The transformation of slaves, trembling in the hundreds before a single white man, into a people able to organize themselves and defeat the most powerful European nations of their day, is one of the great epics of revolutionary struggle and achievement.–CLR James, Black Jacobins.
On the night of August 21, 1791, the slaves of the lucrative French colony of Saint Domingue rose in rebellion in the Northern part of the island. In a short while, the insurrection would spread, engulfing the colony and nearby empires, as a revolt of slaves transformed into an imperial war to define the very meanings of western notions of liberty, republicanism and freedom. When it had all ended, the beginning of the end of the instutition of slavery had begun and the second republic of the Western hemisphere was born–the free black nation of Haiti.
Haiti has played a prominent role in speculative fiction. In much of the mainstream, this has mostly been negative–with a focus on zombies, voodoo-doctors (a misrepresentation of Vodun) and other dreamt up horrors to make us gawk and gasp. The relentless media themes of Haiti as a pariah, as a defunct state as a “cursed” place where hope goes to die, has become so normalized that many who seek to imagine the fantastic about Haiti often end up indulging in the exoticized and the grotesque–unable to see beyond such limiting definitions.
Yet there has always been an oppositional portrayal. Since its inception, Haiti has stood as a symbol (even if at times contradictory) in the African diaspora. Images of Haiti’s leaders decorated the homes of African-Americans in the early 19th century, and inspired free blacks in Boston to invoke its name as both an act of threat and defense–against the violent white mobs that daily harrassed them. Historian Julius S. Scott’s work “The Common Wind: Currents of Afro-American Communication in the Era of the Haitian Revolution,” depicts how news of the island’s revolutionaries electrified blacks, both slave and free, throughout the Atlantic. As late as the Harlem Renaissance, Haiti’s historical figures appeared in the art of Jacob Lawrence, while the anthropologist/writer Zora Neale Hurston spent time on the island studying and recording its culture, which would later impact her literary works.
This legacy has been picked up by varied speculative writers, whose depictions of Haiti and Haitian culture defy the normative. Haiti’s Vodun is respun as a powerful spiritual practice (not merely some cult) in the works of Nalo Hopkinson, its lwa even becoming part of the AI basis for a futuristic Pan-Caribbean society. In Nnedi Okorafor’s writings a Haitian scientist is responsible for detonating “Peace Bombs” that unleash magic and rework Earth’s entire ecology. When I set upon creating my own steampunk story (unpublished), Haiti seemed a natural start, as I used the genre’s penchant for alterting history to re-imagine a different aftermath for Haiti’s Revolution, and its impact on the 19th century Victorian Atlantic. Turns out I wasn’t the only one, as I found a fellow writer had also turned to Haiti to create his steampunk world. A short time later, I came across author N.K. Jemisin’s The Effluent Engine, a steampunk Haiti inspired story written in 2010. And of course, there is a long tradition from Haiti itself of storytellers, visual artists and more, that paint in bright vivid colors a rich history, society and culture. Haiti remains part of our collective imagination, our hopes and (for some) our fears. So it’s not surprising that it weaves readily into our creative impulses.
Yet it isn’t by some chance or whim that Haiti is the source of such inspiration and contention. Haiti’s importance, that which places it so central in our psyche, to conjure up so many different meanings when we utter its name, is tied directly to those events that began some 221 years ago, on the night of August 21 1791.
This is that story.
There had been slave revolts before: in the Caribbean, in South America, and in North America. But none would be as fantastic as what erupted in Saint-Domingue. In August 1791 the small French island colony’s a half-million African slaves rose up and began the most successful slave revolt in history. In time rebellion would turn into revolution, the effects reverberating across continents, oceans and empires. Out of this fire the first black republic in the Western hemisphere was born. The victorious rebels would rename Saint-Domingue after the original indigenous inhabitants that had lived before either Europeans or Africans arrived—Haiti.
In the revolutionary period that engulfed the French colony, the players in the drama were diverse—both slave and free, wealthy and poor whites, and those like the gens de couleur, that existed somewhere between. But in the end, it was the slaves themselves who would become the driving force behind rebellion. In Saint-Domingue fears of slave uprisings were based on historical precedent. As early as 1522, then under Spanish rule, slaves brought to Saint-Domingue (to supplant the decimated indigenous Taino-Arawak population reduced to bondage) had engaged in conspiracies of rebellion. Such attempts would continue throughout the colony, as it switched hands to the French. Within the twenty-five years between 1679 and 1704 four other armed conspiracies had been planned by slaves in different parts of the colony, all aimed at overturning the existing slave regime.
