The French Revolution started in France in 1789. It was in 1790 that the Declaration of the Rights of Man was written and adopted. The political order in France was crumbling as the people of the Third Estate challenged the authority of the Catholic Church, the nobility and the monarchy. In Saint-Domingue the sugar trade continued to thrive as more and more African slaves were imported. The process of producing sugar from sugar cane is labor intensive, dangerous and time dependent. Many lives were lost over the year on the plantations and that required larger numbers of slaves to be brought to Saint-Domingue while the plantations strived to meet the growing demand for sugar in France and Europe. The population was tipping even more heavily towards people of African descent while the number of Europeans continued to remain static or decline. It is estimated that at the time that the Haitian Revolution began in 1791 that over seventy % of the enslaved population in Saint-Domingue was born in Africa. 3 The greatest fear of the enslavers was a slave rebellion or revolt. The violent oppression used to control the enraged resentment of people literally being worked to death allowed the plantations to continue to run. The plantation owners lived with the knowledge that when slaves rebelled that the violence that had been used to repress the slaves would be turned towards those that oppressed them.
News from France came to Cap-Français with every ship from Europe. The new government was well disposed towards expanding the rights of the people in France. Many of the free men and women of color in Saint-Domingue became hopeful that they could not receive the rights that had been denied them. In 1791 they formally asked the French to grant them rights that had been denied them. There was immediate opposition from the whites in Saint-Domingue because their power was protected by the free people of color who stood between them and the huge number of slaves on the island and they could expect to control the free people of color because of their inferior political and social status. The opposition by the local white establishment to their demands left them no choice but to seek the support of free blacks and prospective slave leaders. Under the leadership of Og,4 they rose in their own rebellion but that was quickly crushed and that exacerbated the tensions with the whites in power. When the French government granted free people of color equal rights and full French citizenship they and their supporters were emboldened, and the white establishment became more isolated in Saint-Domingue.
Dutty Bookman was a slave leader who had secretly forged a plan with other slave leaders in the North for the slaves on the plantations there to rise in a coordinated revolt designed to strike across a broad front and catch the plantation owners and the militia that protected them by surprise. In early September the plan was executed and slaves on multiple plantations rose as one to attack their enslavers and burn the plantations where they had been enslaved to the ground.5 It soon became obvious that this was more than a small uprising, this was a rebellion and the surviving planters and their families and all who feared the anger of the rebelling slaves fled to Cap -Francais. The very existence of the port and its inhabitants was at risk. Bookman was killed in a battle but that did not slow the pace of the former slaves who attacked plantation after plantation. The North of the colony was the center of the sugar production and trade, and most of the sugar plantations and coffee farms were located there. Many of the former slaves in revolt were experienced fighters who had been involved in conflicts in Africa. They were a formidable force with many small fighting units, and they had succeeded in destroying many of the plantations that had been critical to Saint-Domingue’s success as an exporter of sugar for European and American markets. The French troops and local militias had been surprised by the intensity and wide range of territory that was quickly engulfed in rebellion and burning of plantations. The former slaves now in rebellion were not going back to where they had been enslaved and both sides began countering the next anticipated move of their opponent. The Revolutionary government was stunned, and the Spanish and English began to see an opportunity for them to intercede and possibly take the French colony for themselves.
As time passed, infighting developed amidst the rebels and the French army allied itself with free people of color to deal with the threat. The stalemate continued throughout the rest of 1792 and then events in France changed everything. The French Revolution continued to radicalize, and the king was beheaded. The rest of Europe reacted and both the English and the Spanish invaded Saint-Domingue while the French government was distracted. Both Spain and Britain wanted to continue Saint-Domingue’s economic juggernaut and they thought they could persuade the slaves who had freed themselves back to the plantations. Amid the chaos, in France an appointment was made that would change the situation. The Commissioner Sonthronax arrived in Saint-Domingue to determine the French colony’s response to the dual invasions. Sonthronax was an idealist as well as a realist and he determined that the French forces in Saint-Domingue would not be able to meet the threat alone and that help was needed to support the French cause. 6Sonthronax determined that the best source of fighting men was the former slaves that had risen in rebellion as well as free men of color who had relatively recently been made citizens of France with equal rights. To quickly counter the invasions, he made the decision to emancipate all the slaves in Haiti and offer them French citizenship. Later that year, new citizens of Saint-Domingue traveled to France and convinced the National Assembly to free all the slaves in the French empire. The prospect of fighting with the French against their common enemies convince many people who had been fighting against the French to basically become the largest contingent in the French Army in Saint-Domingue. Eventually, Toussaint Louverture, Dessalines and Henry Christophe among others joined the French fight against the English and the Spanish. The fighting went on for years before the English and the Spanish were driven out in 1798.
The Emancipation of the slaves on Saint Domingue was seen as a great victory for those that had risen in rebellion. Economically, it meant that the labor force that had made the plantations thrive and kept Saint-Domingue as the as the largest producer and supplier of sugar in the world was not available as it had been before. If the plantations didn’t function, then the whole economy of Saint-Domingue was potentially crippled. That new economic reality was very much on the minds of all who came to power in Saint-Domingue and subsequently Haiti. There were efforts by Toussaint Louverture and others who followed him to try and keep the plantations running with different approaches to getting the arduous work of sugar production done to insure Haiti’s economic stability. The triumph of the former slaves winning their freedom through their own force of arms was a significant development in Haiti and to its neighbors.
