Today, human rights are as important a discursive tool as they were during the revolutions of the late 18th century. They serve as points of departure for virtually all major political arguments from gay marriage to toppling authoritarian regimes and notions of big brothers the world around. But when thinking about the enlightenment philosophers and their legacy the first thoughts most people will have is of some western European country or another. This historical imagining is not accurate. The limits of enlightenment have undergone significant changes in places outside of Europe which stretched and enhanced the idea of human rights. Laurent Dubois in A Colony of Citizens: Revolution & Slave Emancipation on the French Caribbean, 1787 – 1804, published by The University of Carolina Press in 2004, argues that the meaning of equality underwent major changes due to the words and actions of abolitionists and self emancipating slaves in Saint-Domingue, Guadeloupe and other French possessions during the French Revolution.
Dubois explains that as the language of equality and brotherhood reached the colonial possessions of France during the early years of the Revolution it was adopted and understood differently than in Paris. In his words on page 4:
Central aspects of the universalism presented by imperial powers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as products of Europe’s intellectual heritage in fact originated in the colonial Caribbean. . . The challenges posed by the colonial insurgents in the Americas—the most revolutionary of them the enslaved rebels of the French Caribbean—created a democratic culture that was later presented as a gift from Europe and a justification for expanding imperialism.A Colony of Citizens argues and demonstrates how the struggle for emancipation in the Caribbean in fact expanded and profoundly impacted the meaning of the political enlightenment of the period. The rebels in the Guadeloupe spoke in the language of Republicanism to forward their cause and deepened its meanings beyond the intentions of its authors.
Much of the book takes the form of a moving and passionate narrative about the events which unfolded in the islands as they watch Paris from across the Atlantic. The book refers back as far as the Code Noir issued by Royal fiat in 1685, which outlined the treatment and equality of freed slaves. Originally this document gave the former slaves of France equality with other Frenchmen, but this slowly changed with additional aristocratic limitations over time. As the revolution unfolded some slaves were emancipated, most common among them were the marital partners and children of slave holders. Due to large and furious slave revolts during the French Revolution, including a massive slave uprising in La Cap in Saint-Domingue took place in 1791 amidst fierce debates over the status of both slavery and the 'gens de couleur,' increased freedoms were given former slaves in 1792 and then full emancipation was given in 1794. Had there not remained continuous pressure in the form of armed insurrection royalist sympathizers and plantation owners might well have succeeded in retaining race based slavery. As the consequence of the reinvented language of the enlightenment coupled with the sustained violence of rebellion in the Antilles the meaning of equality was fundamentally altered and developed to a further extent. The book also outlines the decline of the first French Republic and the establishment of the Napoleonic Empire and his 1802 reinstatement of slavery. Dubois notes that it wasn’t until 1848 that the final emancipation was declared again but the book doesn’t include this later period within its scope.
The point of the book is to demonstrate through literature, correspondences, and the Philosophical treatises written in both Paris and the Antilles the reality that the understanding of enlightenment values was rebuilt in the colonies of France. Human equality as we receive it today was forged in the fires of rebellion in the former French colonies, as Dubois put it throughout this nuanced and detailed argumentative narrative.