The Haitian Revolution
The Haitian Revolution led to the founding of a state. Lasting from August 1791 to November 1803 it saw the uprising of enslaved men and women in the French colony of Saint Domingue and the founding of the Haitian republic in 1804.
Sugar and slavery
Saint Domingue was a French colony on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. Rich in luxuries such as coffee and sugar the colony grew to become the richest in the Caribbean, gaining it the nickname 'the pearl of the Antilles'.
Plantation owners managed vast estates and enslaved people outnumbered plantation owners ten to one.
The hierarchy in the colony was complicated but was broadly based on three racial 'castes':
• White plantation owners and their white employees
• Men and women of mixed race who were not enslaved
• Enslaved men, women and children
By 1789 Saint Domingue's power elite was increasingly concerned about the numbers of enslaved people and the growing population of free, educated men and women of mixed heritage.
Fearing the potential that these people would begin to fight for their freedom, the French government passed strict racial laws. These forbid free men of mixed heritage from holding important public offices, wearing certain clothes and living in certain areas. And of course, enslaved people had no rights at all in the eyes of the law.
The Haitian Revolution
In the wake of the French Revolution (1789-1799) plantation owners in Saint Domingue saw the opportunity to become independent from France. However, in May 1791 the French revolutionary government permitted civil rights to wealthy, free 'people of colour'.
The plantation owners denied these rights and brutally crushed any opposition. Two months later an organised group of enslaved people began the fight for their freedom.
The revolution was led by Toussaint L'Ouverture – a formerly enslaved man whose origins are much debated. He is quoted as saying: 'I was born a slave but nature gave me the soul of a free man.'
Certainly, he was no longer enslaved at the start of the rebellion and was well educated by his godfather . He was also a brilliant military tactician who outwitted the English, Spanish and French military forces sent to wrestle power back from him and the revolutionaries.
Within 10 days the freedom fighters had control of the northern part of the colony and after much bitter fighting by 1792 they had control of a third of the island.
To avoid military disaster, on 4th February 1794 the French government abolished slavery, giving civil and political rights to all men in the colonies regardless of the colour of their skin.
However in 1801 Napoleon sent his brother-in-law, General Charles Emmanuel Leclerc with an expeditionary force of 20,000 men to re-establish law and order. The suspicion was that they were also sent to re-establish slavery.
What followed was a bloody and violent battle which only ended in 1804 when Haiti was declared an independent state.
The Haitian Revolution was a defining moment in the history of the Caribbean and Europe. But Haiti was damaged by the patterns ingrained by French colonial rule.
Haiti became a victim of political and economic isolation. The political powers of the age would not accept Haiti as an independent state for fear that it would inspire enslaved people to fight for their freedom in their own countries.
France demanded reparations for evicted plantation owners that put the country in crippling debt for decades and although independent, to this day Haiti remains one of the poorest countries in the world.
Image: Frontispiece from the book Saint-Domingue, ou Histoire de Ses Revolutions, published circa 1815. Reproduced via a Creative Commons licence from Wikimedia Commons