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This Day in Labor History: August 21, 1791



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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  • Pseudonym


    Interesting stuff. Apparently (according to Wikipedia) Andrew Johnson wanted to annex Haiti, and U.S. Marines actually occupied it from 1915-1934. Any plans to follow up with a post-1862 history?

    And most importantly, when are you coming out with the “This Day in Labor History” desk calendar?

    • Jordan

      Interesting quote from the state department’s synopsis of American involvement in that time period:

      “In 1914, the Wilson administration sent U.S. Marines into Haiti. They removed $500,000 from the Haitian National Bank in December of 1914 for safe-keeping in New York, thus giving the United States control of the bank.”

      uh huh.

      • Ahuitzotl

        I wouldn’t mind removing $500,000 from the Bank of America for safekeeping in an undisclosed location. But I wouldn’t want to take control of BoA.

  • nasser

    Awesome post! Too few people know about the Haitian Revolution and Haiti’s subsequent torture at the hands of the U.S. and France. And the horrible and negligent behavior continues to this day – $500 million of Red Cross aid to Haiti to help with the 2010 earthquake recovery basically disappeared.

    • ThrottleJockey

      Do we really think that France’s behavior over a century ago is to blame for Haiti’s predicament now? Many African countries have progressed further since their independence than Haiti has during those same decades.

      • Bitter Scribe

        Haiti has problems now because God cursed the Haitians for rebelling against their rightful white masters. Or something. Just ask Pat Robertson.

      • Yankee

        Well Columbus was Italian and working for Spain, so there’s that.

      • cpinva

        “Do we really think that France’s behavior over a century ago is to blame for Haiti’s predicament now?”

        do you really think, that by intentionally leaving out a big part of Haitian history, and its long-term, disastrous effects on the country, that the rest of us would also?

        yes, yes you probably did. go back, read Prof. Loomis’ post slowly, using all of your powers of comprehension while doing so, then answer your own question.

      • Ahuitzotl

        Actually, yes, but (as Erik says), not just that. Two hundred years of that shit has had an enormous impact, especially ecologically on the quality of land (and essentially the cultivatability of the land is Haiti’s primary resource).

    • dr. fancypants

      And the nasty cholera outbreak that the UN caused, and only just acknowledged responsibility for. This despite the fact that people in the scientific/healthcare community definitively tied the Haiti outbreak to the UN contingent years ago (the cholera strain matched the one that had most recently been in Nepal, indicating that the Nepalese soldiers brought it over).

  • Thom

    Thanks for this post, Erik. I would add that my impression is that the revolutionary legislature in Paris was moved to abolish slavery (an abortion that was reversed under Napoleon) very much because the Saint-Domingue slaves had already liberated themselves.

    • Thom

      Oops, abolition (fucking auto-complete).

  • Bleeding Heart of Texas

    Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcast gives a great overview of the Haitian revolution. The whole Revolutions series (English, American, French, Haitian, and Bolivarean revolutions) is fantastic, but I found the Haitian episodes especially interesting. Probably because I knew so little about it. Which isn’t surprising given the shameful treatment of Haiti throughout it’s history.

    • Ramon A. Clef

      I clicked through to post the same recommendation. I have enjoyed all of Duncan’s podcasts, from the beginning of The History of Rome on up. Solid work, every time.

    • Ahuitzotl

      Shit. I might have to break my iron rule about not listening to podcasts, and give ear to that series.

  • DrDick

    And this quite nicely highlights the brutal and bloody foundations of capitalism, nicely documented by Sidney Mintz in Sweetness and Power.

    • Eric Williams’ sweeping claims about sugar profits and the industrial revolution haven’t stood up to close scrutiny, but I still think he had a point. My grad school mentor, Russell Menard, thought so and had us all read him.

      • Thom

        I agree, he had a point about profits. The other part of his thesis, the claim that the sugar islands were not profitable at the time of the British abolition of the slave trade, was thoroughly refuted by Seymour Drescher in Econocide.

        • The Dark God of Time

          From Columbus to Castro: A History of the Caribbean by Eric Williams has all the data one need to see the profitability of the sugar industry, year by year, from each island.

      • DrDick

        Sugar, tobacco, and cacao were part of it, as were furs and deer skins, but so was the huge amount of gold, silver, and precious gems extracted from the Spanish colonies with Indian slave labor.

        • cpinva

          which is why so many of the Spanish ships that sank en route back to Spain, had holds filled with fortunes in cargo. it’s almost a given, in the treasure hunting world, that finding the final resting place of a merchant Spanish Galleon, is nearly a 100% guarantee of making a fortune in the present.

  • Dudeist Tech Support

    Isn’t it more true to say that the French government didn’t sell the Louisiana territory to the United States, but rather it’s claim to it? The US government continued to pay the actual Native Americans who lived on the land for decades afterwards (though it is somewhat common knowledge that it also habitually violated the resulting agreements).

  • LeeEsq

    Nothing substantive to add but everybody should read Laurent DuBois’ comprehensive two volume history of Haiti. The first volume covers the French colonial period and the revolution. The second volume goes up to the Port-Au-Prince earthquake.

    • (((Hogan)))

      C. L. R. James’s The Black Jacobins is quite good.

      • AcademicLurker

        That was one of the texts in my Revolutionary and Napoleonic Europe class in college. My first introduction to both the Haitian revolution and to C.L.R. James.

  • kmeyer57

    Read the first volume, titled Avengers of the New World. Highly recommend it. I’ll have to get the second.

  • Bruce Vail

    I’ll need to look it up, but I seem to recall reading somewhere that President Andrew Johnson wanted to improve relations with Haiti because he thought it would be a good place to dump all those troublesome freed slaves.

  • Lurker

    I would, by the way, posit that while Haiti is the only successful slave rebellion in history, Sweden is the only successful peasant revolt. Essentially, Gustavus Vasa took the lead of a peasant revolt, and by actually making a pretension to the throne, gave it an air of international legitimacy.

    • AMK

      I could be wrong, but I remember reading that the Ming dynasty in China was the product of a successful peasant revolt.

      • Ahuitzotl

        Also the Lulin Revolt; the Red Turban rebellion; the fall of the Sui dynasty I think?; the overthrow of the rule of the Teutonic knights?

        oh, and Eritrea of course

  • AMK

    I recall reading somewhere that after his reconquest of the island failed, at one point Napoleon seriously considered offering an alliance to the Haitians based on a joint French/Haitian invasion of North America. The Haitians would get to free the southern slaves and the French would get their new American empire. That would have really scrambled history.

    • It’s hard to believe no one has written that alternative history.

  • LeeEsq

    Its a different country but does anybody know of a good general history of Jamaica. The ones I can find via Amazon are either out of date or from my perspective horribly written. I’m mainly talking about the Story of the Jamaican People for the latter.

  • Joe

    Mike did a great job on Haiti. For those who are already familiar with the revolution proper, just listen to his final wrap-up episode, where he talks about all the other crap Haiti has had to endure from every white-run country on earth

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