Haitian History: War for Independence (1791-1804)

Figure 1.--This was a color foldout. The top caption rea, "Incendie du Cap" (Burning of Cape Francais). The bottom cation read, "Revolte générale des Negres. Massacre des Blancs" (General revolt of the Blacks. Massacre of the Whites]. The illustration shows a pro-settler perspective, nut not necesarily inaccurate one. The whites are fleeing Cap Francais in Saint Domingue, as the slave rebellion of 1793 intensified. Many of these whites fled to the United States and elsewhere in the Caribbean. Source: Anonamous author. 'Saint-Domingue, ou histoire de ses revolutions . . .' (Paris, 1815). The illustration faced thd title page.

After the initial slave rebellion on St. Dominique, a civil war developed between the black dominated north and the mulatto dominated south. Toussaint L'Ouverture, an educated herb doctor and military man, emerged as the leader of the former slaves in the north. He conquered the entire island. Spain ceded the eastern side of the island to France (1795). Toussaint managed to restor order, ended the massacres, and restored some of the colony's lost prosperity (1796). Napoleon Bonaparte seized control of France. He attempts to retake Saint Domingue because of the huge exports that had come from the colony. He sends a substantial 34,000 man army to defeat the slave armies and reestablish French control. The French commander Leclerc through subterfuge seized Toussaint L'Ouverture seized and deported him to France (1801). He died in a French prison. The Convention in Paris reintroduced slavery to Saint Domingue (1802). This result in a renewed rebellion and more massacres (1802). The slaves continued to resist even after Toussaint's capture. Haitains declared an independent republic (1804).

St. Dominque: Social Classes (1697-1791)

The population of the French colony was divided into three basic groups: the whites or "Blancs", the "Affranchis" (free blacks and mulattos) and the great masses of the population--black slaves who worked the sugar plantations. Unlike North America where slaves were a minority, even in the South, the white and mulatto population on Saint-Domingue was very small. These classes were defined and govered by the Code Noir--royal degrees. All political power was conerred on the whites. The Affranchis or free people of color had the ability to acquire property inclusing land and slaves, but they had no political power.


The white population was the smallest group. They constituted only about 25,000 of the population and they were divided into two groups. The wealthiest whites were the plantation owners. The city population of civil servants, merchsnts, and artisans were called the small whites. The whites at the time of the Revolution were demanding a role in the governing of the colony. (There was nothing like the colonial legislatures that developed in the English colonies.) Many whites wanted to turn Saint Domingue into an autonomous colony.


The Affranchis were about twice the number of the whites, probably about 40,000 people. Relatively few French women came to St. Dominque. Thus French men fathered many children by slave women. Unlike the situation in America, the French often freed their mulatto children. They commonly adopted th children and provided for them. In some cases the mulatto children inherited the wealth of their fathers. Thus by the late 18th century, the Affranchis had come to own about 25 percent of the colony’s plantations and wealth. Many went to France to persue a higher education. Although many Affranchis had achieved wealth and were highly educated, wgites considered them inferior. They did not have the social status they felt they deserved. There were a range of discriminatory regulations and esyablished practices. They were excluded from certain professions, not allowed to wear European clothes, and could not sit among the whites in church. Thus conflict developed between the Affranchis and the Whites throughout the 18th century with the Affranchis as they rose in economic power increasingly demanded civil and political equality with the whites who resisted reforms.


The great bulk of the colony's population were black slaves imported from Africa. Estimates suggest alave population of 400,000-500,000. They labored in intolerable conditions and were the tatget of horific absuses on the sugar plantations. The slaves resisted as best they could. There were reportsc of slaves poisoning their masters. Some slaves killed their children to save them from a life of abuse. There were even collective suicides, such as that of the Ibos. Others rebelled. One of the most famous was Mackandal. His followers believed that he could not be killed by the French. He was captured abd condemned to death by burning at the stake (1758). He succeeded in escaping, but was later caught and executed. The greatest challenge to the French was the "marronage". Marronage was the resistance of runaway slaves. They hid in the rugged mountains and thick forrest of the interior--undeveloped areas unsuitable for sugar cultivation. The maroons from their mountain redoubts they raided the plantations. They commonly raided at night seeking to kill the French or Affranchis masters and succeeded in burning down many plantations. The most notable maroon was a run away slave named François Mackandal from Guinea. He was also a Viodoo houngan (priest). Mackandal terorized the French for 6 years reportedly killing 6,000 French settlers--an amazing number given the small white population. The French ultimtely caught and publicly executed him on the public square at Cap Francais, the colonial capital.

