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Haitian Revolution

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Title: Haitian Revolution  
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Subject: Haiti, History of Haiti, Toussaint Louverture, Slave rebellion, Blockade of Saint-Domingue
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Haitian Revolution

Haitian Revolution
Part of the French Revolutionary Wars and the Atlantic Revolutions

Battle at San Domingo, a painting by January Suchodolski, depicting a struggle between Polish troops in French service and the Haitian rebels
Date 21 August* 1791 – 1 January 1804
(12 years, 8 months, 1 week and 4 days)
Location Saint-Domingue

Haitian victory

Independent Empire of Haiti established
French royalists
Spain (from 1793)

French royalists
 Great Britain
Spain (until 1796)

Louverture Loyalists

United Kingdom

Slave owners
Kingdom of France (until 1792)
French Republic

French Republic

Rigaud Loyalists

French Republic
Commanders and leaders
Dutty Boukman  
Georges Biassou
Vincent Ogé  
André Rigaud

Paul-Louis Dubuc
Thomas Maitland
Joaquín Moreno

Toussaint Louverture

Toussaint Louverture  
Jean-Jacques Dessalines
Henri Christophe
Alexandre Pétion
François Capois
John Duckworth
John Loring
viscount de Blanchelande
Léger-Félicité Sonthonax

Toussaint Louverture
André Rigaud
Alexandre Pétion

André Rigaud

Napoleon Bonaparte
Charles Leclerc 
Vicomte de Rochambeau  
Villaret de Joyeuse
Federico Gravina
Regular army: 55,000,
Volunteers: 100,000+
Regular army: 60,000,
86 warships and frigates
Casualties and losses
Military deaths: unknown
Civilian deaths: 100,000
Military deaths: 57,000 combat deaths
30,000 yellow fever deaths
Civilian deaths: ~25,000

The Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) was a slave revolt in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, which culminated in the elimination of slavery there and the founding of the Republic of Haiti. The Haitian Revolution was the only slave revolt which led to the founding of a state. Furthermore, it is generally considered the most successful slave rebellion ever to have occurred and as a defining moment in the histories of both Europe and the Americas. The revolt began with a rebellion of black African slaves in April of 1791. It ended in November of 1803 with the French defeat at the Battle of Vertières. Haiti became an independent country on January 1, 1804, with Jean-Jacques Dessalines being chosen by a council of generals to assume the office of governor-general. He ordered the 1804 Haiti massacre of the white Haitian minority, resulting in the deaths of between 3,000 and 5,000 people, between February and April 1804.[1]

Although an independent government was created in Haiti, the country's society continued to be deeply affected by the patterns established under French colonial rule. Because many white planters had provided for the mixed-race children they had by black African women, by giving them education and (for males) training and entrée into the French military, the mulatto descendants who along with the wealthy freedmen had been orchestrators of the revolution became the elite of Haitian society after the war's end. Many of them had used their social capital to acquire wealth, and some already owned land. Some had identified more with the colonists than the slaves.

Their domination of politics and economics after the revolution created another two-caste society, as most Haitians were rural subsistence farmers.[2] In addition, the nascent state's future was compromised in 1825 when it was forced to pay 150 million gold francs in reparations to French slaveholders, in order to receive French recognition and end the nation's political and economic isolation.[1] Though the amount of the reparations was reduced in 1838, Haiti was unable to finish paying off its debt until 1947, and the payments left the country's government deeply impoverished, causing instability.[3]


  • Background 1
  • Situation in 1789 2
    • Social stratification 2.1
    • Regional conflicts 2.2
  • Impact of the French Revolution 3
  • Relationship between the French Revolution and the Haitian Revolution 4
    • Reason For Revolution 4.1
    • Enlightenment Thinking 4.2
    • Brutality 4.3
    • Lasting Change 4.4
  • Influence of Enlightenment thought 5
  • 1791 slave rebellion 6
  • Leadership of Louverture 7
  • Resistance to slavery 8
  • Free republic 9
  • 1804 massacre of whites 10
  • Impact 11
  • The Revolution and the media 12
  • In popular culture 13
  • See also 14
  • Notes 15
  • References 16
  • External links 17


Many of the riches of the Caribbean depended on Europeans' taste for sugar, which plantation owners traded for provisions from North America and manufactured goods from European countries. The island also had extensive coffee, cocoa, indigo, and cotton plantations, but these were smaller and less profitable than the wealthy sugar plantations.[4] Starting in the 1730s, French engineers constructed complex irrigation systems to increase sugarcane production. By the 1740s Saint-Domingue, together with Jamaica, had become the main supplier of the world's sugar. Sugar production depended on extensive manual labor provided by enslaved Africans in the harsh Saint-Domingue colonial plantation economy. The white planters who derived their wealth from the sale of slave-produced sugar knew they were outnumbered by slaves by a factor of more than ten; they lived in fear of slave rebellion.[5] White masters extensively used the threat of physical violence to maintain control and limit this possibility for slave rebellion. When slaves left the plantations or disobeyed their masters, they were subject to whipping, or to more extreme torture such as castration or burning, the punishment being both a personal lesson and a warning for other slaves. Louis XIV, the French King, passed the Code Noir in 1685 in an attempt to regulate such violence and the treatment of slaves in general in the colony, but masters openly and consistently broke the code, and local legislation reversed parts of it throughout the 18th century.[6]

In 1758, the white landowners began passing legislation restricting the rights of other groups of people until a rigid caste system was defined. Most historians have classified the people of the era into three groups. One was the white colonists, or blancs. A second was the free blacks (usually mixed-race, known as mulattoes or gens de couleur libres, free people of color). These gens de couleur tended to be educated and literate and they often served in the army or as administrators on plantations. Many were children of white planters and enslaved mothers. The males often received education or artisan training, sometimes received property from their fathers, and freedom. The third group, outnumbering the others by a ratio of ten to one, was made up of mostly African-born slaves. A high rate of mortality among them meant that planters continually had to import new slaves. This kept their culture more African and separate from other people on the island. Many plantations had large concentrations of slaves from a particular region of Africa, and it was therefore somewhat easier for these groups to maintain elements of their culture, religion, and language. This also separated new slaves from Africa from creoles (slaves born in the colony), who already had kin networks and often had more prestigious roles on plantations and more opportunities for emancipation.[7] Most slaves spoke a patois of French and West African languages known as Creole, which was also used by native mulattoes and whites for communication with the workers.[8]

