The Haitian Revolution was the result of a long struggle on the part of the slaves in the French colony of St. Domingue, but was also propelled by the free Mulattoes who had long faced the trials of being denoted as semi-citizens. This revolt was not unique, as there were several rebellions of its kind against the institution of plantation slavery in the Caribbean, but the Haitian Revolution the most successful.
This had a great deal to do with the influence of the French Revolution, as it helped to inspire events in Haiti. The Haitian Revolution would go on to serve as a model for those affected by slavery throughout the world. As with every rebellion, The Haitian Revolution did not happen overnight. Wrongs have to happen excessively and frequently until people’s frustrations cause them to think they are on the verge of insanity. Injustice and prejudice also has to seem to have free reign for quite some time. Finally, a group arises and with one voice they shout, “Enough!” The Haitian Revolution was the first and only successful slave revolution in human history.
T he slaves’ struggle produced heroic leaders, especially Toussaint L’Ouverture. He and his revolutionary army of self-emancipated slaves defeated the three great empires of the eighteenth century—Spain, England, and France—and finally won independence after a decade of struggle in 1804. The French population was divided into three classes the nobility which comprised of the richest people in France at the time e.g. King and Queen the second class was the clergy these were also wealthy people they worked in the churches etc and the third class was called the third estate they were made up of France’s general public and this class comprised of more than twice the number of people making up both the nobility and the clergy. The third estate was the only class of people who were taxed.
France was financially bankrupt and decided to hold a meeting of the estates. On the last occasion that the Estates-General had met, in 1614, each estate held one vote, and any two could override the third. The Parliament of Paris feared the government would attempt to gerrymander an assembly to rig the results. Thus, they required that the Estates be arranged as in 1614.The 1614 rules differed from practices of local assemblies, where each member had one vote and third estate membership was doubled. The King, however, agreed to the proposition on 27 December;
but he left discussion of the weight of each vote to the Estates-General itself. Elections were held in the spring of 1789; suffrage requirements for the Third Estate were for French-born or naturalized males only, at least 25 years of age, who resided where the vote was to take place and who paid taxes
Prior to the assembly taking place, the “Committee of Thirty,” a body of liberal Parisians, began to agitate against voting by estate. This group, largely composed of the wealthy, argued for the Estates-General to assume the voting mechanisms of Dauphiné. They argued that ancient precedent was not sufficient, because “the people were sovereign.”Necker convened a Second Assembly of Notables, which rejected the notion of double representation by a vote of 111 to 333. .
The bourgeoisie, including the merchants tied to slavery in the colonies, grew frustrated with the king and his regime’s feudal restraints on the economy and their political rights. They especially resented how he attempted to solve the regime’s financial crisis, ironically the result of debts incurred by its war with England over control of North America and its support for the American Revolution.
The king’s taxes fell disproportionately on the bourgeoisie with much of the nobility receiving feudal exemptions. But the king even managed to alienate much of the nobility. Famously, when Louis XVI tried in 1789 to shut down the Estates-General, the parliament he had called to impose taxes, the bourgeoisie delegates called together a constituent assembly to agitate for reform of the monarchy and its feudal restrictions. After the king attempted to disperse this assembly, the sans culottes—the artisan masses of Paris who were enraged by the increasing cost of food—stormed the Bastille and commenced the great French Revolution.
Riding a mass movement, the assembly issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man announcing that all men are free and equal. Within the assembly the Amis Noirs, the Friends of the Blacks, demanded equal rights for the free men of color and gradual abolition of slavery itself. But the merchants and planters who had their representatives within the assembly attempted to silence even this mild demand for reform. At the heart of France’s bourgeoisie revolution for liberty, equality and fraternity lay a giant contradiction: racism and slavery. This contradiction between the proclaimed ideals of the revolution and the reality of bigotry and bondage would spark the slave revolution in San Domingue.
The French Revolution ignited all the conflicts in France’s precious colony. The big whites, small whites, and the free men of color split into hostile camps. The planters were nobles who after flirting with the idea of fighting for independence quickly became royalists. They obviously opposed the Rights of Man and defended feudalism. The merchants quaked in fear that their colonial slave economy was in jeopardy from the revolution that they themselves had started. Rights are noble and morally virtuous, but for the good bourgeois, profits trump principle on every question. Nevertheless they opposed the planters’ royalism. They needed the connection to the French state and so wanted a limited revolution that kept slavery and the colonial order intact.
