Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) is the period of
violent conflict in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, leading to the elimination of
slavery and the establishment of Haiti as the first
republic ruled by blacks.
Battle at "Snake Gully" in 1802
Although hundreds of rebellions
occurred during the slave era, only the revolt on Saint-Domingue,
beginning in 1791, was successful in permanently abolishing
slavery. The Haitian Revolution is the only successful slave revolt
in human history, and, as such, is regarded as a defining moment in
the history of Africans in the new world,
Although an independent government was created in Haiti, its
society continued to be deeply affected by the pattern established
by the French under colonial rule. The French established a model
of minority rule over the illiterate poor using violence and
threats. Colonialism and slavery were outlived by the racial
prejudice that they had contributed to; the new post-rebellion
racial elite (referred to as mulattoes
had African ancestry, but many were also of European ancestry as
descendants of white planters. Some had received educations, served
in the military, and accumulated land and wealth. Lighter-skinned
than most Haitians, who were descendants mostly of former enslaved
Africans, these mulattoes dominated politics and economics.
Historians traditionally identify the catalyst to revolution as a
ceremony in August
1791 performed at Bois Caïman
, a priest.
The riches of the Caribbean depended on the Europeans' increasing
taste for sugar, which plantation owners traded for provisions from
North America and manufactured goods from Europe. Starting in the
1730s, French engineers constructed complex irrigation systems
to increase sugarcane
production. By the 1740s
Saint-Domingue, together with Jamaica, had become
the main supplier of the world's sugar.
depended on extensive manual labor provided by enslaved Africans in
the harsh Saint-Domingue colonial
economy. The white planters who derived their wealth
from the sale of sugar knew they were outnumbered by slaves by a
factor of more than ten and lived in fear of slave rebellion.
In 1758, the white landowners began passing legislation that set
restrictions on the rights of other groups of people until a rigid
caste system was defined. Most historians have classified the
people of the era into three groups. One was the white colonists,
. A second was the free blacks (usually
mixed-race, known as mulattoes or gens de couleur
, free people of color
). These tended to
be educated, literate and often served in the army or as
administrators on plantations. Many were children of white planters
and slave mothers. The males often received education or artisan
training, sometimes received property from their fathers, and
freedom. 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
new slaves were being continually imported. They spoke a patois of
French and West African languages known as Creole
, which was also used by
native mulattoes and whites for communication with the
White colonists and black slaves frequently had violent conflicts.
Gangs of runaway slaves, known as maroons
, lived in the woods away from
control. They often conducted violent raids on the island's sugar
and coffee plantations. The success of these attacks established a
black Haitian martial tradition of violence and brutality to effect
political ends. 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
succeeded in unifying the black resistance. A Vodou priest,
Mackandal inspired his people by drawing on African traditions and
. He united the maroon
bands and also 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.
Situation in 1789
In 1789 Saint-Domingue
, producer of
40 percent of the world's sugar, was the most profitable colony the
French owned and in fact the wealthiest and most flourishing of the
slave colonies in the Caribbean. The lowest class of society was
enslaved blacks, who outnumbered whites and people of color by
eight to one. The slave population on the island totaled at least
500,000 by 1789, almost half of the one million slaves in the
Caribbean. They were mostly African-born. The death rate in the
Caribbean exceeded the birth rate, so imports of enslaved Africans
continued. The slave population declined at an annual rate of two
to five percent, due to overwork; inadequate food, shelter,
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 labored hard under abusive
The Plaine du Nord
northern shore of Saint-Domingue was the most fertile area with the
largest sugar plantations. It was the area of most economic
importance. Here enslaved Africans 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
. This area was the
seat of power of the grand blancs
, the rich white
colonists who wanted greater autonomy for the colony, especially
Among Saint-Domingue’s 40,000 white colonials
in 1789, European-born Frenchmen
monopolized administrative posts. The sugar planters, the grand
, 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, petit blancs
, included artisans,
shopkeepers, slave dealers, overseers, and day laborers.
Saint-Domingue’s free people of color, the gens de couleur
, numbered more than
28,000 by 1789. Many of them were also artisans and overseers, or
domestic servants in the big houses.
In addition to class and racial tension between whites, free people
of color, and enslaved blacks, the country was polarized by
regional rivalries between the North
, and West
. There were also conflicts between proponents
of independence, those loyal to France, allies of Spain, and allies
Britain - who coveted control of the valuable
Impact of French Revolution
In France, the majority of the Estates General, an advisory body to
the King, constituted itself as the National Assembly
, made radical changes in
French laws, and on 26 August 1789, published the Declaration of the Rights of
, declaring all men free and equal. The French Revolution
shaped the course of the
conflict in Saint-Domingue and was at first widely welcomed in the
island. So many were the twists and turns in the leadership in
France, and so complex were events in Saint-Domingue, that various
classes and parties changed their alignments many times.
