What was the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804)?


The Haitian Revolution (French: Révolution haïtienne [ʁevɔlysjɔ̃ ajisjɛ̃n]; Haitian Creole: Revolisyon ayisyen) was a successful insurrection by self-liberated slaves against French colonial rule in Saint-Domingue, now the sovereign state of Haiti.

The revolt began on 22 August 1791, and ended in 1804 with the former colony’s independence. It involved blacks, mulattoes, French, Spanish, and British participants – with the ex-slave Toussaint Louverture emerging as Haiti’s most charismatic hero. The revolution was the only slave uprising that led to the founding of a state which was both free from slavery, and ruled by non-whites and former captives. It is now widely seen as a defining moment in the history of the Atlantic World.

Its effects on the institution of slavery were felt throughout the Americas. The end of French rule and the abolition of slavery in the former colony was followed by a successful defence of the freedoms they won, and, with the collaboration of free persons of colour, their independence from white Europeans. The revolution represented the largest slave uprising since Spartacus’ unsuccessful revolt against the Roman Republic nearly 1,900 years earlier, and challenged long-held European beliefs about alleged black inferiority and about enslaved persons’ ability to achieve and maintain their own freedom. The rebels’ organisational capacity and tenacity under pressure inspired stories that shocked and frightened slave owners in the hemisphere.


Slave Economy in Saint-Domingue

Much of Caribbean economic development in the 18th century was contingent on Europeans’ demand for sugar. Plantation owners produced sugar as a commodity crop from cultivation of sugarcane, which required extensive labour. The colony of Saint-Domingue also had extensive coffee, cocoa, and indigo plantations, but these were smaller and less profitable than the sugar plantations. The commodity crops were traded for European goods.

Starting in the 1730s, French engineers constructed complex irrigation systems to increase sugarcane production. By the 1740s Saint-Domingue, together with the British colony of Jamaica, had become the main supplier of the world’s sugar. Production of sugar depended on extensive manual labour provided by enslaved Africans. An average of 600 ships engaged every year in shipping products from Saint-Domingue to Bordeaux, and the value of the colony’s crops and goods was almost equal in value to all of the products shipped from the Thirteen Colonies to Great Britain. The livelihood of 1 million of the approximately 25 million people who lived in the France in 1789 depended directly upon the agricultural imports from Saint-Domingue, and several million indirectly depended upon trade from the colony to maintain their standard of living. Saint-Domingue was the most profitable French colony in the world, indeed one of the most profitable of all the European colonies in the 18th century.

Slavery sustained sugar production under harsh conditions, including the unhealthy climate of the Caribbean, where diseases such as malaria (brought from Africa) and yellow fever caused high mortality. In 1787 alone, the French imported about 20,000 slaves from Africa into Saint-Domingue, while the British imported about 38,000 slaves total to all of their Caribbean colonies. The death rate from yellow fever was such that at least 50% of the slaves from Africa died within a year of arriving, so the white planters preferred to work their slaves as hard as possible while providing with them with the barest minimum of food and shelter. They calculated that it was better to get the most work out of their slaves with the lowest expense possible, since they were probably going to die of yellow fever anyway. The death rate was so high that polyandry – one woman being married to several men at the same time – developed as a common form of marriage among the slaves. As slaves had no legal rights, rape by planters, their unmarried sons, or overseers was a common occurrence on the plantations.


The planters and their families, together with the petite bourgeoisie of merchants and shopkeepers, were outnumbered by slaves by a factor of more than ten on Saint-Domingue. The largest sugar plantations and concentrations of slaves were in the north of the islands, and whites lived in fear of slave rebellion. Even by the standards of the Caribbean, the French slave masters were extremely cruel in their treatment of slaves. They used the threat and acts of physical violence to maintain control and suppress efforts at slave rebellion. When slaves left the plantations or disobeyed their masters, they were subject to whipping, or to more extreme torture such as castration or burning, the punishment being both a personal lesson and a warning for other slaves. King Louis XIV of France passed the Code Noir in 1685 in an attempt to regulate such violence and the treatment of the enslaved person in general in the colony, but masters openly and consistently broke the code. During the 18th century, local legislation reversed parts of it.

In 1758, the planters began passing legislation restricting the rights of other groups of people until a rigid caste system was defined. Most historians classify the people of the era into three groups:

The first group were white colonists, or les blancs. This group was generally subdivided into the plantation owners and a lower class of whites who often served as overseers or day labourers, artisans and shopkeepers.

The second group were free persons of colour, or gens de couleur libres, were usually mixed-race (sometimes referred to as mulattoes), being of both African and French descent. These gens de couleur tended to be educated and literate, and the men often served in the army or as administrators on plantations. Many were children of white planters and enslaved mothers, or free women of colour. Others had purchased their freedom from their owners through the sale of their own produce or artistic works. They often received education or artisan training, and sometimes inherited freedom or property from their fathers. Some gens de couleur owned and operated their own plantations and became slave owners.

The third group, outnumbering the others by a ratio of ten to one, was made up of mostly African-born slaves. A high rate of mortality among them meant that planters continually had to import new slaves. This kept their culture more African and separate from other people on the island. Many plantations had large concentrations of slaves from a particular region of Africa, and it was therefore somewhat easier for these groups to maintain elements of their culture, religion, and language. This also separated new slaves from Africa from creoles (slaves born in the colony), who already had kin networks and often had more prestigious roles on plantations and more opportunities for emancipation. Most slaves spoke a patois of the French language known as Haitian Creole, which was also used by island-born mulattoes and whites for communication with the workers.

The majority of the slaves were Yoruba from what is now modern Nigeria, Fon from what is now Benin, and Kongo from the Kingdom of Kongo in what is now modern northern Angola and the western Congo. The Kongolese at 40% were the largest of the African ethnic groups represented amongst the slaves. The slaves developed their own religion, a syncretic mixture of Catholicism and West African religions known as Vodou, usually called “voodoo” in English. This belief system implicitly rejected the Africans’ status as slaves.

Social Conflict

Saint-Domingue was a society seething with hatred, with white colonists and black slaves frequently coming into violent conflict. The French historian Paul Fregosi wrote: “Whites, mulattos and blacks loathed each other. The poor whites couldn’t stand the rich whites, the rich whites despised the poor whites, the middle-class whites were jealous of the aristocratic whites, the whites born in France looked down upon the locally born whites, mulattoes envied the whites, despised the blacks and were despised by the whites; free Negroes brutalised those who were still slaves, Haitian born blacks regarded those from Africa as savages. Everyone – quite rightly – lived in terror of everyone else. …Haiti was hell, but Haiti was rich”. Many of these conflicts involved slaves who had escaped the plantations. Many runaway slaves – called maroons – hid on the margins of large plantations, living off the land and what they could steal from their former masters. Others fled to towns, to blend in with urban slaves and freed blacks who often migrated to those areas for work. If caught, these runaway slaves would be severely and violently punished. However, some masters tolerated petit marronages, or short-term absences from plantations, knowing these allowed release of tensions.

The larger groups of runaway slaves who lived in the hillside woods away from white control often conducted violent raids on the island’s sugar and coffee plantations. Although the numbers in these bands grew large (sometimes into the thousands), they generally lacked the leadership and strategy to accomplish large-scale objectives. The first effective maroon leader to emerge was the charismatic Haitian Vodou priest François Mackandal, who inspired his people by drawing on African traditions and religions. He united the maroon bands and established a network of secret organizations among plantation slaves, leading a rebellion from 1751 through 1757. Although Mackandal was captured by the French and burned at the stake in 1758, large armed maroon bands persisted in raids and harassment after his death.

Slavery in Enlightenment Thought

French writer Guillaume Raynal attacked slavery in his history of European colonization. He warned, “the Africans only want a chief, sufficiently courageous, to lead them on to vengeance and slaughter.” Raynal’s Enlightenment philosophy went deeper than a prediction and reflected many similar philosophies, including those of Rousseau and Diderot. Raynal’s admonition was written thirteen years before the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which highlighted freedom and liberty but did not abolish slavery.

