Vincent Oge, a free man of color from Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), is remembered for organizing a short-lived rebellion of the free-colored population of Saint-Domingue in October 1790 when the White colonists continued to exclude free men of color from political participation.
His revolt was not directed against the institution of slavery but it was the “first armed protest movement against the colonial racial order to appeal explicitly to the principles of liberty and equality proclaimed by the French National Assembly,” according to Jeremy D. Popkin, author of the book, Facing Racial Revolution: Eyewitness Accounts of the Haitian Insurrection.
Indeed, Oge championed the rights of free mulattoes in Saint-Domingue but his activism would lead to his execution in 1791. His brutal execution later inspired the slave uprising that became the Haitian Revolution. Some say he was the first great martyr of the Haitian Revolution.
History says that although France had several colonies in the Caribbean, the most important was Saint Domingue (now Haiti) as it was then a sugar island, and the French largely depended on it for economic growth. Around 1789, France had about 500,000 slaves in Saint Domingue who worked as sources of labor for cotton, sugar and coffee plantations. These Black and mixed-race slaves had their behaviors regulated through a slave code, otherwise known as Code Noir, that among others prohibited them from entering French colonial territory or intermarrying with Whites.
When the French Revolution began in 1789, the free mulattos of Saint Domingue began discussing the civil and political rights of free Blacks regardless of their wealth and education. While free men of color had become educated and some were wealthy property owners, colonial laws excluded them from voting and holding office, among others. Oge was one of those free men of color who had become wealthy.
Born in 1755 in Dondon parish in Saint-Domingue, to Jacques Ogé, a White man, and Angélique Ossé, a mulatta, Oge grew up in a wealthy family that had inherited a coffee plantation. When he was very young, his family sent him to Bordeaux, France to be the apprentice of a goldsmith and this enabled him to make his fortune as a merchant.
Soon after he came back to Saint-Domingue, he became one of the wealthiest free colored planters of Saint-Domingue. He also became the leader of the free men of color. By September 1789 in Paris, he was working with a small group of free colored artisans and servants known as the Colons Américains (American Colonists). Oge, alongside members of the group, wrote a “book of grievances” concerning the French colonies, addressed to the National Assembly of France.
They asked that Black and White people be treated equally. Specifically, they demanded the representation of free Blacks in the government, the justice system and the military. They also called for the right to education. Their concerns were ignored by the French National Assembly but Oge, who was later a member of the Société d’Amis des Noirs (Society of the Friends of Blacks) in Paris, continued to fight for the rights of the free colored community and Black people in Saint Domingue.
Finally, in March 1790, the National Assembly granted full civic rights to all persons over twenty-five years old, who had certain income qualifications. The French assembly, however, left it to the colonial assembly to decide if the men of color would be included. They were excluded, reports The Abolition Project.
Oge, by October 1790, had returned to Saint-Domingue, and after realizing that the French governor had refused to remove the restrictions, he started a revolt. He had been able to buy weaponry in the U.S. before arriving in Saint-Domingue on October 21, 1790. With the help of Jean-Baptiste Chavanne, he gathered around 300 men, consisting mainly of mulattoes and some free Blacks. In a letter to the Assembly in Le Cap, Oge warned that he was ready to take up arms if the March 1790 decree was not enforced.
He was ignored. And now with his group, fully armed, they marched to Grande-Rivière, south of Le Cap, and joined with others with the aim of taking the city and disarming the White population. But Oge’s army was defeated by the colonists. Oge escaped and went into hiding in the eastern part of the island in Spanish Santo Domingo.
In November 1790, Oge was caught and sent back to Le Cap, where he was executed by the wheel in the city’s public square in February 1791.
As one account puts it: “He [Oge] is forced, cords hanging from his necks, to repent for his crimes on bended knee before being tied to a wheel and killed on a scaffold. His head is cut off and displayed on a stake. Two days later 21 of his supporters and troops are sentenced to death. The next month 13 more are sentenced to the galleys for life.”
The image of Oge’s death angered many in France, and this influenced the National Assembly to extend civil rights to freeborn men of color in the colony. Yet, some plantation owners refused to abide by the new decree, and the enslaved, who were now more powerful than before following the frequent conflicts on the island, began a second revolt in August 1791 — the Haitian Revolution. This eventually became the first successful slave revolt in history.