The Haitian Revolution: the enslaved Africans who rose up against France

From 1791–1804, the Caribbean isle of Hispaniola burned and convulsed as enslaved Africans rose up in rebellion after rebellion – finally emerging as independent Haiti. Hakim Adi examines how the first successful revolution of enslaved people came to pass

A depiction of the Haiti Rebellion

On the night of Sunday 14 August 1791, 200 enslaved Africans – representatives from a hundred plantations in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola – met to discuss plans for revolution. Fully aware of the revolution in France, and the instability it had caused within the colony, they met to decide on the date for an uprising when they would free themselves and end the entire slave system. Once a date was agreed, they held a vodou religious ceremony, against the backdrop of a violent storm. Details of this event vary, but most record the presence of Dutty Boukman, an early leader of the revolution, who told those present to “listen to the voice of liberty that speaks in the hearts of us all”.

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The revolution in Saint-Domingue began on the night of 22 August 1791 with the burning of plantations and the murder of the hated plantocracy. Enslaved Africans from one estate would join with those from neighbouring plantations, arming themselves with whatever weapons they could find. Within a month, the uprising was the largest ever on the North American continent, involving more than 100,000 enslaved Africans. A thousand plantations were set ablaze and more than a thousand Europeans lost their lives. The revolution would last for the next 13 years.


Listen: Historian Sudhir Hazareesingh talks to us about Black Spartacus, his acclaimed new biography of the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture who battled against slavery and European colonial rule at the turn of the 19th century, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:


Saint-Domingue, on the western part of Hispaniola, had been ceded to France by Spain in 1697. By the end of the 18th century it was known as the ‘Pearl of the Antilles’, being the wealthiest of all colonies in the Caribbean, producing around half the world’s sugar and coffee, and accounting for 40 per cent of France’s overseas trade.

This great wealth was produced by 500,000 enslaved Africans labouring on more than 8,000 plantations, the largest enslaved population in the Caribbean. Enslaved Africans had first been imported by the Spanish, whose occupation of Hispaniola soon led to the near extinction of the island’s indigenous population. Such was the barbarity of the slave system developed by the French, that the average life expectancy for enslaved Africans was between seven and ten years. The enslaved population, therefore, had to be constantly replenished, by around 30,000 new Africans each year, and consequently was about 70 per cent African born.

The average life expectancy for enslaved Africans was between seven and ten years

Some 60 per cent of these Africans originated from the Angola and Kongo regions but they also included many of Yoruba, Igbo and Fon origin. On any plantation there may have been at least 20 African languages spoken. These contributed to a new common kreyòl language of communication, whilst diverse African cultures developed into the common spiritual belief known as vodou. Saint-Domingue had regularly experienced resistance to slavery, and even rebellions by the enslaved, leading to the existence of maroon communities of liberated slaves who also took part in the revolution.

Toussaint Louverture, painted in 1800
Toussaint Louverture, painted in 1800, at the height of the revolution. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Demands for rights

Saint-Domingue was unusual since it had not only a large population of enslaved Africans, but also a large and diverse population of about 30,000 French. Some resented royal control of the colony and had hopes for independence from France; there were also divisions between rich property owners and poorer colonists.

Perhaps even more significantly, the colony had a large and rebellious population of ‘free people of colour’ – those who were neither Europeans nor enslaved Africans – who numbered some 30,000 and outnumbered Europeans in two of the colony’s three provinces. These affranchis included the formerly enslaved, but also the children of wealthy Europeans and enslaved or free women of colour.

The wealthiest amongst the affranchis owned around a quarter of all land and a third of all slaves in the colony. Several had also served in the military struggle for the independence of the American colonies. However, they were still discriminated against, barred from public office and a professional career, even from wearing certain clothes and riding in carriages. Most significantly, some also had strong links with the emerging abolitionist movement in France, which condemned slavery, as well as with the Enlightenment’s ideas of liberty and equality; they were beginning to demand their rights.

In some respects, Saint-Domingue was a powder keg waiting for a spark. Ignition was provided by the outbreak of revolution in France in 1789. The fall of the French monarchy led to greater instability in the colony, demands for independence and, from the affranchis, demands for equality. In 1790, when the demands of the latter were refused, a rebellion was organised which was violently suppressed, its leader Vincent Ogé tortured and executed.

It was in this unstable situation that the enslaved Africans themselves rebelled in August 1791, while the affranchis organised another rebellion demanding the same rights as the white population.

The Haitian Revolution
Thousands of plantations were burned to ashes in the initial revolt of 1791. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Invasion and abolition

These rebellions spread rapidly, since many Africans had extensive military experience as did many affranchis. The majority of liberated slaves took over the plantations and began to establish themselves as peasant farmers growing their own food and other crops. In September 1792, in an attempt to restore order, a 6,000-strong army was sent to Saint-Domingue by the government in France, led by Léger-Félicité Sonthonax.

Initially Sonthonax allied mainly with the affranchis in order to suppress the revolution. However, his mission was made even more difficult when – in 1793 – some French troops mutinied, and both England and Spain declared war against revolutionary France and sent troops to invade Saint-Domingue. To restore order, Sonthonax was forced to issue a decree abolishing slavery, in August 1793 – first issued in the north and then applied throughout the entire colony.

