The Haitian Revolution: History of a Successful Slave Revolt

One of the Few Complete Social Revolutions in Modern History

The Haitian Revolution Slave Rebellion On The Night Of 21 August 1791.

 Heritage Images/Getty Images

The Haitian Revolution was the only successful black slave revolt in history, and it led to the creation of the second independent nation in the Western Hemisphere, after the United States. Inspired in large part by the French Revolution, diverse groups in the colony of Saint-Domingue began fighting against French colonial power in 1791. Independence was not fully achieved until 1804, at which point a complete social revolution had taken place where former slaves had become leaders of a nation.

Fast Facts: The Haitian Revolution

  • Short Description: The only successful slave revolt in modern history, led to the independence of Haiti
  • Key Players/Participants: Touissant Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines
  • Event Start Date: 1791
  • Event End Date: 1804
  • Location: The French colony of Saint-Domingue in the Caribbean, currently Haiti and the Dominican Republic

Background and Causes

The French Revolution of 1789 was a significant event for the imminent rebellion in Haiti. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was adopted in 1791, declaring "liberty, equality, and fraternity." Historian Franklin Knight calls the Haitian Revolution the "inadvertent stepchild of the French Revolution."

In 1789, the French colony of Saint-Domingue was the most successful plantation colony in the Americas: it supplied France with 66% of its tropical produce and accounted for 33% of French foreign trade. It had a population of 500,000, 80% of whom were slaves. Between 1680 and 1776, roughly 800,000 Africans were imported to the island, one-third of whom died within the first few years. In contrast, the colony was home to only around 30,000 whites, and a roughly similar number of affranchis or free people of color (composed primarily of mulattoes, mixed-race people).

Society in Saint Domingue was divided along both class and color lines, with affranchis and whites often at odds in terms of how to interpret the egalitarian language of the French Revolution. White elites sought greater economic autonomy from the metropolis (France). Working-class/poor whites argued for the equality of all whites, not just for landed whites. Affranchis aspired to the power of whites and begun to amass wealth as landowners (often owning slaves themselves). Beginning in the 1860s, white colonists began to restrict the rights of affranchis. Also inspired by the French Revolution, black slaves increasingly engaged in maroonage, running away from plantations to the mountainous interior.

France granted almost complete autonomy to Saint-Domingue in 1790. However, it left open the issue of rights for free people of color, and white planters refused to recognize them as equals, creating a more volatile situation. In October 1790, affranchis led their first armed revolt against white colonial authorities. In April 1791, slave revolts begin to break out. In the meantime, France extended some rights to affranchis, which angered white colonists.

Beginning of the Haitian Revolution

By 1791, slaves and mulattoes were fighting separately for their own agendas, and white colonists were too preoccupied with maintaining their hegemony to notice the growing unrest among slaves. Throughout 1791, slave revolts grew in numbers and frequency, with slaves torching the most prosperous plantations and killing fellow slaves who refused to join their revolt.

The Haitian Revolution is considered to have begun officially on August 14, 1791 with the Bois Caïman ceremony, a vodou ritual presided over by Boukman, a maroon leader and vodou priest from Jamaica. This meeting was the result of months of strategizing and planning by slaves in the northern area of the colony who were recognized as leaders of their respective plantations.

Ambushing troops in a forest, Haitian revolution, illustration.  

Due to the fighting, the French National Assembly revoked the decree granting limited rights to affranchis in September 1791, which only spurred on their rebellion. That same month, slaves burned one of the colony's most important cities, Le Cap, to the ground. The following month, Port-au-Prince was burned to the ground in fighting between whites and affranchis.

1792-1802

The Haitian Revolution was chaotic. At one time there were six different parties warring simultaneously: slaves, affranchis, working-class whites, elite whites, invading Spanish, and English troops battling for control of the colony, and the French military. Alliances were struck and quickly dissolved. For example, in 1792 blacks and affranchis became allies with the British fighting against the French, and in 1793 they allied with the Spanish. Furthermore, the French often tried to get slaves to join their forces by offering them freedom to help put down the rebellion. In September 1793, a number of reforms took place in France, including the abolition of colonial slavery. While colonists began negotiating with slaves for increased rights, the rebels, led by Touissant Louverture, understood that without land ownership, they could not stop fighting.

