The Haitian Revolution represents one of the signal events of the age of revolution, reverberating across the Atlantic world and profoundly shaping social and political relations across the Western Hemisphere in the decades after its eruption in 1791.
The only successful large-scale slave revolt in the history of the Americas, the revolution in Haiti served as a cautionary tale for slave owners across the Americas, prompting a tightening of slave regimes and of slave surveillance and control measures from Canada and the United States to Brazil and Peru.
Despite the profundity of its impact, however, the Haitian Revolution also has tended not to receive the attention it merits—partly because the French-controlled western portion of the island of Hispaniola, as a colony of neither the Spanish, Portuguese, nor British, fell outside the purview of accounts of these empires’ histories (and has been conventionally excluded, for instance, from treatments of both the U.S. and Latin American independence periods), partly, in the view of some, because of the racism inherent in conventional historical accounts of this era.
The events of the revolution itself are dizzyingly complex and difficult to summarize. On the eve of the revolution, the French colony of Saint-Domingue, vaunted as the Pearl of the Antilles, was the largest sugar-producing region in the world, outpacing even Brazil, the world’s second-largest, its 800 sugarcane plantations producing more sugar than all of the British West Indies combined.
In the decade before 1789 Saint-Domingue’s slave imports averaged 30,000 per year. Its population was divided into three caste-like strata. At the bottom roughly half a million black slaves, comprising 85–90 percent of the population.
At the top were 40,000 whites, divided between a tiny number of large plantation owners and wealthy merchants, or grands blancs, and the vast majority of poor and middling whites, the petits blancs, who deeply resented the former. In between were some 28,000 free people of color (gens de couleur, or affranchis, principally mulatto and some black).
Despite Louis XIV’s Code Noir of 1685, making mulattos and free blacks subjects of the French empire, the rights of the gens de couleur were restricted by a series of laws meant to protect the superior social position of whites.
With the onset of the French Revolution in 1789, the revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity essentially percolated down the social hierarchy, from whites to free coloreds to black slaves.
As the grand blancs sought autonomy from the French government, Saint-Domingue’s free coloreds, via the influential Paris-based, mulatto-dominated Société des Amis des Noirs (Society of Friends of the Blacks) sought equal representation in the Estates General in Paris. Rebuffed, in October 1790 several free colored leaders led an abortive uprising.
By this time, the colony had entered a period of revolutionary turmoil, with debates about liberty and rights resounding throughout its towns and streets. Neither whites nor free coloreds contemplated liberty for slaves, though neither could prevent their slaves from hearing or acting on these debates.
In August 1791 after a period of secretive organizing, the slaves launched their uprising, burning cane fields across the western part of the island—an uprising that lasted more than a decade, and that ultimately led to the independence of Haiti on January 1, 1804.
After August 1791, confronted with the specter of a slave revolt, whites and free coloreds temporarily closed ranks, though the animosities between the two groups proved too great to bridge.
The slave rising spread into the eastern part of the island, nominally controlled by the Spanish. On March 4, 1792, the French revolutionary government granted equality between whites and free coloreds, a decree that did not stop the island’s slide into civil war.
The British, courted by the grand blancs and hoping to exploit the opportunity to weaken their French rival, invaded parts of the west, while the Spanish, hoping to regain control of the west, marched from the east.
The conflict thus combined a civil war among and between the island’s fractious whites and free coloreds, an international war pitting France, Britain, and Spain, and a slave uprising against them all. In the end, a small group of the most prominent ex-slave leaders emerged victorious.
A pivotal event in this process occurred on April 29, 1793, when Leger-Félicité Sonthonax, a Jacobin high commissioner sent by the French government to restore order, exceeded his authority by abolishing slavery throughout the island.
The decision permitted a temporary alliance between the French and slave rebels against the British and Spanish, while also catapulting into prominence former house slave Toussaint Louverture, who became commander of the French forces and the undisputed leader of the ex-slave rebels.
After five years and the loss of more than 25,000 troops, the British were defeated, departing the island in April 1798. Soon after, in February 1799, mulattos under André Rigaud rebelled against Toussaint, sparking another civil war.
Toussaint’s forces crushed the rebellion by August 1800. Meanwhile Toussaint, Saint-Domingue’s governor-general and commander in chief, established relations with the United States and promulgated a series of laws intended to maintain sugar production and a semblance of social order.
Back in France, Napoleon determined to regain the island. Invading in January and February 1802, French forces captured Toussaint in June. He was transported in chains back to France, where he died the next year.
Leadership of the black-mulatto forces fell to Toussaint’s lieutenant Jean-Jacques Dessalines. For the next 21 months some 58,000 French forces fought against Dessalines’s army.
They were defeated at the cost of some 50,000 French lives, most dying of yellow fever, and in January 1804, the independent nation-state of Haiti (an indigenous name for the island) came into being.