French Revolution (1789)

The French Revolution occured in France and the reverbreations soon reach Saint Domingue (1789). France lost most of its empire to the British, but retained imporant Caribbean islands. Liberty was a byword of the French Revolution as it had been in the American Revolution. But like the Americans, the leaders of the French Revolution did not move toward abolition. In America any step toward abolition during the Revolution or the frameing of the Constitution would have meant disunion as it would have been unacceptable to the southern colonies. In France it appears to redlect the bouergoise character of the Revolution and the economic importance of Caribbean slavery to the French economy. While France did not move toward abolition, the Revolution did have substantial reverbreations, both in the Caribbean and in England which affected slavery. Neither the Revolutionaries or Napoleon moved yoward abolition. Neither did the restored French momarchy after the Naoleonic Wars. This in fact posed a problem for Britain which after abolishing slavery gave the Royal Navy the task of ending the Atalantic slave trade.

First Discussions

The Black slaves in the French West Indies were uneducated and illiterte as well as unorganized. As a result they were mot initially aware of what as happening in rance or its impoeranc. The Affranchis or free people of color were a fifferent matter. As a result of the Code Noir Many were educated and had acquired property and other posessions. Some even ownd slaves themselves. But they had no political power. When the advent of the Revolution this class began to advocate for the same political rights as whites. They did not push abolition or rights for the slaves, but their own political rights. Vincent Ogé who was in Paris at the time presented the views of his fellow Affranchis who owned property to a meeting of the white planters who styled thmselves the Assembly of Colonists. Both groups sent representatives to France to obtain representation in the National Assembly. The National Asembly was divided on the issue of slavery and colonial representation. Some in the Assembly believed in abolition, but the abolition movemnt was not as strong as the growing British abolituon movenent. There were even members of the Society of the Friends of Blacks. Abolition was still, hoever, a minority opinion even among the revolutionaries. There was more support for granting full politick rights to the free people of color, although even this proved controversial. There were some 28,000 free blacks and mulattos in Haiti. There were even anadvivate for women's rights. [Gouges]

French National Assembly (1791)

The National Assembly in Paris had a major impact on the direction of events on Saint-Domingue (1789-94). First the white settlers were driven toward succession from France because of the modest victories of abolitionist forces. The reaction on Saint-Domingue to the National Assembly's decesion on the status of mulattos was an outburst of violence.

Blanc-Affranchis Conflict (1791)

As the National Assembly debated the issues of slavery and colonial representation, the ncertainty nd differing opinions generated instability in the colonies, especoally Saint Doningue (Haiti). The Affranchis or free people of color demannded full political rights. The white planters were mostly opposed believing that granting rights to the Affranchis was just a tep toward abolition. They also feared feared that the National Assemby in Paris might actually abolish slavery. Some of the planters with the example of the Americans began to talk about independence. Both groups ignored the possivle reactions of the slaves who had begun o ndertand what was going on. Vincent Ogé was the the strongest proponent for the denands of the Affranchis mulatto property owners. He had first prsented his ideas to a group of white planters who happened to be in Paris when the Revolution broke out. They denied his proposition. Ogé wnt on to organize an arm group to promote his demands. When he returned to Saint Domingue he hoped an armed group might change minds. (Octiber 1790) Instead after confrontations, the group fled into spanish territory and were arrested and returned to Saint Domigue authotities. The leaders were executed. Ogé ws brutlly broken on the wheel. The National Assembly after exhaustive debate granted political rights to all free blacks and mulattos who were born of free mothers and fathers (May 1791). This meant, hoever, only a few hundred people were affected. The planters were, hiowever, infuriated and illegal nulified the new law. They turned their eire on the mullatos. The Whites rioted and lynched mullatoes they could lay their hands on. They also burned the Tri-Color flag of the Republic. Seemingly unconsidered was the reaction of slaves which constituted the great bulk of the population and were becominf increasingly aware of the ideas of the revolution like liberty and equality. .

