The Haitian Revolution (Part 2)

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Sat Oct 14 14:00:33 PDT 2000

***** AHR Forum

The Haitian Revolution


...Without the outbreak of the French Revolution, it is unlikely that the system in Saint Domingue would have broken down in 1789. And while Haiti precipitated the collapse of the system regionally, it seems fair to say that a system such as the Caribbean slave system bore within itself the seeds of its own destruction and therefore could not last indefinitely. As David Geggus points out,

More than twenty [slave revolts] occurred in the years 1789-1832, most of them in the Greater Caribbean. Coeval with the heyday of the abolitionist movement in Europe and chiefly associated with Creole slaves, the phenomenon emerged well before the French abolition of slavery or the Saint-Domingue uprising, even before the declaration of the Rights of Man. A few comparable examples occurred earlier in the century, but the series in question began with an attempted rebellion in Martinique in August 1789. Slaves claimed that the government in Europe had abolished slavery but that local slaveowners were preventing the island governor from implementing the new law. The pattern would be repeated again and again across the region for the next forty years and would culminate in the three large-scale insurrections in Barbados, 1816, Demerara, 1823, and Jamaica, 1831. Together with the Saint-Domingue insurrection of 1791, these were the biggest slave rebellions in the history of the Americas.37

In the case of Saint Domingue -- as later in the cases of Cuba and Puerto Rico -- abolition came from an economically weakened and politically isolated metropolis.

The local bases of the society and the organization of political power could not have been more different in France and its overseas colonies. In France in 1789, the political estates had a long tradition, and the social hierarchy was closely related to genealogy and antiquity. In Saint Domingue, the political system was relatively new, and the hierarchy was determined arbitrarily by race and the occupational relationship to the plantation. Yet the novelty of the colonial situation did not produce a separate and particular language to describe its reality, and the limitations of a common language (that of the metropolis) created a pathetic confusion with tragic consequences for metropolis and colony.

The basic divisions of French society derived from socioeconomic class distinctions. The popular slogans generated by the revolution -- Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and the Rights of Man -- did not express sentiments equally applicable in both metropolis and colony.38 What is more, the Estates General, and later the National Assembly, simply could not understand how the French could be divided by a common language. And yet they hopelessly were.

The confusion sprung from two foundations. In the first place, the reports of grievances (cahiers de doléances) of the colonies represented overwhelmingly not the views of a cross-section of the population but merely those of wealthy plantation owners and merchants, especially the absentee residents in France. Moreover, as the French were to find out eventually, the colony was quite complex geographically. The wealthy, expatriate planters of the Plain du Nord were a distinct numerical minority. The interests and preoccupations of the middling sorts of West Province and South Province were vastly different. In the second place, each segment of the free population accepted the slogans of the revolution to win acceptance in France, but they then particularized and emphasized only such portions as applied to their individual causes. The grands blancs saw the Rights of Man as the rights and privileges of bourgeois man, much as the framers of North American independence in Philadelphia in 1776. Moreover, grands blancs saw liberty not as a private affair but rather as greater colonial autonomy, especially in economic matters. They also hoped that the metropolis would authorize more free trade, thereby weakening the restrictive effects of the mercantilist commerce exclusif with the mother country. Petits blancs wanted equality, that is, active citizenship for all white persons, not just the wealthy property owners, and less bureaucratic control over the colonies. But they stressed a fraternity based on a whiteness of skin color that they equated with being genuinely French. Gens de couleur also wanted equality and fraternity, but they based their claim on an equality of all free regardless of skin color, since they fulfilled all other qualifications for active citizenship. Slaves were not part of the initial discussion and sloganeering, but from their subsequent actions they clearly supported liberty. It was not the liberty of the whites, however. Theirs was a personal freedom that undermined their relationship to their masters and the plantation, and jeopardized the wealth of a considerable number of those who were already free.39

In both France and its Caribbean colonies, the course of the revolution took strangely parallel paths. The revolution truly began in both with the calling of the Estates General to Versailles in the fateful year of 1789.40 Immediately, conflict over form and representation developed, although it affected metropolis and colonies in different ways. In the metropolis, the Estates General, despite not having met for 175 years, had an ancient history and tradition, albeit almost forgotten. The various overseas colonists who assumed they were or aspired to be Frenchmen and to participate in the deliberations and the unfolding course of events did not really share that history and that tradition. In many ways, they were new men created by a new type of society -- the plantation slave society. Their experience was quite distinct from that of the planters and slaveowners in the British Caribbean. In Jamaica, Edward Long was an influential and wealthy member of British society as well as an established Jamaican planter. Bryan Edwards was a long-serving member of the Jamaica Legislature and after 1796 a legitimate member of the British Parliament, representing simultaneously a metropolitan constituency and overseas colonial interests.41

