The success of the American and the French Revolutions echoed through the people of the new and the old world. These events, powered by the Enlightenment ideas of popular sovereignty, individual freedom, and equality, proved that parting from powerful and oppressive rulers was possible.1 For the first time in recent history, the common man had united and fought for a republic based on the idea and practice of self-rule. This idea of fighting and revolting for independence traveled to slaves on the shores of a Caribbean island where the French had established the colony of Saint-Domingue in 1697.
Saint-Domingue was perhaps one of the most profitable lands that France had in its possession since it produced and exported coffee, indigo, tobacco, cotton, and sugar. The original aboriginal population of the islands had all but disappeared by the time the French had come to the island, and to make use of the colony, the French began to import slaves from Africa to work the fields. It is estimated that by 1789, the colony had a total of 500,000 African slaves, 35,000 white French settlers, and 50,000 colored freedmen who were French citizens and who also owned slaves.2 Despite slaves being the majority of the colony’s population, they lived under a strict and abusive social structure where they worked strenuous jobs under the threat of the whip, and would often starve to death. If runaway slaves were caught, they were often tortured and mutilated in order to dissuade other slaves that there was no escape from the chains of slavery. The daily life for the slaves of Saint-Domingue was one of fear and ill treatment.
French King Louis XIV established the “Code Noir” or Black Codes for the colony, which established rules for the treatment of slaves in all of its French American colonies. The code stated that slave owners were prohibited from sexually violating slaves or from torturing them, and they were required to provide food and clothes to the slaves. Nevertheless, slaves were regarded as property and could receive the death penalty if they did not comply with their masters.3
In 1788, fourteen slaves complained to the court that Nicolas Lejuene, a slave master’s son, would burn slaves alive, and although these acts were clearly violating the law, the courts and public opinion on the Island dismissed Lejuene and he was not prosecuted.4 This incident suggests that laws were not uniformly enforced in the colony, so masters had a free hand in their often atrocious treatments of their slaves. Many slaves ran away from their oppressive masters and hid in the mountains forming large communities of maroons. Their resentment to their French masters only escalated.5
With the ideas of political independence and social revolution circulating the world, slaves in the colony of Saint-Domingue were no longer willing to endure the treatment of their French masters. Tensions in the colony led to a violent uprising. The Haitian Revolution began in August 1791, when about 15,000 slaves destroyed and burned plantations and homes, and murdered white settlers in what was called the “Night of Fire.”6 This event encouraged the educated Catholic and former slave Toussaint L’Ouverture to join the cause. He helped train an army of 50,000 slaves in guerrilla warfare.7 The colony fell into chaos for years as the slaves revolted against French oppression in violent measures, and it was not long before the colony of Saint-Domingue was controlled by the slaves of the island.8
General L’Ouverture allied with the British in order to drive out the French settlers. But unwilling to let go of their colonial power, the French emancipated slaves in 1794; but they were still unable to secure and control the Haitian revolt. By 1803, L’Ouverture had proclaimed himself the governor of the colony, angering the powerful Napoleon Bonaparte who went after L’Ouverture, capturing and imprisoning him. This, however, did not weaken the resolve of the slaves to form an independent state. As Jean-Jacques Dessalines rose to power in the absence of Toussaint L’Ouverture, he ordered the gruesome execution of all Frenchmen in the colony. A year later, in 1804, Haiti was declared independent from French power.9
The slaves of Saint-Domingue were not expected to take on the example of the American colonies and the Enlightenment Era in order to fight for their independence. After the gory and terrible deaths of almost half the population in the colony–including French settlers, free black men and slaves–Haiti stood tall and free, shocking the world.10