Slavery in Haiti

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Slavery in Haiti

Slaves and masters were the norm in the Caribbean after European arrival. A third group gradually arose in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, however. Over time, enough white planters had fathered—and subsequently freed—children with black mistresses that the free, biracial community had expanded significantly. By 1789 there were 30,000 white citizens in the colony and 25,000 free gens de couleur ("people of color"). Some of those people of color inherited not only freedom but also money and sometimes property. Hundreds of them were part of an elite class, owning plantations and slaves themselves. Although clearly not opposed to slavery, as they were more than willing to benefit from it, many free people of color were indeed opposed to racism. They wanted to be treated as the equals of whites, especially in the early, heady days of the French Revolution. Several prominent people of color, including Julien Raimond and Vincent Ogé, pressed the French government to recognize the rights of all free men regardless of race. To deny their request would have been to implicitly deny the principles of the revolution; to accede to it would have enraged white planters. The committee called upon to settle the matter, therefore, passed it off; each colony should write its own constitution and decide such matters for itself. The document's language was vague and neither confirmed nor denied the rights of people of color. The colonial governor of Saint-Domingue, not surprisingly, refused to let people of color have a vote in the matter. Ogé led an abortive revolt of gens de couleur. When it failed, he and twenty-three others were hanged. That same month the Abbé Gregoire, a white Parisian supporter of Ogé, had written a prescient pamphlet, "Letter to Those Who Love Mankind," which concluded:

There can be no doubt that sooner or later the repressed energy of the mulattos will rise up with an unstoppable violence. The oppressed can be forced into inactivity now only because they are temporarily weak. Such dangerous apathy! Evil's frightening silence is usually broken only by a tumultuous dash for liberty. (Dubois and Garrigus, 2006, pp. 73-75)

In addition to the violence stirred up by Ogé's revolt, Saint-Domingue's whites became fragmented. Radical and often poor, whites accused planters and people of color of acting against the Revolution. The National Assembly sent more troops to the colony, then passed a law granting citizenship to people of color whose parents had both been free and who owned a sufficient amount of property. The gens de couleur were happy but wary; radical whites were outraged. The spark that would light this tinder, though, came from another group entirely.

In August 1891 a group of highly organized slaves in the north province planned a revolt. One of their leaders, Boukman, led them in a ritual ceremony, sealing their pact with the blood of a sacrificed pig. Initially a thousand strong, their numbers swelled to as many as 20,000 by September. The slaves were joined by many free blacks, who differed from the gens de couleur in that they were not racially mixed. This group included the exslave Toussaint Bréeda, who would eventually change his surname to Louverture ("the opening"). The insurgents destroyed 200 sugar plantations and 1,200 coffee estates, and resisted attacks by French soldiers and local militia.

Meanwhile, free people of color and radical whites were fighting one another, each side employing its slaves as soldiers. In 1793 the situation got even more complicated, as—sensing an opportunity to claim the most lucrative colony in the Caribbean—the Spanish attacked from the western end of the island, with many members of the slave army joining them, and the British navy arrived from Jamaica and blockaded the area. When France sent a new governor, François Galbaud, to replace Légér Sonthonax, each governor's supporters attacked one another. Thousands of planters fled, with their slaves, to North America. Sonthonax got the upper hand. He initially offered freedom to all slaves, and their families, who would come to the colony's aid; he eventually expanded this to general abolition, and his superiors in France approved the measure in February 1794, freeing slaves in all French territories. The British, however, were invading; they had already taken Martinique and Guadeloupe.

After emancipation, Toussaint Louverture, who had been fighting for the Spanish, changed sides and accepted a position as a French officer. Spain signed a peace treaty in 1795; by 1797 Louverture was the topranking officer in Saint-Domingue. He continued fighting—not only the British, but rebellious factions in his own army. He also gained a tremendous amount of political power, externally as well as internally, negotiating on his own authority with Britain and the United States. Meanwhile, in a coup d'état, France's government had changed again; Napoleon Bonaparte was now in control, and his administration drafted a new constitution that did not cover the Caribbean colonies. Many newly freed blacks throughout the Caribbean feared this might mean he intended to re-enslave them in order to renew the lucrative sugar trade and finance his new projects now that, as of 1801, there was peace with Britain.

