The Haitian Revolution has often been described as the largest and most successful slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere (“Haitian Revolution(1791-1804)”1)
In 1502, the first African slaves shipped to Hispaniola (Haiti). By the year 1546, there was almost 12,000 slaves in Hispaniola. The riches in Hispaniola (Tobacco, sugar, and coffee) got the European countries’ interest; and in 1670, the French created settlements, were they forced the African slaves to produce tobacco, sugar, and coffee in the plantations. In 1697, Hispaniola was divided in half, the left side was a colony of France, and was named Saint- Domingue, and it was the wealthiest colony in the Caribbean. The right side of Hispaniola was a colony of Spain, and it was called Santo Domingo. King Louis XIV issued the Code noir (Black code), in 1685. It was a set of codes that showed France’s point of view on slavery in the colonies. The code stated that slaves were the personal property of their masters, they were allowed to cut their ears off or be killed if they were caught running away.
Between 1700-1791, over 700,000 slaves were brought to Saint-Domingue, however 5-10% of them died each year.
In the Saint-Domingue, the population was divided into three classes by the color of their skin. The white planters (‘Grand Blancs’), were at the top of the social structure, as they were the plantation owners. The Affranchis, which were the free people of color- most were mulattoes and often had their own plantations and slaves. The poor whites (‘Petits Blancs’) – the working class, were mostly teachers, laborers or artisans. The slaves, of course, were at the bottom of the social structure, however there was more slaves in Saint Domingue than whites. In 1791, there were 32,000 whites, 28,000 Affranchis, and 500,000 slaves.
In 1789, the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen did not give colonies the same rights that it gave to those in France and many slaves believed, however, that it did, and that they were freed. Their white masters refused to abide by decrees.
In the August of 1791, the Haitian Revolution in the north, and Boukman Dutty was the rebellions’ lead organizer. By September, the rebels had burned more than 1,000 plantations and killed hundreds of whites. Many Affranchis joined the rebel armies. The French government decreed that all free people of color were granted the full rights of citizenship in April 1792, however Spain and Britain tried to stay neutral because they did not want to start a war with France, although they were scared that the revolution would spread across the border to Spanish Santo Domingo and British Jamaica.
Saint-Domingue leaders (such as Toussaint Louverture) joined Spain’s fight against the French in early 1793. The Spanish focused on fighting Saint-Domingue closest to their border in Santo Domingo, the British forces invaded parts of the south and southwest of Saint-Domingue. The white planters allied with the British because they believed this was the only way to maintain slavery in Saint-Domingue. However, in 1794, the National Convention abolished slavery and Louverture abandoned the Spanish to join the French. Finally, Spain signed the Treaty of Basel, in 1795, and gave up Santo Domingo to France and withdrew troops from the island.
In March 1796, Toussaint Louverture announced that he was Lieutenant Governor of Saint-Domingue. By 1797, Toussaint Louverture and Andre Rigaud (Affranchis leader) forced Britain out of the southern part of Saint-Domingue, and the last remaining slaves were freed.
A civil war broke out not long after in 1799, Louverture and Rigaud were at war to see who should have control of the colony. Toussaint controlled the north and west of Saint-Domingue, while Andre Rigaud controlled the south. Toussaint Louverture came up with a smart plan to block Rigaud’s forces for 5 months so that no food or supplies could reach them. Jean-Jacques Dessalines was sent by Louverture to defeat Rigaud’s army in July 1800, and part of his success was because of the treaties he signed with Britain and the US who gave him money to be able to feed and equip his army. They did that because they wanted Louverture to take over Saint-Domingue and weaken France’s part in the Caribbean. In January 1801, the governor of Santo Domingo lost control of it to Louverture after Louverture sent his top official Moise to invade it. His first act as the leader of all of Hispaniola was to abolish slavery on the island.
Napoleon was in control of France at the time and many feared that slavery would be re-instated in Saint-Domingue.
Toussaint Louverture’s Constitution of 1801 stated that slavery was abolished and that all citizens had equal rights. All people of Saint-Domingue to be French citizens. The citizens were required to work a mandatory number of hours in the plantations so that the economy could keep functioning, and they received daily wages. Many people criticized the constitution as they believed that life was not that different than when they were slaves. The officers also told the soldiers to use violence against the workers if they were not cooperating. Toussaint also invited the exiled white planters back to the island and he assumed absolute power as Governor-General for Life. Napoleon considered the Constitution of 1801 a move for independence, and soon enough in October 1801, he sent 20,000 troops to take over Saint-Domingue. The French troops arrived in February 1802 and took control of the colony in 3 weeks. Many of Louverture’s officers joined the French army because they did not know that Napoleon wanted to reestablish slavery, and they were not happy with Toussaint louverture’s policies. General Leclerc was the man who was appointed by Napoleon to return order and stability to Saint-Domingue.
In April 1802, Toussaint Louverture agreed to negotiate with him, which ended in Louverture retiring from the war and joining his family in the countryside. Shortly after, Jean-Jacques Dessalines (Louverture’s top general) allied with France. A few months later, Leclerc tricked Louverture to go to a fake meeting where he captured him and put him on a boat to Europe. This was the end of Louverture, who was imprisoned in France and died less than a year later.
In July 1802, Napoleon brought back slavery in all the other French colonies in the Caribbean, therefore, many soldiers left the French army and joined the insurrection- a violent revolt against the government. France responded by waging brutal terror campaigns against the blacks and mulattoes, where they drowned, executed, burned and hung them to death. They went so far as to import man-eating dogs to tame the population. Dessalines and the other generals abandoned the French army and joined the insurrection as well. Dessalines began the scorched-earth campaign, where the blacks and the mulattoes burned many plantations and towns. However, in November that same year, Leclerc died of Yellow Fever, and Dessalines defeated thousands of Napoleon’s troops which crippled the French army.
In May 1803, The Haitian fag was created by Dessalines by ripping the white fabric from the French flag, he kept the red and blue to represent the unity of the blacks and mulattoes against the whites. The historians estimate 150,000 people from Saint-Domingue died during the Haitian Revolution, which lasted 13 years (1791-1804). Jean-Jacques Dessalines published a Declaration of Independence, abolishing the colony of Saint-Domingue.
The name ‘Hayti’ was restored after they became independent. Dessalines ordered the slaughter of the remaining French residence, which was up to 4,000 people.
In October 1804, Jean-Jacque Dessalines was crowned Emperor Jacques I of Haiti. The constitution was officially valid in May 1804, and it stated that white foreigners were not allowed to own land in Haiti.
Napoleon wanted to influence England, Spain, and the US to isolate Haiti diplomatically and commercially, and Haiti found itself in a world opposed to the idea of a country that is governed by blacks. Since the blacks and mulattoes destroyed all the plantations, their economy was a total mess, and the Haitians were left with no industry to build their economy. In 1825, France finally agreed to recognize Haiti’s independence, and King Charles X forced Haiti to agree to pay for all the damages that were caused to the French interests during the revolution. Haiti was to pay a total of $22 billion in today’s money. The leaders of Haiti agreed as they believed that their economy will grow once they were allowed to trade with the other countries. By 1913, more than 80% of Haiti’s annual income was used to pay for the debt, and it was finally paid off in 1947.