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Haitian Revolution 1791-1804

The Haitian Revolution is also called the Saint Domingue Slave Rebellion.

When Did the Haitian Revolution Begin?

The revolt of the slaves on Saint Domingue (today's  Haiti), begun on the night of August 22 to 23, 1791.

The plantation owners turned to England for help, whereas Spain (who occupied the right half of Hispaniola) was aiding the slaves.

The outcome of this slave uprising had an effect on all European colonies, and it played a crucial role in the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.

Check this event in the timeline of the French Revolution


Who Were the Leaders of the Haitian Revolution?

Jean-François and Georges Biassou, Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Alexandre Pétion, Henry Christophe


Who Were the Maroons?

Originally, the term maroon referred to fugitive or runaway slaves, then ex-slaves, mainly in Suriname and the West Indies.

Later, the term was also used to refer to a descendant of such a slave.

The word maroon might or might not derive from the Spanish cimarrón, meaning wild or savage.


The Haitian Revolution Builds

In October 1790, the wealthy mulatto Vincent Ogé and Jean-Baptiste Chavannes started an uprising, also known as the Mulatto Revolt. It was crushed with the quickness and at the end of November 1790, Oge was captured.

Check this event in the timeline of the French Revolutionary Wars.


On May 11, 1791, before the National Constituent Assembly, Lafayette spoke in favor of abolition of the slave trade.

Check this event in the timeline of the French Revolution.


On May 13, 1791, the National Constituent Assembly decreed the continuation of slavery, at the discretion of the colonists.

Check this event in the timeline of the French Revolution.


The Haitian Revolution Takes Its Course

The law of April 4, 1792, concerning the French colonies, decreed that "Men of color and free negroes are admitted to vote in every parish assemblies, and are eligible to all places."

But on Saint Domingue this law was largely ignored.

To address this issue, France sent a commission of three representatives, Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, Etienne Polverel and Jean-Antoine Ailhaux (or Ailhaud).

On August 29, 1793, Sonthonax declared the emancipation of the slaves.

But apparently, Sonthonax soon tried to abuse his power for his own gain, and in 1797, Toussaint sent him home.


On February 3, 1794, a committee from Saint Domingue (Louis-Pierre Dufay de la Tour, white, Jean-Baptiste Mills, of mixed race, and Jean-Baptiste Belley, black) is allowed before the Convention at Paris.

Check this event in the timeline of the French Revolutionary Wars.


Jean-Baptiste Belley in 1797. First portrait of a black man in the position of a western legislator.
Jean-Baptiste Belley in 1797
First portrait of a black man in the position of a western legislator.
Belley leans against a marble bust of Abbé Guillaume Thomas de Raynal,
a French philosopher known for his opposition to violence and his anti-slavery views.
In the background we see the landscape of the mountains in the north of
Saint Domingue near Cape French and even white smoke from a sugar refinery
and the sea on the horizon.

Oil on canvas by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson
Versailles, Photo RMN / © Gérard Blot

At this occasion, the deputy of Eure-et-Loir, Jean-Francois Lacroix, asked for permission to get emotional:

Since a long time, the Assembly wanted at its bosom men of color, who were oppressed for so many years. Today, it has two. I ask that their introduction is marked by the fraternal embrace of the president.

Jean-François Lacroix, who lived 1753-1794. Deputy of Eure-et-Loir from 1791-1794
Jean-François Lacroix, who lived 1753-1
Deputy of Eure-et-Loir from 1791-1794



Everyone cheered, the three deputies from Saint Domingue approached the president of the National Convention, Marc Guillaume Vadier. Put on the spot, Vadier received the deputies with a fraternal kiss, after which the meeting hall again applauded and cheered.

Under applause and shouts of Vive la république! Vive la Convention! Vive la Montagne! the two deputies of color are successively embraced by all members of the Convention.


Marc Vadier, who lived 1736-1828. President of the French National Convention from January 20, 1794, to February 4, 1794.
Marc Vadier, who lived 1736-1828
President of the French National Convention
from January 20, 1794, until February 4, 1794.


The very next day, February 4, 1794, Dufay spoke before the Convention and described the oppression, the humiliation, and the horror of the condition of the slaves at Saint Domingue.

Dufay's speech was followed by Georges Danton's remarks, who under applause called for "universal freedom."