The small whites immediately aligned themselves with the revolution as an opportunity to strike out against the big whites. But they were far from the radicalism of the Parisian masses; they were adamantly opposed to rights for free men of color and the abolition of slavery. The various white forces battled out their conflicting ideas in the colonial assembly set up in the wake of the revolution. In these crosscurrents among the whites, the free men of color took up the standard of the revolution as an opportunity to win their rights as citizens. Of course, as colonial property owners, they too did not demand abolition of slavery.
They sent a delegation to agitate for their inclusion in the Rights of Man at the assembly in Paris. The Friends of the Blacks and free men of color spoke to the assembly, sending a ripple of consternation through the merchants and planters who maneuvered to suppress the question. In the end, the assembly voted for a resolution that said nothing specific about rights for the free men of color. After a furious debate, they passed a resolution that all persons over the age of twenty-five and with property qualifications would be granted the right to vote. Instead of solving the question, this vague compromise triggered a three-cornered fight between white and free colored rulers and the small whites, many of whom would be denied the vote under the new law due to their lack of property. Enraged by the assembly’s failure to address their rights, one of the free men of color in the delegation, Vincent Oge, left France for England to meet British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson.
Oge convinced him to supply money for an armed insurrection of the free men of color for their rights. Oge returned to San Domingue to lead a rebellion of a few hundred free men of color in Cap Français on October 21, 1790. Oge appealed not to the slaves, but to the big whites, hoping to convince them with arms that they held common interests as plantation owners. The big whites would have none of it. They responded with the utmost savagery, suppressing the rising, torturing Oge and the other leaders, and finally killing them. But the spark of rebellion had been lit, and the fire of revolution would travel back and forth between the France and the colony for the next decade. The fate of the two revolutions was tied together in a complex knot.
At the moment of victory, Sonthanax and Polverel were recalled to France to face charges brought by disgruntled planters, leaving General Laveaux in charge of Toussaint, now a French general, and his army. Together they led the fight against the English and Spanish occupations. Toussaint gathered around himself the ex-slave generals who would decide the future of San Domingue—Dessalines, Christophe, Moise, and his own brother, Paul L’Ouverture. Toussaint’s army grew to immense size, its ranks drawn from emancipated slaves and maroon bands that rallied to the French after the decree of emancipation.
Laveaux, Toussaint, and the Black generals controlled the north and west. In the south, Andre Rigaud, a free man of color, mounted a revolutionary campaign against the British and their collaborators among the free men of color. He consolidated much of the area under his own regime, separate from Toussaint and the French who dominated the north. The revolutionary forces were unstoppable in their assault on the British and Spanish. James captures the revolutionary spirit that animated their campaign: “All the French Blacks, from the labourers at Port-de-Paix demanding equality to the officers in the army were filled with immense pride at being citizens of the French Republic ‘one and indivisible’ which had brought liberty and equality to the world”(154).
Their determination and allegiance was so firm that, James declares, “The British and Spaniards could not defeat it. All they could offer was money, and there are periods in human history when money is not enough”(155). They quickly defeated Spain, which granted its half of the island to France. All but a few British redoubts remained in the north and south. By 1795 Laveaux and Toussaint were in control of San Domingue, facing the challenge of rebuilding the society ravaged by four years of warfare. Touissaint attempted to maintain the plantation system worked not by slave labor but by using the former slaves as wage laborers paid in money and a percentage of produce. He appointed whites to government posts and even allowed big whites to retain ownership of their great estates, and he tried to prevent the freed slaves from breaking up the plantations.
This attempt to organize an agricultural proletariat on capitalist plantations would become a source of friction between Toussaint and the emancipated Black slaves, who wanted to farm their own small plots. But no old order dies without a fight. Toussaint would face counterrevolution again and again for the next nine years both at home and abroad. Laveaux and Toussaint had to repress the free men of color, who saw rulership as their right, as well as big whites who sought the re-imposition of slavery. Some of these counterrevolutionaries kidnapped Laveaux at one point. James writes that after being liberated by Toussaint, Laveaux, “to the astonishment of all and the unbounded joy of the Blacks … proclaimed Toussaint Assistant to the Governor and swore that he would never do anything without consulting him. He called him the saviour of constituted authority, the Black Spartacus, the Negro predicted by Raynal who would avenge the outrages done to his race”(171).
France soon confirmed Toussaint’s appointment and entrusted his army with the defense of the new order while France’s own revolutionary army fought against the counterrevolutionary invasion from the rest of Europe.