The Haitian Revolution (1791-1804):  A Different Route to Emancipation


Copyright 2003  Prof. Jeremy Popkin, University of Kentucky (email:


Not for citation without permission


            The American Revolution of 1776 proclaimed that all men have “inalienable rights,” but the revolutionaries did not draw what seems to us the logical conclusion from this statement:  that slavery and racial discrimination cannot be justified.  The creation of the United States led instead to the expansion of African-American slavery in the southern states.  It took the Civil War of 1861-65 to bring about emancipation.


            Just when the American constitution was going into effect in 1789, a revolution broke out in France.  Like the American revolutionaries, the French immediately proclaimed that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights.”  But did this apply to the slaves in France’s overseas colonies?  The question was an important one.  Even though France’s colonies looked small on the map, the three Caribbean colonies of Saint Domingue (today’s Republic of Haiti), Guadeloupe and Martinique contained almost as many slaves as the thirteen much larger American states (about 700,000).  Saint Domingue was the richest European colony in the world.  It was the main source of the sugar and coffee that had become indispensable to “civilized” life in Europe. 


            The French slave colonies had a very different social structure from the slave states of the American South.  The white population in the largest colony, Saint Domingue, numbered only 30,000 in 1789.  In the United States, non-whites were almost always put in the same class as black slaves, but in the French colonies, many whites had emancipated their mixed-race children, creating a class of “free coloreds” that numbered 28,000 by 1789.  The free coloreds were often well educated and prosperous; members of this group owned about 1/3 of the slaves in the colony.  They also made up most of the island’s militia, responsible for keeping the slaves under control.


Black slaves heavily outnumbered both the whites and the free coloreds, however:  there were 465,000 of them in Saint Domingue by 1789.  About half of the slaves had been born in Africa.  Slaves were imported from many regions in West Africa.  They brought some traditions and beliefs with them, but they had to adapt to a very different environment in the Caribbean.  Newly arrived slaves had to learn a common language, creole, a dialect of French.  Out of elements of African religions and Christianity they evolved a unique set of beliefs, vodou, which gave them a sense of identity. 


Many early supporters of the French Revolution were uncomfortably aware of the role that slavery played in France’s colonies.  Some of them formed a group called the Société des Amis des Noirs (“Society of the Friends of Blacks”), which discussed plans for gradual abolition of slavery, the ending of the slave trade, and the granting of rights to educated free colored men from the colonies.


            Like white plantation-owners in the American South, slaveowners in the French colonies participated actively in the French Revolution.  They demanded liberty for themselves: above all, the liberty to decide how their slaves and the free people of color in their colonies should be treated.  The slaves were their hard-earned property, they argued, and a fair-minded government could not even consider taking them away.  If the French National Assembly took up the issue of slavery, the colonial plantation-owners threatened to imitate their neighbors to the north and launch a movement for independence, or else to turn their colonies over to the British, France’s traditional enemies.  The slaveowners also violently denounced the Société des Amis des Noirs, accusing it of stirring up the slaves and the free colored populations in the colonies.


            The French revolutionaries, many of whom had money invested in the colonial economy, took these issues seriously.  A well-funded lobbying group backed by the plantation-owners, the Club Massiac, spread pro-slavery propaganda and convinced the National Assembly to guarantee that no changes would be made in the slave system without the consent of the whites in the colonies.  Initially, representatives of the colonial free colored population, many of whom owned slaves themselves, had hoped that the whites might be willing to reach an agreement with them and form a common front against the slaves.  Most colonial whites, however, feared that granting political rights to people who were partly descended from slaves would undermine racial hierarchy and lead eventually to the abolition of the slave system. 


            The free coloreds, many of whom had been educated in France, did have some supporters in the French National Assembly and in the Société des Amis des Noirs.  They were very frustrated when planter opposition kept the National Assembly from granting them equal rights with the whites.  In October 1790, a free colored leader, Vincent Ogé, returned to Saint Domingue from France and led an armed uprising.  He did not try to gain support among the slaves, and his movement was quickly crushed by the trained white troops on the island.  Ogé and his followers were executed in a particularly cruel manner.  When news of the executions reached France, the National Assembly blamed the colonists for their severity and passed a decree granting rights to a minority of the free colored population.  The revolutionaries were beginning to move away from unswerving support for the whites in the colonies.


