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The Haitian Revolution and its Impact in the Americas

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The goals of this course on the Haitian revolution are multiple; first, to bring the Haitian revolution out of oblivion maintained by historians through their Westernist vision of history. It is the most total revolution in history and the one that had an enormous impact both on the fate of Napoleonic France in the Americas and in general, but also in the independence struggles of Latin America and the Caribbean on the fate of the slave trade and slavery.

The Haitian revolution shows that there are structural causes to the great events with an explosive demography and external elements such as the French Revolution with its ideals of equality and freedom. This revolution changed the relationship between rulers and governed while individuals in positions of power were not equal to the events of which Napoleon and Toussaint Louverture were examples. Thus, Haiti's current status is due to its pariah status given by other nations and imposed after its independence in 1804.

The Haitian revolution that triumphed in 1804 is the nightmare of all slave owners, it is a terrible fear that will mark all the slave-owning Americas for decades. It is also the world upside down, the transformation of the most profitable slave colony in the West Indies into an independent black republic.

The society of Santo Domingo in 1789[edit | edit source]

Haiti was then called Santo Domingo in 1789. Haiti is a part of the Hispaniola Island in the central Caribbean and of what will become Florida and Mexico. It is a strategic position.

Populations[edit | edit source]

The total population is 570,000, of which 500,000 are slaves, or 88% of the population. There is a division between the slave population born in Santo Domingo and imported slaves. African slaves represent 58% of the total population of Santo Domingo; the vast majority are deported African women.

Most of the slaves work in colonies on sugar cane, coffee and indigo plantations, while others are domestic servants and found various trades in the cities and ports. Gradually, these slaves coming from various African cultures mixed with elements of Catholicism and French culture to create a common language which is Creole and a syncretic religion which is Voodoo.

White people comprise only 7% of the population or 40,000. Among these whites, there are more men than women, they are divided into a minority of planters, merchants and royal officials, but there are also soldiers and sailors. The so-called little whites are poor men and women who work in agriculture and handicrafts.

The Free People of Colour comprise 5% of the population, or 30,000 people. They are more often mulattoes than blacks, and despite their free status they are not equal to whites before the law. They also have great differences between them; some are freed and are no better off than slaves, while others are a kind of middle class serving in the militia and the police. There are also among the women several who are the mistresses of white men; some among the men and among the descendants of the women who were the wives of white men, became rich planters, but also rich merchants, many of whom went to France to study.

It is a diverse population. For the rich free people of colour, culture and economic wealth bring them closer to the white elite, but they are still inferior to whites.

Regional differences[edit | edit source]

88% of the population are slaves; the densest population is located in the "northern plain" where the major sugar crops are grown, and in the southeast where cocoa and indigo are grown.

Everywhere, there is a high population is large concentrations that will become the most explosive regions.

Looking at the Caribbean as a whole, there are other colonies such as Jamaica and Barbados also have an explosive population composition. However, these islands are not going to experience a revolution of slavery.

The causes of the Revolution[edit | edit source]

First, there is the massive arrival of deported African slaves. Between 1761 and 1790, almost 1.5 million Africans landed alive in this small colony.

From 1781 to 1790, there were 237,000 captives landed, which is the highest ever reached in one decade by a nation in the four centuries of the slave trade. This figure is equivalent to 1/3 of all the 728,000 new slaves imported into the Americas.

The other cause is the high percentage of free people of colour, which is higher than in the other Caribbean islands. Some of them are educated and free men like Jean-Baptiste Belley who will play an important role in the assembly in Paris; some of them fought in the French troops during the war in the United States.

There is the cause of the French Revolution and its ideological impact which will set new data in this island. It is the external cause, the impact of this revolution is twofold:

  • political: weakened the authority of France in the colonies, but also of the governor in the colony.
  • ideological: with the proclamation by the National Assembly of the sovereignty of the people and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, this will be emulated in Santo Domingo.

On the Paris side, there was no intention of touching the status of the colonies because they brought in a lot of money, Santo Domingo was the main source of revenue for the French treasury thanks to mercantilism, and there was no intention of dealing with the position of the coloured freedmen and slaves.

The repercussion in Santo Domingo will push the French Revolution to extremes.

The five stages of the revolution[edit | edit source]

1790 - 1791: color free vs. white[edit | edit source]

Vincent Ogé.
Physionotrace par Gilles-Louis Chrétien, 1790.

As early as 1789, news of the Paris revolution reached Santo Domingo. It was not the slaves who were the first to revolt, but the elite of white planters, merchants and lawyers who were inspired by the independence of the United States and who appropriated the idea of sovereignty of the people to form provincial assemblies and control the institutions of the colony themselves.

