The Haitian Revolution

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Modern-day Haiti is often seen by the West through a lens of patronising pity and concern. News items highlight kidnappings, assassinations, gang wars, fuel shortages, earthquakes and famines. This quasi-stereotypical picture of Haiti as a corruption-infested violence-ridden developing country conceals the beacon of revolution the island nation once possessed. Yet revolution was a founding creed of Haiti’s birth in 1804 and has since echoed down through its history.

The island of Hispaniola was first discovered by Europeans during the first voyage of Columbus. Upon landing, Columbus claimed the region for his sponsors, Ferdinand and Isabella, the rulers of Spain. By the 18th Century, however, France had acquired a portion of the West Coast of Hispaniola and christened it Saint Dominique – the Gallicised form of the Spanish name for the island (Santo Domingo). It is difficult to convey how lucrative Saint Dominique was for the French; half of the world’s sugar and coffee came from the island, and the region became so profitable that France went as far as establishing colonies in Louisiana with the sole aim of providing food for Saint Dominique. 

The Europeans established on the island a semi-feudal social order. The 40,000 white people in the colony were split into two classes: the grands blancs and the petit blancs. The former were minor aristocrats, who often owned large plantations and slaves, but, due to the inconveniences of tropical diseases and climate, few lived in the colony and many ran their estates from the mainland. The petit blancs were largely artisans and traders, who did not own land of their own. The black population was also split into two groups. A small proportion (some 30,000) were freedmen, men who had been released from slavery by their masters. It was fairly common for grand blancs to have children with their slaves and then liberate them, while blacks employed in the civil service or military were sometimes rewarded for their work with freedom. The freedmen were not fully-fledged citizens, but crucially possessed property rights, which allowed them to establish estates and slave plantations of their own. At the bottom of the socio-economic order were the slaves. These were individuals forcefully taken from their homes, mostly in the African continent, and then taken to Hispaniola. The journey itself was hellish, with one in seven dying aboard the slave laden ships. Life for those who survived was little consolation – they were neither fed nor clothed, and were constantly at the mercy of their owners, who often inflicted savage punishments upon them. Unsurprisingly, the slaves resisted their masters. Some ran away and became guerilla fighters, known as the Maroons, but most would go on strike until harsh supervisors were replaced, or would work slowly, feign illness and pretend not to understand instructions. Yet these were only minor victories, and there was considerable distrust, frustration and fear between all elements of Haitian society. 

In 1758, these tensions came to a boil. When a violent slave revolt rose up against the colonial masters, it was mercilessly crushed. This uprising gave a pretext to the petits blancs, who had long been envious of the richer and better-educated gens de couleur libres, to implement strictly segregationist laws. Claiming that people of colour were undermining France’s imperial interests, they stripped the freedpeople of their political rights, banned them from voting or running for office, forced them to carry identity cards and prohibited them from wearing French clothing. These discriminatory laws created dissatisfaction within the ranks of the freedpeople. However, there was no real abolitionist movement – these former slaves were often more white than black by ancestry (so-called mulattoes) and they themselves benefitted economically from owning slaves. 

Twenty years after the first slave revolt, mainland France faced its own upheavals. The ancien régime, the system France had been governed under for the last three centuries, was suddenly abolished. In its place rose the Constituent Assembly which, in 1789, published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. When news of these developments trickled across the Atlantic to Haiti, both white and free men were disturbed, as they feared these radical steps could lead to the abolition of slavery. Hoping to form a united political bloc to defend their economic interests, the freedmen approached the grands blancs, promising that, in return for full citizenship, they would block any moves towards abolition. Unable to break away from the doctrine of segregation, however, the white people rejected the black freedmen’s offer. Accordingly, the freedmen turned to the abolitionist movement in their attempts to gain full citizenship. 

In 1790, Vincent Ogé, a wealthy freedman, approached the governor of Saint-Dominique with an amendment from the Constituent Assembly. This declared that all property owners should be full citizens, which would have granted Ogé (and many others from his class) the right to vote. The governor and other ruling authorities, refusing to accept such a dramatic change, simply ignored the amendment. Ogé launched a rebellion. The freedmen raised a force three hundred strong but, having routed several militias, were eventually defeated by a contingent of federal soldiers. Ogé fled into the neighbouring Spanish colony of Santo-Domingo, but was discovered, extradited and executed by being broken on the wheel. 

When the Assembly eventually granted the sons of freedpeople the right to vote, the whites also decided to respond by launching their own rebellion, fighting the freedpeople’s militias as well as the government forces, intermittently allying with the other two parties to put down small slave uprisings. Amidst the confusion, there was little coordination among the slaves. This changed on 14 August 1791, when Dutty Boukman, a coachman, voodoo priest and slave, triggered a mass rebellion. The slave-owning classes had long underestimated the intelligence and physical capabilities of the slaves due to their history of preferring acts of passive resistance, such as feigning illnesses and pretending not to understand orders. Carriage drivers were able to carry messages between different slave groups and served as key coordinators. Voodoo, a unique religion that was a blend between West African tribal religions and Christianity, formed a common ground between the slaves, and cultural gatherings were a hotspot for planned uprisings. As a consequence, Dutty Boukman was able to gather a significant amount of traction against the ruling classes.

