The Haitian Revolution occupies a prominent spot among the most significant events in the history of the African diaspora in the Americas. The former French colony of Saint-Domingue — epicenter of the victorious slave rebellion — played a central role in European trans-Atlantic expansion. Its origin dates to the early decades of the 17th century when gangs of adventurers, deserters, shipwrecked sailors and pirates, mainly from the island of La Tortuga clandestinely entered the western part of the island. In the third decade of the 17th century, the intruders, as the Spanish authorities labeled them, began to specialize. Some became corsairs, called freebooters, who cruised the seas and sacked as many ships as they could capture. Others, called buccaneers, stole livestock and sold the hides and smoked meat to the ships that came to the nearby coasts. The others practiced agriculture and over time became planters who initially hired white workers, called engagés, who were nothing more than day laborers. They also used indigenous and African labor captured from Spanish, Dutch and British rivals by armed French hunting parties.
At the end of the century, France and Spain signed the Treaty of Ryswick (1697), which for the first time ceded the disputed territory to Spain. With the end of hostilities, planting and production of sugar was imposed in the incipient colony, although tobacco, coffee, indigo, cotton and cocoa were also produced. By the 1730s, the French had brought some 100,000 African captives to do agricultural work in the Antilles possessions. British historian Hugh Thomas has reported that a slave ship arrived in Saint-Domingue approximately once per month in the first half of the 18th century. In contrast, after 1750, one arrived weekly. From then on, Saint-Domingue displaced Martinique, Guadeloupe and St. Lucia as the main focus of the slave trade in the Caribbean French colonies. The proliferation of human cargo notably expanded the slave sector, which grew from 200,000 slaves in 1765 to 450,000 by the eve of the Haitian Revolution. It is estimated that by the end of the 18th century, Saint-Domingue had 8,000 sugar plantations that were responsible for 30% of the world production of sweeteners and 40% of France’s foreign trade, an impressive economic development that was built mostly on the backs of the unfortunate slaves.
Although the Antilles and the adjacent continental areas supplied Europe with a wide variety of valuable raw materials and tropical crops, this exploitation came at a high price in terms of human rights. From the beginning of colonization, much of the region became the scene of countless violent encounters, initially between the Spanish and the indigenous people. The latter endured the onslaught of the former. The Spaniards’ superiority in war, biological agents, new animals and crops, and forced labor reduced the number of indigenous inhabitants. Few survived the plagues, the “pacifications,” the obligatory labor and the destruction of their environment. The indigenous people who were not taken by force took refuge in the forests, mountains and other isolated places far from colonial control. Clearly, all of these excesses had already occurred when the French settled on La Tortuga. Although the depopulation of the northern Dominican coast in the early 17th century was an attempt to prevent illicit contact with foreigners, the measure did not have the desired results. In a way, it could be said that the displacement aided those who tried to systematically exploit the strategic and economic value of the western coast of the island.
From the late 17th century to the second half of the 18th century, a minority of French settlers and locally born whites (grand blancs) took over the flowering colony of Saint-Domingue, hoarding much of its agricultural and commercial wealth. They also took control of the large majority of the main posts in the civil, ecclesiastical and military administration of the colony. The establishment of the sugar plantation system operated by subjugated workers — consisting mostly of Africans — greatly contributed to the consolidation of their rule. This control had its limitations and contradictions, however, and from the point of view of the landowners, it was never as damaging as their subordination to commercial interests in the home country. The monopoly on trade between Saint-Domingue and France was profitable for the large French trading houses on the other side of the Atlantic that generally controlled the products imported to the possessions in the Antilles. This uneven regime also included the slave trade, the central pillar of the colonial economy and the focus of numerous protests by the landowning classes that wanted to decrease the price, increase the quality and grow the numbers of slaves they needed for their farms.
For the free subjects “of color” (gens de couleur), whose numbers grew from 7,000 in 1775 to 22,000 ten years later, the turn the colony had taken was not at all favorable. As descendants of Africans to a greater or lesser degree, they were commonly the victims of prejudice and racial and legal discrimination. Even so, there were considerable divisions among them. The ruling socio-racial hierarchy privileged the so-called métis (free mixed-race people) over the affranchis (free blacks). Some of them maintained financial and personal ties with the white planters, with whom they identified. By the middle of the century, a business sector of free mixed-race people had been able to establish coffee farms, which allowed them to gain a more comfortable socio-economic position. Some of the free blacks became artisans, sailors and soldiers as they tried to improve their conditions. Despite the difficulties they faced, it is estimated that the two groups collectively owned between one third and one fourth of the land and the slaves in the colony when the insurrection erupted in 1791.