At first, things seemed to be going well for the French colonial representatives, as the Estates General declared itself a National Assembly in 1789 and the National Assembly proclaimed France to be a republic in August 1792. In France, as James Billington puts it, "the subsequent history of armed rebellion reveals a seemingly irresistible drive toward a strong, central executive. Robespierre's twelve-man Committee of Public Safety (1793-94), gave way to a five-man Directorate (1795-99), to a three-man Consulate, to the designation of Napoleon as First Consul in 1799, and finally to Napoleon's coronation as emperor in 1804."42 In the colonies, the same movement is discernible with a major difference-at least in Saint Domingue. The consolidation of power during the period of armed rebellion gravitated toward non-whites and ended up in the hands of slaves and ex-slaves or their descendants.

With the colonial situation far too confusing for the metropolitan legislators to resolve easily, the armed revolt in the colonies started with an attempted coup by the grands blancs in the north who resented the petits blancs-controlled Colonial Assembly of St. Marc (in West Province) writing a constitution for the entire colony in 1790. Both white groups armed their slaves and prepared for war in the name of the revolution.43 When, however, the National Assembly passed the May Decree enfranchising propertied mulattos, they temporarily forgot their class differences and forged an uneasy alliance to forestall the revolutionary threat of racial equality. The determined desire of the free non-whites to make a stand for their rights -- also arming their slaves for war -- made the impending civil war an inevitable racial war.

The precedent set by the superordinate free groups was not lost on the slaves, who comprised the overwhelming majority of the population. If they could fight in separate causes for the antagonistic free sectors of the population, they could fight on their own behalf. And so they did. Violence, first employed by the whites, became the common currency of political change. Finally, in August 1791, after fighting for nearly two years on one or another side of free persons who claimed they were fighting for liberty, the slaves of the Plain du Nord applied their fighting to their own cause. And once they had started, they refused to settle for anything less than full freedom for themselves. When it became clear that their emancipation could not be sustained within the colonial political system, they created an independent state in 1804 to secure it. It was the logical extension of the collective slave revolt that began in 1791.

But before that could happen, Saint Domingue experienced a period of chaos between 1792 and 1802. At one time, as many as six warring factions were in the field simultaneously: slaves, free persons of color, petits blancs, grands blancs, and invading Spanish and English troops, as well as the French vainly trying to restore order and control. Alliances were made and dissolved in opportunistic succession. As the killing increased, power slowly gravitated to the overwhelming majority of the population -- the former slaves no longer willing to continue their servility. After 1793, under the control of Pierre-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, ex-slave and ex-slaveowner, the tide of war turned inexorably, assuring the victory of the concept of liberty held by the slaves.44 It was duly, if temporarily, ratified by the National Assembly. But that was neither the end of the fighting nor the end of slavery.

The victory of the slaves in 1793 was, ironically, a victory for colonialism and the revolution in France. The leftward drift of the revolution and the implacable zeal of its colonial administrators, especially the Jacobin commissioner Léger Félicité Sonthonax, to eradicate all traces of counterrevolution and royalism -- which he identified with the whites -- in Saint Domingue facilitated the ultimate victory of the blacks over the whites.45 Sonthonax's role, however, does not detract from the brilliant military leadership and political astuteness provided by Toussaint Louverture. In 1797, he became governor general of the colony and in the next four years expelled all invading forces (including the French) and gave it a remarkably modern and democratic constitution. He also suppressed (but failed to eradicate) the revolt of the free coloreds led by André Rigaud and Alexander Pétion in the south, captured the neighboring Spanish colony of Santo Domingo, and freed its small number of slaves. Saint Domingue was a new society with a new political structure. As a reward, Toussaint Louverture made himself governor general for life, much to the displeasure of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Why did the revolution follow such a unique course in Saint Domingue and eventually culminate in the abolition of slavery? Carolyn Fick presents a plausible explanation:

It can be argued therefore that the abolition of slavery in Saint Domingue resulted from a combination of mutually reinforcing factors that fell into place at a particular historical juncture. No single factor or even combination of factors -- including the beginning of the French Revolution with its catalytic ideology of equality and liberty, the colonial revolt of the planters and the free coloreds, the context of imperial warfare, and the obtrusive role of a revolutionary abolitionist as civil commissioner -- warranted the termination of slavery in Saint Domingue in the absence of independent, militarily organized slave rebellion . . .

