This article will feature in Issue 35: Fractured Nations (March 2020)

The French colony of Saint-Domingue (contemporary Haiti) was heralded as ‘the Pearl of the Antilles’, the slave-driven sugar economy making it the richest of the French colonies and a central component in France’s imperial vision. This was largely to do with the ‘exclusif’, a trade deal that meant Haiti could only trade with France, monopolizing Saint Domingue’s main product, sugar – a highly lucrative import catering to Europe’s fledgling sweet tooth. Haiti’s social structure consisted of a small percentage of white elites, the grand blancs, some freedmen who had achieved manumission through interracial relationships, known as mulattoes, and the remaining 90% of the population consisted of chattel slaves, brought to the Caribbean from Africa. In the eyes of the grand blancs, however, this slave population did not represent a distinctive majority, rather than an object of their possession; this proved to be a fatal estimation. 

A depiction of the ‘Bois Caïman ceremony’, widely believed to have been the moment that initiated the slave revolt. Nicole Jean-Louis

For in August of 1791, a slave leader named Dutty Boukman presided over a secret voodoo ceremony that would precipitate the revolution in Saint-Domingue. In the Bois Caïman jungle in the northern mountains Boukman rallied the crowd to ‘throw away the image of the God of the whites who thirsts for our tears. Listen to the liberty that speaks in all our hearts.’ In the following days, the northern plains of Saint-Domingue were in flames, with the slave population baying for the blood of their oppressors, and liberty from France’s colonial grip. Following the destruction of key crop plantations, and murder of plantation owners, the nascent French National Assembly was forced to respond to the crisis, and sought a solution to placate the revolution and restore economic stability. As a result of the slave revolt, Saint-Domingue had become a highly contested space amongst other colonial powers such as Britain and Spain who hoped to capitalise. The remedy to the situation was the proclaimation of the abolition of slavery by the French government, espousing manumission as a mere continuation of French revolutionary principles, whilst attempting to morally outmanouevre the British and Spanish forces, and reclaim the slave revolt. 

However, the French had yet to win over the support of Saint Domingue’s key revolutionary leader, Toussaint Louverture, a self-educated former domestic slave, who remained suspicious of France’s sudden support of abolition. Louverture, had used shrewd Machiavellian acumen to benefit from Spanish and British interest in Saint Domingue, garnering support and supplies to develop a formidable revolutionary army. Proclaiming himself leader of Saint Domingue, Louverture promulgated a truly groundbreaking constitution grounded in the freedom of all men, and for the first time equating political liberty with racial liberty. This brazen establishment of independence from France enraged Napoleon, prompting further wars between 1801 and 1802. Louverture was eventually captured and died in France. However, the seed of liberty that Louverture had planted was rooted deep. When it became apparent that the French intended to reinstate slavery, as they had done in Guadeloupe, a subsequent revolution was lead by Jean-Jacques Desaillines against the brutal Vicomte de Rochambeau. A hero of the American Revolution, Rochambeau was fixed on a genocidal massacre of the newly proclaimed Haitian freedmen, employing a first-known use of sulphur-dioxide gas as a means of mass execution. The flagrant hypocrisy seen in Rochambeau’s actions, despite his international image as an eminent figurehead of liberté and égalité caused many French soldiers to question the integrity of their battle. With constant fighting and disease devastating the French forces, Napoleon began to grow fatigued with his western endeavours and decided to focus on increasing continental threats. After acknowledging defeat in Saint-Domingue, Napoleon withdrew his forces and sold Louisiana to the United States. The actions initiated in August of 1791 and developments across a decade indirectly affected two monumental global developments; the withdrawal of Napoleonic forces from the Americas, and the establishment of a continental America. 

Toussaint Louverture, ‘the Gilded African’ known for his prominent leadership in the Haitian Revolution

Even in 1791 the idea of insurrection led by black slaves against a colonial force such as France was incomprehensible. Colonial figureheads bragged extensively of slaves docile nature, and their obedience. This racially-oriented contention was grounded in European-white supremacy, and an ethnographic belief in the inherently subservient characteristics of African slaves. For white colonialists, the enslaved could not even comprehend political concepts such as freedom or equality, let alone articulate a political movement grounded in such concepts that would radically confront the European colonial epistemology. Yet, Toussaint Louverture was able to present one of the most sophisticated political treatises of its time in the context of revolution. Not only did the Haitian revolution affront an established racial order and set the precedent for various future groundbreaking liberation movements and revolts, but it also challenged the self-proclaimed liberatory tenets of enlightened modernity; exposing a critique of the Enlightenment values of the eighteenth century that remains relevant to this day. What is staggering about the Haitian revolution, however, is that it has only had scholarly attention in the last fifteen years or so. 

As well as economic punishment, with France imposing a 150 million gold franc bill to pay compensation for ex-slaveholders, the revolution has been denied status in historical discourse as a legitimate revolution, as a worthy historical moment. Since the rebellion was literally incomprehensible in the eminent Western political discourse, the wider world left reeling by Louverture’s battle was forced to interpret and understand the revolution in palatable terms, thus silencing the agentive Haitian qualities of the revolution. This necessarily Eurocentric comprehension of the revolutionary wars has posited French involvement in the conflict as a sufficient and necessary component of its’ success – the Haitian people relied on the fertile ideas of the continent to promote their revolution. Because the mode of organisation did not fit neatly into the state-oriented revolutionary projects of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the historiography has largely ignored the complexity and skill with which slaves were able to organise and mobilise under such a brutally pervasive chattel system. Meetings such as the one at Bois Caïman were far more frequent than initially thought, and acted as a way for the slave community to digest and reformulate the transatlantic political ideas that flowed into their island. If we begin to move away from an understanding of revolution which is centered in Western political discourse, we might begin to understand the Haitain revolution as more than merely a slave revolt, but as a sophisticated act of political violence – a revolution – which changed the history of the nation forever.