Boukman Rebellion (1791)

THe slaves, had some knowledge of events in France and were quietly organinizing. The slave revolt that took place exhibited a surprising degree of planning given the restrictions on the slaves limited their movement and activities. Thousands of slaves were involved in the initial revolt (1791). The operations of the maroons mnean that there were slaves with a degree of military skill and some arms. The fact that there was no leak from such alarge group is one indicator of organization. Another Voodoo houngan named Boukman launched the ininital slave rebellion (1791). He managed to organized a meeting of slaves in the remote northern mountains (August 14, 1791). It was a Voodoo ceremony in the Bois Caiman (Caiman Forrest). A sanguinary Voodoo ceremony followed after which the participants swore to kill the French (August 22, 1791). The slaves on the north thus began a rebellion. They began by attacking isolated plantations, killing any French they encountered, including the women and children. They burned the plantation. After each attack, the slaves grew in strength with freed slaves joining the rebellion. The French eventually captured Boukman and beheaded him--exposing his head on Cap’s square to convince the slaves that their leader was not invincible. The burning and destrution of the plantations destroyed the foundation on which a national economy could be based. The slaves were motivated by a desire to destroy slavery and their white French oppresors, not to build a nation.

French Reaction

Shortly after the white planters supressed the efforts of the Affranchis (free people of color) to be included in the governing elite, the slaves rose up in rebellion (August 22). And unlike the Affranchis were not amall group which could be easily supressed. The National Assembly upon learing of the rebellion associated it with the Affranchis and immediately rescinded the rights of free blacks and mulattos (September 24). The slaves resonded with increasedvioence. They burned down plantations, murdered their white masters, and began attacking the towns. The new Legislative Assembly replaced the National Assembly (October 1791). Tghey met (late-March 1792). The sitiation in Haiti was high on their priority. The Assembly voted to reinstate the political rights of free blacks and mulattos (March 28). No consensus was reached on slavery. The slave rebellion was not beyond the ontrol of French legislators. The Revolution in France began to radicalize, but support for abolition was balanced by the desir to contine to control a hugely valuable colony. The Revolutionary Government sent two agents to Saint Domingue in attempt to gain control of the situation (fall 1792). The rebels made agreements with the British and Spanish to stave off the reimposition of French control. The British and Spanish sought to take advantage of the situation to weaken France. The promised freedom to any slaves who would join their armies despite maintaining slavery in theor colonies.

Civil War

After the initial slave rebellion, a civil war developed between the black dominated north and the mulatto dominated south.

Toussaint L'Ouverture (1791-1803)

While the French managed to capture and execute Boukman and temporarily regained control of the north, this did not extinguish the slave rebellion. Mands of slaves continued to attack plantations. Toussaint L’Ouverture joined the insurectionists. Toussaint L'Ouverture was an educated herb doctor with military experience. He emerged as the leader of the former slaves in the north. He proved to be a formidable military commander and organizer. The created an actual army out of disorganized bands of maurauding slaves. This was the beginning of a 12-year struggle for liberty. Toussaint and his men had to fight endless wars. He proved to be a talented politicamn and used the rivalries between the English, French, and Spanish to his advantage. Spain ceded the eastern side of the island to France (1795). Toussaint managed to restore order, ended the massacres, and restored some of the colony's lost prosperity (1796). The slaves not only defeated the white settlers, but invading British, Spanish, and French armies. He managed to conquer the entire island (1801). He proclaimed himself governor of the colony, but did take the further step of independence. He had a constitution drawn up that declared St Domingue an autonomous French possession and abolished slavery. While fighting countless battles, L'Ouverture attempted to build a new Haitian society. He actually opposed breaking up the hated plantations, not a popular stance. He believed that former slaves should work as wage laborers. He even allowed the former slave owners to remain – as long as they paid wages and improved working conditions. Some believe that he was attempting to move Haiti toward capitalist agriculture. L'Ouverture was concened that breaking up the plantations would have resulted in subsistence agriculture, certainly an imprivement for the former slaves, but unlikely to produce income for Hatian society. L'Ouverture was betrayed by the French and died in one Napoleon’s prisons. [James]

