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The Haitian Revolution

In August 1791, thousands of slaves rose up in Saint Domingue, led by a voodoo high priest named Boukman, in a war for their freedom. Over the next decade, the revolt destroyed the power of white planters and their estates and laid waste to the French colony. Amidst the violence, a group of charismatic black leaders emerged. The most famous was the former slave Toussaint L’Ouverture. Over more than a decade, the rebellious slaves defeated invading armies from France, England, and Spain. The black leadership eventually turned against itself in a struggle for control of the revolution. Tragically betrayed, Toussaint would eventually die in a French prison, and his lieutenant, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, would declare the creation of an independent Haiti in 1804. The final section of this outline turns to the significance of the Haitian Revolution for all of the Americas.

In August 1791, thousands of slaves rose up in Saint Domingue, led by a voodoo high priest named Boukman, in a war for their freedom.

A. This first wave of rebellion pitted free against slave, white against mulatto, mulatto against black.

  1. Perhaps as many as 40,000 slaves attacked slave owners, burned their plantations, and laid siege to Le Cap François.
  2. Mulattos initially laid siege to Port-au-Prince but then joined with whites to put down the slave rebellion.

B. France, Spain, and England all eventually sent invading troops into Saint Domingue.

  1. England and Spain went to war against the French revolutionary regime, and the Spanish Crown sent its forces in Santo Domingo (the eastern two-thirds of the island) into battle on the side of the slaves.
  2. England also invaded, to support, not the slaves, but rather, the French planters who backed the deposed French king.
  3. In 1793, the French governor declared the freeing of all slaves to regain their support, and the French National Convention backed the move in 1794.
  4. The freed slaves gradually joined the colonial rulers in expelling the British and all the white planters by 1797.

The greatest figure to emerge out of the revolution was Toussaint L’Ouverture.

A. The grandson of an African, Toussaint was born on the island in 1743.

  1. Educated on the plantation, he spoke French (although poorly), an African language, and the local dialect of French known as Creole.
  2. Freed in 1777, he married and had two sons.
  3. He was Catholic, a Francophile, and a vegetarian.

B. When the revolt broke out in 1791, Toussaint helped his former master escape, then joined the uprising.

  1. In 1794, Toussaint joined forces with the French, declaring his allegiance to the National Convention.
  2. Toussaint expelled the Spanish and secretly negotiated treaties with the British effecting their withdrawal.
  3. He tried to reestablish the plantation system by forcing the freed slaves to return to work.

C. Toussaint invaded Spain’s Santo Domingo in 1801.

  1. Napoleon decided to reinstitute slavery and retake control of the island, sending his brother-in-law, General Charles LeClerc, with an invasion force in 1802.
  2. LeClerc promised not to restore slavery, and Toussaint laid down his arms only to be tricked and taken prisoner.
  3. He died in a prison in Jena in April 1803.

Two of Toussaint’s lieutenants, Henri Christophe and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, completed the struggle for independence.

A. Dessalines was born in West Africa and brought to the island as a slave.

  1. He quickly rose to prominence after joining the rebellion in 1791.
  2. He led a bloody campaign against one of Toussaint’s key rivals, André Rigaud, in 1799.
  3. After the capture of Toussaint, Dessalines initially supported the French but turned on them in 1803 when Napoleon reinstituted slavery.
  4. With British help, he expelled the French and declared the independent nation of Haiti on January 1, 1804.
  5. Dessalines declared himself Emperor Jacques I, but he was assassinated in October 1806.

B. The details of Henri Christophe’s early life are unclear and hotly debated.

  1. He may have been born in Grenada, and he may have begun life as a free person.
  2. He is also believed to have fought in the American Revolution.
  3. Like Dessalines, he eventually became one of Toussaint’s key lieutenants.
  4. In the aftermath of the assassination of Dessalines, he fought with Alexandre Pétion for control of the country.
  5. Until 1820, he ruled over northern Haiti as Christophe I, setting up a royal court and new nobility.

The Haitian Revolution reverberated across all the Americas.

A. For slave owners from Virginia to Brazil, it brought to life their greatest nightmare.

  1. In the U.S. South, the response was a more rigid and repressive legal system that bound slaves more tightly in slavery.
  2. In such places as Cuba and Brazil, the message was clear: Any sort of war for independence could unleash a slave rebellion and a race war.

B. For those living in bondage to masters of any type, the revolution presented a powerful example of successful rebellion.

  1. By 1804, two former colonies had defeated their powerful colonial masters.
  2. For Spanish American rebels, such as Simón Bolívar, Haiti would become both an inspiration and a refuge.

Return to The Age of Revolution in the Americas

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