The end of the 18th century was a period of great change around the world.
By 1776, Britain’s colonies in America — fueled by revolutionary rhetoric and Enlightenment thought that challenged the existing ideas about government and power — revolted and overthrew what many considered to be the most powerful nation in the world. And thus, the United States of America was born.
In 1789, it was the people of France that overthrew their monarchy; one that had been in power for centuries, shaking the foundations of the Western world. With it, the République Française was created.
However, while the American and French Revolutions represented a historic shift in world politics, they were, perhaps, still not the most revolutionary movements of the time. They purported to be driven by ideals that all people were equal and deserving of freedom, yet both ignored stark inequalities in their own social orders — slavery persisted in America while the new French ruling elite continued to ignore the French working class, a group known as the sans-culottes.
The Haitian Revolution, though, was led and executed by slaves, and it sought to create a society that was truly equal.
Its success challenged notions of race at the time. Most Whites thought that Blacks were simply too savage and too stupid to run things on their own. Of course, this is a ludicrous and racist notion, but at the time, the ability of Haitian slaves to rise up against the injustices they faced and break free from bondage was the true revolution — one that played just as much of a role in reshaping the world as any other 18th century social upheaval.
Unfortunately, though, this story has been lost to most people outside of Haiti.
Notions of exceptionalism keep us from studying this historic moment, something that must change if we are to better understand the world in which we live today.
Haiti Before the Revolution
Saint Domingue was the French portion of the Carribean island of Hispaniola, which was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492.
Since the French took it over with the Treaty of Rijswijk in 1697 — the result of the Nine Years’ War between France and the Grand Alliance, with Spain ceding the territory — it became the most economically important asset among the country’s colonies. By 1780, two thirds of France’s investments were based in Saint Domingue.
So, what made it so prosperous? Why, those age-old addictive substances, sugar and coffee, and the European socialites who were beginning to consume them by the bucketload with their shiny, new coffeehouse culture.
At that time, no less than half of the sugar and coffee consumed by Europeans was sourced from the island. Indigo and cotton were other cash crops which brought wealth to France via these colonial plantations, but in nowhere near as great numbers.
And who should be slaving away (pun intended) in the sweltering heat of this tropical Carribean island, so as to ensure satisfaction for such sweet-tooth having European consumers and profit-making French polity?
African slaves taken forcibly from their villages.
By the time just before the Haitain Revolution began, 30,000 new slaves were coming into Saint Domingue every year. And that’s because the conditions were so harsh, so terrible — with things like nasty diseases especially dangerous to those who had never been exposed to them present, such as yellow fever and malaria — that half of them died within only a year of arriving.
Viewed, of course, as property and not as human beings, they did not have access to basic needs like adequate food, shelter, or clothing.
And they worked hard. Sugar became all the rage — the most in-demand commodity — across Europe.
But to meet the ravenous demand of the moneyed class on the continent, African slaves were being coerced into labor under the threat of death — enduring the dueling horrors of the tropical sun and weather, alongside blood-curlingly cruel working conditions in which slave drivers used violence to meet quotas at essentially any cost.
As was the norm, these slaves were at the very bottom of the social pyramid that developed in colonial Saint Domingue, and were most certainly not citizens (if they were even considered as a legitimate part of society at all).
But though they had the least structural power, they made up the majority of the population: in 1789, there were 452,000 Black slaves there, mostly from West Africa. This accounted for 87% of the population of Saint Domingue at the time.
Right above them in the social hierarchy were free people of color — former slaves who became free, or children of free Blacks — and people of mixed race, often called “mulattoes” (a derogatory term alikening mixed race individuals to half-breed mules), with both groups equaling around 28,000 free people — equal to around 5% of the colony’s population in 1798.
The next highest class were the 40,000 White people who lived on Saint Domingue — but even this segment of society was far from equal. Of this group, the plantation owners were the richest and the most powerful. They were called grand blancs and some of them did not even remain permanently in the colony, but instead traveled back to France to escape the risks of disease.
Just below them were the administrators who kept order in the new society, and below them were the petit blancs or the Whites who were mere artisans, merchants, or small professionals.
Wealth in the colony of Saint Domingue — 75% of it to be exact — was condensed in the White population, despite it making up only 8% of the colony’s total population. But even within the White social class, most of this wealth was condensed with the grand blancs, adding another layer to the inequality of Haitian society (2).