In addition to Raynal’s influence, Toussaint Louverture, a free black who was familiar with Enlightenment ideas within the context of European colonialism, would become a key “enlightened actor” in the Haitian Revolution. Enlightened thought divided the world into “enlightened leaders” and “ignorant masses”; Louverture sought to bridge this divide between the popular masses and the enlightened few by striking a balance between Western Enlightened thought as a necessary means of winning liberation, and not propagating the notion that it was morally superior to the experiences and knowledge of people of colour on Saint-Domingue. Louverture wrote a constitution for a new society in Saint-Domingue that abolished slavery. The existence of slavery in Enlightened society was an incongruity that had been left unaddressed by European scholars prior to the French Revolution. Louverture took on this inconsistency directly in his constitution. In addition, he exhibited a connection to Enlightenment scholars through the style, language, and accent.

Like Louverture, Jean-Baptiste Belley was an active participant in the insurrection. The portrait of Belley by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson depicts a man who encompasses the French view of its colonies, creating a stark dichotomy between the refinement of Enlightenment thought and the reality of the situation in Saint-Domingue, through the bust of Raynald and the figure of Belley, respectively. While distinguished, the portrait still portrays a man trapped by the confines of race. Girodet’s portrayal of the former National Convention deputy is telling of the French opinion of colonial citizens by emphasizing the subject’s sexuality and including an earring. Both of these racially charged symbols reveal the desire to undermine the colony’s attempts at independent legitimacy, as citizens of the colonies were not able to access the elite class of French Revolutionaries because of their race.

The Situation in 1789

Social Stratification

In 1789, Saint-Domingue produced 60% of the world’s coffee and 40% of the sugar imported by France and Britain. The colony was not only the most profitable possession of the French colonial empire, but it was the wealthiest and most prosperous colony in the Caribbean.

The colony’s white population numbered 40,000; mulattoes and free blacks, 28,000; and black slaves, an estimated 452,000. This was almost half the total slave population in the Caribbean, estimated at one million that year. Enslaved blacks, regarded as the lowest class of colonial society, outnumbered whites and free people of colour by a margin of almost eight to one.

Two-thirds of the slaves were African born, and they tended to be less submissive than those born in the Americas and raised in slave societies. The death rate in the Caribbean exceeded the birth rate, so imports of enslaved Africans were necessary to maintain the numbers required to work the plantations. The slave population declined at an annual rate of two to five percent, due to overwork, inadequate food and shelter, insufficient clothing and medical care, and an imbalance between the sexes, with more men than women. Some slaves were of a creole elite class of urban slaves and domestics, who worked as cooks, personal servants and artisans around the plantation house. This relatively privileged class was chiefly born in the Americas, while the under-class born in Africa laboured hard, and often under abusive and brutal conditions.

Among Saint-Domingue’s 40,000 white colonists, European-born Frenchmen monopolized administrative posts. The sugar planters, or grands blancs (literally, “big whites”), were chiefly minor aristocrats. Most returned to France as soon as possible, hoping to avoid the dreaded yellow fever, which regularly swept the colony. The lower-class whites, petits blancs (literally “small whites”), included artisans, shopkeepers, slave dealers, overseers, and day laborers.

Saint-Domingue’s free people of colour, or gens de couleur libres, numbered more than 28,000. Around that time, colonial legislations, concerned with this growing and strengthening population, passed discriminatory laws that required these freedmen to wear distinctive clothing and limited where they could live. These laws also barred them from occupying many public offices. Many freedmen were also artisans and overseers, or domestic servants in the plantation houses. Le Cap Français (Le Cap), a northern port, had a large population of free people of colour, including freed slaves. These men would become important leaders in the slave rebellion and later revolution.

Regional Conflicts

Saint-Domingue’s Northern province was the centre of shipping and trading, and had the largest population of grands blancs. The Plaine-du-Nord on the northern shore of Saint-Domingue was the most fertile area, having the largest sugar plantations and therefore the most slaves. It was the area of greatest economic importance, especially as most of the colony’s trade went through these ports. The largest and busiest port was Le Cap, the former capital of Saint-Domingue. Enslaved Africans in this region lived in large groups of workers in relative isolation, separated from the rest of the colony by the high mountain range known as the Massif du Nord.

The Western province, however, grew significantly after the colonial capital was moved to Port-au-Prince in 1751, becoming increasingly wealthy in the second half of the 18th century. The Southern province lagged in population and wealth because it was geographically separated from the rest of the colony. However, this isolation allowed freed slaves to find profit in trade with Jamaica, and they gained power and wealth here. In addition to these interregional tensions, there were conflicts between proponents of independence, those loyal to France, and allies of Great Britain and Spain – who coveted control of the valuable colony.

The Effects of the French Revolution

After the establishment of the French First Republic, the National Assembly made radical changes to French laws and, on 26 August 1789, published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, declaring all men free and equal. The Declaration was ambiguous as to whether this equality applied to women, slaves, or citizens of the colonies, and thus influenced the want for freedom and equality in Saint-Domingue. White planters saw it as an opportunity to gain independence from France, which would allow them to take control of the island and create trade regulations that would further their own wealth and power. However, the Haitian Revolution quickly became a test of the new French republic, as it radicalised the slavery question and forced French leaders to recognise the full meaning of their stated ideology.

The African population on the island began to hear of the agitation for independence by the planters, who had resented France’s limitations on the island’s foreign trade. The Africans mostly allied with the royalists and the British, as they understood that if Saint-Domingue’s independence were to be led by white slave masters, it would probably mean even harsher treatment and increased injustice for the African population. The planters would be free to operate slavery as they pleased without the existing minimal accountability to their French peers.

Saint-Domingue’s free people of colour, most notably Julien Raimond, had been actively appealing to France for full civil equality with whites since the 1780s. Raimond used the French Revolution to make this the major colonial issue before the National Assembly. In October 1790, another wealthy free man of colour, Vincent Ogé, demanded the right to vote under the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. When the colonial governor refused, Ogé led a brief 300-man insurgency in the area around Le Cap, fighting to end racial discrimination in the area. He was captured in early 1791, and brutally executed by being “broken on the wheel” before being beheaded. While Ogé was not fighting against slavery, his treatment was cited by later slave rebels as one of the factors in their decision to rise up in August 1791 and resist treaties with the colonists. The conflict up to this point was between factions of whites, and between whites and free blacks. Enslaved blacks watched from the sidelines.

Leading 18th-century French writer Count Mirabeau had once said the Saint-Domingue whites “slept at the foot of Vesuvius”, suggesting the grave threat they faced should the majority of slaves launch a sustained major uprising.

The Haitian Revolution

Onset of the Revolution

Guillaume Raynal attacked slavery in the 1780 edition of his history of European colonization. He also predicted a general slave revolt in the colonies, saying that there were signs of “the impending storm”. One such sign was the action of the French revolutionary government to grant citizenship to wealthy free people of colour in May 1791. Since white planters refused to comply with this decision, within two months isolated fighting broke out between the former slaves and the whites. This added to the tense climate between slaves and grands blancs.

Raynal’s prediction came true on the night of 21 August 1791, when the slaves of Saint-Domingue rose in revolt; thousands of slaves attended a secret vodou ceremony as a tropical storm came in – the lighting and the thunder was taken as auspicious omens – and later that night, the slaves began to kill their masters and plunged the colony into civil war. The signal to begin the revolt was given by Dutty Boukman, a high priest of vodou and leader of the Maroon slaves, and Cecile Fatiman during a religious ceremony at Bois Caïman on the night of 14 August. Within the next ten days, slaves had taken control of the entire Northern Province in an unprecedented slave revolt. Whites kept control of only a few isolated, fortified camps. The slaves sought revenge on their masters through “pillage, rape, torture, mutilation, and death”. The long years of oppression by the planters had left many blacks with a hatred of all whites, and the revolt was marked by extreme violence from the very start. The masters and mistresses were dragged from their beds to be killed, and the heads of French children were placed on spikes that were carried at the front of the rebel columns. In the south, beginning in September, thirteen thousand slaves and rebels led by Romaine-la-Prophétesse, based in Trou Coffy, took supplies from and burned plantations and freed slaves and occupied (and burned) the area’s two major cities, Léogâne and Jacmel.

