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The Haitian Revolt

In comparison with most revolutions in the history of humanity, the Haitian Revolt was a small-scale event. Nevertheless, it had enormous and highly significant consequences. The Saint-Domingue Revolution of 1789-1804 was the only slave revolt that resulted not only in the elimination of slavery, but also in the formation of a modern state, the Haitian Republic. Therefore, it can be perceived as one of the most prominent and remarkable revolutions throughout the world history.

Saint-Domingue was one of the last colonies that were funded in the Americas when it received its official status of a French colony. During the eighteenth century, the French colony of Saint-Domingue was a powerhouse of the Atlantic economy. In the beginning, the plantations were ploughed by both African slaves and European indentured workers. The main difference between them was that the latter were working for limited terms, although alongside the slaves. After a certain period, such laborers became free; consequently, they started farming on their own (Dubois 18). Gradually, labor became obsessively and deliberately racialized by the eighteenth century. Plantation workers were mostly of African descent with the exception of a few managers or supervisors. The population of slaves grew in accordance with the increasing number of various plantations; meanwhile, the population of whites was decreasing in Saint-Domingue (Dubois 19).

In the late 1780s, the French colony was the world’s largest exporter of sugar, coffee, tobacco, indigo, and other crops. However, sugar became the most significant and dominating product within these territories for over the century. In terms of the sugar production, slavery was deemed highly significant. It is apparent that the hardest work was conducted by slaves (Dubois 18). Moreover, many plantation owners were focused on short-term gain and kept their slaves in awful living conditions. They cut the essential expenses on food, clothing and medical care, since it was substantially more profitable than contributing towards vast improving of their lives in such a way that the population of slaves would grow. Instead, they worked their slaves until the latter died, and replaced them by purchasing new ones (Dubois 40).    

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Due to the abovementioned reasons, Saint-Domingue became the most significant destination of the Atlantic slave trade. As it gradually expanded over the eighteenth century, west central Africa became the largest source of slaves deported to the Americas. Planters placed great significance on the origins or nations of slaves. Creole, those who were born in the colony were easier to be controlled by masters and managers; they grew up speaking the local language and had never known any life outside of the slave system. By contrary, the newly arrived slaves, called bossales, did not know Creole, a combination of elements of French and African languages that served as the general medium of communication in the colony, and were resistant as they saw the other life. In order to guarantee a comprehensive understanding, the newly arrived slaves were sometimes put under the supervision of blacks, who spoke their native language, but they still had to learn Creole. Many of the newly arrived slaves at the time of the revolution had military experience as they were taken captive in wars in the Congo region of Africa; they made a significant contribution to the uprising that began in 1791 (Popkin 17).  

On the eve of the Haitian revolution, two-thirds of Saint-Domingue’s slaves had been born in Africa; consequently, this number constituted more than half of the colony’s population (Dubois 42). The treatment of slaves was supposed to be regulated by the Code noir or “Black Code” issued in 1685 by the French king Louis XIV. The Code noir provided a legal basis for slavery in the French colonies. It also stated that the conditions for slaves should be appropriate. However, both the French administration and colonial plantation owners ignored the essential clauses of the code. Moreover, slaves rarely were aware of their ability to protest against maltreatment, while officials ignored any complaints (Popkin 18)

In Saint-Domingue, there was almost half a million of slaves in the eve of revolution, while the number of white colonists along with free gens de couleur (or mulattos which means people of mixed African and European blood) was approximately sixty thousands equally in half. The administration was alarmed because of a fast growing free black population; therefore, it has contributed vastly towards making the process of freeing slaves considerably more difficult. It is essential to point out that the slave system in the British colonies and in the United States only admitted the existence of two races, white and black. By contrast, the French system acknowledged a third race, the mulattos. Moreover, in Saint-Domingue, most of these people were free, as it was a standard practice for European slave owners to free their mixed blood children. Many of these mulatts were well-educated as they often went to schools in France. In addition, they owned property and slaves themselves rather frequently. The mulattos were an economic force in the colony, but had no political rights (Bell).

