It is not easy to pinpoint precisely when the Haitian Revolution began. Historians have located its beginnings at different points between 1789 and 1804, the year St. Domingue was transformed, amidst rebellion and war, from a French colony into the independent state of Haiti. However, the roots of the rebellion, which transformed St. Domingue are undoubtedly found in the revolutionary turmoil that convulsed France itself following the fall of the Bastille and the abolition of slavery in 1794. These events had a highly disruptive impact on a slave-based society that was already experiencing serious social tensions after a period of rapid growth.
During the previous decade, St. Domingue had become the most prosperous colony in the Caribbean. In the 1780s, it produced nearly half of all the sugar and coffee consumed in Europe and the Americas, and, as the source of two-fifths of France's colonial trade, two-thirds of its ocean-going shipping tonnage, and a third of its seamen, had become the most valuable of French colonial possessions. This growth had been very rapid and had been achieved through a massive annual importation of African slaves, mostly young males, that averaged about Page 539 | Top of Article40,000 per year in the 1780s. By 1789 there were close to half a million slaves in St. Domingue, greatly outnumbering the white population of about 40,000, and the 28,000 free coloreds (blacks and mulattos) who occupied an intermediate position in this slave society. A relatively small percentage of French and free colored owned most of the plantations and slaves. If the presence of large numbers of slaves fresh from Africa made this an unusually volatile society, so too did the aspirations of free coloreds, some of whom had fought in French forces in the American War of Independence and were in the 1780s already aspiring to equality with whites. But it was the great political crisis in France that threw St. Domingue into turmoil, by generating conflicts at all levels of society and undermining French government and sovereignty on the island.
Political upheaval started among the whites, who came into conflict over the great political questions that also divided the French at home. While the rich planters and their allies sought to maintain their command of colonial society, poor whites backed those who attacked the wealthy, privileged elites and overturned the monarchical authorities whose power had been weakened by the overthrow of the old regime in France. The free coloreds, inspired by the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man, were also quickly drawn into politics, with the encouragement of the Société des Amis des Noirs (Society of Friends of Blacks), which campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade and for equal rights for free coloreds. When rebuffed, some free coloreds decided on armed rebellion. Vincent Ogé, a mulatto who had been active on behalf of free colored rights in revolutionary Paris, led a revolt of mulattos in favor of civil equality for freed coloreds in 1790. He refused to recruit slaves to his rebellion and was soon defeated, but Ogé's execution triggered a scandal in France and persuaded the National Assembly to legislate legal equality for free coloreds born of free parents. This produced, in turn, a backlash from whites, who although divided over the French Revolution, were generally united in wanting to maintain slavery in the colony, to preserve its plantation society and to defend its racial hierarchy.
Conflict among and between whites, and between whites and free coloreds, had thus come close to civil war and it was in these tense circumstances that political factionalism among the minorities was suddenly overtaken by the greatest slave rebellion yet seen in the Americas. In 1791 fieldworkers in northern St. Domingue rose up, claiming that they had already been emancipated by the French king. Slaves met to coordinate an uprising of slaves in Le Cap and the nearby countryside. The political decision was sanctified in a voodoo ceremony in which two hundred slaves drank the blood of a pig sacrificed by a priestess and swore
obedience to Boukman Dutty, leader of the planned revolt. Dutty chose as his lieutenants Georges Biassou, Jeannot Bullet, and François Papillon. They planned to kill the French elite in Le Cap and set about destroying plantations and killing whites over a wide area, sometimes in alliance with free coloreds, sometimes against the joint resistance of whites and free coloreds.
Many historians see the slave rebellions that began in 1791 as the start of the revolution in St. Domingue because they involved the mass mobilization of slaves and forced France to introduce a significant political change. In order to curb violent upheaval that spread to all the main regions of the colony, France conceded full citizenship to free persons in April 1792. This brought a significant change in the position of mulattos. They now held full legal rights and were allowed to hold office and promptly sought to consolidate their gains by entering Page 540 | Top of Articleinto alliances with white planters to defeat the slave rebels, whom they saw as a threat to their property and position. The French Revolution had ended white supremacy but preserved slavery, and when three French civil commissioners charged with preserving order arrived in St. Domingue in September 1792, the free coloreds sided with them. This development promised a return to stability under French revolutionary government, which favored the free coloreds over whites who were often suspected of royalism, but the intervention of foreign powers against the French regime in St. Domingue led to another, more destructive cycle of wars.