Already at this time there were tensions brewing between all of these different classes. Inequality and injustice were seething in the air, and manifesting in every facet of life.
To add to it, once in a while masters decided to be nice and let their slaves have a “slavecation” for a short time to release some tension — you know, to blow off some steam. They hid out in the hillsides away from Whites, and, along with escapee slaves (referred to as maroons), tried to rebel a few times.
Their efforts weren’t rewarded and they failed to achieve anything significant, as they weren’t organized enough yet, but these attempts show that there was a stirring which occurred before the onset of the Revolution.
Treatment of slaves was unnecessarily cruel, and masters often made examples in order to terrorize other slaves by killing or punishing them in extremely inhumane ways — hands were chopped off, or tongues cut out; they were left to roast to death in the scalding sun, shackled to a cross; their rectums were filled with gun powder so that spectators could watch them explode.
The conditions were so bad in Saint Domingue that the death rate actually exceeded the birth rate. Something that is important, because a new influx of slaves was constantly flowing in from Africa, and they were usually brought from the same regions: like Yoruba, Fon, and Kongo.
Therefore, there was not much of a new African-colonial culture which developed. Instead, African cultures and traditions remained largely intact. The slaves could communicate well with each other, privately, and carry on their religious beliefs.
They made their own religion, Vodou (more commonly known as Voodoo), which mixed in a bit of Catholicism with their African traditional religions, and developed a creole that mixed French with their other languages to communicate with the White slave owners.
The slaves who were brought in directly from Africa were less submissive than those who were born into slavery in the colony. And since there were more of the former, it could be said that rebellion was already bubbling in their blood.
Meanwhile, back in Europe, the Era of Enlightenment was revolutionizing thoughts about humanity, society, and how equality could fit in with all of that. Sometimes slavery was even attacked in the writings of Enlightenment thinkers, such as with Guillaume Raynal who wrote about the history of European colonization.
As a result of the French Revolution, a highly important document called the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was created in August of 1789. Influenced by Thomas Jefferson — Founding Father and third president of the United States — and the recently created American Declaration of Independence, it espoused the moral rights of freedom, justice, and equality for all citizens. It did not specify that people of color or women, or even people in the colonies, would count as citizens, however.
And this is where the plot thickens.
The petit blancs of Saint Domingue who had no power in colonial society — and who had perhaps escaped Europe for the New World, in order to gain a chance at a new status in a new social order — connected with the ideology of Enlightenment and Revolutionary thinking. The people of mixed-race from the colony also used Enlightenment philosophy to inspire greater social access.
This middle group was not made up of slaves; they were free, but they were not legally citizens either, and as a result they were barred legally from certain rights.
One free Black man by the name of Toussaint L’Ouverture — a former slave turned prominent Haitian general in the French Army — began making this connection between the Enlightenment ideals populating in Europe, particularly in France, and what they could mean in the colonial world.
Throughout the 1790s, L’Ouverture began making more speeches and declarations against inequalities, becoming an avid supporter of the complete abolition of slavery in all of France. Increasingly, he began taking on more and more roles to support freedom in Haiti, until he eventually began recruiting and supporting rebellious slaves.
Due to his prominence, throughout the Revolution, L’Ouverture was an important liaison between the people of Haiti and the French government — though his dedication to ending slavery drove him to switch allegiances several times, a trait which has become an integral part of his legacy.
You see, the French, who were adamantly fighting for liberty and justice for all, had not yet considered what implications these ideals could have on colonialism and on slavery — how these ideals they were spouting would perhaps mean even more to a slave held captive and brutally treated, than to a guy who couldn’t vote because he wasn’t rich enough.
The Legendary Bois Caïman Ceremony
On a stormy night in August of 1791, after months of careful planning, thousands of slaves held a secret Vodou ceremony at Bois Caïman in the north of Morne-Rouge, a region in the northern part of Haiti. Maroons, house slaves, field slaves, free Blacks, and people of mixed-race all gathered to chant and dance to ritual drumming.