White colonists and black slaves frequently had violent conflicts, many of which surrounded the slaves who had escaped the plantations. Many of these runaway slaves – called Maroons – lived on the margins of large plantations and lived off what they could steal from their previous masters. Others fled to towns, to blend in with urban slaves and the freed slaves who often concentrated in those areas. If caught, these runaway slaves would be severely and violently punished. However, some masters tolerated "petit marronages", or short-term absences from plantations.[7] Often, however, larger groups of runaway slaves lived in the woods away from control. They often conducted violent raids on the island's sugar and coffee plantations. Although the numbers in these bands grew large (sometimes into the thousands), they generally lacked the leadership and strategy to accomplish large-scale objectives. The first effective maroon leader to emerge was the charismatic

  • Haiti: Revolutionary War 1791 – 1803
  • The Louverture Project, a wiki about the history of Haiti
  • Haiti: History of Shaken Country-- Video interview with historian Laurent Dubois
  • Timeline of Events in Haitian Revolutionary History
  • Haitian Constitution of 1801 (English)
  • Haiti Archives
  • "Égalité for All: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution". Noland Walker. PBS documentary. 2009
  • France Urged to Pay $40 Billion to Haiti in Reparations for "Independence Debt" – video report by Democracy Now!
  • The Other Revolution: Haiti, 1789 – 1804 digital exhibition from Brown University

External links

Sutherland, Claudia. "Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed." Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed. January 1, 2015. Accessed March 26, 2015.

"Reign of Terror: 1793–1794." PBS. September 13, 2013. Accessed March 26, 2015.

Rand, David. "The Haitian Revolution." The Haitian Revolution. Accessed March 25, 2015. individual_essay/david.html.

"Haitian Revolution." Find the Data. Accessed March 26, 2015.

"French Revolutionary Wars." Find the Data. Accessed March 26, 2015.

Fick, Carolyn E. "Preface." In The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from below. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990.

"Enlightenment." Accessed March 25, 2015.

"Declaration of the Rights of Man" 27 February 2008. 25 March 2015.

Baur, John. "International Repercussions of the Haitian Revolution." The Americas 26, no. 4 (1970).

Akamefula, Tiye, Camille Newsom, Burgey Marcos, and Jong Ho. "Causes of the Haitian Revolution." Haitian Revolution. September 1, 2012. Accessed March 25, 2015.

  • Blackburn, Robin. "Haiti, Slavery, and the Age of the Democratic Revolution", William and Mary Quarterly 63.4, 633–674 (2006)
  • Fick, Carolyne "The Haitian revolution and the limit of freedom: defining citizenship in the revolutionary era". Social History, Vol 32. No 4, November 2007
  • Girard, Philippe. “Black Talleyrand: Toussaint Louverture’s Secret Diplomacy with England and the United States,” William and Mary Quarterly 66:1 (Jan. 2009), 87–124.
  • Girard, Philippe. “Napoléon Bonaparte and the Emancipation Issue in Saint-Domingue, 1799–1803,” French Historical Studies 32:4 (Fall 2009), 587–618.
  • Girard, Philippe. “Jean-Jacques Dessalines and the Atlantic System: A Reappraisal,” William and Mary Quarterly (July 2012).
  • Joseph, Celucien L. Race, Religion, and The Haitian Revolution: Essays on Faith, Freedom, and Decolonization (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012)
  • Joseph, Celucien L. From Toussaint to Price-Mars: Rhetoric, Race, and Religion in Haitian Thought (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013)
  • Ott, Thomas O. The Haitian Revolution, 1789–1804. University of Tennessee Press, 1973.
  • Popkin, Jeremy D., You Are All Free: The Haitian Revolution and the Abolition of Slavery (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010)


