Haitian Independence Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A massive slave revolt initiated an anticolonial struggle and resulted in the first black republic in modern times and the second successful revolution for independence in the Western Hemisphere.

Summary of Event

On August 22, 1791, a major slave uprising ignited a long, bloody rebellion in Haiti that would ultimately break both the shackles of slavery and the constraints of French colonial rule. Following more than twelve years of continuous revolt, including attacks directed at the might of Napoleon’s forces, French West Indies French Haiti became the first independent nation in Latin America. Having concluded the second successful revolution in the Western Hemisphere, the Haitians established the first black republic in modern times. [kw]Haitian Independence (Aug. 22, 1791-Jan. 1, 1804) [kw]Independence, Haitian (Aug. 22, 1791-Jan. 1, 1804) Haitian independence Slave revolts;Haiti [g]Haiti;Aug. 22, 1791-Jan. 1, 1804: Haitian Independence[2970] [g]Caribbean;Aug. 22, 1791-Jan. 1, 1804: Haitian Independence[2970] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Aug. 22, 1791-Jan. 1, 1804: Haitian Independence[2970] [c]Social issues and reform;Aug. 22, 1791-Jan. 1, 1804: Haitian Independence[2970] Toussaint Louverture Christophe, Henri Dessalines, Jean-Jacques Le Clerc, Charles Pétion, Alexandre Rigaud, André

In 1697, France had gained control of the western third of Hispaniola Hispaniola (now Haiti) from Spain as part of the Ryswick, Treaty of (1697) Treaty of Ryswick. Long neglected by Spain as a backwater, Haiti rapidly became France’s most productive colony. During the eighteenth century, economic activity accelerated, as Haiti became a major exporter of sugar, coffee, indigo, cocoa, and cotton. The high productivity was based on a slave plantation economy. By 1789, more than 500,000 Slavery;of Africans[Africans] African slaves, African slaves often working under abysmal conditions, provided prosperity for approximately forty thousand white planters and twenty-five thousand people of mixed ancestry (mulattoes) Mulattoes who, although officially accorded French citizenship rights, were subject to social and political inequalities.

Brutal plantation conditions led to a high mortality rate and the need to replace slaves, on an average, after twenty years. To escape the ravages of the plantation, many slaves fled to the remote forests and mountains of Haiti to attempt to find freedom by founding their own communities. From these scattered bases the runaways, called Maroons, Maroons launched attacks on the hated plantations to secure supplies and weapons. The most intensive Maroon attacks in Haiti Slave revolts;Haiti (1751-1757) were led by Macandal, François legendary figure François Macandal and were only repressed after concerted efforts of the white planter and mulatto classes. To set an example, Macandal was burned at the stake in 1758, yet Macandal’s revolt was, in many respects, a harbinger of what was to occur in 1791.

The French Revolution (1789-1796);impact on French colonies[French colonies] French Revolution of 1789, and its rationale of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” shook the already unstable political foundations of Haiti and led to a series of events that culminated in the slave rebellion of 1791. For the white planter class, the French Revolution opened strong possibilities for greater local autonomy. For the mulattoes, it offered hopes of greater social equality and a share in the political power structure. The decision of the National Assembly to grant voting rights to all landed taxpaying mulattoes, and the efforts of the white colonists to repeal these rights, set into motion tensions between the two top classes. A mulatto demonstration for voting rights in March, 1791, led to the seizure of two demonstration leaders, who soon were executed publicly by being broken on the wheel. Also broken were any hopes for peaceful resolution of differences. Ironically, in their dispute, both sides were blind to the revolutionary storm brewing among the 85 percent of the population that formed the slave class.

On August 22, 1791, more than 100,000 slaves rose to make their own nonnegotiable demands for liberty. After a week-long planning session in the Bois Cayman (Alligator Woods), presided over by a voodoo priest named Boukman, Maroon and slave leaders decided to unleash the pent-up fury of the exploited majority. In the ensuing carnage, an estimated one thousand plantations were burned and two thousand white settlers were killed. Destruction in the northern settlements was particularly widespread. Survivors fled to the heavily armed and fortified port city of Cap Français to make a stand. Using superior firepower against a motivated attacking force of superior numbers, they fought a fierce battle that exacted a heavy toll from the attackers. It is estimated that ten thousand blacks were killed during the rebellion. However, what might have appeared to be a terminal event to the colonial militia was the initial phase of a thirteen-year revolution for independence and majority rule.

As black forces began to regroup under new, although often divided, leadership, the mulattoes, led by André Rigaud and Alexandre Pétion, continued sporadic action against the colonial militia. Meanwhile, in France, the Bourbon king, Louis XVI, was deposed. The newly formed French Republic soon found itself involved in a European war with two of its adversaries, Spain and Great Britain, eager to intervene in Haitian affairs.

