Unit 3: The African Holocaust (Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade) (1502 – 1860s)

Unit 3, Class 6: The Haitian Revolution (1791 – 1804)

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Learning Objectives
After completing this lesson, students 
will be able to:
  • Understand the conditions that led to the Haitian Revolution and its significance in world history.

  • Identify the main leaders of the Haitian Revolution, the various strategies they used and the challenges they faced. 

  • Discuss the consequences as well as the short and long term triumphs of the Haitian Revolution.

  • Recognize the influence of the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man as they pertain to the meaning of freedom, liberty, and human rights.

  • Identify the strategies and rationale used by European and American leaders to crush the emergence of Haiti as a free, independent state.

Class Overview

In 1804, on the heels of the French Revolution, the Republic of Haiti emerged as the first Black nation in the Western hemisphere. Not only did Africans successfully overthrow the institution of slavery, they also ended French colonial rule. This event sent shockwaves throughout the entire Western world. It instilled fear in slave-owners far and wide, and it inspired hope among enslaved populations who staged their own rebellions against slavery, including slave revolts in Louisiana and Virginia. Led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, Henri Christophe, and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the Haitian Revolution achieved what many thought to be virtually impossible—the eradication of white domination.

European Conquest and the Enslavement of Africans

Haiti was originally named Ayiti, one of the names given to the land by the indigenous Taíno people of the Arawakan nation. The entire island, which constituted modern day Haiti and Dominican Republic, was invaded by Christopher Columbus in 1492 under the sponsorship of the Spanish Crown who renamed the island La Isla Española, later named Hispaniola. The Spanish conquest was so destructive, the indigenous population declined from a half million to roughly 60,000 over the course of 15 years. The devastation and murder of the native population led to the importation of enslaved Africans in the early 1500s.

It was not until 1695 that the French finally won legal rights to the Western part of Hispaniola (modern day Haiti), which they renamed Saint-Domingue. The French had been in fierce competition with Spain and Britain for control over the island. To fuel their new colony, the French kidnapped thousands of Africans and transported them to Saint-Domingue. In 1701 there were approximately 20,000 slaves on the island. By 1790, there were 500,000 enslaved Africans and 30,000 whites. Saint Domingue also had the largest and wealthiest population of free people of color, most of whom were bi-racial, totaling roughly 25,000 people. Like many slave societies, enslaved Africans outnumbered the white ruling class by far, which led to extremely brutal practices and strict laws to maintain white domination.

Undoubtedly, Saint-Domingue was a goldmine for the development of modern Western nations. The production of coffee, sugar, tobacco, indigo and cotton by enslaved Africans was the backbone of the French economy and the rise of global capitalism.

The Age of Revolution

In 1789, the outbreak of the French Revolution sparked civil war in Saint- Domingue as various classes within the population (including free people of color) demanded independence, legal rights and citizenship. It was during the French Revolution when new national concepts emerged such as natural rights, liberty, universal rights and individual freedom. Yet, how could the French demand liberty and individual rights and simultaneously support the plundering, enslavement and oppression of African and native populations? 

In the spirit of human freedom, African revolutionaries called on their communities to rise up! From 1791 – 1804, Africans fought fiercely against slavery and colonialism and defeated the strongest militaries in the world. After a bloody struggle in which 100,000 Africans and 24,000 whites were killed, Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared independence on January 1, 1804 and renamed the island Haiti (adapted from it’s original Taíno name Ayiti)—which means “Land of Mountains.”  

Haiti emerged as a symbol of pride in the African Diaspora, but the Black-led nation paid a severe price. France refused to recognize Haitian independence until it was paid 150 million francs in reparations for “lost property”—the equivalent to $20 billion in today’s economy. In 1838, the “indemnity” was reduced to 90 million francs to be paid over 30 years. Western nations, including the United States, joined together to sanction and isolate Haiti, forcing the country into extraordinary debt and unjust economic relations. For more than 100 years, Haiti paid this debt, plus interest, until its final payment in 1947.

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