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The Haitian Revolution (1791-1803)

The Haitian Revolution (1791–1803) is the period of violent conflict in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, leading to the elimination of slavery and the establishment of Haiti as the first republic ruled by people of African ancestry. Although hundreds of rebellions occurred in the New World during the centuries of slavery, only the revolt on Saint-Domingue, which began in 1791, was successful in achieving permanent freedom. The Haitian Revolution is regarded as a defining moment in the history of Africans in the new world.

Although an independent government was created in Haiti, its society continued to be deeply affected by the patterns established under French colonial rule. The French established a system of minority rule over the illiterate poor by using violence and threats. The racial prejudice created by colonialism and slavery outlived them both. The post-rebellion racial elite (referred to as mulattoes) were descended from both Africans and white planters. Some had received an education, served in the French military, and even acquired land and wealth. Lighter complected than most Haitians, who were descendants only of enslaved Africans, the mulattoes dominated politics and economics.


The riches of the Caribbean depended on Europeans' taste for sugar, which plantation owners traded for provisions from North America and manufactured goods from European countries. Starting in the 1730s, French engineers constructed complex irrigation systems to increase sugarcane production. By the 1740s Saint-Domingue, together with Jamaica, had become the main supplier of the world's sugar. Sugar production depended on extensive manual labor provided by enslaved Africans in the harsh Saint-Domingue colonial plantation economy. The white planters who derived their wealth from the sale of sugar knew they were outnumbered by slaves by a factor of more than ten and lived in fear of slave rebellion.

In 1758, the white landowners began passing legislation that set restrictions on the rights of other groups of people until a rigid caste system was defined. Most historians have classified the people of the era into three groups. One was the white colonists, or blancs. A second was the free blacks (usually mixed-race, known as mulattoes or gens de couleur, free people of color). These tended to be educated, literate and often served in the army or as administrators on plantations. Many were children of white planters and slave mothers. The males often received education or artisan training, sometimes received property from their fathers, and freedom. The third group, outnumbering the others by a ratio of ten to one, was made up of mostly African-born slaves. A high rate of mortality among them meant that new slaves were being continually imported. They spoke a patois of French and West African languages known as Creole, which was also used by native mulattoes and whites for communication with the workers.

White colonists and black slaves frequently had violent conflicts. Gangs of runaway slaves, known as maroons, lived in the woods away from control. They often conducted violent raids on the island's sugar and coffee plantations. The success of these attacks established a black Haitian martial tradition of violence and brutality to effect political ends. Although the numbers in these bands grew large (sometimes into the thousands), they generally lacked the leadership and strategy to accomplish large-scale objectives. The first effective maroon leader to emerge was the charismatic François Mackandal, who succeeded in unifying the black resistance. A Vodou priest, Mackandal inspired his people by drawing on African traditions and religions. He united the maroon bands and also established a network of secret organizations among plantation slaves, leading a rebellion from 1751 through 1757. Although Mackandal was captured by the French and burned at the stake in 1758, large armed maroon bands persisted in raids and harassment after his death.

Situation in 1789

In 1789 Saint-Domingue, producer of 40 percent of the world's sugar, was the most profitable colony the French owned and in fact the wealthiest and most flourishing of the slave colonies in the Caribbean. The lowest class of society was enslaved blacks, who outnumbered whites and free people of color by eight to one. The slave population on the island totaled almost half of the one million slaves in the Caribbean by 1789. They were mostly African-born. The death rate in the Caribbean exceeded the birth rate, so imports of enslaved Africans continued. The slave population declined at an annual rate of two to five percent, due to overwork; inadequate food, shelter, clothing and medical care; and an imbalance between the sexes, with more men than women. Some slaves were of a creole elite class of urban slaves and domestics, who worked as cooks, personal servants and artisans around the plantation house. This relatively privileged class was chiefly born in the Americas, while the under-class born in Africa labored hard under abusive conditions.

The Plaine du Nord on the northern shore of Saint-Domingue was the most fertile area with the largest sugar plantations. It was the area of most economic importance. Here enslaved Africans lived in large groups of workers in relative isolation, separated from the rest of the colony by the high mountain range known as the Massif. This area was the seat of power of the grand blancs, the rich white colonists who wanted greater autonomy for the colony, especially economically.

