Sunday, January 31, 2010

C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Chapter 2: "The Owners"

Class analysis of the free population

big whites -- planters, merchants, and shipping agents

small whites -- overseers in the countryside; tradesmen, clerks, and the white rabble in the towns -- racial distinction was key to their status

bureaucrats -- representatives of the French crown and, effectively, the interests of the mainland bourgeoisie -- their arbitrary power was resented by the big whites, and so the bureaucrats increasingly aligned themselves with the small whites for support

mulattoes -- increasing prosperous and resented -- many were significant landowners -- the local government steadily increased restrictions on them in the years up to the revolution -- even extermination was mooted, but the mulatto population was too large and potentially powerful for that risk to be taken.

The French government imposed a mercantilist policy -- the Exclusive -- which compelled the San Domingo colony to carry out its trade through France. This provided an immensely lucrative stream of business for metropolitan French manufacturers and merchants, accounting for 11 million pounds out of France's total export trade of 17 million by 1789. (By comparison, Britain's total colonial exports were just 5 million pounds.) It was not just the bourgeoisie that benefited: employment from the trade also supported as many as 6 million Frenchmen. It limited the profits of the islanders, however, and this, together with their debts with French lenders, put them at odds with the mainland bourgeoisie.

British leaders feared the power that France stood to gain from all this wealth, particularly since the island's production was expanding so rapidly (nearly doubling in the six years up to 1789). The British policy for abolition of the slave trade gained its initial impetus from a desire to choke off further expansion of San Domingo's economy. British action included covert support for French abolition activists -- many of whom later became prominent in the revolutionary government.

The rapid growth of San Domingo's output also destabilized the colony, particularly because it required the integration of large numbers of newly imported native African slaves.

Only the big whites initially took part in the political events leading up to the revolution, with a segment seeking representation in the estates. James contends this was a minority, and that many planters (including the expatriates of the Club Massiac) preferred to avoid drawing attention to the colony. In any case, representation was secured when this faction of San Domingo nobility threw their support behind the third estate at the tennis court oath.

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