Haitian Revolution (1791-1804)

The Haitian Revolution has often been described as the most successful slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere. It began in 1791, and by 1803 the former slaves had succeeded in ending both slavery and French control over the colony. The Haitian Revolution was influenced by the French Revolution of 1789, which promoted the concepts of human rights, universal citizenship, and participation in government.

Haiti was then known as Saint Dominigue, France’s wealthiest overseas colony. The slave labor produced sugar, coffee, indigo, and cotton. There were five distinct sets of interest groups in the colony:

  • white planters: the plantation and slave owners
  • petit blancs: the artisans, shop keepers and teachers
  • free people of African descent
  • enslaved people of African descent
  • runaway slaves

Many of the whites on Saint Dominigue objected to the high tariffs France placed on imports into the colony. The planters also disliked the French policy that forbid trade with any other nation and the fact that they did not have any representation in France. The white population supported independence, but they also supported slavery.

There were about 30,000 free black people in 1789. Half of them were mulatto (racially mixed) and many of them were wealthier than the petit blancs. The slave population was close to 500,000.

The slaves were never willing to accept their status, so Haiti had a history of slave rebellions.

The Haitian revolutionary movements were inspired by the French Revolution’s “Declaration of the Rights of Man.” The General Assembly in Paris granted the French colonies some autonomy at the local level. The legislation applied only to the planter class, so the petit blancs were excluded from government while property-owning citizens of color could participate. The legislation led to a three-sided civil war between the planters, free blacks, and the petit blancs. The enslaved black majority rebelled against all three groups.

A former slave, l’Overture, led the rebellion against the planters. The rebels soon controlled a third of the island. France sent troops but the rebels continued to gain territory. The British also came to try to conquer the colony, but they were unsuccessful. l’Overture expanded the revolution to the neighboring Spanish colony in present-day Dominican Republic. He abolished slavery and declared himself Governor-General for life over the entire island.

The Haitian Revolution continued beyond the end of the French Revolution. Napoleon Bonaparte, now the ruler of France, sent a general to capture L’Overture and restore both French rule and slavery. L’Overture was captured and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, another former slave, continued the revolution and defeated the French forces. On January 1, 1804, Dessalines declared the nation independent and renamed it Haiti, becoming the first black republic in the world. France was the first nation to recognize its independence. Haiti was the second nation in the western hemisphere (after the United States) to win its independence from a European power.

Source: Haitian Revolution (1791-1804)

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