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The Haitian revolution and Atlantic slavery


The Haitian revolution of 1791-1804 is arguably comparable in importance to the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789. Just one of its effects, for example, was that Napoleon abandoned his plan to seize north America, with the result that in 1803 he sold 'Louisiana' (i.e., about one third of the present USA) to the US for 3 million. It illustrates also why to understand the world we must take into account 'black history' - that is, history from which most people are not left out. Thirdly, it is a prime example of history from below, illustrating how it was 'slaves who abolished slavery'.

By Colin Waugh

Toussaint, the most unhappy of men!

Whether the whistling Rustic tend his plough

Within thy hearing, or thy head be now

Pillowed in some deep dungeon's earless den; -

O miserable Chieftain! where and when

Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; do thou

Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:

Though fallen thyself, never to rise again,

Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind

Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;

There's not a breathing of the common wind

That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;

Thy friends are exultations, agonies,

And love, and man's unconquerable mind.

William Wordsworth (Morning Post, London, 3 February 1803)

Unlike the forms of slavery internal to African societies or the trade between sub-Saharan Africa and Egypt, the Middle East and across the Indian Ocean, Atlantic slavery was an aspect of what Marx termed the 'so-called primitive accumulation of capital' in Europe and North America. Based on the 'triangular trade' - the movement of manufactured goods from northern Europe to West Africa, of slaves from there to the Americas, of agricultural produce to North America and Europe, and of items like clothing, tools and salt fish from North America to the Caribbean and central South America - it involved the enforced transportation of perhaps fifteen million people from Africa between the early 1500s and late 1800s.

Hispaniola, the largest Caribbean island after Cuba, is close to Cuba, Puerto Rico and Jamaica. Haiti (called St-Domingue till 1804) is the western third of Hispaniola. In 1492 Columbus claimed Hispaniola for Spain. Seeking gold, the Spaniards reduced a Taino-Arawak population of perhaps a million to about 200 by 1532, although we shall see that Arawak culture was not so easy to kill. Black slaves were imported from Spain itself (i.e., rather than directly from Africa) in the 1520s and the Muslims amongst them at once led a rebellion (1522), with the result that maroon groups were established in the mountains, which reach 8,000 feet. (This episode caused slavers to avoid Muslims in future.) Of a further 15,000 Africans imported in 1577, 7,000 also escaped to the mountains. Even in 1751 there were thought to be 3,000 maroons there.

Under Spain, Hispaniola remained thinly populated, with few plantations, and there were never more than 15,000 slaves in the Spanish section of the island (now the Dominican Republic). However, during the 1600s, pirates, most of them French, established a base in the off-shore island of Tortuga, and from about 1670 many of these became planters on St-Domingue itself, which was granted to France under the Treaty of Ryswick (1697).

The development of these plantations made St-Domingue the most lucrative piece of land on earth. By 1789 there were about 800 sugar plantations concentrated on the northern plain around the town of Le Cap Francais (now Haitien), as well as about 2,000 coffee plantations. St-Domingue now produced more sugar than the entire British West Indies, exporting 163 million pounds in 1791, along with 60% of world coffee (68 million pounds in 1791), 930,000 pounds of indigo, and over 6 million pounds of cotton. This bonanza depended on slavery.

From the late 1600s the French crown, through an arrangement called the exclusif, compelled the St-Domingue planters to trade only with France or with other French colonies in the Americas, and to do so via a single private company designated by the crown itself. Taxes on this trade went to the royal treasury. When France lost Canada in 1759, the exclusif became even more burdensome, because all imports to St-Domingue had now to come from France itself, further enriching the merchants and shipowners in Bordeaux, Nantes, Marseille - cities which had grown wealthy by processing tropical produce and exporting it across Europe. By 1789, 80,000 people were engaged in the overall trade between France and St-Domingue, of whom 15,000 were sailors involved in the slave trade specifically, in 600 ships.

