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During the Haitian revolution, the series of issues that unfolded in St. Domingue were unprecedented and completely new, and followed the American revolution of 1776 and French revolution of 1789, a third great revolution that had devastating implications on the countries still under the link of colonialism and slavery.

The revolt began in 1791 from black slaves in island of Hispaniola. Their revolution was against the French owners of plantations and slavery, although the revolution later became political lasting more than 12 years, and resulting into independence from colonization by France. By the end of the revolution, complete destruction had been done to the plantation system, the institution of slavery, and domination by the white population. Consequently, Haiti became the first black republic to gain independence.

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On the eve of the Haitian revolution, St. Domingue, was the most prosperous French occupation, accounting for more than 70 per cent of all French possession a broad. France highly depended on St. Domingue, with one in every eight French citizen depending on St. Domingue directly or indirectly for their survival. Every year, more that 200 boats loaded with indigo, sugar and coffee departed St. Domingue. Between 1785 and 1789, close to 150,000 slave workers were imported form Africa, with more that 50,000 slaves imported in 1789 alone. This demonstrates that the slave trade was in full force and implacable in St. Domingue.

By the end of the 18th century, St. Domingue was the richest French colony in the west. Based on forced labor from African slaves and with extensive sugar and coffee systems, St. Domingue was the wealthiest island of all the European colonies in the Caribbean region. A lively trade developed between St. Domingue and North America; merchants from England supplied the island with horses, food and equipment in exchange for sugar processing by-products such as molasses which was converted into rum.

As at 1789 the population of St. Domingue consisted of about 28,000 mulattoes and free blacks, 40,000 whites and 450,000 black slaves. The small population of the whites was divided between the upper class, made up of about 10,000 aristocrats, and about 30,000 middle class composed of artisans, solders and shop keepers (James, 77). The island was protected by 13,000 military men who served to protect the island from revolt and prevent sabotage to the sugar plantation and factories.

Theses classes of population had nothing in common between then. Allied to the middle and first class whites were the mulattoes (offspring of elite whites and black women), who wanted to share in the privileges of the whites. However, the mulattoes did not find it easy; they faced racial discrimination due to their parental background. In turn, the mulattoes despised the black slaves, same as the whites. To maintain divisions between the whites and blacks, the Black Code was instituted in 1685 preventing people from crossing racial boundaries, enforcing strict relations among the free racial groups.

Causes of the Haitian Revolution

By 1789, the slave population in the vast Caribbean island totaled to more than 500,000. Most of the slaves were of African descent. At the time, the death rate exceeded the birth rates, and as such the importation of slaves from Africa continued. Annual decline in slave population was due to the imbalance between the sexes of the slaves: more men than women; and overwork; inadequate medical care, food, clothing and shelter. Some slaves worked for the elite class in the urban areas as personal servants, cooks and laborers around the houses in the plantations. This class of relatively privileged slaves was mainly of American descent, while the Africa-born, under-class slaves worked under abusive conditions in the plantations.

The region of Plane du Nord on the north shores of St. Domingue was the largest and most fertile of the sugar plantations. The region was economically important, particularly because most French trade went through the ports in that region. Le Cap Francias was the capital of the French St. Domingue and the busiest port. Due to the economical importance of this region it was occupied by the rich upper-class white colonist, who wanted economical monopoly of the region. Consequently the region was exclusively dominated by the upper-class whites while the middle class whites were scattered in other regions of St. Domingue.

Of the close to 40,000 whites who lived in St. Domingue, French-born European whites monopolized all administrative posts. The grand Blancs and the sugar planters were mainly considered as minor aristocrats. Most of these administrators moved back to France as shortly as possible, hopping to escape yellow, a popular fatal disease at the time (James, 63). The lower-class whites (petits blancs) composed the slave leaders, shopkeepers and overseers.

St. Domingue was also polarized by rival tension between the west, south and north. Northern St. Domingue was the centre for trading and shipping, and therefore was occupied by elite French population. The southern region of St. Domingue lagged behind in wealth and development, being geographically detached from other parts of the colony. However, this isolation of the western region allowed trade between freed blacks and Jamaica to flourish, allowing blacks to gain wealth and power in this region. The western region grew significantly in wealth, particularly after the capital was moved to Port-au-Prince. This made the region to become increasingly wealthy, particularly in the second half of the 18th century. Besides, there were always regional tensions between allies of Great Britain (who changed the colony of St. Domingue) and the proponent of independence loyal to Spain and France (Geggus and Fiering, 206).

While the upper-class whites enjoyed luxury and life indulgence in northern St. Domingue, middle class whites lived in less luxurious conditions in the west, and the blacks existed harshly in the southern parts. The blacks spent long hours laboring in St. Domingue’s indigo, sugar and coffee plantations. Most of the black populations died form starvation and overwork. Although the blacks were protected by laws from torture and physical abuse, the reality was that the slaves could be killed, mutilated or tortured by their owners. And since most slaves were not born in slavery, being imported from Africa where they lived in freedom, adapting to slavery conditions was not easy to them. The African slaved also carried and practiced their culture and religion, even though it was illegalized by the colony. Their religion, known as Voodoo, gave the rallying point to fight for their rights.