In a highly factionalized and complex political atmosphere, leadership of the black forces was established by Toussaint Louverture, an educated slave and remarkable revolutionary leader who had served as a strategist in the 1791 revolt. He decided to side with republican France after the February, 1794, decree abolishing slavery in French territory. Toussaint Louverture’s main goal was the creation of an independent state under black leadership; to achieve this end, he struggled against all foreign parties during the succeeding decade. Lack of mulatto cooperation with his nationalist plans led to open conflict and ultimately to the defeat of Rigaud’s forces in 1800.

By 1800, Toussaint Louverture had emerged as undisputed leader of a Haiti still technically under French control. By the constitution of 1801, he became governor general for life. Attempting to reverse a decade of anarchy and destruction, he reinstituted the plantation system and ruled through a military dictatorship. To achieve his goal of prosperity, Toussaint Louverture needed a period of peace. However, revolutionary France had fallen under the command of an individual who favored military dictatorship and a militant colonial policy.

Late in 1801, Napoleon I Napoleon I;Haitian independence Napoleon Bonaparte, then first consul of France, decided to return Haiti to more direct French control. In January, 1802, he sent an expedition of between sixteen thousand and twenty thousand troops under the command of his brother-in-law, General Charles Le Clerc. The invading force was joined by both white colonists and mulatto forces under Pétion. Toussaint Louverture’s armies were equal in size to the French forces, a situation that may have caused him to decide not to arm the general populace, who could have wreaked havoc on the French in a guerrilla war. Because Napoleon had already reinstituted slavery on Martinique, it would not have been difficult to rally the populace by manipulating the fear that Haiti would be next.

Within three months, Le Clerc was able to wear down Toussaint Louverture’s forces. After two of his lieutenants, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe, deserted his cause, on May 5, 1802, Toussaint Louverture was forced to surrender to Le Clerc. Promised a peaceful retirement, he instead was seized and shipped in chains to a French prison, where he died on April 7, 1803. Le Clerc, his betrayer, died of [p]Yellow fever yellow fever in November, 1802, a victim of the disease that would decimate French forces.

Anger over the betrayal of Toussaint Louverture and the French restoration of slavery caused Dessalines, Christophe, and Pétion to unite with other leaders to drive out the French. Their combined strength, and the tremendous toll taken by yellow fever, undermined Napoleon’s efforts to maintain control. Moreover, the resumption of war with Britain in 1803, and the decision to sell Louisiana Purchase (1803) Louisiana to the United States, made continuation of the Haitian campaign no longer feasible.


On January 1, 1804, Haitian independence was proclaimed, and Dessalines—a former field slave and military commander of Haitian forces during the last phases of the war—was named the new country’s first leader. The successful revolution stands as a symbol of the power of antislave sentiment and the desire for independent self-government. Yet, after 1804, Haiti continued to suffer from continued factional struggles between Dessalines, Christophe, and Pétion. Succeeding decades of unstable and ineffective government continued to cloud Toussaint Louverture’s vision of a stable, prosperous, and independent state.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bellegarde-Smith, Patrick. Haiti: The Breached Citadel. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1990. A highly readable presentation of major themes and events in the historical development of Haiti.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Gordon S. Toussaint’s Clause: The Founding Fathers and the Haitian Revolution. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. Examines the reaction of the United States to the Haitian revolution. Some Americans wanted to intervene in support of Toussaint and the rebels, but Southern slave holders, including Thomas Jefferson, rejected intervention because they were alarmed by Toussaint’s rise to power and leadership ability.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dubois, Laurent. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2004. A chronicle of the Haitian revolution. Describes the initial victory of Toussaint and other rebels, Toussaint’s defense of France against British and Spanish invaders, and his imprisonment by Napoleon.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fick, Carolyn E. The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990. A detailed study of the influence of popular movements on the course of the Haitian revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">James, Cyril L. R. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint Louverture and the San Domingo Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. An updated revision of the classic study of the leadership of the Haitian revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moran, Charles. Black Triumvirate: A Study of Louverture, Dessalines, Christophe, the Men Who Made Haiti. New York: Exposition Press, 1957. A short, highly readable study of the roles of the three revolutionary leaders.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nicholls, David. Haiti in the Caribbean Context: Ethnicity, Economy, and Revolt. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985. A major work in comparative history, which provides an understanding of Haitian affairs from the wider context of Caribbean developments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ott, Thomas O. The Haitian Revolution, 1789-1804. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1973. A well-researched, detailed study of the events involved in the Haitian revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ros, Martin. Night of Fire: The Black Napoleon and the Battle for Haiti. Translated by Karin Ford-Treep. New York: Sarpedon, 1994. Originally published in Dutch in 1991, this popular biography of Toussaint is aimed at general readers who desire an understanding of him and of Haitian history.

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Categories: History