In St-Domingue itself, the crown was represented by a military governor and and a civilian intendant. Strife was endemic between, on the one hand, the French merchants and crown, and, on the other, the St-Domingue planters, whether resident in the colony or not, and other whites there. For example in 1722 the colonists imprisoned the governor in protest at the trading company's privileges, whereas in 1760 the intendant dissolved the planters' militia. However, in the first phase of the French Revolution the France-based planters, organised in a political club called the Massiac, set up partly to counter growing anti-slavery sentiment, combined with the mercantile bourgeoisie in a struggle against the privileges of the feudal nobility.

The Haitian population in 1789 included 30-40,000 whites, comprising about 500 employees of the French crown plus the resident planters who dominated the colonial assembly (local parliament) and the 'small whites' - plantation overseers, book-keepers, lawyers, priests etc. The 'free coloured' population (i.e., descendants of slave women and white men, then often termed 'mulattos') also numbered 30-40,000 by 1789. Even people whose only black ancestor was seven generations back were still counted within this group. Many had become wealthy, with plantations and slaves, while others were entrepreneurs. There was a strong tendency amongst this group to look down on the blacks. Nevertheless they suffered high levels of discrimination, being excluded, for example, from the franchise for the colonial assembly and from carrying arms, while in 1768 the colonial assembly forbad marriages between mixed race women and white men. This hurt all the more because in France itself they were treated much better, and many had also fought as volunteer officers on the American side in the War of Independence.

The overwhelming bulk of the population consisted of slaves, split between two distinct groups. First, there were slaves born in St-Domingue or elsewhere in the Caribbean, referred to as creoles. On the plantations, this group monopolised such functions as domestic service, building crafts, sugar boiling, looking after cattle and horses, driving carriages and acting as chargehands over field gangs. Secondly, there were those - the vast majority - born in Africa, and used as fieldhands. There were 250,000 slaves in 1779 and 480,000 in 1791. At the time of the revolution, then, a very high proportion of slaves were fieldhands recently imported from Africa. The history of slave revolts and maroonage across Central America and the Caribbean shows that the single factor most likely to precede an outbreak was the concentration of such imports. A majority of these Africans were male. Because of this, because of overwork, poor feeding and lack of medical attention, and because of measures taken by women to restrict their fertility, the birth rate was low. As early as 1685, the French government had decreed measures - the Code Noir - aimed at stopping individual planters from jeopardising the common interest by excessive ill treatment of slaves, but in practice there was ferocious repression. Because it was easier to import new slaves than to breed from the existing ones, the practice was to work them to death.

The slaves came from a coastline stretching from present-day Senegal to Angola, but especially from Benin (formerly Dahomey), and from as far inland as the savannah areas beyond the rainforest. Most were either debtors or prisoners of war. The disruption of African societies on the southern fringe of the Sahara caused by the growth of trade by ship along the Atlantic coast rather than by camel train across the desert produced a ready supply. The slaves were traded by the ruling class of the coastal nations.

Because of the 1522 revolt and because Muslims were forbidden to enslave other Muslims, the majority of these slaves would have held traditional beliefs, which in St-Domingue developed into voodoo. The word voodoo itself comes from the Fon people in Dahomey. The religion underlying voodoo is a polytheistic system, in which spirits, in Haiti called loas, comparable to, say, the Greco-Roman gods, take possession of worshippers in a manner often likened by participants to a rider mounting a horse. It reflects a social order based on peasant agriculture with surpluses allowing the growth of trade, cities, states, armies, intellectuals (for example priests and scholars), and skilled artisans. Versions of it existed across West Africa, sometimes alongside, sometimes beneath, sometimes in synthesis and sometimes in struggle with Islam. A mixing amongst these different traditional religions took place in Africa itself, especially under the destabilisation caused by the slave trade, and was then accelerated in colonies like St-Domingue.

In St-Domingue, this mixing of beliefs underwent three further influences. First, the fieldhands were baptised into - though not systematically instructed in - the French version of Roman Catholicism. Eventually each loa came to be linked to a Christian saint, while the Christian cross was reinterpreted to stand for the intersection of the horizontal plane of everyday life with the vertical plain of spirit possession. Secondly a synthesis also seems to have taken place with the Taino-Arawak religion, with the result that voodoo could be celebrated both in the relatively sedate Dahomeyan manner (called Rada) but also in a much more rebellious and explosive Arawak style (called Petro). The latter especially would have allowed the fieldhands to feel that in the end they were more powerful than the creole blacks, the mulattos and the whites. Thirdly, although the former house slaves, slave craftspersons, etc., who eventually came to lead the revolution were opposed to voodoo and when in power tried to suppress it, they acted as a channel through which, for example via overheard conversations, the ideas of the French revolution found their way to the - overwhelmingly nonliterate - fieldhands. These ideas too became synthesised with voodoo.