The planters had long feared such a revolt, and were well armed with some defensive preparations. But within weeks, the number of slaves who joined the revolt in the north reached 100,000. Within the next two months, as the violence escalated, the slaves killed 4,000 whites and burned or destroyed 180 sugar plantations and hundreds of coffee and indigo plantations. At least 900 coffee plantations were destroyed, and the total damage inflicted over the next two weeks amounted to 2 million francs. In September 1791, the surviving whites organized into militias and struck back, killing about 15,000 blacks.

Though demanding freedom from slavery, the rebels did not demand independence from France at this point. Most of the rebel leaders professed to be fighting for the king of France, who they believed had issued a decree freeing the slaves, which had been suppressed by the colonial governor. As such, they were demanding their rights as Frenchmen which been granted by the king.

By 1792, slave rebels controlled a third of the island. The success of the rebellion caused the National Assembly in France to realise it was facing an ominous situation. The Assembly granted civil and political rights to free men of colour in the colonies in March 1792. Countries throughout Europe, as well as the United States, were shocked by the decision, but the Assembly was determined to stop the revolt. Apart from granting rights to free people of colour, the Assembly dispatched 6,000 French soldiers to the island. A new governor sent by Paris, Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, abolished slavery in the Northern Province of Saint Domingue and had hostile relations with the planters, whom he saw as royalists. The same month, a coalition of whites and conservative free blacks and forces under French commissaire nationale Edmond de Saint-Léger put down the Trou Coffy uprising in the south, after André Rigaud, then based near Port-au-Prince, declined to ally with them.

Britain and Spain Enter the Conflict

Meanwhile, in 1793, France declared war on Great Britain. The grands blancs in Saint-Domingue, unhappy with Sonthonax, arranged with Great Britain to declare British sovereignty over the colony, believing that the British would maintain slavery. The British prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, believed that the success of the slave revolt in Saint-Domingue would inspire insurrections in the British Caribbean colonies. He further thought that taking Saint-Domingue, the richest of the French colonies, would be a useful bargaining chip in eventual peace negotiations with France, and in the interim, occupying Saint-Domingue would mean diverting its great wealth into the British treasury. The American journalist James Perry notes that the great irony of the British campaign in Saint-Domingue was that it ended as a complete debacle, costing the British treasury millions of pounds and the British military thousands upon thousands of dead, all for nothing.

Spain, which controlled the rest of the island of Hispaniola, also joined the conflict and fought against France. From the beginning, Spanish Santo Domingo had encouraged disruptions in Saint-Domingue. Spanish forces invaded Saint Domingue and were joined by the rebels. For most of the conflict, the British and Spanish supplied the rebels with food, ammunition, arms, medicine, naval support, and military advisors. By August 1793, there were only 3,500 French soldiers on the island. On 20 September 1793, about 600 British soldiers from Jamaica landed at Jérémie to be greeted with shouts of “Vivent les Anglais!” from the French population. On 22 September 1793, Mole St. Nicolas, the main French naval base in Saint-Domingue, surrendered to the Royal Navy peacefully. Everywhere the British went, they restored slavery, which made them hated by the mass of common people.

The French Declare Slavery Abolished

To prevent military disaster, and secure the colony for republican France as opposed to Britain, Spain, and French royalists, separately or in combination, the French commissioners Léger-Félicité Sonthonax and Étienne Polverel freed the slaves in Saint-Domingue in their declaration of abolition on 29 August 1793.

Sonthonax sent three of his deputies, namely the colonist Louis Duffay, the free black army officer Jean-Baptiste Belley and a free man of colour, Jean-Baptiste Mills to seek the National Convention’s endorsement for the emancipation of slaves near the end of January, 1794. On 04 February 1794, Dufay gave a speech to the convention arguing that abolishing slavery was the only way to keep the colony in control of the French, and that former slaves would willingly work to restore the colony. The Convention deputies agreed, and made the dramatic decree that “slavery of the blacks is abolished in all the colonies; consequently, it decrees that all men living in the colonies, without distinction of colour, are French citizens and enjoy all the rights guaranteed by the constitution”.

It abolished slavery by law in France and all its colonies, and granted civil and political rights to all black men in the colonies. The French constitutions of 1793 and 1795 both included the abolition of slavery. The constitution of 1793 was never applied, but that of 1795 was implemented and lasted until replaced by the consular and imperial constitutions under Napoleon Bonaparte. Despite racial tensions in Saint Domingue, the French revolutionary government at the time welcomed abolition with a show of idealism and optimism. The emancipation of slaves was viewed as an example of liberty for other countries, much as the American Revolution was meant to serve as the first of many liberation movements. Georges Danton, one of the Frenchmen present at the meeting of the National Convention, expressed this sentiment:

Representatives of the French people, until now our decrees of liberty have been selfish, and only for ourselves. But today we proclaim it to the universe, and generations to come will glory in this decree; we are proclaiming universal liberty … We are working for future generations; let us launch liberty into the colonies; the English are dead, today.

In nationalistic terms, the abolition of slavery also served as a moral triumph of France over England, as seen in the latter half of the above quote. Yet Toussaint Louverture did not stop working with the Spanish army until sometime later, as he was suspicious of the French.

The British force that landed in Saint-Domingue in 1793 was too small to conquer the place, being capable only of holding only few coastal enclaves. The French planters were disappointed as they had hoped to regain power; Sonthonax was relieved, as he had twice refused ultimatums from Commodore John Ford to surrender Port-au-Prince. In the meantime, a Spanish force under Captain-General Joaquin Garcia y Moreno had marched into the Northern Province. Toussaint Louverture, the ablest of the Haitian generals, had joined the Spanish, accepting an officer’s commission in the Spanish Army and being made a knight in the Order of St. Isabella.

The main British force for the conquest of Saint-Domingue under General Charles Grey, nicknamed “No-flint Grey”, and Admiral Sir John Jervis set sail from Portsmouth on 26 November 1793, which was in defiance of the well-known rule that the only time that one could campaign in the West Indies was from September to November, when the mosquitoes that carried malaria and yellow fever were scarce. After arriving in the West Indies in February 1794, Grey chose to conquer Martinique, St. Lucia, and Guadeloupe. Troops under the command of John Whyte did not arrive in Saint-Domingue until 19 May 1794. Rather than attacking the main French bases at Le Cap and Port-de-Paix, Whyte chose to march towards Port-au-Prince, whose harbour was reported to have 45 ships loaded with sugar. Whyte took Port-au-Prince, but Sonthonax and the French forces were allowed to leave in exchange for not burning the 45 ships loaded with sugar. By May 1794, the French forces were severed in two by Toussaint, with Sonthonax commanding in the north and André Rigaud leading in the south.

The Spanish Depart Saint Domingue

At this point, Toussaint, for reasons that remain obscure, suddenly joined the French and turned against the Spanish, ambushing his allies as they emerged from attending mass in a church at San Raphael on 06 May 1794. The Spaniards were not defeated militarily, but their advance was restrained, and when in 1795 Spain ceded Santo Domingo to France, Spanish attacks on Saint Domingue ceased. Despite being a former slave, Toussaint proved to be forgiving of the whites, insisting that he was fighting to assert the rights of the slaves as black French people to be free. He said he did not seek independence from France, and urged the surviving whites, including the former slave masters, to stay and work with him in rebuilding Saint-Domingue.

