World History 2 105 - 7.3.3 The Haitian Revolution

Like the leaders of revolution in the North American colonies and France, the leaders of Haiti’s Revolution sought to reject tyranny and dismantle long-standing inequities. Unlike the British colonists, however, the Haitian revolutionaries made addressing racial discrimination and injustice their primary aim. The Haitian Revolution was the first uprising of enslaved people in history that not only toppled a colonial regime but also established national independence (Figure 7.13). Independence came at a tremendous cost, however, since France forced the new republic to pay steep indemnities to compensate French citizens for their property losses for many years, impoverishing the new nation. Nevertheless, the revolution represented one of the most significant challenges to colonialism raised in the Western Hemisphere.

Two groups of soldiers collide. One group is made up of black men who are barefooted and wear a diverse collection of uniforms. The other group is made up of white men who wear shoes and the same style of uniform. One of these soldiers stands on a cannon. Several men lay on the ground nearby and appear dead.
Figure 7.13 This 1802 engraving by Auguste Raffet depicts one of the major battles of the Haitian Revolution, the battle of Crête-à-Pierrot, which took place that year. The Haitian army initially suffered a crushing defeat there but eventually won an inspiring victory. (credit: “Haitian Revolution” by Auguste Raffet/Hebert in Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

As France’s wealthiest colony, Saint-Domingue on the island of Hispaniola yielded roughly 40 percent of the sugar and nearly half the coffee imported to Europe in the eighteenth century. Producing these labor-intensive commodities depended on maintaining a ruthless regime that enslaved the majority of the colony’s population. At the beginning of the Haitian Revolution, roughly 500,000 enslaved people lived in Saint-Domingue, mostly of sub-Saharan African descent. A population of about forty thousand Whites was a mix of wealthy planters, middle-class professionals, and poor laborers. A third group of about thirty thousand were gens de couleur libres (a French term meaning free people of color), many of mixed-race heritage and some holding enslaved people themselves. Given sharp social divisions and the exploitation of the colony’s enslaved people, Saint-Domingue was poised for turmoil.

After news of the revolution in France reached the colony, its White planters and gens de couleur libres sent delegates to Paris in 1789 in hopes of securing greater economic and political freedoms from the French. Largely driven by self-interest, each group interpreted the principles and goals of the revolution differently. Whereas wealthy White planters sought political autonomy and greater freedom from trade restrictions, poor Whites were primarily interested in securing equal citizenship for themselves. Neither wealthy nor poor Whites were concerned with gaining equal political or legal rights for people of color. The gens de couleur libres, on the other hand, interpreted the revolutionary rhetoric of liberty to mean the extension of equal rights to all free people regardless of race. Given that some of them owned enslaved people, however, they did not call for an end to slavery. The incompatible goals of each group intensified hostilities among the free sectors of Saint-Domingue’s population. The conflict between Whites and gens de couleur libres exploded in 1791, after Haiti’s White population refused to acknowledge the citizenship rights that France had extended to wealthy people of color. The resulting turmoil and instability provided the perfect opportunity for rebellion, which expanded into a full-fledged revolution.

Although it may seem at first that the French Revolution and Enlightenment ideals provided the motivation for revolution in Haiti, much of the inspiration actually came from rumors that France had outlawed slavery, the existence of enslaved leaders poised to rebel against White plantation owners, and the influence of beliefs based on Vodou (Voodoo), a mix of Roman Catholic and indigenous West African religious practices. In August 1791, a group of enslaved people planning a rebellion met in a heavily wooded area known as Bois Caïman to formalize their pact in a Vodou ritual overseen by Dutty Boukman, a Vodou priest from Jamaica. It is difficult to know the precise nature of the ceremony. Because France had outlawed the practice of Vodou in its colonies, such gatherings were generally shrouded in secrecy. Nevertheless, it is clear that Vodou was a vital spiritual tradition for enslaved Africans, and one of the few areas in which they could achieve a sense of psychological independence. Due to its widespread appeal among Saint-Domingue’s enslaved population, Vodou thus united different rebel groups and played a significant role in propelling the revolution.

Within a few days of the Bois Caïman meeting, some gens de couleur libres joined forces with rebelling enslaved people in an uprising against White colonists. After initiating the rebellion in the north of Saint-Domingue and destroying numerous plantations, they continued to escalate the movement. By September 1791, revolt had spread to Port-au-Prince, the colony’s capital.

Other countries soon became involved in the rebellion in Haiti. In 1792, France, in an effort to stop the uprising in Haiti, sent troops to the island and extended the rights of citizenship to all free men of color in order to end their support for the rebellious enslaved people. By 1793, France found itself at war with most of the nations of Europe, including Britain and Spain. European rulers did not wish the French revolutionary sentiment that had led to the overthrow of Louis XVI to spread to their states, and France went to war to ensure that hostile monarchs did not bring an end to the revolution. In 1793, Britain and Spain landed troops in Haiti, where they supported the White colonists in their attempt to put down the slave rebellion. Both Spain and Britain hoped to weaken France by depriving it of revenues from the sale of Haitian sugar and to prevent the slave rebellion from spreading to their own Caribbean colonies. Military intervention did not end the rebellion, however. France officially abolished slavery in 1794, during the most radical phase of the revolution, and colonial officials in Saint-Domingue issued an emancipation decree.

