Saint Domingue, the territory that is today known as Haiti, was a French colony from 1659 to 1804. Known as the “Pearl of the Antilles”, this colony was a source of enormous wealth, producing 40% of all the sugar and 60% of all the coffee consumed in Europe. These riches were produced on the backs of brutally exploited African slaves.
The colonial society of Saint Domingue had four different class strata:
(a) The “grand blancs”(Big Whites), the wealthy white plantation owners
(b) The “petit blancs”(Small Whites), smaller white landowners, merchants and artisans
(c ) The “coloreds”, mixed race, many of whom were plantation owners themselves
(d) On the bottom, the masses of African slaves
By 1789, the total white population was around 50,000, while the black slaves numbered half a million, outnumbering whites by a factor of ten to one.
Such a system could only be held together through extreme violence and terror. Many slaves were literally worked to death. Conditions were so brutal that roughly every 20 years, nearly the entire black population was replaced, it being cheaper to import new slaves directly from Africa than to keep the current ones alive. The colony was essentially an open air concentration camp.
In 1789, the French Revolution upended the aristocratic order in France, and eventually, all of Europe. The shock waves rolled outward across the Atlantic and upset the rigid racial colonial hierarchy. The proclamations of Liberty, Equality and the Brotherhood of all mankind were picked up by the colonies’ subjects and interpreted to mean that it applied to them too.
The first to make a move were the so called ‘Coloreds’. A number of them had been educated in France itself, had been exposed to the Enlightenment ideas of Rousseau and Voltaire and others preaching natural rights of men, and were also men of wealth. They came to believe that they were entitled to the new rights the white Frenchmen had won for themselves. Vincent Oge, a mixed race aristocrat and himself a slave owner, was in Paris on business when the French Revolution broke out. He unsuccessfully petitioned the new government to give mixed race men full citizenship rights, but was stonewalled. The gains of the revolution were for whites only.
In frustration, Oge returned to Saint Domingue and began an armed rebellion against the white planters in 1790. He and his followers were quickly defeated, and he was brutally tortured to death in public.
The plantation owners extinguished a small fire, yet a volcanic eruption was coming.
One August 14, 1791, thousands of slaves gathered in secret at Bois Caman for a voodoo religious ceremony. This mass meeting, headed by a shaman known as Dutty Boukman, was used as a cover for planning a revolt.
A week later on August 22, the revolution began. The northern plains of Saint Domingue, around the port of Le Cap, exploded in a cataclysm of violence. Using fires to give the signal to revolt, tens of thousands of slaves rose up. Avenging centuries of oppression, the Africans killed every white person they could find. In just the first two months of the rebellion 4,000 whites were killed and 180 sugar plantations were destroyed. Eyewitness accounts said that you could read your letters at night from the light of the burning plantations.
Initially, the rebelling slaves were not fighting for independence from France. They believed (falsely) that the French King Louis XVI had issued a proclamation abolishing slavery, which the colonial governor had suppressed. Nonetheless, the French government recognized the seriousness of the situation, fearing losing their most valuable colony. In 1792, they passed a law giving full citizenship rights to free blacks and mixed race people. They also dispatched Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, a Girondin and an abolitionist, to be the colony’s new governor and enforce the new policies.
Meanwhile, a new leader of the rebellion was emerging to prominence- Toussaint L’Ouverture. Boukman, the original instigator of the rebellion, was captured and beheaded by the French. Into the leadership vacuum stepped Toussaint, who unlike the other slaves was literate and educated. He had had an unusually enlightened master who encouraged him to learn to read and write. He had read all the great Enlightenment thinkers, as well as the military tactics of Julius Caesar.
Toussaint approached the Spanish, who controlled the other two thirds of the same island Saint Domingue was on, to make a tactical alliance. Spain wanted to take advantage of the chaos to seize the French colony for themselves. With Spanish weapons and supplies, Toussaint turned the rowdy mobs of rebelling slaves into a disciplined army capable of waging regular battles.
