Forgotten History: The Haitian Revolution and Toussaint Louverture


This unique uprising of the 19th Century led by former slave General Toussaint L’Ouverture became the only successful slave insurrection in world history. This led to the establishment of the first black republic and was the inspiration behind anti-slavery movements in the United States and around the world.
Slaves were brought to the island of Saint Domingo from West Africa to work on sugar plantations that became an important aspect of the French economy. One of the descendants of these slaves was a man named Toussaint L’Ouverture who was later called the black George Washington. He became the leader of the most profound revolution: because Saint Domingue was the only place where slaves created a nation.

The French Revolution of 1789 Declaration of Rights had an effect on the colony of Saint Domingue, part of which became Haiti. It was the sugar capital of the world- an important commodity at the time. The french had often ignored the plight of slaves in the harvesting of sugar cane. A slave coming from Africa was not expected to last more than 3 years because it was a very brutal human resource management system. Slaves were constantly whipped, tortured, amputated if they ran away, even hung and left to die. There was very little value in human life at the time. Some like Toussaint were born as slaves but managed to obtain freedom and live as a free man on the island. He was born on a plantation and was taught to read and write and became free in the 1770’s.

They were about 40,000 white citizens and 30,000 mixed citizens of Saint Domingue who were born free. On the island the differences amongst the races was not just black and white. They were different variations of blackness and mixed races. The mixed race citizens were born free but not equal to whites, they too had to show respect and offer preference to whites everywhere. In 1791, the mixed race asked for the right of citizenship through a petition but it enraged the colonists who started to intimidate them. Legislators in Paris decided to give equal rights to mixed race citizens but the Governor of Saint Domingue refused to obey and they started to talk about cessation and siding with the Americans who believed in slavery and different classes based on race.

On August 1791, the slaves on Saint Domingue gathered for a Voodoo ceremony that became the strategy meeting for the revolution planned to begin two weeks from that date. On August 27, 1791, slaves revolted and attacked their masters with the same vengeance they had previously exerted on them. Newly liberated slaves destroyed 184 sugar plantations, 1000 coffee farms and burned cane fields. The white former slave masters fled to the capital city. At the time Toussaint L’Ouverture owned 3 plantations and returned to try and regain control of them. At the same time the slave masters were regrouping and started retaliating against the slaves. Three months after the revolutions began it had turned into an exterminating war as the 500,000 slaves outnumbered whites 12:1.

In December 1791, black enthusiasm began to crumble and the French sent 10,000 soldiers to help create peace. At the same time winter was approaching which added to the demoralization of black rebels and some were beginning to surrender. So Toussaint presented some reforms to the white population but which they declined.

At about this time, a French Commissioner arrived on Saint Domingue with radical ideas and created a Representative Council for the mixed race population which allowed the men to become a part of government. The Spanish provided the natives with ammunition and the British then helped the Planters. A black delegation was sent to France to help change their mindset. The new government of France freed the slaves in all colonies as they celebrated the ideals of the French Revolution. Instantly a million black slaves became French citizens and they pushed the Spanish and French off Saint Domingue. Slave owners in Cuba and the United States refused to allow any French citizens on their soil to prevent stories of the slave rebellion from spreading on their plantations.

Toussaint was appointed Brigadier then Governor. However, when Napoleon took over in 1798 he threatened Toussaint because he wanted to restore the plantations and increase productivity. Napoleon’s new Constitution opened the door to reinstating slavery while Toussaint’s constitution decreed that slavery would not occur again and there would not be discrimination based on race. At the same time Toussaint declared himself Governor for life which irked Napoleon and US President Jefferson.

In 1802, the French came to Saint Domingue to destroy the black government and they fought for 3 months but the black population was not as supportive of Toussaint as before. On May 6 1802 Toussaint surrendered, was arrested and shipped to France. Napoleon then reinstated slavery but the slaves resisted. In 1803, the french army was driven out and Haiti became the first free black nation Toussaint died shortly in a jail in France. However, even in their victory, the French demanded crippling indemnity payments that still haunt Haiti to this day. In addition, the United States refused to recognize Haiti for 60 years and would not trade or communicate with them.