Revolutionary Bloodshed: 4 Violent Uprisings That Changed The World As We Know It
Revolutionary Bloodshed: 4 Violent Uprisings That Changed The World As We Know It

Revolutionary Bloodshed: 4 Violent Uprisings That Changed The World As We Know It

Donna Patricia Ward - May 4, 2017

Revolutions are violent. Success can only occur if common people are willing to take up arms and fight for a new world order. Since the first voyage of Christopher Columbus, European powers fought wars to gain control of territory in the New World. By the eighteenth century there were three major players in the Atlantic World: France, Great Britain, and Spain. Each of these empires had colonized native people in the New World, passed laws to populate their new territory with Europeans and slaves, and reaped the benefits of an expanding commodities exchange in the Atlantic World. Things were looking good. But unbeknownst to imperial powers, change was in the air.

The seventeenth century saw the introduction of the idea of self. John Locke was a philosopher that introduced the idea that people could, and should, govern themselves using their own free will. Enlightenment ideas sparked the formation of new religious orders based upon self-determination. As colonists contemplated ideas of liberty, self-government, and freedom a wave of revolution began to sweep through the empires of the Atlantic World. Below are the four Atlantic World revolutions that resulted in new nations and ushered in the modern era of self-government. The intent here is to focus on the reasons for and the tactics used to achieve independence.

Revolutionary Bloodshed: 4 Violent Uprisings That Changed The World As We Know It
The Bostonians Paying the Exise-man, or Tarring and Feathering, 31 October 1774, painting by Philip Dawe. Public Domain

The American War for Independence 1775-1783

The Treaty of Paris ended the Seven Years War in 1763. Great Britain, France, Spain, and Portugal had been at war, fighting for control of land in the New World. When France accepted defeat, it relinquished most of its North American territory in order to retain its sugar islands in the Caribbean. Great Britain controlled most of the land between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River. The lives of most of the colonists in British North America did not change.

Day to day life in the American colonies remained much the same. Along the coast, port cities connected the backcountry to the growing Atlantic World exchange of goods and people. Merchants and shopkeepers sold British-made goods to farmers who grew wheat and corn. Planters in the Chesapeake grew tobacco while rice plantations expanded along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts. Backcountry farmers planted crops, milled them, and then shipped them to merchants in port cities like Boston, Baltimore, and Charleston.

Ships docked in port city harbors. Laborers unloaded the ships of rum, tea, Madeira wine, furniture, fine china, tin cups, and farming implements. Very few items were made in the colonies. By law, the American colonists harvested raw materials and shipped them to London where laborers made them into goods. The goods were then shipped back to America via Africa and the Caribbean. When the King proclaimed that Parliament raise taxes on all British colonies to pay for the war debts during the Seven Years War, things in America turned violent.

The public house was the center of American colonial life. With low literacy rates, men and women relied upon the literate to read the latest pamphlet or news report in the pub. As they drank, discussions over taxes became heated. When news of tax acts were read in the pub, the sober and drunk alike began their own debates about government. Many debates ended in typical barroom brawls. Rifts overtook the colonial population. Men and women either declared their loyalty to the crown as Loyalists or they declared their support for a free American government as Patriots. Claiming neutrality did little to fend off violence from Loyalists and Patriots.

Numerous events forced the Patriots into war with Great Britain. The Quartering Act forced colonists to house and feed British soldiers. Patriots were not permitted to discuss any sort of revolutionary ideas in their own homes if they were forced to house and feed British solders. To do so would be viewed as an act of treason and the punishment could be death. The constant presence of British troops in colonial homes forced the creation of secret societies.

Patriots began to form secret societies with the sole purpose of protecting the rights of colonists. While these secret societies formed throughout the colonies, the most famous were the Sons of Liberty. Under the cover of darkness, members of the secret societies would attack the homes of Loyalists or merchants that sold British-made goods. Neighbors turned on each other. Violence and terror spread across all of the colonies.

In spite of the violence already consuming the colony, the catalyst for war was the Currency Act of 1764. Shopkeepers, planters, and farmers had used local paper money to pay debts. British merchants had been accepting the local currency as legal tender. Once the Currency Act of 1764 was implemented, colonists could only use legal money backed by the Crown. Legal tender was hard to come by and practically nonexistent outside of the port cities. When creditors called in their debts, those that could not pay in legal tender suffered repossession of livestock, eviction, or time in jail.

