Prelude to the Haitian Revolution: Whites vs Mulattos
The numbers of newly imported slaves steadily rose, from about 10,000 to 15,000 a year in the 1760s, to about 25,000 a year by the early 1780s, to over 40,000 a year by 1787. By the time of the French Revolution in 1789, there were over 500,000 African slaves in Haiti, ruled by a white population of about 30,000. In addition, there were about 24,000 free mulattos (people of European and African blood) and blacks, known as affranchis.
French masters usually freed their offspring from relationships with their African slave concubines. Unlike the norms in the British North American colonies and subsequent United States, the freed French mulattos could inherit their father’s’ property, which gave rise to a class of mixed race Haitians, with property and influential fathers. The colony’s whites were threatened by this emerging class, so they enacted discriminatory laws to keep the mulattos down. The mulattos were prohibited from carrying weapons in public, from holding certain professions, from marrying white women, and from mingling with whites at social functions.
By the 1780s, Haiti was a deeply fragmented society, divided by stark fissures of class and race. At the top of the pile was a caste of Europeans, who lorded it over all. Beneath them on the pecking order were the free affranchis, most of them mulattos, who aspired to social and economic equality with the Europeans, but were routinely spurned. The bottom of the pile was comprised of hundreds of thousands of seething African slaves.
The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 led to the outbreak of revolution in Haiti. The French Revolution’s espousal of Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite (Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood) in Metropolitan France caused many heads to nod in agreement in France’s Haitian colony. The affranchis in particular were disappointed when the universal rights promised in France failed to reach them Haiti.
The intransigence of Haiti’s whites, and their refusal to allow the colony’s mulattos a share of power or measure of equality, led to the outbreak of civil strife between the two camps in the summer of 1791. That had not been expected by the island’s whites, who soon found their hands full trying to suppress the mulattos. Then things went from bad to worse for the whites when thousands of African slaves rose up in rebellion a few months later, in August of 1791. Belatedly, the whites tried to patch things up with the mulattos, many of whom owned plantations and were slaveholders, and sought an alliance in order to suppress the African slaves.