  1. ^ a b c Philippe R. Girard (2011). The Slaves Who Defeated Napoleon: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian War of Independence 1801–1804. Tuscaloosa Alabama: The University of Alabama Press. ISBN 978-0-8173-1732-4
  2. ^ a b
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b c Thomas E. Weil, Jan Knippers Black, Howard I. Blustein, Kathryn T. Johnston, David S. McMorris, Frederick P. Munson, Haiti: A Country Study. (Washington, D.C.: The American University Foreign Area Handbook Series 1985).
  5. ^ a b c d
  6. ^ Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 2OO4).
  7. ^ a b Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 2004).
  8. ^
  9. ^ a b c d e
  10. ^
  11. ^ Herbert Klein, Transatlantic Slave Trade, Pg. 32–33
  12. ^ CLR James, The Black Jacobins, p. 17
  13. ^ Tim Matthewson, A Pro-Slavery Foreign Policy: Haitian-American Relations During the Early Republic, (Praeger: Westport, Connecticut. and London: 2003) p. 3
  14. ^ C.L.R. James, Black Jacobins (Vintage, 1989) p. 29
  15. ^ Robert Heinl, Written in Blood: The History of the Haitian People, New York: Lanham, 1996, p. 45
  16. ^ a b c Laurent Dubois, Avengers pf the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 2004).
  17. ^ a b c
  18. ^ Blakburn, Robin. "The Force of Example". The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World. Ed. David P. Geggus. (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press 2001).
  19. ^ France and the History of Haiti by Gearóid Ó Colmáin, Global Research, 22 January 2010
  20. ^ Hochschild, Adam Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery (2006)
  21. ^ Fick, Carolyn E. "Preface." In The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from below. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990.
  22. ^ Akamefula, Tiye, Camille Newsom, Burgey Marcos, and Jong Ho. "Causes of the Haitian Revolution." Haitian Revolution. September 1, 2012. Accessed March 25, 2015.
  23. ^ "Enlightenment." Accessed March 25, 2015.
  24. ^ "Declaration of the Rights of Man" 27 February 2008. 25 March 2015.
  25. ^ a b Akamefula, Tiye, Camille Newsom, Burgey Marcos, and Jong Ho. "Causes of the Haitian Revolution." Haitian Revolution. September 1, 2012. Accessed March 25, 2015.
  26. ^ "Reign of Terror: 1793–1794." PBS. September 13, 2013. Accessed March 26, 2015.
  27. ^ "French Revolutionary Wars." Find the Data. Accessed March 26, 2015.
  28. ^ "Haitian Revolution." Find the Data. Accessed March 26, 2015.
  29. ^ a b Ghachem, Malick W. The Old Regime and the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  30. ^ a b Rand, David. "The Haitian Revolution." The Haitian Revolution. Accessed March 25, 2015. individual_essay/david.html.
  31. ^ Baur, John. "International Repercussions of the Haitian Revolution." The Americas 26, no. 4 (1970).
  32. ^ “Antislavery Agitation: Abbe Raynal,” Philosophical and Political History of the Settlements and Trade of the East and West Indies (1770), accessed May 8, 2014,
  33. ^ Goldmann, Lucien. The philosophy of the Enlightenment: the Christian burgess and the Enlightenment. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1973.
  34. ^ Paul B. Miller, "Enlightened Hesitations: Black Masses and Tragic Heroes in C.L.R. James's The Black Jacobins." MLN 116: 1069–1090. (accessed May 8, 2014).
  35. ^ C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins; Toussaint Louverture and the San Domingo Revolution.. 2d ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1963.
  36. ^ Miller, 1069–1090.
  37. ^ Sylvia Musto, “Portraiture, Revolutionary Identity and Subjugation”: Anne-Louis Girodet’s Citizen Belley, RACAR: Revue d'Art Canadienne / Canadian Art Review 20 (1993): 60–71.
  38. ^ Center and Hunt, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, 119.
  39. ^ Blackburn, "Haiti's Slavery in the Age of the Democratic Revolution", William and Mary Quarterly 63.4, 633–644 (2006).
  40. ^ Censer and Hunt, Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, 123. Dutty Boukman, [1]
  41. ^ a b c Censer and Hunt, Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, p. 124.
  42. ^
  43. ^
  44. ^ [2], Haitian Revolution 1791–1804
  45. ^ Laurent Dubois and John D. Garrigus, "Slave Revolution in the Caribbean: 1789–1804". Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2006. Document 26.
  46. ^
  47. ^
  48. ^ Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution: A History, Chapter 2.5.IV. "No Sugar" [3]
  49. ^ Bryan 1984, p. 23.
  50. ^
  51. ^
  52. ^
  53. ^ Haitian Declaration of Independence: Liberty or Death: Indigent Army, by the General in Chief Dessalines, in the name of the Haitian people. Held in the British National Archives: [4]
  54. ^ Philippe Girard, “Jean-Jacques Dessalines and the Atlantic System: A Reappraisal,” William and Mary Quarterly (July 2012).
  55. ^ Independent Haiti, Library of Congress Country Studies.
  56. ^
  57. ^ a b c d e f g James Leyburn, The Haitian People, Yale University Press, 1961, 34
  58. ^ a b c James Leyburn, The Haitian People, Yale University Press, 1961, 37
  59. ^ James Leyburn, The Haitian People, Yale University Press, 1961, 70
  60. ^ James Leyburn, The Haitian People, Yale University Press, 1961, 70
  61. ^
  62. ^ a b Popkin 2012, p. 137.
  63. ^ Girard 2011, pp. 321–322.
  64. ^ a b c Girard 2011, p. 321.
  65. ^ a b Girard 2011, p. 322.
  66. ^ Girard 2011, p. 325.
  67. ^
  68. ^ Newman, Simon P. "American Political Culture and the French and Haitian Revolutions: Nathaniel Cutting and the Jeffersonian Republicans." The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World. Ed. David P. Geggus. (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press 2001).
  69. ^ Sonsnowski, Thomas. "Revolutionary Emigres and Exiles in the United States: Problems of Economic Survival in a New Republican Society" (unpublished paper)
  70. ^ Popkin, Jeremy D. 'You Are All Free: The Haitian Revolution and the Abolition of Slavery. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  71. ^ Popkin, page 298.
  72. ^ Davis, David Brion. "Impact of the French and Haitian Revolutions." The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World. Ed. David P. Geggus. (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press 2001).
  73. ^
  74. ^ Matthewson, Tim, 1996 Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haiti, p. 30
  75. ^ Jenson, The Sonthonax Drama: Toussaint as Political Dramaturge, p. 70
  76. ^ Web pages for FRD Country Studies are subject to changes of URL. If a page linked from a footnote that cites the Haiti study bears a title different from that cited next to the link, consult A Country Study: Haiti for the revised URL.
*Please note that the URL in a footnote whose link is followed by an asterisk may occasionally require special attention.[76]


See also

  • Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier's second novel, The Kingdom of this World (1949), (translated into English 1957), explores the Haitian Revolution in depth. It is one of the novels that inaugurated the Latin American renaissance in fiction beginning in the mid-20th century.
  • Madison Smartt Bell has written a trilogy called All Souls' Rising (1995) about the life of Toussaint Louverture and the slave uprising.
  • Though not referred to by name, Haiti is the backdrop for the 1990 Broadway musical Once on This Island by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. The musical, based on the novel My Love, My Love by Rosa Guy, describes the social stratification of the island and contains one song which briefly outlines the history of the Haitian Revolution.
  • In 2004 an exhibition of paintings entitled Caribbean Passion: Haiti 1804, by artist Kimathi Donkor, was held in London to celebrate the bicentenary of Haiti's revolution.
  • In 2010, author Isabel Allende wrote a historical novel entitled Island Beneath the Sea which documents the Haitian Revolution through the eyes of a slave woman living on the island.
  • William Dietrich set his 2012 novel, The Emerald Storm during the Haitian Revolution.
  • Freedom's Cry, an expansion to the Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag video game, focuses on a fictionalized account of the Haitian Revolution.
  • The television mini-series The Feast of All Saints features the Haitian Revolution in its opening scene.
  • The film Top Five refers to a fictional film within the film called Uprize, ostensibly about this revolution.

In popular culture

However, all was not simple in the press. A top critic who significantly drove Toussaint into fear of backlash from France was Sonthonax, who was responsible for many outlooks of Haiti in the French newspapers.[75] Yet Sonthonax was one of the few contenders who truly pushed for the independence of the African slaves and became a major factor in Toussaint's decision of declaring independence from France.

The revolution of African slaves brought many fears to colonies surrounding Haiti and the Caribbean. Among these fears were that of prominent wealthy American slave owners who in reading about the revolution also read of speculation about what was to come in their own states. However, newspapers like the Colombian Centinel took the extra steps to support the revolution, in the sense that it was based on the foundations of the American Revolution.[74] The French media also played an important role in the Haitian Revolution, with contributions that made many French upstarts quite interested in the young, passionate Toussaint's writings of freedom.