Sparking the violence were drunken mobs. Men and women would storm jails to break out debtors whom they felt were imprisoned unjustly. As news of new taxes and policies were read in the pubs, more drink flowed, and the more vocal the debates of representation. When drunken men and women spilled out of the pubs, they attacked people whose job it was to collect the taxes. Throughout the colonies, representatives of the crown set out to collect taxes from store merchants and farmers. Many were greeted with the violent and painful act of being tarred and feathered and then paraded through the town square.

The mob mentality acts of violence came to a head in Massachusetts. After years of protest and acts of violence against neighbors and the Crown, shots rang out in New England. On the morning of April 19, 1775, the British Regulars opened or returned fire in Lexington, Massachusetts. Later in the afternoon, the Battle of Concord resulted in a Patriot defeat. The American War for Independence had begun.

The American War for Independence was fought on land and sea. In 1778, after years of supplying the Americans with weapons, France officially entered the war. France declared war against Great Britain while declaring the Colonies a sovereign nation. Finally, in 1781, the tide turned dramatically for the Americans when the British Regulars suffered high rates of casualties. The loss of soldiers forced General Cornwallis to surrender to General Washington at Yorktown in October 1781. The war officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1783, when Great Britain officially recognized the United States of America as a sovereign nation.

Revolutionary Bloodshed: 4 Violent Uprisings That Changed The World As We Know It
Storming of the Bastille and arrest of Governor M. de Launay, July 14, 1789. Public Domain

The French Revolution 1789-1799

France had a lot of problems at the end of the eighteenth century. Combined with the Feudal System were France’s three estates. The First Estate was comprised of the clergy; the Second Estate contained the aristocracy, which included the Monarch; and the Third Estate, by far the largest, was comprised of commoners from peasants to the emerging influential bourgeoisie. The ongoing imperial wars left France indebted to her creditors. Conflicts within the estates were compounded by the spread of Enlightenment ideas that had influenced a successful revolution in America. The Old Regime was about to meet its match.

France’s population was diverse. Judaism, Islam, and Christianity had played important roles in France and continued to do so. Even as divisions between Protestant and Catholic Christianity spread throughout Europe, France maintained multi-religious views. Relationships among the religious orders were relaxed and trade was good. Clerics were generally respected and maintained political voices as part of the First Estate.

Years of war eventually bankrupted France. In order to pay wartime debts, King Louis XVI ordered additional taxes on agricultural products. Those that carried the tax burden were members of the Third Estate. Unfortunately for the Third Estate, they now had to pay increased rents to landlords in the Second Estate while paying higher taxes on bread, which was a staple. Those that could not pay higher rents were evicted, forced to move to cities or towns and scrounge for food. Commoners in France were starving.

King Louis XVI censored France. The King prohibited the printing or selling of any literature that mentioned or directly discussed Enlightenment ideas. This included a ban on all news reports of France’s participation in the American Revolution and its outcome. Bookbinders printed bootlegged copies of Enlightenment literature, sometimes disguised in the form of a religious text. Merchants smuggled copies of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense into public houses where literate men disseminated them to the illiterate majority. The King’s censorship did little to squash revolutionary ideas. Instead, it made commoners question the need for a monarchy.

To address the debts of France, King Louis XVI called the General-Estates to meet. It did so on May 5, 1789. This governing body comprised of representatives from all three estates had not met since 1614. Elected members were instructed to compose a sort of book of grievances outlining problems in each Estate, suggestions for improvements, and ways in which taxes could be implemented to pay France’s debts. The Estates General could not agree on how to certify the credentials of the members present. Tired of an impasse, the Third Estate broke away and met as the new National Assembly.

When the King forced the closure of the meeting place for the Estates General, the National Assembly vowed to remain in session until it had provided France with a new constitution. The National Assembly moved to a new location and remained in session. Meanwhile, on July 11, 1789, the King’s finance minister had published inaccurate accounts of the government’s debt. When the King fired him, supporters of the new National Assembly interpreted the firing as a new attack on the People’s Assembly. Riots and violence broke out throughout Paris. The city was in a state of chaos.

The Bastille was a medieval fortress that represented the power of the monarchy and the old regime. Housed inside the Bastille were a few prisoners and a large amount of weaponry. Rioting citizens stormed the Bastille on July 14, 1789, freeing the seven prisoners and taking the weapons. When commoners in Paris attacked and took over the Bastille, they demonstrated not just displeasure with the King and the old regime, but the hope of a new order centered on the will of the people. In France, the will of the people was confusing and often violent.

