Causes of the Haitian Revolution (1791 – 1804)
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The Circumstances in Haitian Society That Made the Revolution Inevitable by 1791.
The Haitian revolution began in 1791, and was the largest slave rebellion in the western hemisphere. Since the start of forced slavery in the Caribbean, there have been many revolts, revolutions and resistance against slavery, but the revolution in Haiti was the most successful and by the year 1804 slavery was abolished in the Caribbean (Beckles H., Shepherd V. A., 2). The results of the revolution have produced a historical monument that has influenced civil right movements all over the world to this day. Such a revolution and its impact must have been deemed a surprise and an ordinary rebellion that could have been overrun at the time it began (Fick, Carolyn E., 1). However, circumstances in the Haitian society such as the ill treatment of slaves, social hierarchy and the French revolution, made the revolution inevitable by 1791 (Rand, 1).
The French colony Saint Domingue was the name given to Haiti before the revolution. It began as a French pirate outpost who stole from the Spanish ships. Soon this island was the most productive colony in the West Indies and possibly the world with the growth of sugar, coffee, indigo, and cotton plantations. It provided about 40% of Europe’s sugar and 60% of its coffee. More than thirty thousand new African slaves arrived each year, both to replace the many that died of overwork or disease and also to fuel the rapid economic growth that the colony experienced in the 1780s. Also as a result, the natural population growth was prevented and mortality rates were high. Between a third and a half of all slaves on the island were born in Africa and the slave population grew to occupy 90% of the island. The slaves had been Christianized in the early days of the colony but this was soon put to an end. After that, the slaves were left to their own resources, and had developed their own culture, complete with a language which was creole and religion known as voodoo, both strongly influenced by African roots.
France as a West Indies colony owner was aware of the ill treatments of slaves and the government aimed to put a stop to it. Even before 1789 critics have been speaking out against slave trade and the brutality involved. The slavery system in the colonies including Saint Domingo was governed by royal edicts which made up the Code Noir or slave code. This code described penalties for rebellious slaves (Sylviane A. Diouf.) Slave owners were fearful of the potential of the slaves to hurt them on their own plantations. Thus there was an increase on strict and harsh punishment. As a result revolts and plans of rebellion were organized among slaves who were tired of such ill treatment. Over and over attempts were made to distinguish the white’s domination over plantations through voodoo, protests, destruction of owner’s properties and poisoning of the owners. The slaves fought back and slowly the French government became uneasy and nervous concerning these revolts (Sylviane A. Diouf). Of course before 1791 these rebellion threats were put a stop to but it was these slaves who fought back that provided hope for the revolution. From the moment these resistances persisted the revolution was unavoidable.
The Haitian society consisted of four main classes, the whites or blancs, the free lacks and Mulattoes or gens de couleur libres, the poor whites and the slaves (Rand D). The whites were the Europeans who were in charge. They consisted on the colony government and the plantation and slave owners. They usually stayed in France and hired people to go to the colonies and govern the plantations and slaves. Below them, were the wealthy free colored people. Frenchmen would frequently father children with the slaves and would free their offspring which were known as the Mulattoes. Other free persons of color were black slaves who had purchased their own freedom or had been given freedom by their masters for various reasons. Next were the poor whites who worked as artisans and laborers. At the bottom of the hierarchy were black slaves and the maroons. There two types of black slaves the domestic slaves and the maroons. The maroons were a large group of run-away slaves who retreated deep into the mountains of Saint Domingue. There were tens of thousands of them prior to the Revolution of 179.
The root of the Haitian revolution was the fundamental imbalance in Haitian societal hierarchy. After the rumors of the harsh treatment of slaves in the colonies the members of the French government was aiming to construct laws to increase the working conditions under which the slaves in Saint Domingue were forced to work. Thus, many white planters wanted independence from revolutionary France in order to escape trade laws along with continuing what they thought was the most effective way to get the most efficient labor out of the slaves. The free people of color who although they were often members of a free and educated propertied class, the system blocked them from occupying many public offices because of their color, also they were forced to join the French military which most was hesitant to do. Thus while struggling for full rights of citizenship they were attracted to the concept of equality embedded in the doctrine of The Rights of Man. Some made the voyage to France to speak on behalf of slaves for its abolition. The poor whites did not appreciate the fact that they lacked money and that colored people were treated better than them. As for the slaves, there was resentment growing because of their abuse. In such a society no one could have lived in harmony so tension grew and a political crisis and unrest grew.
Each member of the classes worked against each other and alliances were made with unexpected partners. For example, Historians believe that it was the French government who orchestrated the start of the slave revolt in 1971in attempt to stop plant owner’s plot on making Saint Domingue independent. In the midst of this crisis slaves saw this as an opportunity to fight back and other countries such as the U.S, the Spanish, Dutch and British aiming to destroy the Frenches’ empire built in Saint Domingue gladly gave their support. With all these people who jumped at such an opportunity it seemed as if the revolution was assured.
The French revolution had a huge impact on the Haitian revolution and it began in 1789 and ended in 1799. The French revolution was the result of years of feudalism which refers to the holding of land and in return a service or labor was received and unfair taxation. Along with this there was mismanagement of the country’s economy. As a result, France became in debt and King Louis XVI in an attempt to pay off this debt, spent money to fix the issues resulting in more debt. Eventually Frances’ economy collapsed and its people revolted due to a raise in taxation not enough food and medicine for the sick and supposed inequalities in social hierarchy where the royal took care of them while leaving the rest of France to fend for them. Thus there was a revolt against all nobility and war broke out in order to fight for liberty, equality and fraternity (Rosenzweig Roy, Center for History and New Media).
In light of the French revolution and the fight therein for equality and a man’s civil rights, free colored people were inspired to fight for their civil right of citizenship and they were granted this (The Saylor Foundation). With the new circumstances surrounding the French revolution arising, slaves heard about this and the hope for freedom was sparked in them. This was just the stimuli the slaves needed to proceed with a revolt. Since the revolt occurred before the start of the revolt, it was not necessary to monitor the French revolution since it had already formulated ideas that have been inevitably brewing the minds of the revolutionists (Fick, Carolyn E., 4).
The Haitian society was crowded with circumstances that influenced the unavoidable insurrection of the slaves which began in 1971. These circumstances were missed by the white colonists and as a result there was failure to predict the revolt that they had actually been forcing upon themselves since the societal desecration had begun. The mistreatment of slaves, the self-destructing societal hierarchy and the influential French revolution, all forced the most violent and ultimately, the most successful slave revolt in history.
Beckles H., Shepherd V. A., Freedoms won: Caribbean Emancipations, Ethnicities and Nationhood. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Bob Corbett. The Haitian Revolution, Part II. Web. 8th March 2015.
Fick, Carolyn E. The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution From Below, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990.
George Mason University, City University of New York. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution. Web. 8th March 2015.
Rand D. Social Triggers of the Haitian Revolution. Web. 7th March 2015
Rosenzweig Roy, Center for History and New Media. Slavery and The Haitian Revolution. Web . 7th March 2015.
Sylviane A. Diouf. 2007. The Abolition of The Slave Trade: African Resistance. Web. 7th March 2015.
The Saylor Foundation. 2015.The Haitian Revolution. Web. 7th March 2015
United States Department of State, Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs. The United States and the Haitian Revolution, 1791–1804. Web. 7th March 2015.
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