The French government dispatched a Commission to investigate the violence in Saint-Dominique. Amidst the ruckus caused by the numerous factions – the government, the whites, the freedmen and the slaves – a man named Toussaint L’Ouverture rose to prominence in the northern regions. Born a slave, but freed in 1776 at the age of 33, L’Ouverture had spent his time as a freedman working a salaried role at the plantation where his family was still enslaved. Though he did not own vast quantities of land or a horde of slaves, he was still a member of the upper class among the black Haitian community. A liminal figure, with ties to the black freedmen (of whom he was one), the slaves (whom he had been one of) and the white landowners (who employed him), it is not entirely unsurprising L’Ouverture found himself acting as an important negotiator between the rebels and the French governor. Ultimately, he offered to order the slaves to return to work if he and the generals were granted amnesty – perhaps not the most self-sacrificing display of Jacobin beliefs. Yet despite being offered laughably lenient terms, the white population refused to budge, and L’Ouverture fully embraced his role as a key revolutionary – quickly becoming known for his military discipline, ensuring Haiti possessed tightly regimented and well-trained forces.

Foreign powers were also eyeing the colony of Saint-Dominique. From neighbouring Santo-Domingo, the Spanish dispatched soldiers to exploit the chaos, while the British, based in nearby Barbados, invaded with a force 20,000 strong. L’Ouverture skilfully played the powers off each other, allying with the Spanish before betraying them and aligning with the French. Hoping to weaken their French rival, the British and Spanish offered emancipation for those who defected to their side, but, when L’Ouverture attempted to capitalise on this development by signing a treaty with the British, the French grew suspicious of him.

The bizarre merry-go-round of French governments in this period only added to the confusion – Commissions from the mainland had declared full citizenship for some freedmen of colour, no people of colour, all freed people of colour and then all slaves. Perhaps unsurprisingly, L’Ouverture began to doubt the French promises of emancipation and fell out with the Directory. As L’Ouverture was increasingly seen as the international face in Haiti, one of his rival freedmen generals in the South, Andre Rigaud, increasingly began infringing on northern territory. Despite Britain, France and the United States all recognising L’Ouverture as the leader of Haiti, Rigaud resolved to seize power for himself. Having evaded two assassination attempts by sheer luck, L’Ouverture struck back and drove Rigaud into exile. Now, with room to manoeuvre, L’Ouverture invaded Santo Domingo, on the grounds that he wished to prevent Spain from kidnapping and enslaving Haitians. 

Unfortunately for L’Ouverture, who had grown accustomed to challenging a variety of weak-willed French governments, a new rival emerged from the mainland. Napoleon Bonaparte sent a commission of his own, declaring that his government had outlawed slavery in France itself, but that special laws (slavery) would be permitted in the colonies. L’Ouverture pre-empted these developments by creating his own constitution and declaring Haiti was a de facto sovereign state.

An enraged Napoleon ordered his brother-in-law Leclerc to reconquer Haiti. L’Ouverture was unable to muster the foreign support he needed to repel the French army. The British had signed a non-aggression pact with France and Thomas Jefferson was determined to adhere to a policy of strict neutrality. Realising the external pressure would be too much to bear, L’Ouverture accepted a truce that would have allowed him to retire in peace. Treacherously, the Frenchmen went back on their word and deported him to Dourbs in France. He died a year later. L’Ouverture had warned the French that they were only cutting off the trunk of rebellion and that the roots remained. He was correct. The invading force suffered tremendous losses at the hands of L’Ouverture’s right-hand man, Dessalines. Both sides committed horrific atrocities; mass executions, forced drownings and torture abounded. Eventually, the Frenchmen were driven out by yellow fever, which consumed almost a third of their forces, including Leclerc. A chastised Napoleon was forced to abandon Haiti. Without a sugar colony to export food to, Louisiana was deemed worthless, and Napoleon sold it for a pittance.

For Haiti, independence was not the happy ending many had wished for. Though they had driven out an imperial power, become the second independent colony in the Americas, written a new Constitution and emancipated most slaves, the Haitians were constantly at the mercy of external actors and foreign interference. Even until 1947, Haiti was paying ‘reparations’ to France for the damages caused during the Civil War. Instability plagues the nation to this day – earlier this year, the President of Haiti was brutally assassinated in his own palace. While the roots of rebellion may have survived Napoleon’s wrath, they were slowly eroded by a combination of corruption, vested interests and violence.  

Dubois, L., 2004., A Colony of Citizens. University of North Carolina Press

Gonzalez, J., 2019. Maroon Nation: A History of Revolutionary Haiti. Yale University Press

James, C.L.R., 1938. The Black Jacobins. Penguin Publishing