In the aftermath of the storming of the Bastille, nobles began to flee Paris and France. Now that the commoners seemingly were in charge, no aristocrat, large landowner, or member of the monarchy was safe. Just as the Sons of Liberty attacked British sympathizers in America, the French men and women in outright revolt attacked the symbols of the monarchy and the feudal system. Peasants continued to revolt, forcing an official end to the feudal system. In August 1789, the constitutional assembly of France officially abolished the feudal system while it also proclaimed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The French Constitution of 1791, although short lived, removed most of the power from the King and created one legislative chamber. France had become a Republic.

After the drafting of the first constitution, a conundrum faced France: who could, would, or should become citizens of the new Republic? Attempts to answer this question resulted in riots, violence, and beheadings over several years. The most famous and violent phase of the French Revolutions was made possible by a new invention: the Guillotine.

The Guillotine was a new mode of execution. A sharp and angled blade was suspended on a wooden frame. A condemned person was placed in secure stocks at the bottom of the frame, below the blade. When the blade was released, gravity ensured that the blade fell quickly, cutting the head off of the condemned person’s body. The clean cut removed the head and it fell into a basket below the stocks. The Guillotine was the choice mode of execution during the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution.

Between March 1793 and July 1794, chaos overtook France. Commoners had become weary and untrusting of the new government as long-promised reforms and social equality had not yet materialized. Conspiracies began to overtake the rumor mill. The Catholic Church, the French nobility, and neighboring powers did not support the revolution. Within France, conspiracies to restore the monarchy surfaced. Residents in Paris and Versailles were required to take loyalty oaths. Those that did not proclaim their support of the Republic and its revolution were charged with treason.

The French Revolution was a conglomeration of revolts, riots, civil wars, and outright terror that occurred over a decade. The Revolution played out in Europe, Africa, and in the Caribbean. Its official end occurred after a Coup d’Etat that began in November and concluded on Christmas Eve 1799, when Napoleon Bonaparte was declared First Consul under the Constitution of Year VIII. The violence in the French Revolution would be replicated and surpassed on France’s most important and profitable sugar island in the Caribbean.

Revolutionary Bloodshed: 4 Violent Uprisings That Changed The World As We Know It
Attack and take of the Crete-a-Pierrot, illustration by Auguste Raffet, circa 1839. Public Domain

The Haitian Revolution 1791-1804

Saint-Domingue was a mountainous island and the most important sugar colony for France. What began as a slave rebellion evolved into the world’s only successful slave revolt and the creation of a new nation. The Enlightenment ideas that man could think for himself and govern himself were taken literally by slaves in Saint-Domingue. As France became more engrossed in its own revolution, slaves in Saint-Domingue took advantage of the chaos. But their success came at an extremely high price.

French merchants and plantation owners imported hundreds of thousands of African slaves into Saint-Domingue. Maintaining a sugar plantation required massive amounts of labor. The sugar plant took 18 months to mature. During that time slaves had to ensure weeds did not strangle the plant. When the cane was ready, it was cut away from the plant and dragged to a processing center on the plantation. Fires kept large cauldrons hot as the sugar cane boiled for hours during the refining process. Once the cane was harvested, the plants were burned, and new plants would take their place.

Sugar cultivation was ongoing. Cotton and tobacco had growing seasons. Sugar grew over 18 months, which allowed planters to maintain fields of sugar cane at various stages. This ensured the constant propagation, harvesting, and refining of sugar. When Africans disembarked in port cities, their new masters provided them with a two-week adjustment period. The thought was that the new slaves would acclimate to their new surroundings and would not experience illness or death once placed in the sugar fields.

The death rate for slaves in Saint-Domingue was much higher than in America. The constant state of labor killed most slaves. For those that survived their two-week acclimation period most were dead after one year. Those that survived their first year in Saint-Domingue died before they were 60. Birthrates were low and a third of the infants that survived were dead by their first birthday. When natural disasters or shipping issues prevented food from reaching the plantations, the slaves were still required to work. To state that life as a slave in Saint-Domingue was hard is a massive understatement.

As with most slave societies, owners had favorites. Slaves that had displayed special talents or trustworthiness were often granted more freedom. In 1791, trusted slaves had obtained permission of their owners to attend weekly slave dinners. Convinced that their slaves would never harm them, owners considered themselves benevolent, caring, and thoughtful toward their human possessions. The slaves saw things differently. While food may have been exchanged at these suppers, their purpose was to plan a slave uprising.