Black slaves had been seeking to escape and run away from their owners ever since they arrived in St. Domingue. Most of them were waiting for an auspicious moment to put the end to slavery and organize a popular uprising. In 1791,with the dominant whites split into two and with the mulattoes fighting for equality, the back slaves staged a general rebellion  against their owners, destroying crops and plantations and killing whites. By 1793, slave revolts in St.Domingue.

St. Domingue had transformed into a full-scale civil revolution. Looking for support from the black slaves to defeat the upper-class whites, revolutionary white French officials got rid of slavery in St. Domingue. While fierce fighting continued between t various social groups, Britain and Spain sent forces to capture the territory.

Earlier accounts of black slave revolt took advantage of the element of surprise. In order to counteract rebellion the colonies requested for assistance from France. Colonists who fled St. Domingue and sought refuge in other areas such as Philadelphia spread the news that barbarism and brutality was widespread in St. Domingue and believed that it was important plans for gradual abolitions of slavery was needed. Other slave powers such as England, Portugal, the United States Holland and Spain wanted to make sure that such rebellions do not happen to them.

While it is not clear what caused the Haitian Revolution, most reports believe that the Society of Friends of Blacks greatly influenced the revolution. Other believes that the idea of revolution was already in the minds of most slaves given the lessons from the French Revolution (Kraft, 178). Perhaps the prominent factor that ignited revolution was the conditions of life which the slaves forced to live. The Code Noir, for example, demanded inviolable obedience from slaves to their owners and regulated their daily activities (James, 91).

St. Domingue turned into a killing field, where human lives were sacrificed for profit. The condition for labor was so brutal that most of the slaves died within two years of their arrival. In addition the slaves seldom reproduce, women slaves often aborted to prevent their potential children form being born in slavery (Kraft, 81). This mead tat the white masters had to continually replenish their supply of new slaves. Prior to the revolution in 1791, more that three quarters of slaves in St. Domingue were of African descent and experienced minimal freedom in the last ten years of their lives.

Besides, the Code Noir did not permit slaves to lodge any complains against their owners. Most slaves died of harsh working conditions or starvation, women slaves lived in constant fear and were brutally treated and continually raped by their masters. And because the state of slavery meant that they were properties of their owners, the owners could do anything they please, including rape (James, 122). Slaves worked under these conditions, with the permanent fear of whip by the overseers. Slaves who attempted to escape automatically became fugitives and were subjected to several tortures (mutilations, feet chained, arms hacked off), and most tortures ended in death of slaves.  Basically, the daily lives of slaves were same as the experiences in concentration camps. It is easy to understand why the affair for an insurrection was sought out for and waited with a lot of patience.

Black slaves and white masters constantly engaged in violent conflicts. Most of these conflicts revolved around slaves escaping form the plantations. Most of these escapees lived off what they could steal from the plantations. Most runaway slaves lived in the woods far way from their masters. In most instances they would conduct violent attacks on the coffee and sugar plantations. Although the size and number of these bands grew bigger, they lacked strategic leadership to undertake large scale raids, and possible escapes.

The French Revolution

The French revolution of 1789 impacted greatly on the wealthy French colony of St. Domingue. The struggle in France split the country in to two: the revolutionary forces of the middle and lower classed against the nobility representing the ancient regime. The Revolution ensued, among other matters, in the overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy in France and in the formation of the First Republic. It came about from a complex series of causes, the most significant of which were the unfitness of the ruling classes of clergy, noblesse and middle class to come to terms with the troubles of state, the extortionate taxation of the peasantry, indecisive nature of the monarch, impoverishment of the workers, the intellectual ferment of the Age of Enlightenment, and the example of the American War of Independence.  Most theories tend to emphasize the cultural, political, personality and ideological factors in the unfolding and the advent of the conflict, but downplay the struggle by the social class. The revolution produced a vast set of repercussions.

 These revolutions spilled over into the colonies of France, such as the French West Indies, that were holding slaves. During the spilled-over revolutions, St. Domingue was not left behind. The white population in St. Domingue split into two: the white middle class receiving support from the revolutionaries and the elite first-class loyal to king Louis XVI.

Low-class whites soon took the opportunity to rebel against the elite first-class whites in St. Domingue. While they wanted equal rights for themselves, they did not want the same to happen to the mulattoes and black slaves. They felt that freedom and rights were noble for everyone, but to maintain their profits and status, slavery had to be maintained. The elite whites however opposed royalism for the low class whites and need the help of the French state to minimize revolution in St. Domingue and keep the order of colonization intact.

At the same time, the mulattoes realizing an excellent opportunity to improve their living standards adopted a revolutionary idea of equality and liberty to fight for their rights without considerations for the black slaves. Since they were also property owners, they did not want an end to slavery. In an effort to fight for their rights, they sent a delegation to Paris to be included in the rights of man.