Probably more than any other colony, Saint-Domingue embodied the raw economic power of one of the most important cash crops of the era—sugar. Saint-Domingue was often called the “pearl of the Antilles,” one of the richest colonies in the 18th century. The wealth generated from slave labor and sugar production sustained not only the colony, but the French Republic. It paid for French armies and helped maintain the French military presence in the Western hemisphere. Sugar made families rich and turned republics into Empires. For that reason Saint-Domingue was heavily defended against its enemies—both the slaves who generated this wealth, and competing European powers who coveted it.
Work on Sugar Plantations was considered one of the most tasking forms of labor, yielding a high mortality rate among slaves and generating unprecedented wealth for European colonies.
To generate such enormous wealth, slaves were worked harshly in Saint-Domingue. Sugar production was an immensely complex and labor intensive exercise, and required massive amounts of workers. The mortality rate of slaves was high, with many never reaching middle age, having literally been worked to death. To maintain the labor needed to work sugar, the colony kept up a near constant importation of slaves from Africa and other parts of the Caribbean—the largest destination for African slaves only second to Brazil. To put this in perspective, the Caribbean (including Saint-Domingue) took in some 40+% of all African slaves, while the US took in a mere 4 to 6%. Of that 40+%, Saint-Domingue would take in half.
Though slaves held the overwhelming numerical advantage in Saint-Domingue, rebellions were not easy. France kept armed garrisons and ships at the ready, to deal with any possible uprisings. Against this superior military strength rebellions tended to be localized rather than encompassing large regions. Except for escaped slaves who remained in maroon societies to carry out guerilla raids, rebellions were swiftly
and brutally put down. Fearing the danger even a small revolt could unleash, it was not atypical to hear of slaves who dared to rebel being tortured, hung by hooks, eviscerated, hacked to death, set afire or buried alive.
slave punishment in St. Domingue
Many other rebellions were discovered and stifled before ever coming to be. It was not until the Makandal Revolt of 1757 that anything approaching an actual large-scale revolt would once again take form. And all this took place in the midst of larger political and social forces. By the late 18th century the ideals of republicanism and liberty were challenging the ancien regimes in Europe and the rest of the Atlantic World. The rhetoric of the French Revolution spread throughout the Atlantic, eventually reaching the colony of Saint-Domingue. Many free blacks saw this as a chance to fight for equal citizenship. For slaves, the paradox created by ideals of liberty in the midst of slavery led to rumors of emancipation—by any means.
On August 21 of 1791 the slaves of Northern Saint-Domingue began their massive revolt, partially under the supervision of elite and trusted slaves (drivers, foremen and others) who had met secretly to plan, and under the leadership of a Vodun spiritual leader named Boukman. Gathering what weapons they could, they set to burning homes and cane fields in the North. Though Boukman was eventually caught by the French and beheaded, the rebellion continued, its fires fed by French Revolutionary ideals of liberty and slave hopes of freedom and spreading to other parts of the colony. The fighting was vicious, what one witness remarked was an “extermination war.” As it raged, bands of slaves began to form beneath various leaders. Both Spain and England would eventually find themselves drawn into the contest, hoping to wrest the wealthy colony for themselves and strike a blow against the French regime that had dared execute a monarch. To this end they allied with varied actors on the island–free blacks, whites and slaves. What was once a slave revolt quickly became an imperial war.
Not a participant in the beginning fires which marked the start of the revolt, a former slave and freeman—Touissant L’Overture—soon became its most prominent leader. Joining the rebellion late, Touissant rose through its ranks, turning the rebel slave army into a feared fighting force. Holding up his musket in defiance, he would tell slaves, “Here is your liberty!” A complex leader with complex objectives, Touissant went onto the field as an ally to the foreign powers who eagerly arrived in Saint-Domingue, hoping to exploit France’s weakness to their own gain. Touissant first became an ally of the Spanish against France, inflicting heavy losses against the slaves former masters.
In 1793, fearing the loss of the colony to a rogue military general allied with white colonists thought to be in league with Britian, Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, the commissioner sent by the Revolutionary government in France to put down the rebellion, did the unthinkable–he turned to the rebellious slave armies to save the capital city from an impending attack. In the end the slaves were victorious, and pushed along by their demands, Sonthonax declared emancipation in May 1794. Urged along by abolitionists in France, the First French Republic accepted and then celebrated this new triumph of revolutionary liberty–granting freedom to slaves, then unheard of for any state in the Atlantic world. Touissant however remained unconvinced, and held out until he was assured the French were ready to accept the freedom of slaves. Finally in late 1794 he abandoned his Spanish allies and joined the French, turning his armies against England and Spain. In one of the most remarkable reversals in modern history, the one-time slaves of Saint-Domingue had become the revolutionary saviours of France.
