5 – The Haitian Revolution – 1791-1804
At the end of the eighteenth century the prized French sugar colony of Saint-Domingue, present-day Haiti, was reeling from the ongoing French Revolution. Socially, the island was stratified between four different classes: the landholding whites, the poor whites, the so-called free coloreds, and the slaves who made up almost ninety percent of the population. Each of these classes saw in the French Revolution a different opportunity. The rich whites hoped the revolution might lead to their independence along with the model of the American Revolution. The poor whites and the free coloreds desired equal rights with the landholding whites, and the slaves saw a chance for freedom.
In the spring of 1791, it looked as if the free-colored were going to get their wish, as the revolutionary government granted them full French citizenship. When the landholding whites attempted to block implementation of this declaration it prompted scattered resistance from the free coloreds. The slaves quickly moved to take advantage of this mild disorder to pursue their own ends, and across the island, tens of thousands of slaves went into open revolt. The rich whites called on the British and Spanish, who were at war with France, to intervene. To forestall an invasion, the colonial government abolished slavery and granted equal rights to all.
Freed from bondage, the rebels returned to the side of the government and helped to defeat the British and Spanish under the leadership of a former slave named Toussaint Louverture. After this victory, however, Louverture declared himself governor for life and proclaimed an autonomous black state. By this point, Napoleon, who had since taken control of France, sent a force to the colony and captured Louverture, and reinstituted slavery. Haiti’s slaves, having tasted freedom, were not about to don chains once again. They returned to open rebellion and defeated the French. In 1804 they proclaimed the independent republic of Haiti, only the second republic in the Americas after the United States.
The Haitian Revolution was by far the most important slave uprising of the nineteenth century, and it more than any other event contributed to the eventual annihilation of the institution of slavery around the world. The Revolution, though very brutal, had been a success, and it prompted terror in slaveholders across the Americas. Three years after the Revolution the British made the international trade in slaves illegal, and the Spanish and Americans both signed on to the policy as well. The Revolution would also function as a model for disaffected slaves across the Caribbean and in the United States.