Law and History Review


Paper Thin: Freedom and Re-enslavement in the Diaspora of the Haitian Revolution

Rebecca J. Scott c1

In the summer of 1809 a flotilla of boats arrived in New Orleans carrying more than 9,000 Saint-Domingue refugees recently expelled from the Spanish colony of Cuba. These migrants nearly doubled the population of New Orleans, renewing its Francophone character and populating the neighborhoods of the Vieux Carré and Faubourg Marigny. At the heart of the story of their disembarkation, however, is a legal puzzle. Historians generally tell us that the arriving refugees numbered 2,731 whites, 3,102 free people of color, and 3,226 slaves. But slavery had been abolished in Saint-Domingue by decree in 1793, and abolition had been ratified by the French National Convention in 1794. In what sense and by what right, then, were thousands of men, women, and children once again to be held to be “slaves”?

(Online publication October 20 2011)



Rebecca J. Scott is the Charles Gibson Distinguished University Professor of History and Professor of Law at the University of Michigan <>. She is the author of Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba after Slavery (Harvard University Press, 2005) and co-author with Jean M. Hébrard of Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation (forthcoming, Harvard University Press, 2012). She thanks Aharon Barak, Susanna Blumenthal, Richard Brooks, Sidney Chalhoub, Natalie Zemon Davis, Lo Faber, Ada Ferrer, Paul Finkelman, Allison Gorsuch, Malick Ghachem, Tom Green, Ariela Gross, Hendrik Hartog, Scott Hershovitz, Walter Johnson, Martha S. Jones, Alexandre Kedar, James Krier, Paul Lachance, Silvia Lara, Douglas Laycock, Christopher McCrudden, Julian Davis Mortenson, Kristin Mann, Graham Nessler, William Novak, Vernon Palmer, Sallyanne Payton, Bianca Premo, Richard Primus, Donald Regan, João Reis, Scott Shapiro, Jed Shugerman, Norman W. Spaulding, Eric Stein, Joseph Vining, James Whitman, John Witt, and other colleagues and students who have offered observations and suggestions on various versions of this story. The larger project on enslavement of which this essay is a part also owes a great deal to discussions with Jean Allain, Kenneth Aslakson, Sueann Caulfield, Alejandro de la Fuente, Laurent Dubois, Hussein Fancy, Jean M. Hébrard, Marial Iglesias, Beatriz Mamigonian, Edgardo Pérez Morales, Lawrence Powell, Peter Railton, Thomas Scott-Railton, Eric Stein, Mark Tushnet, Cécile Vidal, and Rudolph Ware. Irene Wainwright and Greg Osborn of the Louisiana Division, New Orleans Public Library, were generous with their time and assistance in the search for records, as were Emilie Gagnet Leumas of the Archives of the Archdiocese of New Orleans and Florence Jumonville, Chair of the Louisiana and Special Collections Department, Earl K. Long Library, University of New Orleans. The staffs of the University of Michigan Law Library, the National Humanities Center, and the New Orleans Notarial Archives Research Center were also very helpful. Financial support for research was provided by the Law School and the College of Literature, Science and the Arts of the University of Michigan, and by the grant of a Fellows' Fellowship at the National Humanities Center.