The Haitian Revolution was the only successful slave rebellion that resulted in an independent republic, and one of only two in which violence was involved in the abolition of slavery (Davidson, DeLay, et. al. 2008, p. 477), yet for such a monumental and singular occurrence in history it is largely ignored in classrooms in the United States and elsewhere.
Prior to revolution, the French colony, Saint Dominique, was populated by whites, free blacks and mulattos and slaves, and blacks outnumbered whites by a margin of 10 – 1 (Corbett, Part I). White colonists (about 20,000 in 1791) consisted of grands blancs, who were plantation owners, often very wealthy and owned and ran their plantations with slaves. They, along with Jamaica, were the largest exporters of sugar to the European world. There were also petits blancs (small whites), who were middle class merchants, teachers, etc. (Corbett, Part I). They were also slave owners but not to the extent that the plantation owners were. The blacks that populated Haiti were free blacks and mulattos and slaves. Free blacks and mulattos (mixed race) (approximately 30,000 in 1791) were those who were freed by their masters (sometimes fathers) or who purchased their freedom. These free blacks were often slave holders themselves and were sometimes wealthier than plantation owners (which the whites viewed as threatening). The slaves were categorized as domestic (approximately 100,000) and field hands (400,000). Domestic slaves, treated much more kindly than field hands, were more likely to be loyal to their masters. Field hands were considered dispensable and owners would rather replace them when they died of overwork or malnutrition than give them basic sustenance (this in a French colony who, unlike their counterparts in Europe and the United States, acknowledged the humanity of a slave).
Also living in Haiti were “maroons”. Maroons were runaway slaves living in the mountains and living on sustenance farming and occasional plantation raids. It is difficult to estimate their numbers, but it was believed to be in the tens of thousands by 1791, and while they kept to themselves, they joined the slaves in their subsequent revolt.
The slave rebellion in Haiti was more roundabout than direct. The revolution that began in France spread discontent in the colony, and by 1791, the colonists had begun demanding rights and freedoms previously denied to them. “Rights” meant different things to different colonists, however. To the grands blancs, the rights of man meant the rights of wealthy men (Benjamin, Hall, & Rutherford, 2001, p. 231). Additionally, they wanted less restrictive trade, as they were only allowed to trade with France in the French doctrine of commerce exclusive, which “â€¦ required that Saint-Domingue sold 100% of her exports to France alone, and purchased 100% of her imports from France alone.” (Corbett, Part I).
Petit blancs, on the other hand, wanted citizenship and equal rights with the grand blancs, albeit for whites only. Free blacks and mulattos wanted freedom and citizenship for all regardless of skin color. The slaves, obviously, wanted freedom, but no one really cared what the slaves wanted.
In the wake of the French Revolution, France was worried about these independence movements, and “â€¦ there are even those historians who believe the French government itself engineered the initial slave uprising of 1791 in order to drive the land owners back into the arms of France’s protection” (Corbett, Part II). At that point, the French did not fear slaves at all, perhaps believing that black slaves were not capable of a successful revolution. They were, however, fearful of the newly formed (illegal) trade relationship with the newly formed United States, and knew that their new business partner had successfully wrested itself from its colonial empire abroad, the British.
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The first armed conflict of the revolution began with an attempted coup by grands blancs attempted a coup of the petits blancs who wrote a Constitution for the entire colony in 1790 (Benjamin, Hall, & Rutherford, 2001, p. 231). Both the grands blancs and petits blancs armed their slaves to do battle against each other. In the interim, the National Assembly in France enfranchised property owning mulattos (the April 4th decree), and as a result, the grands and petits forged an alliance in the face of what they viewed as a threat of racial equality. With an impending threat from the combined blancs, the free non-whites also armed their slaves for war.
The French sent three men, a “civil commission” to Saint Dominique to enforce the enfranchisement of the property owning mulattos, and, while there, France declared war on Britain and Britain invaded Saint Dominique. Meanwhile, in France, Louis XVI was guillotined, bolstering the cause of independence-minded whites in the colony (Corbett, Part II).
At this point, the Armed slaves, an overwhelming majority, then began to fight on their own behalf. From 1792 through 1802, anarchy, mayhem and revolution prevailed throughout the colony with “â€¦ as many as six warring factions were in the fieldâ€¦ slaves, free persons of color, petits blancs, grand blancsâ€¦ invading Spanish and English troops and French troops trying to restore order” (p. 232).
In the early days of the rebellion, the primary black generals in the slave rebellion were Jean-Francois, Biassou and Jeannot. However, in 1791, Pierre-Dominique Toussaint Loverture (Toussaint), a former slave, and former slave-owner, joined the service of the slave rebels as a medical officer, practicing herbal and African healing. Toussaint, recognized for his organizational abilities, and his “â€¦ ability to organize, train and lead men” (Corbett, Part II). Toussaint was rose to the position of general, at first fighting under General Biassou, and subsequently becoming a general with his own troops.
The slave rebellion was also bolstered by an unexpected source: Spanish troops. After the execution of King Louis XVI, the slaves, including Toussaint, no longer trusted that the French could negotiate in good faith and turned to the Spanish, who were also at war with France. Toussaint told French envoy Sonthonax, “We cannot conform to the will of the Nation because from the beginning of the world we have executed the will of a King. We have lost the King of France, but we are esteemed by the King of Spain, who bestows rewards upon us and ceases not to give us succor. Consequently we are unable to acknowledge you, the Commissioners, before you have found a King” (Corbett, Part II). For reasons not clear to historians, however, Toussaint returned to the side of the French during the revolution at this point. It is speculated that because France emancipated all slaves in the colony, which is what Toussaint wanted (however unintentional, as France needed troops and needed to free certain mulattos and their families in order to enlist their aid), or because Toussaint sensed that Spain’s position in Europe was precarious, however no one is sure of his reasons. Toussaint and the French together defeated the white rebellion on Saint Dominique and France and Spain signed a peace treaty. Toussaint then tried to negotiate with France regarding trade with the United States, its black-market partner, and when France would not consent, Toussaint drove France out leaving only Britain for Toussaint to contend with. Toussaint defeated the British and, after a few more minor skirmishes, was able, in 1797, to declared himself Governor General of Saint Dominique, and “â€¦ over the next 4 years expelled all invading forces including the French” (Benjamin, Hall, & Rutherford, 2001, p. 233).
