The revolution's uncompleted revoultion: The Haitian Revolution

  03-Jan-2021 11:54:11

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My first memories of Haiti were when I heard the song Wavin’ Flag during the 2010 world cup. I came to know that the song’s proceeds were going to a country named Haiti that had recently been devastated by a natural disaster. I had a vague idea that Haiti was a country in the Caribbean. Ten years later, I realized how little I knew about a country that I should have probably known a lot more about.



What is a Revolution?


Defining a revolution is tough. Historians were, are, and will continue to debate what a revolution is. Broadly, one can define revolution as a series of events that lead to a change in the political/social structure and that leaves a long-lasting impact on society. Growing up in India, I was taught of two major revolutions—The French revolution and the American revolution. These were the revolutions that inspired revolutions across the world. True, both these revolutions captured the values of enlightenment and renaissance and helped propagate the ideals of democracy and liberalism. But for who were these revolutions for?


In the American Revolution, to cut a long story short, a group of white liberals broke away, opposing the taxes and partial control of the British empire. After winning the war, the American’s created a republic and the declaration of the rights of man but excluded blacks and native Americans. It was almost 200 years later when America truly became a democracy with the passing of the civil rights act.


The French Revolution, initially led by the liberal nobles, intended to establish a constitutional monarchy. Then one thing led to another, and though there were values of liberty and equality espoused, they were limited to men, and the revolution wound down into the reign of terror with the centralization of power in Paris. The American and French revolutions were more than what was described above (We plan to cover them later on) but they weren’t led by the most exploited people on earth, on whose backs the European economy could grow at such a fast pace—The slaves of Africa.


The Island of Hispaniola


By 1490, the Muslim presence in Spain reduced to only in Granada, and the Spanish crown was united with the marriage of King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella 1. They sponsored the voyage of Christopher Columbus to find a westward route to India, China & Japan. In 1493 Columbus went on his first voyage. In this, and subsequent voyages, he discovered the Americas and the islands of the Caribbean. Hispaniola was one of the islands.


The Spanish colonized the island, mining some gold at the expense of the native population which disappeared from approximately 400, 000 to 0 in less than a century. They also brought in the first African slaves to the island. The Spanish interests were mainly in the eastern half of the island. The western half, Saint Domingue, which became to be known as Haiti, was largely undisturbed by the Spanish. They were more interested in mining gold in South America.


In the 16th and 17th centuries, pirates, most of them of French descent, settled on the island and grow tobacco on small plantations. Tobacco was replaced by indigo and by the end of the 17th century, sugar production was growing. In 1697, after a stalemate in a war that was fought between the French and the rest of the major powers of Europe over the Spanish succession, the Spanish handed over the control of Saint Domingue to the French. This massively changed the economy of the island. Saint Domingue became one of the most profitable colonies, marked by its exportation of sugar and coffee, which was introduced in the 18th century. At its pinnacle in the 18th century, Haiti produced 50% of the world's sugar and 60% of its coffee. Enormous investments were made by French businessmen and the method of production of sugar were extremely advanced, with the sowing, reaping, and processing all taking place on the island.


The slaves


The harsh work on the plantations was done by slaves that were bought in from Africa. “The majority of slaves spent their entire lives doing harsh and difficult labor in the fields” (Dubois 45). The sugar-making process was not an easy one. The sugarcane had to be manually fed into a crusher. Many slaves had their arm cuts in this process. The sugarcane juice needed to be boiled over a fire to produce sugar. The buying of slaves was so cheap that it was easier to import one than improve the living and working conditions. More than a million slaves died within a century.


The demographics of Saint Domingue


The thriving economy of Saint Domingue required many slaves. By 1789, the French were importing 30,000 per year. Slaves made up ~90% of the population. Apart from the slaves, there were whites and the free color people. The whites can be broken down to:


  1. Big whites: Owned the major plantations or were the big traders. Most of them lived in France but the ones living in Haiti were extremely powerful.

  2. Small whites: All the other whites. They operated plantations, ran small businesses, lawyers, notaries, etc.

  3. Administrators: Looked after the colony on behalf of France.


The free color people descended from the marriages of white men and black women. The children of such unions were not considered being slaves. The free color people than married other people so that by the end of 1789, there were ~25000 free color people. They had the same rights as whites until 1763 when there was a distinction drawn between whites and non-whites because of the increasing power of the free color people.


The tensions in the system and the revolution in France


Although the whites and the free color were aligned on keeping slavery, there was a lot of tensions between them at the start of 1789, i.e. the beginning of the French revolution




The coming of the revolution brought in hopes for the big whites as they made their case for independence from the French. The free colors wanted representation equal to those of whites following the declaration of rights of man. They also feared that if independence was granted, there would be white supremacy on the island. Though there were attempts by the big whites to hide the news, the slaves also came to know about the values of the French revolution.


