The Haitian Revolution of 1791-1803

An Historical Essay in Four Parts by Bob Corbett

Overview of First Essay

The shortest account which one typically hears of the Haitian Revolution is that the slaves rose up In 1791 and by 1803 had driven the whites out of Saint-Domingue, (the colonial name of Haiti) declaring the independent Republic of Haiti. It's certainly true that this happened. But, the Revolution was much more complex. Actually there were several revolutions going on simultaneously, all deeply influenced by the French Revolution which commenced In Paris in 1789. In this first of four essays on The Haitian Revolution, I will do two things:

  1. Analyze the antecedents of the revolution and clarify some of the complex and shifting positions of the various interest groups which participated in it.
  2. Follow the earliest days of three revolutionary movements:
    1. The planters' move toward independence.
    2. The people of color's revolution for full citizenship.
    3. The slave uprising of 1791.

Prelude to the Revolution:  1760 to 1789

The colony of Saint-Domingue, geographically roughly the same land mass that is today Haiti, was the richest colony in the West Indies and probably the richest colony in the history of the world. Driven by slave labor and enabled by fertile soil and ideal climate, Saint-Domingue produced sugar, coffee, cocoa, indigo, tobacco, cotton, sisal as well as some fruits and vegetables for the motherland, France.

When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, there were four distinct sets of interest groups in Saint-Domingue, with distinct sets of interests and even some important distinctions within these many categories:

The Whites

There were approximately 20,000 whites, mainly French, in Saint-Domingue. They were divided into two main groups:

The Planters

These were wealthy whites who owned plantations and many slaves. Since their wealth and position rested entirely on the slave economy they were united in support of slavery. They were, by 1770, extremely disenchanted with France. Their complaint was almost identical with the complaints that led the North American British to rebel against King George in 1776 and declare their independence. That is, the metropole (France), imposed strict laws on the colony prohibiting any trading with any partner except France. Further, the colonists had no formal representation with the French government.

Virtually all the planters violated the laws of France and carried on an illegal trade especially with the fledgling nation, the United States of America. Most of the planters leaned strongly toward independence for Saint-Domingue along the same lines as the U.S., that is, a slave nation governed by white males.

It is important to note at the outset that this group was revolutionary, independence-minded and defiant of the laws of France.

Petit Blancs

The second group of whites were less powerful than the planters. They were artisans, shop keepers, merchants, teachers and various middle and underclass whites. They often had a few slaves, but were not wealthy like the planters.

They tended to be less independence-minded and more loyal to France.

However, they were committed to slavery and were especially anti-black, seeing free persons of color as serious economic and social competitors.

The Free Persons of Color

There were approximately 30,000 free persons of color in 1789. About half of them were mulattoes, children of white Frenchmen and slave women. These mulattoes were often freed by their father-masters in some sort of paternal guilt or concern. These mulatto children were usually feared by the slaves since the masters often displayed unpredictable behavior toward them, at times recognizing them as their children and demanding special treatment, at other times wishing to deny their existence. Thus the slaves wanted nothing to do with the mulattoes if possible.

The other half of the free persons of color were black slaves who had purchased their own freedom or been given freedom by their masters for various reasons.

The free people of color were often quite wealthy, certainly usually more wealthy than the petit blancs (thus accounting for the distinct hatred of the free persons of color on the part of the petit blancs), and often even more wealthy than the planters.

The free persons of color could own plantations and owned a large portion of the slaves. They often treated their slaves poorly and almost always wanted to draw distinct lines between themselves and the slaves. Free people of color were usually strongly pro-slavery.

There were special laws which limited the behavior of the free people of color and they did not have rights as citizens of France. Like the planters, they tended to lean toward independence and to wish for a free Saint-Domingue which would be a slave nation in which they could be free and independent citizens. As a class they certainly regarded the slaves as much more their enemies than they did the whites.

Culturally the free people of color strove to be more white than the whites. They denied everything about their African and black roots. They dressed as French and European as the law would allow, they were well educated in the French manner, spoke French and denigrated the Creole language of the slaves. They were scrupulous Catholics and denounced the Voodoo religion of Africa. While the whites treated them badly and scorned their color, they nonetheless strove to imitate every thing white, seeing this a way of separating themselves from the status of the slaves whom they despised.