Francis Macandal was a slave born in Guinea, who worked on the Lenormand plantation near Cap Francais. After losing his arm in a sugar press when the ox that was turning it staggered, Macandal became a maroon, and in 1757 organised a conspiracy to poison whites across St-Domingue, the first systematic attempt to destroy slavery rather than just escape from it. Caught and burnt alive in 1758, Macandal's legend grew amongst the slaves at precisely the moment when the importation of Africans rose sharply.

Following the onset of the French Revolution with the convening of the Estates General in 1789, Vincent Oge, a wealthy, educated person of mixed race who was living in France and attracted to revolutionary ideas, bought arms in the US and in October 1790 tried to start a revolt amongst the mixed race population of St-Domingue. Because he ignored the advice of one of his associates to draw in the blacks, Oge was easily defeated. On conviction, his elbows and knees were crushed with hammers and he was then tied to a wheel and left face upwards in the sun to die. That this method of execution, routine for a slave, should be used on someone like Oge provoked horror amongst enlightened opinion in France.

The spread of Jacobin ideas amongst sections of the petty bourgeoisie and sans culottes in France - that is, the movement of the French Revolution to the left - was now paralleled by events in St-Domingue. Boukman Dutty, a chargehand field slave imported from Jamaica, convened on the night of 14 August 1791 at the Lenormand plantation (i.e., that from which Macandal had fled 34 years earlier) a meeting cum voodoo ceremony attended by 200 slaves delegated from plantations across the northern plain, at which he made in Kreyole the following statement:

'The god who created the sun which gives us light, who rouses the waves and rules the storm, though hidden in the clouds, he watches us. He sees all that the white man does. The god of the white man inspires him with crime, but our god calls upon us to do good works. Our god who is good to us orders us to revenge our wrongs. He will direct our arms and aid us. Throw away the symbol of the god of the whites who has so often caused us to weep [a reference to crosses that the slaves wore round their necks CW], and listen to the voice of liberty, which speaks in the hearts of us all.'

On 22 August, as a result of this meeting, 100,000 fieldhands rose in revolt across the northern plain, burning plantations and killing the owners, overseers, etc. One hundred and eighty sugar and 900 indigo and/or coffee plantations were affected. Soon, led by their houngans and mambos (male and female voodoo priests) the rebels, armed only with machetes and other agricultural tools, took on and defeated a substantial force of the heavily armed Marechausee (colonial militia) and crown troops. Twenty thousand of them then withdrew into the mountains near the Spanish border, from which they conducted warfare across a large part of St-Domingue. Boukman himself was killed in November 1791, either in action or immediately after being captured.

From this uprising of the fieldhands there now emerged a layer of creole black and mixed race generals who threw in their lot with them - initially Biassou, Jean Francois and Jeannot, and soon afterwards a black man then called Toussaint Breda (after the plantation where he was born). Of Dahomeyan descent, Toussaint as a child was treated well, learnt to read and in 1777 became a coach driver. He is thought to have read at some time a book by the French anti-slavery campaigner the Abbe Raynal published in 1781 which included the passage:

'If self-interest alone prevails with nations and their masters, there is another power. Nature speaks in louder tones than philosophy or self interest. Already are there established two colonies of fugitive negroes, whose treaties and power protect from assault. Those lightnings announce the thunder. A courageous chief is wanted. Where is he, that great man whom Nature owes to her vexed, oppressed and tormented children? Where is he? He will appear, doubt it not; he will come forth and raise the sacred standard of liberty. This venerable signal will gather around him the companions of his misfortune. More impetuous than the torrents, they will everywhere leave the indelible traces of their just resentment. Everywhere people will bless the name of the hero who shall have reestablished the rights of the human race; everywhere they will raise trophies in his honour.'