The African population on the island began to hear of the agitation
for independence by the rich European planters, the grands
, 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
independence were to be led by white slave masters, it would
probably mean even harsher treatment and increased injustice for
the African population as the plantation owners would be free to
inflict slavery as they pleased without even minimal accountability
to their French peers.
Saint-Domingue's free people of
, most notably Julien
, 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 French National Assembly
October 1790, Vincent Ogé
wealthy free man of color from the colony, returned home from
Paris, where he had been working with Raimond. Convinced that a law
passed by the French Constituent
gave full civil rights
wealthy men of color, Ogé demanded the right to vote
. When the colonial governor refused, Ogé
led a brief insurgency in the area around
was captured in early 1791, and brutally executed by being broken
on the wheel. Ogé was not fighting against slavery, but 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 conflict up to this
point was between factions of whites, and between whites and free
coloreds. Enslaved blacks watched from the sidelines.
French writer Count
Mirabeau had once said the Saint-Domingue whites "slept at the
foot of Vesuvius", an
indication of the grave threat they faced should the majority of
slaves launch a sustained major uprising.
1791 slave rebellion
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 color in
May of 1791. However, white plantation owners refused to comply
with this decision and within two months isolated fighting broke
out between former slaves and the whites. This contributed to the
tense climate between slaves and grands blancs.
Raynal’s prediction came true on 22 August 1791, when the slaves of
Saint Domingue rose in revolt 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, during a
nocturnal religious ceremony at Bois Caïman. Within the next ten
days, slaves had taken control of the entire Northern Province in
an unprecedented slave revolt that left the whites in control of
only a few isolated, fortified camps. The slaves sought revenge on
their masters through “pillage, rape, torture, mutilation, and
death”. Because the plantation owners long feared a revolt like
this, they were well armed and prepared to defend themselves. They
retaliated by massacring black prisoners as they were being
escorted back to town by soldiers. Within weeks, the number of
slaves that joined the revolt was approximately 100,000, and within
the next two months, as the violence escalated, the slaves killed
2,000 whites and burned or destroyed 180 sugar plantations and
hundreds of coffee and indigo plantations.
By 1792, slaves controlled a third of the island. The success of
the slave rebellion caused the newly elected Legislative Assembly
in France to realize it was facing an ominous situation. In order
to protect France’s economic interests, the Legislative Assembly
needed to grant civil and political rights to free men of color in
the colonies. In March 1792, the Legislative Assembly did just
that. Countries throughout Europe as well as the United States were
shocked by the decision of the Legislative Assembly. Members of the
Assembly were determined to stop the revolt, so apart from granting
these rights, they dispatched 6,000 Frenchmen to the island.
Meanwhile, in 1793, France declared war on Great Britain. The white
planters and slave owners in Saint Domingue made agreements with
Great Britain to declare British sovereignty over the islands.
controlled the rest of the island of Hispaniola, would also join the conflict and fight with Great
Britain against France.
The Spanish forces invaded Saint
Domingue and were joined by the slave forces. By August 1793, there
were only 3,500 French soldiers on the island. To prevent military
disaster, a French commissioner freed the slaves in his
jurisdiction. The decision was confirmed and extended by the
in 1794 when
they formally abolished slavery and granted civil and political
rights to all black men in the colonies. It is estimated that the
slave rebellion resulted in the death of 100,000 blacks and 24,000
The author Thomas Carlyle
these events dramatically:
"[describes disorders and shortages in France] ... not
so much as Sugar can be had; for good reasons ...
With factions, suspicions, want of bread and sugar, it
is verily what they call déchiré, torn asunder this poor
country: France and all that is French.
For, over seas too come bad news.
In black Saint-Domingo, before that variegated Glitter
in the Champs Elysées was lit for an Accepted Constitution, there
had risen, and was burning contemporary with it, quite another
variegated Glitter and nocturnal Fulgor, had we known it: of
molasses and ardent-spirits; of
sugar-boileries, plantations, furniture, cattle and men: skyhigh;
the Plain of Cap
Français one huge
whirl of smoke and flame!
What a change here, in these two years; since
that first 'Box of Tricolor Cockades' got through the Custom-house, and atrabiliar Creole too rejoiced that there was a
levelling of Bastilles!
Levelling is comfortable, as we often say: levelling,
yet only down to oneself.
Your pale-white Creole,
have their grievances: — and your yellow Quarteroons?
And your dark-yellow Mulattoes?
And your Slaves soot-black?
