Slave Rebellion in St. Domingue

The Haitian Revolution is the only successful slave rebellion in the Americas. This outline and the next analyze the only case of slaves rising up, taking power, and creating an independent nation. We begin with an overview of the rise of Saint Domingue as the classic example of the sugar and slave plantation complex in the Americas. We then turn to the French Revolution. Along with the American Revolution, it forms the most important influence on revolutionaries throughout Latin America after 1789. The influence of the French Revolution on Saint Domingue is direct and powerful, as planters, free people of color, and slaves enter into the discussion and promises of liberty, equality, and fraternity. The outline concludes with the outbreak of violence in 1791.

The second major revolution in the Americas broke out in the French colony of Saint Domingue.

A. The colony was a classic example of the harsh slave plantation societies of the Americas.

  1. The western end of the island of Hispaniola was settled by French pirates and buccaneers in the 17th century.
  2. Throughout the 18th century, the colony emerged as one of the most profitable sugar producers in the Americas and France’s principal trading partner.

B. By the late 1780s, 90 percent of the colony’s inhabitants were slaves, primarily from Angola and the Congo.

  1. Life on the plantations was brutal and harsh.
  2. The flood of arriving Africans profoundly shaped the creation of local culture and society, especially with the rise of vodun.

C. The colony developed a repressive and rigid racial hierarchy.

  1. About 25,000 whites, divided between those born in Europe (grands blancs) and those born in the Americas (petits blancs), dominated a colony with more than 400,000 slaves.
  2. About 20,000 mulattos (gens de couleur) lived in a world above the slave majority but looked down upon by the white minority.
  3. The harsh treatment of slaves (who were often Africans) and the discrimination against the free blacks and mulattos made the colony a racial powder keg.

The French Revolution was an even more powerful and pivotal event in the history of Western civilization than the American Revolution.

A. Many historians would divide modern history into the era before the outbreak of revolution and after.

  1. France before 1789 was an absolutist monarchy and the largest country in Europe.
  2. Like much of Europe, it was an aristocratic, paternalistic, hierarchically structured society divided into nobles, commoners, and clergy.
  3. Increasingly heavy tax burdens on the poor, famine, and bitter divisions among the elites opened the way for revolution by 1789.

B. The collapse of the Old Regime in France in 1789 touched off 10 years of bitter violence and upheaval in France and culminated with the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte.

  1. The great catchphrase of the Revolution was “liberty, fraternity, and equality.”
  2. In the first stage of the revolution, reformers tried to make a relatively peaceful transition from absolutist monarchy to constitutional republic.
  3. Very quickly, the radicals took over and pushed these ideals to their limits.
  4. The so-called counterrevolution ended the violence by 1799 but did not turn the clock back to the politics of the Old Regime.

The ideals of the French Revolution had an immediate impact on Saint Domingue.

A. If “men are born free and remain free and equal in rights,” as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen says, then the message for free and slave in Saint Domingue was clear.

  1. The gens de couleur immediately pressed for access to full citizenship, a move the whites bitterly opposed.
  2. Colonial whites soon found themselves holding off both the gens de couleur and the new French Assembly.

B. As they did in so many of the revolutions in the Americas, divisions within the elites opened the path to upheaval and the collapse of the colonial regime.

  1. Radical and contradictory instructions came out of Paris.
  2. Mulattos rose up in rebellion in 1790, and their leaders were brutally tortured and executed.

C. In the midst of these conflicts among the elites, the slaves in the colony rose up in revolt.

  1. Thousands of slaves on the northern plain of the island rose up in a war of total annihilation.
  2. They were led by a voodoo priest, Boukman.
  3. Thus began more than a decade of brutal warfare.

Return to The Age of Revolution in the Americas

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