The Black Slaves

There were some 500,000 slaves on the eve of the French Revolution. This means the slaves outnumbered the free people by about 10-1. In general the slave system in Saint-Domingue was especially cruel. In the pecking order of slavery one of the most frightening threats to recalcitrant slaves in the rest of the Americas was to threaten to sell them to Saint- Domingue. Nonetheless, there was an important division among the slaves which will account for some divided behavior of the slaves in the early years of the revolution.

Domestic Slaves

About 100,000 of the slaves were domestics who worked as cooks, personal servants and various artisans around the plantation manor, or in the towns. These slaves were generally better treated than the common field hands and tended to identify more fully with their white and mulatto masters. As a class they were longer in coming into the anti-slave revolution, and often, in the early years, remained loyal to their owners.

Field Hands

The 400,000 field hands were the slaves who had the harshest and most hopeless lives. They worked from sun up to sun down in the difficult climate of Saint-Domingue. They were inadequately fed, with virtually no medical care, not allowed to learn to read or write and in general were treated much worse than the work animals on the plantation. Despite French philosophical positions which admitted the human status of slaves (something which the Spanish, United States and British systems did NOT do at this time), the French slave owners found it much easier to replace slaves by purchasing new ones than in worrying much to preserve the lives of existing slaves.

The Maroons

There was a large group of run-away slaves who retreated deep into the mountains of Saint-Domingue. They lived in small villages where they did subsistence farming and kept alive African ways, developing African architecture, social relations, religion and customs. They were bitterly anti-slavery, but alone, were not willing to fight the fight for freedom. They did supplement their subsistence farming with occasional raids on local plantations, and maintained defense systems to resist planter forays to capture and re-enslave them.

It is hard to estimate their numbers, but most scholars believe there were tens of thousands of them prior to the Revolution of 1791. Actually two of the leading generals of the early slave revolution were maroons.

Pre-Revolutionary Moments and Complex Alliances

The French Revolution of 1789 In France was the spark which lit The Haitian Revolution of 1791. But, prior to that spark there was a great deal of dissatisfaction with the Metropolitan France and that dissatisfaction created some very strange alliances and movements.

The Independence Movement

France enforced a system called the "exclusif" on Saint-Domingue. This required that Saint-Domingue sold 100% of her exports to France alone, and purchased 100% of her imports from France alone. The French merchants and crown set the prices for both imports and exports, and the prices were extraordinarily favorable to France and in no way competitive with world markets. It was virtually the same system as that which England had forced on its North American colonies and which finally sparked the independence movement in these colonies.

Like the North Americans, the Saint-Dominguans did not abide strictly by the law. A contraband trade grew up with the British in Jamaica and especially with British North America, and after its successful revolution, the United States. The Americans wanted molasses from Saint- Domingue for their burgeoning rum distilleries, and Saint-Domingue imported huge quantities of low quality dried fish to feed to the slaves.

Nonetheless, the planters (both white and free people of color) chafed under the oppression of France's exclusif. There was a growing independence movement, and in this movement the white planters were united with the free people of color. It was a curious alliance, since the whites continued to oppress the free people of color in their social life, but formed a coalition with them on the political and economic front.

The petit blancs remained mainly outside this coalition, primarily because they were not willing to form any sort of alliance with any people of color, free or not. The petit blancs were avowed racists and were especially offended and threaten by the elevated economic status of most of the free people of color.

It is important to note that this independence movement did not include the slaves in any way whatsoever. Those who were a party to the movement were avowed slave owners and their vision of a free Saint-Domingue was like the United States, a slave owning nation.

Slave Rebellions

Simultaneously there were constant slave rebellions. The slaves never willing submitted to their status and never quit fighting it. The slave owners, both white and people of color, feared the slaves and knew that the incredible concentration of slaves (the slaves outnumbered the free people 10-1) required exceptional control. This, in part, accounts for the special harshness and cruelty of slavery in Saint-Domingue. The owners tried to keep slaves of the same tribes apart; they forbade any meetings of slaves at all; they tied slaves rigorously to their own plantations, brutally punished the slightest manifestation of non-cooperation and employed huge teams of harsh overseers.

