Haiti: Slave Revolution That Defeated Three Empires

By David McNally

Brothers and friends, I am Toussaint L'Ouverture, my name is perhaps known to you. I have undertaken vengeance. I want liberty and equality to reign in San Domingo.

These words ought to be as familiar to students of modern history as the opening lines of the American Declaration of Independence (1776) or the Declaration of the Rights of Man from the French Revolution of 1789. After all, they embody the spirit of the world's first successful slave revolution which created the state of Haiti 200 years ago. Of course, these words - and the story of which they speak - are anything but familiar to most people. The reason for this is remarkably simple: to this day there remains something deeply threatening to the powers-that-be about the story of the enslaved blacks who rose up, laid waste to the soldiers sent by three empires, and succeeded in abolishing slavery.

In a very real sense Haiti was the world's first Vietnam, the place where imperial war machines were vanquished by an army of the oppressed. In 1796, Great Britain, the world's premier colonial power, sent its largest-ever expeditionary force - 30,000 men on nearly 100 ships - to crush the insurgent armies of ex-slaves before their example spread. Instead, Saint Domingue, as it was then usually known (although the Spanish name San Domingo was also used), became "the burial ground of Great Britain." At least 40,000 British soldiers and sailors perished in the campaign against Toussaint L'Ouverture and his forces. Reflecting on this crushing defeat, the British commander of the time observed that "men after having been told they were free, and after carrying arms, did not easily return to slavery." It was a lesson the empires refused to heed.

Overturning Empire

Six years after the British were repulsed, Napoleon Bonaparte, fresh from his victories over the popular-democratic movement at home in France, sent 35,000 troops to reconquer the former colony and restore slavery. Despite a campaign of horrific exterminism against the Haitian people, Napoleon too was routed. Only 5,000 of his troops returned. At various times between 1791 and 1804, Spain also threw thousands of troops against these armies of self-emancipated slaves. It too suffered massive losses.

Perhaps few historical moments are more propitious than the present one for remembering and celebrating the extraordinary events that swept Haiti in the age of democratic revolution. To begin with, January 1, 2004 represents the bicentenary of Haiti's declaration of independence. Equally significant, however, at a time when new imperial wars are being waged from Afghanistan and Iraq to Colombia and the Philippines, the Haitian revolution is a salient reminder of what can be achieved by oppressed masses mobilizing for freedom in the face of overwhelming military force.

All social revolutions involve great upheavals in structures of property and power, and Haiti was no exception. Saint Domingue was the jewel of the French empire, its largest and most prosperous slave colony in the Caribbean. As slave production of sugar and coffee soared, the number of new slaves arriving each year kept mounting, hitting half a million by 1791. St. Domingue was thus the heart of the French colonial system in the Caribbean, and the envy of rival empires. Little did anyone in the colony suspect that events in France would turn this prosperous slave colony upside down.

The story of the revolution in France has been well-told. Amidst growing tensions between the monarchy and the country's middle class - lawyers, merchants, small manufacturers, and slave traders - the people of Paris rose up, taking to the streets, capturing the Bastille, the notorious political prison, and freeing those inside. Revolutionary committees were formed in one town after another and peasant revolts swept the countryside.

In its early stages, the revolution was managed at the top by moderate representatives of the middle class who wanted little more than an English-style constitutional monarchy. But the urban masses insured that things went much farther than that. A revolutionary crowd arrested the king in August 1792 and mobilized for a democratic republic free of all vestiges of monarchy. By January of the next year, the king had been executed. Demands for social equality and economic justice now began to challenge those who hoped to limit the revolution to the achievement of voting rights and equality before the law.

As the revolution in France moved left under pressure from the urban poor, an earthquake rocked the most prosperous of the French colonies. When French soldiers arrived in St. Domingue in March 1791, black slaves began seizing arms and rising up, declaring their commitments to equality and "the rights of man." In August, these relatively spontaneous uprisings became a coordinated insurrection, as tens of thousands of slaves murdered their masters and seized the estates, often burning them to the ground.

The slave-owners quickly regrouped, welcoming an invasion by British forces intent on restoring slavery and seizing the colony for the British empire. Meanwhile, Spanish troops also moved into St. Domingue. Facing a full-scale war against colonial armies, 20,000 former slaves fled their estates and formed armed units. Among the military leaders of these black armies was one Toussaint Breda, who shortly after replaced his old last name with L'Ouverture (the Opening). A former slave who had developed administrative talents as steward of livestock for his master, Toussaint had read texts in world history as well as political works that criticized slavery. Although nearly 50 when the revolution erupted, he quickly emerged as its most intelligent and dynamic leader.

Marching Together

In the early going, many of the black forces allied themselves with Spain (which promised freedom to every former slave who joined the Spanish forces) in order to defeat the old slave-owning class and its British allies - and this was true of Toussaint as well. But in the summer of 1793, three new French Commissioners reached the colony. Although they did not arrive with any intention of abolishing slavery, the more astute of them soon recognized that the future of the colony would be decided by the insurrectionary slaves. In August, one of the Commissioners decreed the end of slavery in the colony, igniting a new round of slave rebellions and bringing thousands of black freedom fighters into an alliance with France.

