RWBF:Chapter One Section 1

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The Revolution in a Nutshell

Before we start digging in to exactly what happened in Saint-Domingue 200 years ago, let's take a step back. What follows on this page is a very brief and grossly over-simplified version of Haitian History:

Christopher Columbus discovered the island he would call Hispaniola in 1492, during his first trip across the Atlantic. Subsequent Spanish settlers decimated the native Taino population through disease and forced labor, and Africans were imported to the island to replace the natives. In 1695, France wrangled control of the western third of the country from Spain. As the value of Saint-Domingue as an export-producing colony began to grow, Africans were imported in increasing numbers. The class, racial, and political factions of Saint-Domingian society wrestled for control and power as increasing turmoil in France lessened that country's attention towards its colony.

In 1791, a vodou priest with an imposing physique led slaves in a revolt, ostensibly for the purpose of securing one extra day per week to tend their private gardens. Boukman's Rebellion spread, causing mass confusion and havoc in the colony. Toussaint Louverture¹, who some say planned and instigated the initial revolt, began to grow in power in the rebel army. The rebels joined Spain on the promise of equality and arms, but these were hollow promises and the rebels eventually rejoined France amidst the swirling repercussions of the French Revolution. The British army, looking to make a play for the colony, were soundly defeated by Toussaint's troops. The French Commissioner Sonthonax, meanwhile, had freed and armed about 15,000 slaves, raising hopes for a general emancipation.

Toussaint's power and influence grew steadily, and he eventually assumed de facto control of the colony. After deftly maneuvering his rival Sonthonax and friend Laveaux out of the colony and back to France, the general undertook to transform a rebellious French holding into a prosperous quasi-independent state. Unfortunately, France's own revolution had been completed, and after conflicts with Britain and America had been decided, Napoleon Bonaparte turned his attention to Saint-Domingue. Seeking to restore the economic engine that had powered a third of the French economy before 1791 (and, some say, to establish a firm foothold on the North American continent), Napoleon sent his brother-in-law Leclerc with 25,000 (?) troops to retake Saint-Domingue. ²

Toussaint's once absolute authority over his army had slipped somewhat during the time of peace as separate interests within the colony came to the fore. André Rigaud had held power in the South for some years, and though he and Toussaint had once coexisted peacefully, France began to play the two against each other. Hesitation, disobedience, and defections within the officer corps weakened Toussaint until he had no choice but to surrender to Leclerc. Though given an opportunity to retire from the field, Toussaint was betrayed by his own former generals, deceitfully trapped, and deported along with his family to France. Toussaint would eventually die in his cell at Fort de Joux in the French Alps.

Toussaint's betrayal and the French determination to re-enslave the blacks galvanized the rebels. With Toussaint's former general Dessalines at command, the rebels defeated the French troops once and for all, and declared the colony independent on January 1, 1804, taking the new name of Hayti from the original Taino/Arawak name for the island.

Though the governments of Dessalines, Christophe, and Pétion offered little different from the draconian French rule that had preceded them, the colony was independent and did manage a short period of prosperity. Eventually, though, the island nation – which its northern neighbor, the United States, refused to recognize out of fear of its rebellious example – began to suffer the effects of its isolation and diminishing economic importance. Weak internal politics and foreign meddling have devastated the island over the years, leaving it today not much more than a battered child of powerful interests.

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¹ Toussaint was known as Toussaint Breda, or just Toussaint at the time the rebellion started. He would adopt the name L'ouverture later, dropping the apostrophe shortly thereafter.

² After running into stiff resistance and deadly yellow fever, Leclerc requested and received additional troops from his brother-in-law. In all, some 60,000 French troops would be expended before Saint-Domingue's independence was achieved.