Revolution in Saint-Domingue

On August 22, 1791, the slaves on the French island of Saint-Domingue in the Caribbean begun a rebellion which ended with independence for the new country of Haiti in 1804. This was the first successful slave rebellion in the Americas and Haiti was the second country, after the United States, to become independent of European colonizers.

The French had first arrived here in the 1660s and in 1697 the established a colony. Saint-Domingue was a quiet, provincial, outpost in the French empire until the sugarcane arrived. In the eighteenth-century Europeans developed an intense love affair with sugar. Sugar was added to next to every form of food and drink, and it was above all on plantations in the Caribbean and the southern United States that it was produced. The labor force required for the task was imported as slaves from Africa. [Read more:Dancing kings and female warriors of Dahomey“] Soon the plantation owners in Saint-Domingue were making enormous profits, and the 40,000 whites on the island were the owners of some 500,000 African slaves.

The French Revolution which had taken place in 1789, two years earlier, provided the slaves with a language in which to formulate their claims. They too wanted liberté, égalité and fraternité. In addition, the voodoo religion united the community around a shared identity. The leader of the uprising, Toussaint Louverture, was a freed slave who proved himself to be a very talented general and before long he had the slave masters on the run. Once Napoleon had come to power in Paris, he sent an expedition to the Caribbean. They manage to capture Toussaint Louverture and sent him to France. Yet the revolution was unstoppable. New, equally talented, leaders emerged and in 1803 the French army was conclusively defeated. Independence was declared the following year. The country was renamed “Haiti,” meaning “mountainous place” in the language spoken by the Taino, the people who had lived here before Columbus arrived.

The subsequent history of Haiti is sad. By the nineteenth-century the sugar boom was over and the country’s new elite proved itself to be both authoritarian and corrupt. The United States invaded the island in 1915 and occupied it until 1934. Since 1945, the country has had had a number of dictators and military coups have replaced one another. Haiti is today the poorest country in the western hemisphere.

External links:

15 Minute History, “Effects of the slave trade on the Americas”

15 Minute History, “The Haitian Revolution”