Rigaud had checked the British in the south, taking the town of Léogâne by storm and driving the British back to Port-au-Prince. During the course of 1794, most of the British forces were killed by yellow fever, the dreaded “black vomit” as the British called it. Within two months of arriving in Saint-Domingue, the British had lost 40 officers and 600 men to yellow fever. Ultimately, of Grey’s 7,000 men, about 5,000 were to die of yellow fever while the Royal Navy reported losing “forty-six masters and eleven hundred men dead, chiefly of yellow fever”. The British historian Sir John Fortescue wrote “It is probably beneath the mark to say that twelve thousand Englishmen were buried in the West Indies in 1794”. Rigaud failed in attempt to retake Port-au-Prince, but on Christmas Day 1794, he stormed and retook Tiburon in a surprise attack. The British lost about 300 dead, and the mulattoes took no prisoners, executing any British soldier and sailor who surrendered.

The British “Great Push”

At this point, Pitt decided to reinforce failure by launching what he called “the great push” to conquer Saint-Domingue and the rest of the French West Indies, sending out the largest expedition Britain had yet mounted in its history, a force of about 30,000 men to be carried in 200 ships. Fortescue wrote that the aim of London in the first expedition had been to destroy “the power of France in these pestilent islands … only to discover when it was too late, that they practically destroyed the British army”. By this point, it was well known that service in the West Indies was virtually a death sentence. In Dublin and Cork, soldiers from the 104th, 105th, 111th, and 112th regiments of foot rioted when they learned that they were being sent to Saint-Domingue. The fleet for the “great push” left Portsmouth on 16 November 1795 and was wrecked by a storm, before sending out again on 09 December. The overall forces in St Domingue was at that time under the command of the lieutenant-governor of Jamaica, Sir Adam Williamson.

General Ralph Abercromby, the commander of the forces committed to the “great push”, hesitated over which island to attack when he arrived in Barbados on 17 March 1796. He dispatched a force under Major General Gordon Forbes (British Army officer) to Port-au-Prince. Forbes’s attempt to take the French-held city of Léogâne ended in disaster. The French had built a deep defensive ditch with palisades, while Forbes had neglected to bring along heavy artillery. The French commander, the mulatto General Alexandre Pétion, proved to be an excellent artilleryman, who used the guns of his fort to sink two of the three ships-of-the-line under Admiral Hyde Parker in the harbour, before turning his guns to the British forces; a French sortie led to a British rout and Forbes retreating back to Port-au-Prince. As more ships arrived with British troops, more soldiers died of yellow fever. By 01 June 1796, of the 1,000 from the 66th Regiment, only 198 had not been infected with yellow fever; and of the 1,000 men of the 69th Regiment, only 515 were not infected with yellow fever. Abercromby predicted that at the current rate of yellow fever infection, all of the men from the two regiments would be dead by November. Ultimately, 10,000 British soldiers arrived in Saint Domingue by June, but besides for some skirmishing near Bombarde, the British remained put in Port-au-Prince and other coastal enclaves, while yellow fever continued to kill them all off. The government attracted much criticism in the House of Commons about the mounting costs of the expedition to Saint-Domingue. In February 1797, General John Graves Simcoe arrived to replace Forbes with orders to pull back the British forces to Port-au-Prince. As the human and financial costs of the expedition mounted, people in Britain demanded a withdrawal from Saint-Domingue, which was devouring money and soldiers, while failing to produce the expected profits.

On 11 April 1797 Colonel Thomas Maitland of the 62nd Regiment of Foot landed in Port-au-Prince, and wrote in a letter to his brother that British forces in Saint-Domingue had been “annihilated” by the yellow fever. Service in Saint-Domingue was extremely unpopular in the British Army owing to the terrible death toll caused by yellow fever. One British officer wrote of his horror of seeing his friends “drowned in their own blood” while “some died raving Mad”. Simcoe used the new British troops to push back the Haitians under Toussaint, but in a counter-offensive, Toussaint and Rigaud stopped the offensive. Toussaint retook the fortress at Mirebalais. On 07 June 1797, Toussaint attacked Fort Churchill in an assault that was as noted for its professionalism as for its ferocity. Under a storm of artillery, the Haitians placed ladders on the walls and were driven back four times, with heavy losses. Even though Toussaint had been defeated, the British were astonished that he had turned a group of former slaves with no military experience into troops whose skills were the equal of a European army.

The British Withdrawal

In July 1797, Simcoe and Maitland sailed to London to advise a total withdrawal from Saint-Domingue. In March 1798 Maitland returned with a mandate to withdraw, at least from Port-au-Prince. On 10 May 1798, Maitland met with Toussaint to agree to an armistice, and on 18 May the British had left Port-au-Prince. British morale had collapsed with the news that Toussaint had taken Port-au-Prince, and Maitland decided to abandon all of Saint-Domingue, writing that the expedition had become such a complete disaster that withdrawal was the only sensible thing to do, even through he did not have the authority to do so. On 31 August, Maitland and Toussaint signed an agreement whereby in exchange for the British pulling out of all of Saint-Domingue, Toussaint promised to not support any slave revolts in Jamaica. Between 1793 and 1798, the expedition to Saint-Domingue had cost the British treasury four million pounds and 100,000 men either dead or permanently disabled from the effects of yellow fever.

Toussaint Consolidates Control

After the departure of the British, Toussaint turned his attention to Rigaud, who was conspiring against him in the south of Saint Domingue. In June 1799, Rigaud initiated the War of Knives against Toussaint’s rule, sending a brutal offensive at Petit-Goâve and Grand-Goâve. Taking no prisoners, Rigaud’s predominantly mulatto forces put blacks and whites to the sword. Though the United States was hostile towards Toussaint, the US Navy agreed to support Toussaint’s forces with the frigate USS General Greene, commanded by Captain Christopher Perry, providing fire support to the blacks as Toussaint laid siege to the city of Jacmel, held by mulatto forces under the command of Rigaud. To the United States, Rigaud’s ties to France represented a threat to American commerce. On 11 March 1800, Toussaint took Jacmel and Rigaud fled on the French schooner La Diana. Though Toussaint maintained he was still loyal to France, to all intents and purposes, he ruled Saint Domingue as its dictator.

In the early 21st century, historian Robert L. Scheina estimated that the slave rebellion resulted in the death of 350,000 Haitians and 50,000 European troops. According to the Encyclopedia of African American Politics, “Between 1791 and independence in 1804 nearly 200,000 blacks died, as did thousands of mulattoes and as many as 100,000 French and British soldiers.” Yellow fever caused the most deaths. Geggus points out that at least 3 of every 5 British troops sent there in 1791-1797 died of disease. There has been considerable debate over whether the number of deaths caused by disease was exaggerated.

The Leadership of Louverture

Toussaint Louverture

One of the most successful black commanders was Toussaint Louverture, a self-educated former domestic slave. Like Jean François and Biassou, he initially fought for the Spanish crown in this period. After the British had invaded Saint-Domingue, Louverture decided to fight for the French if they would agree to free all the slaves. Sonthonax had proclaimed an end to slavery on 29 August 1792. Louverture worked with a French general, Étienne Laveaux, to ensure that all slaves would be freed. Louverture abandoned the Spanish army in the east and brought his forces over to the French side on 06 May 1794 after the Spanish refused to take steps to end slavery.

Under the military leadership of Toussaint, the forces made up mostly of former slaves succeeded in winning concessions from the British and expelling the Spanish forces. In the end, Toussaint essentially restored control of Saint-Domingue to France. Louverture was very intelligent, organized and articulate. Having made himself master of the island, however, Toussaint did not wish to surrender too much power to France. He began to rule the country as an effectively autonomous entity. Louverture overcame a succession of local rivals, including: the Commissioner Sonthonax, a French white man who gained support from many Haitians, angering Louverture; André Rigaud, a free man of colour who fought to keep control of the South in the War of Knives; and Comte d’Hédouville, who forced a fatal wedge between Rigaud and Louverture before escaping to France. Toussaint defeated a British expeditionary force in 1798. In addition, he led an invasion of neighbouring Santo Domingo (December 1800), and freed the slaves there on 03 January 1801.

