The Haitian Revolution was the largest, most successful slave rebellion in the Western World. Black slaves initiated a rebellion in 1791 and by 1803, they’d ended not just slavery, but achieved independence over French colonial rule. Ironically, it was influenced by the French Revolution of 1789. This had brought forth new concepts of human rights, citizenship, and representation. In 1791, an organized slave rebellion broke out, marking the start of a 12-year revolution for freedom, lead by a former slave, Toussaint l’Overture. The Haitian Revolution is the only successful slave revolt in history. It established Haiti as the first, independent black state in the New World. How did an island of enslaved people accomplish such a remarkable feat?
In the 1700’s, Haiti was still Saint-Domingue, France’s wealthiest colony. It generated more revenue for France than ALL the British American colonies did for England. Saint-Domingue furnished two-thirds of France’s overseas trade, employing 1,000 ships. The colony was France’s richest, the envy of every other European nation. All this wealth came from the island’s sugar, coffee, and cotton plantations, all grown by slaves. France transported 773,000 African slave to Saint-Domingue. French slave owners worked African slaves as brutally as in the Americas. So Saint-Domingue was fertile ground for an angry slave rebellion.
Haitian slaves were inspired by both the American and French Revolutions.
Several hundred freed slaves had joined French soldiers in the American Revolutionary War. They returned to Saint-Domingue disillusioned by their treatment from white French officers. The French Revolution was also crucially important. The Declaration of the Rights of Man, was passed by the National Assembly in France in 1789. It stated, “In the eyes of the law, all citizens are equal.” When news of the Declaration reached the colonies, it brought new hope to the black slaves. Meanwhile, plantation owners ignored it, and continued to exploit the slaves for profit. They did so at their own risk.
There were four ‘players’ in the Haitian Revolution. 1) The white French planters— the grand blancs, who owned the plantations and the slaves. 2) The petit blancs, who were the shop keepers, craftspeople and teachers. The whites numbered just 40,000 and they began to support independence from France. Like the Americans, they did not have representation in France. Despite their calls for independence, they remained committed to slavery. 3) The freed slaves, numbering around 30,000, were half mulattos (mixed black-white race). 4) Finally, there were the half a million African slaves, outnumbering the whites 10 to 1.
The new General Assembly in Paris had enacted legislation which gave their colonies some autonomy. The legislation was radical compared to life under King Louis XVI. Saint-Domingue’s wealthy planter class felt the autonomy applied only to them. The legislation, meant to appease Saint-Domingue, instead generated a three-sided dispute between the planters, the petit blancs, and the free blacks. All three would be challenged, however, by the black slave majority, which was also inspired by events in Paris.
All the Haitians needed was their own George Washington.
They found him in a former slave Toussaint l’Ouverture. Toussaint was born a slave, baptized Catholic and grew up on a plantation, working in the stables as a coachman. When the owner died, his son granted l’Ouverture his freedom. As a free black, he now worked as an employee, learned to read and write, and eventually bought a small farm and prospered. By 1791, he was in his forties and also inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution. l’Ouverture secretly joined other black rebel leaders in the north. He became secretary and lieutenant to the rebellion’s leader, Georges Biassou.
Under their leadership, the slaves acted first, rising up by the thousands and rebelling against the white planters in August 1791. The northern settlements were hit first on the Plaine du Nord. The flood of rebel slaves that overwhelmed them revealed both their organization and their military strength. Plantation houses were burnt to the ground and white owners murdered and mutilated. Over 900 plantations were overrun by their numbers, increasing with each raid towards 100,000 motivated slaves.
By 1792, they controlled a third of the island, but the conflict would last another 11 years. L’Ouverture now led a line of posts between rebel and colonial territory. Despite reinforcements from France, the rebel territory grew, as did the bloodshed. But the creole unity against slavery bound the blacks together and sustained the rebellion. After the rebels initial success, the port of Le Cap (Cap-Haitien) fell into the hands of French republican forces. l’Ouverture and thousands of blacks responded by preventing their advance inland. Battles would continue for another year, with the rebels slowly beating back the French forces.
On 29 August 1793, Toussaint l’Overture found his voice.
l’Ouverture was a charismatic leader who both motivated and inspired. He made his famous declaration at Camp Turel in the mountains, to all the black population of Saint-Domingue: “Brothers and friends, I am Toussaint Louverture. I have undertaken Vengeance. I want Liberty and Equality to reign in St. Domingue. I am working to make that happen. Unite yourselves to us, Brothers and fight with us for the same cause.” On the same day, the beleaguered French governor, Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, emancipated all Haitian slaves and abolished slavery in Saint-Domingue!
