The Haitian Revolution

 “The transformation of slaves, trembling in hundreds before a single white man, into a people able to organise themselves and defeat the most powerful European nations of their day, is one of the great epics of revolutionary struggle and achievement.” – C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins.


1776. 1789. The American. The French. The two great revolutions of the eighteenth century. The third, and the most complete revolution in history, has been “silenced”. It is a tale that shatters Western conceptions of liberalism and topples the edifice of European progress. From it emerges the first independent black republic outside of Africa, the near-triumph of the ideals of the ‘Age of Revolution’, and the only successful slave revolt in history. For that alone, the Haitian Revolution deserves its place in history.

On 24th August 1791, almost exactly three hundred years after Christopher Columbus landed there, a mass insurrection broke out among Saint-Domingue’s slaves, upon whose labour France had transformed the island into the richest colony in the world. In a gruelling twelve year struggle, the emancipated slave armies defeated in turn the local white colonists, the soldiers of the French monarchy, a Spanish invasion, a British expedition of over 60,000 men, and the largest invasion fleet in French history.

Yet, that we remember the Haitian Revolution at all is largely due to the Trinidadian writer and thinker C. L. R. James whose polemical masterpiece The Black Jacobins synthesises novelistic narrative and factual reconstruction to capture both its political substance and its poetic spirit.

“They had heard of the revolution and had construed it in their own image: the white slaves in France had risen and killed their masters, and were now enjoying the fruits of the earth. It was gravely inaccurate in fact, but they had caught the spirit of the thing. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” – C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins.

Slaves had always resisted their enslavement, but the French Revolution provided both the political and moral grounds for the Haitian Revolution. It disturbed the delicate balancing of classes that had bound colonial society, while the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen contained the intellectual argument for self-determination.

In Toussaint Louverture, a self-educated former slave and unassailable genius in military tactics and strategy, the insurrectionists found a leader who recognised that, although Europeans were responsible for the enslavement of blacks, nevertheless within their culture now lay the political and moral ideas with which to challenge that enslavement.

Led by Toussaint – who was already a free man at the outbreak of the revolt – and inspired by the revolutionary prescriptions of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the slaves of Saint-Domingue rose as active agents in their emancipation, sabotaging plantations and massacring slaveholders. By 1792, the slave rebels controlled one-third of the island.

Meanwhile, the French Revolutionary Wars had broken out in Europe, and the monarchies of Britain and Spanish joined forces against France in Saint-Domingue. As the Spanish invaded from Santo Domingo, their colony on the Eastern portion of the island of Hispaniola, they were joined by the slave forces. By August 1793, their victories were such that there were only 3,500 French soldiers on the island.

Facing an imminent defeat, the radical Commissioner of Saint-Domingue, Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, abolished slavery in the colony in 1793, hoping to secure the colony for republican France. When word of the First Republic’s ratification of emancipation arrived from France months later, Toussaint Louverture and his corps of battle-hardened former slaves defected. Now fighting for the French Republic which had granted them their freedom, the slave armies routed the vastly inferior Spanish army, expelling its forces back across the border into Santo Domingo.

Fearing the implications of an emancipated slave population on its own colonies, and anticipating the potential seizure of this most profitable of territories, the British launched a full-scale invasion in 1796, sending a force of 60,000 to Saint-Domingue to suppress the revolt and restore the former slaves to chains. Outfought, and outwitted by Louverture’s military genius, the British were forced to evacuate from the island after suffering the worst casualties in their history prior to the First World War.

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With the French royalists, the Spanish, and now the British, expelled from Saint-Domingue at the hands of his armies of former slaves, Toussaint demonstrated his diplomatic guile to devastating effect, eliminating his domestic rivals including the French Commissioner Sonthonax, and the mixed-race leader André Rigaud. By 1801, Louverture had installed himself as the de facto ruler of all of Hispaniola by conquering its Eastern portion, Spanish Santo Domingo, and abolishing slavery there, too. As the unquestionable authority on the island, he began to exercise greater political autonomy, negotiating trade treaties with Britain and the United States, and instituting reforms designed to rebuild the economy after a decade of destructive conflict, demonstrating that a plantation-based system could be profitable using paid – not slave – labour.

Convinced that France would not renege on its abolition of slavery, and believing the success of the colony to be impossible without racial co-operation, he sought no reprisals against former slave holders. Toussaint professed himself a Frenchmen, and, enamoured by her revolutionary spirit, he strove to coalesce with France rather than to pursue full independence. Yet, when he wrote to France to announce the implementation of his new constitution for the colony, it was not to seek permission, but rather to assert that he now considered himself the equal of the leader of the French Republic.