Quarteroon Ogé, Friend of our Parisian Brissotin Friends of the Blacks, felt, for his
share too, that Insurrection was the most sacred of
So the tricolor Cockades had fluttered and swashed only some three
months on the Creole hat, when Ogé's signal-conflagrations went
aloft; with the voice of rage and terror.
Repressed, doomed to die, he took black powder or
seedgrains in the hollow of his hand, this Ogé; sprinkled a film of
white ones on the top, and said to his Judges, "Behold they are
white;" — then shook his hand, and said "Where are the Whites,
Ou sont les Blancs?"
Before the fire was an insurrection by the oppressed
So now, in the Autumn of 1791, looking from the
sky-windows of Cap Français, thick clouds of smoke girdle our
horizon, smoke in the day, in the night fire; preceded by fugitive
shrieking white women, by Terror and Rumour.
Leadership of Toussaint
One of the most successful black commanders was Toussaint L'Ouverture
, a self-educated
former domestic slave. Like Jean François and Biassou, he initially
fought for the Spanish crown. After the British had invaded
Saint-Domingue, he 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 1793. Toussaint L'Ouverture worked with a
French general, Étienne Laveaux, to ensure all slaves would be
freed. He brought his forces over to the French side in May 1794
and began to fight for the French Republic. Many enslaved Africans
were attracted to Toussaint's forces. He insisted on discipline and
restricted wholesale slaughter.
Under the military leadership of Toussaint, the forces made up
mostly of former slaves succeeded in winning concessions from the
English and expelling the Spanish forces. In the end, he
essentially restored control of Saint-Domingue to France. 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
effectively as an autonomous entity. L'Ouverture overcame a
succession of local rivals (including the Commissioner Sonthonax,
, who fought to keep
control of the South, and Comte
). Hédouville forced a fatal wedge between Rigaud
and Toussaint before he escaped back to France. Toussaint defeated
a British expeditionary force
1798, and even led an invasion of neighboring Santo Domingo,
freeing the slaves there by 1801.
In 1801, L'Ouverture issued a constitution for Saint-Domingue which
provided for autonomy and decreed that he would be
governor-for-life. In retaliation, 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, and
under secret instructions to later restore slavery [needs
citation]. 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. During the struggles, some of
Toussaint's closest allies, including Jean-Jacques Dessalines
, defected to
L'Ouverture was promised his freedom, if he agreed to integrate his
remaining troops into the French Army. L'Ouverture agreed to this
in May 1802 but was later deceived, seized, and shipped off to
died months later while imprisoned at Fort-de-Joux in the Jura region.
Jean Jacques Dessalines
Resistance to slavery
For a few months the island was quiet under Napoleonic rule.
it became apparent that the French intended to re-establish slavery
(because they did so on Guadeloupe), Dessalines and Pétion switched sides again, in
October 1802, and fought against the French.
Leclerc died of yellow fever
, like much
of his army, and his successor, the Vicomte de Rochambeau
, fought an even
more brutal campaign. His atrocities helped rally many former
French loyalists to the rebel cause. The French were further
weakened by a British naval blockade
and by the unwillingness of Napoleon to send the requested massive
reinforcements. Napoleon had sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States
in April 1803, and had begun to lose interest in his ventures in
Dessalines led the rebellion until its
completion when the French forces were finally defeated in
battle of the Haitian Revolution, the Battle of Vertières, occurred on 18
November 1803, near Cap-Haitien and was fought between Haitian rebels led by
Jean-Jacques Dessalines and
the French colonial army under the Viscount of Rochambeau.
January 1804, from the city of Gonaïves, Dessalines officially declared the former colony's
independence, renaming it "Haiti" after the indigenous Arawak name.
This major loss was a decisive
blow to France and its colonial empire.
On 1 January 1804, Dessalines
, the new leader under the
dictatorial 1801 constitution, declared Haiti a free republic.
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 crippled by years of war, its
agriculture devastated, its formal commerce nonexistent, and the
people uneducated and mostly unskilled.
Haiti agreed to make reparations to French slaveholders in 1825 in
the amount of 150 million francs, reduced in 1838 to 60 million
francs, in exchange for French recognition of its independence and
to achieve freedom from French aggression. This indemnity
bankrupted the Haitian treasury and mortgaged Haiti's future to the
French banks providing the funds for the large first installment,
permanently affecting Haiti's ability to be prosperous.
The end of the Haitian Revolution in 1804 marked the end of
colonialism in Haiti, but the social conflict cultivated under
slavery continued to affect the population. The revolution left in
power an affranchi
élite as well as the
formidable Haitian army. France continued the slavery system in
Martinique and Guadeloupe.
Great Britain was able to abolish its slave
trade in 1807 and in 1833 abolished slavery completely in the
British West Indies
formally recognized Haiti as an independent nation in 1834, as did
the United States in 1862.