The former slaves managed to stave off not only the French forces, but also the British and Spanish. The British arrived in the fall of 1793, hoping to conquer a French colony in turmoil and claim the rich island for themselves. They particularly wanted to reinstate slavery to set an example to their own slave colonies in the Caribbean. Spain controlled the eastern portion of Hispaniola island and was at war with France. The British and Spanish supplied the rebels with food, ammunition, arms, medicine, and even military advisors. l’Ouverture was happy to accept their assistance.
In June of 1794, a larger British force landed with allied Spanish ships to attack the French. But the British forces soon fell victim to yellow fever, the dreaded ‘black vomit’ with 5,000 soldiers perishing. Realizing the Spanish intended to reinstate slavery, Toussaint turned on his allies and pledged his support to the French republicans. Together they drove the Spanish forces out of Saint-Domingue.
The French government rewarded l’Ouverture by appointing him governor in 1796.
In June 1796, the British attempted another “Great Push” to take Saint-Domingue once and for all. They took control of Port-au-Prince, but once again, the black vomit decimated their ranks. l’Ouverture’s forces repelled any attempt to invade the northern or southern provinces, shocking the disciplined British military with his slave army. Britain withdrew for good in 1798. With the British gone, l’Ouverture had to briefly deal with a civil war of his freed slaves against the Haitian mulattos, until he could regain total control and reunite the people.
By 1801, l’Ouverture took his revolution beyond Haiti, conquering the neighboring Spanish colony of Santo Domingo (present-day Dominican Republic). He freed the slaves and abolished slavery there as well, then declared himself Governor-General over the entire island of Hispaniola. Toussaint now was the head of a semi-independent San Domingo. [Haitian control of Santo Domingo would last until 1844.]
The new Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte saw Saint-Domingue as a threat.
He sent his brother-in-law, General Victor-Emmanuel Leclerc with 43,000 French troops to restore French rule, capture Toussaint, AND re-establish slavery. The French forces arrived in February 1802. By that year, the Haitian Revolution had outlasted the French Revolution. l’Ouverture met with his general, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, to plan their defense. All the French assaults failed and the rainy season brought back yellow fever, decimating the French ranks much like the British.
Then wind was suddenly knocked out of the proud Haitian sails. Under the pretense of negotiations, Leclerc tricked L’Ouverture into meeting. He was instead arrested as a revolutionary. Without trial, Leclerc shipped him away to a prison across the Atlantic Ocean in France. Leclerc caught yellow fever, like most of his men, and died later that year.
The struggle for independence managed to continue. By late 1803, Jean-Jacques Dessalines united the north and south provinces and attacked the French army. Now led by Leclerc’s replacement, the Vicomte de Rochambeau, the French were finally defeated at the Battle of Vertieres. On January 1804, Dessalines declared the nation independent and renamed it Hayti, after the indigenous name for the island. France grudgingly recognized its independence.
Hayti became the first black republic in the world, and the second nation in the west (after the U.S.) to win its independence from a colonial master. But not without a great cost. Before the fighting was all ended, 100,000 of the 500,000 black population and 24,000 of the 40,000 whites were dead.
Dessalines, L’Ouverture’s general and a former slave himself, proclaimed himself Emperor of Hayti to mock Napoleon. He was assassinated two years later in 1806 and a civil war ensued on the island. Nevertheless, the rebel slaves had shattered the enslaved French colony and forged the free nation of Hayti. What became of Toussaint l’Ouverture? After writing his memoir in jail, he died in the French prison from pneumonia in April 1803, 7 months before the Battle of Vertieres. He was only 59.
l’Overture is known today as the ‘Father of Hayti.’
During both the rebellion and revolution from 1791 to 1803, wealthy white planters fled to the French colony of Louisiana in North America. They took their slaves with them and spread horror stories of the Haitian Revolution. Their vivid tales emboldened American plantation slaveowners that they could not make any concessions to enslaved people. Given the chance, they feared their slaves would revolt against them as well. It was one of the reasons America slavery would last until 1863.
Haiti has since suffered through a series of autocratic rulers, corruption, gang riots, earthquakes, poverty and even a 19-year U.S. occupation from 1915-1934. None of that however can take away from the hard-fought Haitian Revolution, and Haiti’s historical place in the world as the first, black independent republic.