            Before this split could grow, however, the white colonists in Saint Domingue found themselves facing a much more serious danger.  On the night of 21-22 August 1791, a coordinated slave revolt broke out in the north of the island, the area of the largest plantations.  Black slaves massacred their masters, and set fire to plantation buildings.  At the same time, a separate rebellion started among the free coloreds in the west of Saint Domingue. 


            Although the revolts did great damage, the whites kept control of the colony’s major cities.  They were sure that troops would eventually arrive from France and put down the rebellions.  Initially, the leaders of the slave insurrection did not demand the total abolition of slavery.  Instead, they negotiated for freedom for themselves and their families, and for a system under which slaves would have worked 3 days a week for themselves and 3 days for their masters.  The whites, however, refused to make any concessions.  The free coloreds in the west and the whites in that region did negotiate an agreement, but it soon fell apart.


            By the fall of 1792, French troops had succeeded in regaining control of most of the island.  But the French and the whites in the colony were becoming increasingly divided among themselves about the French Revolution.  In France, the king, Louis XVI, was overthrown in August 1792, and a new, more radical assembly, the National Convention, was elected.  When this news reached Saint Domingue, it split the white population.  The radical revolutionaries in France sent a commissioner, Sonthonax, to take charge of the island, but most whites refused to obey him.  Sonthonax began to seek support among the free coloreds, insisting that they should have the same rights as whites.  In June 1793, white forces opposed to the Revolution and the granting of rights to people of color tried to seize control of the island’s main city, Cap Français.  Outnumbered, Sonthonax made a radical move:  he called on the black insurrectionaries to attack the city, promising that slaves who fought on the side of the Revolution would be freed.  This allowed him to defeat the whites, although Cap Français was burned down in the fighting.  In August 1793, Sonthonax extended his abolition decree to cover the entire slave population.


            The leaders of the black revolt that had begun in 1791 were still distrustful of Sonthonax and the French.  They feared that the National Convention might not support Sonthonax’s emancipation decree.  The white planters had also not given up the fight.  Some of them encouraged the British and Spanish to send forces to Saint Domingue.  Others sent deputies to France who managed to convince many supporters of the Revolution that Sonthonax was trying to set up his own dictatorship in the island.


            The National Convention eventually realized that the white colonists’ deputies had misled them.  On Feb. 4, 1794, the Convention took a decisive step:  France became the first European country to officially outlaw slavery in all its colonies.  A black and a mixed-race deputy from Saint Domingue were seated in the Convention, another first in European history.  While this measure marked a breakthrough for the abolition movement, it was not passed entirely on idealistic grounds.  The British had already captured the French colony of Martinique.  They were poised to take over Guadeloupe, and they threatened to conquer Saint Domingue as well, if Sonthonax could not rally the blacks to his side.  France thus had little to lose by granting emancipation in the Caribbean.  Significantly, the abolition decree was never applied in the two small French slave colonies in the Indian Ocean, which were not threatened by the British.  Some revolutionaries hoped that the proclamation would set off slave revolts in other countries’ colonies, thereby helping France in its war against them.


            Since the start of the insurrection in 1791, several black generals had emerged as leaders of the movement fighting the French and the whites in Saint Domingue.  Most of them had allied with France’s enemies, England and Spain, and some had sold slaves to the Spanish to raise money for their troops.  Even the news of the French emancipation proclamation did not persuade most of these generals to change sides.


            One of the black leaders did rally to the French side in early 1794, however.  His name was Toussaint de Bréda; in 1794, he began to call himself Toussaint Louverture (“Toussaint the Opening, or the Way”).  Originally a slave, Toussaint had been freed before the Revolution and at one time owned a small plantation with 15 slaves.  He does not seem to have been among the earliest supporters of the 1791 uprising, but he joined it soon afterward and was quickly recognized for his military and political skills.  By 1794, he had built up the best-organized and most effective military unit on the island.  When he decided to join Sonthonax and the French republicans in May 1794, the military balance soon shifted in their favor.


            By the summer of 1794, the combined forces of Toussaint and the French had regained the upper hand in Saint Domingue, although the British continued to hold part of the island until 1798.  Toussaint had received the rank of general in the French forces.  During this period, he steadily increased his power at the expense of a series of French generals and political figures sent to govern the island.  He also outmaneuvered the leaders of the free coloreds and rival black commanders.  Toussaint conducted secret negotiations with the British that led to their withdrawal from Saint Domingue in 1798; he also had contacts with the United States government, which was then involved in a virtual war with France and was happy to undermine French control over their colonies. 


