News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

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East Bay DSA

August 24, 2019

This Week in Class History: The Saint-Domingue Uprising

By Anna Iglitzin

The Saint-Domingue uprising of Aug. 21, 1791 was the only insurrection of the enslaved in history to lead to the founding of a state both free from slavery and ruled by its former captives. The revolt sparked the Haitian Revolution, marking a hard-fought victory against brutal race-based oppression and exploitation. The revolution provided an inspiring model for future struggles against slavery and colonial rule. 

The Haitian Revolution makes for a stark contrast with the American and French Revolutions, in which wealthy merchants and planters played a leading role. From the beginning the Haitian Revolution was a genuine popular struggle, initiated by the colony’s oppressed majority. As Trinidadian historian C.L.R. James argues in his classic history of the revolution, “The Black Jacobins,” Haitian revolutionaries sought to extend the emancipatory promise of the French Revolution to those whose enslaved labor created the wealth of the emerging French elite. And the emancipation of the enslaved was crucially aided by the revolutionary enthusiasm of the French masses.

Like other societies on the brink of revolution, Saint-Domingue under French colonial rule prior to 1791 was a hotbed of political and social tensions. The colony was extraordinarily profitable, strengthening France’s role as a world imperial power and an emerging capitalist state, but these profits depended on inhuman conditions for the enslaved workforce. Enslaved people, the least powerful group although they outnumbered free people 10 to 1, consistently resisted their exploitation and the horrific conditions of their existence. Slaveowners (both white planters and free people of color) lived in constant fear of the enslaved population. The planters simultaneously chafed under the restrictions of French rule, which pitted the interests of the white merchant class against the planters and the colony’s feudal government, and the interests of wealthy whites against the interests of the poor whites and free people of color.

The French Revolution of 1789 fueled conflict in Saint-Domingue: white planters supported the monarchy, white merchants and poor whites supported the revolutionary regime, free people of color demanded full citizenship rights before the revolutionary National Constituent Assembly, and the enslaved population continued revolting. By 1790 these tensions were so great that the colony only needed a small push to jumpstart a rebellion (and the one from which Saint-Domingue would emerge as Haiti).

The push came from a massive insurrection planned in secret by Dutty Boukman, a self-educated freed slave and plantation overseer. Enslaved Saint-Dominguans rebelled on the evening of Aug. 21 with extraordinary violence. By 1792, formerly enslaved people controlled a third of the island and had killed 24,000 out of 40,000 white inhabitants. 100,000 out of the 500,000 black inhabitants of Saint-Domingue would be killed before the fighting ended (albeit briefly) in 1794. 

Despite the extraordinary death toll resulting from the revolt, the French National Assembly was most concerned with the struggle between the free persons of color demanding full citizenship and white planters who resisted. In 1792 France sent a commission to Saint-Domingue to enforce a decree granting French citizenship to free men of color, believing this would end the conflict between free men of color and the white planters, at which point the insurrection could be dealt with easily. This could not have been further from the truth.

With the arrival of the British and Spanish in 1793 to support the rebellion and a counterrevolution by wealthy planters, the commissioners promised emancipation to all enslaved people who would help put down the counterrevolution. On Aug. 29, 1793, after defeating the planters with the help of thousands of enslaved recruits, French commissioners declared the end of slavery in Saint-Domingue.

This decision was ratified and extended by the National Convention, the first elected government of the First Republic. The revolutionary Parisian masses, who had elected the left-wing Jacobins to the newly formed Convention, were joined by poor people across France in demanding an end to all forms of despotism—including slavery. According to James, the French common people had come to hate the slaveowners, even refusing to drink coffee because they associated it with bondage. On Feb. 4, 1794, the National Convention outlawed slavery in France and all its colonies and granted rights to all men in the colonies regardless of race. 

The abolition of slavery in 1794 was a clear victory, although it would take ten more years for Saint-Domingue to become independent, during which time Toussaint L’Ouverture would become the hero we today associate with Haiti’s independence. L’Ouverture lead armies of the enslaved in expelling both the British and Spanish by 1789 and ruled the island until 1802 when he was captured by Napoleon. Following the island’s return to Napoleonic rule, the armies of the formerly enslaved continued to fight against Napoleon’s attempts to reestablish slavery. The revolutionaries succeeded in defeating the French forces on Nov. 18, 1803, and on Jan. 1, 1804 Haiti became the world’s first black republic.

The Haitian Revolution illustrates the ability of the vast majority to transform society through its own power and initiative, even when fighting against the most extreme forms of oppression. Our world today is defined by the imperial capitalism forged in colonies like Saint-Domingue, from the vastly profitable American wars in the Middle East, to the brutal sanctions killing ordinary people from Iran to Venezuela, to the laws allowing capital to flow freely across borders while migrants and refugees are thrown into concentration camps. The legacy of the Haitian Revolution, a victory owed to the bravery of ordinary people and the international solidarity of the oppressed from the heart of the French empire to the plantations on its periphery, reminds us that only an international movement can deliver justice and freedom.