Before the Revolution broke out, in modern day Haiti, in 1789 there were (at least) four distinct “types” of people living in Saint-Domingue: the whites, the black slaves, the maroons, and the free people of color- or gens de couleur libres. There were approximately 25,000 gens de couleur in 1789. Roughly half of them were born of Frenchmen and slave women. There were similar populations in Martinique and Guadeloupe.
The terms affranchis/anciens libres, and gens de couleur/mulâtres have different but largely overlapping meanings. Affranchis, a term that meant ex-slave was widely used by whites to refer to all free people of color in Saint-Domingue. After slavery ended in the colony, the term anciens libres ("the former free") was widely used to refer to those people who were free prior to the general emancipation of 1793. Gens de couleur ("people of colour") was another term applied to free people of color, but specifically to people of mixed French and African descent, as opposed to free blacks. This term was never used for enslaved people. Mulâtres ("mulattoes") also referred to people of mixed French and African descent, and usually referred to free people because mulattoes were generally set free by their white fathers, due to varying degrees of guilt or concern on the fathers' part. (There were, however, mulatto slaves.)
The other (roughly) 12,000 affranchis were black slaves who either purchased their freedom or had it given to them by their masters for one reason or another.
Regardless of their colour, affranchis could own plantations, and often owned large numbers of slaves themselves. The enslaved people were generally not friendly with the affranchis, who sometimes portrayed themselves as bulwarks against a slave uprising. As property owners themselves, affranchis sought very distinct lines set between their own class and that of slaves. Often working on their own account as artisans, shopkeepers or landowners, gens de couleur frequently became quite prosperous, and many prided themselves on their European culture and descent. They were often well educated in the French language, as distinct from the scorned Haitian Creole language used by slaves. Most gens de couleur were Catholic, and many denounced the Vodoun religion originating in Africa.
Under the ancien régime, the free people of color were drastically limited in their freedoms and did not possess the same rights as white Frenchmen. Nevertheless most gens de couleur were pro-slavery, at least up to the time of the French Revolution. Equal rights for free people of colour became an early central issue of the Haitian Revolution, and indeed of the French Revolution itself.
Examples of affranchis prominent in the history of Saint-Domingue and the Haitian Revolution are Toussaint Louverture (a black ancien libre), Julien Raimond, Vincent Ogé, André Rigaud, Alexandre Pétion, and the Chevalier de Saint-Georges.
During the course of the Haitian Revolution, many wealthy gens de couleur left as refugees, whether for France, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Louisiana or elsewhere. Others, however, remained to play an influential role in Haitian politics.