RWBF:Chapter Three Section 1
The Haitian Revolution is often misconstrued. The revolution is remembered simply as a slave revolt propelled by the desire for abolition. This is far from the whole story. There are several famous leaders who were fighting simply for more days off or their freedom alone, and even a few who owned slaves and had no interest in freeing them. The earliest leader, Vincent Ogé, led a small insurrection to grant rights to free coloreds a year prior to the eventual uprising. He owned slaves himself and was not in favor of direct abolition. Even the men who rose up to lead the slaves in the insurrection attempted to compromise with the French to gain their own freedom. This revolution was a simple uprising in which everyone was united against one common enemy. At the same time it was a complicated war in which allies rarely remained reliable for more than a year and in which the leaders and enemies often changed and turned against each other. In order to understand the entire revolution it is necessary to start from the beginning, even though none of the early heroes last more than a few years before they are either killed or chased out by a former ally. It is also crucial to understand who the different ethnic groups were and what they desired from what was at the time the most profitable colony in the world.
There were five main categories of the inhabitants of Saint Domingue: The rich whites (the planters or grands blancs), the poor white (the petits blancs), Maroons (runaway slaves, who lived in the mountains), Gens de couleur (free blacks), and slaves. Within these categories, everyone was looking for something different: the gens de couleur wanted equal rights with the whites of the island, these rights included the right to vote; planters wanted nothing less than to compromise with anybody who was not completely white; and slaves wanted a realistic goal that would give them one more day of rest per week; some wanted a less realistic goal of freedom.
The first significant sign of militancy in Saint Dominque came more than 30 years before the eventual slave uprising that would shock the world. The insurrection was led by a maroon named Mackandal as he led many raids on plantations killing the planters and freeing the slaves. It is estimated that in his raids he and his followers killed around 6,000 whites before his eventual capture and execution in a public square of Cap-Francais in 1758. Though his raids were much more successful than any of the actions of Ogé, Mackandal is less well remembered due to the span of time between his actions and the eventual grand uprising.
One of the most well known martyrs of the revolution was Vincent Ogé. His mini revolt a year prior to the mass insurrection, though unsuccessful, encouraged the slaves and Gens de Couleur of Haiti to revolt. Born rich into a wealthy white family, Ogé is thought to have been only one quarter black. While in Paris for a year he became a leading member of the Société des Amis des Noirs. Along with Raimond, another Gens de Couleur who was not quite as radical, he appealed to the full rights of free blacks in Saint Domingue. After returning to Haiti, however, he became frustrated and attempted to advance the process of gaining rights as he lead a rebellion against the whites of the island. The rebellion was ultimately unsuccessful and lasted only one month from October to November 1790. Ogé was captured by the Spanish, turned over to the French, and finally executed. Despite the fact that Ogé owned several slaves and was not in favor of abolition, he became a martyr for the slaves who participated in the rebellion a year later.
In the early stages of the uprising beginning in 1791 there were 4 notable leaders: Boukman, Jean François, Jeannot, and Biassou. Even though none of them would last more than a few years, each had a crucial effect on the revolution.
Boukman conducted the ceremony at Bois-Caiman, in which they decided how and when the uprising would commence. Well learned in the ways of Vodou, Boukman prophesied that the three leaders of the revolution would be Jean François, Biassou, and Jeannot. Bois-Caiman had little to do with the revolution because he was captured and put to death by the French. In an attempt to take away from the mystical reputation associated with Boukman, the French cut off his head and publicly displayed it in a town square. This did little to debunk Boukman’s aura as he is still one of the most celebrated figures of the uprising.
Biassou, prophesied by Boukman to be one of the three leaders of the revolt, quickly emerged as the most powerful among the trio and quickly allied himself with the Spanish in order to gain support. In 1795, he was chased out of the country by former ally Toussaint Louverture and retreated to Florida.
Jean François, was another of the early leaders and like Biassou, he was chased away by former ally Toussaint.
The third and last man prophesied by Boukman to lead the revolt was Jeannot. He was wildly violent with no pity for any whites. Jeannot was by far the most brutal of the three early leaders and his excessive brutality led to his execution at the hands of Jean François.
The early parts of the revolution, led by the men listed above, did not spread to the south and west but was concentrated in the north, where the rebellious slaves met great success. At this time in the south and west there was a different conflict brewing between the poor whites, rich planters, and gens de couleur, who eventually gained all the rights of whites. It was seen that they would be needed if there was any hope of restoring slavery. The situation was not any simpler because of the French Revolution, which was occurring simultaneously, and the constant changes in policy caused several shifts in alliances early on in the Haitian Revolution.
- Slave Revolution in the Caribbean 1789-1804, Laurent DuBois and John D. Garrigus
- Avengers of the New World, Laurent DuBois