"I was born a slave, but nature gave me the soul of a free man." Haiti's Independence in 1804

1 January 1804, Haiti became the first black republic and second independent country in North America after the United States.

“With factions, suspicions, want of bread and sugar, it is verily what they call déchiré, torn asunder this poor country: France and all that is French. For, over seas too come bad news. In black Saint-Domingo, before that variegated Glitter in the Champs Elysées was lit for an Accepted Constitution, there had risen, and was burning contemporary with it, quite another variegated Glitter and nocturnal Fulgor, had we known it: of molasses and ardent-spirits; of sugar-boileries, plantations, furniture, cattle and men: sky high; the Plain of Cap Français one huge whirl of smoke and flame! What a change here, in these two years; since that first 'Box of Tricolor Cockades' got through the Custom-house, and atrabiliar Creoles too rejoiced that there was a levelling of Bastilles! Levelling is comfortable, as we often say: levelling, yet only down to oneself. Your pale-white Creoles, have their grievances: – and your yellow Quarteroons? And your dark-yellow Mulattoes? And your Slaves soot-black? Quarteroon Ogé, Friend of our Parisian Brissotin Friends of the Blacks, felt, for his share too, that Insurrection was the most sacred of duties. So the tricolor Cockades had fluttered and swashed only some three months on the Creole hat, when Ogé's signal-conflagrations went aloft; with the voice of rage and terror. Repressed, doomed to die, he took black powder or seedgrains in the hollow of his hand, this Ogé; sprinkled a film of white ones on the top, and said to his Judges, "Behold they are white;" – then shook his hand, and said "Where are the Whites, Ou sont les Blancs?" So now, in the Autumn of 1791, looking from the sky-windows of Cap Français, thick clouds of smoke girdle our horizon, smoke in the day, in the night fire; preceded by fugitive shrieking white women, by Terror and Rumour.” (Thomas Carlyle)

Guillaume Guillon-Lethière's (1760 - 1832) allegoric imagination of
two of independent Haiti's founding fathers, Alexandre Pétion (left) and
Jean-Jacques Dessalines (right) taking "The Oath of the Ancestors" (1822)

1780, half of all the coffee and more than one third of the sugar consumed in Europe came from Saint-Domingue, Haiti’s French half. The island, known back then as Hispaniola, the other half of it was still part of the Spanish overseas empire, had evolved over a period of a hundred years from a pirate haunted backwater into the most profitable single colony of all the European powers. The success was made possible by the rigorous import of slave labour from Africa, begun by the Spanish in the 1500s after the indigenous population of about 300,000 Taíno was wiped out by force of arms, forced labour and epidemics in less than 50 years after Columbus had discovered the place in 1492. Not that the people kidnapped from Africa fared any better than the Taíno. The death rate of slaves forced to work on the sugar cane fields was appallingly high. Every second man, woman or child of the 800,000 people deported from Africa to Haiti over the 18th century died during the first five years on the island. Laws, like the “Code Noir” issued by Louis XIV, might have curbed the worst excesses of the slave-owners, but still conditions as well as the treatment of slaves were harsh. Consequently, around two thirds of 18th century Haiti’s black population was African-born, with their identity as non-slaves as well as their customs still more or less intact, unsurprisingly, syncretic religions such as Haitian Vodou developed under the circumstances as well as slave revolts on an almost yearly basis. However, these were local affairs and always put down, even though the black population of 600,000 people living in French Saint-Domingue made up 90% of the colony’s entire population. When the great revolt began in the Mother Country in 1789 though, the bizarre world of colonial Haiti was about to be turned upside down as well.

Charles Thévenin (1764 - 1830), sketch of "The insurrection of the slaves of Santo Domingo extends Paris. The free coloured men entered the Convention and calling for the abolition of slavery in the colonial empire of the Ancien Regime" (1794)

It began in the Forest of Crocodiles, the Bois Caïman. A houngan, a Vodou priest, and leader of a group of maroons, runaway slaves, named Dutty Boukman or “Book Man” to some, probably because he had attained a high level of self-education, called together other chiefs, houngans and mambos, priestesses, for a ceremony that marked the beginning of the Haitian Revolution. "The god who created the earth;“ Boukman prayed, “who created the sun that gives us light. The god who holds up the ocean; who makes the thunder roar. Our God who has ears to hear. You who are hidden in the clouds; who watch us from where you are. You see all that the white has made us suffer. The white man's god asks him to commit crimes. But the god within us wants to do good. Our god, who is so good, so just, He orders us to revenge our wrongs. It's He who will direct our arms and bring us the victory. It's He who will assist us. We all should throw away the image of the white men's god who is so pitiless. Listen to the voice for liberty that sings in all our hearts." A week later, Haiti’s Plaine-du-Nord was in flames, hundreds of “grands blancs”, the plantation owners and “petits blancs“, the lower orders, were brutally killed, along with Boukman, who died fighting the well-armed colonials. But a new leader arose pretty soon, Toussaint Louverture, who led the slaves to conquer the whole of Saint-Domingue until 1799. Meanwhile, back home in revolutionary France, events came famously thick and fast. Basically, abolition of slavery in the colonies was on the agenda of many factions, few were serious and consequent about it though, and not only because of the economic consequences for raw material extraction and food production in the colonies. Nevertheless, slavery was abolished after 1794 and for a while Toussaint Louverture fought as a French Brigadier until he saw himself forced to turn against the colonial overlords again during a period of continuously changing allegiances with the Spanish and British regularly muscling in and tens of thousands died, of violence, disease and hunger. And then Napoleon and the Peace of Amiens came.

"Burning of Cape Français. General revolt of the Blacks. Massacre of the Whites.", Frontispiece from the book Saint-Domingue, ou Histoire de Ses Révolutions. ca. 1815

was not exactly a top priority in Napoleon’s agenda. Reclaiming the profits of the former colony of Saint Domingue was, though, up to the point that he rather sold Louisiana to the young United States than accept an independent Haiti. And while Louverture had liberated the slaves in the Spanish part of the island as well, issued a constitution and appointed himself Governor for life, Napoleon was free to give his brother-in-law Leclerc his marching orders for Haiti. He arrived with 6,000 crack troops and naval support and fought Louverture to a standstill. General Toussaint L'Ouverture, the man who had led the greatest slave revolt since Spartacus and put the fear of God into slaveholders throughout the New World, surrendered himself, was shipped to France and died in prison, a couple of months after Leclerc himself succumbed to Yellow Fever in Haiti. Leclerc’s express command to reinstate slavery had leaked, though, and when war broke out again in Europe in May 1803, the Royal Navy quickly isolated the French troops stationed in Haiti, those that had not yet died of various tropical diseases, and the island was up in arms again, this time under Louverture’s lieutenant Dessalines. He defeated the last French army, just 2,000 exhausted men under the Vicomte de Rochambeau, in November 1803. Independence from France was declared and Dessalines proclaimed himself Emperor in September 1804, a year before Napoleon crowned himself. The new Emperor of Haiti was murdered two years later by his officers and while the country staggered between massacres, general terror, state slavery and a quite sensible foreign policy that seemed to lead to a slow but steady recovery, Haiti’s back was broken when, in 1825, France forced the young nation to pay and absurdly high sum in reparations for territory and property lost during the revolution. Payment continued until 1947 and the island has not yet recovered from the blow.

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