Despite the fact that the slaves of Saint-Domingue were forced to live under the harsh discipline of their masters, they managed to develop some communal life and find ways to oppose the worst forms of oppression. Although slaves from different plantations were not supposed to mix, occasionally they had a chance to meet and dance. The reason their masters tended to ignore these gatherings was that such rare concessions made the slaves less likely to revolt against their situation. During their meetings, slaves also held various religious ceremonies that combined African rituals and even elements of the Christian practices. Consequently, a distinctive religion, vodou, emerged out of this fusion of elements. The newly emergent religion was characterized by worshipers going into ecstasy and as they were seized by the spirits of various gods. Vodou played a highly significant role as its ceremonies helped in unifying the slave population drawn from many different African ethnic groups (Popkin 18). Therefore, the culture of Saint-Domingue was deeply influenced by the constant infusion of African slaves, while it was shaping all its inhabitants, whether African-born or creole, white or black (Dubois 42).

When they could, slaves expressed their opposition to their treatment through various forms of individual or collective resistance. The so-called blacks’ inherent laziness was undoubtedly a deliberate response to a system in which slaves were denied any benefits from their labor. Furthermore, women used plants and herbs to induce abortions in order to avoid giving birth to children who would inevitably grow up under slavery. Escape from the plantations was another common form of resistance. In some cases, it was a way for slaves to protest against a particularly cruel master or his hired manager. Consequently, the runaway slaves might negotiate their return to the plantation in exchange for a promise of better treatment. Some groups of slaves succeeded in fleeing into the mountains where they established independent bands. Runaway slaves could also take refuge in the colony’s cities, where they might be able to pass themselves off as freedmen and make a living as day laborers (Popkin 19).

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When the French Revolution began, the white population in Saint-Domingue split along pre-existing class lines. The land and slave-owning grand blancs were for the most part royalists; meanwhile, the petit blanc artisans, clerks and drifters who populated the towns mostly sided with the revolutionaries. While the slave population divided between creoles and bossales constituted the majority, there was also a small amount of former slaves who were liberated by their masters for various reasons. Legally, the black freedmen had the same status as free gens de couleur. Nevertheless, the gens de couleur had blood ties to their white families and educational advantages, which the black freedmen did not have; consequently, their social status was considerably distinct (Bell).

The Haitian Revolution was several revolutions in one, since the whites, freedmen and slaves each pursued their own separate goals. Thus, the revolution had a social and political complexity, which could not be found in the mainland independence movements. In Saint-Domingue the actions and mutual apprehensions of the abovementioned groups stimulated and at the same time interfered with their pursuing of quality, emancipation and autonomy as well. Meanwhile, the events in Saint-Domingue contributed vastly towards shaping the revolution in France, the Haitian Revolution gradually evolved in constant interplay with the metropolitan revolution. It is apparent that the slave society was an exceptionally explosive society. Therefore, any tensions were reduced on a constant basis, resulting from negotiations between the diverse castes. However, slaves never accepted their legal condemnation, but perpetual militant resistance to the system of plantation slavery was not inherent to Saint-Domingue. In terms of the Haitian revolt, both the context and the coincidence are crucial. Moreover, it is unlikely that the political system in Saint-Domingue would have broken down in 1789 if there were no outbreak of the French Revolution at all (Knight 400).

While Saint-Domingue’s white colonists tried to exploit the French revolutionary crisis to gain autonomy for themselves without endangering slavery, members of the colony’s free population of color saw the new principles of 1789 as an opportunity for them to gain political rights (Popkin 28). The rebellion began when freedmen and mulattos were denied citizenship rights that were promised by the French Revolution. Consequently, the enslaved Africans rose up jointly against their French masters. Moreover, as the revolt spread, they refused to settle for anything less than a full freedom for themmselves.

