The Haitian Revolution: A Historic Slave Rebellion

Table of Contents

Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton

Toussaint Louverture Chef des Noirs Insurgés de Saint Domingue 

Source: John Carter Brown Library

What was the Haitian Revolution?

The Haitian Revolution (Aug 21, 1791 – Jan 1, 1804) stands out in history as the one revolution in which enslaved and free people of color defeated French, Spanish, and British colonists. 

For the most part, led by the former slave Toussaint Louverture, the Haitian Revolution disproved long-standing, racist beliefs about the inferiority of black people. Dramatic retellings of the uprising circulated the Americas, sowing fear in slave owners who learned of the brains and brawn of the revolutionaries. 

In this article, the Zero Theft Movement will take a look back at the unique successes of the Haitian Revolution. Like many cases of historical exploitation, the abuses against people of color in Saint-Domingue underscored how much greed has caused profound suffering.

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Leading up to the Haitian Revolution

Before Haiti received its current name, the country was a French colony known as Saint-Domingue. The land proved fertile, producing an ample supply of high-demand goods (sugar and coffee) through slave labor. In fact, Saint-Domingue accounted for around 60% of the world’s coffee exports and about 40% of Europe’s sugar exports in 1780. Recognizing the opportunity for massive profit, the French had shipped more African slaves to Saint-Domingue than to any of their other colonies in the Carribean. 

Unsurprisingly, French slave owners worked and abused their laborers to the point of death oftentimes. Saint-Domingue, the most profitable and, perhaps, brutal colony, ravaged the enslaved, who had an average life expectancy of just 21. Henri Christophe, former slave and a major figure of the Haitian Revolution, recounted the atrocities he experienced and witnessed:

Have they not hung up men with heads downward, drowned them in sacks, crucified them on planks, buried them alive, crushed them in mortars? Have they not forced them to eat excrement? And, having flayed them with the lash, have they not cast them alive to be devoured by worms, or onto anthills, or lashed them to stakes in the swamp to be devoured by mosquitoes? Have they not thrown them into boiling cauldrons of cane syrup? Have they not put men and women inside barrels studded with spikes and rolled them down mountainsides into the abyss? Have they not consigned these miserable blacks to man-eating dogs until the latter, sated by human flesh, left the mangled victims to be finished off with bayonet and poniard?

An Age of Revolutions

The late 1700s to the mid 1800s was an age of revolutions, kicked off by the American Revolution (1765-1783). Both the American Revolution and the French Revolution (1789-1799) actually had a great effect on the colony’s insurrectionists.

Several hundred men of color from Saint-Domingue had actually supported the royal French soldiers in the American Revolution. They, however, returned to the colony after the siege of Savanna, Georgia, disheartened by the abuse they’d received from French officers. 

The uprising of the Third Estate (the 98%) in France challenged the long-standing Ancien Regime, the class hierarchy that allowed for huge disparities in wealth and privileges. Furthermore, on August 26, 1789, the passage of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 created further issues for the French government. Officials attempted to conceal the news from the nation’s colonies, but they soon found out. While plantation owners and the French government continued to exploit the slaves for profit, newfound hope and instability in the ‘motherland’ made Saint-Domingue ripe for the taking.  

Competing interests

In 1789, five groups with distinct interests resided in Saint-Domingue:

  • Grand blancs (‘Big Whites’)

The grand blancs were plantation and slave owners who often came from royalty. They harbored resentment against the French government because it had prohibited trading with any other nation (‘exclusif’).

  • Petit blancs (‘Small Whites’)

The petit blancs were artisans, shopkeepers, and teachers. Some of them had a few slaves. The uprising of the Third Estate exacerbated existing tensions between the privileged class and the majority.  

Although distinct, the petit blancs and grand blancs together supported an independence movement, which formed when France imposed steep tariffs on goods imported to the colony. Furthermore, both groups backed slavery. 

  • Free people of color

About 30,000 free people of color lived in Saint-Domingue in 1789. Half were mulatto, and the other half were black slaves who had either bought their own freedom or been granted freedom by their masters.

A number of the free people of color were wealthier than most, if not all, petit blancs and some grand blancs. Many owned plantations and slaves. Unfortunately but perhaps unsurprisingly, they did not treat their slaves with any more grace or respect than the white planters did. Black plantation owners thought their wealth and possessions made them superior to their slaves. 

Free people of color tried to shed their roots by following French customs, dressing in the latest European fashion, speaking the language of their colonizers, and denouncing Voodoo. No success, performance, or costume could buy them actual respect from the blancs. Nor could they gain the same rights afforded to their white counterparts.

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  • Enslaved black people

The slave population (500,000) vastly outnumbered the colonial officials and grand blancs (about 50,000). While many slave rebellions preceded the Haitiian Revolution, the slaves did not truly make an organized and concerted effort to fight for their freedom until 1791. 

  • Fugitive black people

Runaway slaves were called ‘maroons.’ They fled to the mountains and fed themselves through subsistence farming. 

A Storm on the Horizon

A decree from France granted full legislative powers to the all-white Colonial Assembly, furnishing colonies with near autonomy. This meant that those in charge of a colony could essentially decide who had suffrage. In 1790, French aristocrat Vincent Ogé organized ‘mulattoes’ (people with mixed blood) in a series of revolts to establish suffrage for people of color. The Colonial Assembly did not take the revolts seriously. It altogether ignored the pushback. 