War against Britain and Spain changed the position not only of free coloreds but also of blacks. When the French king was overthrown in 1793, the commissioners from France, particularly Léger Félicité Sonthonax and Etienne Polverel, moved against royalists, deported large numbers of whites, and promoted free coloreds in their place. When war broke out, they moved closer to the blacks by recruiting slaves to fight royalist white colonists and the forces of Spain and England, which invaded St. Domingue in 1793. Sonthonax decreed that slaves in St. Domingue's northern province would be free as of August 29, 1793, a date often cited as the beginning of the Haitian Revolution. The commissioners in the two other areas of St. Domingue followed suit. This presented the French National Convention with a fait accompli, and on February 4, 1794 (16 pluviôse, year II), slavery was abolished by the Convention in all the colonies. St. Domingue's slaves had won emancipation for themselves and (temporarily) for French slaves everywhere. Though the British and Spanish had been attempting to preserve plantations and slavery, they had produced the opposite effect by persuading the French authorities that the only way to save French power in St. Domingue was to abolish slavery and so win the rebellious slaves for France. This had an immediate effect on the balance of power within the colony, as slave leaders emerged to challenge the privileges of both whites and free coloreds.
The Convention's law abolishing slavery attracted the free black General Toussaint L'Ouverture (born François-Dominique Toussaint), who switched from supporting Spanish troops to fighting on the side of the French government in 1794. This is another moment regarded as the beginning of the Haitian Revolution, because the black troops of Toussaint L'Ouverture now were free and looked to a Haitian as their ruler. It was certainly a turning point in that Toussaint L'Ouverture's army and military genius played decisive roles in defeating foreign invaders and slave-owners, forcing the Spanish and British to withdraw, a move that freed slaves in the west in 1798. French rule was saved, but at the cost of promoting the power of Toussaint L'Ouverture.
Toussaint L'Ouverture moved to establish his rule over all of St. Domingue, from his position of strength in the North and Port-au-Prince, and sent the French commissioners back to France. He fought a civil and race war against the mulatto Andreé Rigaud, who controlled the southern part of St. Domingue, where many mulattos owned plantations. Known to Haitians as the War of the Knives, this struggle was complicated by the fact that mulatto officers served with Toussaint L'Ouverture, while black troops fought on both sides. By mid-1800, Toussaint L'Ouverture dominated all of St. Domingue. He then moved to occupy Spanish-speaking Santo Domingo even though it was under French rule. An angry Napoleon, who had seized power in France in 1799, decided to invade St. Domingue to restore French rule. Toussaint L'Ouverture's constitution of 1801, promulgated against the wishes of Napoleon Bonaparte, made Toussaint L'Ouverture a governor for life with all power concentrated in his hands. The French could no longer claim to rule St. Domingue, and St. Domingans were no longer colonial subjects. Some historians therefore choose 1801 as the date when St. Domingue became self-governing and the Haitian Revolution began.
Another key phase of the Haitian Revolution is the period from 1802 to 1804 when Napoleon's brother-in-law Victor Emmanuel Leclerc led a French army of invasion into St. Domingue, and sought to reestablish the old slave regime. Toussaint L'Ouverture and his generals fought a guerrilla war against the French, then surrendered and retired to their plantations. Two of Toussaint L'Ouverture's main generals—Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe—turned him in for plotting rebellion and a year later, in 1803, he died as a prisoner in France. But the situation on the ground changed dramatically when it was learned in July 1803 that France had reinstated slavery. Mulattos and blacks now united against the French under mulatto officers Dessalines and Alexandre Peétion and the black Christophe. The success of these insurgents, the death of General Leclerc, and the renewed war with the British that starved French forces of supplies and reinforcements, led to French defeat and evacuation of St. Domingue in November 1803. The race war was renewed, this time against the white French, and around 3,000 were massacred on orders of Dessalines in 1804. On January 1, 1804, de jure independence was proclaimed by Dessalines and the name "Haïti," from the Indian Arawak language, was substituted for Saint Domingue.
What began as a civil war among the whites who had split into factions (petits blancs against grands blancs, planters versus merchants, colonists against French administrators, and creoles against absentee planters), thus became a race war (blacks against mulattos, whites Page 541 | Top of Articleagainst mulattos, blacks and mulattos against whites), and ended in a revolutionary war when the blacks rose up as an independent group and struck for independence from France, in 1802 to 1804.
There are diverse explanations for why the blacks won: Toussaint L'Ouverture and some of his lieutenants were exceptional leaders, tropical diseases felled European troops, the colonists were divided, the whites and mulattos were outnumbered, and the slaves knew how to fight. John Thornton emphasizes that the majority of slaves in St. Domingue were African-born, and had arrived within ten years of 1791. They came principally from two areas that were sites of warfare: the Lower Guinea coast (comprised of present-day Benin, Togo, and Nigeria) and the Angolan coast. Most of the slaves sold to Europeans were prisoners of war from these engagements and had military experience. Familiar with European muskets, lances, axes, shields, and swords, they also knew African military organization and tactics such as guerrilla warfare by platoons and large engagements in columns. Thornton surmises that mulattos and European deserters used the artillery noted in rebel armies, and that horsemen were largely creoles, mulattos, and Africans from Oyo and Senegal. New armies under creole and mulatto leadership adopted European military tactics and fought alongside African leaders using African tactics. African religious practices fortified the soldiers. All rebel armies relied on African soldiers who were veterans as well as agricultural workers. More than any other factor this could explain why the Haitian slave revolt succeeded.