The other social group that will move quickly is the coloured freemen. First from the National Assembly in Paris, where some of them followed the debates; they demanded that the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen grant them the equality that was denied them by the monarchical laws.

In the face of resistance from white planters, Vincent Ogé, just arrived from Paris, mobilizes a small army of 300 men whose slaves are excluded to demand equality.

The rebels behind him were quickly defeated by the troops in the pay of the planters. News of Ogé's execution will cross the Atlantic and shock the National Assembly in Paris and push it to react. It will push it to grant freedom to free people of color born of free parents. This decision was rejected by the colonial white elite of Santo Domingo, while the freedmen of color were furious at the refusal of the elite and that it was only to this category of freedmen of color that freedom was granted, thus taking up arms against the whites leading the island to the brink of civil war.

1791 - 1793: Mass revolt of the slaves, Free of colour against whites and against slaves[edit | edit source]

San Domingo.jpg

When the slaves see that the white and coloured freemen are fighting among themselves, they take the opportunity of these disorders to revolt. It's something that takes everyone by surprise. This revolt breaks out around the Cape, which is the region with the highest density of slaves and Africans recently landed.

Slavery will quickly rise up under the leadership of "elite slaves", men who can make the link between ports and plantations and who also bring back news from France. Armed with machetes, they destroy one plantation after another by killing, looting and burning the sugar cane fields.

The revolt spread and soon the slaves who took part in it numbered in the tens of thousands. In one month more than a thousand plantations out of a total of 8000 were burned and hundreds of white people massacred.

Curieusement, les esclaves ne se réclament pas de l’idéal de liberté de la Révolution française, mais étant donné que nombre d’entre-deux viennent d’Afrique, ils affirment agir au nom du roi qui aurait déclaré l’abolition de l’esclavage.

Sonthonax.

From there on, war broke out everywhere between the coloured freemen, the whites and the slaves. Each side in the conflict commits atrocities; France sends troops to restore order, fails to do so and is decimated by yellow fever.

In April 1792, the assembly granted equality to all free men of colour and sent a commissioner, Sonthonax, a revolutionary and abolitionist, to settle the conflict. Upon his arrival, he alienated most whites, but he was supported by the Free Men of Colour and hired several of them in the administration.

The slave revolt diminished and in 1793, the Free Coloureds took over and many whites went into exile in Cuba, the United States and Louisiana.

In 1793, a new war broke out in France between revolutionary France and the monarchies of England and Spain. It also extends to the colonies that the three have in the Caribbean. In the face of an imminent British invasion of Santo Domingo in August 1793, Sonthonax felt that the only way to rally the slaves to the revolutionary cause and engage them in an army of defence, he signed a unofficial decree for the abolition of slavery in Santo Domingo.[8][9][10][11]

1793-1798: Mobilization of freed slaves and rise of Toussaint Louverture[edit | edit source]

From then on, White is eliminated from the game, we enter a complex phase of the conflict. England and Spain occupy part of Santo Domingo. It will be necessary to react, which complicates the task and that the free of color divide, because Sonthonax abolished slavery. Some have established independent fiefdoms, others support revolutionary France, which granted them equality, while others are ready to ally themselves with the Spanish, but above all British, monarchies.

The former slaves tried to safeguard the freedom they had just received by establishing numerous communities of fugitive slaves. For Sonthonax, the question is to mobilize the fugitive slaves in the defence of Santo Domingo.

1800-1802: The reign of Toussaint[edit | edit source]

Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Santo Domingo insurgents.

In this chaos arose Toussaint Louverture. He's an elite former Creole slave born in Santo Domingo. He is 50 years old at the time of the events, freed some twenty years earlier from African, Creole and French culture. Moreover, he can read and write. He very quickly became a formidable military strategist, a leader of men and a politician who plays a double game.

He began to serve the interests of Spain and then allied himself with France with all of his 22,000 men. He waited for the French National Assembly to confirm the abolition of slavery in 1794.

André Rigaud.

He changes allies to unite with a mulatto, André Rigaud, who has an army of 10,000 men chasing the Spanish and English troops by freeing the 7,000 or so slaves who were in the occupied territories.

From then on, Toussaint Louverture took the upper hand against the other generals of Saint-Domingue and against the revolutionary French. France begins to realize that without him it will lose Santo Domingo.

In 1796, the French revolutionaries appointed him deputy governor of the entire colony of Santo Domingo. Toussaint gradually eliminates all his rivals, even expelling Sonthonax.

He controlled the whole west and north of the island, even occupying the Spanish region. He sent Jean-Jacques Dessalines to conquer the south against Rigaud. It will be a war close to genocide against the mulattoes of the South.