The elite slaves returned to their home plantations after their weekly meetings. Using secret codes and native African languages, plans of revolt spread from plantation to plantation among the enslaved. Whites and plantation owners had no idea what was going on. As whites openly discussed the revolutionary ideas professed in America and France, the slaves worked and listened.

The first slave uprising began in August 1791. Toussaint Louverture and other slave leaders communicated plans to set fire to the sugar crops on the north side of Saint-Domingue. From the mountains, observers watched the valley and coastal cities fill with smoke. Alarmed and unable to stop the conspirators, the colonial assembly passed a decree that outlawed the sale or distribution of any publications related to or about the French Revolution. Unaware of their own role in the slave uprising, plantation owners forced the colony to pass a decree that prohibited any person traveling from France to set foot in Saint-Domingue. As house slaves served their owners, they heard discussions of revolutionary events in France that were spread along the communication network from plantation to plantation.

For over a month slaves had set fire to the sugar fields. When the crops were destroyed the slaves left for camps as their owners began to flee the colony. Plantation owners in the southern and western sections of Saint-Domingue continued to import African slaves. The idea was that if the slaves on these plantations worked harder, the burning of the sugar plants in the north would have little impact. Instead, the continued importation of Africans became a catalyst for continued revolt.

By March 1792, the National Assembly in Paris had declared that all free blacks in Saint-Domingue that met the requirements have the same rights as their white counterparts. In the colony, there were now free blacks, enslaved blacks, and white plantation owners. Slaves in revolt now turned their attention to slaughtering their white owners. Suddenly, the one thing that slave masters feared the most was happening in the French colony. Slaves were in open and violent rebellion and they were killing their owners.

At the request of the colonial government, France sent troops to end the slave revolt. The troops began indiscriminately to massacre slaves residing in the insurgent camps. Outraged and without the use of modern eighteenth-century weapons, slaves in revolt used unconventional methods against the French troops. Poisonous arrows pierced the skin of Frenchmen while releasing homemade toxins into the body that resulted in a slow and painful death. Slaves would lure troops into the woods claiming a desire to negotiate a ceasefire. When the troops arrived, they were bludgeoned to death with homemade clubs, axes, and hand-to-hand combat. Slaves hid along the sides of roads and threw homemade weapons into the path of the unsuspecting marching troops. Soldiers were wounded with little hope for medical treatment.

By 1793, Saint-Domingue was in utter chaos. As French troops moved into Europe and the Caribbean to defend the new Republic, white planters fled the violence. Many plantation owners in Saint-Domingue crowded onto merchant ships, disembarking in American ports with nothing but the clothes on their backs and horrific stories of a slave uprising. Planters in the American South were terrified and began limiting the movement of their own slaves. Meanwhile, the violence in Saint-Domingue increased.

More parties became involved in the violence. The Spanish covertly supplied weapons to the slaves. The hope was that the revolt would fail, permitting Spain to take possession of Saint-Domingue. Spain would then have possession of the entire island of Hispaniola. America declared the revolt a treasonous act against the new French Republic and began to defend its ports in the Gulf of Mexico with more vigor. France continued to send troops, and Great Britain did everything in its power to deter those troops.

The French colony was a mess. It was under control of the rebelling slaves who believed that they were claiming the island in the name of all those who were enslaved. As such, no white person could set foot on the island. Sugar crops in the North were burned and the plantations decimated. In an act of desperation, Toussant Louverture forced insurgent slaves back to their plantations to work the land for no wages while pleading with former white plantation owners to return to assist in the cultivation of new sugar crops. Violence erupted between two factions of emancipated slaves. By 1802, Saint-Domingue was controlled solely by emancipated slaves. France had lost its most profitable and important colony.

The emancipated revolutionaries had expelled the French. As French troops and the last white residents sailed away from the port of Le Cap in November 1803, generals met to discuss the creation of a new nation. On January 1, 1804, a declaration of independence stated that Saint-Domingue was no more. In its place was a new nation, Haiti. It rose out of the ashes of what had been, just fifteen years earlier, the world’s most profitable sugar colony.

The slave revolutionaries had ousted the French at an extreme cost. World governments refused to acknowledge the new nation and withheld access to capital. The earth in Haiti had been scorched and was slow to recover. There was no capital. The government had no money to pay laborers, and laborers had no money to purchase land. Haiti would never again see the profits it once did as a French colony.