Toussaint, who later acquired the name 'L'Ouverture' (the opener), identified with this predicted figure. Two weeks after the start of the fieldhands' revolt he joined it, initially as a medical officer subordinate to the main generals.

As the French revolution entered the phase of revolutionary war against Britain and Spain, in which the king of France surreptitiously aligned himself with the anti-revolutionary powers, the black generals in St-Domingue, recognising that the revolt in its present form could go no further, offered (November 1791) to lead the slaves back onto the plantations in return for their own freedom and that of 400 of their followers. But out of a racist unwillingness to negotiate with such people, the colonial assembly rejected this offer. In the meantime, France declared war on Britain (January 1793) and on Spain (March) and both of these countries then invaded St-Domingue. The British government's aim was to destroy French colonial wealth, and this led the prime minister William Pitt to sponsor moves by the MP William Wilberforce to get parliament to legislate the end of the slave trade (i.e., with a view to wrecking St-Domingue). In this situation, the black generals and their armies allied with Spain and Britain against the planters as a way of continuing the struggle against slavery. In July 1793 the Spanish commissioned these leaders, including L'Ouverture, as generals in their own army.

However, the French Revolution now moved still more decisively to the left, with first the Girondins and then the Jacobins taking power, one effect of which was that anti-slavery sentiment gained ground in France. In December 1793 the French assembly decreed all slaves in St-Domingue free, and sent a commissioner, the leftwinger Leger Felicite Sonthonax, to St-Domingue, among other things to enact this.

Secret negotiations took place between Sonthonax and L'Ouverture, who was emerging as the dominant black general. He had already issued in August 1793 the declaration:

'Brothers and friends. I am Toussaint L'Ouverture, my name is perhaps known to you. I have undertaken vengeance. I want Liberty and Equality to reign in San Domingo. I work to bring them into existence. Unite yourselves to us, brothers, and fight with us for the same cause, etc. Your very humble and obedient servant. (Signed) Toussaint L'Ouverture General of the armies of the king, for the public good.'

And in May 1794, as soon as Sonthonax freed the slaves in the area under his jurisdiction (i.e., that part of St-Domingue not under British or Spanish control), L'Ouverture crossed over to the French with his army, which he was rapidly building into a force capable of taking on European regular troops. A layer of black generals, including the former slaves Henri Christophe and Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Toussaint's nephew Moise, came with him. His army then recaptured the north of St-Domingue from Spanish forces under Biassou and in February 1795 attacked the British across the whole of the north and west of St-Domingue. By early 1798 the British forces were collapsing, partly under the impact of the black offensive and partly from disease. By the time they withdrew in November of that year, at least 20,000 out of 30,000 British soldiers had died - said by military historians to be the biggest defeat ever suffered by the British army.

However, the anti-slavery alliance between Sonthonax and the black generals provoked the mixed race slaveowners against him, and even as L'Ouverture and Sonthonax were cementing their alliance, the French Revolution itself had begun to move to the right, starting with the overthrow of the Jacobins in July 1794, thus undermining Sonthonax's base in France. During the anti-British war, Sonthonax proposed to L'Ouverture that they kill all the whites in St-Domingue and establish a black republic allied to revolutionary France. He also told the rank and file black soldiers that if a moment ever came when the French called upon them to hand in their weapons, that would be the time to use them. However, L'Ouverture considered that the former slaves needed the expertise of the former plantation owners to maintain a viable sugar industry in St-Domingue, and refused Sonthonax's proposal. To remove Sonthonax from St-Domingue he then organised the latter's election to the French assembly (May 1797), and when Sonthonax delayed leaving, deported him (August). Sonthonax was replaced as commissioner by Hedouville, who proposed that the army built by Louverture be used to invade Jamaica (belonging to Britain) and Louisiana (belonging to Spain). Louverture refused this plan too, instead taking on and defeating the mixed race forces under Andre Rigaud. By 1800, he was effectively the ruler of St-Domingue, and in January of that year his forces seized San Domingo from Spain and freed the slaves there, such that the whole island was under his control. At all stages, however, he saw himself as acting on behalf of revolutionary France.