Nonetheless the slaves fought back in whatever way they could. One of the few weapons the masters could not control were poisons, which grew wild In Saint-Domingue, the knowledge of which the slaves brought with them from Africa. The history of slavery In Saint-Domingue, like that of slavery everywhere, is a history of constant rebellion and resistance. One of the most famous and successful revolutions prior to 1791 was the Mackandal rebellion of 1759. The slave Mackandal, a houngan knowledgeable of poisons, organized a widespread plot to poison the masters, their water supplies and animals. The movement spread great terror among the slave owners and killed hundreds before the secret of Mackandal was tortured from a slave. The rebellion was crushed and Mackandal brutally put to death. But, it reflects the constant fear in which the slave owners lived, and explains the brutality of their system of control.

The slave rebellions were without allies among either the whites or free people of color. They were not even fully united among themselves, and the domestic slaves especially tended to be more loyal to their masters.

The maroons, in the meantime, were in contact with rebellious slaves, but they had few firm alliances. Nonetheless, their hatred of slavery, their fear of being re-enslaved and their desire to be free and safe in their own country, made them ready allies were a serious slave revolution to begin.

The Earliest Period of the Revolution:  1789-1791

The Revolution in France, 1789 ...

It is necessary to remind the readers briefly of what was going on in France at this time. Prior to the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, France was ruled by a king. King Louis XVI and his queen Marie Antoinette were only two in a long line of greedy monarchs who cared little about their people. Nonetheless, a movement for a general concept of human rights, universal citizenship and participation in government had developed among the intellectuals and was taking root among the common people. This movement finally broke into full revolution in 1789 and ordinary citizens, for the first time in France's history, had the rights of citizenship.

People in France were divided into two camps, the red cockades, those in favor of the revolution and the white cockades, those loyal to the system of monarchy. (This had to do with the color of the hats they wore.) This whole social upheaval had a necessary impact on Saint-Domingue, and people had to begin to choose up sides.

In France the tendency was to be a revolutionary or a monarchist, and to remain fairly strongly within that camp. In Saint-Domingue, however, things were much more fluid. Not only were all the issues which plagued France being played out, but the additional issues of the independence movement, the movement toward rights for free people of color and the question of slavery. This caused Saint-Dominguans to shift from the side of the revolution to the side of monarchy and vice versa with blinding suddenness, and makes following the line-up of whose on whose side very difficult. It always depends on when in the revolution you are speaking.

The Free Persons of Color

The revolution progressed quickly in France, and on August 26, 1789 the newly convened Estates General (a general parliament of the people) passed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. This declaration immediately raised the question of slavery.

The Aimis des Noirs (Friend of the Blacks).

In 1787 an anti-slavery society was founded in France. it was modeled after the anti-slavery society of England and influenced by Thomas Clarkson. They also had strong contacts with American abolitionists. They wanted the gradual elimination of slavery, yet they wanted the retention of France's prosperous West Indian colonies. After the declaration of rights, they were forced to make important decisions on where they stood. Rather than address the question of slavery, they decided to follow their gradualist position and to address the question of free persons of color.

There was a strong case to make for this group. The slaves were properly and thus the question of their humanity could be put on the back burner. Human Rights were something for white French males, not for blacks or property-less French men or any women. However, the free persons of color were a different matter all together. Not only were they not prop- erty, but were themselves property owners and tax payers. The Amis des Noirs decided that this would be the place to begin their battle, not with the question of the abolition of slavery itself.

On March 28, 1790 the General Assembly in Paris passed an ambiguous piece of legislation. While the various colonies were given a relatively free hand in local government, an amendment required that "all the proprietors... ought to be active citizens. The amendment was both too much and not enough. It seemed to possibly exclude the petit blancs, thus increasing their anger against the free persons of color, and, on the other hand, it seemed to argue for citizenship for free persons of color who were property owners -- which was most of them.