Originally from Senegal, a former commandeur (meaning “slave driver”) who had become a maroon and Vodou priest — and who was a giant, powerful, grotesque-looking man — named Dutty Boukman, fiercely led this ceremony and the ensuing rebellion. He exclaimed in his famous speech:
“Our God who has ears to hear. You are hidden in the clouds; who watch us from where you are. You see all that the White has made us suffer. The White man’s god asks him to commit crimes. But the god within us wants to do good. Our god, who is so good, so just, He orders us to avenge our wrongs.”
Boukman (so called, because as a “Book Man” he could read) made a distinction that night between the “White man’s God” — who apparently endorsed slavery — and their own God — who was good, fair, and wanted them to rebel and be free.
He was joined by priestess Cecile Fatiman, daughter of an African slave woman and a White Frenchman. She stood out, as a Black woman with long silky hair and distinctly bright green eyes would. She looked the part of a goddess, and the mambo woman (which comes from “mother of magic”) was said to embody one.
A couple of slaves at the ceremony offered themselves up for slaughter, and Boukman and Fatiman also sacrificed a pig plus a couple other animals, slitting their throats. The human and animal’s blood was dispersed to the attendees to drink.
Cecile Fatiman was then supposedly possessed by the Haitian African Warrior Goddess of Love, Erzulie. Erzulie/Fatiman told the group of uprisers to go forth with her spiritual protection; that they would return unharmed.
And go forth, they did.
Infused with the divine energy of the incantations and rituals performed by Boukman and Fatiman, they laid waste to the surrounding area, destroying 1,800 plantations and killing 1,000 slave owners within one week.
Bois Caïman in Context
The Bois Caïman Ceremony is not only considered the starting point of the Haitian Revolution; it is considered by Haitian historians as the reason for its success.
This is due to the potent belief and powerful conviction in the Vodou ritual. In fact, it is still so important that the site is visited even today, once a year, every August 14th.
The historic Vodou ceremony is a symbol to this day of unity for Haitian people who were originally from different African tribes and backgrounds, but came together in the name of freedom and political equality. And this may even extend further to represent unity among all Blacks in the Atlantic; in the Caribbean islands and Africa.
Furthermore, the legends of the Bois Caïman ceremony are also considered an origin point for the tradition of Haitian Vodou.
Vodou is commonly feared and even misunderstood in Western culture; there is a suspicious atmosphere around the subject matter. Anthropologist, Ira Lowenthal, interestingly posits that this fear exists because it stands for “an unbreakable revolutionary spirit threatening to inspire other Black Caribbean republics — or, God forbid, the United States itself.”
He goes further to suggest that Vodou can even act as a catalyst for racism, confirming racist beliefs that Black people are “scary and dangerous.” In truth, the spirit of the Haitian people, which was formed in tandem with Vodou and the Revolution, is of a human will to “never be conquered again.” The rejection of Vodou as a vicious faith points to embedded fears in American culture of challenges to inequality.
While some are skeptical about the precise details of what took place at the infamous rebellion meeting at Bois Caïman, the story nevertheless presents a crucial turning point in history for Haitians and others of this New World.
The slaves sought vengeance, freedom, and a new political order; the presence of Vodou was of the utmost significance. Before the ceremony, it gave slaves a psychological release and affirmed their own identity and self-existence. During, it served as a cause and as a motivation; that the spirit world wanted them to be free, and they had the protection of said spirits.
As a result, it has helped to shape Haitian culture even until today, prevailing as the dominant spiritual guide in daily life, and even medicine.
The Revolution Begins
The onset of the Revolution, kicked off by the Bois Caïman ceremony, was strategically planned by Boukman. The slaves began by burning plantations and killing Whites in the North, and, as they went along, they attracted others in bondage to join their rebellion.
Once they had a couple thousand in their ranks, they disbanded into smaller groups and branched out to attack more plantations, as pre-planned by Boukman.
Some Whites who were warned ahead of time fled to Le Cap — the central political hub of Saint Domingue, where control over the city would likely determine the outcome of the Revolution — leaving their plantations behind, but trying to save their lives.
The slave forces were held back a bit at the onset, but each time they retreated only into the nearby mountains to reorganize themselves before attacking again. Meanwhile, about 15,000 slaves had joined the rebellion at this point, some systematically burning down all plantations in the North — and they hadn’t even gotten to the South yet.