With Toussaint’s forces making steady gains and one third of the colony already in rebel hands, Sonthonax realized he had to take more radical measures to save the colony for France. In August 1793 he declared slavery abolished in the northern part of the colony.
This blew up in his face. The French plantation owners, overwhelmingly monarchists who hated Sonthonax for his republican views anyway, exploded with rage. They welcomed and assisted a British invasion of Saint Domingue, in September 1793. British troops put the slaves back in chains everywhere they went.
Toussaint’s forces kept advancing from the east, while British troops closed in from the west. France, fighting its enemies on all sides back in Europe, did not have sufficient troops available in Saint Domingue to both repel the British and suppress the slave revolt at the same time. Toussaint presented Paris with an offer- he would switch his allegiance to France, but only in exchange for the emancipation of all the slaves, no exceptions.
In February 1794, the French National Assembly passed a law declaring all one million of the slaves in France’s colonies free.
Now that the cause of France and the cause of liberty were one and the same, Toussaint turned his back on the Spanish and allied with the French in May 1794. His forces fought alongside regular French troops to push the British off the island.
After four years of protracted, brutal fighting, the British were completely defeated. Toussaint entered the colonial capital of Port Au Prince in triumph in 1798. The British lost a total of 100,000 soldiers in Saint Domingue- both from the fighting and yellow fever.
Almost as soon as the British were expelled, a civil war broke out in the colony. Two mixed race generals, Rigaud and Petion, challenged Toussaint’s authority. They rebelled in the south of Saint Domingue, alarmed that the emancipation of black people would threaten their (relative) privileges. They massacred both blacks and whites. Toussaint crushed this revolt in the so-called “War of the Knives”. By 1800 he was completely in control, although still officially running things on behalf of France.
Toussaint declared to the Directory, the ruling body of France: “We have known how to face dangers to achieve our liberty, we shall know how to brave death to attain it”. Slave owners throughout the Caribbean quaked in terror.
In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte took power in France in a military coup. His rise represented the consolidation of the bourgeois state in France and thus, the curtailing of its more radical egalitarianism. The displaced plantation owners petitioned Napoleon in Paris to restore their properties and wealth in Saint Domingue, and he heeded their advice.
In 1802, Napoleon assembled a massive invasion force of 30,000 soldiers aboard 60 warships to reconquer the colony. He put his brother in law, Charles Leclerc, in charge of the expedition. Officially the purpose of the expedition was only to oust Toussaint, who was accused of overstepping his bounds as the governor of Saint Domingue and illegally usurping power. But the secret instructions were also to restore slavery.
Outnumbered and outgunned by the invaders when they made landfall, Toussaint retreated from the coast into the interior. He intended to wear the French down in the forests and mountains. A major battle unfolded in La Crete a Pierrot in March 1802, a fortress guarding a strategic mountain pass into the center of the island. The black forces holding the fort, numbering 2,000 men and women, repelled successive attacks by 15,000 of Napoleon's best troops for almost a month. The French prevailed but with heavy losses- over 1,500 dead and wounded. They massacred the black prisoners after they surrendered.
Two of Toussaint’s key commanders, Henri Cristophe and Jean Jacques Dessalines, concluded that the rebel cause was doomed. They switched sides to the French after they were told they could keep their military commands. Toussaint agreed to negotiations with the French. In May 1802, he was betrayed and taken prisoner at the site of the peace conference. Toussaint’s wife and children were sold back into slavery. The proud leader was shackled and put on a ship back to Europe, where he was imprisoned in a fortress in the Swiss Alps. He died in prison a year later.
Toussaint told his captors: “In overthrowing me you have cut down only the trunk of the tree of liberty; it will spring up again from its roots, for they are many and they are deep”
Shortly after Toussaint’s capture, word reached Saint Domingue that slavery had been restored in the French colony of Guadeloupe. Fearing (accurately) that Saint Domingue was next, armed resistance to the French spread like wildfire everywhere. The French were no longer fighting only rebels but an entire population- men, women and children.