Back in Saint-Domingue there were two separate issues, each demanding different and contradictory alliances. It was these conflicting demands on peoples' loyalties which caused much of the shifting about in these early years. On the one hand the petit blancs and the white planters formed an uneasy union against the French bureaucrats. The issue was independence and local control. The bureaucrats were seen as strongly pro-French. Thus the battle lines were draw on the basis of loyalty to the new revolution in France. All the whites of Saint-Domingue began to sport the red cockade of the revolution, and the French bureaucrats were painted with the white cockade of French monarchy.

However, this was an uneasy alliance. The white planters were not revolutionaries in the French sense at all. Nor did they want full rights for the petit blancs. It was a doomed alliance and didn't last long.

On the other hard, the natural allies of the white planter's were the free people of color. Both were from the wealthy class, both supported independence and slavery and neither wanted to change the traditional control of society by wealthy propertied people. The change would have been to allow the wealthy free persons of color their share in power, wealth and social prestige in this union. This was extremely difficult for the white planters to do until it was too late.

Some saw this necessity, but couldn't convince the others. One white planter argued: 'Win over the gens de couleur class to your cause. They surely could not ask for more than conforming their interests with yours, and of employing themselves with the zeal for common security. It is therefore only a question of being just to them and of treating them better and better." But, of course, this advice went unheeded and the coalitions all broke down in due course.

The immediate result of the General Assembly meeting was for Saint-Domingue to bring the white population to the brink of a three-sided civil war. The petit blancs formed a Colonial Assembly at St. Marc for home rule. The white planters saw this was totally against their interests, thus they withdrew and formed their own assembly at Cape Francois (today Cape Haitien). At the same time this split between the two colonial white groups gave strength to the French government officials who had lost effective control of the colony. Each of the three forces were poised to strike against the other. Yet, in the crazy contradictions of this whole situation, the petit blancs and white planters each carried on their own private war of terror against the free people of color.

Rich Saint-Domingue mulatto, Vincent Oge had been in Paris during the debates of March, 1790. He had tried to be seated as a delegate from Saint- Domingue and was rebuffed. He and other Saint-Dominguan men of color had tried to get the General Assembly to specify that the provision for citizenship included the free persons of color. Having failed in all of that, Oge resolved to return to Saint-Domingue and one way or the other, by power of persuasion or power of arms, to force the issue of citizenship for free persons of color.

Oge visited the famous anti-slavery advocate Thomas Clarkson in England, then went to the United States to meet with leading abolitionists and to purchase arms and munitions. He returned to Saint-Domingue and began to pursue his cause. Upon seeing that there was no hope to persuade the whites to allow their citizenship, Oge formed a military band with Jean-Baptist Chavannes. They set up headquarters in Grand Riviere, just east of Cape Francois and prepared to march on the stronghold of the colonists. It is important to note that Oge consciously rejected the help of black slaves. He wanted no part of any alliance with the slaves, and regarded them in the same way the whites did -- a property.

The Deaths of Oge and Chavannes

In early November Oge and Chavannes' forces were badly beaten, many of their tiny band of 300 captured while Oge and Chavannes escaped into Santo Domingo, the Spanish part of the island. The Spanish happily arrested the two and turned them over to the whites in Cape Francois. On March 9, 1791 the captured soldiers were hanged and Oge and Chavannes tortured to death in the public square, being put on the rack and their bodies split apart. The whites intended to send a strong message to any people of color who would dare to fight back.

Thus ended the first mini-war in the Haitian Revolution. It had nothing to do with freeing the slaves and didn't involve the slaves in any way at all. Yet the divisions among slave owners, the divisions among the whites, the divisions among colonial French and metropolitan French, the divisions among whites and free persons of color, all set the stage to make possible a more successful slave rebellion than had previously been possible.

The Slave Rebellion of August 21, 1791

Typically historians date the beginnings of the Haitian Revolution with the uprising of the slaves on the night of August 21st. While I've given reasons above to suspect that the revolution was already under way, the entry of the slaves into the struggle is certainly an historic event. And the event is so colorful that not even Hollywood would have to improve upon history.

Boukman and the Voodoo Service

For several years the slaves had been deserting their plantations with increasing frequency. The numbers of maroons had swollen dramatically and all that was needed was some spark to ignite the pent up frustration, hatred and impulse toward independence.