The French sent in 6,000 troops as an attempt for redemption, but half of the force was killed off just like flies, as the slaves went forth. It is said that, although more and more Frenchmen kept arriving on the island, they only came to die, as the former slaves slaughtered them all.
But eventually they managed to capture Dutty Boukman. They put his head on a stick to show the revolutionaries that their hero had been taken.
(Cecile Fatiman, however, could not be found anywhere. She later went on to marry Michelle Pirouette — who became president of the Haitian Revolutionary Army — and died at the ripe old age of 112.)
The French Respond; Britain and Spain Get Involved
Needless to say, the French had started to realize that their greatest colonial asset was beginning to slip through their fingers. They also happened to be in the midst of their own Revolution — something that deeply affected the Haitian’s perspective; believing that they too deserved the same equality espoused by the new leaders of France.
At the same time, in 1793, France declared war on Great Britain, and both Britain and Spain — which controlled the other portion of the island of Hispaniola — entered the conflict.
The British believed that they could make some extra profit by occupying Saint-Domingue and that they would have more bargaining power during peace treaties to end their war with France. They wanted to reinstate slavery for these reasons (and also to prevent slaves in their own Carribean colonies from getting too many ideas for rebellion).
By September of 1793, their navy took over a French fort on the island.
At this point, the French really began to panic, and decided to abolish slavery — not only in Saint Domingue, but in all of their colonies. At a National Convention in February 1794, as a result of the panic ensuing from the Haitian Revolution, they declared that all men, regardless of color, were considered French citizens with constitutional rights.
This really shocked other European nations, as well as the newly born United States. Although the push for including the abolition of slavery in France’s new constitution came from the threat of losing such a great source of wealth, it also set them morally apart from other countries in a time when nationalism was becoming quite the trend.
France felt especially distinguished from Britain — which was contrarily reinstating slavery wherever it landed — and like they would set the example for liberty.
Enter Toussaint L’Ouverture
The most notorious general of the Haitian Revolution was none other than the infamous Toussaint L’Ouverture — a man whose allegiances switched throughout the entirety of the period, in some ways leaving historians pondering his motives and beliefs.
Although the French had just claimed to abolish slavery, he was still suspicious. He joined ranks with the Spanish army and was even made a knight by them. But then he suddenly changed his mind, turning against the Spanish and instead joining the French in 1794.
You see, L’Ouverture didn’t even want independence from France — he just wanted former slaves to be free and have rights. He wanted Whites, some being former slave owners, to stay and rebuild the colony.
His forces were able to drive the Spanish out of Saint Domingue by 1795, and on top of this, he was also dealing with the British. Thankfully, yellow fever — or the “black vomit” as the British called it — was doing much of the resistance work for him. European bodies were much more susceptible to the disease, what with having never been exposed to it before.
12,000 men died from it in just 1794 alone. That’s why the British had to keep sending in more troops, even while they hadn’t fought many battles. In fact, it was so bad that being sent to the West Indies was fast becoming an immediate death sentence, to the point that some soldiers rioted when they learned where they were to be stationed.
The Haitians and the British fought several battles, with wins on either side. But even by 1796, the British were only hanging around Port-au-Prince and rapidly dying off with severe, disgusting illness.
By May of 1798, L’Ouverture met with the British Colonel, Thomas Maitland, to settle an armistice for Port-au-Prince. Once Maitland had withdrawn from the city, the British lost all morale and withdrew from Saint-Domingue altogether. As part of the deal, Matiland asked L’Ouverture to not go riling up the slaves in the British colony of Jamaica, or support a revolution there.
In the end, the British paid the cost of 5 years on Saint Domingue from 1793–1798, four million pounds, 100,000 men, and did not gain much at all to show for it (2).
L’Ouverture’s story seems confusing as he switched allegiences several times, but his real loyalty was to sovereignty and freedom from slavery. He turned against the Spanish in 1794 when they wouldn’t end the institution, and instead fought for and gave control to the French on occasion, working with their general, because he believed that they promised to end it.
He did all this while also being aware that he didn’t want the French to have too much power, recognizing how much control he had in his hands.
In 1801, he made Haiti a sovereign free Black state, appointing himself as governor-for-life. He gave himself absolute rule over the entire island of Hispaniola, and appointed a Constitutional Assembly of Whites.