The continuing war between France and Britain allowed L'Ouverture to consolidate his regime. He introduced a constitution, one term of which was that he should be president for life. (He was now in his late fifties, old for a former slave then.) He protected whites and their property, encouraging the planters who had fled to return, and negotiated a trade deal with the US President. He aimed to keep the plantations together, because he saw these as the only basis for an independent economy. He therefore enacted laws to keep the former slaves, now labourers, on the plantations, in return for a guaranteed quarter share of the crop, a shortened working day and no whipping. Roads were built across both St-Domingue and the former Spanish zone. People were able to travel in security and the cities such as Le Cap and Port au Prince were rebuilt. He aimed also to construct a civilised society, and this included the building of mansions for the generals and the revival of the French culture that had existed in these cities before the uprising. However he was still a revolutionary. For example, he conceived a plan to invade Africa and attack the slave trade at its roots, and in the meantime he stockpiled arms in readiness for the attempted restoration of slavery that must come once the war against Britain ended. Moving constantly amongst the rank and file of the army, he would often hold up a musket and tell them: 'This is your freedom!' But he failed to explain each turn of policy fully enough to them. In particular he failed to get across the necessity for treating the whites well, and this became the basis of a rebellion by his nephew Moise (November 1800). L'Ouverture had Moise and 2,000 of those who rebelled with him executed.

At all stages, L'Ouverture saw himself as the first consul ruling St-Domingue on behalf of revolutionary France, but the first consul in France itself from November 1799 was Napoleon Bonaparte. In the autumn of 1801 France signed a peace with and Britain and Spain. Napoleon's economic policy entailed the restoration of slavery in St-Domingue, which he openly acknowledged would entail killing all the blacks currently there and restocking with new slaves from Africa. This was part of a longer term plan to use St-Domingue as a base for invading north America via Louisiana, which had been returned from Spain to France as part of the peace treaty. He assembled for the first wave of the invasion of St-Domingue a fleet of 86 ships and an army under his brother-in-law General Leclerc. Leclerc's wife, Pauline Bonaparte, travelled with the expedition, with an array of dresses she intended to wear at the balls that would be held in Le Cap once the rabble of ex-slaves caught sight of the French army and surrendered.

As the first ships dropped anchor off Le Cap and Leclerc issued a call to surrender, the general in charge, Henri Christophe, set fire to his mansion with his own hands and, in line with Louverture's orders, supervised the burning of virtually the entire city (4 February 1802).

There followed a war between the two armies, in which the rank and file French soldiers, the most feared in Europe, were astonished at the discipline shown by the blacks, and in particular began to question their role when, at the siege of a fortress called Crete a Pierrot, they heard the black soldiers inside singing French revolutionary songs. The black armies fought the French, by this time beginning to succumb to disease, to a standstill.

The black generals did not see St-Domingue as having a viable future in isolation from revolutionary France. L'Ouverture retired to a plantation which he owned, but then he was captured by a trick and deported to France. The other generals crossed to the French side and for a time their forces were used to hold down a ferocious resistance from below which now sprang up in the form of a guerrilla war conducted by women as well as men across the whole of St-Domingue, a war which the French on their own were clearly losing. Despite this, Leclerc now attempted to arrest the other black generals and disarm their troops. Led by Dessalines and Christophe, along with the mixed race generals and their forces, the black regulars now finally turned on the French. Leclerc himself died in November 1802 from the disease that was wiping out his army. In a despairing letter to his brother-in-law he wrote: 'Here is my opinion. You will have to exterminate all the blacks in the mountains, women as well as men, except for children under 12. Wipe out half the population of the lowlands and do not leave in the colony a single black who has worn an epaulette.'