The significance of the Haitian Revolution extended far beyond the island. It was the first great reversal of slavery in the world of European colonialism, achieved by an extraordinary slave resistance against the French planter class and the armies of the three great colonial powers, France, Spain, and Britain. In addition, it contributed to the end of colonial empire by becoming the second colony in the Americas after the United States to achieve independence. The Haitian Revolution also blocked Britain's ambitions to extend its empire in the Caribbean. As such, it served as a symbol for both abolitionists and proponents of slavery, colonialists and anticolonialists. Alexandre Pétion gave military and financial assistance to the Miranda expedition to free Venezuela from Spain in 1806, and to Simón Bolívar, who sought refuge in Haiti in 1815, on the condition that the latter promise to abolish slavery in the lands he liberated. There is little evidence that Haitians stirred up slave populations elsewhere, however, although slaves and freemen throughout the Americas knew that the Haitians had freed themselves and this served as inspiration, along with many other factors, in slave revolts in Venezuela (1795), Havana (1812), and Charleston, South Carolina (1822). The Haitians invaded neighboring Santo Domingo under Toussaint L'Ouverture, and again in 1822 when they stamped out slavery, although it was later resumed by the Spanish. Haiti never again prospered, and after the assassination of Dessalines in 1807, it became divided between Pétion's oligarchic republic of small landholders in the south, and Christophe's authoritarian black kingdom of plantations in the north. Toussaint L'Ouverture, and later Dessalines and Christophe, had insisted on plantations and forced labor in order to make coffee and sugar cane profitable. Toussaint L'Ouverture compelled labor on plantations to earn foreign exchange to buy arms, build fortifications, and make preparations for a French invasion. In the long run, the ex-slaves rejected involuntary servitude and plantations, and Haiti became a nation of small farms and free labor.
Rather, the greatest impact of the Haitian Revolution seems to have been its refugees, whites, free blacks, mulattos, and slaves who fled to the United States, France, Jamaica, Cuba, and other Caribbean islands. Their skills and knowledge led to the establishment of businesses, but most of all contributed to the growth of sugarcane plantations and slavery. Cuba became the most prosperous sugarcane island after 1800. Due to Napoleon's occupation of Spain, Haitian refugees were expelled from Cuba in 1808, and many immigrated to Louisiana, where they helped stimulate and maintain the French culture that preceded Anglo settlement. Initially these refugees were welcomed in the United States and given funds by the U.S. Congress, Pennsylvania, Virginia, New York, and South Carolina, and cities such as Philadelphia, New York, Charleston, and Baltimore. Many private citizens also responded to pleas for charitable contributions. The U.S. Congress exempted St. Domingans from the new 1807 law forbidding the importation of slaves into the United Sates. Many who brought in slaves could hire them out or use them as slaves on their own plantations. Immigrants doubled the free black population of New Orleans. The mulattos came to occupy a special status between whites and free blacks, giving New Orleans a special Creole flavor.
On the other hand, the Haitian Revolution had a negative impact in the South by hardening the attitudes of whites. Beginning in 1792, South Carolina and other states restricted immigration of slaves, freedmen, and mulattos from Haiti to protect their slaves and freedmen from any "contagion." Louisiana, under Spanish rule since 1763, discouraged refugees from seeking asylum in the 1790s. The New Orleans cabildo banned slaves and free blacks from landing. France regained control of Louisiana from 1801–1803, but Napoleon's rule remained nominal due to the failure of the French expedition to St. Domingue. After the United States took possession of Louisiana in 1803, the number of refugees Page 542 | Top of Articlefrom St. Domingue increased. They arrived primarily from Jamaica and Cuba. The New Orleans cabildo prohibited the landing of free blacks. The fear of "another Haiti" moved the U.S. Congress to end the importation of slaves after 1807, but an exception was made for slaves brought to Louisiana by French refugees.
Thomas Jefferson found himself supporting Toussaint L'Ouverture in Haiti, because the defeat of the British and French armies allowed Americans to trade directly with Haiti. In addition, the defeat of the French motivated Napoleon to sell Louisiana to the United States, a transfer that greatly furthered American attempts to expand to the west. Federalists wanting to discredit the French and open commerce with the West Indies praised Toussaint L'Ouverture. Southerners admired his reimposition of plantations using forced labor and his control over Haitian blacks. They credited him with defeating radical ideology deriving from the French Revolution. Likewise, the British signed a commercial treaty with Toussaint Louverture, and kept the sea-lanes open for trade. But it was not until France recognized Haitian independence in 1825, after Haiti agreed to pay huge reparations to the colonial exiles, that other countries formally recognized Haiti. And it was only when the U.S. Civil War ended slavery that full diplomatic relations were established between the United States and Haiti. By then Haiti was no longer considered a threat.
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