Among Saint-Domingue’s 40,000 white colonials in 1789, European-born Frenchmen monopolized administrative posts. The sugar planters, the grand blancs, were chiefly minor aristocrats. Most returned to France as soon as possible, hoping to avoid the dreaded yellow fever, which regularly swept the colony. The lower class whites, petit blancs, included artisans, shopkeepers, slave dealers, overseers, and day laborers. Saint-Domingue’s free people of color, the gens de couleur, numbered more than 28,000 by 1789. Many of them were also artisans and overseers, or domestic servants in the big houses.

In addition to class and racial tension between whites, free people of color, and enslaved blacks, the country was polarized by regional rivalries between the North, South, and West. There were also conflicts between proponents of independence, those loyal to France, allies of Spain, and allies of Great Britain - who coveted control of the valuable colony.

Impact of French Revolution

French Revolution 

In France, the majority of the Estates General, an advisory body to the King, constituted itself as the National Assembly, made radical changes in French laws, and on 26 August 1789, published the Declaration of the Rights of Man, declaring all men free and equal. The French Revolution shaped the course of the conflict in Saint-Dominque and was at first widely welcomed in the island. So many were the twists and turns in the leadership in France, and so complex were events in Saint-Domingue, that various classes and parties changed their alignments many times.

The African population on the island began to hear of the agitation for independence by the rich European planters, the grands blancs, who had resented France's limitations on the island's foreign trade. The Africans mostly allied with the royalists and the British, as they understood that if Saint-Domingue's independence were to be led by white slave masters, it would probably mean even harsher treatment and increased injustice for the African population as the plantation owners would be free to inflict slavery as they pleased without even minimal accountability to their French peers.

Saint-Dominque's free people of color, most notably Julien Raimond, had been actively appealing to France for full civil equality with whites since the 1780s. Raimond used the French Revolution to make this the major colonial issue before the French National Assembly. In October 1790, Vincent Ogé, another wealthy free man of color from the colony, returned home from Paris, where he had been working with Raimond. Convinced that a law passed by the French Constituent Assembly gave full civil rights to wealthy men of color, Ogé demanded the right to vote. When the colonial governor refused, Ogé led a brief insurgency in the area around Cap Francais. He was captured in early 1791, and brutally executed by being broken on the wheel. Ogé was not fighting against slavery, but his treatment was cited by later slave rebels as one of the factors in their decision to rise up in August 1791 and resist treaties with the colonists. The conflict up to this point was between factions of whites, and between whites and free coloreds. Enslaved blacks watched from the sidelines.

Leading French writer Count Mirabeau had once said the Saint-Domingue whites "slept at the foot of Vesuvius", an indication of the grave threat they faced should the majority of slaves launch a sustained major uprising.

1791 slave rebellion

Guillaume Raynal attacked slavery in the 1780 edition of his history of European colonization. He also predicted a general slave revolt in the colonies, saying that there were signs of “the impending storm.”One such sign was the action of the French Revolutionary government to grant citizenship to wealthy, free people of color in May of 1791. However, white plantation owners refused to comply with this decision and within two months isolated fighting broke out between former slaves and the whites. This contributed to the tense climate between slaves and grands blancs.

Raynal’s prediction came true on 22 August 1791, when the slaves of Saint Domingue rose in revolt and plunged the colony into civil war. The signal to begin the revolt was given by Dutty Boukman, a high priest of vodou and leader of the Maroon slaves, during a religious ceremony at Bois Caïman on the night of August 14.Within the next ten days, slaves had taken control of the entire Northern Province in an unprecedented slave revolt that left the whites in control of only a few isolated, fortified camps. The slaves sought revenge on their masters through “pillage, rape, torture, mutilation, and death.” Because the plantation owners long feared a revolt like this, they were well armed and prepared to defend themselves. Within weeks, the number of slaves that joined the revolt was approximately 100,000, and within the next two months, as the violence escalated, the slaves killed 4,000 whites and burned or destroyed 180 sugar plantations and hundreds of coffee and indigo plantations.