>From the vantage point of revolutionary France the abolition of
slavery seems almost to have been a by-product of the revolution and hardly an issue of pressing concerns to the nation. It was Sonthonax who initiated the abolition of slavery in Saint Domingue, not the Convention. In fact, France only learned that slavery had been abolished in Saint Domingue when the colony's three deputies, Dufay, Mills, and Jean-Baptiste Mars Bellay (respectively a white, a mulatto, and a former free black), arrived in France in January, 1794 to take their seats and asked on February 3 that the Convention officially abolish slavery throughout the colonies . . .

The crucial link then, between the metropolitan revolution and the black revolution in Saint Domingue seems to reside in the conjunctural and complementary elements of a self-determined, massive slave rebellion, on the one hand, and the presence in the colony of a practical abolitionist in the person of Sonthonax, on the other.46

Such "conjunctural and complementary elements" did not appear elsewhere in the Americas -- not even in the neighboring French colonies of Martinique and Guadeloupe.

The reality of a semi-politically free Saint-Domingue with a free black population ran counter to the grandiose dreams of Napoleon to reestablish a viable French-American empire. It also created what Anthony Maingot has called a "terrified consciousness" among the rest of the slave masters in the Americas.47 Driven by his desire to restore slavery and disregarding the local population and its leaders, Napoleon sent his brother-in-law General Charles Victor Emmanuel Leclerc with about 10,000 of the finest French troops in 1802 to accomplish his aim. It was a disastrously futile effort. Napoleon ultimately lost the colony, his brother-in-law, and most of the 44,000 troops eventually sent out to conduct the savage and bitter campaign of reconquest. Although Touissant was treacherously spirited away to exile and premature death in France, the independence of Haiti was declared by his former lieutenant, now the new governor general, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, on January 1, 1804. Haiti, the Caribbean, and the Americas would never be the same as before the slave uprising of 1791.

The impact of the Haitian Revolution was both immediate and widespread. The antislavery fighting immediately spawned unrest throughout the region, especially in communities of Maroons in Jamaica, and among slaves in St. Kitts. It sent a wave of immigrants flooding outward to the neighboring islands, and to the United States and Europe. It revitalized agricultural production in Cuba and Puerto Rico. As Alfred Hunt has shown, Haitian emigrants also profoundly affected American language, religion, politics, culture, cuisine, architecture, medicine, and the conflict over slavery, especially in Louisiana.48 Most of all, the revolution deeply affected the psychology of the whites throughout the Atlantic world. The Haitian Revolution undoubtedly accentuated the sensitivity to race, color, and status across the Caribbean.

Among the political and economic elites of the neighboring Caribbean states, the example of a black independent state as a viable alternative to the Maroon complicated their domestic relations. The predominantly non-white lower orders of society might have admired the achievement in Haiti, but they were conscious that it could not be easily duplicated. "Haiti represented the living proof of the consequences of not just black freedom," wrote Maingot, "but, indeed, black rule. It was the latter which was feared; therefore, the former had to be curtailed if not totally prohibited."49 The favorable coincidence of time, place, and circumstances that produced a Haiti failed to materialize again. For the rest of white America, the cry of "Remember Haiti" proved an effective way to restrain exuberant local desires for political liberty, especially in slave societies. Indeed, the long delay in achieving Cuban political independence can largely be attributed to astute Spanish metropolitan use of the "terrified consciousness" of the Cuban Creoles to a scenario like that in Saint Domingue between 1789 and 1804.50 Nevertheless, after 1804, it would be difficult for the local political and economic elites to continue the complacent status quo of the mid-eighteenth century. Haiti cast an inevitable shadow over all slave societies. Antislavery movements grew stronger and bolder, especially in Great Britain, and the colonial slaves themselves became increasingly more restless. Most important, in the Caribbean, whites lost the confidence that they had before 1789 to maintain the slave system indefinitely. In 1808, the British abolished their transatlantic slave trade, and they dismantled the slave system between 1834 and 1838. During that time, free non-whites (and Jews) were given political equality with whites in many colonies. The French abolished their slave trade in 1818, although their slave system, reconstituted by 1803 in Martinique and Guadeloupe, limped on until 1848. Both British and French imperial slave systems -- as well as the Dutch and the Danish -- were dismantled administratively. The same could be said for the mainland Spanish-American states and Brazil. In the United States, slavery ended abruptly in a disastrous civil war. Spain abolished slavery in Puerto Rico (where it was not important) in 1873. The Cuban case, where slavery was extremely important, proved far more difficult and also resulted in a long, destructive civil war before emancipation was finally accomplished in 1886. By then, it was not the Haitian Revolution but Haiti itself that evoked negative reactions among its neighbors.