In the beginning of the French Revolution, there was a crucial lobby for equality in the French National Assembly and in 1790. It resulted in a rebellion that specifically aimed at ending discrimination and gaining a share of government offices. Matters took a more explosive turn in October 1790, when Vincent Ogé, a free man of color who had been in Paris in 1789, returned secretly to Saint-Domingue and organized an armed revolt. Prior to the revolution, Ogé had been one of the most prosperous free men of color in Le Cap: he owned extensive property in the city and was accustomed to dealing with whites on a basis of equality. Ogé was convinced that the National Assembly’s decrees of March 1790 had been meant to grant rights to his group; when he learned that the colony’s whites had continued to exclude them, he decided to act (Popkin 30). Nevertheless, this revolt was brutally and quickly suppressed, but the next year the island’s half a million enslaved men and women began to revolt and seek liberation.

The religion of vodou played a crucial role in the course of the Haitian revolt. It gave the enslaved community a belief or hope of victory over their state of enslavement, which then reinforced their determination for action. A slave who possessed a profound knowledge of vodou practices, Dutty Boukmon, used religion and culture to organize virtually all the slaves on the plantations. He had his greatest success with newly arrived slaves, who had not adjusted to the slave condition. Soon he had an island wide movement against slavery. Boukman’s approach was different in technique because he studied the colonial policy for the right moment to revolt. His initial plan was to create panic by burning down houses in different areas where colonists resided. Boukman used not only his physical force during the revolt, but his intellect as well.  However, he was taken and beheaded by the French authorities rather soon after the revolt began (Bell).

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A period between 1792 and 1802 was mainly chaotic. It was a result from distinct factions being in the field simultaneously. Thus, grands blancs, petits blancs, slaves, free persons of color,along with invading Spanish and English troops were involved in the process, while the French forces were trying to restore order and control. Nonetheless, their attempts were not successful. It was apparent that the power gradually shifted because of the overwhelming majority of the population represented by the former slaves. Thus, they chose not to return to their servility. After 1793 under the control of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the course of war changed. The concept of liberty held by the slaves was supported and assured. Toussaint L’Ouverture, who led Haitians to independence and freedom, was unusual in a number of ways. He was a creole, and an ex-slave owner at the same time. As a brilliant military leader, Toussaint was idolized by his troops because he led by example and shared their dangers. He also was highly praised for his political astuteness. While L’Ouverture tended to keep his armies loyal to France, he forged alliances with foreign powers in order to make his foes confused.  In 1797, L’Ouverture became governor-general of the colony. Thus, he drove out the invading forces in the next four years and gave the colony a remarkably modern and egalitarian constitution. By 1801, he had conquered Saint-Domingue and abolished human slavery on the island. Saint-Domingue became a new society of equals with a new political structure as an independent state. In 1801, Toussaint L’Ouverture made himself governor-general for life which resulted in the substantial displeasure of Napoleon Bonaparte. After the years of oppression, Toussaint L’Ouverture was captured and sent to the prison in the French Alps, where he died, denying any food and medical help. Furthermore, Napoleon led a war against the civilian population, which mainly aimed at devastating the island’s economy, while exterminating the leading rebels. The implemented tactics by both sides devastated Saint-Domingue to a considerable degree. The offensive of the French armies reinvigorated the revolutionaries. Therefore, in November 1803, they drove the last foreign armies out from Saint-Domingue (Knight 406-407).

In 1804, when it became obvious that emancipation of people of Saint-Domingue could not be sustained within the scope of the colonial system, an independent state was created to secure that freedom. It was the logical extension of the collective slave revolt that began in 1791. Therefore, the Haitian Revolution might be considered not only the most transformative one among the Atlantic revolutions, but the most prominent revolution in the world history. The reason for this lies within the scope of its vast and highly significant consequences. Thus, the Haitian revolt brought not just the abolition of slavery and establishment of racial equality in Saint-Domingue, but also contributed towards the emergence of national independence and founding of the Republic of Haiti.   

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