            Historians disagree about what Toussaint was aiming at during these years.  Some think he already intended to create an independent country; others believe he was hoping for an arrangement in which Saint Domingue would remain a French colony, but with a government of its own, chosen by all its citizens, regardless of race.  Toussaint was aware that, as revolutionary fervor in France was dying down, some politicians were calling for the restoration of slavery in the colonies; he had no intention of letting that happen.  But he needed French support against the British, and so he played a complicated game and kept his real goals unclear.


            Toussaint did hope to restore Saint Domingue’s economy.  Although he assured the black population that there would be no return to slavery, he insisted that most former slaves had to return to their plantations and resume field work.  They would now be paid and have more free time, but they were still not free to leave or to become independent farmers on their own land.  Toussaint needed the income from the large plantations to support his army.  To ensure the loyalty of his officers, he gave many of them large estates.  Toussaint thus began to create a black-dominated society, but one with a large gap between the ruling elite and the mass of the population.


            Toussaint made a point of including some people of mixed race and even some whites in his ruling elite, but he did not allow them any independent authority.  In 1799-1800, he fought a bloody war against the remaining leaders of the mixed-race group, who had taken control of much of the west and south of Saint Domingue during the earlier fighting.  In 1801, he crushed a rebellion by one of his closest followers, Moyse, who had favored dividing land more evenly among the former slaves.


            By this time, a new ruler had taken over France:  Napoleon Bonaparte.  Toussaint quickly sensed that this determined and authoritarian leader would not be likely to tolerate a largely autonomous government in what Napoleon still regarded as a French colony.  While sending messages designed to win Napoleon’s favor, Toussaint also oversaw the drafting of a constitution for Saint Domingue that would make the island virtually independent. 


            Napoleon considered various plans for France’s colonies during his first years of power.  Among other ideas, he even thought of employing Toussaint and his black troops to create a large French empire in Louisiana.  As long as he was still at war with the British, he could not do much about Saint Domingue because the British Navy prevented French ships from sailing to the Caribbean.  In late 1801, however, Britain and France made peace.  Napoleon immediately began preparations to send military forces to regain control of Saint Domingue and France’s other Caribbean colonies.  These efforts succeeded in Martinique, where slavery had never been abolished, and in Guadeloupe, where it was restored with great bloodshed in 1802.


            The French military expedition to Saint Domingue, commanded by General Leclerc, arrived in early 1802.  Surprisingly, Toussaint did not immediately call for all-out resistance.  The French were able to occupy the island’s major port cities, and Toussaint’s leading military commanders, particularly his right-hand man General Dessalines, went over to the French side.  Toussaint himself withdrew to his plantation; in June 1802, the French arrested him and shipped him to France, where he died in prison in 1803.


            While Toussaint and his generals submitted to the French, much of the former slave population did not.  By the fall of 1802, it had become clear that the French were not just trying to regain control of the island but also meant to bring back slavery, as they had in Guadeloupe.  But the French were losing large numbers of men in guerrilla fighting; even more were falling victim to yellow fever, which killed General Leclerc himself.  Dessalines and other generals now resumed fighting against the French.  When war between Britain and France began again in May 1803, the French troops were cut off from supplies and reinforcements.  By the end of the year, the French commander Rochambeau was forced to surrender and agree to withdraw from the island. 


            The fighting in 1802-1803 was extremely brutal.  The French troops committed many atrocities in their attempt to bring the island under control and restore slavery.  In response, blacks killed many of the whites who had remained in Saint Domingue.  At the end of December 1803, General Dessalines proclaimed the independence of the former colony, giving it a new name derived from the original Indian inhabitants:  Haiti. 


            The success of the Haitian Revolution sent shock waves throughout the slave societies of the New World.  For the first time in the history of the New World, a slave revolt had culminated in the total defeat of white forces.  Although he died before Haitian independence was achieved, Toussaint Louverture’s story became a legend:  a black former slave had shown that he could defeat the best white generals and outwit the most skillful white politicians.  Haiti became the first former European colony where people of color succeeded in overturning slavery and racial inequality.  Memories of the Haitian Revolution have continued to influence movements for liberation for the past two centuries.


            At the same time, however, Toussaint Louverture left a troubled legacy to Haiti’s black population.  The very inegalitarian society he created, based on rule by a military caste, left a lasting imprint on the country’s social structure.  In addition, he did not succeed in overcoming the divisions between the lighter-skinned descendants of the mulatto or mixed-race group and the mass of the population.  Conflicts between these two groups have marked much of Haiti’s subsequent history. 


