Thursday, January 21, 2010

Haitian Slave Revolt 1791

One important period in Haitian history is the slave revolt. 

The slave revolt  is known of certainly, but how much is known of it?
Do we fully appreciate what a massive struggle it was, and how much the slave army overcame?
What message is held within their heroic struggle that may hold meaning for us ? Thinking about this piece of history, how one tiny island, and it's populace fought three empires, the Spanish, the French and the British.
I am left to wonder- Are we, the common folk, not taught about because it was a time when people, ordinary, largely illiterate oppressed people took the power? 
An excerpt below-

Columbus bequeathed the island Hispaniola to the Spanish Empire, which within 250 years managed to exterminate the entire native population. The exterminators, to continue their trade, came to rely increasingly on slaves taken from Africa to work their plantations.

By 1789 Hispaniola had been divided and renamed. The eastern half, Santo Domingo,(Dominican Republic) destitute and desolate, was still governed from Spain.
The western half, St Domingue,(Haiti) was run by France. It was heavily populated.
In 1789 there were 30,000 whites in St Domingue, 40,000 mulattos of mixed race, and half a million black African slaves.
In 1789 St Domingue was the richest place on earth, producing sugar, coffee, cotton, indigo and tobacco. The value of its exports made up two thirds of the gross national produce of all France. The whole of this vast surplus was entirely dependent on slave labour.
The slaves were allowed no education, no independent thought, no rights. This was a savage, brutalised society, held together by fear and sadism.
The French Revolution which began in 1789 started to change all this. Many of the people who took office in the early stages of the revolution were merchants who hated slavery in principle, but benefited from it in practice. So the revolutionary French Assembly made a compromise. It decreed that all of the 500,000 black slaves must stay slaves. French citizenship was extended to any mulattos who could show that their father and mother were born in France – just 400 people.
No one was satisfied. It infuriated the planters, patronised the mulattos and ignored the slaves. But the concessions opened a chink of light, paving the way to the great revolt which broke out in St Domingue on 14 August 1791.
In a great wave of savagery, slaves slaughtered their masters and burnt their mansions – and were slaughtered in return. By the end of the year a huge slave army had established itself.
It was joined by a coachman called Toussaint. Unlike almost all his fellow slaves he could read and write. Very quickly he became the acknowledged leader of the slave army, and remained in charge for 12 years of war.
His first enemies were the French planters.Toussaint signed treaties with Spain, which gave him arms in the hope that he might defeat the French and hand the whole island to them.
Within months Toussaint's army had captured all the ports on the north of the island.
Very quickly he realised that negotiations with the planters were useless. Messengers sent to negotiate with the planters were executed before they could speak. The result was the slogan which dominated the entire slave campaign, "Liberty or death".

 Please do read the rest at the link, it is really worth reading. But, there is one last thing I want to share.
If you don't read it all you will miss the homage, paid by British poet William Wordsworth, to the slave leader. Toussaint had died while imprisoned by the French. I thought it quite touching.

Live and take comfort, thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth and skies;
There's not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies
And love, and man's unconquerable mind.


  1. The concluding paragraphs are just as telling. Written six years ago but, of course, equally applicable now,
    "Whatever the outcome of the current crisis, two things are certain.

    One is that the US will continue to try and dominate Haiti, and keep the majority of its population in poverty.

    The second is that only when people in Haiti succeed in challenging that domination and taking their destiny into their own hands will the dream of liberation and of Toussaint L'Ouverture become a reality."

    The huge challenge is how the Haitians might overthrow imperialism again without even more bloodshed and mayhem this time.
    The answer for the Haitians is everyone's answer, as well.

  2. One also has to wonder if the elite have passed down through the generations a special hatred of the Haitians for being so instrumental in ending slavery and the attendant trade and profit there from.

  3. Hi james!

    the concluding paragraphs are excellent, and i am so glad you read them.
    I found the entire piece, very basic and very good.
    And the poem at the end,it choked me up.
    I could barely finish reading it aloud.

    "One also has to wonder if the elite have passed down through the generations a special hatred of the Haitians for being so instrumental in ending slavery and the attendant trade and profit there from."

    James, I would think, yes definitely the elite have a special hatred for the haitians for being not just instrumental in ending slavery, but being so persistent, so believing in their right to freedom.
    Could you imagine how infuriating that would be? To oppressors?

    "The answer for the Haitians is everyone's answer, as well."

    That is where I was going. The answer for them is the same as for us.
    Except they have one up on us, they have quite an impressive overthrow under their belt, when they were as oppressed as could be imagined.

  4. I have also read recently that Haitians were part of the forces that got the imperialists out of the USA - on USA soil.

    Its really just "money" that our self proclaimed elites want. I doubt any of them care about history - they are nihilists and wish to erase everything and start the human race all over again with most of us as slaves.

    Slaves of hundreds of years ago had clean water and clean air. One could argue that we are much more oppressed.

  5. Vaguely sideways to this, has anyone seen the film Burn starring Marlon Brando? It was directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, the same guy who did The Battle of Algiers. Burn isn't precisely about Haiti but it's as close as cinema gets. Worth watching.