The island of Hispaniola, which would later become the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, was the first in the New World to be settled by the Spanish after its discovery by the explorer Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) in 1492. The Spanish developed sugar plantations on the island and used slave labor to work them. They initially enslaved the native Taino Indians, but when the native population died from overwork and disease, the Spanish began to import slaves from Africa.
Spain neglected Hispaniola to focus on its mainland Latin American colonies during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which allowed the French to gain a foothold on the western third of the island. This French population waged an unofficial war against Spain, resulting in the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697. The treaty stipulated that the western third of the island of Hispaniola was to be transferred to France; this territory became the French colony of Saint-Domingue. During the next century, the French developed Saint-Domingue into an important exporter of sugar and coffee, which supplied nearly half of those products consumed in Europe and the Americas. It represented two-fifths of France’s colonial trade, produced through a system of slavery so brutal that the colony required a constant importation of slaves to replace those who died.
By the late eighteenth century, the French population of the island colony was highly stratified, and considerable tension existed between the classes. The small number of whites was divided into two groups. The grands blancs, or white plantation owners and successful businessmen, held all power in the colony. Members of this group lived in elegant surroundings and carried on as if they lived on the grand boulevards of Paris, indulging in all the latest fashions imported from France. Below them were the petits blancs, the lesser merchants, plantation overseers, artisans, government administrators, and military men. Next in the social order were the freed black slaves and mulatto (mixed-race) landowners and businessmen, some of whom were very wealthy. The lowest tier of society consisted of slaves, some newly arrived from West Africa and others born in the colony; these slaves lived in intolerable conditions. By the late eighteenth century, there were forty thousand whites, twenty-eight thousand free blacks and mulattos, and nearly half a million slaves.
During of the Saint-Domingue colonial era (1659–1809), there were minor but vicious slave revolts, and many slaves managed to escape from the sugar plantations and flee into the mountainous interior. These people, who were called Maroons, lived in communities as subsistence farmers. They often banded together in groups numbering as many as one thousand and attacked and plundered the white-owned plantations.
In 1685 the French king, Louis XIV (1638–1715), enacted the Code Noire, a law that was intended to control the violent and cruel treatment of black and mulatto people in the colonies. During the eighteenth century, this well-intentioned law was increasingly ignored in Saint-Domingue, where the lot of the slaves deteriorated sharply. The mulattos, many of whom were educated in France and were successful business owners, were progressively disenfranchised. Mulattos were forbidden to bear arms or even to wear a sword, the mark of a gentleman at the time. Entry into certain professions such as medicine, law, or the priesthood was denied to them. They were restricted in the kinds of clothes they could wear, were required to occupy segregated seating in theaters and on public transportation, were discriminated against in legal matters, and were barred from seeking public office.
The injustices of the social system in Saint-Domingue stood in stark contrast to the ideals of the French Republic espoused in France during the French Revolution (1789–1799), when on August 26, 1789, the Declaration of the Rights of Man was adopted. It specifically stated that all men are free and equal. Yet slavery was still allowed in the French colonies.
In 1790 a Haitian free mulatto, Vincent Ogé (c. 1755–1791), joined an antislavery society in Paris called the Society of Friends of the Blacks. Ogé, who was French-educated and wealthy, returned to his homeland heady with the progressive ideas of human rights. He demanded that the governor of the colony extend voting rights to free men of color, as the mulattos were called. His petition was denied.
With a small contingent of followers, Ogé attacked and defeated a delegation of the French militia. With reinforcements, the colonial army forced the insurgents to flee to the Spanish-controlled territory of Santo Domingo, also located on Hispaniola. They were invited to return from their exile and surrender to French authorities, who agreed to grant them immunity for their rebellious actions. This they did in good faith. The agreement was overridden, however, by the governor, who tortured and executed Ogé and many of his fellow rebels.
While Ogé had sparked an uprising on behalf of the free coloreds, the large-scale revolt that followed on its heels aimed to free Saint-Domingue’s slave population. In August 1791 a signal to the blacks to rise against the authoritarian whites was given by Jamaican-born Dutty Boukman (died c. 1791). Boukman was a Vodou priest practicing an amalgam of Islam and traditional African religion. He predicted that the slaves Jean François Papillon (died 1805), Georges Biassou (1741–1801), and Jeannot would lead the Haitian blacks to break the yoke of French suppression. Under the command of these three, a force of rebellious slaves destroyed eighteen hundred plantations and killed about one thousand slaveholders in ten days. Early in the uprising, Boukman was killed, and his head was displayed by the French to discourage his followers.
Despite the loss of Boukman, the revolt experienced great success. It attracted about one hundred thousand slaves. By 1792 they were in control of a third of the island. The French attempted to quell the violence by extending citizenship to all free persons in the spring of 1792. This meant that Saint-Domingue’s free blacks and mulattos now had full legal rights, including the right to hold office. The decree effectively ended any alliance they might have had with the rebel slaves; the slaves were now considered a threat to their newly gained position in society. The free blacks and mulattos aligned themselves with the white plantation owners in resisting the rebellion.
This free population gained even greater prestige with the overthrow of the French king in 1793 by the leaders of the French Revolution. Saint-Domingue’s French commissioners suspected many of the island’s prominent white citizens of harboring royalist sympathies. The free people of color, on the other hand, were free from suspicion. The French government elevated this population over that of the white population, much of which fled the turmoil for Cuba or New Orleans.