He had no natural authority to do so, of course, but he had led the Revolutionaries to victory and was making the rules up as he went along.
The story of the Revolution seems like it would end here — with L’Ouverture and the Haitians freed and happy — but alas, it does not.
Enter a new character in the story; somebody who wasn’t so happy with L’Ouverture’s newfound authority and how he had established it without the approval from the French government.
Enter Napoleon Bonaparte
Unfortunately, the creation of a free Black state really pissed off Napoleon Bonaparte — you know, that guy who became Emperor of France during the French Revolution.
In February of 1802, he sent his brother and troops in to reinstate French rule in Haiti. He also secretly — but not-so-secretly — wanted to reinstate slavery.
In quite a devilish manner, Napoleon instructed his comrades to be nice to L’Ouverture and lure him to Le Cap, assuring him that the Haitains would retain their freedom. They planned to then arrest him.
But — by no surprise — L’Ouverture didn’t go when summoned, not falling for the bait.
After that, the game was on. Napoleon decreed that L’Ouverture and General Henri Christophe — another leader in the Revolution who had close allegiances with L’Ouverture — should be outlawed and hunted down.
L’Ouverture kept his nose down, but that didn’t stop him from devising plans.
He instructed the Haitians to burn, destroy, and rampage everything — to show what they were willing to do to resist ever becoming slaves again. He told them to be as violent with their destruction and killings as possible. He wanted to make it hell for the French army, as slavery had been a hell for him and his comrades.
The French were shocked by the gruesome rage brought forth by the previously-enslaved Blacks of Haiti. For the Whites — who felt slavery was the natural position of Blacks — the havoc being wreaked on them was mindbending.
Guess they’d never paused to think how the terrible, grueling existence of slavery could really grind someone down.
There were many battles then that followed, and great devastation, but one of the most epic conflicts was at Crête-à-Pierrot Fortress in the valley of the Artibonite River.
At first the French were defeated, one army brigade at a time. And all the while, the Haitians sang songs about the French Revolution and how all men have the right to freedom and equality. It angered some Frenchmen, but a few soldiers began to question Napoleon’s intentions and what they were fighting for.
If they were simply fighting to gain control over the colony and not reinstate slavery, then how could a sugar plantation be profitable without the institution?
In the end, though, the Haitains ran out of food and ammunition and had no choice but to retreat. This wasn’t a total loss, as the French had been intimidated and had lost 2,000 among their ranks. What was more, another outbreak of yellow fever struck and took with it another 5,000 men.
The outbreak of disease, combined with the new guerilla tactics the Haitains adopted, began to significantly weaken the French hold on the island.
But, for a short time, they weren’t weakened quite enough. In April of 1802, L’Ouverture made a deal with the French, to trade his own freedom for the freedom of his captured troops. He was then taken and shipped off to France, where he died a few months later in prison.
In his absence, Napoleon ruled Saint-Domingue for two months, and did indeed plan to reinstate slavery.
The Blacks fought back, continuing their guerilla warfare, plundering everything with makeshift weapons and reckless violence, while the French — led by Charles Leclerc — killed the Haitians by the masses.
When Leclerc later died of yellow fever, he was replaced by a horribly brutal man named Rochambeau, who was more keen on a genocidal approach. He brought 15,000 attack dogs from Jamaica trained to kill Blacks and “mulattoes” and had Blacks drowned in the bay of Le Cap.
Dessalines Marches to Victory
On the Haitian side, General Dessalines matched the cruelty displayed by Rochambeau, putting the heads of White men on pikes and parading them around.
Dessalines was yet another crucial leader in the Revolution, who led many important battles and victories. The movement had turned into a grotesque race war, complete with burning and drowning people alive, cutting them up on boards, killing masses with sulfur bombs, and a great many other terrible things.
“No mercy” had become the motto for all. When a hundred Whites who believed in racial equality chose to abandon Rochambeau, they welcomed Dessalines as their hero. Then, he basically told them, “Cool, thanks for the sentiment. But I’m still having you all hanged. You know, no mercy and all that!”
Finally, after 12 long years of bloody conflict and huge loss of life, the Haitians won the final Battle at Vertières on November 18, 1803.
The two armies — both sick from the heat, years of war, yellow fever, and malaria — fought with reckless abandon, but the Haitian force was almost ten times the size of their opponent and they nearly wiped out Rochambeau’s 2,000 men.