In 1801, Toussaint wrote a Constitution and delivered it to Napoleon. The Constitution “â€¦ stopped short of declaring independence from France, however, because he did not want to provoke Napoleon into attacking the island. (Bentley, Ziegler, & Streets, 2008, p. 486). It did, however, establish himself as “Governor General” for life and, in Articles 3, 4 and 5, established equality for all citizens, as:
“Art. 3 – There cannot exist slaves on this territory, servitude is therein forever abolished. All men are born, live and die free and French.
Art. 4. – All men, regardless of color, are eligible to all employment.
Art. 5. – There shall exist no distinction other than those based on virtue and talent, and other superiority afforded by law in the exercise of a public function.
The law is the same for all whether in punishment or in protection.”
This is a landmark Constitution as it is the first which grants all rights to all persons regardless of race, color, creed, national origin, gender, etc., a distinction that it took the United States until 1964 to achieve under the Civil Rights Act.
The rest of the Constitution reflected much of the French laws that were already in place. In Article 6, Toussaint declared Catholicism as the only legal religion to be practiced, and in Article 7, divorce is outlawed. In Article 19, the government is formed as a Republic along the lines of France’s National Assembly but is called a “Central Assembly”.
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Napoleon, however, did not accept Toussaint’s terms, and sent troops in 1802 to recapture the colony, and ultimately lost 44,000 troops in his effort. (Illness assisted the cause of the former slave rebels in that Yellow Fever swept through France’s troops, and practically wiped out General Leclerc’s entire force (Carnes & Garraty, 2008, p. 179)). Toussaint, perhaps war-weary and not wanting to face Napoleon’s army, “â€¦ attempted to negotiate a peaceful settlement, but the French commander arrested him and sent him to France where he [Toussaint] died in jailâ€¦ however, the black generals who succeeded Toussaint had defeated the remaining French troops and driven them out of the colony”. (Bentley, Ziegler, & Streets, 2008, p. 486). In January 1804, no longer under the color of the French Empire, the newly formed Republic proclaimed the establishment of “Haiti”, which means “land of mountains”. (p. 486).
The effect of the Haitian Revolution was far-reaching. Thomas Reinhardt (2005) argues that the impact of the Haitian revolution was enormous in that “â€¦ [i]t not only resulted in the creation of the independent state of Haiti – a nation led by Blacks, the second republic in the Americas, and the first modern state to abolish slavery- but without the Haitian Revolution, the United States today quite likely would be little more than a small strip of land on the eastern coast of North America. That is, if there were a country called the United States of America at all” (p. 247). He believes this because the United States no longer had the protection of the British, and Napoleon was set on establishing empire stretching from the Louisiana territory that he had acquired from Spain to India. Reinhardt (2005) posits that Napoleon decided to re-capture Saint Dominique in what he believed would be a short excursion, possibly 6 weeks, and ended in loss 2 years later. It is believed that this is when Napoleon abandoned his trans-Atlantic empirical aspirations and offered to sell the Louisiana territory to the United States (p. 247).
If the United States was affected positively, the subsequent actions of the government was did not reflect this. The United States refused to acknowledge Haiti’s existence until the Civil War and the revolution because, perhaps, up until modern times it was unthinkable for blacks to rise up against whites and win (p. 250). This may be because the word of the uprising was not lost in the United States, who appointed Frederick Douglass Minister to Haiti (1889-1891). In his posthumously published writings he praised Toussaint, “The lesson taught by Toussaint L’Ouverture should not be lost on the oppressors and persecutors of the negroes of the Gulf States of our Union to-day. There may arise other men of that race not less brave or less fertile in resources than this hero of Santo Domingo. â€¦The world to-day is more sympathetic with those who rise against oppressors than when this man led the revolt against slavery in Haiti.” (Douglass, pub. 1903).
Despite the fact that this small island of slaves fought off one of the largest and most organized armies in the world (the French) from the inside, and then managed to defeat the British and Spanish armies to declare an independent Republic, for 130 years, historians had a tendency to deal with the Haitian Revolution by describing it as “devolution – as a reversion to African barbarism in the absence of White control” (Reinhardt, 2005, p. 254). The evidence, they point out, is that Saint Dominique went from being one of the wealthiest colonies in the world to one of the poorest countries. As Reinhardt (2005) points out, however, none of the major powers would engage in trade with Haiti for many years after the revolution, and even if they were poor, they were far better off than the average slave in the United States. Historians, if they do acknowledge a revolution at all (in earlier texts referring to it as murder, disturbances or riots), trivialize it, and relegate it to a footnote in history, despite the fact that it was a revolution that resulted in the second independent republic in the Atlantic world, that fact in and of itself giving it tremendous significance.
The Haitian Revolution was truly unique in that it was the second Atlantic republic formed in the peri-imperial Atlantic world, that it was a slave uprising that succeeded against a large imperial army, it was one of only two countries wherein armed confrontation was necessary to effectuate the abolition of slavery. The fact that it is remembered scarcely, if at all, in the current history classrooms throughout the United States, the same classrooms that teach the American and French Revolutions in intricate detail, possibly evidence a (possibly unintentional) racial bias.
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