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The revolution in Haiti began in 1791 and ended in 1804 with the establishment of the Republic of Haiti. It is the only slave revolt in history that led to the founding of an independent nation. The Republic of Haiti was the second republic (after the United States) established in the Americas.
Haiti is a small island nation that occupies about one-third of the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean Sea. It was claimed for Spain by Columbus in 1492 and became a Spanish colony. The indigenous Indian population was soon wiped out by disease and the hardships of slavery and was replaced by slaves imported from West Africa. In 1697 Hispaniola was divided into French and Spanish sectors, with the French colony called Saint Domingue. Saint Domingue quickly became France’s richest colony, with a large slave force working on plantations to produce sugar, coffee, cocoa, indigo, tobacco, cotton, sisal, and other agricultural products, all of which flowed exclusively to France. At the time the revolution began, the colony’s population comprised about 20,000 whites, 30,000 free people of color (including many of mixed African and French ancestry), 500,000 black slaves, and at least 10,000 Maroons (escaped slaves who lived in settlements in the mountains). Slaves outnumbered nonslaves by about ten to one.
The start of the revolution is conventionally dated to 21 August 1791, but the origins of the revolt go back further in time and are complex. First, people in the colony were already divided about their allegiance to France. For a number of years prior to 1791, many whites and free people of color had been becoming more and more disenchanted with French rule and especially French control of the economy, with all goods flowing to and from France. However, there were also divisions in both groups over loyalty to France, with some remaining strong supporters of French rule. Second, the slave system in Haiti was especially harsh (slaves in other colonies feared being sent there), and there had been frequent slave revolts, while the number of slaves fleeing to Maroon settlements in the mountains was increasing each year. Third, the French Revolution of 1789 weakened French control and created a cry for freedom in Haiti. Finally, Haitian slaves had developed a rural culture of their own centered on their religion (vodun) and extended families. Although often depicted as witchcraft, vodun was and remains a religion with its own set of beliefs, practices, and religious specialists.
What history now sees as the revolution began following a vodun ceremony in which a vodun priest named Boukman and several other men were designated leaders of the revolt. The bloody and destructive revolt pitted black slaves against white plantation owners. Interventions by the French failed, and whites and mulattos fled to the north. Some calm prevailed in 1796 when the religious healer Toussaint Louverture (c.1743–1803) took control in the north and restored order and stimulated some economic activity. In 1801 Napoleon sent 34,000 troops to the island under the command of his brother-in-law, Charles Leclerc. This force failed to retake the colony, although Louverture was taken to France where he died the next year. The following three years were marked by unrest, rebellions, massacres, and general civil war. On 1 January 1804, a new leader, Jean-Jacques Dessalines (c.1758–1806), declared the independent Republic of Haiti. In 1806 Dessalines was assassinated, leading to renewed northsouth civil war, with Henry Christophe (1767–1820) rising to power. Christophe instituted authoritarian rule, and fighting continued on and off until Christophe’s death by suicide in 1820.
The years of revolt, massacres, and civil war left Haiti in a dismal state. At least 150,000 people died during the revolution. The new nation had no money, and its plantations and plantation system were in ruins. Land was distributed to individual farmers, but many of the plots were too small to be economically viable. The republic was short-lived and was followed by a series of dictatorships: between 1843 and 1915 Haiti had twenty-two leadership changes. Most of the people remained extremely poor, although there was a small, rich elite that ruled from the north. Mulattos fled to the north and dominated trade, collecting taxes on both imports and exports.
Haiti’s situation was not helped by the hostility of the major world powers—the United States, Britain, Spain, and France—all of whom still benefited from slavery and saw the successful revolt as a threat to their coercive labor systems. The United States was right in this regard, as many slave revolts in the United States were modeled on those in Haiti. Haiti also became the focus of debates about the wisdom of emancipation for slaves and the ability of former slaves to rule themselves. The political instability and weak economy also meant that Haiti remained agricultural (even into the twenty-first century), while Europe and other nations in the Americas industrialized.
In 1838 France granted Haiti recognition after Haiti agreed to pay France 150 million French francs, an outlay that further damaged Haiti’s already weak economy. The United States offered recognition in 1862; it occupied the island from 1915 to 1934 following years of Haitian political instability. After series of weak governments in the following decades, the nation came under the dictatorial rule of the Duvalier family from 1957 to 1986. Since then, it has remained poor and has continued to experience political instability, despite or because of (depending on one’s point of view) the intervention of the United States. Yet despite its many serious problems, Haiti has developed a rich artistic and literary tradition that is recognized around the world. Haitian people continue to demonstrate their resilience to the world as they rebuild their country and their lives after a devastating earthquake in January 2010.
- Bryan, P. E. (1984). The Haitian revolution and its effects. Kingston, Jamaica: Heinemann.
- Fick, C. E. (1990). The making of Haiti. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
- Oriol, M. (1992). Images de la revolution a Saint-Domingue (Images of the revolution of Saint Domingue). Port-au-Prince, Haiti: Editions Henri Deschamps.
- Prioce, R., ed. (1996). Maroon societies: Rebel slave communities in the Americas. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
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