Defeat was upon him, and after a sudden thunderstorm made it impossible for Rochambeau to escape, he had no other choice. He sent his comrade to make negotiations with General Dessalines, who was, at that point, in charge.
He wouldn’t allow the French to sail, but a British commodore made a deal that they could leave in British ships peacefully if they did so by December 1st. Thus, Napoleon withdrew his forces and turned his attention fully back on Europe, abandoning conquest in the Americas.
Dessalines officially declared independence for the Haitians on January 1, 1804, making Haiti the only nation to win its independence via a successful slave rebellion.
After the Revolution
Dessalines was feeling vengeful at this point, and with the final triumph on his side, a vicious spite took over to destroy any Whites who hadn’t already evacuated the island.
He ordered an absolute massacre of them immediately. Only certain Whites were safe, like Polish soldiers who had abandoned the French army, German colonists there before the Revolution, French widows or women who had married non-Whites, select Frenchmen with connections to important Haitians, and medical doctors.
The Constitution of 1805 also declared that all Haitian citizens were Black. Dessalines was so adamant on this point that he personally traveled to different areas and countrysides to ensure that the mass killings were ensuing smoothly. He often found that in some towns, they were only killing a few Whites, instead of all of them.
Bloodthirsty and enraged by the merciless actions of French militant leaders like Rochambeau and Leclerc, Dessalines made sure the Haitians demonstrated the killings and used them as a spectacle in the streets.
He felt that they had been mistreated as a race of people, and that justice meant imposing the same kind of mistreatment on the opposing race.
Ruined by anger and bitter retaliation, he probably tipped the scales a little too far the other way.
Dessalines also implemented serfdom as a new socio-political-economic structure. Although victory had been sweet, the country was left to its new beginnings impoverished, with badly devastated lands and economy. They had also lost about 200,000 people in the war, from 1791–1803. Haiti had to be rebuilt.
Citizens were placed into two main categories: laborer or soldier. Laborers were bound to the plantations, where Dessalines tried to distinguish their efforts from slavery by shortening working days and banning the very symbol of slavery itself — the whip.
But Dessalines wasn’t very strict with plantation overseers, as his main goal was to increase production. And so they often just used thick vines, instead, to spurn the laborers to work harder.
He cared even more about military expansion, as he feared the French would return; Dessalines wanted Haitian defenses strong. He created many soldiers and in turn made them construct large forts. His political opponents believed his over-emphasis on militant efforts slowed down production increases, as it took from the labor force.
The country was already split between Blacks in the North and people of mixed-race in the South. So, when the latter group decided to rebel and assassinate Dessalines, the freshly born state rapidly devolved into civil war.
Henri Christophe took over in the North, while Alexandre Pétion ruled in the South. The two groups fought each other consistently until 1820, when Christophe killed himself. The new mixed-race leader, Jean-pierre Boyer, fought off remaining rebel forces and took over all of Haiti.
Boyer decided to make clear amends with France, so that Haiti could be recognized by them politically going forward. As reparations to former slaveholders, France demanded 150 million francs, which Haiti had to borrow in loans from the French treasury, though the former later decided to cut them a break and bring down the fee to 60 million francs. Even still, it took Haiti until 1947 to pay off the debt.
The good news was, by April of 1825, the French officially recognized Haitian independence and renounced France’s sovereignty over it. The bad news was that Haiti was bankrupt, which really impeded its economy or the ability to rebuild it.
There were several after-effects of the Haitian Revolution, both on Haiti and the world. At a base level, the functioning of Haitian society and its class structure was deeply changed. On a large scale, it had a massive impact as the first post-colonial nation led by Blacks which had gained independence from a slave rebellion.
Before the Revolution, races were often mixed when White men — some single, some wealthy planters — had relations with African women. The children born from this were sometimes given freedom, and often given an education. Once in a while, they were even sent to France for a better education and life.
When these mixed race individuals returned to Haiti, they made up the elite class, as they were wealthier and more highly educated. Thus, class structure developed as an aftermath of what had happened before, during and after the Revolution.
