The Haitian Revolution
The Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) began as a slave insurrection in French colony of Saint-Domingue and culminated in the abolition of slavery in the French Antilles and the founding of the Haitian republic. It is generally considered the most successful slave rebellion to have occurred in the Americas and is a defining moment in the history of Africans in the "New World."
Saint-Domingue was the world's leading producer and exporter of sugar and tropical commodities in the 1600s and 1700s, bringing unprecedented wealth to the French empire. The plantation economy thrived due to French engineering innovations such as complex irrigation systems that helped increase production. However, mass production of sugar products required long hours of manual labor, which was provided by thousands of enslaved Africans imported by the French.
The population of Saint-Domingue was further divided between whites and gens de couleur. White colonists controlled the colonial assembly and were the only group that could vote for colonial legislators and enjoy certain property rights. Although legally free, gens de couleur were proscribed from voting, sitting in the colonial legislature, and other political and economic activities. This racial tension imploded with the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789.
The French Revolution and Saint Domingue
On 26 August 1789, the Estates General published the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which proclaimed all men free equal. The French Revolution was at first widely welcomed by various factions on the island. Wealthy whites saw it as an opportunity to gain independence from France, which would allow elite plantation-owners to control the island and implement trade regulations that would increase their own wealth. However, Saint-Domingue's gens de couleur population, which had been demanding equal political participation since the 1780s, seized on the upheaval to make their demands to the National Assembly. As the white population grew more resistant to the French Revolution, the National Assembly granted more concessions to free people of color, further intensifying racial conflict.
Meanwhile, the enslaved population observed this rapid change of events from 1789-1791, listening to the circulation of revolutionary discourse and rumors that the National Assembly was going to free them (or add more protections into the Code Noir to relax their work obligations and restrain their masters' punishment rights). On August 14 1791 Dutty Boukman, a high priest of vodou and leader of the Maroon slaves, signaled the beginning of a revolt during a religious ceremony at Bois Caïman (Figure 2). Over the next ten days, slaves took control of the entire Northern Province and within weeks, the number of slaves involved in the revolt reached 100,000. Within the next two months, the violence escalated as slaves killed 4,000 whites and burned or destroyed hundreds of sugar, coffee, and indigo plantations. By 1792, slaves controlled a third of the island, and their success caused the newly elected Legislative Assembly in France to concede radical reforms. The Assembly granted civil and political rights to free men of color in the colonies in March 1792, sending shockwaves throughout Europe and the U.S.
The National Convention, the first elected Assembly of the First Republic (1792–1804), met in February 1794 under the leadership of Maximilien Robespierre. It abolished slavery in France and all its colonies and granted civil and political rights to all black men in the colonies. It also encouraged black men to enlist in French forces. The French revolutionary government welcomed abolition with a show of idealism and optimism. The emancipation of slaves served as an example of liberty, much as the American Revolution was served as the first of many liberation movements.
Reimposition of Slavery and the Haitian Revolution
In 1801, one of the most successful black commanders, Toussaint L'Ouverture, issued a constitution for Saint-Domingue decreeing that he would be governor-for-life and calling for a sovereign black state. In response, Napoleon Bonaparte dispatched a large expeditionary force of French soldiers to the island, led by Bonaparte's brother-in-law Charles Leclerc, to restore French rule and slavery. L'Ouverture was captured and died in prison. For a few months, the island was quiet under Napoleonic rule. But when it became apparent that the French intended to re-establish slavery, the black population, under Dessalines and Pétion, fought back against the French troops--which sustained massive casualties from fighting and an outbreak of yellow fever. Blacks declared themselves free of French rule and fought a guerilla war against the French for the next two years.
Meanwhile, refocusing on Europe, Napoleon sold the Lousiana territory to the United States in 1803 and began to lose interest in his failing ventures to reestablish slavery in the Antilles. The rebellion ended in 1803 and on January 1, 1804, Dessalines officially declared the former colony's independence, renaming it "Haiti" after the indigenous Arawak name.