Subject: How did Haiti win her first revolution?

Bob Corbett

I am just finishing an interesting book called POLAND'S CARIBBEAN TRAGEDY which is about the Polish legions who fought with the French in the 1802-1803 campaign before Haitian independence. The author speculates about the causes of the Haitian victory, but does not mention the fact that the slaves outnumbered the free people (white and black) by a 10-1 ratio.

He argues that there were 3 major causes of the final victory: (in this order of importance)

  1. The determination and organization of the rebel forces.
  2. Yellow fever.
  3. The support of the British after they once again declared war on France in 1802.

I have always felt that one of the major causes was the 10-1 ratio of slaves to free people in 1791 when the revolution first broke out. But this author never mentions this factor at all. However, he is much taken with comparing the conditions of slavery on Jamaica under the British. That has set me to wondering about the situation in Jamaica.

What was the ratio of slaves to free people in Jamaica during the period of British slavery? Can anyone help me out on this one?




Date: Tue, 30 May 1995

From Bob Corbett:

In a recent post I asked for help in finding out what the ratio of slaves to free persons was in Jamaica at the time of the Haitian Revolution. Special thanks to Patrick Jamieson and Gordon Scobie who gave me that explicit information. Also, others wrote in with useful leads too.

Below I will work with the information of Jamieson and Scobie to reflect a bit about a problem of understanding that I have concerning The Haitian Revolution in comparison with Jamiaca.

From: Patrick Jamieson

"Another cause of anxiety in Jamaica was the dangerous excess in numbers of the Negro slaves over the white settlers: by 1775 this stood at 200,000 to 12,737."

Clinton Black, HISTORY OF JAMAICA, London, 1958, p. 114.

From: Gordon Scobie

I have had a look a Angus Calder, Revolutionary Empire. page 458 Calder advises that there was one white to six blacks in 1698 and that by 1778 the ratio was one to eleven. He also states that during the first three quarters of the 18th century that Jamica imported close to half a million slaves, but that over the same period the slave population only increased by 15,000. This of course points to the high mortality rate among the slaves.

Corbett continues:

On the basis of the information provided by Jamieson and Scobie we see that the relative proportion of slaves in Haiti and Jamaica were not terribly different.

Saint Domingue:
1779: approx 50,000 free peope
approx 500,00 slaves
Ratio: 10 - 1.

1775: approx 13,000 free people
approx 200,00 slaves
Ratio: 15 - 1
or: 1778: Ratio: 11 - 1.

Now, given that Jamaica had a greater ratio of slaves to free persons, that ratio itself cannot be seen as such a great factor in the Haitian Revolution. Other factors must weigh heavier since Jamaica did not experience the revolution which Haiti did. What were the factors between the two colonies which were different, and thus where we might look to see why Haiti could sustain a revolutionary movement and Jamaica not.

I see a lot of factors. I will simply list them with minimal comment and invite discussion of those who want to elaborate. My list is not rigorously in the order of relative importance, though it is mainly so. The first item is simply in chronological order and is both chronologically first and, on my view, extremely important in accounting for the growth of the revolutionary movement:

  1. The French Revolution and the doctrine of the Rights Of Man. France was in upheaval after 1789 and slaves on Saint Domingue heard it all. They were attracted by the giddy ideas of the Rights of Man, most particularly the free persons of color believed these rights applied to them..
  2. Further the French Revolution split the colonists themselves between those sympathetic to the revolution, those loyal to the crown and those who wanted independence. This weakened the internal structure of colonial resistance.
  3. The French seem to have had a more brutal slave system and system of discipline. This tended to make the slaves have a sense of furor that was not as pronounced in Jamaica.
  4. The British slave system on Jamaica was subject to more rigid controls. Pachonski and Wilson, in their book POLAND'S CARIBBEAN TRAGEDY, have this to say of Jamaican slave control: "Although the Jamaican blacks' diet was adequate -- rice, corn, herring and local fruits -- they were subject to more rigid controls than their French counterparts. Most important of all they had no chance of earning money by selling produce, fowl or animals, therefore, unlike the French slaves, they could not afford to purchase their own freedom. Few Jamaican blacks ever reached the status of freed-men."
  5. The British, especially once they recommenced war with France during the Leclerc campaign, greately aided the rebelling slaves.
  6. Even the Americans, who were friendly to the French, traded with the slaves and aided them, especially encouraging them toward independence.
  7. The slave rebellion in Haiti had the inspired leadership of Toussaint Louverture.
  8. The issue of yellow fever is one I don't know about in Jamaica. Was this a unique or special problem for Saint Domingue, or was yellow fever also a problem in Jamaica?
  9. The French seemed especially stupid in the manner in which they carried on the defense of the colony. Napoleon, in the last two years of the rebellion, would not fight the war with serious resolve. He underestimated the Haitian, didn't send adequate troops and didn't send his best troops. In his last days on Elba Island, he even regretted having gotten involved in Saint Domingue at all. That is significant. His regret was not that he didn't carry on the campaign with resolve or with the greatest seriousness. Rather, he regretted having gotten involved at all.
  10. There is a special role played in Saint Domingue by the Voodoo religion. First of all the colonists allowed or at least tolerated Voodoo. It seems the British were much less tolerant of any activities of slaves on Jamiaca which might be destablizing. But, again, I don't know enough about British slave control to know if this analysis is accurate. I do know that the spirits of Voodoo were an extremely important force in aiding the Haitian revolutionaries, and that the French had allowed this religion to develop and command the allegience of the masses, though I don't believe the French did this knowingly.
  11. Lastly, Jamiaica was the center of the British colonial empire and they had many more troops routinely stationed there than the French had French troops in Saint Domingue, even though there were 2 1/2 times more slaves on Saint Domingue than in Jamaica. For much of the period under question the British routinely had 10,000 or more troops on the island.

Thus, I think there were conditions operating at Saint Domingue that were not operating in Jamiaca, making it much more likely that a sustained revolutionary movement could be mounted in Haiti, and obviously was, than could have been done in Jamaica.

Bob Corbett


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