Meanwhile, all those fighting for a future in Saint-Domingue and even for the preservation of the plantation system – the French, Spanish, British and affranchis – had to recruit armies of insurrectionary slaves.

It was in this period of confusion and conflict that Toussaint Louverture emerged as the principal leader of the revolution (see box below). He joined the French in 1794, but already had his own aim: to continue to advance the interests of the enslaved while professing loyalty to France.

Louverture’s powerful position and the virtual independence of the colony was opposed by Napoleon

Louverture soon won military victories against Spain, which withdrew from Saint-Domingue in 1795, and Britain, which was forced to withdraw in 1798. In 1800, by skilful diplomacy, intrigue and military victories, Louverture had complete control of Saint-Domingue; by 1801, he also occupied the former Spanish colony of Santo Domingo. He established a new system of government that gave him some dictatorial powers, including controlling movement in the colony, as well as new legal and education systems. Louverture allowed some French planters to return to strengthen the economy and engaged in trade and other negotiations with the governments of Britain and the US. The new regime did not find favour with all, many former slaves preferring to cultivate their own plots of land rather than work on plantations for the government, and Louverture was forced to suppress one major rebellion, led by his adopted nephew General Möise. However, there were some notable successes and coffee production was restored to 60 per cent of pre-revolutionary levels.

Toussaint Louverture: who was the man who led the revolution?

Toussaint Bréda was born a slave in Saint-Domingue, but became an affranchi and perhaps even a minor slave owner. He was literate and already well over 40 in 1791, when he may have been involved in the early planning of the revolution. Initially a military commander, he fought for the Spanish, winning military victories against the French and leading affranchis. In 1793, he adopted the name Louverture (literally, ‘the opening’). A great military strategist, during 1794 he changed his allegiance and – owing to his military victories – the French government made him a general.

In 1796, he was appointed deputy governor and commander-in-chief of the French army in Saint-Domingue, which was mainly composed of African troops. From 1797, he was effectively the main political leader

in Saint-Domingue, and in 1801 declared himself governor-general for life, but was seen as a major threat by Napoleon Bonaparte. Deceived and arrested by the French invasion force in 1802, Louverture was deported and died in solitary confinement in a French prison on 7 April 1803. His life was celebrated in William Wordsworth’s poem To Toussaint Louverture and in abolitionist James Stephen’s Buonaparte in the West Indies: Or, the history of Toussaint Louverture, the African hero.

Napoleon’s ire

Louverture’s powerful position and the virtual independence of the colony was opposed by Napoleon Bonaparte, who had seized power in France in 1799. In 1802, Napoleon launched a new invasion of Saint-Domingue, which ushered in the most violent part of the revolution. Initially, the French attempted to regain control of Saint-Domingue without major conflict, mainly by deception, although with an invasion army of 20,000. Several of Louverture’s leading generals were persuaded to surrender and Louverture himself was eventually trapped by the French, arrested, and deported to France where he died in prison in 1803. He reportedly told the French: “In overthrowing me, you have cut down only the trunk of the Tree of Liberty. It will spring up again by the roots for they are numerous and deep.”

America avenged

At the time of Louverture’s death, the French army had already lost 8,000 men from warfare and disease. Resistance to the invasion continued, including that inspired by revolutionary heroine Sanité Bélair – who encouraged her husband General Bélair to lead his troops against the French but was betrayed, arrested and executed (as was her husband).

Napoleon’s government then provoked even greater resistance with new laws re-establishing slavery in all French colonies and preventing all people of colour from entering France. One by one, Louverture’s generals and their armies of former slaves rejoined the resistance, which now included the affranchis.

For the first time resistance was united, under the leadership of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, himself a former slave, with the aim of completely driving the French from Saint-Domingue.

Although the invasion force carried out several atrocities in this period, which provoked reprisals from Dessalines, they were unable to maintain the occupation of Saint-Domingue, and on 18 November 1803 the revolutionary forces defeated the French army at the Battle of Vertières, leading to the invaders’ final surrender. The people of Saint-Domingue had defeated the three principal armies of Europe and finally liberated themselves from slavery and racism.

On 1 January 1804, Dessalines announced the creation of the new republic of Haiti, named after the Taino name for Hispaniola, declaring: “I have given the French cannibals blood for blood, I have avenged America.”

Memorial to Haitian soldiers who fought in the American War of Independence
Haitian soldiers had fought in the American War of Independence – the memorial in Savannah, Georgia, depicts members of the Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue. (Photo by Epics/Getty Images)

This marked the culmination of the only successful revolution of enslaved people in human history, which led to the formation of the first modern African republic, although established outside the African continent. It also created the first modern conception of human rights, with a new constitution recognising all citizens as free, equal and black.

The Haitian Revolution created fear amongst the slave owners throughout the Americas, influenced other uprisings throughout that continent, and also had a major impact on the British parliament’s decision to abolish the transatlantic slave trade in 1807.

Hakim Adi is Professor of the History of Africa and the African Diaspora at the University of Chichester. His latest book is Pan-Africanism: A History (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018)

Listen: Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Haitian Revolution of 1791–1804 on an episode of In Our Time

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This article was first published in the April 2020 edition of BBC History Revealed