The Haitian Revolution (1791) was the first successful rebellion of enslaved people against colonial rule. Haiti became the first country to be founded by formerly enslaved people, resulting in the end of slavery throughout the former French colonial empire in 1794. Approximately 4000 enslaved people victoriously defeated colonial authorities in battle as the French attempted to maintain their rule for domestic economic gain.

Despite polemical historiographical debate on the definition of Enlightenment, it should be viewed as an amelioration of society between approximately 1680 and the early 1800s. However, in the contexts of the transatlantic slave trade and colonial rule, the question remains; were colonial subjects and enslaved people included in this social uplift enacted from Enlightenment ideals?

Regarding colonial European notions of the Enlightenment movement, the answer is generally no. There were abolitionist thinkers involved in the European Enlightenment, such as Montesquieu, who contended that ‘slavery is against natural law by which all men are born free and independent.’ However, in mainstream Enlightenment factions of thought, key ideas of reason and the universal rights of man were not applied towards the emancipation of enslaved people. In fact, the French discouraged the dissemination of Enlightenment ideas in fear of colonial subjects rationalising emancipation through the notion of these universal rights. 

Already, Enlightenment ideas were seen as having provoked the French revolution, which saw a power vacuum of domestic authorities and a less exploitative restructuring of society. The French elite could not risk this same power vacuum occurring within its colony. The universalism of having a republic threatened the system of enslavement, which would destroy the French economy dependent upon forced labour and the exploitation of its colonies.

This French fear was indeed actualised by the Haitian Constitution (1805), which utilised the language of the European Enlightenment movement to appeal to the French colonial authorities about the emancipation of Haiti from its empire. However, to claim that European ideas of Enlightenment provided colonial subjects with the idea of independence is incredibly Eurocentric, and denies the agency of the Haitian people in demanding their rights. For this reason, the spread of Enlightenment was not the initiator of the Haitian Revolution, though European ideals were applied to the Haitian’s definition of Enlightenment in order to make a compelling case to the colonists who denied them their rights in the first place.

Ultimately, to consider if the spread of Enlightenment ideas caused the Haitian Revolution, it’s crucial to recognise the duality of a movement which was fiercely divided over the issue of the emancipation of the enslaved. Whilst Haitian ideas of emancipation may echo notions attributed to the European Enlightenment, it is important to recognise that these ideas were not supplied by colonial authorities, but the subjects themselves.

By Kira Speakman