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This Day in Labor History: August 21, 1791

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On August 21, 1791, the Haitian Revolution began. The largest and by far the most successful slave rebellion in world history, the Haitian Revolution transformed world history, foiling French imperial aims, leading to the expansion of the United States, placing fear into the hearts of slaveholders across the Western Hemisphere, and exposing the limits of the republican rhetoric of the Enlightenment. It’s also a story of the incredible bravery of the slaves themselves.

Immediately upon arrival in Hispaniola in 1492, Christopher Columbus instituted a forced labor system. This is the model Europeans sought from the very beginning. That island quickly became a center of colonial slavery, with populations brought over from Africa after indigenous peoples who the Spanish preferred to enslave died from disease. Between 1492 and 1494, one-third of the indigenous population died. Slaves always fought back, an important point not made often enough. As early as 1519, a slave rebellion took place there with both African and indigenous people rising up in revolt. Thousands of slaves started maroon communities during the colonial period, hidden from Spanish or French forces by the isolation of their camps deep within forests, mountains, and swamps.

In 1697, the French won the western half of Hispaniola from the Spanish. Soon it would become among the richest colonies in the world thanks to the sugar grown by slaves. It also became a huge coffee producer, producing 60% of the world’s coffee in 1789. But conditions for those slaves were utterly brutal. The enormous amounts of money in the sugar trade made it worse, because the labor costs to buy new slaves, while high for a Virginia tobacco farmer, was almost nothing for these sugar barons. They brought slaves from Africa and just worked them to death. These plantations were effectively death camps. Half of African slaves died within three years. Probably 1 million slaves died in Haiti during the period of French rule. If a slave ate some sugar cane, the slave would have to wear a tin muzzle while working.

There was a lot of discontent toward the French government in what was then known as Saint Dominigue by the 1780s. It was a tremendously wealthy colony. But the white population of about 40,000, influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment and the American Revolution, were chafing at the centralization projects of Paris, including heavy import taxes. There were about 30,000 free blacks in Haiti, of which about one-half were mulattoes. Finally and most importantly, there were the 500,000 slaves whose labor created the wealth in the colony. In May 1791, the free blacks started a revolt when the island’s whites refused to acknowledge the French revolutionary decision to grant citizenship to free people of color, but it was the August slave revolt that targeted white slave owners that really brought Haiti to independence.

The slave revolt began with a signal from voudou priest Dutty Boukman on August 14, giving slaves a week to prepare. Within a few weeks 100,000 slaves had revolted. Quickly though, the revolution’s leader became Toussaint L’Overture, an ex-slave who was likely the son of a tribal king from modern Benin who had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. L’Overture was freed in 1776 after his master allowed him to acquire an education. He became fairly wealthy himself. When the rebellion started in the north of the island, he was not involved, but he soon helped cement an alliance between the rebels and the Spanish in Santo Domingo. By 1792, L’Overture and his ex-slave troops controlled 1/3 of the nation. The French Revolution of course was happening at the same time. In 1794, the French abolished slavery throughout its colonies, but even earlier than this, L’Overture had invaded Santo Domingo in order to end slavery there. But by the time the rebellion ended, 100,000 of the island’s 500,000 slaves were dead, as well as 24,000 of the 40,000 whites. In 1801, he led troops to conquer Santo Domingo and ended slavery there when he succeeded.

The slave force had no hope to defeat the French in a decisive battle. But they did have a secret weapon: mosquitoes. When the French had first colonized the Caribbean, yellow fever did not exist there. But it soon migrated over from Africa. Europeans simply could not resist the diseases from these mosquitoes. In fact, effective European colonization of American tropics largely ended because of the migration of yellow fever. Malaria and especially yellow fever overwhelmed the French forces. The Haitians could just wait them out. Napoleon sent 43,000 troops to Haiti to retake the island and institute slavery. Those troops did capture L’Overture. He was sent back to France as a prisoner, where he died in 1803. But disease quickly ravaged those troops. Jean-Jacques Dessalines took over as the leader of the rebellion and defeated remnant French forces at Battle of Vertieres on November 18, 1803. This led Napoleon to come to terms and give up his dream of an American empire. He then sold his North American lands to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. Meanwhile, Dessalines declared the nation of Haiti on January 1, 1804. France was the first nation to recognize its independence, although France also ensured long-term Haitian poverty by demanding incredibly high reparations beginning in 1825, when French warships showed in Haiti and forced the government to agree, effectively dooming it to long-term poverty.

The United States found Haiti an anathema. It believed in republicanism–so long as it only applied to white people. A slave rebellion? Well, this became an object lesson for southern planters, for whom this was their worst nightmare. This was literally their greatest fear and they spent the next 74 years talking about how to prevent it. When the British helped slaves escape during the War of 1812, when Denmark Vesey got angry that his church was being repressed, when Nat Turner revolted, when slaves played drums in the forests at night, slavers dreamed of the slaves rising up to massacre them in their beds. Given southern domination of the American politics through most of its history but especially before the Civil War due to the 3/5 Compromise, they made sure Haiti remained a highly isolated and impoverished nation. The U.S. forced it into international isolation and refused to recognize Haiti until 1862.

Today, due to many factors, but largely to this international isolation and enforced extreme poverty in its early decades, Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and one of the poorest in the world today. The French at the very least owe Haiti reparations today.

This is the 188th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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