The Saint Domingue uprising was one of the first of a new type of slave revolt in which the revolutionaries claimed to be already be officially emancipated.1 Also known as the Haitian revolution, it is essentially very different than the revolutions that came before it. It is most noted for lasting thirteen years (from 1791-1803) and for its fierce and bloody character of the struggle for independence; as well as for the number of people killed and the nations involved. What most widely sets the Haitian revolution apart from others is the social cataclysms which it was accompanied. The old Saint Domingue came to an abrupt end and a new social as well as political entity came into being with the establishment of the new state2. During this revolution, the social revolt preceded and produced the political revolt meanwhile the social foundations were destroyed and the whole social superstructure reduced to its original elements. It was accomplished by slaves who were fighting primarily for the right to own themselves and by men, half free, who were contending for the other half of freedom: the right to French citizenship3. Not only is the Haitian revolution a symbol of significance it also turned into a symbol of hope to the surrounding colonies of the Caribbean.
The colony of Saint Domingue was of vital importance to its colonizers who gained profit off of its resources. In the period between the American and French Revolutions, Saint Domingue produced close to half of all the sugar and coffee consumed in both the U.S. and in Europe. It also produced large amounts of cotton, indigo, and ground provisions. By 1789, it had about eight thousand plantations for producing exports. Saint Domingue was important to France both fiscally and strategically; the colonial trade provided both seamen for the national navy during war and foreign exchange to purchase vital naval stores in Europe4. Thus a revolt of any kind threatened France’s fiscal power as well as the profit to be gained from the colony.
The Haitian revolution initially began as a challenge to French imperial authority by colonial whites, but soon it became a battle over racial inequality and eventually over the existence of slavery itself. The slaves who revolted organized themselves into an extraordinary military and political force embraced by French Republican officials. These officials allied themselves with the slaves in 1793 and offered freedom in return for military support which quickly led to the abolishment of slavery in the colony. The decision was then ratified in Paris in 1794, making all slaves citizens of the French republic5.
The French Revolution of 1789 was a forewarning of the destruction to come in Saint Domingue. The ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity proclaimed by revolutionaries in Paris were particularly dangerous for Caribbean societies, which represented the complete negation. At the same time, he overthrow of the old regime in France also directly undermined the traditional sources of authority in the French West Indies. The French Revolution enflamed social and political aspirations while weakening the institutions that held them in place6.
Although colonies weren’t invited when the states-general was summoned in 1788, wealthy planters in both Paris and Saint Domingue met in secret committees to elect deputies and ensure representation. The fall of the Bastille and the creation of a National Assembly in 1789 that overturned the old regime in Saint Domingue and France. In 1789, the society of the Amis des Noirs gained new prominence as the revolution provided a platform for its leading members. It campaigned only for thee abolition of the slave trade and for equal rights of free coloreds and disclaimed any desire to interfere with slavery. Encouraged by the Amis des Noirs, free coloreds in Paris demanded that the National Assembly live up to its Declaration of the Rights of Man. In autumn of 1789, free colored property owners in Saint Domingue also gathered to demand equal rights with rights. After the deaths of Jean-Baptiste Chavannes and Vincent Oge, on May 15, 1791, free coloreds born legitimately of free parents were declared equal in rights to whites7.
On the eve of the French Revolution, Saint Domingue had about forty thousand whites and over thirty thousand free blacks who made up the middle class. The small white community was united by racial solidarity but also divided along class lines. The resulting tensions put sugar and coffee planters against each as well as merchcants and lawyers; it separated all of theses groups from the poor whites or petits blancs. Meanwhile the free colored class was one of great size and wealth. In Saint Domingue the colored people outnumbered the whites in two of the colony’s three provinces. Included in the class of free coloreds were rich and cultivated planters who had been educated in France. In the colony anyone who had a black ancestor was subject to humiliating restrictions if the legal system of separation. Free coloreds were banned from public office and their professions as well as from wearing fine clothing, riding in carriages or sitting with whites in church or when eating. They were not only treated unequally but also suffered extralegal harassment, especially from poor whites with whom they competed for jobs8.
Saint Domingue’s slave population was the largest in the Caribbean. During the period of 1785-1790 over thirty thousand Africans were imported each year. The slaves made up a random group of individuals from diverse cultures, speaking different languages, and at different stages of assimilation into colonial society. Half of the adults on lowland sugar plantations were creoles, who made up one third of the total slave population. They were essentially better of than Africans; they were fluent in Creole, superficially Christianized, united by family ties, and made up the upper slave class. Although separated into different classes of slave, slaves of different estates could meet at weekly markets, at Saturday night dances, and in secret assemblies associated with the voodoo cult9.
Once Haiti gained its independence, it was used by the advocates of slave labor in the Caribbean to prove that Caribbean plantations needed to continue to use slave or forced labor. The Haitian Revolution occurred when abolition was up in the air in the Caribbean. The revolution may have helped slow down the abolition process but at the same time abolitionists and Caribbean planters were curious to see how effectively a labor force could mobilize in Haiti under freedom10.
The Haitian Revolution not only made an impact on the nation itself but also on its Caribbean neighbors. The revolution illustrated to them that they didn’t have to take the mistreatment and that they could do something about it. The Haitian Revolution paved the way for other enslaved nations to revolt or create some sort of uprising as a means to free themselves. Had the Haitian Revolution not come about the independence of many Caribbean nations might not have become a reality. For the many who fought slavery, the Haitian Revolution became an example of what could be accomplished and a source of hope and for those who defended slavery, it became and illustration of the disastrous consequences of freedom.