Abolition (1794)

Rebellion, war, invasions, nassacers, reprisals, and executions took their toll on Saint Dominique. The economy was based on slavery and with the slaves in revolt and plantations set afire, the economy was collapsing. Edicts from Paris no onger had much meaning. The National Convention wjich replaced the Legislative Assembly was the creation of the Jacobins, the most radical of the various Revolutionary assemblies. It was the National assembly that conducted The Terror. The National Assembly finally took the step of ending slavery in the colonies (February 4, 1794). A decree from far-away Paris no longer had much impact. It was too late to placate the slaves. Most were already freed by their on armies or L'Ouverture army. It was, however, the final straw for the white who had survived the slave rebellion. They fled the island. The Affranchis were also not pleased since many owned slaves and had nevr promoted abolition. Officials in areas not yet under L'Ouverture's control ignored the abolition decree. Othr offiials attempted to convert convert slavery into a forced labor system. Others just ignored it.

British Campaign (1794-96)

Prime Minister Pitt on learning of the Saint-Domingue slave rebellion changed his mind about moving against the slave trade and moving toward abolition. This was no longer needed to weaken France which had already lost Saint-Domingue. Rather Pitt convceived of a campaign to seize the island and its valuable sugar industry for Britain. Pitt thus sponsored a major military exoedition to the Caribbean (1794-96). Toussaint believed that the British were a greater danger than the French who had freed the slaves. The expedition was another military disater for Britain. The British Army suffered 80,000 soldiers in the Caribbean, including 40,000 dead. British defeat promted talk about supporting L'Ouverture's rebellion, referring to a ‘happy revolution’. For the British, even if they could not have the island, the French loss of St. Dominique and the income from slavery was an advantage.

Napoleon Reintroduces Slavery

The Jacobin Government in France which had abolished slavery fell. When Napoleon took control of France, he addressed the Saint Dominique situation. The plantations were producing only about a fifth of what they been producing before the Revolution (1800). He reinstituted slavery in all the French colonies. He even cancelled the granting of rights to the Affranchis. And unlike the Revolutionary Governments, he dispatched a powerful expeditionary force to retake Saint Dominique.

French Campaign (1801-03)

Napoleon Bonaparte dispached a huge fleet and military force to seized control of France. Napoleon saw the restoration of slavery and the return of Saint-Domingue to French control as important. Here he was concerned with the sugar exports that had once provided enormous earning to France. He also envisioned a renewed French empire in North America and had acquired Louisiana back from Spain. He dispatched a French Army of 82,000 men to the Caribbean commanded by his brother-in-law--Leclerc. This was a huge army, an amazing force to subdue slaves on a single island. It was in fact larger than the armies Britain deployed in the American colonies during the Revolutionary War--despite the relatively small size of St. Dominique compared to the American colonies. Historians speculazte as to Napoleon's objectives. It seems likely that after restoring order in Saint Dominique, the army would have been redeployed in Louisana to restablish the French presence in North America. It would have posed a major challenge on the western frontier of the new United States. The French arrived in a fleet of warships with canons, munitions and even dogs. Leclerc used a ruse to captute L'Ouverture (June 1802). He was deported to France and died in the Fortress of the Joux in the Alpine mountains of Jura as a result of the cold and starvation ordered by Napoleon (April 1803). The French failed, however, to defeat the rebels. A major factor here was disease. The French troops were devestated by tropical diseases. The troops, embued with the ideals of the Revolution, were shocked to learn tht their mission was to renslave the population. The Convention in Paris reintroduced slavery to Saint Domingue (1802). This resulted in a renewed rebellion and more massacres (1802). The slaves continued to resist even after Toussaint's capture. Within only 6 months, 24,000 French soldiers had died. Some French soldiers even went over to the slaves who became known as Black Jacobins. This was particularly the case for a contingent of Polish troops. The massive French force was descimated and Napoleon manage to achieve only a stalemate. L'Ouverture's capable generals carried on the struggle. Dessalines emerged as the new leader of the Haitian resistance. Other important leaders were Alexandre Petion, François Capois named "La Mort", Henri Christophe, and Boironds Tonnerre. The slave leaders realized that they did not have to dfeat the French army, only outlast them. And here disease (yellow feaver) took a deadly toll. The French finally withdrew from St. Doninigue. The Haitians had achieved thefirst successful slave rebellion in history. This was a major factor in Napoleon's decission to sell Louisiana to the Americans.

