The Haitian Revolution (1790–1804) brought political independence to Haiti, the second nation in the Americas to free itself from colonial rule. It also brought freedom to some 450,000 Afro-Caribbean slaves and served as a potent symbol of liberty to millions of their fellows who remained enslaved throughout the Americas. Other independence movements in the Americas at the time, like the American Revolution (1775–1783) or the independence struggles in Spanish America, pitted colonial elites against metropolitan governments and offered little possibility for immediate change in society. The Haitian Revolution, on the other hand, was a true social revolution, which led to remarkable changes in the lives of ordinary people on the island and the colony’s role in the world economy.
Haiti, known as Saint-Domingue before the revolution, was the richest colony in the Americas in 1789. Almost half a million slaves toiled on its sugar, coffee, indigo, and cotton plantations. More than thirty thousand new African slaves arrived each year, both to replace the many who died of overwork or disease and also to fuel the rapid economic expansion that the colony experienced in the 1780s. Between a third and a half of all slaves on the island were born in Africa. While the slaves had been evangelized and educated by Jesuit missionaries in the early days of the colony, the Jesuits were expelled from Haiti in 1767. After that, the slaves were left to their own resources, and had developed their own culture, complete with a language, kweyol, and a religion, vaudou, both strongly influenced by African models. The slaves were owned and supervised by a population of around fifty thousand free persons, about half of whom were Afro-Caribbean free coloreds. The largest plantations on the island were owned by whites, many of whom were absentee landlords living in France. There was a growing class of poorer whites who hoped to become planters. Alongside the poor whites, there were free coloreds, some of whom owned plantations while others competed with the lower-class whites for plantation management or craft jobs.
Saint-Domingue’s free people, both whites and blacks, despised French mercantilist economic regulations and dealt with smugglers whenever they could. They undermined the colonial government in other ways as well, rebelling against increased military obligations in the 1760s, for example. There is considerable evidence that the wealthier inhabitants of Saint-Domingue were developing an “American” identity in much the same way that wealthy North Americans had done in the period before the American Revolution and that wealthy Spanish Americans did in the 1800s before the independence struggles there.
But Saint-Domingue society was sharply divided on racial and class lines. Racial distinctions between whites and free coloreds were always significant and became even more marked after the 1760s. Some scholars have suggested that this was a calculated “divide and conquer” strategy by the colonial government to drive a wedge between wealthy white and free colored inhabitants. In any case, the racially divided masters of the colony were vastly outnumbered by their slaves. The need to be eternally vigilant against slave uprisings, and the need for French troops to provide the final element of security, made it less likely that wealthy colonists would think of independence in Saint-Domingue—or that poor people could make common cause across the divide of race and status.
But revolution did come. At first, it came as an echo of the revolution going on in France. Both white and free colored planters appealed to the French revolutionary assemblies in 1789. But the French legislatures avoided the questions of slavery and civil rights for free people of color for two years. During this time, political struggles broke out in the colony between white planters and less-wealthy whites. Each side appealed to free colored allies, and the slaves watched everything that was going on.
Two wealthy free colored men, Vincent Ogé (c. 1750–1791) and Jean-Baptiste Chavannes (c. 1748–1791), rose up in rebellion in 1790, calling for civil rights for free coloreds. Their movement was quickly crushed and they were executed, but the first shots had been fired. Free coloreds continued to fight their own struggle throughout the larger revolution that followed, and indeed went on to play an important role in post-independence Haitian society.
The slaves did not need French political philosophers or wealthy free colored planters to tell them that they ought to be free. There had been slave uprisings and other acts of resistance on the island since the first Africans arrived, brought by the Spanish, in the sixteenth century. But rebellions were always crushed by the superior military force of the colonial government. Even the maroons, or runaway slaves, who had hidden in the mountains and lived as free peasants in the early days of the colony were pretty much eradicated by the 1780s, as plantations spread throughout the island. But when the masters fought among themselves, the slaves saw their opportunity.