Then, the Convention decreed the abolition of slavery.

On February 6, 1794, Dufay wrapped it up with a speech, noting that the citizens of color ARE the people, in fact, they are the REAL sans-culottes.


Napoleon came to power and, in January 1802, he sent his brother-in-law, Charles Leclerc, and 23,000 French troops to end the revolution. Traveling with Leclerc was his wife, Pauline Bonaparte, Napoleon's younger sister.

Leclerc arrested Toussaint and shipped him to France, where, at Fort-de-Joux, he died in April 1803.

Leclerc himself had already died of yellow fever on November 2, 1802.


On January 1, 1804, Saint Domingue declares its independence and takes the name Haiti.


Slavery After the Haitian Revolution

After the first abolition of slavery in 1794, slavery was finally completely abolished on April 27, 1848.

Whereas slavery is an attack on human dignity,
destroying the free agency of man,
removing the principle natural right and obligation,
being a flagrant violation of the Republican dogma: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,
it is declared that slavery
is completely abolished in all French colonies and possessions.



And here is the key moment of the Haitian Revolution:

Oath of the Ancestors, Serment des Ancêtres, Painting by Guillaume Guillon Lethière 1822
Oath of the Ancestors, Serment des Ancêtres
Painting by Guillaume Guillon Lethière 1822
Massive Oil on canvas 300 cm x 400 cm

About this Painting

According to the Summary of the Main Measures Proposed by France in Aid of Haiti's Reconstruction Communiqué Issued by the Presidency of the Republic, issued at Paris on February 27, 2010:

this portrays the historic meeting between the leader of the Santo Domingo mulattos, Alexandre Pétion, and the black General Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Toussaint Louverture's lieutenant.

In November 1802, the two officers sealed an alliance to chase out the French troops shortly after Bonaparte's decision to restore slavery.

The picture was damaged in the collapse of the National Palace, salvaged from the rubble by a French team and has since been stored on the site of the French embassy.


The painter was born in Guadeloupe. His father was a white settler, in fact he was the public prosecutor in Guadeloupe, his mother was a freed black slave from Guadeloupe.

And according to Nathalie Jolivert ...

... The painting celebrates the union of Black and Mulatto slaves against Napoleon’s army by staging upfront the Haitian Independence heroes Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Alexandre Pétion.

Oath of the Ancestors not only eternalizes the collaboration that has defeated the imperialists' strategy to "divide and conquer" but it also symbolizes the complicated relationship between an emancipated people and its former authority figure, by showing in prominence a White figure acknowledging the sacred moment.


From the way the Oath of Our Ancestors was smuggled out of France into Haïti’s Catholic cathedral in 1822, to its present restoration in France after it was buried under the Haitian Presidential Palace during the earthquake of January 12, 2010, Lethiere's piece captures a meaningful moment in history, which remains relevant to many aspects of our evolving world of freedom.

Here is more about Nathalie Jolivert


This is an excerpt from the Daily Chronicle, article from February 16, 2010:

Nicolas Sarkozy's visit Wednesday, the first ever by a French president, is reviving bitter memories of the crippling costs of Haiti's 1804 independence.

A third of the population was killed in an uprising against exceptionally brutal slavery, an international embargo was imposed to prevent slave revolts elsewhere and 90 million pieces of gold were demanded by Paris from the world's first black republic.

The debt hobbled Haiti, it seemed for life.


France has already said it was canceling all of Haiti's 56 million euro (US$77 million) debt to Paris.


But Haiti's wealth already was destroyed. It had been the world's richest colony, providing half the globe's sugar and other exports including coffee, cotton, hardwood and indigo that exceeded the value of everything produced in the United States in 1788.

By the early 1780s, half of Haiti's forests were gone, leading to the devastating erosion and extreme poverty that bedevils the country today.

The human cost of the colonial exploitation was staggering. Slaves lasted little more than 10 years under brutal conditions. Haitian slaves who displeased their masters were boiled to death in vats of molasses, buried alive in piles of biting insects, crushed by heavy stones or simply starved to death. Just before the rebellion, Haiti had some 450,000 slaves, 25,000 whites and several thousand freed blacks and a mixed-race elite.

The uprising was as brutal as what had gone before.