By 1792, slaves controlled a third of the island. The success of the slave rebellion caused the newly elected Legislative Assembly in France to realize it was facing an ominous situation. In order to protect France’s economic interests, the Legislative Assembly needed to grant civil and political rights to free men of color in the colonies. In March 1792, the Legislative Assembly did just that. Countries throughout Europe as well as the United States were shocked by the decision of the Legislative Assembly. Members of the Assembly were determined to stop the revolt, so apart from granting these rights, they dispatched 6,000 Frenchmen to the island. Meanwhile, in 1793, France declared war on Great Britain. The white planters and slave owners in Saint Domingue made agreements with Great Britain to declare British sovereignty over the islands. Spain, who controlled the rest of the island of Hispaniola, would also join the conflict and fight with Great Britain against France. The Spanish forces invaded Saint Domingue and were joined by the slave forces. By August 1793, there were only 3,500 French soldiers on the island. To prevent military disaster, a French commissioner freed the slaves in his jurisdiction. The decision was confirmed and extended by the National Convention in 1794 when they formally abolished slavery and granted civil and political rights to all black men in the colonies. It is estimated that the slave rebellion resulted in the death of 100,000 blacks and 24,000 whites.

The author Thomas Carlyle described these events dramatically:

"[describes disorders and shortages in France] ... not so much as Sugar can be had; for good reasons ... With factions, suspicions, want of bread and sugar, it is verily what they call déchiré, torn asunder this poor country: France and all that is French. For, over seas too come bad news. In black Saint-Domingo, before that variegated Glitter in the Champs Elysées was lit for an Accepted Constitution, there had risen, and was burning contemporary with it, quite another variegated Glitter and nocturnal Fulgor, had we known it: of molasses and ardent-spirits; of sugar-boileries, plantations, furniture, cattle and men: skyhigh; the Plain of Cap Français one huge whirl of smoke and flame! What a change here, in these two years; since that first 'Box of Tricolor Cockades' got through the Custom-house, and atrabiliar Creoles too rejoiced that there was a levelling of Bastilles! Levelling is comfortable, as we often say: levelling, yet only down to oneself. Your pale-white Creoles, have their grievances: — and your yellow Quarteroons? And your dark-yellow Mulattoes? And your Slaves soot-black? Quarteroon Ogé, Friend of our Parisian Brissotin Friends of the Blacks, felt, for his share too, that Insurrection was the most sacred of duties. So the tricolor Cockades had fluttered and swashed only some three months on the Creole hat, when Ogé's signal-conflagrations went aloft; with the voice of rage and terror. Repressed, doomed to die, he took black powder or seedgrains in the hollow of his hand, this Ogé; sprinkled a film of white ones on the top, and said to his Judges, "Behold they are white;" — then shook his hand, and said "Where are the Whites, Ou sont les Blancs?" ... Before the fire was an insurrection by the oppressed mixed-race minority. So now, in the Autumn of 1791, looking from the sky-windows of Cap Français, thick clouds of smoke girdle our horizon, smoke in the day, in the night fire; preceded by fugitive shrieking white women, by Terror and Rumour. ..." 

Leadership of Toussaint 

One of the most successful black commanders was Toussaint L'Ouverture, a self-educated former domestic slave. Like Jean François and Biassou, he initially fought for the Spanish crown. After the British had invaded Saint-Domingue, he decided to fight for the French if they would agree to free all the slaves. Sonthonax had proclaimed an end to slavery on 29 August 1793. L'Ouverture worked with a French general, Étienne Laveaux, to ensure all slaves would be freed. He brought his forces over to the French side in May 1794 and began to fight for the French Republic. Many enslaved Africans were attracted to Toussaint's forces. He insisted on discipline and restricted wholesale slaughter.

Under the military leadership of Toussaint, the forces made up mostly of former slaves succeeded in winning concessions from the English and expelling the Spanish forces. In the end, he essentially restored control of Saint-Domingue to France. Having made himself master of the island, however, Toussaint did not wish to surrender too much power to France. He began to rule the country effectively as an autonomous entity. L'Ouverture overcame a succession of local rivals (including the Commissioner Sonthonax, André Rigaud, who fought to keep control of the South, and Comte d'Hédouville). Hédouville forced a fatal wedge between Rigaud and Toussaint before he escaped back to France. Toussaint defeated a British expeditionary force in 1798, and even led an invasion of neighboring Santo Domingo, freeing the slaves there by 1801.