Independent Haitian Republic

This long complicate revolutionary struggle carried on by the slaves of Saint-Domingue finally ended with freedom and the founding of the Republic of Haiti (January 1, 1804). Haitains declared an independent republic (1804). The Haitan Revolution is one of the few successful slave rebellions in history. It was also the first independent black republic. The country's new leaders decided to name the new country Haiti. This was the Taino name for the island ("high land") and chosen to honor the originl inhabitants. Dessalines ordered the killing of all Frenchmen remaining on the island a step designed to ensure that the wjites would never be able to regain control. The new country was not accepted by the international community. No European country recognized Haiti nor did the United States. The French withdrew, but refused to recignize Haitain independemce. Countries like the Britain and the United States saw Haiti as a threat. The United States had a substantial slave population and slave rebellions was an enduring fear in the South. Britain had valuavle colonies in the Caribbean with economies based on slavery. Haiti offered assistance to South American revolutionaries.

Historical Assessment

The Haitian Slave Rebellion and War for Independence has been largely ignored by historians. This is largely because a successful rebellion by black slaves horrified Americans both before and after the American Civil War. It was also something which horrified Europeans. American PBS stations aired a rare history of the events, "Egalite for All: Toussant l'Ouverture and the Haitain Revolution" (January 24, 2009). The presentation of the events and focus on the inspiring leadership is well done and accurate. The assessment is somewhat flaw, primrily because of the historical outlook of one commentator whose name I did not catch. He claimed that the Haitian Revolution was "the most profound in history". Nothing could be further from the truth. He seems to reach that conclusion because of his focus on race. But is only too apparaent today, blacks can be just as oppressed by other blacks (Amin, Mugabe, the Rawandan Gnocide, ect. ) as by whites. It is quite accurate that Toussant's leadership was inspiring and the Haitian Revolution was a rare example of a successful slave rebellion. The brutality of the French plantation system was undeniable and the freeing of the slaves and huge accomplishment. But the violence that followed and the destruction of property helped to undermine Haiti's future. Of coure the failure of Haiti as an independent country, is not entirely the fault of Haiti itself. France after finally abandoning Haiti, led a diplomaric boycott which refused to accept Haiti. But also domestically in Haiti the slaves had destoyed the economic viability of the country and the institutions of the really profound revolution were not established leading to a history of oppresive, corupt leaders. Historians today study the great revolutions in detail (France, Mexico, Russia, and China). But none of these revolutions established the really profound chnges that made for human progress. This was the American Revolution. The American Revolution whole not abolishing slavery, established a government that invested in the people basic soverignity and guarantted individual rights, both political and economic. This was the trur profound revolution. And while extending these rights to the entire population was an agonizingly slow process. It did occur over time as well as establishing a level of prosperity and indivudal freedom that draws people from all over the world.


Gogues, Olympe de. "Reflections of Black People". This was a pamphlet urging improvement of the situations of slaves and free blacks. Gouges also championed granting rights for women.

James, C.L.R. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution.


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Created: 7:28 PM 10/31/2007
Last updated: 8:37 PM 3/23/2010