The Haitian Revolution *
by: Scott Satterwhite




The Revolution in Haiti had it's origins in the French Revolution of 1789. During those times of upheaval, the people of Haiti embraced the revolutionary fervor that was going around the country at the time. But with that, each group interpreted the Revolution in their own way. In large part, the rich whites of Haiti wanted independence mostly because they felt it would relieve them of monetary debts that they owed to the French. The mulatto population wanted the revolution because they felt it would increase their social standing as a whole. The slaves, who at the time were the lowest on the social scale, wanted revolution to free themselves of their own bondage. For all of their own separate reasons, these classes fought fiercely to bring about the social change that would eventually over run the island. They all heard the slogans of liberty, equality, and fraternity and took them to heart and by July 1791, they were to take the slogans to arms.

Most of the slaves lived and worked on the sugar plantations. This was obviously a rough life full of personal hardships. Of all the different classes, the slaves had it the worse and like many oppressed poor people, they wanted to kill their oppressors. But unlike most oppressed poor people, they actually did it.

On a stormy night in August, the leaders of the revolt met in an open space in the forests of Morne Rouge. Once there, the leader of the revolt, a man named Boukman performed a Voodoo ceremony and gave the final instructions for the insurrection. Within a few hours their instructions were carried out. That night, each slave gang killed their master and burned their plantations to the ground. They correctly believed that as long as the plantations were there, then the means of oppression would remain.

At first they were very vengeful towards their oppressors and the families of those that enslaved them, but as the revolution gained territory on the island, they began to show more mercy towards the families of the oppressors that they surprised. However, to the prisoners of war they were merciless. They sometimes would tear out the flesh of their former owners with red-hot pincers, some were roasted on slow fires, and once even a carpenter was sawed in half between his own boards. Still, however gruesome the acts were, they pale in comparison to the violence that had been thrust upon them when they slaves.

As the revolt grew, the rich whites, who had before not really taken the slave revolt seriously, now were beginning to shake. They soon began to forget some of their racial prejudices and make alliances with the mulattos, who they had previously looked down upon (and may have still looked down upon) but felt it necessary to let bygones be bygones to save their own skin (literally). Within weeks, the revolting slaves numbered around 100,000 and were led by Toussaint L'ouverture, a slightly educated former slave and slaveholder as well.

In an attempt to deceive the rebelling slave army, the French government lied to the Haitian leaders and warned them of a large contingent of French military that was headed towards the island. Toussaint and the other slave leaders believed the lie and thought their cause was doomed. Since they lacked experience in both leading armies and negotiating, they made a move to save themselves and a few of their men. At first they were going to try and secure the freedom of at least 400 of their men and, in return they would lead the other thousands of men in their army back into slavery. The French at first agreed, then they started back peddling and reduced the number from 400 to only 60. But the French planters, who were still furious about the insurrection, refused even that pitiful offer and wanted to make everyone who took place in the revolt pay for it. Because of their unwillingness to bend, Toussaint and the others gave up the idea of even a treacherous surrender and took to the hills to train a guerilla army.

Shortly after, the French legislature decided that it was in the colonial interest of France to give full rights to mulattos in an attempt to win their allegiance to help crush the slave revolt. But before that could even happen, revolutionary Paris was again swept by the increasing radicalness of its own revolution. The people of Paris became increasingly frustrated with the slowness of change and the King and Queen of France, with their "let them eat cake" attitude, were swept off the throne and beheaded. And with this wave of enthusiasm for liberty came a change of heart for many French people concerning the now despised white French colonialists, or "aristocrats of the skin" as they were called. In San Domingo, news of the troubles back home turned to civil war between the different factions of slave-owners, which in turn gave added strength to the slave revolt by increasing tensions among their "masters."

In February 1793, the Spanish and English had declared war on revolutionary France (much in response to the execution of the monarchs). The Spanish had already been aiding the slaves in their revolt against the French, but now they stepped up their aid. Toussaint secretly told the French that his army would help the French defeat the Spanish on San Domingo if they promised to abolish slavery. They refused. He then made the same offer to the Spanish, who also refused. Toussaint decided to wait it out. Then the French commissioner, increasingly frustrated with the way the war was going and the heavy desertion of French Blacks, abolished slavery as a last ditch effort to gain support. This failed and the Spanish won control of most of the northern region. Abolition of slavery was the last straw for the French planters and they handed over the colony to the British, who now occupied most of the important French colonies.

By this time, the revolution in France grew even more radical. The former government had been swept out and the new one, led by Robespierre, began to attack their enemies both inside and outside of the country. Where at the beginning of the revolution the French were impassive to slavery, now it had become so despised that many of the French people even refused to drink coffee as it was tainted with the blood of oppression. On February 4, 1794, Slavery was abolished without even a debate. This threw the slaves wholeheartedly behind the French now. Toussaint began to slaughter his former Spanish allies, black and white. Black rebels began to wear the colors of the new French republic and could be heard singing Ca Ira and La Marseillaise and began kicking the Brits out of the colony.