For the next few years, the Revolutions in France and St. Domingue marched together, each radicalizing the other. Perhaps no moment more movingly captures this intersection than the early weeks of 1794 when a three-man delegation from St. Domingue arrived in Paris. C.L.R. James, author of The Black Jacobins - the pioneering account of these events - recounts that on February 3rd, with the three delegates from St. Domingue in attendance, the French Convention officially abolished slavery to resounding cheers and embraces. The motion abolishing slavery in the French colonies was, as James remarks, "one of the most important legislative acts ever passed by any political assembly." And it constituted a high-water mark for the French Revolution. Driven forward by the slave insurrection in St. Domingue and the radicalism of the Paris poor, the revolution had mounted a frontal attack on racial privilege. Immediately, Toussaint L'Ouverture, now the pre-eminent leader of the revolutionary black army of St. Domingue, rallied to the side of France, driving back the Spanish in 1794 and inflicting huge losses on the British two years later.

But the radical phase of the French Revolution was near its end. The French bourgeoisie had never supported an end to slavery. Its goal had always been a prosperous colonial system fueled by slave labour. In 1799, it threw in its lot with France's most prominent general, Napoleon Bonaparte, judging a military dictatorship run by Bonaparte a small price to pay in order to repress the poor, boost profits, restore slavery and rebuild the colonial system. France's swing back to a racist colonial policy based on slavery shattered the alliance with Toussaint L'Ouverture. Before 1799 had drawn to a close, Toussaint broke with France and took the first steps toward independence. Still, he hoped for a negotiated settlement - and this was to be his downfall. Despite holding the military initiative, Toussaint agreed in April 1802 to negotiations with Bonaparte's brother-in-law, Leclerc. Shortly thereafter he was arrested and shipped to France where he would die in a dungeon in April 1803.


Meanwhile, having officially declared the restoration of slavery, France now tried full-blooded terror in St. Domingue. "You will have to exterminate all the blacks in the mountains, women as well as men, except for children under twelve," Leclerc urged Napoleon. "Wipe out half the population of the lowlands and do not leave in the colony a single black who has worn an epaulette." French forces imported 1500 dogs to hunt down blacks and proceeded to drown people en masse. They chained 16 of Toussaint's 17 generals to a rock where they wasted away. They burned and murdered. Still, Toussaint's remaining forces fought heroically. But, as James remarks, it was not the army that defeated the French. "It was the people. They burned San Domingo flat." Unprepared for a war in which a people would rather burn their own land than return to slavery, the French bogged down, losing more men every day. Before they withdrew,

30,000 had died in a futile effort to reconquer the liberated slaves of St. Domingue.

Having vanquished three colonial armies, and suffered betrayal by France, Toussaint's former general, Dessalines, proclaimed the independence of the new state of Haiti on January 1, 1804. It was the second independent state in the Americas to be ushered in by an anti-colonial revolution. More importantly, it was the first to abolish slavery. And in its first 20 years, it inspired a wave of black uprisings, particularly in Cuba, the United States, Brazil and Jamaica.

From the beginning, however, the new state was deeply flawed. Those capable of creating an army often absorb the authoritarian habits of military discipline. Yet, no vibrant and viable democracy can thrive on the giving and receiving of orders. Toussaint himself had often erred in this regard, instituting military discipline over labourers for instance. But Dessalines took this to the extreme, declaring himself Emperor of Haiti and becoming the first in a long line of authoritarian leaders modeled more on Napoleon than on the struggles of enslaved Africans for their freedom.

Legacy Of Imperialism

Of course, imperial powers bear the primary responsibility for the misery to which the Haitian people have been subjected throughout their history. After 1804, they isolated the fledgling state, punishing it economically and diplomatically. In the forefront of this was the United States whose leaders, particularly Thomas Jefferson, feared the example Haiti represented to enslaved African-Americans. Then, in the 20th century, America turned to invasions, occupations and pro-US dictatorships. The cumulative effect has been to render Haiti the most impoverished nation in the western hemisphere.

The working class movements in the global North also bear a responsibility for the hardship that has befallen the Haitian people. While the most militant sections of the labouring poor of France and Britain rallied to the cause of the Haitian rebels in the 1790s - creating a rare solidarity between Northern workers and the racially oppressed masses of the global South - western labour movements have all too often been complicit with racism and colonialism. Still, against all these odds, and despite crushing poverty and military repression, the Haitian people have never relinquished the spirit of resistance. In their midst are courageous left-wing activists who know they are the heirs of a powerful revolutionary tradition, one which has yet to speak its final words. These brave descendants of Toussaint L'Ouverture are privy to a profound secret: that slaves can overturn their masters, and that the wretched of the earth can defeat imperial armies. Despite two centuries of suppression and distortion, these secrets continue to find eager ears in barrios, factory quarters and guerilla encampments.

Two hundred years after the declaration of Haitian independence, we need to pay tribute to the magnificent freedom fighters of 1791-1804. The poet Pablu Neruda offers a moving tribute in a poem in memory of Toussaint L'Ouverture. While acknowledging the "pathetic petals" that the garden of the Haitian revolution now brings forth, and remembering the sad image of Toussaint dying in a French dungeon, Neruda insisted that all is far from lost:

But on the Island the cliffs burn,

hidden branches speak,

hopes are transmitted,

the bastion's walls rise up,

Freedom is your forest,

dark brother,

preserve your memory of suffering,

and let heroes of the past

safekeep your magic foam

In safekeeping the memory of the self-liberating slaves of St. Domingue, we cultivate the seeds of a different future.

David McNally is a member of the New Socialist Group and on the Editorial Board of the New Socialist.