Portrait of Haitian Patriot Toussaint Louverture.  Photo Josse/Leemage/Getty Images

Throughout 1794, the three European forces took control of different parts of the island. Louverture aligned with different colonial powers at different moments. In 1795, Britain and Spain signed a peace treaty and ceded Saint-Domingue to the French. By 1796, Louverture had established dominance in the colony, though his hold on power was tenuous. In 1799, a civil war broke out between Louverture and the affranchis. In 1800, Louverture invaded Santo Domingo (the eastern half of the island, modern-day Dominican Republic) in order to bring it under his control.

Between 1800 and 1802, Louverture tried to rebuild the destroyed economy of Saint-Domingue. He reopened commercial relations with the U.S. and Britain, restored destroyed sugar and coffee estates to operating condition, and halted the wide-scale killing of white people. He even discussed importing new Africans to jump-start the plantation economy. In addition, he outlawed the very popular vodou religion and established Catholicism as the colony's main religion, which angered many slaves. He established a constitution in 1801 that asserted the colony's autonomy with respect to France and became a de-facto dictator, naming himself governor-general for life.

The Final Years of the Revolution

Napoleon Bonaparte, who had assumed power in France in 1799, had dreams of restoring slavery in Saint-Domingue, and he saw Louverture (and Africans in general) as uncivilized. He sent his brother-in-law Charles Leclerc to invade the colony in 1801. Many white planters supported Bonaparte's invasion. Furthermore, Louverture faced opposition from black slaves, who felt he was continuing to exploit them and who was not instituting land reform. In early 1802 many of his top generals had defected to the French side and Louverture was eventually forced to sign an armistice in May 1802. However, Leclerc betrayed the terms of the treaty and tricked Louverture into getting arrested. He was exiled to France, where he died in prison in 1803.

Believing that France's intention was to restore slavery in the colony, blacks and affranchis, led by two of Louverture's former generals, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe, reignited the rebellion against the French in late 1802. Many French soldiers died from yellow fever, contributing to the victories by Dessalines and Christophe.

Haiti Independence

Dessalines created the Haitian flag in 1803, whose colors represent the alliance of blacks and mulattoes against whites. The French began to withdraw troops in August 1803. On January 1, 1804, Dessalines published the Declaration of Independence and abolished the colony of Saint-Domingue. The original indigenous Taino name of the island, Hayti, was restored.

Effects of the Haitian Revolution

The outcome of the Haitian Revolution loomed large across slaveholding societies in the Americas. The success of the slave revolt inspired similar uprisings in Jamaica, Grenada, Colombia, and Venezuela. Plantation owners lived in fear that their societies would become "another Haiti." In Cuba, for example, during the Wars of Independence the Spanish were able to use the spectre of the Haitian Revolution as a threat to white landowners: if landowners supported Cuban independence fighters, their slaves would rise up and kill their white masters and Cuba would become a Black republic like Haiti.

There was also a mass exodus from Haiti during and after the Revolution, with many planters fleeing with their slaves to Cuba, Jamaica, or Louisiana. It's possible that up to 60% of the population that lived in Saint-Domingue in 1789 died between 1790 and 1796.

The newly independent Haiti was isolated by all the western powers. France would not recognize Haiti's independence until 1825, and the U.S. did not establish diplomatic relations with the island until 1862. What had been the wealthiest colony in the Americas became one of the poorest and least developed. The sugar economy was transferred to colonies where slavery was still legal, like Cuba, which quickly replaced Saint-Domingue as the world's leading sugar producer in the early 19th century.

According to historian Franklin Knight, "The Haitians were forced to destroy the entire colonial socioeconomic structure that was the raison d'etre for their imperial importance; and in destroying the institution of slavery, they unwittingly agreed to terminate their connection to the entire international superstructure that perpetuated slavery and the plantation economy. That was an incalculable price for freedom and independence."

Knight continues, "The Haitian case represented the first complete social revolution in modern history...no greater change could be manifest than the slaves becoming the masters of their destinies within a free state." In contrast, the revolutions in the U.S., France, and (a few decades later) Latin America were largely "reshufflings of the political elites—the ruling classes before remained essentially the ruling classes afterward."

Sources

  • "History of Haiti: 1492-1805." https://library.brown.edu/haitihistory/index.html
  • Knight, Franklin. The Caribbean: The Genesis of a Fragmented Nationalism, 2nd edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
  • MacLeod, Murdo J., Lawless, Robert, Girault, Christian Antoine, & Ferguson, James A. "Haiti." https://www.britannica.com/place/Haiti/Early-period#ref726835