Causes of the Haitian Revolution erupts into violence at Cap-Francais

The causes of the Haitian Revolution were the combination of economic, social, and political tensions that had been building up on the island of Hispaniola for many years. 

The French colony of Saint-Domingue was one of the most prosperous in the Caribbean, due to the forced labor of enslaved Africans who worked on plantations producing sugar, coffee, and tobacco. Enslaved Africans outnumbered whites by a ratio of nine to one, and they were subject to brutal working conditions and constant abuse. Many attempted to escape, but those who were caught were often tortured or killed. 

In 1791, a group of enslaved Africans staged a rebellion, which quickly spread throughout the colony. After several years of fighting, the rebels were able to defeat the French forces and establish an independent state. The Haitian Revolution was one of the largest slave rebellions in history, and it had a profound impact on the development of other countries in the Americas.

Social Structure of French Saint-Domingue

Prior to the Haitian Revolution, Haiti was a French colony known as Saint-Domingue. One of the jewels of the French Empire, Saint-Domingue filled the coffers of wealthy planters both on the island and back in Europe. But, just like the American South, these planters weren’t doing the dirty work themselves. 

To produce the immense amounts of sugar, coffee, indigo, cocoa, and tobacco the colony became known for, Saint-Domingue relied on slave labor. In fact, in 1789, the total population of Saint-Domingue came to about 556,000. Of that, 500,000 were slaves.

As in other European colonies, this reliance on slave labor created a highly stratified social system based on (mostly) race and wealth. Over time, this system produced four distinct classes within Saint-Dominguan society: 

  • Grands blancs: At the top of Saint-Domingue’s social structure sat the grands blancs. They were the wealthy planters who owned large plantations and thousands of slaves. 
  • Petits blancs: On the rung below the grands blancs planter class came the petitis blancs. What we may today call the middle class, the petits blancs were often skilled laborers and artisans. The more well-to-do among them may have owned a few slaves, but, in general, members of the petits blancs never struck it rich.
  • Affranchis: Perhaps the strangest position in this social hierarchy was filled by the affranchis, or free people of color. Either former slaves who had bought their freedom or otherwise been emancipated by their former owner, or the children of grands blancs men and slave women, free people of color typicall faired well for themselves. Many even earned better livings than the petits blancs and some even owned slaves themselves. Eager to distinguish themselves from the enslaved populations, they spoke French, rather than Creole, and dressed in the latest European fashion.
  • Slaves: Though some people were born into servitude in Saint-Domingue, many more were imported from West Africa each year. The Caribbean held the reputation as hell on earth for slave, and Saint-Domingue proved no differnt. Whether they worked in sugar mills, in the fields, or elsewhere, malnutrition, disease, and starvation were not uncommon among the slave poplution. Some managed to escape their bondage and form maroon societies in the mountains of the island’s interior.

The Aristocratic Rebellion

Strange as it may sound, the first rumblings of rebellion in Saint-Domingue did not come from the slaves or affrachis. Instead, the grands blancs, the people with all the money and power, decided it might be high-time to make some changes. Why? Well, more money of course!

Much like the American revolutionaries to their north, the grands blancs had grown tired of the economic restraints placed on them by their empire. Just like how the British created a monopoly for the East India Company to import tea and other goods they grew or made elsewhere in their empire, the French controlled trade to and from Saint-Domingue. In fact, the authorities in Paris required that 100% of Saint-Domingue’s exports go to France and all of its imports come from France. 

Under this system, known as the exclusif, the petits blancs felt that they were missing out on more lucrative markets. The prices set by crown officials proved super favorable to the French government. This, in turn, meant these prices came in far lower than the average for other markets in Europe and the newly formed United States.

Emboldened by the French Revolution, which began in 1789, the grands blancs sent ministers to France. Under the French monarchy, the citizens of Saint-Domingue, white or black, had never had representation in the French government. With the beginnings of a revolution and the creation of a new National Assembly, the planters of Saint-Domingue saw an opportunity to change this. 

After their arrival in Paris, however, they realized the reality of the situation. The National Assembly was becoming increasingly liberal and, thus, increasingly opposed to the institution of slavery. One member of the grands blancs’ delegation even declared that the National Assembly had become “drunk with liberty.” Despite this, the Saint-Domingue delegates did draft legislation calling for greater economic freedom and self-governance for their colony. 

Ultimately, however, it came to nothing and the grands blancs returned home, once again aligned with the monarchy. After all, they figured, it was better to lose out on a little money than have their entire workforce liberated. 

The Petits Blancs and the Assembly of Saint-Marc

Through the course of Saint-Domingue’s history, the petits blancs had come to occupy a type of middle class. While some achieved prestige and wealth as lawyers, doctors, and skilled artisans, many did not. They did, however, regularly own slaves. 

The instution of slavery in Saint-Domingue had always been divided by racial lines. Due to this racist social structure, as well as their own middle class standing, many of the petits blancs harbored fear and hatred toward the affranchis. These racist sentiments came not only from Saint-Domingue’s race-based social structure, but also that many of the affranchis, who, according to the laws and social mores of the time, were inferior, still somehow managed to make more money and better lives for themselves.

This fear and hatred boiled over in May 1790 when the revolutionary government in France declared all affranchis would have equal rights as white citizens. Determined to prevent this new decree from taking hold, white citizens of Saint-Domingue gathered in the town of Saint-Marc formed the “General Assembly of the French part of Saint-Domingue,” known more colloquially as “Saint-Marc.”