Haiti has also had a long struggle to overcome the hostility of the outside world.  The United States did not even recognize Haiti as a sovereign nation until 1862, and many Haitians still have bad memories of the long period of American military occupation from 1915 to 1934.  Popular images of Haiti in the United States have been strongly influenced by sensationalistic books and movies about vodou; only in recent years have anthropologists and scholars in religious studies begun to take a more serious interest in this aspect of Haitian culture. 


Despite Haiti’s small size, the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804 was a major event in world history.  It posed the question of what it would mean if people of color insisted that the promises of freedom made by the American and French Revolutions also applied to them.  The Haitian Revolution was the forerunner of modern anticolonial movements in the Third World. 


Historians of race relations in United States history have much to learn from the Haitian Revolution.  Slave revolts in the United States did not succeed, but the Haitian example shows that their failure was not inevitable.  Toussaint Louverture and his supporters demonstrated that blacks were capable of defeating white armies and setting up a functioning government.  Between 1798 and 1802, Saint Domingue under Toussaint’s rule offered a glimpse of the possibility that a New World slave society could be transformed into a genuinely multi-racial community. 


On the other hand, the example of Saint Domingue shows that it took special conditions for a slave revolt to succeed in the New World.  Slaves outnumbered whites in Saint Domingue by more than 10 to 1.  Even so, their superior military technology enabled the whites to control the colony until the French Revolution divided the whites among themselves and turned the mixed-race population against them.  Toussaint’s success also depended heavily on his ability to play the different white powers against each other.  At crucial moments in his career, he benefited from support from the Spanish, the British, and the Americans.  Understanding the conditions that allowed the Haitian Revolution to succeed helps us understand what factors allowed the white slaveowners of the American South to keep power for so long.


Source Readings


French Attitudes Toward Africans and Slavery on the Eve of the French Revolution (1789) (two citations from Pruneau de Pommegorge, Description de la Nigrité (1789))


“If religion did not teach us beyond any doubt that we are all descendants of a single man, one would certainly believe that, just as he did with dogs and parrots, God created several species of men at the same time.” (59)


 “By what right do we permit ourselves to take men like ourselves away from their homeland?  To cause massacres and continual wars there?  To separate mothers from their children, husbands from their wives?  To cause those who are too old to be sold to be massacred… in front of their children, because of our lust to buy these unfortunates?”



The First Mention of Toussaint in a French Document (1792)


“At the Time of so hazardous an Occurrence as this was, Toussaint, of Breda, Biassou’s Aid de Camp [Biassou was one of the rebel leaders], braving all Danger, attempted to save us, though he might have been himself the Victim to this Monster’s Rage.  He represented to him, that we could not, and ought not to be thus sacrificed, without being imprisoned, and calling a Court Martial upon us.”  (Gros, An Historick Recital, of the Difference Occurrences in the Camps of Grande-Reviere… by M. Gros, 62.  Gros had been taken prisoner by the blacks during the insurrection.)


A White Combatant Describes the Behavior of a Captured Black Rebel


The anonymous French author captured a black rebel who was about to be executed.  The man told him, “’It is the Devil who gets inside this body of mine.  I am a good nigger, but against my will the Devil is too strong.’  His excuse made me laugh despite my anger, and had I been alone, I would certainly have saved him.”  The other white soldiers were less sympathetic, however, and insisted on executing the man.  “When he saw that his fate was sealed, he began to laugh, sing, and joke.  At times, however, reviling us in a furious tone, at times jeering at us in mockery.  He gave the signal himself and met death without fear or complaint.” (My Odyssey, 33-4). 


Toussaint’s First Public Appeal to the Population of Saint Domingue (1793)


“I am Toussaint Louverture.  My name is perhaps know to you.  I have undertaken to avenge you.  I want liberty and equality to reign throughout Saint Domingue.  I am working towards that end.  Come and join me, brothers, and combat by our side for the same cause.” (George Tyson, Toussaint L’Ouverture, 28)


The French General Rochambeau describes Toussaint in 1796


“Wanting to travel and to see the Africans for myself, with my own eyes, to determine whether it was possible to get them back to work after they had been so suddenly emancipated, I visited the provinces of the north and the west and I stopped for a while in Gonaives where I stayed with Toussaint Louverture.  I conferred with him, he seemed to have some ideas about how to conduct military operations…  He is religious, a friend of order, and submits to the new laws through which he obtains all the respect he desires.  He certainly has his own little ambition which he carefully tries to hide…  I don’t know if he will settle for a supporting role when he can or wants to play the leading one…  The blacks in the North worship him and I fear… that he may overawe the agents of the Directory.” [The Directory was the French republican government set up after the end of the Reign of Terror; it was overthrown by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799]. 