Slavery was still legal in British colonies until 1834 after they ended their participation in the International Slave Trade in 1807. It was an institution in Spanish colonies as well, also in the United States of America. Slavery did not end in the United States until after the Civil War was over in 1865. The year of the Emancipation and abolition of slavery in Saint-Domingue in 1793 was perhaps not coincidently the same year that the United States Congress passed its first of two Fugitive Slave Acts. None of them wanted to see what had happened in Saint-Domingue happen in their colonies or country. Their economies were dependent on slave labor, and they saw the abolition of slavery in France and the French Empire as a threat to their domestic economic stability and possibly an opportunity for them to take Saint-Domingue for themselves to restore its economic wealth or if that couldn’t happen, perhaps one of their colonies or country could benefit from the eventual absence of Saint-Domingue as the dominant producer of sugar in the Caribbean. In 1791, Spain had relaxed its tight quota on the number of African captives who could be shipped to the Spanish colony of Cuba. Over the next twenty years it would be Cuba that would increasingly become the destination of slave ships and the eventual replacement for Haiti as the primary source of the world’s sugar supply. 7
In the struggle to drive out the British and the Spanish from Saint-Domingue one of the military leaders that had earlier fought for the Spanish rose to power. Toussaint Louverture, the man that you most often hear as the leader of the Haitian Revolution became the leader of the forces fighting to protect Saint-Domingue as a French colony. In Haitian history, the name Haiti was chosen after the successful fight for independence from France. However, what was to become known as the Haitian Revolution began with the slave rebellions in 1791 and ended after all the European powers were driven out with the French being the last to go before Dessalines declared Independence on January 1, 1804. Toussaint Louverture did not live to see Haiti become free from France.
Most historians agree that Toussaint Louverture was born into slavery he was educated by his godfather of mixed race, and he also owned a small number of slaves before he joined the rebellion. He was a skilled military and political leader and his success as a general in the French army helped propel him to a position of power as the leader of the black leader of a European Army. In 1800 he declared himself Governor for Life of the colony of Saint-Domingue. In doing so, he added two prominent names to those who opposed him as well as the former slaves who were resisting his efforts to get them back to working on the plantations as non-slave labor. Napoleon had seized power to end the Revolution in 1799 and he quickly looked to restore slavery and the economic that came with it on Saint-Domingue. In 1801, a large French Fleet arrived in Cap-Francais bringing troops to reassert French authority and restore slavery to the island. Napoleon’s brother-in-law, General Leclerc was the commander of the French forces. Toussaint and other native generals fled to the mountains but eventually surrendered to the French. Napoleon had decided to move against Toussaint Louverture and while the other generals, including Dessalines, were granted amnesty Toussaint was chained and returned to France where he died in prison in 1802. 8 Later, Napoleon would regret punishing the more moderate Toussaint a because he thought he might have been able to forge an agreement with him. President Thomas Jefferson was also an enemy of Toussaint, perhaps because he was such a successful black leader in a country that had abolished slavery.
General Leclerc’s orders were to restore slavery, return the plantation owners to their positions and end the rebel resistance. 9 He sought to do that by exploiting the existing tensions that existed within the armed forces that could challenge his efforts. Toussaint’s leadership had engendered resistance and southern leader Rigaud and his men had risen in rebellion against Louverture. Two of his lieutenants, from southern Haiti, Pation and Jean-Pierre Boyer from southern Haiti had joined the French in fighting the forces in the North that had formerly led by Louverture who was now imprisoned in France. There was more to Leclerc’s mission that the colonists were not initially aware of, he was to destroy the leadership of the forces that opposed the French and punish the Haitians for daring to overthrow a “legitimate” white government. This was the beginning of what was the second bloody wave of violence in this long struggle. The initial intense warfare against a group of people took place when the slaves initially rebelled in 1791 and fought with their enslavers and their families and then there was equally bloody reprisals by the French forces supported by the landowners and some gens de couleur against the rebels. As the French forces, who were weakened by yellow fever at times, escalated the indiscriminate violence the resistance hardened against them, Haitians that had formerly assisted them for their own purposes switched sides, and the rebels responded with reciprocal intense violence. It had become an all-out war to drive the French out of their colony of Saint-Domingue forever. During the fighting, Leclerc died from disease and General Rochambeau, of American Revolution fame took up the mantle and continued the all-out assault on anyone who resisted the French and on black people who he believed needed to be intimidated. It was an ugly chapter of the Haitian Revolution. 10
The leader of the rebel forces in the North were the flamboyant end controversial leader, General Dessalines. Over the course of the rebellion, he had switched sides, several times, and there were many Haitians that mistrusted him. However, he was an implacable military leader, and he did not hesitate to be as ruthless as the French in seeking to drive them out of the colony of Saint-Domingue that was soon to be renamed the independent nation of Haiti. Dessalines was victorious and the French forces that were left after they were defeated and decimated by disease returned to France on some of the ships that had brought them to Haiti in 1801. On January 1, 1804, Dessalines, declared that the former French colony of Saint-Domingue was free and independent and a sovereign nation amidst the world’s other sovereign nations. The black republic of Haiti was born! After 13 years of struggle the people had been brought from Africa on slave ships and the free people of color that had been born in Saint-Domingue had defeated the Spanish, the British, and the French armies sent to end their revolution. They had also overcome the opposition of two historical giants, Napoleon, the Emperor of France and Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States. The powers that had opposed them withheld any recognition that the new sovereign nation of Haiti existed, and they continued to refer to it for years as the French colony of Saint-Domingue. That continuing effort to deny statehood only encouraged Haitian skepticism that at some point the forces they had defeated would return and force them back into slavery as a colony.
