How significant was the Haitian revolution in regard to similar revolutions of its time?
Haiti or Hispaniola at the time was the upcoming centre for Atlantic trade. Although Spanish settlers first landed there in the 1600s, the island wasn’t producing valuable crops such as sugar, coffee, tobacco and other desirable crops at the time. French pirates settled in the west of the island and started growing the crops that would soon be the one of the largest parts of the French economy. The west was separated from the existing Hispaniola to create St Domingue. The history of Haiti and its inhabitants is what I believe sets it apart from the French revolution and the American revolution as Haiti was a French territory used solely for capital gains unlike France and the soon to be USA and its inhabitants were taken from their native land and forced to work.
The story of how Haitian inhabitants ended up there is one that is grimacing and heartless which is one of the contributing factors as to why this revolution was so important, not only to people of colour themselves but also how the 21st century world views them. That is not to say that others didn’t experience enslavement but the manner in which the French took Africans from their peaceful homeland to become slaves was more brutal. Writing in “The black Jacobins”, C.L.R James writes that Africans were taken from their tribes, “fastened one to the other in columns, loaded with heavy stones of forty or fifty pounds in weight to prevent attempts at escape, and then marched the long journey to the sea.” This chilling account was said to be reported by the French themselves as native Africans wouldn’t have had the literacy rate to keep their own account and if they did, the brutal conditions would have meant notes would have been taken from the slaves. The gruesome details continue with what would have happened to these slaves and once they had sailed across the Atlantic, the conditions didn’t improve on the island. Slaves were subject to 14–18-hour days in the blistering heat of St Domingue with little food or water and were subject to what can only be described as torture. A now famous report by a swiss traveller can confirm the types of conditions these slaves worked in. A lot of them naked and were living in dirt huts fit for animals, not humans. The limited rations meant on top of the forced labour; they were compelled to cultivate their own land which took more effort. Life in St Domingue was miserable.
To understand the hierarchy in St Domingue, you need to know that there were three predominant social groups. Written in “a concise history of the Haitian revolution” It is described that there are the whites, the free people of colour and the slaves all of which had some feeling of oppression. Although the whites were not oppressed, it’s important to understand that they thought they were. As a result of this, they became frustrated with the French government and other social classes in the colony which all led to views of reform, revolution or abolition. The whites can be split into two categories, the rich owners of the plantations and the poorer whites who came to the island hoping to be prosperous and profit from the trade of sugar. This group were by far the most privileged however the rich whites felt that the French government were infringing on their right to trade with other nations such as the United States and Barbados as sugar was so profitable, the plantation owners had to sell to France for a lower price than they could have sold to others. The poor whites felt frustrated that they couldn’t afford their own plantations and their own slaves so therefore resented the rich whites and the free people of colour as we will explore now. The free people of colour were somewhat of an anomaly in this society as most of them were children of slaves who had been raped by the rich whites in order to populate the island with more women and girls as the majority of slaves brought from Africa were men. These people were granted the right to own and inherit property, so this class of people became fairly wealthy themselves and some owned their own slaves. However, they didn’t have the right to vote or stand for public office. That leaves the slaves who made up around 80% of the population of the colony and they weren’t even considered people in this society. They were perceived as sub-human, lazy and stupid which inevitably led to the people in power underestimating the power of these slaves when it came to fighting for their freedom.
With the French revolution causing huge political and social changes in France, this would undoubtably cause a domino effect with all of the French oversees colonies. The motto, “liberty, equality and fraternity” was beneficial to the bourgeois plantation owners in St Domingue as they saw this is an opportunity to seek liberty similar to that in North America and gain economic freedom from France. Equality and fraternity weren’t the main concern of these white elitist as I previously mentioned, slaves weren’t considered people, so they weren’t entitled to the same equality and fraternity that the whites were. The French revolution would have been all the talk of the plantation owners and word would have spread to the slaves via loading ships and being personal slaves to the whites. This allowed the idea of revolution to spread amongst the slaves with the idea of equality in mind. This didn’t seem much of an abstract idea to try and form appropriate combat techniques as members of the enslaved people had their own roles in society back in Africa which could have been in the militias or associated roles.
The revolution itself was not just a single uprising from the slaves but a gradual process in which each group in society wanted greater rights. One of the first notable conflicts in 1790 and was between the free people of colour and the ruling white class in the colony and this was over whether free people of colour had the right to vote. A piece of legislation passed in France in late 1789 following the bourgeois revolution that said that all property owners received the right to vote so naturally the free people of colour on St Domingue were entitled to a vote as they were in a French colony however the rich whites didn’t approve of this. The man who raised the legislation in the colony, a man named Vincent Ogé, was frustrated that the whites on the island weren’t subservient to free blacks request of being awarded a vote so Ogé staged an uprising with the free people of colour but were greeted by a much larger army and this uprising was very unsuccessful and later resulted on Ogé being executed but the legacy of his cause was becoming popular and the seed that he had planted in St Domingue for greater rights was about to spread to the enslaved people. The enslaved caught ear of the uprising and the revolution and in their private religious ceremonies, they began to plan a revolution that would involve mass overthrow of the oppressive system and leaders the enslaved people faced.
