How a slave uprising in Haiti changed the course of history

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When the masses of Paris overthrew the French aristocracy the ideals of their revolution were adopted by
the slaves of France’s wealthiest colony. Raj Perera tells the story of the successful Haitian Revolution.

A revolutionary uprising forged enslaved Africans on a small Caribbean island into an army of self-emancipation to create the world’s first black republic, in what is known as the Haitian Revolution. The successful insurrection of 1791 was a crack in the arc of history, one painted over by historians of capitalism. Previous slave revolts in the colonies had been put down, but events would propel literate coachman Toussaint L’Ouverture — who had been freed 15 years previously — into the leadership of the revolution. After 12 years of fighting, L’Ouverture led the army to eventual liberation, and independence. Black agency was central to not just a revolt but to one of the most profound revolutions in human history.
The western section of Haiti — known then as St Domingue — was the wealthiest colony in the Americas, controlled by France. Slavery was responsible for two-thirds of the entire wealth of the French state, thanks to the sugar and coffee plantations. The less developed east of the island was occupied by the Spanish. The radical ideals of the French Revolution of 1789 were soon to rupture the class contradictions in St Domingue. The white plantocracy, numbering around 40,000, initially supported the revolution, hoping it would remove trade restrictions imposed by the royalist bureaucracy. The freed ‘mulattoes’ — people of so-called mixed race — numbering 30,000, saw an opportunity to advance themselves.
They petitioned the new National Assembly in France for limited reforms for equality, but not abolition. They too were slave owners, and propertied. But the reform amounted to French citizenship for just 400 mulattoes, as long as they could show that their parents were born in France. The brutal shackles of slavery remained for 500,000 Africans. Splits emerged in St Domingue’s dominant blocs, with white people opposing the concession.
This fractured the apparatus of colonial power, creating an opening for revolt from below. CLR James wrote of the situation, “The slaves had heard of the [French] revolution and had constructed it in their own image: the white slaves of France had risen and killed their slave masters. And were enjoying the fruits of the Earth. Gravely inaccurate but catches the spirit of things, liberty, equality, fraternity.”
In mid-1791 a large gathering took place with a ceremony led by Dutty Boukman, a vodou priest of escaped slaves known as Maroons. They vowed to fight to the death. In August of that year, a coordinated uprising saw planters slaughtered, their mansions and plantations burned down. Many slaves were slaughtered in return. The Haitian Revolution had begun. By late September around 15,000 black people and 4,000 white people had been killed. A total of 184 sugar plantations and refineries, together with 1,000 coffee farms, had been destroyed.
An army of 100,000 slaves lay siege to the island. By autumn the following year 10,000 French troops had arrived, regaining control of most of the island in what was an uneasy stalemate. It’s at this point L’Ouverture appears on the stage of history. Unlike most of his fellow slaves, L’Ouverture could read and write and quickly became leader of the slave revolution. Abolishing slavery was not the first demand of the insurrection. Leaders of the revolt attempted to negotiate freedom for 200 captured slave generals and their families, and for slaves to work three days a week for themselves. The demands were bitterly opposed by the colonialists. Developments were pushed along by the Parisian masses.
By January 1793, as the king was beheaded, the revolution in France had deepened. The consciousness of the masses shifted from grievances against the feudal order to that of slavery itself. The conflagration in France led to war with its neighbours. Interests in St Domingue from Britain and Spain were aroused. The new Jacobin Assembly commissioner Sonthonax, together with L’Ouverture, aimed at first to establish the reforms that were initially rejected. The white colonialists refused, preferring instead to invite the British to help try to restore slavery on the island. While the British were intent on invasion, the Spanish came with a plan. L’Ouverture, not convinced by Sonthonax, struck a deal with Spain to obtain weapons, to defeat France and Britain and gain their freedom.
L’Ouverture, his generals and the slave army quickly gained victories, capturing three cities in eight months, as well as all the ports in the north of the island. Then, news arrived from France that would change the course of events. In February 1794 a three-man delegation sent by Sonthonax to the Paris assembly — a freed black slave, a mulatto and a white man — carried a new flag. The blue, white and red tricolour now included two black men and a white man, and the slogan ‘Our union will be our strength’. One of the delegates, a freed slave named Belley, presented a powerful account of the fight in St Domingue. He declared that the black slaves truly embodied the ideals of the 1789 revolution, and his speech was met with rapturous applause.
The abolition of slavery had been acclaimed by revolutionary France. In reality it was recognition that the slaves had freed themselves and were now needed to fight the forces of Britain and Spain vying for control of St Domingue. Sonthonax had earlier proclaimed freedom for all the slaves and now had the revolutionary government of France’s full backing. This was enough to change the allegiance of L’Ouverture who, alongside another slave general, Jean-Jaques Dessalines, helped secure victory after victory against both the Spanish and British invaders. Between 1794 and 1798 around 50,000 British troops were killed — to this day, one of the greatest military disasters in British history.
Counter revolution But the revolution in France now faced counter-revolution. Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in a coup in 1799 and a few years later the largest expeditionary force ever assembled by France set out to restore slavery on St Domingue, under Napoleon’s brother-inlaw Charles Leclerc. He would eventually die of yellow fever, and this was consciously factored in by L’Ouverture, resulting in great losses for the French and British. Using guerrilla tactics and psychological warfare, the slave army was able to disorientate French troops, often confronting them with loud bursts of revolutionary songs as if the Parisian masses were there themselves. In one sense they were. The ideals of revolutionary France meant more to the black army of self-emancipated slaves precisely because to realise and make them concrete it was necessary to face and take on death itself.
After three months of fighting, a combination of French intrigue and rivalry from his supposed ally, Dessalines, tricked L’Ouverture into arrest. He was sent to prison in France, eventually dying of pneumonia in 1803. Dessalines broke from the French — once news of the restoration of slavery in Guadalupe reached the island — and led the final fight to victory, with another 50,000 French troops killed. In 1804, Haiti — its original native name — became the first free independent black state outside of Africa. Independence, rather than being granted from above, resulted from the world’s first successful anti-colonial struggle.
The African slaves freed themselves, inflicting severe defeats upon the armies of three great empires: Britain, France and Spain. This fact alone overturns the dominant historical account of abolition being merely an act of a benevolent middle-class’s moral crusade. The hatred for the aristocracy of the skin among the masses was backed by boycotts of sugar and coffee across France. Emancipation had been the act of the slaves themselves, moving from their objective existence as a class to a subjective force which shaped the destiny of three continents.
The Haitian Revolution went further than revolutionary France: as well as abolishing slavery, discrimination based on skin colour was also outlawed. Just before boarding the ship that took him to jail, L’Ouverture said, “In overthrowing me you have only cut down the trunk of the liberty tree of the blacks in St Domingue. It will spring back from the roots, for they are numerous and deep.” History would have to wait another 150 years for the roots of liberty to rise again, in the form of the civil rights movement, when black workers would wage the next struggle for equality and human rights.