Charles Forsdick, Professor of French, University of Liverpool12 March 2018
In the second half of the 18th century, Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) was France’s richest colony. Sugar, coffee, cotton and indigo produced by the enslaved population made a significant contribution to the wealth of France. Although resistance to slavery – through poisoning, infanticide and everyday acts of disruption – had long been widespread, challenges to the plantation system were violently repressed.
The French Revolution provided the context, however, for more systematic and sustained emancipation struggle. Led initially by the free people of colour of Saint-Domingue, whose aim was equality with the colony’s white inhabitants, this spread from August 1791 to a wider revolt among the enslaved black population.
A key figure in the events that would become the Haitian Revolution was Toussaint Louverture, a formerly enslaved man who would rise to the rank of Governor-General of the colony. Louverture led his armies against the British, French and Spanish, and eventually sided with France to abolish slavery – including in the neighbouring Spanish colony of Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic), which he occupied to unite the island of Hispaniola.
John Kay (1742–1826), Toussaint Louverture in A Complete Collection of the Portraits and caricatures Drawn and Engraved by John Kay Edinburgh From the year 1784 to 1813. Etching, 1802.
Louverture’s success riled Napoleon Bonaparte, who sent an expeditionary force in 1801 to reestablish French rule and restore slavery. Louverture was arrested in May 1802, and exiled in France where he died in prison the following year. Meanwhile, Louverture’s general Jean-Jacques Dessalines reignited the revolutionary struggle, defeated the French at the Battle of Vertières in November 1803, and declared Haitian independence on 1 January 1804.
Haiti became the first independent black republic in the world, and the second nation in the western hemisphere (following the USA) to gain its independence in an anti-colonial war. Unlike the American and French Revolutions, however, the struggle in Haiti was motivated by a quest for universal as opposed to selective emancipation. This aim was rooted in an inclusive understanding of human rights that extended to all, and depended on the ending of both colonial rule and enslavement.