In a Vodou ceremony led by Dutty Boukman in 1791, several hundred enslaved people swore to fight to the death against a brutal system of slavery and torture. The revolt that followed would shake the greatest empires of Europe and burn the slave society of Saint-Domingue to the ground. From the ashes emerged the first Black Republic in the Western Hemisphere and the first nation founded by a successful slave rebellion: Haiti.
In the 18th century, Saint-Domingue — the western French-owned half of the island of Hispañola — was the most lucrative colony in the Caribbean. Its primary export was sugar, which was extremely valuable. By 1780, Saint-Domingue was producing 40 percent of the sugar consumed in Europe.
Their incredible profits were the product of incredible human suffering. Harvesting sugar cane was labor intensive, and enslaved people were imported to the island in greater and greater numbers as sugar profits rose. By 1787, the colony was importing 40,000 enslaved people per year. More than 60 percent of enslaved people on the island were African-born.
Enslaved people were worked to death and tortured brutally if they resisted. Mortality rates were high — 50 percent of enslaved people died within a year of arriving in Saint-Domingue. But the business was so lucrative, planters simply opted to import more enslaved people rather than improve treatment.
In any slave society, sexual assault is rampant; as a result, many mixed-race children were produced. In Saint-Domingue, the French referred to them as “Coloreds.” What made Saint-Domingue different from other slave societies was that slave owners openly entered relationships with, and even married, their Black and Colored enslaved people. The Colored offspring would then go on to inherit their father’s property — including the plantations and the enslaved people. This created a new socio-racial class that was oppressed by strict de jure racial discrimination, but, at the same time, possessed vast amounts of wealth.
Adding to these divisions were the contradictions between wealthy whites and poor whites or “grands blancs” and “petit blancs.” The grands blancs owned the plantations, but they spent very little time in Saint-Domingue. Some had never been to the island at all. They hired petit blancs, whites from the lower classes who were desperate to escape their debts, to manage the plantations. For petit blancs, the goal was to earn enough money to buy their own plantations and perhaps leave Saint-Domingue.
French Revolution inspires revolts
With the social stratification of Saint-Domingue, the French Revolution in 1789 hit the island like a meteor. The grands blancs saw the revolution as their chance to extricate themselves from the hated “Exclusive,” the system of trade laws that prevented Saint-Domingue from trading with any other nation besides France. The petit blancs, on the other hand, wanted to renegotiate the entire social contract.
The petit blancs attempted to form their own councils and began marching across the island, extolling the virtues of liberté (liberty) and égalité (equality). They were quick to use mob violence against all who stood in opposition.
Meanwhile, enslaved Blacks observed the revolutionary ferment and planned to secure their own liberty. Historian Carolyn Fick argues that enslaved people held secret meetings every week throughout the summer of 1791.
The Haitian Revolution would never have been possible without the information network that connected Blacks throughout the island. Enslaved people who worked in the ports overheard the news from sailors and merchants. Through Black overseers and coachmen — who held the trust of their masters and were therefore given significant freedom of movement — this information was passed along to the enslaved people on the plantations in the interior.
Escaped enslaved people, living in settlements known as “maroon colonies,” also communicated with Blacks on the plantations and provided safe places for meetings. One unique feature of slavery in Saint-Domingue was that temporary escape, “petit marronage,” for a night or even a few days was quite common and sometimes went unpunished. Through these short-term excursions, Blacks were able to meet and coordinate their actions in the remote mountain regions of the island.
It was during these meetings that rumors spread of new laws passed in France. The possibility that reforms in treatment were coming, perhaps the banning of the whip and all other forms of torture, filled the enslaved people with hope and courage. But if such reforms had been made, there was no evidence that the white masters planned to implement them. Drastic measures had to be taken, and the plot for insurrection was born.
On Aug. 14, 1791, Black conspirators slipped back into their plantations in the night, killed their masters and torched the instruments of their enslavement. Sugar cane fields are highly flammable, and in just a few days most of the North Province of Saint-Domingue was set ablaze. All the machinery on the sugar plantations was destroyed; the means of production were not merely seized but annihilated so that the planter system could never return.
White citizens, who had retreated to the large port city of Cap‑Français, looked out on a landscape of smoke and ash. In the midst of their own struggle for liberty, the whites of Saint-Domingue had done little to prepare for the possibility of a slave insurrection, even though a few captured Blacks had confessed to the plot several weeks prior. Blinded by white supremacy, the colonists could not imagine that “their” enslaved people would fight as fiercely and as bravely as any Europeans to free themselves from oppression.