All heads came to storm when the national convention sent in an order that granted citizenship to all men fulfilling certain property criteria. This included the colors. The whites protested against this decision, and the free color started a counter-revolution. Seeing chaos all around them, the slaves started planning their revolt. The funny part is that the whites had caught wind of the revolt when few slaves started their revolt before the planned date, but they thought that the slaves were too stupid to launch a mass uprising by themselves.


On 21st August 1791, the slaves launched their revolution. They destroyed sugar fields, killed white people, and in no time their numbers had reached close to 100,000. The whites responded in kind, though they had to retreat behind their fortifications. After some time, the slave leaders tried to negotiate their freedom for going back to the old system, but the whites refused. By the end of 1992, the slaves had taken control of the ⅓ of the island; the area being concentrated in the northern plains. The slaves were not fighting for independence at this point. They just wanted to be free from slavery.


The situation was not only moving fast in Haiti but also in France. The revolution was going more and more radical after the execution of Louis the XVI in December 1792. The men who were sent in to restore order aligned themselves with the free colored and the slaves, with slavery being abolished in 1793. They considered the whites to be royalists. Besides, they were facing the Spanish and the British, who had been supplying the slaves with arms. The Spanish, having control over the south part of the island, wanted mostly to destabilize the region whereas the British wanted to take over the territory of Saint Domingue, for their economic interests and bring back slavery to not send a wrong signal to the territories they held in the Caribbean that employed slavery.


Toussaint Louverture, a self-taught ex-slave, was one of the main commanders of the rebel army fighting Spain. In 1795, he flipped on the Spanish and joined the French army. The Spanish decided to withdraw and surrendered the island to the French forces. The British meanwhile continued their attacks but they withdrew in 1798, losing close to 100,000 men, mostly due to yellow fever.


Toussaint Louverture and Andre Rigaud had consolidated by the power in the north and south of the island, respectively. Rigaud was a free color and was a junior of Toussaint Louverture in the army. He ran a colored base regime that put the whites at the top, though he had some support from the blacks. Toussaint was able to defeat Rigaud and consolidate his power.


But the directory government in France did not recognize Toussaint as its leader. They maintained that Haiti was not an autonomous region and tried to keep control by sending representatives on its behalf. Touissant, through clever maneuvering, was able to maintain his grip on power. He was partially supported by the Americans and British, as there were tensions between these two countries and the French at the end of the 18th century.


The rule of Louverture


Toussaint was in control of Haiti at the start of 1800, but he had lost popularity amongst the black cultivators. There was no slavery, but their working condition was not great, to say the least. He passed a labor code that restricted the movement of the laborers, and it was enforced by the army. In February 1801, Toussaint drafted a constitution that would officially make Haiti a military dictatorship but would remain a part of the French empire. Toussaint bestowed himself with extraordinary powers by declaring himself as the governor for life. The constitution came to effect on July 1801 without the blessings of Paris. Little did Toussaint know that France had already decided to take matters into its hand.


Napoleon’s advance


In 1801, Napoleon was in power, and Europe was in relative peace. He turned his attention to Hait. Initially, he thought to give command of the military to Toussaint Louverture, he wrote a letter stating the same, but that letter remained unsent. He decided to relieve Toussaint of his command. Meanwhile, Toussaint had annexed the southern part of the island, Saint Domingo, without the permission of Napoleon. Toussaint now controlled the whole of the island. In October 1801, Napoleon came to know that Toussaint had drafted a constitution for Saint Domingue. This further intensified his resolve to send in a French army to the territory. The fleet for Saint Domingue, comprising 50 ships, set sail in December.



The French made initial success,, especially in the south wherein many of the commanders that were aligned to Rigaud just a couple of years ago betraying him. In June 1802, Louverture was arrested, and he was sent to France where he would die in 1803. The French retook the island. But the fortunes changed for the worse as a yellow fever epidemic spread throughout the French army and a majority of the soldiers died by the end of 1802. Also, slavery had been reintroduced in nearby French territories, the winds of which were caught by the inhabitants of Saint Domingue.


The Independence


The black generals that were a part of the French army revolted and the “War of Independence” began. The French general Leclerc died and only 3000 French soldiers remained in the colony. The new French general Rochambeau, known to be one of the cruelest and hated generals, adopted a strategy of defense while waiting for reinforcements. Meanwhile, rebel factions were trying to merge into a unit. Jean-Jacques Dessalines became the leader of the rebels in May 1803. Britain cut-off the French and supplied the rebels as the French-British war was on. The ports that had been held by the French slowly surrendered. In November 1803, the French soldier finally left. On 1st January 1804, the nation of Haiti came to existence and Dessalines declared himself as the first emperor of Haiti.


The aftermath


Dessalines was a black supremacist. Post his taking power, he massacred every French citizen living on the island. This left 3000-5000 people dead. The Haitian revolution in itself was a costly affair. It took the life of ~350,000 people, ~200,000 of them being Haitians. The post-revolution story hasn’t been rosy for Haiti. Currently, it is the poorest country of the Western hemisphere and ranks 169 of 19 countries on the Human development index. Still, the story of the Haitian revolution is one that needs to be told,and it deserves its place alongside the other revolutions in history.