Dubian Ade

Brief Histories: The Haitian Revolution

Dubian Ade
Brief Histories: The Haitian Revolution

The so-called island of Hispanola, which today is shared by both Haiti and The Dominican Republic, was originally populated by the indigenous Tino. Colonizer and mass murderer Christopher Columbus landed on the island in 1492 on behalf of his Spanish benefactors, and named the island La Isla Espanola.

Due to indigenous resistance, the Spanish were never able to settle on the entire island and remained at the eastern tip in what is present day Dominican Republic. The western side of the island would remain unsettled by Europeans until French pirates and travelers began occupying and eventually settling in the area around 1660. By that time the indigenous Tino were severely affected by disease, genocide, and slavery imposed by the Spanish and were unable to ward off the invasion. Conflicts between the Spanish and the French over land would continue until 1697 when Spain formally ceded the western third of the island to France. The French side of the island was called Saint-Domingue.

By this time African slaves had already been imported by Spain. The first of them arrived to "Hispaniola" as early as 1517 under the order of the Spanish monarch Charles V. French colonizers stole more slaves from neighboring islands. They began the business of cultivating cocoa, indigo, and cotton. But it was sugar-cane that would become the most important crop in Saint-Domingue. For it, the French colonizers would enslave hundreds of thousands.

By 1791 the French slave-plantation system in Saint-Domingue supplied 40% of the worlds sugar, producing 63,000 tons of sugar a year. Half a million Black slaves were in bondage in Saint-Domingue and in service to a population of about 30,000 white slave holders. Saint-Domingue became known as the so-called "Pearl of the Antilles."

By all counts the French colony of Saint-Domingue was the apple of the French imperialist eye. Not only was it the most profitable colony in the French empire, but towards the end of the Eighteenth Century Saint-Domingue was the wealthiest colony in the Western Hemisphere.

Conditions on the plantations were so deplorable for Blacks and the death rates so high that the vast majority of slaves were freshly imported from the West African coast. Slaves were tortured, raped, mutilated and killed by French slave holders.

The French Revolution began in 1789 and greatly destabilized the ruling class structure both in France and in the French colonies. In the colonies French elites had a vested interest in remaining loyal to the Spanish monarch, while the white slave holding middle class was interested in a colonial independence from France. The mixed mulatto class, who enjoyed some of the privileges of being lighter-skinned but were stilled discriminated against by the French colonizers, wanted the island for themselves. But they despised both the French colonizer and Black slaves. In 1790 Jacques Vincent Oge lead a group of armed mulattos in a failed attempt to capture the city of Cap-Francais.

But in the bowels of the plantation Blacks were already forging their resistance. The religion of Voodoo formed out of a synthesis of several African spiritual traditions including Ibo, Yoruba, and Dahomey. Voodoo, although formally outlawed in the colony would only thrive under the oppression of the colonial planter and unify slaves of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. When the boiling point of racial tension finally erupted into a full-blown revolution, Voodoo was at its spiritual and cosmological epicenter.

It was the Voodoo ceremony at Bois Caiman on the night of August 14, 1791 that truly began the revolutionary struggle. Led by a Voodoo high priestess, and a tall, well-read slave and Voodoo hougan known only as Boukman, a huge group of slaves gathered in a clearing by the Caiman Forest. The priestess ritually sacrificed a pig. Some say that those in attendance drank the blood of the pig and swore to revolt against the colonial masters, kill them, destroy their property, and remove them from the island. They were to fight for liberation or become martyrs in the process.

Ceremony at Bois Caiman

Ceremony at Bois Caiman

With the help of Boukman the slaves initiated a revolt on August 22, 1791. The revolt was incredibly organized: a series of mini revolts broke out at every corner of the Plaine du Nord, the most profitable region in Saint-Domingue. These revolts were synchronized perfectly, and every plantation in Northern Saint-Domingue was systematically set ablaze. Then the mills, factories, and colonial mansions went up in flames. It is said that the fires could be seen from the Bahamas.

Blacks were organized at every level of the slave plantation system. Some two-hundred headmen (Slaves who managed other slaves) were involved in the insurrection. Hundreds more house slaves, thousands of field slaves, freed Blacks, maroons, and mulattos were organized. House slaves killed their white masters and their children. The field slaves marched towards Le Cap, some 40,000 of them, and laid siege to the city.

By 1793 the situation in Saint-Domingue had escalated into a complex power struggle between the various social classes within the colony and the imperialist European powers. None had the upper hand except the Black ex-slaves. Fearful of the revolt spreading to its own colonies, the British attempted to invade Saint-Domingue to restore colonial order. The Spanish attempted to seize the opportunity to retake the rest of the island. The French, badly wounded from the internal conflicts, would later send a force under Napoleon. The ensuing struggles would last for thirteen years.

Meanwhile French authorities under Leger Felicite Sonthonax were finally able to regain some control of the island, but Saint-Dominge was already in ruins. Sonthonax then officially abolished slavery in the colony in order to appease the rebels.

One rebel leader by the name of Francois Dominique Toussaint L'Ouverture, had participated in the August 22nd revolt and afterwards banded together with the Spanish forces against the French. Upon hearing of the abolition of slavery in the colony, Toussaint switched sides to the French. Toussaint rose in rank and by 1801 had effectively taken control of the entire island.

Toussaint's rise to power marked the definitive end of slave plantation system in soon-to-be Haiti, even as Napoleon desired to reinstate it. Toussaint's vision was to unify the Black and mulatto classes and form a new nation. On January 1, 1804, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Toussaint L'Ouverture declared the independent nation of Haiti.