoyer, chief of a free nation.
The French nation in combating with despotism is allied to all free people: it desires
nothing but liberty. It has always sustained the Caribs against the vile attempts of the
English. The time is arrived when the ancient friendship between the French people and
the Caribs ought to be renewed. They should exterminate their common enemy, the
We swear friendship and assistance in the name of the French nation to you and your
comrades… Attack! Exterminate all the English in St Vincent; but give means to the
French to second you. We have nominated citizen Toraille Captain, and citizen Michael Mather Lieutenant of the Infantry of the Republic.
From the wording it is clear that Hugues proclamation is directed at inducing the Black Caribs to wage war against the English, who were France’s chief rivals for hegemony in the eastern Caribbean islands in the late 18th century. It is also interesting to note that Hugues lofty revolutionary rhetoric also gives the impression that France was a champion of freedom in the world at that time. This was due in no small part to the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, which were central to the French Revolution, being actively exported beyond French borders spawning a series of conflicts known as the French Revolutionary Wars (including the Second Carib War in St. Vincent). However, in the Caribbean colonies there was profound dilemma for the French. Slavery and the associated slave trade were incompatible with the French Revolutions’ noble notions of equality, liberty and brotherhood. This precipitated an envitable violent tension between the slave owning French plantocracy in the Caribbean and the French revolutionaries, including Victor Hugues.
To Hugues credit and illustrative of his dedication to the ideals of the French Revolution upon his arrival in Guadeloupe on May 21st 1794, he immediately abolished slavery. He did this onstensibly to bolster the strength of his army in a bid to retake the island from British occupation. By 6th October 1794 the British were defeated by his forces composed of thousands of freed slaves, gens de couleur (i.e., free people of color) and revolutionary soldiers from France. However, it was not until November 1st 1794 that Hugues formally proclaimed an end to slavery in Guadeloupe, several months after its abolition (see the proclamation text in the picture above). Sadly, the end of slavery in Guadeloupe lasted only eight years, before it was reinstated by Napoleon.
I hope you have enjoyed this blogpost focusing on Victor Hugues and the wider geopolitical context of the Second Carib War. Till next time, have a great start to the week! As always please feel free to leave a comment below, I am always happy to hear from you.
(Picture Credit: Proclamation by Victor Hughes (1770-1826), on the 1st November 1794, a few months after abolition of slavery : “Liberty and republic triumph (…) at last no traces of slavery remain in Guadeloupe.” This picture is in the public domain.)