The Haitian Revolution was influential in slave rebellions in
America and British colonies. The loss of a major source of western
revenue shook Napoleon's faith in the promise of the western world,
encouraging him to unload other French assets in the region
including the territory known as Louisiana
. In the early 1800s, many
refugees, including free people of color and white planters, of
whom some in both categories had owned slaves, settled in New
Orleans, adding many new members to both its French-speaking
mixed-race population and African population.
In 1807 Britain became the first major power to permanently
the slave trade
. However slavery was not fully
abolished in the British West Indies until 1833, and it continued
in the French colonies until 1848. The Haitian Revolution stood as
a model for achieving emancipation for slaves in the United States
who attempted to mimic Toussaint Louverture's actions. Louverture
remains a popular figure to this day.In 2004, Haiti celebrated the
bicentennial of its independence from France.
Literature and art
- English poet William
Wordsworth published his sonnet "To Toussaint Louverture" in January 1803.
- Heinrich von Kleist's
"Verlobung in St. Domingo" (Betrothal in St. Domingo), published in
1811, sets a complex primary narrative against the background of
the Haitian Revolution.
- In 1939, American artist Jacob
Lawrence created a series of paintings "The Life of Toussaint
Louverture", which he later adapted into prints.
- Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier's
second novel, The Kingdom
of this World (1949), (translated into English 1957),
explores the Haitian Revolution in depth. It is one of the novels
that inaugurated the Latin American renaissance in fiction
beginning in the mid-20th century.
- Madison Smartt Bell has
written a trilogy called All Souls
Rising about the life of Toussaint Louverture and the
slave uprising. Vintage Books, 1995.
- In 2004 an exhibition of paintings entitled Caribbean Passion: Haiti 1804, by artist
Kimathi Donkor, was held in London to celebrate the bicentenary of
- Danny Glover is planning to direct
a film about Toussaint Louverture in 2009.
- *Please note that the URL in a footnote whose link
is followed by an asterisk may occasionally require special
- James, The Black Jacobins, p. ix
- Herbert Klein, Transatlantic Slave Trade, Pg. 32-33
- Tim Matthewson, A Pro-Slavery Foreign Policy: Haitian-American
Relations During the Early Republic, (Praeger: Westport, Ct. and
London, 2003) Pg. 3
- C.L.R. James, Black Jacobins (Vintage, 1989) Pg. 29
- Robert Heinl, Written in Blood: The History of the Haitian
People, New York: Lanham, 1996, p. 45
- Hochschild, Adam Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to
Abolish Slavery (2006)
- Center and Hunt, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity,
- Blackburn, "Haiti's Slavery in the Age of the Democratic
Revolution", William and Mary Quarterly 63.4, 633-644
- Censer and Hunt, Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity,
123. Dutty Boukman, Haitianite.com 
- Censer and Hunt, Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity,
- Blackpast.com, Haitian Revolution 1791-1804
Carlyle, The French Revolution: A
History, Chapter 2.5.IV. "No Sugar" 
- Web pages for FRD Country Studies are subject to changes of
URL. If a page linked from a footnote that cites the Haiti study
bears a title different from that cited next to the link, consult
Country Study: Haiti for the revised URL.
- Blackburn, Robin. "Haiti, Slavery, and the Age of the
Democratic Revolution", William and Mary Quarterly 63.4,
- Blackpast.org. Haitian Revolution (1791-1804).
- Censer, Jack & Lynn Hunt. Liberty, Equality,
Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution. University Park,
Pennsylvania.: Pennsylvania State University Press (2001) ISBN
- Dubois, Laurent. Avengers of the New World: The Story of
the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of
Harvard University (2005) ISBN 0-674-01826-5.
- Dubois, Laurent & Garrigus, John D. Slave Revolution in
the Caribbean, 1789–1804: A Brief History with Documents.
Bedford/St. Martin's Press (2006) ISBN 0-312-41501-X.
- Garrigus, John D. Before Haiti: Race and Citizenship in
Saint-Domingue. Palgrave-Macmillan, (2006) ISBN
- Geggus, David P. Haitian Revolutionary Studies.
University of South Carolina Press, (2002) ISBN 1-57003-416-8.
- James, C.L.R. The Black
Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo
Revolution. Vintage, 2nd edition, (1989) ISBN
- Haitianite.com. Dutty Boukman – Samba Boukman, 2
- Ott, Thomas O. The Haitian Revolution, 1789–1804.
University of Tennessee Press, 1973.
- Peyre-Ferry, Joseph Elysée. Journal des opérations
militaires de l'armée francaise à Saint-Domingue,1802-1803
(2006), ISBN 2846210527.