Depiction of Touissant L’Overture
Black Revolutionary troops soon became common in the French armies and navy, flying the the French tri-color flag as they waged struggles on behalf of France throughout the Atlantic. In Saint-Domingue Touissant consolidated his power, writing his own constitution, declaring himself president for life, and even invading Spanish St Domingo. At the same time, Touissant urged the former slaves to return to their plantations, and take up the tasks they had once done as laborers–only now as freemen. For many former slaves this seemed a betrayal of what they had fought for; if they were to have citizenship in the new France, it should be as equals, not a steady labor force; and they should have the choice of farming their own plots of land, not returned to the massive wealth-generating plantations of their bondage. Touissant however believed that only through showing the colony’s worth to France, could the former slaves safeguard their freedom; labor was both patriotism and citizenship. This conflict would lead to continued clashes between leaders of the rebellion, and between those leaders and the masses. But none of them could have seen where it would eventually lead.
In France, a young general had come to power—Napoleon Bonaparte. “The Revolution is over,” he would declare. “I am the Revolution.” Despising the submission of France to the will of ex-slaves turned “Black Frenchmen,” and coming to distrust Touissant’s motives, Bonaparte slowly plotted to reverse matters. His goal was to reintroduce slavery to Saint-Domingue, without however losing the valuable wealth the colony generated. Sending a French armada with battle-hardened forces to the island, Napoleon put forth a plan to gradually demote all black officers on the island, disarm the former rebels turned citizens, isolate Touissant and reintroduce slavery.
Toussaint, wary of the arriving French military expedition who presented themselves as “allies,” met them with fire–burning down cities to leave them no safe harbor. But one by one, many of his generals defected to the French side and he was eventually captured. Napoleon, taking no chances, exported Touissant to France and locked him in a fortress prison where he eventually died. Upon hearing of his capture, rumors of rebellion once again spread in Saint-Domingue. Rumors too spread that white troops were to soon disarm all black soldiers. While many slaves seemed ready to again begin the struggle and turn on France, the black generals who had before led the rebellion were reluctant—taking their orders from French commanders. Yet whatever the plans of these leaders, the slaves themselves, growing cognizant of their importance, rose in bands on their own. When word came in 1802 that France had indeed reintroduced slavery on the nearby island of Guadeloupe, rebellion proved inevitable. In the end, the reluctant leaders were forced to move with the slave masses, or lose the armies they only nominally controlled.
“Revenge Taken by the Black Army.” Engraving by J. Barlow from Marcus Rainsford’s An Historical Account of the Black Empire of Hayti, 1805.
Revolution again erupted in Saint-Domingue, even more brutal than before. This time the battle was not simply against slavery, but in keeping the freedom that had been hard won, or being placed back into chains. The tactics used by the French–from man-eating dogs, to mass hangings and drownings–against black troops and civilians were matched by their foes. “War for war, crime for crime, atrocity for atrocity!” became the rallying cry of the rebels. So vicious was this final spasm of the Revolution that even gens de colour, who had before played a role between the white colonists and the slave populace, were forced to join the black majorities as the French atrocities did not differentiate between anyone of African descent.
The personal secretary of one of the Revoution’s generals, Henri Christophe, recounted the brutality of the French:
Have they not hung up men with heads downward, drowned them in sacks, crucified them on planks, buried them alive, crushed them in mortars? Have they not forced them to eat shit? And, having flayed them with the lash, have they not cast them alive to be devoured by worms, or onto anthills, or lashed them to stakes in the swamp to be devoured by mosquitoes? Have they not thrown them into boiling cauldrons of cane syrup? Have they not put men and women inside barrels studded with spikes and rolled them down mountainsides into the abyss? Have they not consigned these miserable blacks to man eating-dogs until the latter, sated by human flesh, left the mangled victims to be finished off with bayonet and poniard?
Led by one of Toussaint’s successors, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who had for a long time reluctantly remained with the French, the former slaves defeated the famed forces of Europe’s greatest general, and gained independence for their island nation in January of 1804. In the end France had lost some 50,000 of its troops; the British had lost 12,000; and thousands more were lost by the Spanish–making the battle for Saint-Domingue one of the costliest of the era. How many slaves and free blacks died is unknown, but the numbers were likely far greater. The victors of Saint-Domingue would rename the former colony Haiti, a term from the original indigenous inhabitants. “I have avenged America!” Dessalines declared, linking the revolution of enslaved blacks to the decimation of the indigenous peoples as a shared battle against European conquest, colonialism and subjugation.