Black soldiers in Guadeloupe, who had been fighting the British for years, were so sure Napoleon meant to reinstitute slavery that they rebelled against the new administrator he sent. In 1802 a French general, Antoine Richepance, arrived at the head of a considerable army. The rebel leader, Louis Delgès, issued a proclamation that said, in part:

What are the acts of authority with which we have been threatened? Are the bayonets of those brave soldiers, whose arrival we have been awaiting and who previously were directed only against the enemies of the republic, to be turned against us? Ah! Rather, if we consider the actions the authorities have already taken in Pointe-à-Pitre, they are instead killing people slowly in prisons. Well! We choose to die more quickly. (Dubois and Garrigus 2006, p. 172)

Forced up the slopes of a volcano, surrounded by the French after a desperate fight, Delgès and his followers were true to his words. Shouting "live free or die," they ignited their ammunition and blew themselves up. The French, in a campaign that killed or deported 10 percent of the population of Guadeloupe, did in fact reinstall slavery—not just there, but in Martinique and French Guiana as well. The handwriting was on the wall for Saint-Domingue; a similar French army landed on her shores.

The Birth of Haiti

Blacks prepared to resist. Louverture agreed to retire. Fearing his influence, however, French officials had him arrested and deported in irons to France, where he died a year later. His chief lieutenant, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, at first allied himself with the French, hunting down resisters on their behalf. The French began to lose black allies, though, when a ship full of Guadeloupe prisoners sold into slavery passed through and their worst fears were confirmed. The French lost even more control with the arrival of General Donatien Rochambeau, now in command of forces in Saint-Domingue and determined to crush the rebellion as thoroughly as possible. He imported killer dogs from Cuba; to provide a demonstration, he had a black prisoner's belly ripped open before a crowd and set the dogs on him—"to lift white morale." Efforts to use them on the battlefield proved futile, however, as they attacked whites as readily as blacks. Rochambeau's cruel tactics further inflamed the inhabitants against him and strengthened their resolve. Dessalines joined the rebels, soon becoming their leader. Rochambeau's forces were defeated, and he could not hope for reinforcements; Napoleon was once again at war with Britain. Rochambeau surrendered, then sailed away with his remaining troops—to be captured by the British. Approximately 50,000 French soldiers had died in Saint-Domingue in less than two years.

Dessalines was the leader of a new, independent nation. (He installed himself as emperor in 1805 but was assassinated a year later.) Their flag was the French tricolore—with the white part torn out—and the nation's name was no longer Saint-Domingue but rather Haiti (or Ayiti), the name that the indigenous peoples originally gave the island. In the next few months, Dessalines presided over the slaughter of countless whites whom he suspected of abetting the French and hoping for a reinstitution of slavery. Only the small number that had supported him—including a contingent of Polish soldiers who had deserted the French army—were under his protection. No more whites would be allowed to own property in Haiti, and there were to be no more gradations of Africanness: Haiti was to be a black nation. "Yes," he declared, "we have paid these true cannibals back crime for crime, war for war, outrage for outrage. I have saved my country. I have avenged America. (Dubois 2004b, p. 301)


Leonora Sansay, a planter's wife who later published her letters under the pseudonym Mary Hassal, described Revolutionary War life during the last days of the French occupation under Comte de Rochambeau:

The most distressing accounts arrive here daily from all parts of the island.

The general in chief is at Port-au-Prince, but he possesses no longer the confidence of the people. He is entirely governed by his officers, who are boys, and who think only of amusement. He gives splendid balls, and elegant parties; but he neglects the army, and oppresses the inhabitants.