The Revolution and the media

The Haitian Revolution provoked mixed reactions in the United States. In June of 1793 when the Haitian people led by Toussaint Louverture overthrew the French colonial rule and declared themselves an independent colony, it made the neighboring United States uneasy. The Slaves in Saint-Domingue’s were able to observe the growing disunity among the white colonists and themselves. They realized that they would need to seek an opportunity to stop the tyranny that was being placed upon them, thus they took a stand and revolted. The Haitian Revolution of 1804 impacted the United States of America, led by George Washington, instilling fear of racial instability in the US, and the possible problematic effect the revolution could have on the early foreign relations and trade between the US and the new independent Haiti. George Washington realized that the Haitian revolution had the potential to cause an upheaval against slavery in the US by not only the slaves themselves, but by white abolitionists as well. Southern slaveholders feared that the slave revolution might spread from the island of Hispaniola to the slave plantations of the southern United States. They believed that the African people who they enslaved would be inspired by the Haitian Revolution. The primary goal of the US was to maintain social order in the country, so the United States attempted to suppress the Haitian Revolution. The US even went as far as to refuse acknowledgement of Haitian independence until 1862 during the heat of the North American civil war. The main cause of the War Between the States was slavery. The second major impact that the Haitian Revolution had on the United States was on early foreign relations and trade that had been conducted with Haiti. The United States had conducted trade and commerce with Haiti under French rule during the 18th century. Haiti was the main producer of the United States supply of sugar and coffee, and once the Haitian people had broken from the bondage of slavery, the US was reluctant to continue trade with them in fear that they would upset the French. American merchants conducted a substantial trade with the plantations on Hispaniola (aka the French colony of Saint Domingue or Haiti). But there were anti-slavery advocates in northern cities who believed that consistency with the principles of the American Revolution — life, liberty and equality for all — demanded that the U.S. support the slave insurgents. An extremely beneficial aspect and real estate triumph that resulted from the Haitian Revolution and impacted the United States was the Louisiana Purchase. Once Napoleon had lost his control of the landholding in the Caribbean to the Haitian rebellion, he felt that the French territory in the southern part of the United States was useless to the French Empire. The US was only interested in the New Orleans area; however it gained much of the territory west of the Mississippi River for around $15 million. This purchase more than doubled United State territory.

In 2004, Haiti celebrated the bicentennial of its independence from France.

While such a large-scale slave rebellion was not repeated, the Haitian Revolution stood as a model for achieving emancipation for slaves in the rest of the Atlantic world. In 1807, Britain permanently abolished the slave trade, although the practice of slavery was not abolished in the British Empire until 1834. Napoleon reversed the French abolition of slavery in law, constitution, and practice which had occurred between 1793 and 1801, and reinstated slavery in the French colonies in 1801–1803, which lasted until 1848. Slavery in the United States officially ended after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in late 1865.

Because Napoleon was unable to regain control over Haiti, he gave up hope of rebuilding a French New World empire. The loss of revenues from Saint-Domingue's sugar plantations made maintenance of Louisiana impractical. Similarly, as a result of debts incurred fighting the slave revolt, Napoleon chose to sell to the American government the Louisiana territory which had just recently been acquired from Spain. When, a generation later, French imperial ambitions revived, Africa, Mexico, China, and Indochina would be the main targets; and the business-generating forces, which had driven the development of their pre-revolutionary empire, were secondary.[73]

In 1807 Haiti was divided into two parts, the Republic of Haiti in the south and the Kingdom of Haiti in the north. Land could not be privately owned; it reverted to the State through Biens Nationaux (national bonds), and no French whites could own land. The remaining French settlers were forced to leave the island. Those who refused were slaughtered. The Haitian State owned up to 90% of the land and the other 10% was leased in 5-year intervals.

Many of the white and free people of color who left Saint-Domingue for the United States settled in southern Louisiana, adding many new members to its French-speaking, mixed-race, and black populations. The exiles causing the greatest amount of alarm were the African slaves who came with their refugee owners. Southern planters grew concerned that the presence of these slaves who had witnessed the revolution in Haiti would ignite similar revolts in the United States. They went to significant lengths to prevent the widespread trade of these persons.[72]

Beginning during the slave insurrections of 1791, white refugees from Saint-Domingue fled to the United States, particularly to Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, and Charleston. The immigration intensified after the journée (crisis) of June 20, 1793, and soon American families began to raise money and open up their homes in order to aid the exiles in what became the United States' first refugee crisis.[69] While some white refugees blamed the French Revolutionary government for sparking the violence in Haiti, many supported the Republican regime and openly expressed their support of the Jacobins [70] There is also some historical evidence suggesting that displaying solidarity with the French Revolution was the easiest way for the refugees to earn the support and sympathy of the Americans, who had just recently lived through their own revolution.[71] American slaveholders, in particular, commiserated with the French planters who had been forcibly removed from their plantations in Saint-Domingue. While most of the exiles found themselves in a relatively peaceful situation in the United States — safe from the violence raging in both France and Haiti — their presence complicated the already precarious diplomatic relations among the Kingdom of Great Britain, the French First Republic, and the United States.

Saint-Domingue slave revolt in 1791

The Haitian Revolution was influential in slave rebellions in the United States and British colonies. According to Haitian writer Michael J. Dash, the U.S. government feared that a successful slave revolt in Haiti would inspire a similar revolt in the United States. The revolution likely inspired a temporary increase in slave rebellions in the U.S., and this scared Southern plantation owners. After the Haitian Revolution, the U.S. banned slaveholders from bringing Haitians over as slaves, in order to prevent trouble; but some slave owners ignored this ban. This in turn led to the biggest slave revolt in U.S. history, the 1811 German Coast Uprising in Louisiana. This slave rebellion was put down and the punishment the slaves received was so severe that there are no contemporary news reports about it in existence.[67] This fear resulted in a growing conservatism in U.S. political culture. Leaders began to turn against the ideology of the French Revolution when they saw its influence in the Caribbean. The neighboring revolution brought the slavery question to the forefront of U.S. politics, and the resulting intensification of racial divides and sectional politics ended the idealism of the Revolutionary period.[68]


The 1804 massacre had a long-lasting effect on the view of the Haitian Revolution and helped to create a legacy of racial hostility in Haitian society.[66]

By the end of April 1804, some 3,000 to 5,000 people had been killed[65] and the white Haitians were practically eradicated. Only three categories of white people, except foreigners, were selected as exceptions and spared: the Polish soldiers who deserted from the French army; the little group of German colonists invited to Nord-Ouest (North-West), Haiti before the revolution; and a group of medical doctors and professionals.[62] Reportedly, also people with connections to officers in the Haitian army were spared, as well as the women who agreed to marry non-white men.[65]

Women and children were generally killed last. White women were "often raped or pushed into forced marriages under threat of death".[64]

