Friday, April 21, 2017

Early History of the Haitian Revolution

There was great social stratification in Haiti before the Haitian Revolution. In 1789, Haiti produced 60% of the world’s coffee, and 40% of the world’s sugar (which was imported by the French and the British). It was the most profitable possession of the French empire. Saint-Domingue was also the wealthiest and most financially prosperous colony for the imperialists. The plantation owners were very brutal. In 1789, there were 40,000 white people in Haiti, there were 28,000 free black people and biracial people, and black slaves numbered in an estimated 425,000 people. Two thirds of the slaves were African born and they readily rebelled against tyranny. The death rate in the Caribbean exceeded the birth rate. So, many Africans were passing away via diseases, etc. in Haiti, so more numbers to work the plantations could exist.  The slave population declined at an annual rate of two to five percent, due to overwork, inadequate food and shelter, insufficient clothing and medical care, and an imbalance between the sexes, with more men than women. Some slaves were of a creole elite class of urban slaves and domestics, who worked as cooks, personal servants and artisans around the plantation house. This relatively privileged class was chiefly born in the Americas, while the under-class born in Africa labored hard, and more often than not, under abusive and brutal conditions. Among Saint Domingue’s 40,000 white colonials in 1789, European born French people monopolized administrative posts.  The sugar planters, the grands blancs, were chiefly minor aristocrats. Most returned to France as soon as possible, hoping to avoid the dreaded yellow fever, which regularly swept the colony. The lower-class whites, petits blancs, included artisans, shopkeepers, slave dealers, overseers, and day laborers. Around that time, colonial legislations, concerned with this growing and strengthening population, passed discriminatory laws that visibly differentiated these freedmen by dictating their clothing and where they could live. These laws also barred them from occupying many public offices. Many of these freedmen were also artisans and overseers, or domestic servants in the plantation houses. Le Cap Français, a northern port, had a large population of freed slaves, and these men would later become important leaders in the 1791 slave rebellion and later revolution. There were racial conflicts among whites, free people of color, and enslaved black people.

There were also regional rivalries among the North, South, and the West of Haiti. There were class and racial tensions. Regionals tensions grew. The North was the center of shipping and trading. So, it had the largest French elite population. The Plaine du Nord on the northern shore of Saint-Domingue was the most fertile area with the largest sugar plantation. It was economically productive. Most of the colony’s trade went through these ports. The largest and busiest port was Le Cap Francais (or modern day Le Cap Haitien) or the capital of French Saint-Domingue until 1751. By 1751, Port-au-Prince was the capital. In the northern area, enslaved Africans lived in large groups of workers in relative isolation, separated from the rest of the colony by the high mountain range known as the Massif du Nord. These slaves would join with urban slaves from LeCap to lead the 1791 rebellion. It was started in the Northern region.  This area was the seat of power of the grands blancs, the rich white colonists who wanted greater autonomy for the colony, especially economically. The Western Province grew after the capital was moved to Port-au-Prince in 1751. The region became more and wealthier in the second half of the 18th century when irrigation projects allowed significant sugar plantation growth. The Southern Province lagged in population and wealth because it was geographically separated from the rest of the colony. However, this isolation allowed freed slaves to find profit in trade with British Jamaica, and they gained power and wealth here. In addition to these interregional tensions, there were conflicts between proponents of independence, those loyal to France, allies of Spain, and allies of Great Britain – who coveted control of the valuable colony.