The Spanish surrendered in 1795, but the British fought for a few more years at a very heavy loss of life. Within the 6 years of conflict, over 100,000 British soldiers were killed, either to war or disease, almost wiping out their entire army. The fighting of the rebellious slave armies was maybe one of the most significant reasons why the British were not able to help retake revolutionary France in their war to reinstate the monarchy, thus in part making the French Revolution ultimately successful. For this, the former slave Toussaint L'overture was made the commander in chief of San Domingo and the island was given dominion status. Toussaint ruled the island in many ways like a despot, but was also very benevolent. He ensured that the laborers on the island were well treated by their former masters, and were paid a fair wage. He also abolished racial discrimination on the island and was very friendly to the whites who remained on the island. So much so that it ended up losing him confidence among the islands blacks. The island had not been granted independence, but was somewhat a free colony of France. However, being a colony of France, they were still subject to the political goings on in the "mother country." The revolution had turned into a blood bath where thousands of people who helped overthrow the King and Queen, now would find themselves under the guillotine as well. This reign of terror wouldn't end until the former revolutionary leader, Robespierre, lost his own head to the revolution he helped start. This left a power vacuum that was filled ultimately by Napoleon Bonapart. This wasn't a good sign for the Black colony. While Napoleon had stabilized the revolution in France, he also wanted to restore France's colonial power. With that, he sought to restore slavery.

Napoleon sent his brother-in-law to San Domingo to somehow lure the people back into France's imperial grip. At first Toussaint capitulated, but soon began to resist the French. Napoleon tricked Toussaint into returning to France for negotiations and then had him imprisoned, where he soon died. The islanders didn't immediately find out Toussaint's fate and fell for some of Napoleon's brother's rhetoric, but when it became clear what the aim was, there was a popular uprising. Toussaint's lieutenant, Dessalines, took charge of the revolt and saw what Toussaint didn't see, that an independent nation would be the only way the people of San Domingo would be free.

The final battles of the struggle for independence were vicious. The French troops showed a ruthlessness that was worse than the slavery days, even going so far as to have gladiator shows where rabid dogs would tear apart captured blacks. With this however, Dessalines's men met his terror with more terror. France alone lost 50,000 men to war and disease. Napoleon's brother was eventually murdered and soon after, the French were defeated. Before the French evacuated the island, they offered the white colonists a free ride back to France, but they refused and chose to live under black rule rather than go back with the French. Dessalines also promised them they could retain much of their land, which certainly sweetened the deal. Dessalines declared the island independent and the former slaves renamed the island they lived on from San Domingo to Haiti, it's former indigenous Caribbean name.

The war against the revolutionary slaves was so costly to the French government that it forced Napoleon to abandon almost all of France's land in the western hemisphere, including the American part that would be covered in the Louisiana Purchase.

The British and the American press had nothing but praise for the revolution after it happened, mostly because they wanted the French out of the Caribbean. The British were especially anxious to have the French out of the region, to the point that they even used old racial tensions, like Dessalines hatred of whites for past treacheries as an excuse to have the Haitians spill more French blood. Going so far as to have one of their agents tell Dessalines that the British would neither trade with the island or afford them any protection as a free nation unless every Frenchman were killed. Believing their word was true, which it wasn't, a massacre ensued, to which most history books lay the blame solely on Dessalines shoulders.

However, the success of the Haitian Revolution finally killed the West Indian slave trade for good. It became too costly for the foreign powers to try and conquer the former colony and the Haitians let it be known that any attempt to retake it would be met by the fiercest resistance. The Haitian people would fight to the last person and would turn the island to ash before submitting to slavery again.

By 1807, the colonial powers now feared that the blacks that were being brought into the "New World" had become too rebellious in nature. Slave revolts, mostly inspired by the Haitian success, were occurring everywhere there were slaves, especially in the United States. The make up of the revolts too shows the spirit of the times, often having several whites among their ranks of rebel slaves, and sometimes even going so far as to spare Frenchmen, because of their supposed association with the qualities of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Many of the rebel leaders spoke of the Haitian success as their inspiration, even as late as 1822.

Since the revolution, however, Haiti has had it rough to say the least. As a nation, most of the white imperialist world, including the United States, refused to recognize the newly created black government, claiming that it had unfairly nationalized foreign property. Neglecting the fact that these foreigners were their former slave masters and that the resources they were exploiting were the people of Haiti’s and not the French, the English, the Spanish, or the American’s property. The only reason the United States ever recognized Haiti was because Abraham Lincoln wanted to send all the Blacks in America out of the country after the Civil War, and besides Africa, Haiti was one of the few options open. And, of course, they couldn’t start negotiations with the Haitians unless they recognized their existence.

In the early 1900’s the US military led a bloody invasion of Haiti to suppress its tendencies toward nationalizing foreign industry. Ever since, the US has played an awful role in the suppression of Haiti’s right to self-determination, often supporting ruthless dictators that in turn supported higher American corporate profit margins, no matter how many Haitians were murdered or imprisoned. The latest invasion was during the Clinton Presidency. As I write this, Haiti is under the scrutiny of Washington for not helping enough in the “war on drugs,” continuing a long history of foreign intervention in Haiti’s domestic issues.


But this aside, it cannot be ignored that the Haitian Revolution was among the most radical to take place in world history. Not even in America were the tables turned so drastically as when the slaves of Haiti toppled their former masters and started a new life for themselves. Though the years following have not been easy, the example of the Haitian Revolution can still serve to inspire those that feel the bitter taste of oppression in their own lives.

For further reading on the Haitian Revolution, read C.L.R. James, A History of Pan-African Revolt and The Black Jacobeans.


Top of page


Site Contents: Adjoa Gzifa & Eileen Flanagan.
Site Design: Delwar Sayeed. Center for Teaching and Learning.