Étienne Polverel

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Étienne Polverel (1740–1795) was one of two French Revolutionary Civil Commissioners who ended slavery in Saint-Domingue in 1793 during the Haitian Revolution


Born in Bearn, Polverel served as syndic for the region, then served as a jurist for the Parlement of Paris. Given his legal training, Polverel went on to become a prosecutor for the Revolutionary Tribunal. He also joined the Commune, and became a member of its General Council.

Polverel was a Freemason and a member of the Jacobin Club. He made himself known as an adversary of the deputies from the colonies, and as a partisan of Jacques Pierre Brissot and Léger-Félicité Sonthonax.

Involvement in the Abolition of Slavery in Saint-Domingue[edit]

Polverel arrived in Le Cap aboard the America as a Civil Commissioner to Saint-Domingue on 17 September 1792, along with Sonthonax and Jean-Antoine Ailhaud. He was given charge of the West, and when Ailhaud abandoned his post, Polverel took responsibility for the South as well.

Although his more famous colleague Sonthonax is usually given full credit for emancipating the Haitian slaves, it was actually Polverel who wrote his own set of laws governing post-emancipation plantation labor, different from those established by Sonthonax; these remained in place under the rule of André Rigaud until 1800. All laws were written without French oversight, but the National Convention accepted them. However, they demanded that all freed slaves continue to work on the plantations.

Although France confirmed the end of slavery on 4 February 1794, emancipation was controversial and virulently opposed by Maximilien de Robespierre; the two Commissioners were therefore recalled to Paris. Polverel faced being guillotined, but Robespierre's fall occurred before a decision could be taken. He died in Paris before being exonerated.

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