The Haitian Revolution has often been referred to as the largest and most successful slave rebellion within the Western world. In 1791 slaves started the rebellion and by 1803 they had succeeded in ending not just slavery but also ending French control over the colony.
The Haitian Revolution, however, was far more complex, consisting of several revolutions happening simultaneously. The French Revolution of 1789 influenced these revolutions because it represented a replacement concept of human rights, universal citizenship, and participation in government.
Saint Dominigue, as Haiti was then known, became France’s wealthiest overseas colony in the 18th century. This was largely due to its production of sugar, coffee, indigo, and cotton generated by the labor force of slaves. When the French Revolution erupted in 1789 the colony had five distinct sets of interest groups within it.
There were white planters—who were owners of the plantations and the slaves—and petit blancs, who were artisans, shop keepers and teachers. Some of them also owned a few slaves. Together they were about 40,000 of the population of the colony’s residents.
The planters were extremely dissatisfied with France because they were forbidden to trade with other nations. Moreover, the white population of Saint-Dominique didn’t have any representation in France. Despite their involvement note calls for independence, both the planters and petit blancs remained committed to the institution of slavery.
The other three groups were of African descent. They were those that were free, those that were slaves, and people who had run away. There were about 30,000 free black people in the colony in 1781. Half of them were mulatto and most times were wealthier than the petit blancs. The slave population was close to 500,000.
The runaway slaves were referred to as maroons whom had retreated deep into the mountains of Saint Dominigue and lived off small scale farming. The slaves in Haiti were always unwilling to submit to their status as slaves, so Haiti had a history of slave rebellions.
Slaves outnumbered colonialists and planters 10-1 but the officials did all that was possible to control them. Despite the brutality and savagery of Saint Dominigue slavery, there had been slave rebellions before 1791. One rebellion plot involved the poisoning of masters.
A variety of Haitian-born revolutionary movements emerged simultaneously, inspired by events in France. They used as their inspiration the French Revolution’s “Declaration of the Rights of Man.” In Paris, the General Assembly in Paris responded by enacting legislation which gave the different colonies some autonomy at the local level.
The legislation, which advocated for “all local proprietors…to move citizens,” was both ambiguous and radical. It was interpreted in Saint Dominigue as applicable only to the planter class and therefore excluded petit blancs from the government. Yet it allowed the participation of free citizens of color who were substantial property owners.
This legislation that was promulgated in Paris with the intention to keep Saint Dominigue within the colonial empire instead generated a three-sided war between the planters, free blacks, and the petit blancs. However, all three groups would be challenged by a common enemy: the enslaved black majority which was also influenced and inspired by events in France.
The enslaved led by former slave Toussaint l’Overture, acted first, rebelling against the planters on August 21, 1791. Before the end of 1792, they controlled a third of the island. Despite reinforcements and backup from France, the portion of the colony held by the rebels expanded as did the violence on each side.
Before the fighting ceased, 100,000 of the 500,000 blacks and 24,000 of the 40,000 whites were killed. The former slaves however managed to dispell both the French and British forces who arrived in 1793 to crush the colony.
They withdrew in 1798 after a series of defeats by l’Overture’s forces. l’Overture expanded the revolution beyond Haiti by 1801, conquering the neighboring Spanish colony of Santo Domingo (present-day Dominican Republic). He abrogated slavery within the Spanish-speaking colony and pronounced himself Governor-General for life over the whole island of Hispaniola.
The Haitian Revolution had outlasted the French Revolution which had been its inspiration at that moment. The new ruler of France, Napoleon Bonaparte sent General Charles Leclerc, his brother-in-law, and 43,000 French soldiers to capture L’Overture and restore both French rule and slavery. The French army captured L’Overture and sent him to France where he died in prison in 1803.
One of L’Ouverture’s generals, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, himself being a former slave, led the revolutionaries at the Battle of Vertieres on November 18, 1803. At the end of the battle, the French forces were defeated. On January 1, 1804, Dessalines declared the independence of the state and renamed it Haiti.
France was the first country to acknowledge its independence. Haiti consequently emerged as the first black republic in the world. It became the second country within the Western hemisphere (after the United States) to gain its independence from a European power.
Now the big question is: What does this lesson in history hold for the Black man of the world today?
As we still grapple with the excesses of European oppression, lessons such as these are vital in the framing of the mind of the Black man in this century and time.
Many Black people believe that we can’t stand up and fight for our rights to live freely without caucasian rule and subjugation. But the blunt truth is that we can. Our ancestors have done it in the past, and we are a testament to that bravery.
Africans in America and those in Africa must stand up against neo-colonialism, and all forms of European rule. The path to this resistance must be decided by African leaders and people.
Should it a path of violence or a path of dialogue? Thats a question that we will leave to events to answer.