The influence of this slave revolt, and this first black republic, were far-reaching. Haiti was now the second independent republic in the Western Hemisphere, the first having been born two decades prior–the United States. The cries for freedom from slaves had affected the ideals of the French Revolution, forcing its leaders and assemblies to deal with its inherent contradictions. Without the wealth generated by Saint-Domingue, France was unable to field its army in the Western hemisphere, and Bonaparte would negotiate away a large swath of land in North America he could no longer afford to protect—resulting in the famed Louisiana Purchase. In Latin America, the independence leader Simon Bolivar would find staunch allies and aid in Haiti, allowing him to liberate many countries from Spanish rule. During this period, following a promise kept to Haiti, Bolivar’s inspired independence wars (1810-1822) would result in the abolition of slavery throughout much of Latin America.
Wary nations speculated what effect the formidable presence a colony of free blacks would have in the Caribbean, fearing that armies of ex-slaves in the new republic of Haiti would export their revolution to Spanish and British holdings, inciting slaves there to rise up in similar revolt. From Cuba to Jamaica to Guadeloupe, throughout the 19th century, the fear of slave rebellion as seen in the example of Haiti dominated political and social thought, striking fear in the white minority. In the United States several slave “insurrection fears” erupted with the arrival of refugees from Haiti, often with their slaves in tow. And Haiti would directly inspire insurrectionists from Gabriel Prosser to radical abolitionist John Brown. Even allies like Simon Bolivar kept a wary watch on the revolutionary black republic, whose strength he warned was “mightier than primeval fire.”
For Haiti however, freedom came at a dire price. War had decimated the island, crippling agriculture and other industries. Demonised by white nations that feared a free black republic would incite rebellion amongst their own slaves, the former colony was ostracized from the global political economy. In one of the most absurd ironies, to gain some form of recognition Haiti was forced (through gunship diplomacy, blockade and threat of invasion) to pay France some 150 million gold francs (worth US $22 billion today) in 1825, for the loss of France’s “property”—in sugar and the very bodies and labor of the freed slaves. This debt, exacerbated by odious loans from American and English banks, would not be repaid in full until 1945–a full 120 years later. The legacy of slavery had also inflicted a deep divide of class and “color” among the island’s inhabitants, leaving the country fractured soon after independence–with a former general Henri Christophe declaring himself an Emperor in the North, while another faction of gens de colour ruled in the South. Adding on to other economic and political problems, this leadership struggle would eventually lead to a lasting legacy of poverty and instability–all exploited by external powers.
From 1915-1934, Haiti would even find itself under a debilitating military occupation by the United States, who would go as far as to rewrite its Constitution. The US would continue to play a key role in Haitian political affairs–from backing brutal dictatorships such as that of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, to alternatively working against and supporting democratically elected leaders like Jean-Bertrand Aristide , only to support his overthrow and deportation in 2004. Recent multinational organizations, like the IMF and World Bank, have only further added to Haiti’s woes, strangling the small nation with crushing debt and destroying its key agricultural industries with damaging structural adjustment policies.
Today, after a severe earthquake resulted in some 300,000+ deaths, itself exacerbated by these same damaging poverty-inducing policies set up by foreign institutions, Haiti faces a second “occupation”–as the United States, NGOs and others attempt to control it politically. Some two years after the disaster, the majority of intended aid has not been delivered to the island, and many displaced still live in tents while reconstruction has not even begun.
Yet, Haiti’s long paid price may have benefited millions beyond the small island. Haiti was the first nation anywhere in the western world to fully and completely abolish slavery. The fires unleashed by this revolution would light fires of debate and abolitionism against slavery elsewhere. Six years after independence in Haiti, the British would abolish the slave trade. By 1834, slavery was abolished in all of Britain’s colonies. Throughout the 19th century, following this lead, abolition would sweep across the Atlantic World, sometimes through decree as in Brazil, or through war in the United States and Cuba. While historians debate any direct correlation between Haiti’s Revolution and these latter events, the spectre of what began in August of 1791 remained persistent in the many debates of abolition throughout the 19th century.
The Trinidadian historian C.L.R. James in 1938 in his seminal work on the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, summed up this importance of Haiti to the black Atlantic world:
The transformation of slaves, trembling in the hundreds before a single white man, into a people able to organize themselves and defeat the most powerful European nations of their day, is one of the great epics of revolutionary struggle and achievement.
References & Further Reading:
Dubois, Laurent. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.
Fick, Carolyn E. The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below. Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1991.
Geggus, David P. The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.
James, CLR. Black Jacobins: Touissant L’Overture and the San Domingo Revolution. Random House: New York, 1938.
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