Facing the opposition of its neighbors on Hispaniola, the Spanish colony of Cuba to the west, the remaining French and British colonies all around them and the United States to the North, General Dessalines set out to write a new constitution for the new nation. There were many internal challenges as well. As a result of the purposeful denial of an education during slavery to all enslaved most of the population was illiterate. There were also myriad groups and often obscure delineations that separated them. The forces in the south of Haiti also mistrusted Dessalines as they had Toussaint Louverture. Facing all these obstacles to his leadership, Dessalines acted boldly. He ripped out the white panel of the French Tricolor flag and redesigned the new flag of Haiti from the remaining red and black panels. He also set out to destroy the white slaveholding families that had never hesitated to oppose the revolution. The third wave of violence commenced, and it was very bloody and brief. Dessalines believed that if any significant remnants of the slaveholding class existed in Haiti, they would be an invitation to Haiti’s enemies to invade and attempt to reinstitute slavery. For people who had fought for so long to end slavery and win their independence the continuing presence of former slaveholders in their new nation would not be tolerated.
Dessalines efforts at writing the new constitution had some different aspects that unsettled many in Haiti. He declared himself Emperor for Life and he wrote into the constitution that henceforth no white person could own land that could cause the reduction of the rights of the Haitian people. His most significant move that has resonated across time since then was to declare that all residents were to be considered black regardless of their skin color. 11 In one move, he turned the tenets of racism created by the Europeans justifying white supremacy upside down. It no longer matters what your skin color was or what color your parents were, all Haitians were now considered to be blacks. There was no need to separate or delineate, in a larger sense, people of all colors, including whites were now characterized as black in Haiti. That was an idea that has seemingly been under reported since then because it so quickly cuts the chains that anchor the idea that the goal in any society born from European concepts of race, is to be as white as possible.
Dessalines enemies in the south of Haiti bided their time and waited for some of his excesses to cause a decline in his support. When that happened, General Pation hatched a plot to assassinate Dessalines when he responded to unrest outside Port au Prince. He even let General Henri Christophe know in the north, a sometime ally of Dessalines knew what was being planned and he did not warn Dessalines. In October 1806, Dessalines was murdered by army officers and his body was desecrated. His sudden and violent ending along with his dedication to the cause of the Haitian people made him an “Iwa” in voudou and his life is celebrated to these days by those that believe in voudou. He is seen as a pillar of strength who never compromised his principles to defend blackness and resist opposition from all who threatened that idea.
After the death of Dessalines, a long period of basically two governments existed in Haiti. General Christophe in the north emulated Dessalines efforts to prepare to resist the foreign invasion that he feared would come. He built the famous Citadel in the mountains that still stands today. He saw himself as a leader not to be questioned and he chose to have his title be that of a king. King Christophe sought to meet the dual challenges of educating the population and reinvigorating the economy much like Toussaint. He even wrote the long and detailed “Code Henry” that patterned itself in some ways after the “Code Noir” written by the French King in 1680 that sought to protect the right not to be abused for those enslaved. The Code Henry sought to protect the rights and interests of the formerly enslaved and dictated that they return to the `plantations.12 Christophe was an authoritarian leader to say the least and he did not tolerate dissent. Pation’s rule in the south was more egalitarian and he successfully wrote an all -encompassing constitution for the nation of Haiti. He did not have the military and economic support that Christophe enjoyed in the north, but he was careful and a long-range planner and when he died in 1818, he was succeeded by Jean-Paul Boyer who would rule Haiti from 1820 when he consolidated his power after the death of Christophe until 1844. It was Boyer who connected eastern part of the island, the former Spanish colony of Santo Domingo, later the Dominican Republic, to Haiti. Haiti governed the Dominican Republic from 1822 until 1844 when it broke free of Haitian rule. To this day, the Dominican Republic looks to its Spanish roots and the Spanish language while in contrast Haiti looks to its African roots and the language of Haiti is Kreyol. Boyer is also the Haitian leader that agreed to make payments to the former slaveholders in France and Haiti that so severely damaged the economy of Haiti for the rest of the century. Those payments started in 1825 and were agreed to in return for France finally recognizing the Independence of Haiti.