Historian Donald Wood writes in his publication ‘Trinidad in Transition’ that “Trinidad is a product of both the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars.” The dozens of French names, denoting families of all shades and conditions that continue to exists amongst us, attest to this. Some of the old royalist families came here before the French Revolution of 1789. They were apart of the French colonial establishment in the New World, who were drawn here by the remarkable conditions being offered by the Cedula of Population of 1783 some 6 years before storm of the Bastille in Paris. Others, both European and mixed royalists and republicans also arrived in that period. But with the advent of the wars between France and Britain, and later with the terror of the revolution itself, many more came to this island, being involved in various professions and establishing themselves on various levels of the society.
By the time of the British conquest in 1797, one could say that the French in Trinidad were representative of all aspects of French life, pre-revolution as well as post-revolution. There is no single simple reason for this enormous event that was the French Revolution. It was the most spectacular and the most important social upheaval in Europe. In much the same manner that the establishment of the Vatican’s hegemony over Europe in the opening centuries of the Christian era defined a change, so too did the revolution in a very real manner mark the end of one reality and the start of another - a change in both practice and principle.
It went further than the American Revolution, which preceded it by a few years. It altered everything, both politically and socially. It was actively propagandist and aggressive in that it challenged the old order of things outside of the boundaries of France with both ideas and armies.
In the 20 years of war, it carried revolutionary ideas throughout the length and breadth of Europe. Its influence impacted on places that its armies never reached, and its philosophy and thoughts were to express themselves in sentiments of democracy and nationalism, whether liberal, radical or socialist, which were to dominate the next century.
One of the several strands that gave rise to the French Revolution of 1789 was the growth of the middle classes. Increasingly, wealthy and educated living in the cities traveled and became open to ideas. They represented the new forces in society, who were not in sympathy with the existing values and institutions which for all intent and purpose had to do with a by-gone age and did not really include them. They were ambitious, and the effects of the ‘age of enlightenment’ introduced new ideas into science and philosophy.
It was out of this emerging ‘new people’ that the revolution was to draw its thinkers, writers and leaders. It was they who wrote the ‘Rights of Man’, a declaration that indicted the old aristocratic order and proclaimed new world order. In the long run, it was the middle class who benefited after the dust had settled. Particularly after the upheavals, wars and massacres, the institutions created during this period, for example the decimal system, contributed to the definition of modern times. but the revolution was not only about the middle classes at war with an intellectually bankrupt aristocracy and an absolutist and corrupt monarchy that may not have been in itself bona fide.
It also involved many elements of the overall French society, peasants, the urban lower classes, victims of the arrogant church authorities who were disdainful of their flock’s true needs for centuries. The intrinsically outdated, unfair privileges of an upper class that had not only lost its way, but also lost its reason for existence, also spurred on revolutionary sentiments.
The fate of the middle class revolutionaries and their policies were often dependent upon the acquiescence of the lower classes. Together they shaped the dynamic that was to drive the revolution. Conflicts arising between the crown and the aristocracy precipitated the calling of an assembly known as the estates-general, a general council of all the different levels of society which was to meet in May 1789. To prepare for this, for communities all over France to elect representatives, there were thousands of meetings held all over the country. These agitated, noisy and sometimes violent gatherings, especially of the lowest orders, were to be represented along with the nobility and the clergy. The preparation for the estates-general caused grievances to be aired against a backdrop of great poverty, unemployment and dissatisfaction with the overall establishment. The king, Louis XVI, was a simple person to put it mildly. He was not possessed of the significant charismatic qualities necessary for dealing with a difficult situation. Queen Marie Antoinette was shallow and vain. She was also very indiscreet in her personal life, giving opportunity for her enemies to further undermine the position and authority of the crown.
Various circumstances came together during the period of the estates-general sittings which provided an opportunity for the king to allay himself with the people against the nobility and the clergy. He, because of his indecisiveness, missed these chances. Louis XVI was also a prisoner of his time and of the institution that he personified. The opportunity missed, the people dominated the day and instead of the estates-general being representative of the estates of the realm, it became representative of the people of France.
The people sized the day. In Paris, a mob of the poor, dispossessed and criminal elements of the city, stormed a prison called the ‘Bastille’ on the 14th July 1789 and freed the prisoners. Grainstores were sacked. Rumours that the army was to be called out flung the entire country into turmoil. Several attempts were made to institute reforms with regard to the constitution, the church, the rights and privileges of the old nobility, and to the monarchy itself. Interestingly, some still obtain. But the very nature of revolutions is that once they get underway a total loss of control occurs. By 1792, the state of affairs was terror. 40,000 were guillotined in a matter of days. Maximilien Robespierre (1758 - 1794) led a dance of death that saw the execution of several hundred thousand people to the extent that he even executed the executioners. Every aristocratic family who did not flee lost if not all but most of its members. Property was confiscated and the church lost its authority.
In a matter of five or six years, the kingdom of France, an institution that had its origins in the first centuries of the Christian era, was swept away. The grand parade of kings and princes that had set the style for the monarchs of Europe ended on the platform that held the guillotine. Several Trinidadian French families lost many members of their family during the revolution. The de Verteuils, for example, come from the nobility of the Vendée who fought the revolution to the last and whose young son took service with the English as was with General Abercromby when Trinidad was taken from Spain and stayed on. On the other hand, there were other French people, such as the de Boissières, whose relatives in France though aristocratic supported the more rational aspects of the revolution, but who for safety’s sake sent their sons out to the Caribbean and to Trinidad. These stayed as well.
The revolution altered the status quo in Europe and the Caribbean. It also paved the way for another remarkable epoch that also impacted on Trinidad and Tobago - the Napoleonic era.