The general (Rochambeau) who succeeded Leclerc tried terror tactics. For example, he laid on public entertainments for the colonists in which captured black soldiers, their abdomens opened with sabres, were eaten alive by dogs imported from Cuba. But this could not halt the effects of disease on his army nor did it weaken the forces lined up against him. L'Ouverture died of deliberate neglect in prison in the Alps in April 1803, but in May war resumed between France and Britain, and on the 18th, at a conference in Arcahaye, Dessalines produced a red and blue flag (ie a French revolutionary tricouleur with the white removed) and with the words 'Liberty or Death' replacing 'RF' ('Republique Francaise'). On 16 November the black and mulatto forces under Dessalines concentrated for a final assault on the remnants of Rochambeau's army, now bottled up in Le Cap. When Dessalines threatened to bombard the city with red-hot shot (28 November), Rochambeau surrendered, and the next day, along with his remaining 4,000 (out of an original 30,000) troops and 4,000 French civilians, he was evacuated by British ships to Jamaica.

The departure of the French forces was followed by the partition of St-Domingue into a south under mixed race leadership and a black north, where Dessalines was in power. Massacring the remaining whites, he declared St-Domingue independent of France in 1803, giving it in 1804 the name Haiti (from the Arawak meaning land of mountains) and having himself crowned as emperor. Dessalines was assassinated in a mixed race plot in 1806 and eventually succeeded (1811) by Christophe. Christophe took measures to provide schools but he also used forced labour to build a massive palace and citadel for himself, and was eventually overthrown in 1820, when a mixed race president, Jean-Pierre Boyer, took power. In 1825, Boyer did a deal with France in which Haiti's independence was recognised in return for a 150m franc indemnity for the losses to French citizens during the revolution This settlement ensured that Haiti would remain in debt to French financiers for most of the 1800s and was followed in 1826 by the Code Rural - a set of laws forcing agricultural workers to stay on the big estates. Boyer fled in 1843, to be succeeded by a long series of other mixed race dictators till 1915 when, following the absorption of Haiti into the US economy as a source of agricultural produce and cheap labour, the US occupied the island until 1934. The first black ruler after Christophe, Jean Claude (Papa Doc) Duvallier, was elected to power in 1957, but soon turned into an even worse dictator, creating a reign of terror based on the so-called Tontons Macoutes and on a debased parody of voodoo arguably standing in a similar relation to the original as Stalinism to Marxism. When Duvallier died in 1971 his son (Baby Doc) succeeded him, only to flee in 1986, when he in turn was succeeded by a military regime under General Namphy. Jean Bertrand Aristide was elected president with popular support on June 1991, overthrown by a military coup on 30 September but then restored by US forces in 1994, remaining in power till now. Haiti has the lowest per capita standard of living on earth, and has undergone severe ecological damage, partly dating from destruction during the revolution and partly as a result of farming methods used since by the corrupt elite. The population, which rose sharply under Dessalines and Christophe, is now about seven million, but there is a very large immigrant group (probably about 800,000 people) in the US, many of whom are educated people that Haiti needs.

The Haitian revolution did not end Atlantic slavery: cane sugar production shifted not only to India, Natal, Mauritius, Fiji, etc., but also to Cuba and Brazil, while Napoleon's sale of 'Louisiana' to the US opened the way to the expansion of inland cotton production by slave labour which continued till the American Civil War. On the other hand, Haiti did spread terror throughout slaveholders across the Americas. For example blacks in Bahia, Brazil who rebelled in 1805 wore amulets with images of Dessalines. It was a major turning point in the 400 year struggle in which slavery was abolished primarily by the slaves themselves and only secondarily by reform movements amongst those who profited from it.

Main sources used:

Robin Blackburn, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery 1776-1848 (Verso, 1988), The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern 1492-1800 (Verso, 1997)

Alejo Carpentier, trans. Harriet de Onis, The Kingdom of This World (Penguin Books, 1975)

Basil Davidson, The African Slave Trade (Back Bay Books, 1980)

Maya Deren, The Voodoo Gods (Paladin, 1975)

C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (Vintage Books, New York, 1963)

Wenda Parkinson, 'This Gilded African': Toussaint L'Ouverture (Quartet Books, 1978)

Roger Plant, Sugar and Modern Slavery: A Tale of Two Countries (Zed Books Ltd, 1987)

Ronald Segal, The Black Diaspora (Faber and Faber, 1995)

James Walvin, Black Ivory: a History of British Slavery (Fontana Press, 1992)


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