The course of the massacre showed an almost identical pattern in every city he visited. Before his arrival, there were only a few killings, despite his orders.[63] When Dessalines arrived, he first spoke about the atrocities committed by former white authorities, such as Rochambeau and Leclerc, after which he demanded that his orders about mass killings of the area's white population should be put in effect. Reportedly, he ordered also the unwilling to take part in the killings, especially men of mixed race, so that the blame should not be placed solely on the black population.[64] Mass killings then took place on the streets and on places outside the cities. In parallel to the killings, plundering and rape also occurred.[64]

The 1804 Haiti massacre was carried out against the remaining white population of French Creoles (or Franco-Haitians) in Haiti by the black population on the order of Jean-Jacques Dessalines. The massacre, which took place in the entire territory of Haiti, was carried out from early February 1804 until 22 April 1804. During February and March, Dessalines traveled among the cities of Haiti to assure himself that his orders were carried out. Despite his orders, the massacres were often not carried out until he actually visited the cities himself.[62]

A 1806 engraving of Jean-Jacques Dessalines. It depicts the general, sword raised in one arm, while the other holds a severed head of a white woman.

1804 massacre of whites

The end of the Haitian Revolution in 1804 marked the end of colonialism on the island. However, the social conflict that was cultivated under slavery continued to affect the population for years to come. The revolution left in place the affranchi élite which continued to rule Haiti, while the formidable Haitian army kept them in power. France continued the slavery system in French Guiana, Martinique and Guadeloupe.[17]

Under the presidency of Jean-Pierre Boyer, Haiti made reparations to French slaveholders in 1825 in the amount of 150 million francs, reduced in 1838 to 60 million francs, in exchange for French recognition of its independence. Boyer believed that the constant threat of a French invasion was stymieing the Haitian economy and thus felt the need to settle the matter once and for all.[59] The negotiations for the indemnity were rather one sided however as French warships were anchored off the coast.[60] The resulting indemnity bankrupted the Haitian treasury. Haiti was therefore forced to take out a loan from French banks, who provided the funds for the large first installment,[1] severely affecting Haiti's ability to be prosperous. Haitian forces, led by Boyer, invaded neighboring Dominican Republic in February 1822. This was the beginning of a 22-year occupation by Haitian forces.[61]

Fearing a return of French forces, Dessalines first expanded and maintained a significant military force. During his reign, nearly 10% of able-bodied men were in active service.[58] Furthermore, Dessalines ordered the construction of massive fortifications throughout the island, like the Citadelle Laferrière. Many commentators believe that this overmilitarization contributed to many of Haiti's future problems.[58] In fact, because young fit men were the most likely to be drafted into the army, the plantations were thus deprived of the workforce needed to function properly.[58]

[57] Dessalines effectively sent the Haitian people back into slavery. Nevertheless, he succeeded in rebuilding much of the countryside and in raising production levels.[57] Dessalines' chief motivator nonetheless was production and to this aim he granted much freedom to the plantations' overseers. Barred from using the whip, many instead turned to lianes, which were thick vines abundant throughout the island, to persuade the laborers to keep working.[57] Likewise, the working day was shortened by a third.[57] In order to avoid the appearance of slavery, however, the ultimate symbol of slavery, the whip, was abolished.[57] Furthermore, he proclaimed the mastery of the state over the individual and consequently ordered that all laborers were to be bound to a plantation.[57] He proclaimed that every citizen would belong to one of two categories, laborer or soldier.[57] On 1 January 1804,

Free republic

Battle of Vertières in 1803

The last battle of the Haitian Revolution, the Battle of Vertières, occurred on 18 November 1803, near Cap-Haïtien. It was fought between Haitian rebels led by Jean-Jacques Dessalines and the French colonial army under the Viscount of Rochambeau; the Haitian rebels won the battle. On 1 January 1804, from the city of Gonaïves, Dessalines officially declared the former colony's independence, renaming it "Haiti" after the indigenous Arawak name. Although he lasted from 1804–1806 several changes began taking place in Haiti. The independence of Haiti was a major blow to France and its colonial empire, but the French state would take several decades to recognize the loss of the colony.

For a few months, the island was quiet under Napoleonic rule. But when it became apparent that the French intended to re-establish slavery (because they had nearly done so on Guadeloupe), black cultivators revolted in the summer of 1802. Dessalines and Pétion remained allied with France until they switched sides again, in October 1802, and fought against the French. In November, Leclerc died of yellow fever, like much of his army.[9][52] His successor, the Vicomte de Rochambeau, fought an even more brutal campaign. His atrocities helped rally many former French loyalists to the rebel cause. The French were further weakened by a British naval blockade, and by Napoleon's inability to send the requested massive reinforcements after war with England resumed in the spring of 1803. Having sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States in April 1803, Napoleon began to lose interest in his failing ventures in the Western Hemisphere. He was more concerned about France's European enemies such as Great Britain and Prussia. With that, he withdrew a majority of the French forces in Haiti to counter the possibility of an invasion from Prussia, Britain, and Spain on a weakened France. Dessalines led the rebellion until its completion, when the French forces were finally defeated in 1803.[9]

Battle at "Snake Gully" in 1802

Resistance to slavery

Louverture was promised his freedom if he agreed to integrate his remaining troops into the French army. Louverture agreed to this in May 1802. He was later deceived, seized by the French and shipped to France. He died months later in prison at Fort-de-Joux in the Jura region.[9]

In 1801, Louverture issued a constitution for Saint-Domingue which provided for autonomy and decreed that he would be governor-for-life, calling for black autonomy and a sovereign black state. In response, Napoleon Bonaparte dispatched a large expeditionary force of French soldiers and warships to the island, led by Bonaparte's brother-in-law Charles Leclerc, to restore French rule. They were under secret instructions to restore slavery, at least in the formerly Spanish-held part of the island.[51] The numerous French soldiers were accompanied by mulatto troops led by Alexandre Pétion and André Rigaud, mulatto leaders who had been defeated by Toussaint three years earlier. During the struggles, some of Toussaint's closest allies, including Jean-Jacques Dessalines, defected to Leclerc.

Under the military leadership of Toussaint, the forces made up mostly of former slaves succeeded in winning concessions from the British and expelling the Spanish forces. In the end, Toussaint essentially restored control of Saint-Domingue to France. Louverture was very intelligent, organized and articulate. Having made himself master of the island, however, Toussaint did not wish to surrender too much power to France. He began to rule the country as an effectively autonomous entity. Louverture overcame a succession of local rivals (including the Commissioner Sonthonax, a French white man who gained support from many Haitians, angering Louverture; André Rigaud, a free man of color who fought to keep control of the South; and Comte d'Hédouville). Hédouville forced a fatal wedge between Rigaud and Louverture before he escaped to France.[50] Toussaint defeated a British expeditionary force in 1798. In addition, he led an invasion of neighboring Santo Domingo (December 1800), and freed the slaves there on January 3, 1801.