A black chief and his wife were made prisoners last week, and sentenced to be shot. As they walked to the place of execution, the chief seemed deeply impressed with the horror of his approaching fate; but his wife went cheerfully along, endeavored to console him, and reproached his want of courage. When they arrived on the field, in which their grave was already dug, she refused to have her eyes bound; and turning to the soldiers who were to execute their sentence, said "Be expeditious, and don't make me linger." She received their fire without shrinking, and expired without uttering a groan. (pp. 183-184)

SOURCE: DuBois, Laurent, and John D. Garrigus. Slave Revolution in the Caribbean, 1789–1804: A Brief History with Documents. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's Press, 2006.

Effects on the United States

Haiti—or Santo Domingo, as Americans called it—sent several waves of immigrants to the United States. About a third of them were black, and the textures of the cities they moved to—mainly New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Charleston—changed, if only subtly, because of their presence. In addition to adding new citizens, the immigration also made it hard to ignore events on the distant island. The shape of America, one could argue, was also affected in a much broader sense. If Napoleon's efforts to subdue Haiti had not failed, it is doubtful he would have sold Louisiana to the United States.

How, though, was slavery affected? Planters grew more fearful, going to sleep with the dreadful thought that news of the successful slave revolt might lead their own servants to try the same thing. Abortive uprisings like Gabriel's Rebellion in 1800 did not help; neither did the sensationalized reports about Haitian violence: white babies being impaled on stakes, white women raped on the corpses of their husbands and fathers, and the dreadful fate of Madame Séjourné, as reported by Bryan Edwards, whose hand, he said, trembled as he wrote it: "This unfortunate woman … was far advanced in her pregnancy. The monsters, whose prisoner she was, having first murdered her husband in her presence, ripped her up alive, and threw the infant to the hogs.—They then (how shall I relate it) sewed up the head of her murdered husband in—!!!—Such are the triumphs, Philanthropy!" (Davis 2001, p. 11).

Slavery proponents pointed to the violence as proof that Africans are incapable of self-governance and evidence of the effects of even limited abolition. Abolitionists, when they spoke on the subject at all, echoed Abbé Gregoire: The violence is evidence of the retribution that awaits whites if they delay too long in doing what is right. Slaves and free blacks, meanwhile, took inspiration from Haiti, even if they dared not speak of it aloud.

Frederick Douglass, who did not make Haiti one of his talking points while trying to win support for abolition, did begin to speak of it decades later. It would have been hard not to, since he was appointed minister to Haiti in 1889, and Haiti made him their commissioner to the 1892 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition, where he delivered a stirring lecture on the subject of their revolution. On the subject of Haiti's impact on slaveholders he wrote:

She came into the sisterhood of nations through blood. She was described at the time of her advent, as a very hell of horrors. Her very name was pronounced with a shudder. She was a startling and frightful surprise and a threat to all slave-holders throughout the world, and the slaveholding world has had its questioning eye upon her career ever since. (Douglass 1893)

On the effects of Haiti's rebellion on slavery, Douglass said:

Until Haiti spoke, the church was silent, and the pulpit was dumb. Slave-traders lived and slave-traders died. Funeral sermons were preached over them, and of them it was said that they died in the triumphs of the Christian faith and went to heaven among the just…. She trod the wine press alone. Her hand was against the Christian world, and the hand of the Christian world was against her. Hers was a forlorn hope, and she knew that she must do or die…. I will rather believe that whatever may happen of peace or war Haiti will remain in the firmament of nations, and, like the star of the north, will shine on and shine on forever. (Douglass 1893)


Davis, David Brion. "Impact of the French and Haitian Revolutions." In The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World, ed. David P. Geggus, 3-9. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.

Douglass, Frederick. "Lecture on Haiti." January 2, 1893.

Dubois, Laurent. A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787–1804. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004a.

Dubois, Laurent. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2004b.

Dubois, Laurent, and John D. Garrigus. Slave Revolution in the Caribbean, 1789–1804: A Brief History with Documents. New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2006.

                                        Troy D. Smith

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Slavery in Haiti

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Slavery in Haiti