In 1801, Louverture issued a constitution for Saint-Domingue that decreed he would be governor-for-life and called for black autonomy and a sovereign black state. In response, Napoleon Bonaparte dispatched a large expeditionary force of French soldiers and warships to the island, led by Bonaparte’s brother-in-law Charles Leclerc, to restore French rule. They were under secret instructions to restore slavery, at least in the formerly Spanish-held part of the island. Bonaparte ordered that Toussaint was to be treated with respect until the French forces were established; once that was done, Toussaint was to summoned to Le Cap and be arrested; if he failed to show, Leclerc was to wage “a war to the death” with no mercy and all of Toussaint’s followers to be shot when captured. Once that was completed, slavery would be ultimately restored. The numerous French soldiers were accompanied by mulatto troops led by Alexandre Pétion and André Rigaud, mulatto leaders who had been defeated by Toussaint three years earlier.

Napoleon Invades Haiti

The French arrived on 02 February 1802 at Le Cap with the Haitian commander Henri Christophe being ordered by Leclerc to turn over the city to the French. When Christophe refused, the French assaulted Le Cap and the Haitians set the city afire rather than surrender it. Leclerc sent Toussaint letters promising him: “Have no worries about your personal fortune. It will be safeguarded for you, since it has been only too well earned by your own efforts. Do not worry about the liberty of your fellow citizens”. When Toussaint still failed to appear at Le Cap, Leclerc issued a proclamation on 17 February 1802: “General Toussaint and General Christophe are outlawed; all citizens are ordered to hunt them down, and treat them as rebels against the French Republic”. Captain Marcus Rainsford, a British Army officer who visited Saint-Domingue observed the training of the Haitian Army, writing: “At a whistle, a whole brigade ran three or four hundred yards, and then, separating, threw themselves flat on the ground, changing to their backs and sides, and all the time keeping up a strong fire until recalled…This movement is executed with such facility and precision as totally to prevent cavalry from charging them in bushy and hilly country”.

Haitian Resistance and Scorched-Earth Tactics

In a letter to Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Toussaint outlined his plans for defeating the French: “Do not forget, while waiting for the rainy reason which will rid us of our foes, that we have no other resource than destruction and fire. Bear in mind that the soil bathed with our sweat must not furnish our enemies with the smallest sustenance. Tear up the roads with shot; throw corpses and horses into all the foundations, burn and annihilate everything in order that those who have come to reduce us to slavery may have before their eyes the image of the hell which they deserve”. Dessalines never received the letter as he had already taken to the field, evaded a French column sent to capture him and stormed Léogâne. The Haitians burned down Léogâne and killed all of the French with the Trinidadian historian C.L.R. James writing of Dessalines’s actions at Léogâne: “Men, women and children, indeed all the whites who came into his hands, he massacred. And forbidding burial, he left stacks of corpses rotting in the sun to strike terror into the French detachments as they toiled behind his flying columns”. The French had been expecting the Haitians to happily go back to being their slaves, as they believed it was natural for blacks to be the slaves of whites, and were stunned to learn how much the Haitians hated them for wanting to reduce them back to a life in chains. A visibly shocked General Pamphile de Lacroix after seeing the ruins of Léogâne wrote: “They heaped up bodies” which “still had their attitudes; they were bent over, their hands outstretched and beseeching; the ice of death had not effaced the look on their faces”.

Leclerc ordered four French columns to march on Gonaives, which was the main Haitian base. One of the French columns was commanded by General Donatien de Rochambeau, a proud white supremacist and a supporter of slavery who detested the Haitians for wanting to be free. Toussaint tried to stop Rochambeau at Ravine-à-Couleuvre, a very narrow gully up in the mountains that the Haitians had filled with chopped down trees. In the ensuring Battle of Ravine-à-Couleuvres, after six hours of fierce hand-to-hand fighting with no quarter given on either side, the French finally broke through, albeit with heavy losses. During the battle, Toussaint personally took part in the fighting to lead his men in charges against the French. After losing 800 men, Toussaint ordered a retreat.

Crête-à-Pierrot Fortress

The Haitians next tried to stop the French at a British-built fort up in the mountains called Crête-à-Pierrot, a battle that is remembered as a national epic in Haiti. While Toussaint took to the field, he left Dessalines in command of Crête-à-Pierrot, who from his fastness could see three French columns converging on the fort. Dessalines appeared before his men standing atop of a barrel of gunpowder, holding a lit torch, saying: “We are going to be attacked, and if the French put their feet in here, I shall blow everything up”, leading his men to reply “We shall die for liberty!”.

The first of the French columns to appear before the fort was commanded by General Jean Boudet, whose men were harassed by skirmishers until they reached a deep ditch the Haitians had dug. As the French tried to cross the ditch, Dessalines ordered his men who were hiding to come out and open fire, hitting the French with a tremendous volley of artillery and musket fire, inflicting heavy losses on the attackers. General Boudet himself was wounded and as the French dead and wounded started to pile up in the ditch, the French retreated. The next French commander who tried to assault the ditch was General Charles Dugua, joined shortly afterwards by the column commanded by Leclerc. All of the French assaults ended in total failure, and after the failure of their last attack, the Haitians charged the French, cutting down any Frenchmen. General Dugua was killed, Leclerc was wounded and the French lost about 800 dead. The final French column to arrive was the one commanded by Rochambeau, who brought along heavy artillery that knocked out the Haitian artillery, though his attempt to storm the ditch also ended in failure with about 300 of his men killed.

Over the following days, the French kept on bombarding and assaulting the fort, only to be repulsed every time while the Haitians defiantly sang songs of the French Revolution, celebrating the right of all men to be equal and free. The Haitian psychological warfare was successful with many French soldiers asking why they were fighting to enslave the Haitians, who were only asserting the rights promised by the Revolution to make all men free. Despite Bonaparte’s attempt to keep his intention to restore slavery a secret, it was widely believed by both sides that was why the French had returned to Haiti, as a sugar plantation could only be profitable with slave labour. Finally after twenty days of siege with food and ammunition running out, Dessalines ordered his men to abandon the fort on the night of 24 March 1802 and the Haitians slipped out of the fort to fight another day. Even Rochambeau, who hated all blacks was forced to admit in a report: “Their retreat – this miraculous retreat from our trap – was an incredible feat of arms”. The French had won, but they had lost 2,000 dead against an opponent whom they held in contempt on racial grounds, believing all blacks to be stupid and cowardly, and furthermore, that it was shortages of food and ammunition that forced the Haitians to retreat, not because of any feats of arms by the French army.

After the Battle of Crête-à-Pierrot, the Haitians abandoned conventional warfare and reverted to guerrilla tactics, making the French hold over much of the countryside from Le Cap down to the Artibonite valley very tenuous. With March, the rainy season came to Saint-Domingue, and as stagnant water collected, the mosquitoes began to breed, leading to yet another outbreak of yellow fever. By the end of March, 5,000 French soldiers had died of yellow fever and another 5,000 were hospitalised with yellow fever, leading to a worried Leclerc to write in his diary: “The rainy season has arrived. My troops are exhausted with fatigue and sickness”.

The Capture of Toussaint

On 25 April 1802, the situation suddenly changed when Christophe defected, along with much of the Haitian Army, to the French. Louverture was promised his freedom if he agreed to integrate his remaining troops into the French army. Louverture agreed to this on 06 May 1802. Just why Toussaint was motivated to just give up has been the subject of much debate with most probable explanation being that he was just tired after 11 years of war. Under the terms of surrender, Leclerc gave his solemn word that slavery would not be restored in Saint-Domingue, that blacks could be officers in the French Army, and that the Haitian Army would be allowed to integrate into the French Army. Leclerc also gave Toussaint a plantation at Ennery. Toussaint was later deceived, seized by the French and shipped to France. He died months later in prison at Fort-de-Joux in the Jura Mountains. Shortly afterwards, the ferocious Dessalines rode into Le Cap to submit to France and was rewarded by being made the governor of Saint-Marc, a place that Dessalines ruled with his customary cruelty. However, the surrender of Christophe, Toussaint, and Dessalines did not mean the end of Haitian resistance. Throughout the countryside, guerrilla warfare continued and the French staged mass executions via firing squads, hanging, and drowning Haitians in bags. Rochambeau invented a new means of mass execution, which he called “fumigational-sulphurous baths”: killing hundreds of Haitians in the holds of ships by burning sulphur to make sulphur dioxide to gas them.

