In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Saint Domingue

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Primary Sources
  • Seventeenth-Century Beginnings
  • Trade
  • Towns
  • Plantation Studies
  • Slave Resistance
  • Slave Law and Reform
  • Free People of Color
  • White Autonomism
  • Cultural Life

Atlantic History Saint Domingue
David Geggus
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0302


The French colony of Saint Domingue is now best known for the revolution that transformed it, between 1789 and 1803, into the independent state of Haiti. (See the Oxford Bibliographies in Atlantic History article “The Haitian Revolution.”) During the previous century, however, it was renowned as one of the most productive export economies in the Americas. Europe’s principal source of tropical produce, Saint Domingue was at different times the world’s leading exporter of sugar, coffee, and indigo. By the late 1780s, it rivaled Brazil as the main destination of the Atlantic slave trade and, although scarcely larger than Massachusetts, it had the third-largest slave population in the New World. After a long association with buccaneering and tobacco farming in the 17th century, the colony turned to plantation agriculture around 1700. It quickly became the wealthiest colony in the Caribbean at a time when the region was at the height of its geostrategic importance. The boom in international trade that it generated not only powered French commerce and industry, but also made a substantial contribution to the state treasury and underpinned the growth of the national navy. French aristocrats, merchants, and financiers invested in Saint Domingue, and it became the main site of emigration for French people of all social classes. Its society grew at a breakneck pace and was extremely unbalanced between white and black. It was especially unusual for the size of its white working class and the number of wealthy residents of Euro-African descent. (See also the Oxford Bibliographies in Atlantic History article “French Atlantic World.”)

General Overviews

Overviews come in several forms. Moreau de Saint-Méry 1797–1798 was written by a luminary of the colonial elite (see also Taffin 2006, cited under White Society: Individuals) and stands as a monument to the last days of a lost world. Girod de Chantrans 1980 presents a more critical view by a contemporary observer. Vaissière 1909 is an early attempt at social history. Pluchon 1991, Régent 2007, and Gainot 2015 are modern imperial histories that give limited space to Saint Domingue but situate the colony within the first French empire. Blackburn 1997 situates both within the emergent world of American slavery. Girod 1972 offers a general social history of the plantation era in Saint Domingue. Geggus 2013 is an article-length analysis of developments in the colony’s three main communities prior to the outbreak of the Haitian Revolution. Burnard and Garrigus 2016 juxtaposes the 18th-century histories of Saint Domingue and Jamaica.

  • Blackburn, Robin. The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492–1800. London: Verso, 1997.

    A political economy emphasizing the relationship between slavery and the rise of capitalism. Chapters 7 and 10 concern the French.

  • Burnard, Trevor, and John Garrigus. The Plantation Machine: Atlantic Capitalism in French Saint-Domingue and British Jamaica. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

    An original comparison of the 18th-century Caribbean’s two leading colonies, with particular attention to plantations and towns, race relations, slave resistance, and the experience of war.

  • Gainot, Bernard. L’Empire colonial français: De Richelieu à Napoléon. Paris: Armand Colin, 2015.

    DOI: 10.3917/arco.gaino.2015.01

    A brief overview of France’s first colonial empire, written from a different perspective than Pluchon 1991.

  • Geggus, David P. “Saint-Domingue on the Eve of Revolution.” In Haitian History: New Perspectives. Edited by Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall, 72–89. New York: Routledge, 2013.

    Surveys the evidence regarding stress and stability in colonial society, questioning the inevitability of the Haitian Revolution.

  • Girod, François. De la société créole (Saint-Domingue au XVIIIe siècle). Paris: Hachette, 1972.

    A popular social history equally divided between white and nonwhite society.

  • Girod de Chantrans, Justin. Voyage d’un Suisse dans différentes colonies d’Amérique. Presented by Pierre Pluchon. Paris: Tallandier, 1980.

    Originally published in 1785, by a visitor who resided briefly in northern Saint Domingue. Typifies the emergent liberal critique of slavery and colonialism.

  • Moreau de Saint-Méry, Médéric-Louis-Élie. Description topographique, physique, civile, politique et historique de la partie française de l’isle Saint-Domingue. 2 vols. Philadelphia, 1797–1798.

    A rich, encyclopedic work, written in the 1780s by a Creole lawyer and intellectual who spent nine years in Saint Domingue. Its 1,600 pages combine a detailed geographic survey with history and a long essay on colonial society notable for its attention to racial intermixture and African ethnic groups. Modern print editions appeared in 1958 and 2004, and an English translation of brief extracts (A Civilization That Perished) in 1985. Both Volume 1 and Volume 2 are available online.

  • Pluchon, Pierre. Histoire de la colonisation française: Le premier empire colonial, des origines à la Restauration. Paris: Fayard, 1991.

    A lengthy and engaged nationalist presentation of French colonialism by a specialist on Saint Domingue.

  • Régent, Frédéric. La France et ses esclaves: De la colonisation aux abolitions (1620–1848). Paris: Grasset, 2007.

    A comparative study of the slave regimes of France’s colonies.

  • Vaissière, Pierre de. Saint-Domingue: La société et la vie créoles sous l’ancien régime (1629–1789). Paris: Perrin, 1909.

    Good material on slavery and white society. Despite its age and idiosyncratic focus on the aristocracy, it is still worth reading. Vaissière remains one of very few scholars who have gone through the full run of Saint Domingue’s administrative archives.

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