The First Rebellion: The Mulatto Uprising
In the decades preceding the Haitian Revolution, thousands of slaves had escaped their bondage by fleeing to the island’s mountains and rugged interior. There, the runaways formed communities known as maroons, and eked a living from the rough soil, supplemented by banditry and raiding plantations. In the 1750s, a voodoo priest named Mackendal preached the destruction of the whites, and united various maroon bands into a formidable force. He then led his followers in a guerrilla campaign that killed about 6000 people before he was captured and burned alive.
The French Revolution in 1789, and its Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, inspired Haiti’s mulattos to assert that they, too, were French citizens, entitled to the same rights as other French citizens. One of them, Vincent Oge, was in Paris when the Revolution broke out, and he formed an alliance with French abolitionists to lobby the National Assembly to extend civil rights to men of color.
Oge returned to Haiti determined to implement the promises of the French Revolution, and to secure voting rights for the island’s mulattos. The colonial governor and the Haitian authorities refused, however, so Oge gathered a force of about 300 men and rebelled in October of 1790. The uprising failed, due in no small part to the rebelling mulattos’ refusal to free and arm their slaves, or to challenge the status of slavery. The rebels were soon defeated by white colonial militias in November of 1790, and Oge was captured, tortured, and executed.
Oge’s failed rebellion got the French Assembly’s attention, however – Haiti’s sugar industry was a significant contributor to France’s economy. So in May of 1791, additional laws were enacted, clearly spelling out that the colony’s wealthier affranchis were to enjoy all citizenship rights. As with the earlier statutes, the new legislation was ignored by Haiti’s whites, resulting in a civil war throughout the colony between the whites and mulattos.
Then on the night of August 14th, 1791, a voodoo priest and maroon leader named Dutty Boukman held a religious ceremony in Bois Caiman, in northern Haiti, where he issued a signal for a slave uprising. Word went out to the sugar plantations, and it was not long before the African slaves rose up in a violent rebellion that terrified slaveholders throughout the New World.