A French Legislator’s Explanation of the Slave Revolt (1797)


“In the midst of the general exaltation of passions caused by the Revolution, when the word liberty was in everyone’s mouths, even those of the white colonists who used it to claim tyrannical power and political independence for themselves, when the symbols of freedom were displayed everywhere, it would have been odd indeed if the blacks alone had been deaf to the sound of a word that promised them a condition so different from the one they were suffering under.  They saw the whites fighting among themselves and alienating the mulattoes.  They outnumbered the whites ten to one.  One would have to have a very poor understanding of human nature to think that, in such a situation, the blacks needed any inspiration other than this impulse that is irresistible for all living creatures…”  (Garran-Coulon, Rapport sur les Troubles de Saint-Domingue, 2:194)


A French Comment on the Slave Army (1797)


“The blacks… showed their political intelligence after the victory.  It is reported that they did not lose a man, that many of their units were better armed than the whites themselves, and that they maintained an excellently coordinated fire.”  (Garran-Coulon, 2:609)


A White Plantation-Owner Describes the Behavior of Emancipated Blacks (1799)


“They profit from their present preponderance to vex the whites, humiliate them whenever the circumstances permit, by outbursts, thefts, or insults that aren’t punished.  ‘You punished me, now I punish you!’  That is their unanimous cry.” (Descourtilz, Voyages (1809), 2:452-3)



Toussaint Justifies His Forced-Labor Program (1800)


“In order to secure our liberties, which are indispensable to our happiness, every individual must be usefully employed, so as to contribute to the public good…  Whereas, since the revolution, labourers of both sexes, then too young to be employed in the field, refuse to go to it now under pretext of freedom, spend their time in wandering about, and give a bad example to the other cultivators… I do most peremptorily order as follows: “Art. 1.  All overseers, drivers, and field-negroes are bound to observe, with exactness, submission, and obedience, their duty in the same manner as soldiers….  Art. 3 “All field-labourers, men and women, now in a state of idleness, living in towns, villages, and on other plantations than those to which they belong… are required to return immediately to their respective plantations…” (G. Tyson, Toussaint L’Ouverture, 52-3)


A French Description of Toussaint in 1801


“Toussaint, at the head of his army, is the most active and indefatigable man of whom we can form an idea…  His great sobriety, the faculty, which none but he possesses, of never reposing, the facility with which he resumes the affairs of the cabinet after most tiresome excursions, of answering daily a hundred letters, and of habitually tiring five secretaries, render him so superior to all those around him that their respect and submission are in most individuals carried even to fanaticism.  It is certain that no man, ion the present times, has obtained such an influence over a mass of ignorant people as General Toussaint possesses over his brethren in St. Domingue.”



David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution.  A general history of early movements for abolition throughout the western world.


Robin Blackburn.  The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848.  A general history of the events that led to emancipation in the New World (outside the US), emphasizing economic factors.


C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins.  The best-known history of the Haitian Revolution in English, first published in 1938.  James sees the Haitian Revolution as a black version of the revolution in France.


Thomas Ott, The Haitian Revolution, 1789-1804.  Ott’s account is especially strong on the military and diplomatic aspects of the Haitian Revolution.


Carolyn Fick, The Making of Haiti:  The Haitian Revolution from Below.  The most recent study of the Haitian Revolution in English, Fick’s book stresses the role of the ordinary slaves in the movement’s success.


David Geggus, Haitian Revolutionary Studies.  Geggus is the leading historian of the Haitian Revolution in the United States today.  This recently published volume includes essays on a number of aspects of the movement.


John D. Garrigus, “White Jacobins/Black Jacobins:  Bringing the Haitian and French Revolutions Together in the Classroom”.  French Historical Studies 23 (2000), 259-75.  An excellent bibliography of recent publications about the Haitian Revolution.


Althea de Puech Parham, ed., My Odyssey:  The first person account of a young white man from France who fought against the slave revolt.  He gives some interesting descriptions of the black fighters.


Madison Smartt Bell, All Souls’ Rising and Master of the Crossroads:  a novel series by a contemporary American author that gives a dramatic and fairly accurate picture of the Haitian Revolution.  Bell plans a third volume carrying the story down to the achievement of Haitian independence in 1804.