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The Haitian slave army battles the soldiers of Napoleon in 1803

Neil Faulkner looks at the birth of the Republic of Haiti – an independent black-ruled state created by slave revolution

‘The National Convention declares slavery abolished in all the colonies. In consequence it declares that all men, without distinction of colour, domiciled in the colonies, are French citizens and enjoy all the rights assured under the Constitution.’

This decree was passed by acclamation on 4 February 1794. It had not been proposed by the Jacobin Committee of Public Safety, the effective government of Revolutionary France. It had been a spontaneous response to the appearance before the National Convention in Paris of three delegates from the Caribbean island of Haiti. The three – a white colonist, a mixed-race mulatto, and a black freedman – had arrived to demand the abolition of slavery.

This demand was met by rapturous applause and granted without debate. ‘Representatives of the French people,’ declared Georges Danton, ‘until now we have decreed liberty as egoists for ourselves. But today we proclaim universal liberty …’

The French Revolution had reached its radical climax. What had driven it there was an armed insurrection of 500,000 black slaves on the far side of the Atlantic. This insurrection had blasted a hole through the global edifice of mercantile capitalism.

Toussaint L'Ouverture

Between 1760 and 1790 the annual output of sugar from the British and French colonies in the Caribbean doubled to almost 300,000 tons. Demand from the fashionable coffee-house culture of 18th century London and Paris seemed insatiable. The Atlantic economy – a tight nexus of empire, slavery, and profit – was growing exponentially. The plantation-owners of Jamaica and Haiti, and the merchant-capitalists of Bristol, Liverpool, Bordeaux, and Nantes, were the new super-rich of their age.

European diseases had decimated the native population of the Americas. Europeans in their turn were vulnerable to tropical diseases in the Caribbean and Central America. The solution to the consequent labour shortage had been to ship some 12 million African slaves across the Atlantic. Two-thirds of these had ended up on the sugar plantations.

A typical plantation employed hundreds of slaves. They worked 16, even 18 hour days, in all weathers, through most of the year. Rations were a bare minimum; slaves were expected to supplement these with the produce of small garden-plots. Medical care was effectively non-existent. Discipline was maintained by brutalised overseers armed with whips and guns. Premature death through overwork and neglect was the norm. The iron logic of competitive capital accumulation ensured that this was so: it was cheaper to buy replacement slaves than to expend resources on slave welfare.

The largest and most profitable colony was French-controlled St Domingue – the western part of Haiti (the eastern part, San Domingo, was controlled by Spain). The free population of about 60,000 was organised as an armed force to defend slavery. But it was internally divided. A majority had some interest in slave exploitation, but the degree of interest varied. St Domingue involved, in the words of historian Robin Blackburn, ‘a colonial and mercantile system, an aristocratic political order, a racial caste hierarchy, and a highly unequal distribution of private property within both the white and free coloured population’.

News of the revolution in Paris triggered splits in St Domingue’s dominant bloc. This fracturing in the apparatus of colonial power created an opening for revolt from below.

It began on the night of 21 August 1791. ‘Listen to the voice of Liberty which speaks in the hearts of all,’ cried the slave conspirators. Tens of thousands did so. The revolt spread rapidly across St Domingue’s northern plain, engulfing hundreds of plantations. It spawned numerous armed rebel bands, and these soon became deeply rooted features of an increasingly complex, multi-sided conflict raging across the island.

At first, however, the black rebels did not a war of slave emancipation. Most black generals were not abolitionists; they aimed at little more than freedom for themselves and their followers, and better conditions for the mass of slaves.

Two factors transformed the conflict. One was the war against Revolutionary France and the desperate need of its Jacobin leaders for allies. The other was the radical leadership of the black general Toussaint L’Ouverture.

Under attack from Royalists, the Spanish, and the British, the new Jacobin governor of St Domingue issued a decree abolishing slavery on 29 August 1793. It was published in Creole, the language of slaves, to ensure that it would be understood in the slave cabins. The result was ‘a fire-cracker chain of slave revolts’ (Blackburn).

Most black generals had been fighting alongside France’s enemies. But the Royalists, the Spanish, and the British were all pro-slavery. In May 1794, therefore, Toussaint L’Ouverture broke with his allies and joined the French Republicans. His new allegiance was confirmed when news reached Haiti of the National Convention’s emancipation decree. Toussaint had become, as West Indian historian C L R James describes him, a ‘Black Jacobin’. He was now waging all-out war for the abolition of slavery.

At critical historical turning-points, revolutionary leadership can be decisive. Revolutionary leadership is neither purely utopian, nor purely pragmatic, but involves a dialectical meshing of the two. It requires a vision of an alternative future which transcends immediate circumstances yet reflects possibilities incubating inside them. It means looking forwards to a new world while remaining anchored in the old. This was the role assumed by Toussaint L’Ouverture and his army in 1794.

Toussaint became the leader of a swelling insurrection of the entire black population of Haiti. His army – disciplined, mobile, combat effective – became the spine of the slave revolution. Around it swirled myriad local resistance groups. Haiti soon became ungovernable for slave-lords and colonialists.


By 1798 the British, attempting a full-scale conquest of the colony, had been defeated. Their failure had cost them 20,000 men. (Their total losses in the Caribbean theatre – battling slave revolts and French expeditionary forces – reached 60,000.) The slaves had liberated Haiti.

Napoleon Bonaparte, the ruler of France from 1799, was determined to restore the French empire in the Americas. He dispatched a new army in 1802 with orders to crush the Black Jacobins. Toussaint was arrested, dispatched to France, and died of neglect in prison the following year.

But his movement did not die. The black and mulatto generals turned on the French, declared their independence, and launched a new war of liberation. They unleashed the rage of the oppressed and it consumed their enemies.

‘But what men these blacks are!’ recalled one of them later. ‘How they fight and how they die! One has to make war against them to know their reckless courage in braving danger when they can no longer have recourse to stratagem. I have seen a solid column, torn by grape-shot from four pieces of cannon, advance without making a retrograde step. The more they fell, the greater seemed to be the courage of the rest.’

Napoleon sent 35,000 troops to Haiti. Of these, almost 30,000 perished on the battlefield or from disease. By the end of 1803 the Black Jacobins had won their independence for a second time.

They had defeated the two greatest colonial powers in the world. On 1 January 1804 they proclaimed the Republic of Haiti – an independent black-ruled state created by slave revolution. It would stand as a beacon lighting the road to eventual emancipation across the Americas.


This article is one of several new chapters covering revolutionary movements in the Americas prepared for the Spanish edition of Neil Faulkner's Marxist History of the World - due for publication in February 2014.

Tagged under: History
Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.

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