The declaration of “all men are born free and equal in rights” and the news of Bastille attacks created Punic among the elite white colonists, particularly the administrators and merchants (Geggus and Fiering, 113). To them, the best way to deal with the satiation was to maintain autonomy in the remaining parts of St. Domingue and to regain autonomy in areas that were experiencing rebellion.  Their main concern was the mulattoes that had begun fighting for their rights. In the midst of theses confusion, news came from France proclaiming French Citizenship rights for all individuals over the age of 25. Freed mulattoes saw this as a victory and a motivation to keep fighting for their rights. To maintain their brutal rule, the white colonists, especially the elite first-class did everything in their position to frustrate this decree from France.

When this decree was not honored, a mulatto leader, Vincent Oge (who had spent some time in France), waged war against whites with ammunition and weapons to free mulattoes who were slaved. In all his efforts to free mulatto slaves, Oge did not fight for the rights of black slaves. On several occasions Oge attempted to convince the elite whites that they interests were common given that both the mulattoes and the whites were property owners. The white could have none of his arguments. Their response was utmost repression and savagery. Confrontation occurred and war erupted between the elite whites and the mulattoes led by Oge. This led to his capture and subsequent torture, but most of his companions succeeded in fleeing to freedom in other islands. The black slaves were keenly observing these developments.

Black Slave Attacks

The traditional African religion of voodoo was a practiced and carried out without the watchful eye of the colonial masters. These prayers were conducted by a religious man known as John Bookman. During these prayers Boukman led secrete meetings that organized and launched the slave rebellion. Together with his followers he created a big conspiracy across many plantations in the northern region of St. Domingue. No slave passed the information of the intended rebellion to the merchants and planters; they were caught completely unaware. Slaves rose up in thousands terrorizing the white population, burning plantations, slaughtering and taking revenge on their masters. But their revenge was far les than the atrocities carried out by their masters as James put it:

The slaves were far more humane than their masters had been or would ever be to them. They did not maintain this vengeful spirit for long. The cruelties of property and privilege are always more ferocious than the revenges of poverty and oppression. For the one aims at perpetuating resented injustice, the other is merely a momentary passion soon appeased (89).

Amidst the confusion brought about by the French revolution and turmoil, a remarkable leader emerged in St. Domingue. A former slave, Francisco Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture, led the slave rebellion and joined forces with the Spanish army to destroy the white French. Equipped with above-average skills in military tactics and highly skilled in politics, Toussaint was promoted to higher ranks within the Spanish army. He took advantage of the Spanish to acquire guns and training and waited for the decision of the French national assembly concerning Slavery in St. Domingue. At the same time, Toussaint added anew name L’Ouverture- meaning opening up to liberty. In his address to black slaves, he proclaimed:

“Friends and brothers, I am Toussaint L’Ouverture; my name may be well known to you. I have been successful in carrying out my revenge. But now I want Liberty and Equality to reign in San Domingo. I work to bring them into existence. Fight with us and unite yourselves to us, brothers, for the same cause” (Toussaint 125).

In the climate of revolution that took France by storm in 1794, sonthanax sent a delegation of three men to Paris (one former black slave, one mulatto and one white). The delegation was given a warm welcome and the National Convention Minister proposed a resolution that read:

“The National Convention declares slavery abolished in all the colonies. In consequence it declares that all men, without distinction of color, domiciled in the colonies, are French Citizens, and enjoy all the rights under the Constitution” (141).

When France finally abolished slavery in St. Domingue, he switched sides and helped the French to drive the Spanish and British army out of St. Domingue. By 1796, Toussaint ruled the French colony of St. Domingue as the governor-general. During his reign, he defeated his internal rivals and forced British troops out of St. Domingue. His main internal rivals were the mulatto group in southern St. Domingue whom he destroyed in a race war that ensued.

Toussaint conducted his army with utmost discipline; he allied his people when necessary to England and Spain and made himself the leader of the various rebellion groups who were struggling for freedom in St. Domingue. During his rule, he backed the new assembly that was formed in France after the French revolution. By 1801 he had successes in placing the entire colony of St. Domingue under his leadership and triumphantly captures the western region that was under the control of Spain. Haiti finally gained her independence in 1804 after an unsuccessful attempt by Napoleon to re-colonize the colony using more than 60,000 forces.


The Haitian revolution completely transformed the New and the Old world. In Europe, the decision by Napoleon to send 60,000 solders to re-enslave St. Domingue resulted to his defeat on the continent and at the sea. The Haitian Revolution frightened slave masters throughout the Caribbean. In the wave of victories against France, the British decided to abolish the trade in slave for fear of importing into their colonies restive Africans. The French abandoned their interest in the region and sold off all their assets to the United States. Haiti itself became a sconce of anti-colonial change; in the belief that it would help free all slaves in the continent, Haiti provided support to Simon Bolivar in his efforts to free Latin America. Black slave’s revolution and Toussaint continue to inspire struggles for national liberations worldwide.

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