The Outbreak of the African Slave Rebellion
“Have they not hung up men with heads downward, drowned them in sacks, crucified them on planks, buried them alive, crushed them in mortars? Have they not forced them to eat excrement? And, having flayed them with the lash, have they not cast them alive to be devoured by worms, or onto anthills, or lashed them to stakes in the swamp to be devoured by mosquitoes? Have they not thrown them into boiling cauldrons of cane syrup? Have they not put men and women inside barrels studded with spikes and rolled them down mountainsides into the abyss? Have they not consigned these miserable blacks to man-eating dogs until the latter, sated by human flesh, left the mangled victims to be finished off with bayonet and poniard?” – Henri Christophe, former Haitian slave, and a key leader of the Haitian Revolution.
On the night of August 21 – 22, 1791, responding to the call of Dutty Boukman, a maroon leader and voodoo priest, thousands of African slaves rose up in rebellion in Haiti. Armed with machetes, knives, pitchforks, and any weapons they could lay their hands on, the slaves fell upon their masters, and began repaying generations of abuse by merciless massacres.
Across the colony, armed slaves burst into their masters’ mansions, bringing with them fire and blood, and visiting revenge upon their owners by pillage, rape, torture, and death. They slaughtered the enslavers, and put to the torch their owners’ dwellings, cane fields, and sugar houses. As with the extreme violence and brutality that marked Haitian slavery and kept the slaves in bonds, the backlash when the slaves finally rose was extremely violent and brutal from the outset. When the tables were turned, overseers, masters, and mistresses, were dragged from their beds, and the lucky ones were butchered on the spot. The unlucky ones were tortured to death, frequently utilizing the same torture implements and techniques that had been used upon the slaves. The severed heads of European children were often placed on spikes, and carried at the head of advancing slave columns.
Haiti’s sugar country was the world’s most profitable stretch of real estate at the time. Seemingly overnight, the sugar country was reduced to a smoldering and blood drenched wilderness. Within weeks, the slaves had killed over 4000 whites, burned at least 180 sugar plantations, 900 coffee plantations, numerous indigo plantations, and inflicted millions of francs in damages.
Early in the uprising, the rebels did not demand independence from France, but only their freedom from slavery. Many rebels mistakenly believed that king Louis XVI had issued a decree freeing the slaves, but that the island’s governor and whites had wrongfully suppressed the royal proclamation. Thus the slaves initially articulated their uprising as a fight on behalf of the French king, against a corrupt colonial governor and white settlers who refused to implement a royal decree freeing the slaves.
Within ten days of the uprising’s outbreak, the numbers of rebellious slaves throughout the colony had swollen to more than 100,000, and most of northern Haiti had fallen under the rebels’ control. The rebels then marched upon Cap Francais, the seat of the colonial government, but they were thrown back by the whites, who organized themselves into militias. As the slaves regrouped following their setback, the whites went on the counterattack, and massacred about 15,000 blacks. Haiti had descended into a cycle of massacres and counter massacres, that would last until the colony finally gained its independence, and continue on for many years afterwards.