The War of Independence

Rebellion against Reimposition of Slavery

For a few months, the island was quiet under Napoleonic rule. But when it became apparent that the French intended to re-establish slavery (because they had nearly done so on Guadeloupe), black cultivators revolted in the summer of 1802. Yellow fever had decimated the French; by the middle of July 1802, the French lost about 10,000 dead to yellow fever. By September, Leclerc wrote in his diary that he had only 8,000 fit men left as yellow fever had killed the others. Many of the “French” soldiers were actually Polish, as 5,000 Poles were serving in two demi-brigades in the French Army. Many Poles believed that if they fought for France, Bonaparte would reward them by restoring Polish independence, which had been ended with the Third Partition of Poland in 1795. Of the 5,000 Poles, about 4,000 died of yellow fever. A French planter wrote of the Polish soldiers: “Ten days after the landing of these two beautiful regiments, more than half their number were carried off by yellow fever; they fell down as they walked, the blood rushing out through their nostrils, mouths, eyes…what a horrible and heart-rending sight!”. Sometimes, the Poles died in battle. At a battle at Port Sault, the Polish Third Battalion fought about 200 Haitians who ambushed them with musket fire and by pushing boulders down on them. One historian noted that “the Poles, rather than spreading out, each man for himself, slowly advanced in a tightly packed mass which afford an ideal target for the well-protected insurgent rifleman”. Most of the Poles were cut down by the Haitians, which led Rochambeau to remark that one could always count on the Poles to die without flinching in battle. Some of the Poles came to believe that they were fighting on the wrong side, as they had joined the French Army to fight for freedom, not impose slavery. Some defected to join the Haitians.

Dessalines and Pétion Join Haitian Forces

Dessalines and Pétion remained allied with France until they switched sides again, in October 1802, and fought against the French. As Leclerc lay dying of yellow fever and heard that Christophe and Dessalines had joined the rebels, he reacted by ordering all of the blacks living in Le Cap to be killed by drowning in the harbour. In November, Leclerc died of yellow fever, like much of his army.

His successor, the Vicomte de Rochambeau, fought an even more brutal campaign. Rochambeau waged a near-genocidal campaign against the Haitians, killing everyone who was black. Rochambeau imported about 15,000 attack dogs from Jamaica, who had been trained to savage blacks and mulattoes (Other sources suggest the dogs may have been dogo cubanos sourced in their hundreds from Cuba rather than Jamaica). At the Bay of Le Cap, Rochambeau had blacks drowned. No one would eat fish from the bay for months afterward, as no one wished to eat the fish that had eaten human flesh. Bonaparte, hearing that most of his army in Saint-Domingue had died of yellow fever and the French held only Port-au-Prince, Le Cap, and Les Cayes, sent about 20,000 reinforcements to Rochambeau.

Dessalines matched Rochambeau in his vicious cruelty. At Le Cap, when Rochambeau hanged 500 blacks, Dessalines replied by killing 500 whites and sticking their heads on spikes all around Le Cap, so that the French could see what he was planning on doing to them. Rochambeau’s atrocities helped rally many former French loyalists to the rebel cause. Many on both sides had come to see the war as a race war where no mercy was to be given. The Haitians were just as brutal as the French: they burned French prisoners alive, cut them up with axes, or tied them to a board and sawed them into two.

The rebels finally managed to decisively defeat the French troops at the Battle of Vertières on 18 November 1803, leading the first ever group of enslaved peoples to successfully create an independent state through a slave revolt. Having sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States in April 1803, Napoleon accepted defeat in his failing ventures in the Western Hemisphere. Dessalines won a string of victories against Leclerc and Rochambeau, becoming arguably the most successful military commander in the struggle against Napoleonic France.

Napoleon then turned his attention towards France’s European enemies such as Great Britain and Prussia. With that, he withdrew a majority of the French forces in Haiti to counter the possibility of an invasion from Prussia, Britain, and Spain on a weakened France.

War between France and Britain

With Napoleon’s inability to send the requested massive reinforcements after the outbreak of war on 18 May 1803 with the British – the Royal Navy immediately despatched a squadron under Sir John Duckworth from Jamaica to cruise in the region, seeking to eliminate communication between the French outposts and to capture or destroy the French warships based in the colony. The Blockade of Saint-Domingue not only cut the French forces out from reinforcements and supplies from France, but also meant that the British began to supply arms to the Haitians. Trapped, engaged in a vicious race war, and with much of his army dying of yellow fever, Rochambeau fell to pieces. He lost interest in commanding his army and as James wrote, he “amused himself with sexual pleasures, military balls, banquets and the amassing of a personal fortune”.

The Royal Navy squadrons soon blockaded the French-held ports of Cap Français and Môle-Saint-Nicolas on the Northern coast of the French colony. In the summer of 1803, when war broke out between the United Kingdom and the French Consulate, Saint-Domingue had been almost completely overrun by Haitian forces under the command of Jean-Jacques Dessalines. In the north of the country, the French forces were isolated in the two large ports of Cap Français and Môle-Saint-Nicolas and a few smaller settlements, all supplied by a French naval force based primarily at Cap Français.

On 28 June, the squadron encountered a French convoy from Les Cayes off Môle-Saint-Nicolas, capturing one ship although the other escaped. Two days later an independently sailing French frigate was chased down and captured in the same waters. On 24 July another British squadron intercepted the main French squadron from Cap Français, which was attempting to break past the blockade and reach France. The British, led by Commodore John Loring gave chase, but one French ship of the line and a frigate escaped. Another ship of the line was trapped against the coast and captured after coming under fire from Haitian shore batteries. The remainder of the squadron was forced to fight two more actions on their return to Europe, but did eventually reach the Spanish port of Corunna.

On 08 October 1803, the French abandoned Port-au-Prince as Rochambeau decided to concentrate what was left of his army at Le Cap. Dessalines marched into Port-au-Prince, where he was welcomed as a hero by the 100 whites who had chosen to stay behind. Dessalines thanked them all for their kindness and belief in racial equality, but then he said that the French had treated him as less than human when he was a slave, and so to avenge his mistreatment, he promptly had all of the 100 whites hanged. On 03 November, the frigate HMS Blanche captured a supply schooner near Cap Français, the last hope in supplying the French forces. On 16 November 1803, Dessalines began attacking the French blockhouses outside of Le Cap. The last battle on land of the Haitian Revolution, the Battle of Vertières, occurred on 18 November 1803, near Cap-Haïtien fought between Dessalines’ army and the remaining French colonial army under the Vicomte de Rochambeau; the slave rebels and freed revolutionary soldiers won the battle. By this point, Perry observed that both sides were “a little mad” as the pressures of the war and yellow fever had taken their toil, and both the French and the Haitians fought with a reckless courage, seeing death in battle as preferable to a slow death by yellow fever or being tortured to death by the enemy.

Haitian Victory

Rochambeau, seeing defeat inevitable, procrastinated until the last possible moment, but eventually was forced to surrender to the British commander – by the end of the month the garrison was starving, having reached the conclusion at a council of war that surrender was the only way to escape from this “place of death”. Commodore Loring, however, refused the French permission to sail and agreed terms with Dessalines that permitted them to safely evacuate provided they had left the port by 01 December. On the night of 30 November 1803, 8,000 French soldiers and hundreds of white civilians boarded the British ships to take them away. One of Rochambeau’s ships was almost wrecked while leaving the harbour, but was saved by a British lieutenant acting alone, who not only rescued the 900 people on board, but also refloated the ship. At Môle-Saint-Nicolas, General Louis de Noailles refused to surrender and instead sailed to Havana, Cuba in a fleet of small vessels on 03 December, but was intercepted and mortally wounded by a Royal Navy frigate. Soon after, the few remaining French-held towns in Saint-Domingue surrendered to the Royal Navy to prevent massacres by the Haitian army. Meanwhile, Dessalines led the rebellion until its completion, when the French forces were finally defeated by the end of 1803.