Angry and confused white colonists descended into rioting and lynched any Blacks they could find in the city. But the insurrection could not be stopped. France effectively lost control of Saint-Domingue in those first few months and never regained it.
What followed were several years of guerrilla warfare. Several leaders emerged from this struggle, the most famous being Toussaint Louverture. Louverture had been born into slavery under a lenient master. He learned to read and studied European classics. He was likely tutored in the ways of West African warfare by his father, reported to have been an African chief. By the time the revolution broke out, Louverture had been free for many years and worked as a supervisor on his former master’s plantation. Louverture joined the growing insurgency, and his education and ability resulted in his rapid appointment as a rebel commander.
As the French Revolution sent shockwaves throughout Europe, the surrounding monarchies declared war on France one by one. Britain invaded Saint-Domingue from the west, hoping to snatch the most valuable colony in the Caribbean while France was embroiled in chaos. Spain, already holding the eastern half of the island (Santo Domingo) and, seeing an easy opportunity to undermine the revolution in France, began supplying the Black insurgents with weapons and supplies. This encouraged many rebels, including Louverture, to join the Spanish and resist the French during 1792 and 1793.
But in 1794, France officially abolished slavery in all its territories. Knowing that no other imperialist power would take such a radical step, Louverture and his rebel forces allied with France to resist the monarchist powers. Like a hammer and anvil, Louverture in the north and the Colored general André Rigaud in the south led Black, Colored and white soldiers against the British in the center of the colony, forcing them off the island.
The brilliant leadership of the Black insurgency, which had first taken Saint-Domingue from France, had now won the island back for France. This made Louverture a valuable asset for the colonial government. The white members of the French Civil Commission, who nominally governed Saint-Domingue from Cap‑Français, relied on Louverture to enforce their decrees and maintain order in the colony. The Black people had won their freedom, and most were content to live as subjects of France, so long as France respected that freedom.
But the plantation owners, who had been made refugees by the insurrection, continued to plead their cause in France. As the forces of counterrevolution took hold in Europe, the exiled colonists gained more sway. When Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in 1797, the proponents of slavery finally found a sympathetic ear.
During the period of 1795-1800, contradictions mounted in Saint-Domingue. Although the Black population was free, the French Civil Commissioners were eager to restore the profits from sugar exports. They mandated that Blacks remain on the plantations to work as paid laborers. The Black masses resented this serfdom, but there was little they could do. Meanwhile, the Black leadership sought to appease the French. There was only one nation in Europe which would tolerate free Blacks in such a wealthy colony, so Black generals, Louverture included, enforced the labor laws demanded by France.
There was also a division of race and class between the Blacks and the Coloreds. The Coloreds believed that their wealth and education made them better suited to governing and resented seeing formerly enslaved Black people in positions of power. These contradictions culminated in the “War of Knives” in 1799. Instigated by the reactionary French Commissioner Hédouville, the most prominent Colored leader Rigaud rebelled against Louverture’s mostly Black forces.
Rigaud’s southern army was outnumbered, but he counted on aid from the British. That aid never came. It was not long before Louverture’s most dangerous lieutenant, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, moved south and crushed Rigaud.
‘Haiti’ is born
Louverture consolidated his power, becoming master of Saint-Domingue. He devoted himself to rebuilding the plantation economy and creating a society without racial discrimination. He enshrined racial equality in a new constitution and declared himself governor for life.
But in France, Napoleon Bonaparte saw Saint-Domingue as the launching point for a new North American empire. He craved the seemingly boundless profits that only a slave economy could produce. And he resented the Black general who presumed to rule Saint-Domingue and issue proclamations and constitutions without his approval. In 1801, Napoleon sent his brother-in-law, General Charles Leclerc, and 40,000 French soldiers to oust Louverture and restore white rule.
The result was a war where disease, a veteran Black army and ceaseless guerrilla warfare would devastate the French forces, leaving only about 8,000 survivors to return to France. Louverture would not live to see the end of the war; he would be captured by Leclerc and die in a French prison in 1803. It was left to Dessalines and the masses of armed free Blacks to beat back the French and establish an independent Haiti on Jan. 1, 1804.
In choosing the name “Haiti,” the name given the island by its original Taino inhabitants, Dessalines repudiated not just slavery, but 300 years of colonialism. Today, as we see Haiti struggle under the oppression of neocolonial forces, we should remember that this small island nation was founded as a symbol of resistance and liberation. It is exactly that symbol that imperialists have always sought, yet failed, to destroy.