Revolutionary Bloodshed: 4 Violent Uprisings That Changed The World As We Know It
Proclamation of Chilean Independence, 8 February 1818. Public Domain

Spanish American Revolutions 1808-1833

Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. When he landed in the Bahamas, he had no idea that he had just encountered a massive landmass unknown to most Europeans. As he sailed under the Spanish flag and Crown, the new territory was claimed for Spain. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Spaniards conquered the native people, formed viceroyalties and colonies, and exploited natural resources. In doing so, Spain became the most powerful and largest European empire of the time and successfully spread Christianity to the New World. Things would change in the eighteenth century.

Spanish colonies covered most of South America, Central America, Mexico, and a few Caribbean islands. Just as the cultures they had conquered were diverse, so were the new Spanish colonies. Exploitation of natives, the importation of African slaves, and the control of land by the elite permitted the Spanish Crown to exploit the land’s natural resources while supplying European industries with numerous raw materials. All trade from the Spanish colonies in the New World was to be sanctioned and controlled by the Crown. Reality was different.

Contraband trading occurred between the Spanish colonies and other European powers. This trading was intensified as other revolutions broke out in British and French colonies. Spain had a difficult time managing its colonies. The cost of the upkeep in protecting them from other European empires was enormous. To circumvent this, owners demanded that their slaves increase production in the silver mines. With more silver, the Crown believed, they would be wealthier and able to afford to control almost the entire western hemisphere.

Beginning in the late-seventeenth century, a financial crisis overtook Spain. Inflation had made the silver coinage almost worthless. The Crown began to take the coins out of circulation, which in turn, made the empire strapped for cash. In the colonies, hardly any money existed. This forced local representatives of the Crown to find their own ways to manage their affairs. As early as the onset of the eighteenth century, the seeds were being sown for colonial independence.

The Spanish Revolutions in South America happened in a piece-meal fashion. After decades of relatively hands-off rule from the Crown, local colonial governments began to conform to the specific needs of each colony instead of what the Crown dictated. With a central government so far away, the colonies in Peru, New Spain, Granada, and Rio de la Plata, for example, had implemented local control with little resistance. The fight for self-government had already been won due to the Crown’s continued ineffectual authority.

Diversity in the Spanish American colonies cannot be underestimated. When conquest began, the Spanish-born were at the top of colonial hierarchy. As a new generation emerged, those of Spanish descent born in the New World were labeled criollos. As Spaniards formed unions with native people, either through sexual encounters or marriage, mestizos resulted. Mestizos were native people who had Spanish blood or culture and were below criollos in the Spanish social structure. Slaves, either native-born or imported Africans, now had standing in the Spanish social structure. They were required to labor for the criollos and mestizos, who owned most of the land, mines, and plantations. Spanish law forced colonies to adhere to strict rules prohibiting slaves and women from participation in governmental affairs. Native populations, criollos, mestizos, and even slaves continuously fought to maintain their own distinctive cultures. The fractious colonial populations reduced the Crown’s efforts to establish any distinctive colonial unity.

When revolutions began breaking out in the Atlantic World, Spanish colonists took interest. Official reports and rumors carried the same weight for those groups seeking autonomy from Spain and Spanish colonial control. Rebellious colonists would form a junta, new administrative bodies, in attempts to oust colonial leaders. Forming a junta was violent and often required military forces. Rebels would fight against colonial troops repeatedly, as was the case in La Paz in 1809.

The colonial government in Buenos Aires controlled the mining region in Upper Peru. Mestizos in La Paz wanted autonomy; they did not want to be controlled by Spain or by those in Buenos Aires. In July 1809, rebels formed a junta. Colonial military troops from Lima and Buenos Aires were sent to La Paz to squash the new junta. Fighting between rebels and colonial armies continued until October. The La Paz rebels lost and troops were sent three times to quiet any uprisings until independence was finally won in 1825.

Other areas throughout colonial Spain refused to adhere to the colonial control from the capitals of the viceroyalties. In many ways, the writing was on the wall. The diversity of each region from the onset of the Conquest combined with the inability of the Spanish Crown to effectively control its vast territory meant that it would take a small rebellious push to achieve independence. In contrast to the violence experienced in France and Saint-Domingue, the colonial fights in Spanish America seemed tame. The true violence came when the newly independent governments had to negotiate who would control the new nations.

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