On 01 January 1804, from the city of Gonaïves, Dessalines officially declared the former colony’s independence, renaming it “Haiti” after the indigenous Arawak name. Although he lasted from 1804 to 1806, several changes began taking place in Haiti. The independence of Haiti was a major blow to France and its colonial empire, but the French state would take several decades to recognize the loss of the colony. As the French retreated, Haiti, which had once been called the “Pearl of the Antilles”, the richest French colony in the world, was impoverished, as its economy was in ruins after the revolution. Haiti struggled to recover economically from the war. The Haitians had paid a high price for their freedom, losing about 200,000 dead between 1791-1803, and unlike the majority of the European dead, who were killed by yellow fever, the majority of the Haitian dead were the victims of violence.

Free Republic

On 1 January 1804, Dessalines, the new leader under the dictatorial 1805 constitution, declared Haiti a free republic in the name of the Haitian people, which was followed by the massacre of the remaining whites. His secretary Boisrond-Tonnerre stated, “For our declaration of independence, we should have the skin of a white man for parchment, his skull for an inkwell, his blood for ink, and a bayonet for a pen!” Haiti was the first independent nation in Latin America, the first post-colonial independent black-led nation in the world, and the only nation whose independence was gained as part of a successful slave rebellion.

The country was damaged from years of war, its agriculture devastated, its formal commerce non-existent. The country, therefore, had to be rebuilt. To realise this goal, Dessalines adopted the economic organisation of serfdom. He proclaimed that every citizen would belong to one of two categories, labourer or soldier. Furthermore, he proclaimed the mastery of the state over the individual and consequently ordered that all laborers would be bound to a plantation. Those that possessed skills outside of plantation work, like craftsmanship and artisans, were exempt from this ordinance. To avoid the appearance of slavery, however, Dessalines abolished the ultimate symbol of slavery, the whip. Likewise, the working day was shortened by a third. His chief motivator nonetheless was production, and to this aim he granted much freedom to the plantations’ overseers. Barred from using the whip, many instead turned to lianes, which were thick vines abundant throughout the island, to persuade the labourers to keep working. Many of the workers likened the new labour system to slavery, much like Toussaint L’Ouverture’s system, which caused resentment between Dessalines and his people. Workers were given a fourth of all wealth produced from their labour. Nevertheless, he succeeded in rebuilding much of the country and in raising production levels, thus slowly rebuilding the economy.

Dessalines paid large sums of money to liberate slaves on slave ships in near the Haitian coast. He paid for the expenses of the returns of the thousands of Haitian refugees that left during the revolution.

Fearing a return of French forces, Dessalines first expanded and maintained a significant military force. During his reign, nearly 10% of able-bodied men were in active service resulting in a military force of up to 37,000 men. Furthermore, Dessalines ordered the construction of massive fortifications throughout the island, like the Citadelle Laferrière, the largest fortress in the Western Hemisphere. Cities and commercial centres were moved to the interior of the country, while less important ones were kept to the coast, so they could be burnt down completely to discourage the French; many commentators believe that this over militarisation contributed to many of Haiti’s future problems. In fact, because young fit men were the most likely to be drafted into the army, the plantations were thus deprived of the workforce needed to function properly.

There was growing frustration between the workers, the elites, and Dessalines. A conspiracy lead by the mulatto elites ultimately lead to Dessalines assassination and two separate sovereign states of Haiti.

The 1804 Massacre of the French

The 1804 massacre was carried out against the remaining white population of French colonists and loyalists, both enemies and traitors of the revolution, by the black population of Haiti on the order of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who declared the French as barbarians, demanding their expulsion and vengeance for their crimes. The massacre – which took place in the entire territory of Haiti – was carried out from early February 1804 until 22 April 1804. During February and March, Dessalines travelled among the cities of Haiti to assure himself that his orders were carried out. Despite his orders, the massacres were often not carried out until he personally visited the cities.

The course of the massacre showed an almost identical pattern in every city he visited. Before his arrival, there were only a few killings, despite his orders. When Dessalines arrived, he first spoke about the atrocities committed by former French authorities, such as Rochambeau and Leclerc, after which he demanded that his orders about mass killings of the area’s French population be carried out. Reportedly, he also ordered the unwilling to take part in the killings, especially men of mixed race, so that blame would not rest solely on the black population. Mass killings then took place on the streets and on places outside the cities. In parallel to the killings, plundering and rape also occurred.

Women and children were generally killed last. White women were “often raped or pushed into forced marriages under threat of death”.

By the end of April 1804, some 3,000 to 5,000 people had been killed practically eradicating the country’s white population. Dessalines had specifically stated that France is “the real enemy of the new nation.” This allowed certain categories of whites to be excluded from massacre who had to pledge their rejection to France: the Polish soldiers who deserted from the French army; the group of German colonists of Nord-Ouest who were inhabitants before the revolution; French widows who were allowed to keep their property; select male Frenchmen; and a group of medical doctors and professionals. Reportedly, also people with connections to Haitian notables were spared, as well as the women who agreed to marry non-white men. In the 1805 constitution that declared all its citizens as black, it specifically mentions the naturalisations of German and Polish peoples enacted by the government, as being exempt from Article XII that prohibited whites (“non-Haitians;” foreigners) from owning land.

Post Revolution Era

An independent government was created in Haiti, but the country’s society remained deeply affected by patterns established under French colonial rule. As in other French colonial societies, a class of free people of colour had developed after centuries of French rule here. Many planters or young unmarried men had relations with African or Afro-Caribbean women, sometimes providing for their freedom and that of their children, as well as providing for education of the mixed-race children, especially the boys. Some were sent to France for education and training, which sometimes provided entree into the French military. The mulattoes who returned to Saint-Domingue became the elite of the people of colour. As an educated class used to the French political system, they became the elite of Haitian society after the war’s end. Many of them had used their social capital to acquire wealth, and some already owned land. Some had identified more with the French colonists than the slaves. Many of the free people of colour, by contrast, were raised in French culture, had certain rights within colonial society, and generally spoke French and practiced Catholicism (with syncretic absorption of African religions).

Following Dessaline’s assassination, another of Toussaint’s black generals, Henri Christophe, succeeded his in control of the north, while Alexandre Pétion presided over mulatto rule in the south. There were large differences in governance between Petion’s republic, and what would eventually become Christophe’s kingdom. While the southern republic did not have as much focus on economic development, and put more attention on liberal land distribution and education, the northern kingdom went on to become relatively wealthy, though wealth distribution was disputed. As a result of temporary trade agreements between Christophe, the United States, and British colonies, Christophe was able to rebuild the northern region. There were large investments in education and public works, military infrastructure, and many chateaux, the most notable being the Sans Souci palace in Milot. However, much like his predecessors, this was achieved through forced labour which ultimately lead to his downfall. Contrarily, Petion was beloved by his people, but despised by his northern counterpart. A major effort by Christophe to take Port-au-Prince in mid–1812 failed. The mulattoes were harassed by a pocket of black rebellion in their rear from February 1807 to May 1819. A black leader named Goman kept alive the angry spirit of Dessalines in the southern mountains of the Grand-Anse, resisting several mulatto punitive expeditions. Finally, in 1819, the new mulatto leader, Jean-Pierre Boyer, sent six regiments into the Grand-Anse to ferret out Goman. The black rebel was trapped and shot off a 1,000-foot-high cliff. In 1820, the island nation was finally reunified when Christophe, ill and surrounded by new rebellions, killed himself. Boyer with 20,000 troops marched into Cap-Haïtien, the northern capital, shortly afterward to establish his power over all of Haiti. Not too long after, Boyer was able to secure cooperation with the general of the neighboring Spanish Haiti, and in February 1822 began a 22 year long unification with the eastern state.