One of the most successful black commanders was Toussaint Louverture, a self-educated former domestic slave. Like Jean François and Biassou, he initially fought for the Spanish crown in this period. After the British had invaded Saint-Domingue, Louverture decided to fight for the French if they would agree to free all the slaves. Sonthonax had proclaimed an end to slavery on 29 August 1792. Louverture worked with a French general, Étienne Laveaux, to ensure that all slaves would be freed. Louverture abandoned the Spanish army in the east and brought his forces over to the French side in 6 May 1794 after the Spanish refused to take steps to end slavery.[49]

General Toussaint Louverture.

Leadership of Louverture

"[describes disorders and shortages in France] ... not so much as Sugar can be had; for good reasons ... With factions, suspicions, want of bread and sugar, it is verily what they call déchiré, torn asunder this poor country: France and all that is French. For, over seas too come bad news. In black Saint-Domingo, before that variegated Glitter in the Champs Elysées was lit for an Accepted Constitution, there had risen, and was burning contemporary with it, quite another variegated Glitter and nocturnal Fulgor, had we known it: of molasses and ardent-spirits; of sugar-boileries, plantations, furniture, cattle and men: skyhigh; the Plain of Cap Français one huge whirl of smoke and flame! What a change here, in these two years; since that first 'Box of Tricolor Cockades' got through the Custom-house, and atrabiliar Creoles too rejoiced that there was a levelling of Bastilles! Levelling is comfortable, as we often say: levelling, yet only down to oneself. Your pale-white Creoles, have their grievances: – and your yellow Quarteroons? And your dark-yellow Mulattoes? And your Slaves soot-black? Quarteroon Ogé, Friend of our Parisian Brissotin Friends of the Blacks, felt, for his share too, that Insurrection was the most sacred of duties. So the tricolor Cockades had fluttered and swashed only some three months on the Creole hat, when Ogé's signal-conflagrations went aloft; with the voice of rage and terror. Repressed, doomed to die, he took black powder or seedgrains in the hollow of his hand, this Ogé; sprinkled a film of white ones on the top, and said to his Judges, "Behold they are white;" – then shook his hand, and said "Where are the Whites, Ou sont les Blancs?" So now, in the Autumn of 1791, looking from the sky-windows of Cap Français, thick clouds of smoke girdle our horizon, smoke in the day, in the night fire; preceded by fugitive shrieking white women, by Terror and Rumour. ..."[48]
described these events dramatically: Thomas CarlyleThe author

It has recently been estimated that the slave rebellion resulted in the death of 350,000 Haitians and 50,000 European troops.[46] According to the Encyclopedia of African American Politics, "Between 1791 and independence in 1804 nearly 200,000 blacks died, as did thousands of mulattoes and as many as 100,000 French and British soldiers."[47]

In nationalistic terms, the abolition of slavery also served as a moral triumph of France over England as seen in the latter half of the above quote. Yet the abolition of slavery did not allow for independence and did not persuade Toussaint Louverture until some time later to stop working with the Spanish army.

"representatives of the French people, until now our decrees of liberty have been selfish, and only for ourselves. But today we proclaim it to the universe, and generations to come will glory in this decree; we are proclaiming universal liberty...We are working for future generations; let us launch liberty into the colonies; the English are dead, today."[45]

The decision was confirmed and extended by the National Convention, the first elected Assembly of the First Republic (1792–1804), on the 4th of February 1794, under the leadership of Maximilien Robespierre. It abolished slavery by law in France and all its colonies and granted civil and political rights to all black men in the colonies. The French constitutions of 1793 and 1795 both included the abolition of slavery. The constitution of 1793 was never applied, but that of 1795 was implemented and lasted until replaced by the consular and imperial constitutions under Napoleon Bonaparte. Despite racial tensions in Saint Domingue, the French revolutionary government at the time welcomed abolition with a show of idealism and optimism. The emancipation of slaves was viewed as an example of liberty for other countries, much as the American Revolution was meant to serve as the first of many liberation movements. Danton, one of the Frenchmen present at the meeting of the National Convention, expressed this sentiment:

Meanwhile, in 1793, France declared war on Great Britain. The white planters in Saint Domingue made agreements with Great Britain to declare British sovereignty over the islands. Spain, who controlled the rest of the island of Hispaniola, would also join the conflict and fight with Great Britain against France. The Spanish forces invaded Saint Domingue and were joined by the slave forces. For most of the conflict, the British and Spanish supplied the rebels with food, ammunition, arms, medicine, naval support, and military advisors. By August 1793, there were only 3,500 French soldiers on the island. To prevent military disaster, and secure the colony for republican France as opposed to Britain, Spain, and French royalists, separately or in combination, the French commissioners Sonthonax and Polverel freed the slaves in St. Domingue.

By 1792, slave rebels controlled a third of the island.[42][43] The success of the slave rebellion caused the newly elected Legislative Assembly in France to realize it was facing an ominous situation. To protect France's economic interests, the Assembly granted civil and political rights to free men of color in the colonies in March 1792.[41] Countries throughout Europe as well as the United States were shocked by the decision, but the Assembly was determined to stop the revolt. Apart from granting rights to the free people of color, the Assembly dispatched 6,000 French soldiers to the island.[44]

A slave rebellion of 1791

Raynal's prediction came true on the night of 21 August 1791, when the slaves of Saint Domingue rose in revolt and plunged the colony into civil war. The signal to begin the revolt was given by Dutty Boukman, a high priest of vodou and leader of the Maroon slaves, during a religious ceremony at Bois Caïman on the night of 14 August.[40] Within the next ten days, slaves had taken control of the entire Northern Province in an unprecedented slave revolt. Whites kept control of only a few isolated, fortified camps. The slaves sought revenge on their masters through "pillage, rape, torture, mutilation, and death".[41] Because the plantation owners had long feared such a revolt, they were well armed and prepared to defend themselves. Nonetheless, within weeks, the number of slaves who joined the revolt reached some 100,000. Within the next two months, as the violence escalated, the slaves killed 4,000 whites and burned or destroyed 180 sugar plantations and hundreds of coffee and indigo plantations.[41]

Enlightened writer Guillaume Raynal attacked slavery in the 1780 edition of his history of European colonization. He also predicted a general slave revolt in the colonies, saying that there were signs of "the impending storm".[38] One such sign was the action of the French revolutionary government to grant citizenship to wealthy free people of color in May 1791. Because white plantation owners refused to comply with this decision, within two months isolated fighting broke out between the former slaves and the whites. This added to the tense climate between slaves and grands blancs.[39]

Part of a series of articles on...