Another important way the Haitian Revolution drastically impacted world history was the sheer demonstration of being able to fend off the biggest world powers at the time: Great Britain, Spain, and France. These forces themselves were often shocked that a group of rebel slaves without long-term adequate training, or resources, or education could put up such a good fight and could win so many battles.
After getting rid of Britain, Spain, and finally France, Napoleon then came, as great powers are wont to do. Yet the Haitians would never be slaves again; and somehow, the determination behind that spirit won out over arguably one of history’s greatest world conquerors.
This shifted global history, as Napoleon then decided to give up on the Americas altogether and sell Louisiana back to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. As a result, the US was able to preside over much more of the continent, spurring on their affinity for a certain “manifest destiny.”
And speaking of America, it too was affected politically by the Haitian Revolution, and even in some more direct ways. Some Whites and plantation owners escaped during the crisis and fled to the Americas as refugees, sometimes taking their slaves with them. American slave owners often sympathized with them and took them in — many settled down in Louisiana, influencing the culture there of mixed race, French-speaking, and Black populations.
The Americans were frightened by the wild stories they heard of the slave uprising, of the violence and destruction. They were even more worried that the slaves brought from Haiti would inspire similar slave revolts in their own nation.
As is known, that didn’t happen. But what did was a stirring in the tensions among disparate moral beliefs. Stirrings which still seem to have exploded out in American culture and politics in waves, rippling until even today.
The truth is, the idealism propounded by revolution, in America and elsewhere, was fraught from the beginning.
Thomas Jefferson was President during the time Haiti gained its independence. Commonly viewed as a great American hero and a “forefather,” he himself was a slaveholder who refused to accept the political sovereignty of a nation built by former slaves. In fact, the United States did not politically recognize Haiti until 1862 — well after France did, in 1825.
Coincidentally — or not — 1862 was the year before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, freeing all slaves in the United States during the American Civil War — a conflict wrought by America’s own inability to reconcile the institution of human bondage.
Haiti clearly did not become a perfectly egalitarian society after its Revolution.
Before it was established, racial divide and confusion were prominent. Toussaint L’Ouverture left his mark by establishing class differences with military caste. When Dessalines took over, he implemented a feudal social structure. The ensuing civil war pit lighter-skinned people of mixed-race against darker-skinned citizens.
Perhaps a nation bred out of such tensions from racial disparity was fraught from the beginning with imbalance.
But the Haitian Revolution, as a historical event, proves how Europeans and the early Americans turned a blind eye to the fact that Blacks could be worthy of citizenship — and this is something that challenges the notions of equality purported as the foundation for the cultural and political revolutions that took place on either side of the Atlantic in the later decades of the 18th century.
Haitians showed the world that Blacks could be “citizens” with “rights” — in these specific terms, which were so very important to the world powers who had all just overthrown their monarchies in the name of justice and freedom for all.
But, as it turned out, it was just too inconvenient to include the very source of their economic prosperity and rise to power — slaves and their non-citizen-ness — in that “all” category.
For example, in the United States, recognizing Haiti as a nation was a political impossibility — the slave owning South would have interpreted this as an attack, threatening disunion and even eventually war in response.
This created a paradox in which Whites in the North had to deny basic rights to Blacks in order to protect their own liberties.
All in all, this response to the Haitian Revolution — and the way in which it has been remembered — speaks to the racial undertones of our world society today, which have existed in the human psyche for eons but have materialized through the process of globalization, becoming more and more pronounced as European colonialism spread around the world starting in the 15th century.
The Revolutions of France and the US are seen as era-defining, but intertwined in these social upheavals was the Haitian Revolution — one of the few movements in history to so directly tackle the ghastly institution of racial inequality.
However, in most of the Western world, the Haitian Revolution remains nothing but a side note in our understanding of world history, perpetuating systemic issues that keep that racial inequality a very real part of today’s world.
But, part of human evolution means evolving, and this includes how we understand our past.
Studying the Haitian Revolution helps identify some of the flaws in the way we’ve been taught to remember; it provides us with an important piece in the puzzle of human history that we can use to better navigate both the present and future.
1. Sang, Mu-Kien Adriana. Historia Dominicana: Ayer y Hoy. Edited by Susaeta, University of Wisconsin – Madison, 1999.
2. Perry, James M. Arrogant armies: great military disasters and the generals behind them. Castle Books Incorporated, 2005.