With François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, a military leader and formerly enslaved man, at the helm, many reforms were brought to the island of Hispaniola, which included Saint-Domingue and the Dominican Republic (Figure 7.14). Louverture freed the enslaved people in both colonies in 1801. He then promoted a constitution for the new nation of Haiti, which he nevertheless maintained was still part of the French Empire. The constitution was based on principles of natural rights and social contract theory similar to those that had guided the French and American Revolutions, but it also made Louverture governor-general of Haiti for life, gave him extensive powers, and allowed him to select his successor in office. Louverture also forced the formerly enslaved Haitian peasants to work in the sugarcane fields. Despite Louverture’s forced labor policy, Haiti, unlike the United States or France, directly addressed the issue of racial inequality, granted rights to all citizens regardless of race or social class, and extended citizenship to all Black, Indigenous, and mixed-raced people who had resided in the nation for at least one year. However, although political rights were extended to all male citizens, Haitian women had to wait until the twentieth century before receiving the right to vote, as did women in France and the United States.

This map is centered on the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean Sea. The island includes Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Florida is visible to the northwest. Cuba and Jamaica are to the west. Puerto Rico is to the east. South America is directly south of Hispaniola.
Figure 7.14 Hispaniola, an island in the Caribbean, is the home of the modern nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic and was originally inhabited by the Taíno people of the Arawak tribe. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

As the leader of the Haitian Revolution, Louverture was a target of French antagonism. Despite a brief cessation of hostilities, he was arrested in 1802 when Napoléon attempted to reclaim control of Saint-Domingue. After being deported to France, Louverture spent the brief remainder of his life in a French prison, writing his memoirs to defend himself against charges of treason.

In Their Own Words

Toussaint Louverture

After Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution, was arrested by French troops and subsequently imprisoned in France in 1802, he began writing his memoirs to defend himself against accusations of treason. In the excerpt that follows, he details his commitment to the Haitian people, his vision for Haiti, and the integrity with which he led the fledgling country to independence.

If I did oblige my fellow-countrymen to work; it was to teach them the value of true liberty without license; it was to prevent corruption of morals; it was for the general happiness of the island, for the interest of the Republic. And I had effectually succeeded in my undertaking, since there could not be found in all the colony a single man unemployed, and the number of beggars had diminished to such a degree that, apart from a few in the towns, not a single one was to be found in the country . . .

It was my influence upon the people which was feared, and that these violent means were employed to destroy it. This caused me new reflections. Considering all the misfortunes which the colony had already suffered, the dwellings destroyed, assassinations committed, the violence exercised even upon women, I forgot all the wrongs which had been done me, to think only of the happiness of the island and the interest of the Government. . . . means have been employed against me which are only used against the greatest criminals. Doubtless, I owe this treatment to my color; but my color,—my color,—has it hindered me from serving my country with zeal and fidelity? Does the color of my skin impair my honor and my bravery?

Since I entered the service of the Republic, I have not claimed a penny of my salary . . . no one has been more prudent, more disinterested than I. I have only now and then received the extra pay allowed me; very often I have not asked even this. . . . I will sum up, in a few words, my conduct and the results of my administration. . . . I did not serve my country from interested motives; but, on the contrary, I served it with honor, fidelity, and integrity, sustained by the hope of receiving, at some future day, flattering acknowledgments from the Government; all who know me will do me this justice.

—Toussaint Louverture, Memoir of General Toussaint Louverture

  • How does Toussaint Louverture describe his role in the Haitian Revolution?
  • Why did the French consider him a threat, and why did they not support his cause even though they had just experienced their own revolution based on principles of liberty and equality?
  • How do the goals and ideals he lays out in this passage compare with those of other Atlantic revolutions of the era?

Link to Learning

See how others chose to depict Toussaint Louverture, both before and after his death in April 1803, in The Changing Faces of Toussaint Louverture at the John Carter Brown Library.

Although Napoléon attempted to reinstate slavery and reclaim French control of Saint-Domingue in 1802, his army was overpowered by the rebel army and Louverture’s successor, Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Dessalines and his victorious forces thereafter renamed their country Haiti, a term meaning mountainous that derived from the Taíno language of the precolonial people. After Dessalines declared Haiti’s sovereign independence on January 1, 1804, White plantation owners either fled or were killed, and lands were redistributed among Haiti’s former enslaved and free Black people. Despite the promise of Haiti’s fledgling nationhood, however, in 1825, France imposed an exorbitant independence debt that devastated the new country’s economy for many years thereafter. Principles of social equality, moreover, remained incomplete when former gens de couleur libres adopted the roles of the former plantation owners at the top of the social hierarchy. Thus, the Haitian Revolution did not bring lasting equality for all, but it did remove racial inequalities even though the gens de couleur libres brought an element of race into their views.

Despite economic instability and the complexities of race relations in Haiti after the revolution, its independence stood as a remarkable challenge to colonialism and the institution of slavery. Haiti also successfully resolved the incompatibility between revolutionary principles of liberty and the practice of slavery. The success of its revolution gave hope to other slave societies and sent shockwaves through slaveholding societies across the Atlantic. Ultimately, fear generated by the Haitian Revolution led to a conservative backlash among elites and a temporary expansion of slavery in neighboring countries such as Cuba. The United States did not officially recognize Haiti as an independent nation until 1862. However, the long-term legacy of Haitian independence later inspired slave revolts elsewhere in the Atlantic, such as the German Coast Uprising in Louisiana in 1811, and ultimately posed a significant challenge to the European colonial order.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax