Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.
Welcome to the beginning of our fourth revolution together, and one that is a bit different from the rest. The English, American and French revolutions are all regarded as huge turning points in history. Often studied, often discussed, and at least moderately understood by the general public. They at least know that it happened. But the Haitian Revolution is not like that. For a variety of reasons, the story of the collapse of the French slave colony of Saint Domingue and the eventual declaration of an independent Haiti is little known. And even those who know that it happened know almost nothing about the details. If anything, you might know that it was the only successful slave uprising in history, and that indeed it was. But it was so, so much more than that. And as we trace the history of the Haitian Revolution from the initial revolts of 1791 through the Declaration of Independence in 1804, hopefully you’ll walk away appreciating how much the Haitian Revolution deserves to take its place alongside its more famous brethren as one of the most fascinating and important revolutions in world history.
So today we’re going to cover the early history of Saint Domingue, talk some basic economics and geography, and then move on to a discussion of the three main groups who inhabited the colony and who will serve as the main players in the revolution: the whites, the free coloreds and, of course, the slaves. With the building blocks in place, we can then spend next week talking about the insane web of tension between and within these groups as we approach the beginning of the French Revolution back in France, which will put into motion a parallel revolution in Saint Domingue that will fully erupt in 1791. Before we get going, I’d like to start with my usual disclaimer about how I am about to butcher the holy living crap out of French. But I’m also just going to keep on trying, because what else am I going to do?
Our story begins in 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Seriously, it does. Columbus’s fleet of three ships arrived in the New World in October 1492. After exploring around the Bahamas and then Cuba, Columbus sailed over to the big island southeast of Cuba in December 1492. The native inhabitants of the island, the Taíno, called their home Haïti, but Columbus promptly dubbed it Hispaniola. It was while anchored off the northwest coast of the island inside the borders of modern Haiti, that the Santa Maria ran aground on Christmas Day, 1492. With permission from the local Taíno chief, Columbus built a little settlement using salvage material from the ship and called the settlement La Navidad, in honor of the sunken Santa Maria. He left 39 men behind and sailed away. When Columbus returned the following year, he found all 39 men dead. The local Taíno chief blamed a raid by the rival Carib people, but nobody knows what actually happened to them.
After Columbus’s initial voyages, the Spanish continued to explore and settle the New World and in the early years, they used Hispaniola as their springboard. In 1496, they established the port of Santo Domingo on a deep and protected harbor on the southeast side of the island. Santo Domingo became the capital city and Hispaniola was often referred to amongst the Europeans as simply Santo Domingo.
As the Spanish were primarily on a quest for gold, the native Tanío Indians of Hispaniola were systematically rounded up and put to work mining what limited precious metal the island contained. They were subjected to this forced labor under the encomienda system whereby the Spanish protected natives in exchange for service and it was slavery in all but name. The regular order of Tanío life was destroyed and replaced by brutal slave gang labor. Between European diseases, murderous overwork and regular suicide, the indigenous population plummeted from somewhere between 500,000 and 750,000 in 1492 to just 29,000 in 1514.
Along with looking for precious metals to extract, Columbus and the men who followed him also brought with them the critical crop of our story: sugarcane. Sugar originally came out of the Middle East, migrated over to Western Europe, and was now being imported into the Caribbean in the hopes that it might be a lucrative cash crop. By the 1530s, there were more than two dozen sugar mills in Hispaniola, all of them on the east side of the island near Santo Domingo. But though the Spanish were ultimately correct about the future profits of sugar, the further development of Hispaniola was arrested by Spanish gold discoveries on the South American mainland. The draw of Inca and Aztec gold led the Spanish to virtually abandon Hispaniola, and by the late 1500s, the island was a complete colonial backwater, inhabited only by an array of small cattle farmers.
But just as Hispaniola was slipping off the Spanish radar, it was showing up on the French radar. In the beginning of the 1600s, both the French and the English started making forays into the New World and challenging Spanish and Portuguese hegemony. Their first move was to sanction privateers, both officially and unofficially, who preyed on Spanish treasure ships. The British set up their first major foothold in the Caribbean, in Barbados. The island was claimed in the name of King James in 1625, and then his son, Charles I established it as a proprietary colony in 1627. Hey, look, we know those guys. Hi, Stewart. Long time no see.
The French, meanwhile, claimed Martinique and Guadeloupe, and pretty soon every rocky outcropping in the Caribbean was claimed by some European power or another. The native population was, of course, annihilated.
Right around this same time, the mid 1620s, a coalition of French and English pirates who became known as the Brethren of the Coast set up a base on the small island of Tortuga. Tortuga lay off the northwest coast of Hispaniola, on the opposite side of the island from the Spanish capital of Santo Domingo. Though the Spanish had massively deprioritized Hispaniola and only sparsely settled the west side of the island, they were not too happy about the appearance of these intruders, especially when some of them started setting up shop on mainland Hispaniola, supplementing their pirate income by hunting the wild cattle that now roamed the island, smoking the meat and selling it to passing ships. This smoked meat was called Buccan, which is how these guys became known as buccaneers. The Spanish and pirates battled for the next few decades over control of Tortuga (I think the island changed hands at least four times), but the pirates always wound up coming back.
In 1665, this independent little pirate colony on Tortuga asked the French crown to appoint a royal governor to give their settlement official legitimacy. The request was granted by young Louis XIV. A royal governor arrived with 400 additional colonists, beginning the transition of the region from pirate base to more settled colony. By 1680, the community numbered some 6000, with planter colonists now far outnumbering the old pirates. Finally, at the conclusion of the Nine Years War in 1697, the Spanish officially ceded the western third of Hispaniola to the French. And since the island was now generally referred to as Santo Domingo, the French colony took the French version of Santo Domingo: Saint Domingue. It was one of the last European colonies to be established in the Caribbean, and from its humble origins as a mere pirate base, it would soon rise to become literally the most lucrative single colony in the New World.
As the French took possession and started settling plantations, a pretty even mix of African slaves and white indentured servants were imported to provide labor. French indentured servants were only bound for three years, whereupon they got a chunk of land for themselves. In the early days, the small planters focused on tobacco, since it cost very little to get a tobacco farm off the ground. But by the early 1700s, North American tobacco was a well oiled machine, and there was no way some small planters in Saint Domingue were going to compete. So tobacco was quickly abandoned.
Another early crop that did wind up taking root was indigo, which was used to produce dye for the growing textile operations back in Europe. It required a smallish amount of initial capital to get started, but once you got going, you could make a pretty decent living as a small indigo farmer. And indigo wound up being a staple of the Saint Domingue economy. By the time of the revolution, it was solidly number three on the list of the big three crops. The other two were, of course, sugar and coffee, which became not just staples of the Saint Domingue economy, but they became staples of the world economy. By the 1780s, Saint Domingue was producing a huge portion of Europe’s sugar and fully 50% of its coffee. It was indeed exports from Saint Domingue that transformed both from aristocratic luxuries to staples of the everyday diet.
Now, coffee arrived on the island much later, but sugar landed almost as soon as the French took over, and immediately it became the signature crop of the colony. Now, getting a sugar plantation off the ground is incredibly expensive. You needed a ton of specialized equipment to actually extract the sugar from the cane, and then if you wanted to refine it, you needed even more specialized equipment. So getting into sugar was a rich man’s game to begin with, and even then, it was going to put you into some serious debt before you harvested a single crop. This kind of outlay obviously lent itself to large plantations rather than tons of small freeholds. Most of the financing came from merchant houses in the French Atlantic port cities like Nantes and La Rochelle and Bordeaux. If your plantation turned out to be a success, then fortunes were there for the taking. But if, for whatever reason, you happen to faceplant, the merchant houses took it over. And ultimately, about half the sugar plantations in Saint Domingue were owned by these merchant houses and run by salaried administrators.
Making a sugar plantation profitable required a ton of manual labor, and after the death of Louis XIV in 1713 and the end of his incessant wars against the rest of Europe, the French were able to plug into the African slave trade, mostly run by the Portuguese at this point. Indentured servants were completely abandoned in favor of Africans, who were considered more suited for working in the climate. Some poor whites did try to emigrate to the colony, hoping to strike it rich somehow, but diseases and lack of capital doomed them all to an early popper’s grave. So as the colony grew, it was mostly a very small clique of white planters and administrators and a ton of slaves, which through the middle of the century were coming in at about 10,000 to 20,000 a year. In 1687, shortly before the official takeover by the French, the population of Saint Domingue was about 4000 whites and 3300 slaves. By 1715, it was 6600 white and 35,000 slaves. By 1730, the white population had barely moved, while the slave population was up to nearly 80,000. In 1750, the numbers were 14,000 whites and 150,000 slaves.
The pattern of settlement in Saint Domingue pretty much followed the geography of the colony. Sugar needs flat land that is well irrigated to grow on. So the initial settlement boom was in the plains of the north. Now, I made a map of the colony. Hey, you remember when I used to do that? So you can follow along with all this at home, because it is important to understand the geography of the colony. The plains in the north were the first to be staked out, as they were well run through by streams that made it ideal for raising sugar cane. The early sugar boom in the north led the port of Cap Français, to become the most important city in the colony. It actually wound up as one of the most important cities in the Western Hemisphere, usually referred to as Le Cap, which is what I’m mostly going to call it, so I don’t have to mangle Cap Français all the time. By the time of the revolution, the city had a population of nearly 20,000, so roughly the size of Boston on the eve of the American Revolution. Le Cap was the capital of the colony from the time it was founded in 1711 until the royal headquarters were transferred down to Port-au-Prince in 1770 for reasons we’ll talk about next week.
As the lucrative sugar plantation surrounding Le Cap made money hand over fist, the city rapidly grew and soon became known as the Paris of the Antilles. It was in every way a modern European city with a regular gridwork street pattern, stone construction, it boasted 1500 seat theater, cafes, philosophical societies, the works. It also became quite possibly the busiest port in the Western Hemisphere, with ships constantly coming and going. The communication lag time between France and Saint Domingue will become a running joke as the colony tries to keep up with the French Revolution. But though news often ran six weeks behind, the news did come in daily as ships departed France for Le Cap almost every day.
Once all the best land in the north was taken, colonists started to move south into what will become the Western Province. The largest city of the Western Province, Port-au-Prince, was founded in 1750, and it was a poor cousin of Le Cap, as were all the other quote unquote cities in the colony, which most of them were like glorified villages. There were two large plains that suited sugar production in the Western Province, though they were drier than the plains in the north and required concerted irrigation to make them work. The Northern Province and Western Province were separated by a steep mountain range that did not have a real road cut through it until Port-au-Prince was founded. So travel between the provinces was usually done entirely by water.
South of the Western Province was the Southern Province – a thin, east-west running peninsula of mountains that jutted out of the southwest side of Hispaniola. The western and southern provinces were likewise divided by sharp mountains. Haiti has some of the steepest and tallest mountains in the Caribbean, and that topography is going to be important as we watch the revolution unfold. The rougher terrain in the south made it less well suited to sugar and was thus the last province to be settled and ultimately the least populated of the three. The south indeed had a different character than the north, which was well connected to life back in Europe. International traders were probably willing to swing down to Port-au-Prince after arriving first in Le Cap, but after that, it was harder to convince them that it was worth it to keep on going. The main city of the Southern Province, Les Cayes, was actually on the other side of the peninsula. It was on the Caribbean Sea side, not the Atlantic side. So the Southern Province tended to be a bit more independent minded than the Western and Northern Provinces, and they look to rival colonies in British Jamaica and Spanish Cuba, not as rivals at all, but as trading partners. Even though all of this was technically illegal. Contraband trade was a staple of the economy in the south.
So after all the good sugar land was taken, the next huge boost to the economy came when the coffee bean arrived, as the colony was hit with an influx of new colonies after the end of the Seven Years War, these guys discovered that they could grow coffee in the mountainous regions where sugar could not. So there was a major economic boom as coffee plantations sprang up everywhere. And because the coffee was not in competition with the sugar for land or resources or even buyers, it was just a pure addition to the profit side of the colony’s ledger. Consumers back in Europe became addicted to both sugar and coffee, and collectively, the sugar, coffee and indigo plantations turned Saint Domingue into the single most lucrative colony in the New World. I’d call it a gold mine, but by this point, it was more lucrative than the Spanish gold mines.
So with a little history, geography and economics under our belt, let’s move on to the three main groups who inhabited the colony and who will be the major players in the coming revolution: the whites, the free coloreds, and the slaves.
So to start with, the whites, they were actually divided into two informal groups: the grands blancs and the petits blancs. That is, the big whites and the small whites. And since a ton of my books just go ahead and call them the big whites and the small whites, I am going to too. The big whites were at the very top of the colonial pyramid. They represented a combination of the major planters, and the principal traders and merchants in the colony. The leading planters were usually younger sons of nobility who had been looking for a way to establish an independent fortune for themselves often after a stint in the army. The big whites dominated colonial life. They owned practically everything and everyone. But there’s one important thing to understand about the big whites. They were not really looking to make Saint Domingue their home. Their investments in the colony were about laying the groundwork for a fortune that would sustain them while they lived in France, where things were decent. Caribbean life was dangerous, with its tropical diseases; monotonous, with its never changing seasons and oppressive heat and boring with only a few gambling dens and brothels to keep you entertained. The idea was to get out as soon as you possibly could. Of the main sugar plantations in the north, fully half were owned by absentee landlords who did their best to never come visit their estates in person. But that said, at any given time, major landowners and traders did live in the colony, and they were the dominant political and social force.
The small whites, then, were all the other whites, and they were the men who actually ran the colony day in and day out. These could be the managers and stewards, agent of the absentee landlords, salaried employees of the merchant houses. And then on down in the urban areas, you would find minor lawyers and notaries, various shop clerks and skilled artisans. Also thrown into this mix were the vagabonds that you always find in a colonial port city: runaways, ex- pirates, failed immigrants who had nowhere else to go. None of them did any manual labor or worked as a servant, because those jobs were exclusively done by slaves.
Out in the rural areas, all the small whites worked on the plantations. If a plantation was absentee owned, the hierarchy basically looked like this: a hired procurer lived in the nearest city and had power of attorney over the estate. The procure would hire a manager, [who would] actually live out on the plantation, and run the operation. Below the managers were overseers who actually monitor the activities of the slaves. And these overseers were usually drawn from the ranks of the urban poor or from the ranks of newer rivals who had no other prospects. The plantation managers were, as a rule, the biggest bastards on the island, even more so than the big white owners. All the managers wanted to do was make enough money to get the hell out of there, and they had very few scruples about how they were going to achieve that goal. With little actual oversight, they outright stole from their employers, stole from their slaves, put slaves to work on personal projects, and were free to abuse any slave who dared challenge them. The managers would be prime targets for the machetes during the initial rebellion.
Above and between the big whites and the small whites was a little group of royal administrators – all native French, all there to do their jobs, make some money, and get out. At the top of the royal administrative hierarchy was the royal governor, a soldier whose principal occupation was the defense of the colony. He had at his disposal two regiments of regular soldiers and control over the local militias. But the governor also had a wide and often self proclaimed and self serving jurisdiction over judicial and administrative affairs. Technically, though, this was all the purview of the second man in the administrative hierarchy, the intendant, who was the head civilian and whose portfolio included justice and finance. Beneath these two were about 500 salaried bureaucrats who represented the will and power of the King in the colony. And as we will see next week, these royal officials were often at loggerheads with the big whites, who resented these bureaucrats coming in and bossing them around. So that covers the white population, and on the eve of the revolution, they numbered about 30,000.
Since 99% of the men who sought their fortunes in Saint Domingue were, duh, men, the colony was soon populated with a significant number of free coloreds. Now, you will see them sometimes referred to as the mulattos, but no one today calls them that because, (A) it’s a slur, and, (B), as we’ll see next week, it’s technically inaccurate according to the handbook everybody started using to determine racial status. The free coloreds were the product of the unions of white men and black women and then the subsequent interrelationships between everyone over the years. Now, oddly enough, race prejudice was not particularly strong for most of the history of the colony, and there was nothing abnormal about a white man taking a black mistress or black wife. Indeed, according to the law, if a white man married a black slave woman, she and her children automatically became free.
But aside from the, dare I call them, positive relationships where a white master married a black slave, raised colored children, and lived happily ever after, there was also a ton of just straight up rape. And if one of the sexual assaults happened to produce a child, many of the fathers were happy to keep both the mothers and even their own children in slavery if it suited them.
But over time, more and more free colored children grew up and became free colored adults. And then they intermarried with each other or with other whites or other blacks to produce more free colored children. And soon there was a whole free colored community. By the time of the revolution, this community was just under 30,000, so almost as large as the white population. And according to all French law, there was nothing about race itself that barred you from enjoying normal rights. They could do anything any free Frenchman could. They could marry, enter into contracts, live wherever they wanted, get educated, inherit property, bequeath property without limit or restriction. The wealthiest of the free coloreds were not as rich as the big whites, but they did amassed considerable wealth and property over the years, including, of course, slaves to work on their estates. Slavery was an economic condition at this point. It was not a racial condition. And even men who had themselves been freed later owned slaves.
Newly arrived white men were all too happy to marry free colored women because they were often very well connected and came with property that would immediately vault the newcomer into the property classes. As we will see next week, however, after the end of the Seven Years War in 1763, French colonial policy would change and create a legal category of ‘nonwhite’. And we will talk about why they did this and what the consequences were for everyone.
So that brings us finally to the slaves. On the eve of the Haitian Revolution, there were more than 500,000 slaves in Saint Domingue. To put it another way, 90% of the population of the colony was a slave. By way of contrast, the ratio of Free to slave in the American South on the eve of the American Revolution was just a bit under 50/50. One slave per Free inhabitant. In Saint Domingue, this ratio was ten to one. So this was not a society that had slaves. This was a slave society.
Once slave imports to the French side of Hispaniola got going in earnest, after 1713, about 10,000 to 20,000 slaves were brought in annually. They were imported by way of the Triangle trade, which was European ships heading down to the African coast, loaded with merchandise that would be then traded for slaves. Then those slaves would be transported to the New World, where the new slaves would be sold and the product of existing slaves would be loaded back up and taken to Europe to sell for a huge profit.
The usual process of enslavement began with either direct European raids into the interior of West Central Africa or with tribes selling other tribes to the whites, often enemies defeated in various tribal conflicts. These new slaves would then be marched to the coast, sold to European traders and packed into the holds of ships, with about 3 by 5ft allotted to each human being for the long voyage across the Atlantic. The hold of a slave ship is one of the most nightmarish things you can imagine. Just putrid, sick, suffocating, the dead piling up around you as you have no room to move or to breathe. About 15% of the Africans would die enroute. The rest would emerge malnourished, weak and traumatized. The slave ships would then stop off at various ports of call to sell the men and women to eager colonial buyers. In Saint Domingue, this would usually took place in Le Cap. And upon being purchased, the slave would be branded and led off to whatever fate awaited them.
If they survived the voyage, the mortality rate of a new slave was roughly 50% after three to five years. This was due to overwork, disease, malnutrition, severe punishment, and as often as not, work accidents. With such an incredibly high mortality rate, the economic calculation among the slave owners was to work slaves as long and as hard as they could before they died, and then just purchase replacements. There was no sense of protecting their investment by treating the slaves well, because the value of the individual slave was nothing compared to the profits being made from his or her work.
Over the course of the 1700s, roughly 675,000 slaves were imported into Saint Domingue, and combined with contraband off-the-books imports from the British or the Dutch, that number might have hit a full million, or about 10% of the total trade in African slaves in the whole sorry history of the business. The rate picked up markedly after the end of the American War of Independence, which freed up the New World economy and its trade routes. In the mid 1780s, slave imports hit 30,000 to 40,000 a year, and then peaked in 1790 with 48,000 new arrivals. The mortality rate of the slaves, coupled with the huge influx of new slaves, meant that on the eve of the revolution, 70% of the slaves and fully two thirds of the colony’s population had been born in Africa.
When a new slave arrived at his or her plantation, they found themselves in an alien world. For one thing, the enslaved Africans represented an array of tribes who spoke a variety of languages, practiced their own customs, and were just different people. If history had reversed itself, and it was Africans who enslaved Europeans and not the other way around, this was basically some new English slave being thrown into a plantation with some Germans, a few Italians, Russians and Norwegians, all white, but all different from each other. And that’s to say nothing of the men and women born into slavery who already spoke Creole – the mix of French and African that was the lingua franca of the colony. The new arrivals were just thrust into this alien world, and some of them might have been chiefs or respected leaders back home, and being reduced to slavery was an intolerable affront to their dignity. They actively resented their condition, and they were likely to resist or just commit suicide after a few years.
The treatment of slaves was allegedly governed by the Code Noir, which had been promulgated in 1685, and that applied to slaves and owners in all French colonies. Slaves were legally human property, but they did have some basic protections. The owner was supposed to provide adequate provisions, two new sets of clothes per year, and educate them in Christianity. There was also a provision allowing for a slave to appeal to royal authorities in cases of mistreatment, but you can imagine how many slaves were told about that clause. In practice, though, the Code Noir was just ignored. For example, owners found it much less expensive to give the slaves small pots of land to work for themselves, to produce enough food to sustain themselves rather than pay for provisions. Thus, any period of rest or day off for the slaves were not for rest at all, but rather for working your own plot. But these plots did provide a small way for slaves to make a little money, because they would often take some of their produce down to the Sunday markets to sell. All with the master’s permission, of course, because one of the best ways to keep a slave docile is to hold out the hope that they might one day be able to buy their freedom, which was something that happened just enough to hold that hope out there.
So, to take your average sugar plantation, the able bodied men, that is, not counting children, old men, if they existed, and the recent arrivals, worked in the field, this meant digging canals, tilling the soil, planting the sugar cane, and then harvesting it. They would rise just before dawn, work until a short breakfast, then go back to work until midday, break, and then go back to work until sundown. This was repeated every day but Sunday, week in and week out, until you dropped dead. And in case you’re wondering, yes, cutting and harvesting sugar cane with a machete is awful. The plants are very sharp, you get covered in little nicks and cuts, and then the sweat gets into the cuts, and if you’re exhausted and just stop working for a minute, you get whipped or beaten. I mean, this is pure misery. This is real slavery.
Once the cane was cut, it had to be immediately fed into mills to squeeze the juice out, because if the cane sat out, the juice would turn starchy and lose its all important sweetness. So, during the harvest season, which ran from December to July, the mills would be run practically 24 hours a day by rotating teams. And this is usually what the women did. The combination of overwork and lack of sleep would inevitably lead to accidents. And if even a little part of your hand got caught in the mill, it was liable to just suck your whole arm right off. And mutilated slaves were a common sight on every plantation. After the juice was pressed, it had to be boiled for hours and stirred constantly. Don’t fall in or get hit with any boiling hot sugar or again, its death and mutilation. Then this hot liquid would be poured into a mold to harden for shipping back to Europe, where it would net the owner of fortune, leaving behind it, of course, a trail of mutilated and dead bodies.
And the plantation itself, as we’ve already discussed, was run by a manager and his hired white overseers. But the actual running of the plantation was done by drivers, slaves themselves, who actually ran the work gangs. They were the ones who got the slaves up, put them to work, made sure they stayed working. They controlled the whip and dealt out all punishments. Almost always Creole slaves that is, slaves born in the colony. They were given perks and special status because good drivers were the difference between a successful plantation and a failing one. But though these drivers basically worked for the whites, they were also the leaders inside the slave communities. And when the revolt came in 1791, they were the principal leaders of that revolt.
So, the sugar plantations used up most of the island’s slaves. But if you got lucky, you might get sent off to a coffee plantation, where the work was merely monotonous rather than fatal. Coffee plantations were also usually smaller and far less likely to be owned by absentee owners, which usually meant conditions were better. About 80% of the rural slaves worked out in the field, with the other 20% working in the households, performing every duty a house required: cooks, maids, butlers, nurses, or performing skill jobs like coachmen, barrel builders, sugar production assistance, which required a great deal of training. This led to a natural house slave/field slave dynamic, with the better treated house slaves tending to identify with their masters rather than the field slaves. But as with the drivers, the house field distinction was by no means rigid. And many of the principal leaders of the revolt and the men who would one day rule the island came from the ranks of these privileged slaves. Toussaint Louverture was a coachman, and the future Emperor Henri Christophe was a waiter. These privileged slaves were the men who would overthrow their masters.
Okay, so now that we’ve got some good background material to work with, we’ll be able to turn to the complex interrelationship between and within these groups. And next week, we will pick up the threat of colonial history in about 1763, with the end of the Seven Years War, which brought major changes to French colonial policy. And by the time of the revolution, everyone will be at everyone else’s throat over everything. And when the Europe revolt comes in 1791, it is not just the slaves who will rise up. Everybody is going to go into revolt against everybody else.
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