[Documents menu] Documents menu

Date: Tue, 6 Jun 1995 14:52:00 -0700 (PDT)
From: Bob Corbett <bcorbett@crl.com>
Message-Id: <Pine.SUN.3.91.950606144638.22389C-100000@crl6.crl.com>

Review of Anna Julia Cooper, Slavery and the French Revolutionists (1788-1805)

By Bob Corbett, 6 June 1995

by Anna Julia Cooper
translated with forward and introductory essay by Frances Richardson Keller
The Edwin Mellen Press (hard bound), 1988.
ISBN: 0-88946-637-8

The slaves of Saint-Domingue (colonial Haiti) rose up against their French and mulatto masters in 1791. This long complex revolutionary struggle finally ended in the Jan. 1, 1804 founding of the free Republic of Haiti.

However, the battle for freedom not only raged in Haiti, but slavery was an important issue in France as well. After the French Revolution began in 1789 slavery presented a very difficult problem to the revolution. How were they to deal with slave ownership.

The Amis des Noir (The Friends of the Blacks), a French abolitionist group was founded in 1787. They fought hard for people of color. Their primary battle was two-fold: to articulate the principle that The Rights of Man, conerstone of the French Revolution, had to apply to all humans. Secondly, in the politics of the Revolution they fought the more immediate battle for equal and full rights of citizenship for all free people of color in Saint-Domingue.

Anna Julia Cooper's book, actually her doctoral dissertation, makes the strong case of showing the important influence on San Domingue of these political battles being fought out in Paris. Cooper details the battle between the Amis des Noir and its estimated 500,000 members, on the one hand, and The Massiac Club, voice of the French planters and marintine French bourgeoise, on the other.

The Assembly had a terrible choice:

Cooper demonstrates how the battles in Paris, especially in the years 1789-1794, impacted the revolutionary activities in Saint-Domingue. Not only did the black slaves revolt to seek their freedom, but the white planters were driven toward succession from France because of the victories of abolitionist forces in France.

Cooper's book is more about the political struggles in France than the revolutionary history of Haiti, but it sheds a good deal of light on the interconnectedness of the French and Haitian Revolutions.

The book stands on its own, but translator, commentator and discoverer of this lost work, Frances Richardson Keller, does not present the book for its own sake. Keller discovered this work by accident. Running my finger along the shelves in a remote section of Regenstein library, I came upon an inconspicious black volume, the work of Anna Julia Cooper. (p. 1).

Keller's interest seems to be much more with Cooper's admittedly fascinating life than with the book itself. Anna Julia Cooper was born an American slave in 1859. At age 66 she presented the present volume as her doctoral dissertation at the University of Paris in 1925. In a long 105 year productive life, this ex-slave produced scholarly works and incredible feats for a woman and black of her time.

Nonetheless, I found Keller's focus on the author, rather than her provocative book, to be somewhat demeaning. Certainly Cooper achieved extraordinary things, especially given her color and sex in the period she lived. But SLAVERY AND THE FRENCH REVOLUTIONISTS (1788-1805) stands as a scholarly achievement independent of any biographical data of the author.