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The Haitian Revolution is the largest and most successful slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere. It all started when slaves initiated the rebellion in 1791 and by 1803 they succeeded in ending not just slavery but long term French control over the colony.
The Haitian Revolution, however, was much more complex, consisting of several revolutions going on simultaneously. These revolutions were influenced by the French Revolution of 1789, which would come to represent a new concept of human rights, universal citizenship, and participation in government.
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Saint Dominigue, as Haiti was then known, rose to prominence as France’s richest overseas colony in the 18th century thanks primarily to the products it produced—coffee, cotton, indigo, and sugar—using slave labor. There were five different types of interest groups in the colony at the time of the French Revolution, which began in 1789.
There were petit blancs, who were artisans, store owners, and teachers, as well as white planters who controlled the plantations and the slaves. Some of them had some captives as well. They made up 40,000 of the colony’s inhabitants all together. When France imposed high tariffs on the goods imported into the colony, many white people on Saint Dominigue started to back an independence campaign.
Because they were prohibited from trading with any other country, the planters were very dissatisfied with France. Additionally, Saint-Dominique’s white community lacked representation in France. The planters and petit blancs both stayed committed to the institution of slavery despite their demands for independence.
The three remaining groups, including the free people, the slaves, and the fugitives, were all of African origin. In 1789, there were roughly 30,000 free Black individuals. They were usually richer than the petit blancs because half of them were mulatto.
The slave population was close to 500,000. The runaway slaves were called maroons; they had retreated deep into the mountains of Saint Dominigue and lived off subsistence farming. Haiti had a history of slave rebellions; the slaves were never willing to submit to their status and with their strength in numbers (10 to 1) colonial officials and planters did all that was possible to control them. Despite the harshness and cruelty of Saint Dominigue slavery, there were slave rebellions before 1791. One plot involved the poisoning of masters.
Inspired by events in France, a number of Haitian-born revolutionary movements emerged simultaneously. They used as their inspiration the French Revolution’s “Declaration of the Rights of Man.” The General Assembly in Paris responded by enacting legislation which gave the various colonies some autonomy at the local level. The legislation, which called for “all local proprietors…to be active citizens,” was both ambiguous and radical. It was interpreted in Saint Dominigue as applying only to the planter class and thus excluded petit blancs from government.
Yet it allowed free citizens of color who were substantial property owners to participate. This legislation, promulgated in Paris to keep Saint Dominigue in the colonial empire, instead generated a three-sided civil war between the planters, free blacks and the petit blancs. However, all three groups would be challenged by the enslaved black majority which was also influenced and inspired by events in France.
Led by former slave Toussaint l’Overture, the enslaved would act first, rebelling against the planters on August 21, 1791. By 1792 they controlled a third of the island. Despite reinforcements from France, the area of the colony held by the rebels grew as did the violence on both sides. Before the fighting ended 100,000 of the 500,000 blacks and 24,000 of the 40,000 whites were killed.
Nonetheless the former slaves managed to stave off both the French forces and the British who arrived in 1793 to conquer the colony, and who withdrew in 1798 after a series of defeats by l’Overture’s forces. By 1801 l’Overture expanded the revolution beyond Haiti, conquering the neighboring Spanish colony of Santo Domingo (present-day Dominican Republic). He abolished slavery in the Spanish-speaking colony and declared himself Governor-General for life over the entire island of Hispaniola.
At that moment the Haitian Revolution had outlasted the French Revolution which had been its inspiration. Napoleon Bonaparte, now the ruler of France, dispatched General Charles Leclerc, his brother-in-law, and 43,000 French troops to capture L’Overture and restore both French rule and slavery. L’Overture was taken and sent to France where he died in prison in 1803.
Jean-Jacques Dessalines, one of l’Overture’s generals and himself a former slave, led the revolutionaries at the Battle of Vertieres on November 18, 1803 where the French forces were defeated. On January 1, 1804, Dessalines declared the nation independent and renamed it Haiti. France became the first nation to recognize its independence. Haiti thus emerged as the first black republic in the world, and the second nation in the western hemisphere (after the United States) to win its independence from a European power.