The nascent state’s future was hobbled in 1825 when France forced it (with French warships anchored off the coast during the negotiations) to pay 150 million gold francs in reparations to French ex-slaveholders – as a condition of French political recognition and to end the newly formed state’s political and economic isolation. By an order of 17 April 1825, the King of France renounced his rights of sovereignty over Santo Domingo, and recognized the independence of Haiti. President Jean-Pierre Boyer believed that the constant threat of a French invasion was stymieing the Haitian economy and thus felt the need to settle the matter once and for all.

Though the amount of the reparations was reduced to 60 million francs in 1838, Haiti was unable to finish paying off its debt until 1947. The indemnity bankrupted the Haitian treasury and left the country’s government deeply impoverished, causing long-term instability. Haiti was therefore forced to take out a loan from French banks, who provided the funds for the large first instalment, severely affecting Haiti’s ability to prosper.

While Haiti suffered major economic setbacks during the early years of the post revolutionary era, the ideals of freedom and anti-colonialism never ceased to be part of the Haitian consciousness. Citizenship was offered to any slave or oppressed person that made it to Haiti’s shores as mandated by Dessaline’s constitution. All four of Haiti’s earlier rulers, Dessalines, Christophe, Petion, and Boyer all had programmes that involved swaying African Americans to resettle there and assure their freedom. Slave boats that were captured and brought to Haiti’s shores resulted in the liberation and integration of all captives on board into Haitian society. On one occasion, President Alexandre Petion protected Jamaican slaves from re-enslavement after they escaped their plantation and landed in the southern city of Jérémie. On multiple occasions, Haiti’s leaders offered asylum to liberal revolutionaries globally. One of the more notable examples of this included Haiti’s involvement with Gran Colombia, where Dessalines and Petion both offered aid, ammunitions, and asylum to Fransisco de Miranda and Simon Bolivar, who even went as far as to credit Haiti for the liberation of his country. Dessalines offered citizenship and assistance to slaves in Martinique and Guadeloupe so that they could start their own uprisings. Mexican nationalists, Javier Mina and Jose Joaquin de Hererra took asylum in Les Cayes and were welcomed by Petion during Mexico’s War of Independence. The Greeks later received support from President Boyer during their fight against the Ottomans.

The end of the Haitian Revolution in 1804 marked the end of colonialism on the island. However, the social conflict cultivated under slavery continued to affect the population for years to come. Mulatto domination of politics and economics, and urban life after the revolution, created a different kind of two-caste society, as most Haitians were rural subsistence farmers. The affranchi élite, who continued to rule Haiti while the formidable Haitian army kept them in power. France continued the slavery system in French Guiana, Martinique, and Guadeloupe.

The Impact on Slavery in the Americas

Historians continue to debate the importance of the Haitian Revolution. David Geggus asks: “How much of a difference did it make?” A limited amount, he concludes, for slavery flourished in the western hemisphere for many more decades. In the opposing camp, African-American historian W.E.B. Du Bois said that the Haitian Revolution was an economic pressure without which the British parliament would not have accepted abolitionism as readily.

Other historians say the Haitian Revolution influenced slave rebellions in the US as well as in British colonies. The biggest slave revolt in US history was the 1811 German Coast Uprising in Louisiana. This slave rebellion was put down and the punishment the slaves received was so severe that no contemporary news reports about it exist. The neighbouring revolution brought the slavery question to the forefront of US politics, and though inspiring to the enslaved themselves the resulting intensification of racial divides and sectional politics ended the idealism of the Revolutionary period. The American President Thomas Jefferson – who was a slaveholder himself – refused to establish diplomatic relations with Haiti (the United States did not recognise Haiti until 1862) and imposed an economic embargo on trade with Haiti that also lasted until 1862 in an attempt to ensure the economic failure of the new republic as Jefferson wanted Haiti to fail, regarding a successful slave revolt in the West Indies as a dangerous example for American slaves.

Beginning during the slave insurrections of 1791, white refugees from Saint-Domingue fled to the United States, particularly to Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, and Charleston. The immigration intensified after the journée (crisis) of 20 June 1793, and soon American families began to raise money and open up their homes to help exiles in what became the United States’ first refugee crisis. While some white refugees blamed the French Revolutionary government for sparking the violence in Haiti, many supported the Republican regime and openly expressed their support of the Jacobins. There is also some historical evidence suggesting that displaying solidarity with the French Revolution was the easiest way for the refugees to earn the support and sympathy of the Americans, who had just recently lived through their own revolution. American slaveholders, in particular, commiserated with the French planters who had been forcibly removed from their plantations in Saint-Domingue. While the exiles found themselves in a peaceful situation in the United States – safe from the violence raging in both France and Haiti – their presence complicated the already precarious diplomatic relations among the UK, France, and the US.

Many of the whites and free people of colour who left Saint-Domingue for the United States settled in southern Louisiana, adding many new members to its French-speaking, mixed-race, and black populations. The exiles causing the greatest amount of alarm were the African slaves who came with their refugee owners. Some southern planters grew concerned that the presence of these slaves who had witnessed the revolution in Haiti would ignite similar revolts in the United States. Other planters, however, were confident they had the situation under control.

In 1807 Haiti was divided into two parts, the Republic of Haiti in the south, and the Kingdom of Haiti in the north. Land could not be privately owned; it reverted to the State through Biens Nationaux (national bonds), and no French whites could own land. The remaining French settlers were forced to leave the island. Those who refused were slaughtered. The Haitian State owned up to 90% of the land and the other 10% was leased in 5-year intervals.

Since the resistance and the murderous disease environment made it impossible for Napoleon to regain control over Haiti, he gave up hope of rebuilding a French New World empire. He decided to sell Louisiana to the US. The Haitian Revolution brought about two unintended consequences: the creation of a continental America and the virtual end of Napoleonic rule in the Americas.

There never again was such a large-scale slave rebellion. Napoleon reversed the French abolition of slavery in law, constitution, and practice, which had occurred between 1793 and 1801, and reinstated slavery in the French colonies in 1801-1803 – which lasted until 1848.

The Relationship between the French and Haitian Revolutions

Reason for Revolution

The Haitian Revolution was a revolution ignited from below, by the underrepresented majority of the population. A huge majority of the supporters of the Haitian revolution were slaves and freed Africans who were severely discriminated against by colonial society and the law.


Despite the idealist, rational and utopian thinking surrounding both uprisings, extreme brutality was a fundamental aspect of both uprisings. Besides initial cruelty that created the precarious conditions that bred the revolution, there was violence from both sides throughout the revolution. The period of violence during the French Revolution is known as the Reign of Terror. Waves of suspicion meant that the government rounded up and killed thousands of suspects, ranging from known aristocrats to persons thought to oppose the leaders. They were killed by guillotine, “breaking at the wheel”, mobs and other death machines: death toll estimates range from 18,000 to 40,000. Total casualties for the French Revolution are estimated at 2 million. In the Caribbean, total casualties totalled approximately 162,000. Violence in Haiti was largely characterized by military confrontations, riots, killing of slave owners and their families, and guerrilla warfare.

Lasting Change

The Revolution in Haiti did not wait on the Revolution in France. The call for modification of society was influenced by the revolution in France, but once the hope for change found a place in the hearts of the Haitian people, there was no stopping the radical reformation that was occurring. The Enlightenment ideals and the initiation of the French Revolution were enough to inspire the Haitian Revolution, which evolved into the most successful and comprehensive slave rebellion in history. Just as the French were successful in transforming their society, so were the Haitians. On 04 April 1792, The French National Assembly granted freedom to slaves in saint-Domingue. The revolution culminated in 1804; Haiti was an independent state solely of freed peoples. The activities of the revolutions sparked change across the world. France’s transformation was most influential in Europe, and Haiti’s influence spanned every location that continued to practice slavery. John E. Baur honours Haiti as home of the most influential revolution in history.


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