Icons: The Haitian Revolutionaries

This mural of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, leader of the Haitian slave revolt, can be found on the Community Center for the Cultural Arts in Los Angeles, California.

This mural of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, leader of the Haitian slave revolt, can be found on the Community Center for the Cultural Arts in Los Angeles, California. It was designed and painted by Noni Olabisi.

January 1 is the day to celebrate independence in Haiti. On that day in 1804 the slave revolt prevailed against the European colonists, and the Caribbean island was declared independent and slavery-free. The Haitian Revolution is marked as the first and only slave revolt that has led to the founding of a state.

The island of Hispaniola, as it was called in the 1780s, was home to the powerful French colony of Saint-Domingue. With a flourishing sugar industry and strong coffee production, Saint-Domingue was the richest of the French colonies and it produced 40% of the world’s sugar and more than half its coffee. In the the Caribbean the slave trade was notoriously brutal due to the grueling work and vicious heat.  The wealth of this colony depended on the free labor so there were very large numbers of people brought from African to be sold as slaves for the sugar and coffee production.

Slaves on the sugar plantations rose up in rebellion against their living and working conditions in 1790. Saint-Domingue had so many African slaves that they out-numbered everyone else on the island ten to one, a fact that frightened the more logical human traffickers. There was also a social class of free, educated black men and women. These people were the sons and daughters of slave masters, often born of a European father and an African slave woman. In the colony of Saint-Domingue under French rule, these black people were free, given education, the option to buy land and own slaves as wellBack in France, during the French Revolution, the Declaration of the Rights of Men was passed by French politicians declaring all men free and equal. Word about freedom came across the ocean to the slaves in Saint-Domingue and that spark set off a large rebellion.

In August of 1791, the slaves of Saint Domingue rose up in revolt, and quickly overtook the Northern part of the island. Over the first two months, the organized slave revolt, burned or destroyed 180 farms and killed over 4000 whites. This battle was the first step in the civil war that became a 12 year fight for Haiti’s independence. The revolt was led by great black commanders including Jean Francois and George Biassu and Toussiant L’Ouverture.  L’Overture, as former domestic slave, was particularly successful as a military commander and many slaves were drawn to fight with him. He was also steadfast in his passion to abolish slavery.

When France realized the strength of the organized revolt in Haiti they moved to abolish slavery and free all blacks, including those in the colonies. This political move helped sway the revolt leaders and troops to fight with France, instead of against them. In May 1794, L’Overture brought his forces over to the French side of the war, and fought with the French against a British invasion of Saint Domingue. Soon after that victory, L’Overture was named governor-general of the Saint-Domigue and he conquered the neighboring Spanish part of the island, freeing their slaves in 1801. In response, Napoleon Bonaparte sent a large number of troops to the island and reestablished French control. Toussiant L’Overture was deceived and arrested, then taken to France where he was put in prison and tortured.

Napoleon’s plan was to re-establish slavery on the island, and the people on the island realized this, they took up the revolt again in the summer of 1802 lead by Jean Jacques Dessalines. Despite brutal battles, and helped by yellow fever that killed off many French troops, the French army was defeated in late 1803. Dessalines officially declared the former colony’s independence on January 1, 1804 and renamed the island “Haiti” after the indigenous Arawak name.

by Jolene Halzen

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1 Comment

  1. Eva Romulus

     /  February 20, 2014

    It is interesting to see how Haiti, being the first black Republic –of former slaves- and the second Republic in America –only 25 years after the US- to declare its independence, is now the least developed country in the Continent. It is known that Haiti was one of the pioneer bases in the elaboration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and assisted in the process of freedom and independence of several countries in America, like Colombia, Panama and Venezuela. But Haiti is now behind with the majority of its people living in extreme poverty. Looking back in history we can see that the situation today is merely a consequence of two major factors. First, the over-exploitation of natural resources by former colonies. And second, the fact that France –and other landowners- never forgave the audaciousness of the people and demanded a tremendous compensation in order to recognize their independence, which took more than half a century for Haiti to pay.

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