In 1801, L'Ouverture issued a constitution for Saint-Domingue which provided for autonomy and decreed that he would be governor-for-life. In retaliation, Napoleon Bonaparte dispatched a large expeditionary force of French soldiers and warships to the island, led by Bonaparte's brother-in-law Charles Leclerc, to restore French rule, and under secret instructions to later restore slavery [needs citation]. The numerous French soldiers were accompanied by mulatto troops led by Alexandre Pétion and André Rigaud, mulatto leaders who had been defeated by Toussaint three years earlier. During the struggles, some of Toussaint's closest allies, including Jean-Jacques Dessalines, defected to Leclerc.

L'Ouverture was promised his freedom, if he agreed to integrate his remaining troops into the French Army. L'Ouverture agreed to this in May 1802 but was later deceived, seized, and shipped off to France. He died months later while imprisoned at Fort-de-Joux in the Jura region.


Jean Jacques Dessalines

Resistance to slavery

For a few months the island was quiet under Napoleonic rule. But when it became apparent that the French intended to re-establish slavery (because they did so on Guadeloupe), Dessalines and Pétion switched sides again, in October 1802, and fought against the French. In November, Leclerc died of yellow fever, like much of his army, and his successor, the Vicomte de Rochambeau, fought an even more brutal campaign. His atrocities helped rally many former French loyalists to the rebel cause. The French were further weakened by a British naval blockade, and by the unwillingness of Napoleon to send the requested massive reinforcements. Napoleon had sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States in April 1803, and had begun to lose interest in his ventures in the Western Hemisphere. Dessalines led the rebellion until its completion when the French forces were finally defeated in 1803.

The last battle of the Haitian Revolution, the Battle of Vertières, occurred on 18 November 1803, near Cap-Haitien and was fought between Haitian rebels led by Jean-Jacques Dessalines and the French colonial army under the Viscount of Rochambeau. On 1 January 1804, from the city of Gonaïves, Dessalines officially declared the former colony's independence, renaming it "Haiti" after the indigenous Arawak name. This major loss was a decisive blow to France and its colonial empire .

Free republic

On 1 January 1804, Dessalines, the new leader under the dictatorial 1801 constitution, declared Haiti a free republic. Haiti was the first independent nation in Latin America, the first post-colonial independent black-led nation in the world, and the only nation whose independence was gained as part of a successful slave rebellion. The country was crippled by years of war, its agriculture devastated, its formal commerce nonexistent, and the people uneducated and mostly unskilled.

Haiti agreed to make reparations to French slaveholders in 1825 in the amount of 150 million francs, reduced in 1838 to 60 million francs, in exchange for French recognition of its independence and to achieve freedom from French aggression. This indemnity bankrupted the Haitian treasury and mortgaged Haiti's future to the French banks providing the funds for the large first installment, permanently affecting Haiti's ability to be prosperous.

The end of the Haitian Revolution in 1804 marked the end of colonialism in Haiti, but the social conflict cultivated under slavery continued to affect the population. The revolution left in power an affranchi élite as well as the formidable Haitian army. France continued the slavery system in Martinique and Guadeloupe. Great Britain was able to abolish its slave trade in 1807 and in 1833 abolished slavery completely in the British West Indies. France formally recognized Haiti as an independent nation in 1834, as did the United States in 1862.


The Haitian Revolution was influential in slave rebellions in America and British colonies. The loss of a major source of western revenue shook Napoleon's faith in the promise of the western world, encouraging him to unload other French assets in the region including the territory known as Louisiana. In the early 1800s, many refugees, including free people of color and white planters, of whom some in both categories had owned slaves, settled in New Orleans, adding many new members to both its French-speaking mixed-race population and African population.

In 1807 Britain became the first major power to permanently abolish the slave trade. However, slavery was not fully abolished in the British West Indies until 1833, and it continued in the French colonies until 1848. The Haitian Revolution stood as a model for achieving emancipation for slaves in the United States who attempted to mimic Toussaint L'Ouverture's actions. L'Ouverture remains a popular figure to this day. In 2004, Haiti celebrated the bicentennial of its independence from France.