If these free people resented the restrictions that blocked their social and economic ascent, their problems did not compare with those of the mass of slaves. The slaves lived in crowded and unhealthy barracks, received insufficient food and were forced to work in difficult conditions under the constant threat of whippings or other corporal punishment. The slaves were exposed to all kinds of abuse, including sexual exploitation. Resistance by the slaves intensified over the course of the century. They refused to work, set fire to crops, destroyed work implements and equipment and attacked their oppressors with regularity, ardor and daring. Suicides, escapes, conspiracies and revolts increased among the slaves, as did laws and rules to stop them. Fugitive slaves formed rebel gangs and communities that ravaged the fields, attacking the plantations and terrorizing settlements that were far from the main cities and ports. In general, expeditions aimed at repressing the fugitives were unsuccessful.
Considering all of these circumstances, it is not surprising that the French Revolution (1789), with its theme of freedom, equality and brotherhood, was the spark that unleashed the slave uprising that turned the former French colony into the second independent state in the Americas. As would be expected, the grand blancs saw in the revolution an opportunity to demand authority and concessions in their favor that had been denied by the former regime, especially political autonomy for the French colonial territory. The free blacks and mixed-race people, represented in Paris by landowner Vicente Ogé, hoped the revolution would recognize equal rights for them, which their white counterparts firmly opposed. The Jacobin government approved the petition from the free people of color, but the various decrees could not be implemented in time to avoid the uprising by the slaves, which happened in August of 1791.
In light of the general disorder that threatened to destroy French colonial power, France sought aid from the nearby Spanish and British authorities, which quickly dispatched supplies and offered asylum to French refugees who approached them, as long as the refugees did not threaten their own colonies with revolutionary or abolitionist ideas. Despite this collaboration, Spain decided to recover territory that had been usurped by France and recruited several of the black leaders, including Toussaint Louverture, Jean François (Juan Francisco), Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Henry Christophe and George Bissou, for their black auxiliary troops. The fear that the uprising would spread to the nearby British island of Jamaica, another of the most lucrative sugar colonies in the Caribbean, led Britain to try to squelch the revolution by military means. But France moved ahead of its European rivals by promising to abolish slavery in the afflicted colony and won back the support of Louverture, Dessalines and Christophe.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Louverture was in command of the territory and annexed the Spanish part of the island after Spain ceded it to France in 1795. Though Louverture had been named governor for life, in 1802 the future emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, dispatched another expeditionary force to Saint-Domingue that removed Louverture from power and shipped him to France, where he died in prison. After many battles unleashed by the black and mixed-race revolutionaries against the new French invaders, who sought to re-establish slavery, Jean-Jacques Dessalines proclaimed the independence of the new nation, which took the indigenous name of Haiti.
The Haitian Revolution had a significant social, economic and political impact in the Caribbean and contiguous areas. It is not known for certain how many died from the armed conflicts, executions and deprivations, but it is easy to assume that the large majority of the white and wealthy population died or suddenly fled abroad. Many left with their slaves to Jamaica, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and the United States, despite official rules instituted in various parts of the Americas to contain the French-Haitian “contagion.” The main black leaders of the auxiliary troops were relocated to Trinidad, Campeche (Mexico), Trujillo (Guatemala), Porto Bello (Panama) and Cadiz. Hundreds of black slaves captured on Dominican soil were transported to Venezuela and Puerto Rico as prisoners. A series of contemporary conspiracies and tentative rebellions in Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Curacao, Guadeloupe, Puerto Rico, Cuba and Louisiana, among other sites, were attributed to Haitian agents and their followers.
Before he was deposed, Toussaint Louverture tried to encourage the agrarian economy in the former French colony, but neither he nor his immediate successors achieved the levels present prior to the revolution. As a result, the destruction of the plantations on Saint-Domingue decreased the supply of certain tropical products in the world market, especially sugar and coffee. The capital, technical skills and labor force — both slave and free — from Saint-Domingue supported crops in new zones in Jamaica, Cuba and Puerto Rico. Prior to 1791, agriculture in Louisiana was centered on tobacco and indigo. From that date on, it began to produce sugar and cotton, so much so that by 1840, the former French colony in the United States produced 8% of the world’s sugar production. In the same era, Puerto Rico — whose production up to the end of the 18th century had been mainly based on ranching (livestock) — became the second-largest producer of sugar in the Caribbean and tenth worldwide.
Similarly, the political influence of the revolution was felt beyond the territory. As noted above, the uprising demonstrated the contradictions of the colonial model of exploiting slavery. It allowed the colonizing countries and the French landowners to amass huge profits through the slave trade and sugar production. But at the same time it created conditions that led to the defeat of the French empire in the Antilles. And as we have seen, if the loss of Saint-Domingue struck terror in the ranks of those who had benefited from black slavery, it also stimulated anti-colonial and anti-slavery movements. Francisco Miranda and Simon Bolivar, two of the separatist leaders in the Spanish Americas, sought and received support from Haiti for their campaigns for independence on the condition that they liberate the slaves in the decolonized territories. At the same time, a sector of the patriarchy in Puerto Rico, fearful that the ruin of Haiti would be repeated on their island, recommended extending political rights to free blacks and mixed-race men so they could be counted on to defend the island in the event of a similar uprising.
Author: Jorge Chinea
Published: December 22, 2011.
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