Gens de couleur

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Gens de couleur is a French term meaning "people of color." The term was commonly used in France's West Indian colonies prior to the abolition of slavery, where it was a short form of gens de couleur libres ("free people of color"). It referred specifically to free people of mixed-race, primarily European and African.

In some cases, planters or other relatively wealthy white men took slave women or free women of mixed race as concubines. If the woman was enslaved, the man might free her and their children, adding to the class of free people of color. Such planters often sent their mixed-race sons to France for education and service in the military, and sometimes settled property on them. Prior to the Haitian Revolution, Saint-Domingue was legally divided into three distinct groups: free whites (who were divided socially between the plantation-class grands blancs and the working-class petits blancs), freedmen (affranchis), and slaves. More than half of the affranchis were gens de couleur libres. In addition, marrons (runaway slaves) were sometimes able to establish independent small communities and a kind of freedom in the mountains, along with remnants of Haiti's original Taino people.

At the time when slavery ended in the colony in 1793, there were approximately 28,000 anciens libres ("free before") in Haiti. The term was used to distinguish those who were already free, compared to those liberated by the general emancipation of 1793. About 16,000 of these anciens libres were gens de couleur libres. Another 12,000 were black slaves who had either purchased their freedom or had received it from their masters for various reasons.

Regardless of their ethnicity, freedmen had been able to own plantations and often owned large numbers of slaves themselves. The slaves were generally not friendly with the freedmen, who sometimes portrayed themselves as bulwarks against a slave uprising. As property owners, freedmen tended to support distinct lines set between their own class and that of slaves. Often working as artisans, shopkeepers or landowners, the gens de couleur frequently became quite prosperous, and many prided themselves on their European culture and descent. They were often well-educated in the French language, and they tended to scorn the Haitian Creole language used by slaves. Most gens de couleur were Roman Catholic, and many denounced the Vodoun religion originating in Africa.

Under the ancien régime, despite the provisions of equality nominally established in the Code Noir, the gens de couleur were limited in their freedoms. They did not possess the same rights as white Frenchmen, specifically the right to vote. Most supported slavery on the island, at least up to the time of the French Revolution. But they sought equal rights for free people of color, which became an early central issue of the Haitian Revolution.

The primary adversary of the gens de couleur before and into the Haitian Revolution were the poor white farmers and trademen of the colony, known as the petits blancs (small whites). Because of the freedmen's relative economic success in the region, the white farmers often resented their social standing and worked to keep them shut out of government. Beyond financial incentives the free coloreds caused the poor whites further problems in finding women to start a family because the successful, often handsome mulattos won the hands of the small number of eligible bachelorettes on the island. With growing resentment, the working class whites monopolized assembly participation and caused the free people of color to look to France for legislative assistance.

The free people of color won a major political battle on May 15, 1791 when the National Assembly in France voted to give full French citizenship to free men of color. The decree restricted citizenship to those persons who had two free parents. The free people of color were encouraged, and many petits blancs were enraged. Fighting broke out over exercising the National Assembly's decree. This turmoil played into the slaves' revolts on the island.

In their competition for power, both the poor whites and free coloreds enlisted the help of slaves. By doing this, the feud helped to disintegrate class discipline and propel the slave population in the colonists to search further inclusion and liberties in society. As the slave rebellion in the north of the island wore on, many free people of color abandoned their earlier distance from the slaves. A growing coalition between the free coloreds and the former slaves was essential for the eventual success of the Haitians to expel French influence.

However, the former slaves and the anciens libres remained segregated in many respects. Their animosity and struggle for power erupted in 1799. The competition between the gens de couleur led by André Rigaud and the black Haitians led by Toussaint Louverture devolved into the War of the Knives.

After their loss in that conflict, many wealthy gens de couleur left as refugees to France, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the United States and elsewhere. Others, however, remained to play an influential role in Haitian politics.

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