1526 San Miguel de Gualdape
(Spanish Florida, Victorious)
c. 1570 Gaspar Yanga's Revolt
(Veracruz, New Spain, Victorious)
1712 New York Slave Revolt
(British Province of New York, lost)
1733 St. John Slave Revolt
(Danish Saint John, Suppressed)
1739 Stono Rebellion
(British Province of South Carolina, Suppressed)
1741 New York Conspiracy
(Province of New York, Suppressed)
1760 Tacky's War
(British Jamaica, Suppressed)
1791 Mina Conspiracy
(Louisiana (New Spain), Suppressed)
1795 Pointe Coupée Conspiracy
(Louisiana (New Spain), Suppressed)
1791–1804 Haitian Revolution
(French Saint-Domingue, Victorious)
1800 Gabriel Prosser
(Virginia, Suppressed)
1803 Igbo Landing
(Georgia, Suppressed)
1805 Chatham Manor
(Virginia, Suppressed)
1811 German Coast Uprising
(Territory of Orleans, Suppressed)
1815 George Boxley
(Virginia, Suppressed)
1816 Bussa's Rebellion
(British Barbados, Suppressed)
1822 Denmark Vesey
(South Carolina, Suppressed)
1831 Nat Turner's rebellion
(Virginia, Suppressed)
1831–1832 Baptist War
(British Jamaica, Suppressed)
1839 Amistad, ship rebellion
(Off the Cuban coast, Victorious)
1841 Creole case, ship rebellion
(Off the Southern U.S. coast, Victorious)
1842 Slave Revolt in the Cherokee Nation
(Indian Territory, Suppressed)
1859 John Brown's Raid
(Virginia, Suppressed)

1791 slave rebellion

Like Louverture, Jean-Baptiste Belley was also an active participant in the colony’s insurrection. The portrait of Belley by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson depicts a man who encompasses the French view of its colonies. The portrait creates a stark dichotomy between the refinement of French Enlightenment thought and the reality of the situation in Saint Domingue, through the bust of Raynald and the figure of Belley, respectively. While distinguished, the portrait still portrays a man trapped by the confines of race. Girodet’s portrayal of the former National Convention deputy is telling of the French opinion of colonial citizens by emphasizing the subject’s sexuality and including an earring. Both of these racially-charged symbols reveal the desire to undermine the colony’s attempts at independent legitimacy, as citizens of the colonies were not able to access the elite class of French Revolutionaries because of their race.[37]

In addition to Raynal’s influence, Toussaint Louverture was a key Enlightened actor in the Haitian Revolution. Enlightened thought divided the world into "enlightened leaders" and "ignorant masses";[33] Louverture attempted to bridge this divide between the popular masses and the enlightened few.[34] Louverture was familiar with Enlightenment ideas within the context of European imperialism. He attempted to strike a balance between Western Enlightened thought as a necessary means of winning liberation, and not propagating the notion that it was morally superior to the experiences and knowledge of people of color on Saint Domingue.[35] As an extension of himself and his Enlightened education, Louverture wrote a Constitution for a new society in Saint-Domingue that abolished slavery. The existence of slavery in Enlightened society was an incongruity that had been left unaddressed by European scholars. Louverture took on this inconsistency directly in his constitution. In addition, Louverture exhibited a connection to Enlightenment scholars through the style, language and accent of this text.[36]

French writer Guillaume Raynal attacked slavery in his history of European colonization. He warns, “the Africans only want a chief, sufficiently courageous, to lead them on to vengeance and slaughter.”[32] Raynal’s Enlightenment philosophy went deeper than a prediction and reflected many French Enlightenment philosophies including those of Rousseau and Diderot, even though it was written thirteen years before the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” The declaration, in contrast, highlighted freedom and liberty but still allowed for slaves to be characterized as property.

Influence of Enlightenment thought

The Revolution in Haiti did not wait on the Revolution in France. The individuals in Haiti relied on no other resolution but their own. The call for modification of society was influenced by the revolution in France, but once the hope for change found a place in the hearts of the Haitian people, there was no stopping the radical reformation that was occurring.[30] The Enlightenment ideals and the initiation of the French Revolution were enough to inspire the Haitian Revolution, which evolved into the most successful and comprehensive slave rebellion.[30] Just as the French were successful in transforming their society, so were the Haitians. On April 4, 1792, The French National Assembly granted freedom to slaves in Haiti [29] and the revolution culminated in 1804; Haiti was an independent nation solely of freed peoples.[25] The activities of the revolutions sparked change across the world. France’s transformation was most influential in Europe, and Haiti’s influence spanned across every location that continued to practice slavery. John E. Baur honors Haiti as home of the most influential Revolution in history.[31]

Lasting Change

Despite the idealist, rational and utopian thinking surrounding both uprisings, extreme brutality was a fundamental aspect of both uprisings. Besides initial cruelty that created the precarious conditions that bred the revolution, there was violence from both sides throughout the revolution. The period of violence during the French Revolution is known as the Reign of Terror. Those killed via guillotine, “breaking at the wheel”, or some other horrific death machines were perceived as adversaries to the revolution and death toll estimates range from 18,000 to 40,000.[26] Total casualties for the French Revolution are estimated at 2 million.[27] In the Caribbean, total casualties totaled approximately 162,000.[28] Violence in Haiti was largely characterized by military excursions, riots, the murder of slave owners, and guerilla warfare.[29]


Naturally, the Enlightenment movement reached France before it reached Haiti. The Enlightenment is embodied in ideas of egalitarianism and rational change.[23] These theories were highly applicable for the Third Estate and they spread like wildfire from Europe to the Caribbean slaves. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was partially a result of Enlightenment thinking and popularized the notion that men are born free with rights.[24] Ideas presented in the Declaration in conjunction with French legislation stating that people of color are free if born to free parents (This legislation was a direct result of the upheaval surrounding Vincent Ogé’s murder.) [25] initiated the thinking that all people, not only free, wealthy, white males, deserve freedom and certain rights.