Franklin W. Knight is Leonard and Helen R. Stulman Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University and president of the Latin American Studies Association. Knight's research interests focus on the general history of Latin America and the Caribbean as well as on American slave systems. His major publications include Slave Society in Cuba during the Nineteenth Century (1970), The Caribbean: The Genesis of a Fragmented Nationalism, 2d rev. edn. (1990), The Modern Caribbean, co-edited with Colin A. Palmer (1989), Atlantic Port Cities: Economy, Culture, and Society in the Atlantic World, 1650-1850, co-edited with Peggy K. Liss (1991), and The Slave Societies of the Caribbean (1997). He was also co-translator of Sugar and Railroads, A Cuban History, 1740-1840 by Oscar Zanetti and Alejandro Garc|f8a (1998). Knight is currently writing a monograph, Spanish American Creole Society in Cuba, 1740-1840, and the Rise of American Nationalism. This article is based on a panel presentation at the Latin American Studies Association Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1997.


...37 David Patrick Geggus, "Slavery, War and Revolution in the Greater Caribbean," in Gaspar and Geggus, Turbulent Time, 7-8.

38 Curtin, "Declaration of the Rights of Man," 157-75.

39 Curtin, "Declaration of the Rights of Man"; Ott, Haitian Revolution, 28-75.

40 The French Revolution may be followed in, among others, Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (New York, 1989); Leo Gershoy, The French Revolution, 1789-1799 (New York, 1960); Albert Soboul, The French Revolution, 1787-1799: From the Storming of the Bastille to Napoleon, Alan Forest and Colin Jones, trans. (London, 1989); Gaetano Salvemini, The French Revolution, 1788-1792, I. M. Rawson, trans. (New York, 1954).

41 On Long and Edwards, see Edward Brathwaite, The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770-1820 (Oxford, 1971), 73-79; Elsa Goveia, A Study on the Historiography of the British West Indies to the End of the Nineteenth Century (Mexico City, 1956), 53-63.

42 Billington, Fire in the Minds of Men, 22.

43 Carolyn Fick, "The French Revolution in Saint-Domingue: A Triumph or a Failure?" in Gaspar and Geggus, Turbulent Time, 53-55.

44 Toussaint Louverture always wrote his name without an apostrophe, although many French and non-French writers have, for reasons unknown, used L'Ouverture.

45 Robert L. Stein, Léger Félicité Sonthonax: The Lost Sentinel of the Republic (Rutherford, N.J., 1985).

46 Fick, "French Revolution," 67-69.

47 Anthony P. Maingot, "Haiti and the Terrified Consciousness of the Caribbean," in Ethnicity in the Caribbean, Gert Oostindie, ed. (London, 1996), 53-80.

48 Hunt, Haiti's Influence on Antebellum America.

49 Maingot, "Haiti," 56-57.

50 For the "Africanization of Cuba scare," see Philip S. Foner, A History of Cuba and Its Relation with the United States, 2 vols. (New York, 1963), 2: 45-85; Arthur F. Corwin, Spain and the Abolition of Slavery in Cuba, 1817-1886 (Austin, Tex., 1967), 115-21; Luis Martínez-Fernández, Torn between Empires: Economy, Society, and Patterns of Political Thought in the Hispanic Caribbean, 1840-1878 (Athens, Ga., 1994), 33-40; Robert L. Paquette, Sugar Is Made with Blood: The Conspiracy of La Escalera and the Conflict between Empires over Slavery in Cuba (Middletown, Conn., 1988), 184-86, 265-66; Gerald E. Poyo, "With All and for the Good of All": The Emergence of Popular Nationalism in the Cuban Communities of the United States, 1848-1899 (Durham, N.C., 1989), 6-7, 86. For the impact of the Haitian Revolution elsewhere in the Caribbean, see Philip D. Curtin, Two Jamaicas: The Role of Ideas in a Tropical Colony, 1830-1865 (1952; New York, 1970); H. P. Jacobs, Sixty Years of Change, 1806-1866: Progress and Reaction in Kingston and the Countryside (Kingston, 1973), 12-37; Bridget Brereton, A History of Modern Trinidad, 1783-1962 (Kingston, 1981), 25-51; Hilary Beckles, A History of Barbados (Cambridge, 1990), 78-79; Edward L. Cox, Free Coloreds in the Slave Societies of St. Kitts and Grenada, 1763-1833 (Knoxville, Tenn., 1984), 76-100; Frank Moya Pons, The Dominican Republic: A National History (New Rochelle, N.Y., 1995), 91-164; Valentin Peguero and Danilo de los Santos, Visión general de la historia dominicana (Santo Domingo, 1978), 125-78.

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