The French Revolution changed the landscape of the history of Haiti. In France, the National Assembly made radical changes in French laws. On August 26, 1789, French people published the Declaration of the Rights of Man. It declared all men free and equal. The French Revolution existed during the time of the Haitian Revolution. Many wealthy whites viewed the French Revolution as an opportunity to gain independence from France. They wanted elite plantation owners to take control of the island and create trade regulations that would further their own wealth and power. Many twists and turns existed during the French Revolution in France. Many complex events occurred in Saint-Domingue. So, many various classes and parties changed their alignments numerous times. The Haitian Revolution soon was a test of the ideology of the French Revolution. It radicalized the slavery question and forced French leaders to recognize the full meaning of their revolution. The African population in the island began to heart the agitation for independence by the rich European planters (the grands blancs) who had resented France’s limitations on the island’s foreign trade. The Africans mostly allied with the royalists and the British, as they understood that if Saint-Domingue's independence were to be led by white slave owners, it would probably mean even harsher treatment and increased injustice for the African population. The plantation owners would be free to operate slavery as they pleased without the existing minimal accountability to their French peers.  Saint-Domingue’s free people of color (like Julien Raimond) had been actively appealing to France for civil equality with whites since the 1780’s. Raimond used the French Revolution to make this the major colonial issue before the National Assembly of France. In October 1790, Vincent Ogé, another wealthy free man of color from the colony, returned home from Paris, where he had been working with Raimond. Convinced that a law passed by the French Constituent Assembly gave full civil rights to wealthy men of color, Ogé demanded the right to vote. When the colonial governor refused, Ogé led a brief insurgency in the area around Cap Français. He and an army of around three hundred free blacks fought to end racial discrimination in the area. He was captured in early 1791, and brutally executed by being "broken on the wheel" before being beheaded. Ogé was not fighting against slavery, but his treatment was cited by later slave rebels as one of the factors in their decision to rise up in August 1791 and resist treaties with the colonists. The conflict up to this point was between factions of whites, and between whites and free blacks. Enslaved blacks watched from the sidelines. Leading 18th-century French writer Count Mirabeau had once said the Saint-Domingue whites "slept at the foot of Vesuvius", an indication of the grave threat they faced should the majority of slaves launch a sustained major uprising.

There are similarities between the Haitian Revolution and the French Revolution. The Haitian Revolution started from below among the majority of the population. Many supporters of the Haitian revolution were slaves and freed Africans who were treated unequally by society and unjust laws. Both revolutions involved massive violence since the oppressors refused to willingly give liberation to people. The Reign of Terror, during the French Revolution, was bloody. Many people in that time were killed via the guillotine and other machines. The Reign of Terror caused 18,000 to 40,000 to die. In the Caribbean, total casualties were about 162,000 people during the Haitian Revolution. Violence in Haiti was executed by military excursions, riots, the killing of people, and guerilla warfare. The Haitian Revolution didn’t wait on the revolution in France. Haitians fought for their own freedom. The Enlightenment ideals and the initiation of the French Revolution inspired many in the Haitian Revolution. Yet, the people of Haiti completed the most successful and comprehensive slave rebellion via their own black power. Just as the French were successful in transforming their society, so were the Haitians. On April 4, 1792, The French National Assembly granted freedom to slaves in Haiti and the revolution culminated in 1804; Haiti was an independent nation solely of freed peoples. The activities of the revolutions sparked change across the world. France’s transformation was most influential in Europe, and Haiti’s influence spanned across every location that continued to practice slavery. John E. Baur honors Haiti as home of the most influential Revolution in history.

The influence of Enlightenment thought existed in the Caribbean region. The French writer Guillaume Raynal attacked slavery in his history of European colonization. Raynal’s Enlightenment philosophy went deeper than a prediction and reflected many French Enlightenment philosophies including those of Rousseau and Diderot, even though it was written thirteen years before the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” The declaration, in contrast, highlighted freedom and liberty but still allowed slaves to be characterized as property. Toussaint Louverture was a key man who was influenced by the Enlightenment. He was a leader in the Haitian Revolution.  Louverture attempted to bridge this divide between the popular masses and the enlightened few. Louverture was familiar with Enlightenment ideas within the context of European imperialism. He attempted to strike a balance between Western Enlightenment thought as a necessary means of winning liberation, and not propagating the notion that it was morally superior to the experiences and knowledge of people of color on Saint Domingue. As an extension of himself and his enlightenment education, Louverture wrote a Constitution for a new society in Saint-Domingue that abolished slavery. The existence of slavery in society was an incongruity that had been left unaddressed by numerous European scholars. Louverture took on this inconsistency directly in his constitution. In addition, Louverture exhibited a connection to Enlightenment scholars through the style, language and accent of this text. Like Louverture, Jean-Baptiste Belley was also an active participant in the colony’s insurrection. Belley was a native of Senegal and a former slave from Saint-Domingue. He lived to 1805 and was a member of the National Convention and the Council of Five Hundred of France.

By Timothy

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