France needed not only the support of the free people of color but also the colony’s slave population after both Spain and England invaded Saint-Domingue in 1793. One of the French commissioners of Saint-Domingue, Léger-Félicité Sonthonax (1763–1813), declared the slaves in his district to be free as of August 29, 1793, a move that was quickly imitated by the other two commissioners. The French National Convention declared slavery to be abolished in all of its territories on February 4, 1794.
The announcement of the abolishment of slavery attracted the allegiance of the Haitian general Toussaint Louverture (c. 1743–1803). Toussaint was a free black who had joined Biassou’s troops and negotiated with the Spanish in Santo Domingo to send supplies to the rebels. After his offer to the French colonial administration to return to work and release white prisoners was rejected, he set about training the rebel army in guerrilla warfare. He amassed a fighting force of four thousand men on the side of the Spanish before switching sides in May 1794. Toussaint was instrumental in the defeat of both the English and Spanish.
Toussaint was not interested in restoring power to the French. From his base in the north, he began to extend his control to all of Saint-Domingue. The French government sent a new commissioner, Thomas Hédouville (1755–1825), who attempted to form an alliance with mulatto leader André Rigaud (1761–1811) in the south, where the mulatto population held a great deal of influence. Hédouville was expelled by Toussaint in October 1798, and Saint-Domingue descended into a civil war known as the War of the Knives (1799–1800). Toussaint put the command of his troops under Jean-Jacques Dessalines (1758–1806), who used extremely brutal means to defeat the mulattos. Although forbidden to do so by Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821), the new leader of France, Toussaint invaded Santo Domingo in 1801 and brought the Spanish colony under French control.
Suspecting that Napoléon would reinstate slavery in the French colonies, Toussaint, on July 7, 1801, enacted a constitution for a virtually independent Haiti and made himself governor general for life. Napoléon dispatched troops to the island under the command of his brother-in-law, General Charles Emmanuel Leclerc (1772–1802). The two sides engaged in indecisive battles and diplomatic negotiations, culminating with Leclerc arresting Toussaint and having him deported to France, where he died in jail in 1803.
The reestablishment of French control of Haiti was short-lived, for it became clear that France intended to reinstitute slavery. A revolt in 1802 was met with brutal French repression by an army under the command of Donatien-Marie-Joseph de Vimeur, Viscount of Rochambeau (1755–1813), which drove the remaining Haitians who supported the French to join Dessalines’ troops. Rochambeau’s army was weakened by his inability to resupply; Haitian ports were blockaded by the British.
The expense of fighting the rebellious slaves in Haiti and the loss of income from the plantations were devastating to French finances already in a perilous state from constant war in Europe. Napoléon, in an attempt to recoup some of his losses, sold his Louisiana territories to the United States for a bargain price in 1803. The last battle in the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) was fought at Vertières on November 18, 1803. The French were defeated by Dessalines, who declared Haiti a free republic on January 1, 1804. Dessalines declared himself Emperor Jacques I and ordered the massacre of the remaining whites of French descent.
As the first independent nation in Latin America, Haiti faced a difficult transformation. The nation had too many soldiers and not enough farmers and laborers to restore the economy to its previous level of production. To keep his massive army busy, to demonstrate its power, and perhaps to free more slaves, Dessalines invaded the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo in 1805. There he raised the intensity of atrocities to an unprecedented level. This genocide against the Spanish did not do his reputation any good, and eventually some of his countrymen, dissatisfied with his autocratic and murderous rule, assassinated him in 1806.
Just as bloodthirsty as Dessalines in the takeover of Santo Domingo was his subordinate officer, Henri Christophe (1767–1820). Rather than facing censure for his part in the torture and murder of the Spanish, he retreated to the northern part of Haiti, where he created a kingdom in 1811 and proclaimed himself King Henry I of Haiti. Christophe established an aristocracy and built lavish palaces and an imposing fort, Citadelle Laferrière. His despotic rule ended in 1820, when, unwell and fearing a revolt, he committed suicide.
The internal troubles in Haiti became even more difficult with the signing in 1825 of an agreement with the French to pay plantation owners for their losses in the revolution. The first payment on this huge debt was covered by loans from French banks. These loans would keep the young nation in a state of near bankruptcy for many years.
The revolution and the end of slavery in Haiti was significant, despite the nation’s early struggles. It was the first large-scale successful slave revolt, and Haiti was the second colony in the New World to achieve independence (after the United States). The natives’ defeat of three major European powers—France, Spain, and England—inspired movements against colonialism elsewhere. In the English colony of Jamaica, where slavery continued long after it was abolished by a British Parliamentary Act in 1807, slaves and free blacks were inspired by the revolt in Haiti. During the Christmas Rebellion in 1831, as many as sixty thousand black rebels demanded more freedom and a fair wage for work. The revolt was quickly put down, and the Jamaican government, made up of plantation owners, executed hundreds of the offending blacks. The Christmas Rebellion, or as it is sometimes called, the Great Jamaican Slave Revolt, vividly highlights the impact of the earlier events in Haiti.
The independent country of Haiti also served as an example for Latin American liberators. The black Venezuelans who were struggling to rid themselves of Spanish control looked to the example of Haiti, from which they received aid. Simón Bolívar (1783–1830), the liberator of South America, suffered a defeat in Colombia after gaining victory in Venezuela in 1813. He retreated to Haiti, where he raised a force of like-minded liberators sufficiently strong to defeat the Spanish army in Colombia.
The Haitian Revolution forced some refugees from Haiti to the United States, where they settled in Charleston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York. A number of white and free people of color joined the French-speaking population of southern Louisiana, where their presence unsettled American plantation owners who feared that a slave revolt on their soil was quite possible given what had transpired in Haiti.