The Haitian Revolution has often been described as the largest and most successful slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere. Slaves initiated the rebellion in 1791 and by 1803 they had succeeded in ending not just slavery but 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.
In the 18th century, Saint Dominigue, as Haiti was then known, became France’s wealthiest overseas colony, largely because of its production of sugar, coffee, indigo, and cotton generated by an enslaved labor force. When the French Revolution broke out in 1789 there were five distinct sets of interest groups in the colony. There were white planters—who owned the plantations and the slaves—and petit blancs, who were artisans, shop keepers and teachers. Some of them also owned a few slaves. Together they numbered 40,000 of the colony’s residents. Many of the whites on Saint Dominigue began to support an independence movement that began when France imposed steep tariffs on the items imported into the colony. The planters were extremely disenchanted with France because they were forbidden to trade with any other nation. Furthermore, the white population of Saint-Dominique did not have any representation in France. Despite their calls for independence, both the planters and petit blancs remained committed to the institution of slavery.
The three remaining groups were of African descent: those who were free, those who were slaves, and those who had run away. There were about 30,000 free black people in 1789. Half of them were mulatto and often they were wealthier than the petit blancs. 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.