In 1791, the enslaved people began their protest against the system of oppression that had been dehumanising them for years after wind had blown about the scale of the French revolution back in France. They began by setting plantations across the countryside on fire until they had all burned down and stormed the estates of the white elites and began murdering. There are reports that lenient plantation owners were spared death as they gave their slaves better working conditions and similarly, women and children may have been spared in some locations. This did not stop the slaves from murdering any white that stood in their path. The rich retaliated and found it a lot easier to fight an army who didn’t have any major firepower and this conflict resulted in many whites and many more blacks being killed, including the leaders of the enslaved armies. The fight would continue with one of the most influential Haitian generals, him being Toussaint L’Ouverture.
Toussaint L’Ouverture was a free person of colour but he didn’t get his freedom from being the child of a white plantation owner, he was born into slavery to two black people however got lucky in the metaphorical postcode lottery of the time. His owner was one of the more lenient type who recognised the importance of the slaves, obviously not enough to let them free, but he valued them. He taught L’Ouverture French and gave him somewhat of an education. He became the plantation owners most favourable slave, eventually freeing him and allowing him to oversee slaves on the planation in which he was born and grew up. This anomaly in how he became a free black man was significant to how he was viewed by both factions of society. The enslaved respected him for succeeding and the whites reluctantly accepted him as a free man because of this. He became very influential after the uprising in 1791 and became a sort of negotiator between the enslaved armies and the whites with military forces behind them. He agreed with the enslaved generals that the slaves should return to the plantations and the white owners should return as well. These were terms agreed by the rebel generals which is why they might sound completely contradictory to the groups aims. The rebel generals weren’t enslaved. They were slaves who had previously escaped the plantations and lived in the wild without any authority or other free people of colour who didn’t care about the enslaved. The rebel generals agreed these terms with L’Ouverture without consulting the enslaved themselves so the result would have been catastrophic however the white elite were so reluctant to make an agreement with the enslaved that they declined even the simplest of terms. This was a no winner situation for the two sides except for L’Ouverture who became respected by the enslaved and the French army.
L’Ouverture would go on to be the leader general of the free people of colour and the enslaved in many more conflicts, fighting for greater rights for the black inhabitants of the island. However, the elite white population would be reluctant to award freedom as they were still pro slavery and focused around the production of the highly profitable crops that were grown on the island. These whites in the colony were defying the new republic that had overthrown the monarch and had passed laws allowing blacks greater rights. A French commission arrived to assure that the law was being upheld which they found it wasn’t. The commissioners weren’t expecting to arrive and find peace so arrived with a significant army who ended up forming an alliance with the enslaved on the conditions that they would be granted emancipation for their service. The enslaved rebels jumped at the opportunity and began fighting the whites and forcing them to flee to British Barbados leaving very few whites on the island. As the French revolution took hold back in Europe, Britain and Spain declared war on France and as a result, sailed across the Atlantic to fight the French commissioners so this left the commissioners in a bad situation where there were armies of Spanish and British troops on their way to fight and an enslaved army who had been promised freedom for helping defeat the oppressive whites. This resulted in the complete emancipation of all blacks in the colony which was greeted with open arms but to the free people of colour, including the leader general Toussaint L’Ouverture, was more sceptical over whether it would stand true as they had been let down by the French government multiple times.
The significance of this revolution, not only at the time, but in today’s society has a lasting effect that has become increasingly important in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement in mid 2020. Although slavery amongst blacks has been abolished by multiple governments, the feeling that black people, especially in the Americas, is still a very pressing issue. Black Lives Matter, being a Marxist organisation, believe that the history of slaves and their role in capitalism has set a precedent that black people owe whites their labour, which is not the case. The author of the book, the black Jacobins, being an open Marxist leads to critical questions over the representation of capitalism in the book. The presentation of the slave conditions is a given fact, and we should all appreciate the hardships that slaves of all races went through however the lasting legacy of this revolution leaves an impression that capitalism is structured around exploiting black people. At the time, this may have been the case, but economic systems and social norms change.
Not only did the revolution effect the modern way that black people are viewed but also had a similar effect at the time. The Haitian revolution was the second American nation to gain independence and the first where the enslaved liberated themselves and fought their oppressors. This was a monumental leap in the international approach to slavery and could be attributed to the eventual abolition of slavery internationally. Although the revolution can be considered a success in terms of their response to their oppressors, the French government still had significant influence over the newly independent country and issued millions of dollars’ worth of sanctions on the country almost making it so that it couldn’t be prosperous and could not become truly financially stable which may be attributed to underlying racism and not wanting to see black people succeeding in the global economy. The geography of Haiti can also be crippling to the country as natural disasters wipe out almost all of the structures on the island resulting in huge costs to rebuild as well as the economic disadvantage they are already at. Toussaint L’Ouvertures vision of an independent and prosperous Haiti would never come to be, at least not yet 200 years after his vision for the country were those of optimism.
N.b. The complete history of the Haitian revolution and its ties to the French revolution and the newly formed united states of America is a vast topic and this piece is a brief overview of the major events that led to the independence of Haiti.