Haitians asked about their independence today quickly recall the bloody Creole slogan koupe tet, boule kay — cut off their heads, torch their houses.


Many remain wary, however, in a country where people still describe a deceitful politician as "speaking French." The vast majority of Haitians speak Creole.

French military rescue workers standing by the painting Serment des Ancetres
(Oath of the Ancestors), by Guillaume Guillon Lethiere,
at the presidential palace in Port au Prince, Haiti.

France's Culture Minister says Louvre art restoration experts will repair the 1822
painting found in the rubble of the Caribbean country's presidential palace.
The painting depicts a meeting between two of the fathers of Haitian independence. Haiti won its independence in an 1804 slave revolt against France,
defeating Napoleon's forces. (AP photo)


Here you can read the entire article.


Here is an excerpt from an article published by the Library of Congress:

The National Assembly in Paris required the white Colonial Assembly to grant suffrage to the landed and tax-paying gens de couleur. (The white colonists had had a history of ignoring French efforts to improve the lot of the black and the mulatto populations.) The Assembly refused, leading to the first mulatto rebellion in Saint-Domingue. The rebellion, led by Vincent Ogé in 1790, failed when the white militia reinforced itself with a corps of black volunteers. (The white elite was constantly prepared to use racial tension between blacks and mulattoes to advantage.) Ogé's rebellion was a sign of broader unrest in Saint-Domingue.

A slave rebellion of 1791 finally toppled the colony. Launched in August of that year, the revolt represented the culmination of a protracted conspiracy among black leaders. According to accounts of the rebellion that have been told through the years, François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture helped plot the uprising, although this claim has never been substantiated. Among the rebellion's leaders were Boukman, a maroon and voodoo houngan (priest); Georges Biassou, who later made Toussaint his aide; Jean-François, who subsequently commanded forces, along with Biassou and Toussaint, under the Spanish flag; and Jeannot, the bloodthirstiest of them all. These leaders sealed their compact with a voodoo ceremony conducted by Boukman in the Bois Cayman (Alligator Woods) in early August 1791. On August 22, a little more than a week after the ceremony, the uprising of their black followers began.

The carnage that the slaves wreaked in northern settlements, such as Acul, Limbé, Flaville, and Le Normand, revealed the simmering fury of an oppressed people. The bands of slaves slaughtered every white person they encountered. As their standard, they carried a pike with the carcass of an impaled white baby. Accounts of the rebellion describe widespread torching of property, fields, factories, and anything else that belonged to, or served, slaveholders. The inferno is said to have burned almost continuously for months.

News of the slaves' uprising quickly reached Cap Français. Reprisals against nonwhites were swift and every bit as brutal as the atrocities committed by the slaves. Although outnumbered, the inhabitants of Le Cap (the local diminutive for Cap Français) were well-armed and prepared to defend themselves against the tens of thousands of blacks who descended upon the port city. Despite their voodoo-inspired heroism, the ex-slaves fell in large numbers to the colonists' firepower and were forced to withdraw. The rebellion left an estimated 10,000 blacks and 2,000 whites dead and more than 1,000 plantations sacked and razed.

Even though it failed, the slave rebellion at Cap Français set in motion events that culminated in the Haitian Revolution. Mulatto forces under the capable leadership of André Rigaud, Alexandre Pétion, and others clashed with white militiamen in the west and the south (where, once again, whites recruited black slaves to their cause). Sympathy with the Republican cause in France inspired the mulattoes. Sentiment in the National Assembly vacillated, but it finally favored the enfranchisement of gens de couleur and the enforcement of equal rights. Whites, who had had little respect for royal governance in the past, now rallied behind the Bourbons and rejected the radical egalitarian notions of the French revolutionaries. Commissioners from the French Republic, dispatched in 1792 to Saint-Domingue, pledged their limited support to the gens de couleur in the midst of an increasingly anarchic situation. In various regions of the colony, black slaves rebelled against white colonists, mulattoes battled white levies, and black royalists opposed both whites and mulattoes. Foreign interventionists found these unstable conditions irresistible; Spanish and British involvement in the unrest in Saint-Domingue opened yet another chapter in the revolution.



See also

1700-1800 World Map Slave Trade
1700-1800 World Map Slave Trade



And here is more about Haiti.



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