Slaves with leadership positions, such as coachmen, foremen of work gangs, technical specialists, and hunters, together with vaudou practitioners and some free people of color organized a great uprising among the slaves of the northern plain. This area was the most heavily populated and richest area of the colony. The slaves rose up the fourth week of August 1791, burning hundreds of plantations and killing or driving out the masters. The early leaders of the rebellion were slaves, such as Boukman, the organizer of a famous vaudou ceremony at Bois Cayman that may have been the signal for the uprising. But the ultimate leader of the slave army was Toussaint Louverture (c. 1743–1803), a pre-revolutionary free black planter and slave owner.
Toussaint’s soldiers fought from 1791 until 1799 against a dizzying variety of enemies: French revolutionary governors, French royalists, English and Spanish invaders, and free colored leaders. In the midst of this struggle, in 1793, the French revolutionary commissioner Léger-Félicité Sonthonax (1763–1813) proclaimed the end of slavery in the colony and Toussaint’s forces became officially part of the French army.
But by 1801 the government back in France was beginning to reconsider the abolition of slavery. Napoleón Bonaparte (1769–1821) was first consul. He needed the wealth of Saint-Domingue and he distrusted freedom. Toussaint had succeeded in taking military control of the island but not at restoring sugar production. The slaves were not interested in working on plantations, even for wages. They wanted to own their own farms. As the manpower behind Toussaint’s military triumphs, they were in a good position to insist. And anyway, Toussaint had written a new constitution for the island in which he proclaimed his loyalty to France but declared himself governor-general for life. For all these reasons, Napoleón decided to reconquer the island and restore slavery. He sent an army under his brother-in-law Charles Leclerc (1772–1802) in 1801.
Toussaint and some of his soldiers put up a stiff resistance, but ultimately the French troops, fresh from victories across Europe, triumphed. Toussaint himself was arrested and imprisoned in France, where he died in 1803. But disease began to take a toll on the French forces. At the same time, those Haitian soldiers who had surrendered when the French came began to realize that slavery was going to be restored. Toussaint’s officers rose up in a new rebellion and fought a terrible struggle. More than a year of heavy fighting, marked by many massacres on both sides, resulted in the final defeat of the French forces at Vertières on November 18, 1803. The new commander of the Haitian forces, Jean-Jacques Dessalines (c. 1758–1806), tore the white out of the French flag, expelled or massacred the remaining white inhabitants, and declared Haitian independence on January 1, 1804. The cost of freedom will never be known, but the population of Haiti fell by at least 125,000 between 1789 and 1804.
Haiti became independent in 1804, but no nation recognized it until the 1820s. Simón Bolívar (1783–1830) took refuge in Haiti during his struggle against Spain, but even the newly independent nations of the Americas did not want to have anything to do with a nation of freed slaves. Haiti was too potent an example to the blacks in the rest of the hemisphere. Haiti’s leaders were demonized in French and American propaganda of the time and since, and Haiti was and to some extent still is held up as an example of how black people cannot rule themselves and need supervision. But black people were not so easily fooled. Haiti became a rallying cry for black liberation movements from Denmark Vesey’s (c. 1767–1822) planned uprising in South Carolina in 1822 to Ahmed Sékou Touré’s (1922–1984) call for the independence of the Republic of Guinea in Africa in 1957.
Haiti ceased to be a major producer of sugar or coffee after 1804, as most Haitians left the plantations and became peasants. Isolated from the world, Haiti preserved many elements of African culture, including a vibrant spiritual and artistic tradition. The pre-revolutionary free coloreds, many of them of mixed race, and the leaders of the military struggle became an urban commercial ruling class who lorded it over the mostly black peasants and affected a very European culture.
SEE ALSO Cuban Revolution; Grenadian Revolution
Bell, Madison Smartt. 1995. All Souls’ Rising. New York: Pantheon.
Bell, Madison Smartt. 2000. Master of the Crossroads. New York: Pantheon.
Bell, Madison Smartt. 2004. The Stone that the Builder Refused. New York: Pantheon.
Dubois, Laurent. 2004. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.
Fick, Carolyn. 1990. The Making of Haiti: The Saint-Domingue Revolution from Below. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
Garrigus, John. 2006. Before Haiti: Race and Citizenship in French Saint-Domingue. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
Geggus, David P. 2002 Haitian Revolutionary Studies. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
James, C. L. R. 1963. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. 2nd rev. ed. New York: Vintage.
Stewart R. King