Toussaint was at that time the undivided master of Santo Domingo, whom he would rule with an iron hand.

1802-1804: Blacks and mulattos united for independence[edit | edit source]

At the same time Napoleon took power, the two men shared a common ambition, a love of absolute power and a certain conception of the egalitarian rights of the people as well as a contempt for political freedom.

Toussaint sought to revive the economic life of the country, and to do this he had to revive the plantation system. Thus he set up a forced sharecropping system for former slaves who were paid with part of their harvest. This encourages the return of white people not as planters, but as technical advisors. A new class of large black landowners and military men was formed.

This did not displease Napoleon, but at the same time Toussaint made decisions that went beyond those that Napoleon conceded to him. His decisions are close to the declaration of independence, especially when he proclaims a constitution that makes him governor for life, moreover he annexes the whole eastern part of the island unilaterally and without mentioning France.

It was too much for Napoleon, who sent Leclerc with an army of 10,000 men to invade Santo Domingo. First, they will fight the official armies of Dessalines and Henri Christophe. The latter will retreat to the mountainous regions and try to form guerrillas.

Many slaves feared that Napoleon wanted to re-establish slavery. Many of them will leave the army of Toussaint, Dessalines and Christophe to form autonomous entities. Their leaders are often Africans from the Congo and will wage a guerrilla war.

Quite quickly, many black high-ranking officers who had become plantation owners rallied to Leclerc taking over. On both sides, there are atrocities. In a few months of fighting, the three great Haitian generals surrender; Dessalines and Christophe are hired by Leclerc to put an end to the guerrilla war. Toussaint was arrested in June 1802 and deported to France. Toussaint was imprisoned in Fort de Joux and died there in 1803.

General Alexandre Pétion.

In Haiti, things changed, because in July 1802 Napoleon decided to re-establish slavery in the colonies. We have the historic meeting between the chief of mulattoes Alexandre Piéton and Jean-Jacques Dessalines who decided to join forces to fight the French.

Leclerc and Rochambeau have trained dogs imported into Cuba to attack and devour slaves, while the slaves carry out massacres of whites.

Jean-Jacques-Dessalines.

In May 1803, Napoleon entered the war against England and gradually had to abandon Santo Domingo. It was at this point that Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States for $15 million, putting an end to French power in the Americas.

We will never know how many tens of thousands of Haitians died for freedom, but there are 70,000 French soldiers and European sailors who died in the struggle to keep Santo Domingo.

In 1804 Dessalines proclaimed independence by renaming it Haiti in remembrance of its near-Colombian name. It was also a way of breaking with colonialism while smoothing relations between former slaves and former freemen.

The new constitution declares Dessalines emperor for life, but above all it defines all Haitians as black, forbids whites to own land and confirms the abolition of slavery. It must be seen that Haiti overturns all the established patterns and models of Western modernity established by the American and French revolutions.

In the case of Haiti we have:

  1. A massive mobilization of the population
  2. A struggle between different ideologies #
  3. A concrete struggle for power
  4. as a result of which the country is undergoing a profound transformation of its social and economic structures #

For all the slaves of the Americas, this victory becomes a source of hope that slavery can be destroyed. For all slave rulers and owners, it becomes a source of fear; for decades across the Americas slaves and free people of color were persecuted and often executed for being suspected of plotting.

Not surprisingly, given the scale of the revolution, Haiti has become a pariah state for the Americas in the midst of the slave boom.

Simón Bolívar.

What must be seen is that Haiti is under constant threat of foreign invasion by the great powers; for this reason, it must buy arms to defend itself, subjecting it to the dictatorship of US and European merchants, especially since no country has established diplomatic relations with the black republic.

In 1816, Haiti will help Bolivar to revive the guerre d’indépendance du Venezuela de façon décisive. However, Bolívar will exclude Haiti from the Congress of Panama which he organized in 1826 while the Republic of Bolívar did not recognize Haiti.

France recognized Haiti in 1825 against the payment of an astronomical compensation of 150 million gold francs, two and a half times the price at which Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States. This sum will be reduced to 90 million gold francs; Haiti will pay this sum in full until 1883. The United States had England recognize them only two years after independence without compensation.

After 14 years of war Haiti is completely financially devastated, economically devastated with an uneducated population, it no longer has the possibility of reviving a sugar economy, especially since the former slaves want anything but to return to the plantations developing their own ideals of equality through the development of small family farms living in autarky to have the essentials.

Alliances break up, political struggles begin, all the more so as a division is created around culture, religion and skin, Creoles against merchants, and a new class of black soldiers that continues through all the decades that follow.

Annexes[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]