Once the richest French colony in the Americas - contributing as much as 50 per cent of the mother country's wealth - Haiti now vies with Nicaragua for the title of poorest country in the New World. Thanks to yesterday's magnitude 7.0 earthquake, it is likely to fall further behind its fellow developing nations.

The nation, the western half of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, came under French rule in 1697 when it was called Saint-Domingue. (The eastern other half of the island - now the Dominican Republic - went to the Spaniards.)

Through the course of the 18th century the colony became the richest in the French-speaking New World, thanks to coffee and sugar plantations run on slave labour.

Given its former vast natural wealth, how did Haiti become so poor?

THE FRENCH CONNECTIONHaiti has been plundered throughout its history. It got off to a bad start immediately following independence from France in 1804, when Jean-Jacques Dessalines and an army of slaves defeated French troops sent by Napoleon to restore slavery.

Dessalines, himself a former slave, was proclaimed emperor by his men who named the island after its American Indian name, Ayiti, which means 'land of mountains'.

Dessalines's rule was short, violent and populist. He forbade white people from owning property and ruled that the black population must either work in the plantations or in the army. He was assassinated in 1806.

A nation forged by a slave revolt set a terrible precedent in a world heavily dependent on slave labour and France persuaded Spain and the US to join it in an economic embargo.

Desperate for international recognition, Haiti eventually agreed in 1838 to pay reparations to France in order to compensate slave owners and their heirs. The sum, 150 million francs, is estimated at $21bn in today's money, and kept Haiti in debt to France for the next 80 years.

To add insult to injury in the interim, Haiti's national bank was plundered on several occasions by US, British, French and German forces. Expatriates from the same countries bankrolled multiple plots against ephemeral governments in order to further their business interests; in its 200-year history, Haiti has endured 32 coups.

THE AMERICAN TAKEOVERIn 1915, the United States occupied the country, fearing the growing influence of the German community there. A period of stability followed, although the introduction of chain-gangs to improve the country's infrastructure was deeply unpopular in a country founded by slaves.

The US's primary legacy when it pulled out in 1934 was a strong, well-organised military. For the next 50 years the country would be governed by military dictatorships epitomised by that of physician Francois Duvalier.

'Papa Doc', as he was known, seized power in a military coup in 1956.

THE PAPA DOC YEARS'Papa Doc' Duvalier (above) won elections in 1957 on a populist ticket but threw off any pretence of democracy in 1964 when he made himself president for life.

The US tacitly supported him because of Haiti's strategic location close to Fidel Castro's Cuba, and for fear that it would also turn communist.

Papa Doc is widely credited with 30,000 deaths - mostly at the hands of the Tonton Macoutes, the paramilitary force he created to replace the army, which he disbanded for fear that it would topple him.

Papa Doc confiscated land held by peasants to give to members of the Tonton Macoutes. He further consolidated his power over the poor black majority by reviving Haiti's voodoo traditions - setting himself up as a voodoo priest.

This period was famously evoked in Graham Greene's 1966 novel, The Comedians, later filmed with Richard Burton and Alec Guinness.

THE HAITIAN DIASPORAWhen Duvalier died in 1971, he was succeeded by his son Jean-Claude, or 'Baby Doc', who continued his father's repressive policies, but began to lose the support of the black majority.

He fled the country in 1986 for France with the assistance of the Reagan administration in the United States. Today he is believed to be living modestly in Paris - or Brooklyn. Attempts since then to hold democratic elections have ended in disarray.

The corruption and repression of these kleptocratic regimes, which stole aid money meant for the poorest, forced educated professionals into exile. There are large populations of Haitians today in Miami, New York and French-speaking Montreal as well as on other Caribbean islands.

Haiti has never really recovered from this brain drain which led to a serious lack of teachers and doctors.

ENVIRONMENTAL DEGRADATIONThe almost total deforestation of Haiti has added to the island's problems. In 1923, over 60 per cent of Haiti was covered by lush forests; in 2006, that had fallen to less than two per cent, thanks to the demand for charcoal, the main source of fuel in dirt-poor Port-au-Prince, and land for agriculture. This has led to soil erosion, desertification and floods.

From: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.


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