This event was a Petwo Voodoo service. On the evening of August 14th Dutty Boukman, a houngan and practitioner of the Petwo Voodoo cult, held a service at Bois Caiman. A woman at the service was possessed by Ogoun, the Voodoo warrior spirit. She sacrificed a black pig, and speaking the voice of the spirit, named those who were to lead the slaves and maroons to revolt and seek a stark justice from their white oppressors. (Ironically, it was the whites and not the people of color who were the targets of the revolution, even though the people of color were often very harsh slave owners.)

The woman named Boukman, Jean-Francois, Biassou and Jeannot as the leaders of the uprising. It was some time later before Toussaint, Henry Christophe, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Andre Rigaud took their places as the leading generals who brought The Haitian Revolution to its final triumph.

Word spread rapidly of this historic and prophetic religious service and the maroons and slaves readied themselves for a major assault on the whites. This uprising which would not ever be turned back, began on the evening of August 21st. The whole northern plain surrounding Cape Francois was in flames. Plantation owners were murdered, their women raped and killed, children slaughtered and their bodies mounted on poles to lead the slaves. It was an incredibly savage outburst, yet it still fell short of the treatment the slaves had received, and would still continue to receive, from the white planters.

The once rich colony was in smoldering ruins. More than a thousand whites had been killed. Slaves and maroons across the land were hurrying to the banner of the revolution. The masses of northern slaves laid siege to Cape Francois itself.

In the south and west the rebellion took on a different flavor. In Mirebalais there was a union of people of color and slaves, and they were menacing the whole region. A contingent of white soldiers marched out of Port-au-Prince, but were soundly defeated. Then the revolutionaries marched on Port-au-Prince. However, the free people of color did not want to defeat the whites, they wanted to join them. And, more importantly, they didn't want to see the slaves succeed and push for emancipation. Consequently, they offered a deal to the whites and joined forces with them, turning treacherously on their black comrades in arms.

This was a signal to the whites in Cape Francois of how to handle their difficult and deteriorating situation. On September 20, 1791 the Colonial Assembly recognized the Paris decree of May, and they even took it a step further. They recognized the citizenship of all free people of color, regardless of their property and birth status. Thus the battle lines were drawn with all the free people, regardless of color, on the one side, and the black slaves and maroons on the other.

Meanwhile, in France word of the uprising caused the General Assembly to re-think its position. The Assembly thought it had gone too far with the May Decree and had endangered the colonial status of Saint-Domingue. Consequently on September 23rd the May Decree was revoked. Then the Assembly named three commissioners to go to Saint-Domingue with 18,000 soldiers and restore order, slavery and French control.

When the commissioners arrived In December, 1791, their position was considerably weaker than the General Assembly had suggested. Instead of 18,000 troops they had 6,000. In the meantime the whites in the south and west had attempted to revoke the rights of free people of color, and broken the alliance. Not only did the free people of color break with the whites and set up their own struggle centered in Croix-des-Bouquets, but many whites, particularly the planters, joined them. Thus thus south and west were divided into three factions, and the whites in Port-au-Prince were in a most weakened position.

In Cape Francois the Colonial Assembly did not move against the free people of color, but the slaves intensified their struggle and the whites were virtual prisoners in the town of Cape Francois. Most of the northern plain was in ruins.

Back in France it became apparent that the First Civil Commission with its 6,000 troops could not bring peace back to Saint-Domingue. When the authorities in France debated the issue it was clear to them that the problem was to bring unity between the free people of color and the whites against the rebelling slaves. Thus once again Paris reversed itself and with the historic and landmark Decree of April, 4, 1792, the free people of color were finally given full citizenship with the whites.

The Assembly in Paris prepared a Second Civil Commission to go to Saint- Domingue and enforce the April 4th decree. This commission contained Felicite Leger Sonthonax, a man who was to figure importantly in the future of The Haitian Revolution.

This is the first in a four part series of articles on the Haitian Revolution written by Bob Corbett.
Go to Part 2
Go to Part 3
Go to Part 4

Please, comments and corrections are welcomed!


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