Such correspondence was repeatedly ignored, however, by her First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte, whose rise meant that France would no longer tolerate a slave ruling the “Pearl of the Antilles”. Seizing the opportunity of an interval of peace with the monarchies of Europe, Napoleon assembled the experienced troops from his European campaign – the most advanced army Europe had ever seen – and placed them under the command of his brother-in-law, Charles Leclerc. It was to be the largest overseas military expedition of his rule, and the largest invasion fleet in French history. In 1802, it set sail to depose Toussaint, subdue the rebellious colony and re-establish slavery in Saint-Domingue.

The French expedition, with the help of white colonists and mulatto forces, won several hard-fought, early victories. At this point, Leclerc invited Toussaint to negotiate a settlement. It was a deception. Toussaint was seized and deported to France. He spoke his final words on the future of his people to the ship’s Captain as he boarded for deportation:

“In overthrowing me you have cut down only the trunk of the tree of liberty in Saint-Domingue; it will spring back from the roots, for they are numerous and they are deep.”

Upon arrival in France, he was imprisoned and starved to death. The betrayal of Toussaint, and the news of Napoleon’s reinstatement of slavery in the colony of Guadeloupe, convinced Toussaint’s successor, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and his generals Henri Christophe and Alexandre Pétion, that the same fate awaited Saint-Domingue. Leclerc too was secretly authorised to restore slavery when the time was opportune, and so the war for independence became a bloody struggle of atrocity and attrition.

The Haitians, one-third of whose fighting force was made up of female slave rebels, employed guerilla tactics, burning the coastal cities before retreating into the inaccessible mountains. There they awaited the rainy season and its feverous diseases, which they knew would decimate the French, as it had the British. By November, 24,000 French soldiers were dead, many of whom had succumbed to yellow fever or malaria. A further 8,000 were hospitalised as disease wrought havoc on the French lines. The tide of the war had turned against the French.

Before he too succumbed to yellow fever, Leclerc declared “a war of extermination”. This black and mixed-race population that had contracted the virus of revolutionary beliefs  would have to be eliminated, replaced with a new generation of freshly enslaved persons from the West African coast. Only then could European tranquillity be restored.

In desperation, Leclerc’s successor turned to increasingly wanton acts of brutality. The French burned alive, hanged, drowned, crucified, and tortured black prisoners. They introduced man-hunting dogs, and revived such practices as burying the former slaves in piles of insects, throwing them into the hull of ships to be suffocated with ignited sulphur, and boiling them in cauldrons of molasses.

Strengthened by the unity of black and mixed-race soldiers in their resistance to such brutal tactics, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Henri Christophe, and Alexandre Pétion rallied around the new Haitian flag (the French tricolore with the white segment torn from the middle), adamant that they would die before submitting to the restoration of slavery. In November 1803, they led the Haitian army to victory in the decisive Battle of Vertières, after which the French surrendered. Of the 50,000 seasoned men that France had sent to Haiti from its renowned revolutionary army, only 3,000 ever left the island.

“We have in Europe a false idea of the country in which we fight and the men whom we fight against” – Charles Leclerc, French general in Saint-Domingue

To those colonists who had not fled ahead of the French defeat Dessalines showed little equanimity. In a final act of retribution, he declared eternal hatred of France, announcing that black was henceforth the only valid ethnic identity in Haiti. With the encouragement of Napoleon’s enemies, namely Britain and the United States, the roughly 3,000 remaining French were massacred. On his deathbed in Saint Helena in 1821, Napoleon expressed that his greatest regret was his decision to oppose Toussaint, rather than to recognise his authority and govern the colony through him.

One exception was a force from the Polish Legions of Napoleon’s army, which, arriving in Haiti after fighting for liberty against the monarchies of Europe in the War of the Second Coalition, was confronted with a population fighting for the same cause, inspired by the same revolutionary rhetoric, and even singing La Marseillaise. Empathising with the emancipatory struggle of the Haitians, many refused to fight them, and a majority of Polish soldiers defected to join the Haitian ranks. For their support, they were granted citizenship – and thus considered black – sparing them the fate of the remaining French.

A total of around 350,000 men had died in 12 years of brutal conflict before, on 1st January 1804, Dessalines declared independence for Haïti, reviving the name given to the island by the indigenous Taíno Arawak people meaning “Land of the High Mountains”. The pursuit of the emancipatory logic of the Declaration of the Rights of Man to its revolutionary conclusion made Haiti the first post-colonial state in the Caribbean or Latin America, the first independent black republic outside of Africa, and the first country in the Western hemisphere to abolish slavery. For the first and only time in recorded history, slaves had overthrown the governing classes to themselves become the rulers of their own society.