Enlightenment Thinking

The Haitian Revolution mirrored the French Revolution in the fact that it was a revolution ignited from below, by the underrepresented majority of the population.[21] The lack of representation of the needs and opinions of the French Third Estate, the impoverished section of society, was the driving force for the French Revolution. A huge majority of the supporters of the Haitian revolution were slaves and freed Africans that were treated unequally by society and the law.[22] Economic disparities between the Estates in France and Racial issues in modern-day Haiti created an unsustainable social environment. Change was imminent for both societies.

Reason For Revolution

Relationship between the French Revolution and the Haitian Revolution

Leading 18th-century French writer Count Mirabeau had once said the Saint-Domingue whites "slept at the foot of Vesuvius",[20] an indication of the grave threat they faced should the majority of slaves launch a sustained major uprising.

Saint-Domingue's free people of color, most notably Julien Raimond, had been actively appealing to France for full civil equality with whites since the 1780s. Raimond used the French Revolution to make this the major colonial issue before the National Assembly of France. In October 1790, Vincent Ogé, another wealthy free man of color from the colony, returned home from Paris, where he had been working with Raimond. Convinced that a law passed by the French Constituent Assembly gave full civil rights to wealthy men of color, Ogé demanded the right to vote. When the colonial governor refused, Ogé led a brief insurgency in the area around Cap Français. He was captured in early 1791, and brutally executed by being "broken on the wheel" before being beheaded.[9] Ogé was not fighting against slavery, but his treatment was cited by later slave rebels as one of the factors in their decision to rise up in August 1791 and resist treaties with the colonists. The conflict up to this point was between factions of whites, and between whites and free blacks. Enslaved blacks watched from the sidelines.[5]

On the 4th of February 1794 under the leadership of Maximilien Robespierre, the French Convention voted for the abolition of slavery [...] Robespierre is still revered by the poor of Haiti today.

Centre for Research on Globalization[19]

The African population on the island began to hear of the agitation for independence by the rich European planters, the grands blancs, who had resented France's limitations on the island's foreign trade. The Africans mostly allied with the royalists and the British, as they understood that if Saint-Domingue's independence were to be led by white slave masters, it would probably mean even harsher treatment and increased injustice for the African population. The plantation owners would be free to operate slavery as they pleased without the existing minimal accountability to their French peers.[17]

In France, the majority of the Estates General, an advisory body to the King, constituted itself as the National Assembly, made radical changes in French laws, and on 26 August 1789, published the Declaration of the Rights of Man, declaring all men free and equal. The French Revolution shaped the course of the conflict in Saint-Domingue and was at first widely welcomed in the island. At first, wealthy whites saw it as an opportunity to gain independence from France, which would allow elite plantation-owners to take control of the island and create trade regulations that would further their own wealth and power.[4] There were so many twists and turns in the leadership in France, and there were so many complex events in Saint-Domingue, that various classes and parties changed their alignments many times. However, the Haitian Revolution quickly became a test of the ideology of the French Revolution, as it radicalized the slavery question and forced French leaders to recognize the full meaning of their revolution.[18]

Impact of the French Revolution

The Western Province, however, grew significantly after the capital was relocated to Port-au-Prince in 1751, and the region became increasingly wealthy in the second half of the 18th century when irrigation projects allowed significant sugar plantation growth. The Southern Province lagged in population and wealth because it was geographically separated from the rest of the colony. However, this isolation allowed freed slaves to find profit in trade with British Jamaica, and they gained power and wealth here.[16] In addition to these interregional tensions, there were conflicts between proponents of independence, those loyal to France, allies of Spain, and allies of Great Britain – who coveted control of the valuable colony,

The North was the center of shipping and trading, and therefore had the largest French elite population. The Plaine du Nord on the northern shore of Saint-Domingue was the most fertile area with the largest sugar plantations. It was the area of most economic importance, especially as most of the colony's trade went through these ports. The largest and busiest port was Le Cap Français (present-day Le Cap Haïtien), the capital of French Saint-Domingue until 1751, when Port-au-Prince was made the capital.[16] In this northern region, enslaved Africans lived in large groups of workers in relative isolation, separated from the rest of the colony by the high mountain range known as the Massif du Nord. These slaves would join with urban slaves from Le Cap to lead the 1791 rebellion, which began in this region. This area was the seat of power of the grands blancs, the rich white colonists who wanted greater autonomy for the colony, especially economically.[17]

In addition to class and racial tension between whites, free people of color, and enslaved blacks, the country was polarized by regional rivalries between the North, South, and West.

Regional conflicts

Saint-Domingue's free people of color, the gens de couleur, numbered more than 28,000 by 1789. Around that time, colonial legislations, concerned with this growing and strengthening population, passed discriminatory laws that visibly differentiated these freedmen by dictating their clothing and where they could live. These laws also barred them from occupying many public offices.[4] Many of these freedmen were also artisans and overseers, or domestic servants in the plantation houses.[15] Le Cap Français, a northern port, had a large population of freed slaves, and these men would later become important leaders in the 1791 slave rebellion and later revolution.[16]

Among Saint-Domingue's 40,000 white colonials in 1789, European-born Frenchmen monopolized administrative posts. The sugar planters, the grands blancs, were chiefly minor aristocrats. Most returned to France as soon as possible, hoping to avoid the dreaded yellow fever, which regularly swept the colony.[14] The lower-class whites, petits blancs, included artisans, shopkeepers, slave dealers, overseers, and day laborers.

In 1789, whites numbered 32,000; mulattoes and free blacks, 28,000; and black slaves, an estimated 452,000.[10] The lowest class of society was enslaved blacks, who outnumbered whites and free people of color by a margin of ten to one.[5] The slave population on the island totaled almost half of the one million slaves in the Caribbean by 1789.[11] Two thirds were African-born, and they tended to be less submissive than those born in the Americas.[12] The death rate in the Caribbean exceeded the birth rate, so imports of enslaved Africans were necessary in order to maintain the numbers required to work the plantations. The slave population declined at an annual rate of two to five percent, due to overwork; inadequate food, shelter, clothing and medical care; and an imbalance between the sexes, with more men than women.[13] Some slaves were of a creole elite class of urban slaves and domestics, who worked as cooks, personal servants and artisans around the plantation house. This relatively privileged class was chiefly born in the Americas, while the under-class born in Africa labored hard, and more often than not, under abusive and brutal conditions.

In 1789 Saint-Domingue produced 60% of the world's coffee and 40% of the world's sugar imported by France and Britain. The colony was the most profitable possession of the French Empire. Saint-Domingue was also the wealthiest and most prosperous colony, for the plantation owners at least, of all the colonies in the Caribbean.

Social stratification

Situation in 1789


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