Though the assembly originally invited the planting elite of the island, many chose not attend as they had realigned themselves with the anti-revolutionary monarchists in France. The Assembly of Saint-Marc quickly decided to open Saint-Domingue’s ports to foreign shipping, flying in the face of France’s policy, and declared Saint-Domingue should be independent. 

Two months later, in July 1790, violence erupted. As government soldiers patrolled the streets of Port-au-Prince, the forces of Saint-Marc launched a surprise attack, capturing 400 men. The governmental forces reacted quickly, scattering the rebels. Following these skirmishes, the leaders of the Assembly declared that:

“all the parishes are invited to assemble immediately to revenge the murders committed at Port-au-Prince. The horrible conspiracy is at length declared; the execrable Peynier, Mauduit, Corirtard, de la Salle, etc., bathe themselves in blood.”

With both sides reeling, civil war seemed inevitable. But, for some reason, the Assembly of Saint-Marc voted to send delegates to France. On August 7, 1790, 85 members of the Assembly convinced the crew of Le Léopard to mutiny and sail to France. And, with that final act of defiance, further violence between the French regime and the Assembly of Saint-Marc was averted.

The Affranchis Demand Rights

The affranchis occupied an interesting space in Saint-Domingue’s society. They weren’t slaves, but they weren’t entirely free, either. While they could own land and property, including slaves, they were denied voices in the government of Saint-Domingue or France. On top of that, the men of the affranchis class were forced to serve in the island’s militia, called the marechausée, upon reaching adulthood. Despite the affranchis lack of political rights, contemporaries recognized the marechausée as instrumental “in carrying into execution the decisions of the law…” 

A group of affranchis people, who had their own causes of haitian revolution
Free Women of Color with their Children and Servants by Agostino Brunias

Due to this strange state of quasi freedom, the affranchis were greatly inspired by both the American and French revolutions. In fact, many had served at the Siege of Savannah alongside American soldiers as part of the forces France sent to aid the Americans. In the American Revolution, the affranchis saw an example of how colonies could rebel, overthrow a century’s old aristocracy, and yet, hypocritical or no, keep the institution of slavery in tact. 

With the outbreak of the French Revolution, they saw their chance to demand greater freedoms. Aware of the debates taking place in the General Assembly about the rights of France’s black subjects, both free and enslaved, several well-to-do members of the affranchis sailed to Paris to make their case.

These delegates found both friend and foe in the French capital. On the one hand, abolitionist societies, like the Amis des Noirs, had representatives in France’s new government and lobbied on their behalf. On the other, slave owners from both France and the Caribbean desperately opposed them, as they were weary of what giving full rights to any person of color would mean for the institution of slavery.

After months of debate, the General Assembly ended up passing a rather ambiguous new law: “all the proprietors… ought to be active citizens.” This seemed to indicate that landed affranchis had been granted full citizenship. But, due the racial lines that divided Saint-Domingue, local officials on the island refused to allow the affranchis their newly granted status.

The Ogé Rebellion

For the next seven months, tensions continued to build in Saint-Domingue. In that time, Vincnet Ogé, a wealthy member of the affranchis, returned to the colony from the debates in Paris. On his way back home, he stopped off in the United States to meet with leading abolitionists and buy guns and ammo. You know, just in case. 

Portrait of Vincent Ogé

After trying to no avail to persuade the white leaders of the colony to follow the new law, Ogé put Plan B into motion: an armed rebellion. Partnering with another prominent member of the affranchis, Jean-Baptist Chavannes, Ogé set up camp 15 miles south of Cap-Francois (now Cap-Haïtien), a wealthy port city on the northern coast. There, Ogé and Chavannes gathered a force of around 700 men. With this militia at their back, they demanded the local officials uphold their rights.

The white leaders of Saint-Domingue snapped this final olive branch. Over the next several months, the rebel forces of Ogé and Chavannes, both in the north and south of the colony, were driven into the mountains by better trained, better equipped French forces. While the rebelling affranchis held out as long as they could, by the end of 1790 the writing was on the wall. 

Knowing nothing good awaited them if they were captured by the French, Ogé and Chavannes fled to Santo Domingo, the Spanish half of the island. Ultimately, however, the rebel leaders were caught by Spanish officials and returned to French Saint-Domingue. While Ogé and Chavannes did technically stand trial before three French officials, it’s hard to believe these trials were at all fair. 

Following the trials, the two men were sentenced to death, broken on the wheel, and hanged. After their deaths, some 200 of their men were also executed. 

The Haitian Revolution Begins

In the months following the deaths of Ogé and Chavannes, France tried and failed to establish military control of the colony. This left the grands blancs, petits blancs, and affranchis vying for power. None of the three factions proved capable of defeating the others, leaving a power vacuum in Saint-Domingue for months. 

Then, on August 22, 1791, thousands of slaves rose up in revolt. Originally led by a voodoo priest named Mackendal, this rebellion would turn into what we know call the Haitian Revolution. Eventually, a well-educated slave named Touissant l’Overture would take command of the rebelling forces and turn them into a true military power. 

Touissant’s army became so good at what they did, that they even defeated the forces of Napoleon’s brother, after Napoleon had taken control of France. 

Finally, on January 1, 1804, Haiti officially won its independence from France, becoming the first black-led republic established in the modern-era.

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