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Why, then, has the Haitian Revolution been buried or ignored in even the most seminal histories of the era? In Western academia, it has been treated with a near-uniform “silence”, to quote Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s famous article. Even the magnum opus of Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Revolutions, manages just two dismissive mentions. How can it be that an event of such intrigue and significance has been allowed to fade from the collective memory, absent from the school curriculums of societies purporting to subscribe to those ideals of liberty, justice and equality?

The impacts of the Haitian Revolution were to reverberate around the globe, provoking radical action in both colonial societies and imperial metropoles. It became the inspirational blueprint for generations of future revolts against colonial oppression. For the black diaspora it demonstrated the latent power within the African population, and provided a counter-argument to the tropes often levied by defenders of the racial status quo. To the triumphalism in Europe of Enlightenment ideals and the pronouncements of the innate rights of man, it inspired resistance to the advent of “scientific racism”, phenomena which existed, often uncritically, alongside their enacted antitheses.

France, for example, the radical heart of European progress, demanded of Haiti unfeasible reparations of ₣91million – around ten times the country’s annual revenues – citing the lost “property” of slave and plantation owners, and even the costs of France’s failed efforts of reconquest. Such hypocrisies cannot easily coexist with any moral or philosophical tradition in the Enlightenment canon. In 1825, Haiti was placed under embargo by the major powers, blockaded by the French, and forced to take out high-interest loans from French banks in order to make a repayment. By the time the debt was fully repaid in 1947, the people of Haiti had endured over a century of sanctions for having dared to assert their freedom. It is consequently no coincidence that the once “Pearl of the Antilles” is now often referred to as the poorest country in the western hemisphere.

The silence surrounding the Haitian Revolution is all the more remarkable considering the historical gravity of an event which explicitly and permanently abolished slavery; a feat ultimately fallen well short of by its French and American counterparts. Moreover, with a large percentage of the formerly enslaved born in Africa, the Western powers were terrified by the prospect of further colonial rebellions. Any mention of Haiti evoked “alarm and terror in the minds of slaveholders throughout the hemisphere”. The slave trade was abolished by Britain within just three years of the declaration of Haitian independence, with the other major powers, including the United States, Portugal, Spain and France soon following suit. The institution of slavery continued, however, and it remained legal in Britain until at least 1833, and in France until 1848.

“Until [Haiti] spoke, no Christian nation had abolished negro slavery… Until she spoke, the slave trade was sanctioned by all the Christian nations of the world… Until Haiti spoke, the church was silent and the pulpit dumb.” – Frederick Douglass, Former U.S. Minister to Haiti, at the Chicago World’s Fair, 1893.

The impact of the Haitian Revolution can also be seen in mainland America. With the French unable to regain control of the island, Napoleon was forced to abandon his dream of a New World Empire, one in which the territory of Louisiana was to be dedicated to the cultivation of crops to feed the slave plantations of Saint-Domingue. In 1803, he sanctioned the Louisiana Purchase, bringing Napoleonic rule in the Americas to an end, and, in the process, ceding land to the burgeoning United States, doubling it in size, and fuelling its rapacious expansion from “sea to shining sea”.

It is worthy of consideration that the reparations demanded of Haiti by France in 1825 equated to $18million, while the price for which French Louisiana was sold equates to roughly $11.6million in 1825 dollars. Those figures indicate the value of the tiny island of Haiti compared with that of continental America in the early nineteenth-century.

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One can only speculate as to how different the course of history might have been had the trafficking of enslaved Africans not been abolished, or had France retained an American empire in the central third of the modern-day United States. But one thing is for sure. The oft-silenced Haitian Revolution commands its rightful and long-overdue place at the heart of the histories of imperialism, slavery, revolution, and the United States.

The motive for the silencing of the Haitian Revolution, then, lies in its outcome and legacies. To examine the record of imperialism in Haiti required European thinkers in societies espousing their reverence of liberty and equality to reckon with the shameful consequences of their professed ideals. A cursory understanding of the example of Haiti therefore not only subverts the notion of Europe as the heart of modernity and progress, but also quashes the nostalgic ignorance of the horror at the core of empire.

There is a reason why, despite several major films on slavery in the American South, the only successful slave revolt in history still awaits its Hollywood treatment. That the historic reality of mass collective uprisings against European hegemony remains “unthinkable” for liberals and conservatives alike betrays the dangerous perpetuation of historical illiteracy and imperial hubris. Examining Haiti from 1791-1804 provides a necessary antidote to these destructive currents of post-colonial melancholia which, sadly, remain prevalent in our societies to this today.

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3 thoughts on “The Haitian Revolution

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