General Leclerc died of yellow fever in November 1802 and his succeeding commander General Rochambeau used unprecedented terror to put down the revolt. Man eating dogs were brought in from Cuba to maul black prisoners. Prisoners were packed into the hulls of French ships and were mass murdered with burning sulfur. But all these barbarities failed.
Leading the rebels in this final phase of the war was Jean Jacques Dessalines, who had once again turned against the French. Dessalines was not in any way sentimental. He knew that this was a war of annihilation- one that would either result in the extermination of the whites or the re enslavement of the blacks. He fought fire with fire, answering Rochambeau’s massacres with his own.
Napoleon had brought over regiments of Poles to fight in Saint Domingue, dubbed the Polish Legion. Once there, the Poles realized they sympathized with the black rebels, who were fighting for their independence just like their compatriots back in Poland were struggling for independence from Tsarist Russia. In an inspiring display of internationalism, the Poles switched sides and fought with the slave revolution. Dessalines praised these men as the “white Negroes of Haiti”.
Dying like flies from incessant rebel attacks and yellow fever, the French position in Saint Domingue was increasingly hopeless. The final great battle was at Vertieres in November 1803, where Dessalines military forces overwhelmed a major French stronghold.
In December 1803 the last regular French military units left the island. The only successful slave rebellion in human history had occurred. The French had lost somewhere around 75,000 of their soldiers in total, and the black rebellion had sacrificed 200,000 of their people-nearly half of the entire population- for their freedom.
In January 1804, Dessalines officially declared the independence of the Republic of Haiti, after the indigenous Arawak name for the island. All the remaining white French plantation owners and their families were massacred- three to five thousand people. The white of the French flag was ripped out so that only the red and blue remained in the flag of the new republic.
Dessalines declared “I have avenged America”
Unfortunately, Dessalines was less able as a ruler than he was as a war leader. He abandoned republicanism quickly and turned to monarchy, crowning himself Emperor. He ordered the black population back to the plantations to get sugar exports back up and running, making people feel little had changed since slavery.
Resentment of his autocratic rule grew and he was assassinated by his own soldiers in 1806. This began a long, sad tradition of military dictatorships and coups in Haiti, one which continues to the present day.
Dessaline's successor, Henri Cristophe, ordered the construction of a massive mountain fortress to deter any possible future French invasion, which became known as the Citadelle Laferriere. It took 20,000 laborers 15 years to build, and was completed in 1820. On top of a 3,000 foot mountain, this fortress had over 300 cannons and enough provisions to feed 5,000 soldiers for over a year. This fortress still stands to this day, surviving Haiti’s numerous earthquakes.
The independent black state was economically strangled. It had no allies. None of the white colonial powers would recognize the government or trade with them. Haiti was subjected to international isolation and a harsh trade embargo for 20 years.
Facing starvation, Haiti entered into a humiliating agreement with France in 1825 where they were agreed to pay reparations for the lost property of the French slave owners. For over a century, Haiti paid France the equivalent of 21 billion dollars in today’s currency. They didn’t fully pay off the last of this debt until 1947- 120 years later. At times, 80% of Haiti’s entire budget was consumed with paying this debt. One of the main creditors of this debt was the National City Bank of New York, which later became Citibank.
This permanently crippled Haiti’s ability to develop economically, and played a decisive role in making Haiti the most impoverished country in the Western Hemisphere to this day. Imperialism has a long and vindictive memory, and will make a harsh example out of any people who dares to resist them.
May the world never forget the heroes of Haiti who struck a blow for liberty that reverberates across centuries, terrifying tyrants, slavers and imperialists everywhere.
CLR James, The Black Jacobins (Vintage Press, 1989).
Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Beacon Press, 1995).