The Revolution in Haiti was the unexpected consequence of the French Revolution. The French Revolution failed but the Haitian Revolution was successful. It was the largest slave uprising since Spartacus’s rebellion against the Roman Republic 1900 years ago, and it resulted in Haiti becoming the only country to be won by former slaves. The Haitian Revolution began on 22 August 1791 and ended on 1 January 1804, with the colony’s independence.
Toussaint Louverture, now known as the “Father of Haiti,” was the most prominent leader of the revolution. Born as a slave in Haiti, the French controlled section of Saint-Domingue, he was inspired by the rhetoric of the French Revolution. In 1791, he proclaimed that he was a free man and a Jacobin, and began to campaign for Haiti’s independence.
In 1789, there were 40,000 whites in San-Domingue, 28,000 mulattoes and free blacks, and 452,000 black slaves. Two-thirds of the slave population was born in Africa—since they were not raised in slave societies, they were not used to being submissive. The European colonists monopolized the administrative posts. The sugar planters, known as grands blancs (Big Whites), employed most of the slaves—they behaved like aristocrats and were despised by the slaves and the lower-class whites (petit blancs or Small Whites).
The political situation in San-Domingue was hopeless. The greed of the Spanish, the British, and the French knew no limits—they had brought too many people from Africa to toil as slaves in their plantations. With its slave population exceeding ninety percent, San-Domingue was a volcano waiting to explode. The eighteenth century French writer Count Mirabeau once said, “the Saint-Domingue whites slept at the foot of Vesuvius.”
The incident that sparked the slave uprising was the execution of Vincent Ogé, a free man of color, who was campaigning for the right to vote in accordance with the principles of the French Revolution. When the French governor refused, Ogé intensified his struggle. He was captured early in 1791, and was executed by being broken on a wheel before being beheaded. The slave uprising began on 22 August 1791, and it quickly went out of control—a large number of lives were lost in the first wave of violence.
Within weeks, about 100,000 slaves joined the rebellion. The white population fled into the fortified camps. In their book, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Jack R. Mason and Lynn Hunt note that the revolutionaries extracted revenge on their former masters through "pillage, rape, torture, mutilation, and death”.
In two months, 180 sugar plantations, and hundreds of coffee and indigo plantations, were destroyed. Ten percent of white population was killed. By 1792, the slave rebels controlled one third of the island. The victories that the slave rebels were winning against the colonial forces shocked the political establishments in Europe and the Americas. The politicians in England, Spain, France, and North America realized that if Haiti became free, it could inspire copycat slave rebellions all over the Americas.
British prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, dispatched British troops to restore order in San-Domingue. The French were at war with the British—they refused to let the British take control of their section of the island. The British joined hands with the Spanish and defeated the French. To outfox the British and the Spanish, the French declared that they were freeing the slaves in their colonies. The British tried their best to restore slavery, wherever they went in San-Domingue. But they could not pacify the slave rebels. On 11 April 1797, the British were forced to retreat from Saint-Domingue after losing thousands of their troops.
Napoleon invaded Haiti on 2 February 1802. He tried to keep his intention to restore slavery a secret but the slave rebels came to know about it. They resorted to guerrilla tactics, and within days they killed hundreds of French troops. About 10,000 French troops died due to yellow fever. At the Battle of Vertières on 18 November 1803, the slave rebels decisively defeated the French. Humiliated by the defeat, the French withdrew from Saint-Domingue with their remaining troops.
Louverture died in French prison on 7 April 1803. Some chroniclers suggest that Jean-Jacques Dessalines, another prominent leader of the slave rebellion, was responsible for Louverture’s imprisonment. On 1 January 1804, Dessalines declared Haiti a free republic in the name of the Haitian people, and became a dictator. He ordered that those who had cooperated with Europeans must be killed. From early January 1804 until 22 April 1804, Haitian soldiers moved from house to house torturing and killing entire families. Around 5000 people were killed.
The Encyclopedia of African American Politics claims that "between 1791 and independence in 1804 nearly 200,000 blacks died, as did thousands of mulattoes and as many as 100,000 French and British soldiers.” The British banned slave trade in 1807, not because they had suddenly realized that slave trade was evil but because the events in Haiti had thought them an important lesson: the Africans were capable of defeating the armies of Europe.
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