Enlightenment writer Guillaume Raynal, in 1780, predicted the imminent revolts in France’s colonies in an diatribe against slavery, stating that there were signs of an “impending storm.” Sure enough, Raynal was right. Although no one probably imagined that the Haitian Revolution would take twelve bloody years to end. 

The Haitian Revolution Begins

The Haitian Revolution started on the night of August 14, 1791, with the first organized black rebellion. 

Dutty Boukman, a high priest of voodoo and leader of the Maroon slaves, gathered thousands of slaves for a secret ceremony at Bois Caïman. A tropical storm loomed in the distance. Lightning and thunder boomed, a supposed good omen for the imminent war. After the proceedings, Boukman gave the signal, and the slaves stormed one of the northern settlements. 

The plantation owners had prepared for a revolt, arming themselves with extensive armaments. They did not expect the hundreds of thousands of revolutionaries that stormed their strongholds. Long-harbored resentment fueled brutal revenge. In just ten days, the slave forces had seized the entire Northern Province, leaving burned plantations and carcasses in their wake.

A German Copper Engraving of the 1791 Slave Rebellion

A German Copper Engraving of the 1791 Slave Rebellion

Source: Wikimedia Commons

In September, the revolution spread to the south. The free black coffee plantation owner Romaine-la-Prophétesse led thirteen thousand slaves and rebels to take supplies from and burn plantations. The rebel forces also freed slaves along the way and took control of the area’s two main cities, Léogâne and Jacmel. 

Perhaps surprisingly, the rebels demanded only freedom from slavery, not independence from France. Most revolutionaries actually saw themselves as royalists fighting for Louis XVI, who they thought had genuinely supported the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The rebels thought the colonial governor was defying French law, when its execution had really only been left up to the discretion of the Colonial Assembly. In retrospect, Louis XVI had no desire to free the enslaved, especially considering the profits they brought into his kingdom’s sinking economy

Freedom Earned

The slaves overthrew plantation all throughout the north and south of the island. By 1792, the revolutionaries controlled about a third of Saint-Domingue. The National Assembly in France recognized that if it did not act quickly, the slave rebels would violently seize the rest of the colony. Thus, in March of that year, the Assembly attempted to quell the Haitian Revolution by granting civil and political rights to free men of color in the colonies.

The Assembly also sent governor Léger-Félicité Sonthonax and 6,000 French soldiers to the island in order to stop the slave rebels once and for all. Sonthonax also aimed to re-establish France’s control over the colony. 

Meanwhile, the Brits and Spaniards had designs on the colony. They knew about the historic profits Saint-Domingue had generated in the past and hoped to capitalize while the colony remained in the balance. Toussaint Louverture, perhaps out of spite, gathered the slave rebels in support of the joint British and Spanish forces. France’s enemies provided the rebels with rations, weaponry, medicine, naval and general military support to the rebels. The group effort proved effective, leaving just 3,500 French soldiers on the island.

To retain French control over Saint-Domingue, Sonthonax had one last play to make: abolishing slavery. On August 29, 1793, he proclaimed the (limited) freedom of the slaves in the north. Toussaint Louverture, skeptical of the governor’s sincerity, waited for France to officially ratify the emancipation before fighting for the French. On February 4, 1794, the French National Convention passed the emancipation act, granting freedom to slaves in all French colonies. Louverture and his rebels switched sides and soon ran British forces out of the colony.

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The Haitian Revolution Expands

A few years later, he then set his sights on seizing the Spanish-controlled Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic). The Haitian Revolution, by 1801, had expanded beyond its own borders, with the rebels having conquered the neighboring Spanish colony of Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic). Louverture abolished slavery and appointed himself Governor-General for life over the entire island of Hispaniola.

Over in France, Napoleon Bonaparte viewed the rebels’ growing power as a huge threat. He sent his brother-in-law Victor-Emmanuel Leclerc with 20,000 troops to not only capture Louverture but also re-institute slavery in Saint-Domingue. After numerous battles in the early 19th century, Louverture was eventually captured, and died in a prison. 

The war between French invaders and the rebels of Saint-Domingue raged. Blood flowed on both sides. Thousands of soldiers died, from both sides.

Attack and take of the Crête-à-Pierrot

Attack and take of the Crête-à-Pierrot (1839)

By Auguste Raffet

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Jean-Jacques Dessalines, one of Louverture’s best generals and an ex-slave, had taken up the mantle and led the crucial Battle of Vertieres on November 18, 1803. This battle effectively ended the Haitian Revolution, with the rebels handing Napoleon the first defeat of his military career. 

Haitian Independence, for Good

On the first day of 1804, Dessalines pronounced the nation independent and gave it a new name: Haiti. The country became the first black republic in the world, and the second nation in the western hemisphere to successfully wrest its independence from a European power.

A major reason for Haiti’s profitability came to  The thirst for money dictated their behavior and caused indescribable suffering. Justice, not only socially but also economically, unfortunately took bloodshed and death. 

Although many countries have distanced themselves from slave labor, that does not mean they have built an economic system that allows everyone to live healthy and secure lives. The exploitation of the majority could still be occurring, perhaps in more subtle ways. With big money and corporate lobbyists influencing our political system, Congress might not be working for the good of the public. That would mean corporations can unethically maximize their profits off of the American public. 

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The Zero Theft Movement does not have any interest in partisan politics/competition or attacking/defending one side. We seek to eradicate theft from the U.S economy. In other words, how the wealthy and powerful rig the system to steal money from us, the everyday citizen. We need to collectively fight against crony capitalism in order for us to all profit from an ethical economy.   

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