Born in Bearn, Polverel served as syndic for the region, then served as a jurist for the Parlement of Paris.
Etienne Polverel came from a wealthy, aristocratic background. By profession he was a lawyer. Polverel was also a Freemason and a member of the Jacobin Club. Some of the members in his Masonic lodge in Bordeaux were free blacks from Saint-Domingue, so he had early contacts with them before being sent to the colony on September 17, 1792.
Polverel was sent to Saint-Domingue along with Leger Felicite Sonthonax to enforce a law passed on April 4, 1792, which decreed that free blacks and whites in the colony were to have equal rights. Jacques Pierre Brissot, a prominent abolitionist at the time, lobbied for them to be sent and ensured that they were. The rights that were then denied to free blacks were the franchise and the right to hold office in the Colonial Assembly (the legislative body that ran internal affairs in the colony). The Assembly was at the time run only by whites. About 10,000 French troops went with Polverel and Sonthonax to help enforce the April 4th decree.
In 1795, after issuing emancipation proclamations in Saint-Domingue, Polverel was recalled to France. The National Convention had passed its own abolition of slavery, which vindicated Polverel and Sonthonax. However, plantation owners in France were furious with Polverel for having done so, so they put him on trial once he returned to France. The Committee of Public Safety deliberated for a few months on what to do about Sonthonax and Polverel, but Polverel got sick and died before a verdict on his fate was reached.
Like many Jacobins, Polverel was a fervent supporter of the Revolution and its ideals. He was also a nationalist. Polverel was primarily committed to upholding the laws of the French assembly. In the Jacobin view, those who dissented from passed laws were not in the opposition, they were counter-revolutionaries to be dealt with harshly. Polverel seemed to have agreed with this view.
Following the French Revolution in 1789, Polverel began contributing to radical newspapers where he published articles against slavery. So ardent was his opposition to slavery that on one occasion he attempted to remove some pro-slavery members of the Jacobin club because of their views. The Revolution, thought Polverel, had no room for pro-slavery sentiments.
Despite his personal opposition to slavery Polverel put the laws of the France first. When he and Sonthonax arrived in Saint-Domingue, one of their first acts was to issue a proclamation declaring that they had arrived to save slavery, not abolish it.
Saint-Domingue was probably the wealthiest colony in the world up until 1789. Rich whites held the best land, and mostly used it to grow sugar. Less profitable land was used to grow coffee, and both free blacks and whites owned coffee plantations. Coffee and sugar plantations produced tremendous wealth for France and its colonies, but the slave-laborers could not enjoy the fruits of their labor because they had few, if any, rights.
The Haitian Revolution of 1790 did not begin merely as a slave uprising. Instead, it was the combined result of two simultaneous though unrelated revolts. First, the free blacks of Saint-Domingue began an armed rebellion to gain equal rights with the white settlers. Although free blacks and colonial whites mingled and had generally decent relations, the whites held on to all political power and were willing to use violence to maintain it. The problem of the white colonists had to be settled before the matter of slavery. But even the whites were not totally unified: poor whites resented the wealth and influence of the rich plantation owners, and the wealthy were fearful of having their property stolen.
Second, the slaves revolted for various reasons. Some wanted to gain their immediate freedom, others fought for improved conditions on the plantations. For example, some slaves had heard that King Louis XVI was going to allow them to freely work for three days out of the week. While the truth of this statement from the King was disputed, it nevertheless encouraged some slaves to join the revolt so as to gain the rights allegedly promised to them.
The situation in the colony was therefore extremely precarious and needed careful handling.
Polverel arrived in Le Cap aboard the America as a Civil Commissioner to Saint-Domingue on 17 September 1792, along with Sonthonax and Jean-Antoine Ailhaud. He was given charge of the West, and when Ailhaud abandoned his post, Polverel took responsibility for the South as well.
When Sonthonax and Polverel first arrived in Saint-Domingue, they were met with hostility by the white settlers. Because the whites feared that Polverel came to abolish slavery, few of them supported the civil commissioners' mission, so Polverel turned to the free blacks for support. The free blacks proved to be the only reliable group that Poverel could ally with.
On May 5, 1793, Polverel issued a proclamation which demanded enforcement of the Code Noir. The Code Noir was a series of laws which stated that slaves must be treated with respect and not abused. Although passed in 1685, the Code Noir was never respected by the white colonists, who routinely abused the slaves. Polverel's proclamation on May 5 stated that slaves must be given basic provisions and small plots of land for them to manage. To ensure enforcement, the proclamation was translated to Creole and read aloud on all slave plantations. This would ensure that slaves would become aware of their new protections.
Shortly after the proclamation was issued, a new governor arrived in Le Cap, Saint-Domingue. His name was Francois-Thomas Galbaud du Fort. He owned property in the colony and hoped to preserve the slave system. For these reasons, he distrusted and even hated Polverel and Sonthonax. Galbaud even insulted the civil commissioners, and his pro-slavery rhetoric was supported by many of Le Cap's whites. Sonthonax and Polverel returned to Le Cap (they were in different regions of Saint-Domingue) and imprisoned Galbaud in a ship because of his defiant behavior.
Galbaud, however, enjoyed support from the sailors then anchored near the ship and from other whites in the city. On June 20, 1793, Galbaud managed to escape and attack Le Cap, aiming to capture Sonthonax and Polverel. The commissioners, massively outnumbered, escaped to the outskirts of the city. Galbaud's followers rampaged through the city, and fires burnt much of it to the ground. To recapture the city, Polverel and Sonthonax issued a statement saying that all blacks who would join them and fight against Galbaud would be granted French citizenship. Some of the slaves who were revolting answered their call, as did many freed blacks. Some white troops also remained loyal to Polverel. With the combined efforts of these three groups, Polverel returned to Le Cap, defeated Galbaud, and took control of the city.
By this time, Spain and Britain had declared war on France. Both of these empires wanted Saint-Domingue, especially Spain, which had a colony on the same island. To combat the French and Spanish threat, Polverel needed to gather even more support to preserve French rule in Saint-Domingue. In August of 1793, Polverel and Sonthonax issued general emancipation for all blacks born in France's colonies, including for their families. Polverel followed that proclamation with another in October, which stated that all blacks were to be French citizens and enjoy full and complete equality. Following emancipation, though, Polverel hoped to provide one more incentive for the blacks to fight for the French Republic. He therefore decreed that blacks were to be given exclusive rights over land in a year's time. He also passed other laws on post-slave labor, including a requirement that freed slaves continue to work on their plantations for one year following the decree. This finally won over the remaining blacks who were not loyal to the Republican government, and they joined together to repel the incoming British and Spanish troops. The blacks of Haiti were not just freed but legally equal to whites.