In 1780, French author and thinker Guillaume Raynal predicted a general slave revolt within the European colonies, describing the inevitability as an “impending storm.” By 1791, he was proven right in a single bloody night that plunged the island colony of Saint-Domingue—known today as Haiti—into civil war, and eventually saw the nation claim its independence. Haiti was the first country in the Americas to abolish slavery, and to this day, it's the only nation in history that was established by a successful slave revolt.
On the evening of August 21, 1791, a tropical storm was blowing in on the island. At the same time, Raynal’s “impending storm” was breaking over the French colonial government, which ruled over the region. As the storm battered the area, the slaves revolted against the planters who had kept them in chains, dragging them from their beds and slaughtering them.
Hardened by long years of cruel enslavement, the revolutionaries carried out bloody vengeance upon their oppressors through “pillage, rape, torture, mutilation, and death,” with later authors describing the heads of children carried on pikes at the vanguard of rebel columns. This brutal violence marked not only the initial uprising, but the battles that the self-freed people of Haiti would subsequently fight during the quest for their own independence.
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The factors that went into this revolt were many. Earlier in 1791, the French Revolutionary Government had granted citizenship to “free people of color,” a move opposed not only by the planters in Saint-Domingue, but by white supremacists throughout the colonies and beyond. In his controversial book, Raynal had argued that slavery was an unnatural and unsustainable institution, which could only end in this kind of bloody rebalancing of the scales, whereas white supremacists believed that Black individuals were naturally inclined to be subservient to whites.
The ferocity with which these racist beliefs were opposed took some by surprise. Even after the initial uprising, when armies from Britain and Napoleonic France came to retake Saint-Domingue, many of their generals expected the locals to meekly and even gratefully re-assume the mantle of slavery. They had another think coming.
In a letter to Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Toussaint Louverture, probably the greatest hero of the Haitian Revolution, described what would be waiting for the French forces who were then coming to “pacify” the rebellious colony. “Tear up the roads with shot,” Louverture wrote, “throw corpses and horses into all the foundations, burn and annihilate everything in order that those who have come to reduce us to slavery may have before their eyes the image of the hell which they deserve.”
Now known as the “Father of Haiti,” Louverture was born into slavery in Saint-Domingue, eventually gaining his own freedom and becoming one of the architects of Haitian independence. A figure of legendary political and tactical acumen, Louverture became one of the most important generals in the Haitian Revolution. In his quest to keep Haiti independent and its people free of the yoke of slavery, he changed allegiance when necessary; first allying with Spain, then siding with France, then turning against France once more.
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Into the “impending storm” of slave rebellion came a variety of outside political factors. Neighboring colonies that also relied upon slave labor looked on the bloody revolts of Haiti with trepidation, while European nations maneuvered for position and influence amid the fighting. Along with France, both Britain and Spain had self-motivated interests in the battles that followed.
Even as the newly-freed citizens of what would become Haiti won their independence from slavery, outside forces were conspiring at every turn to place them back in chains. From Napoleonic French forces to the armies of Britain—who seemed to reinstate slavery wherever they went—it seemed that the revolutionaries had to seize their freedom not only once, but over and over again.
For example, when French forces on the island were decimated by yellow fever, Napoleon sent more than 5,000 Polish soldiers to the front lines of Saint-Domingue, telling them that they were helping to quash a rebellion staged by prisoners. When the Polish soldiers learned the truth, however, many defected and joined the Haitian forces. So many, in fact, that when Haiti eventually won its independence in 1804, Polish people who wanted to remain there were granted Haitian citizenship and referred to as officially “black” by the country's constitution in a gesture of brotherhood.
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Beginning in 1792, Louverture became one of the greatest leaders in these fights to abolish slavery in Haiti once and for all and establish the nation’s independence. What’s more, Louverture and the self-freed slaves he led established a functional independent government on the island. They proved several white supremacist claims demonstrably false: such as that slavery was their natural state, and that freed slaves would never successfully govern themselves.
Though he was by no means the only hero of the revolution, Louverture had become its face in many ways, and authorities from France and other nations knew that they would have to subdue or remove Louverture if they ever hoped to retake the rebellious colony. Numerous failed attempts ultimately culminated in Louverture’s capture in 1802, after 11 years of war. Louverture was transported to France and died in prison later that same year.
Free and French in the Caribbean
The death of Louverture did not mean the end of Haitian resistance, however. When it became clear that the French did not intend to honor their promises that slavery would never again be practiced in the colony, the many Black cultivators who worked the land once again rose up against their would-be masters. Weakened by yellow fever and scorched-earth policies, the French withdrew at the end of 1803. The colony declared its independence and renamed itself Haiti on January 1, 1804.
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The largest slave uprising since the unsuccessful revolt against the Roman Republic led by Spartacus, the Haitian Revolution sent out ripples that affected the practice of slavery throughout the Americas—for good and ill. The violent revolt frightened slave owners and led, in some cases, to more draconian measures by other slave-holding nations and colonies. But it also served as a beacon of hope and a rallying point for the numerous enslaved peoples throughout the Americas, and led to the formation of a free state ruled by former slaves—the first of its kind.