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Birth of the First Black Republic: 1791-1804

Toussaint Louverture and
the Haitian Revolution

Part 1

The following two-part article was published in Workers Vanguard, Nos. 446 and 447, 12 and 26 February 1988, at a time when WV was the voice of revolutionary Trotskyism.

Haiti today is a desperately poor country beset by neocolonial exploitation and despotism. The Duvaliers, father and son 1, are only the latest in a line of dictators propped up and frequently installed by Washington. Before that came 20 years of direct occupation by the United States Marines. Yet two centuries ago this land was the richest colony in the world. And in a dozen years of brutal struggle, a black slave revolt won Haiti’s freedom in battle against the most powerful colonial empires of the era. The Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804 touched off a wave of slave revolts in the Caribbean and inspired blacks in the American South. Today, as the Haitian masses cry out for revolution to break the chains of imperialist domination and the most literal wage slavery, they will look back to the father of the first black republic, Toussaint Louverture, the man known as Black Spartacus.

Toussaint forged an army of black slaves who won freedom for Haiti by defeating the best troops the British and French colonial empires could muster. His regime restored the island’s wealth and prosperity after the devastation of war. Toussaint was able to accomplish these remarkable achievements because he brought together the hurricane-like power of slave rebellion with the program and ideals of the great bourgeois revolutions. Even if Haiti’s independence would ultimately be won only in bitter battle against both the French Republic of Robespierre and the Empire of Napoleon, the French and American Revolutions were the detonators of the Haitian Revolution – from the military experience of mulatto commanders who fought in the French expeditionary force during the American Revolutionary War, to the adoption of the American revolutionary slogan, “Live Free or Die,” to the driving force of the watchwords “Liberté, Fraternité, Égalité.”

The Haitian Revolution was a beacon in the fight against slavery and for national independence throughout the 19th century. But by abolishing slavery through a social revolution surging up from the very bottom of society, it struck fear into the slavemasters and men of property. When the slaves rose up in Saint-Domingue, the French part of the island of Hispaniola [Quisqueya/Kiskeya], in August 1791, the United States hastened to send arms to put down the uprising. George Washington wrote, “How regrettable to see such a spirit of revolt among the Negroes.” In the U.S., the Haitian Revolution inspired slave revolts from Denmark Vesey and Gabriel Prosser to Nat Turner. As the abolitionist fighter Frederick Douglass said, “When they struck for freedom, they builded better than they knew. Their swords were not drawn and could not be drawn simply for themselves alone. They were linked and interlinked with their race, and striking for their freedom, they struck for the freedom of every black man in the world.”

The Richest Sugar Colony

At the end of the 18th century, Saint-Domingue was described by the English economist Adam Smith as “the most important of the sugar colonies of the Caribbean. By 1783, trade with Saint-Domingue was more than a third of all French foreign commerce and more than double the value of Britain’s trade with all its colonies taken together. Largely due to trade with the newly independent United States, production in Saint-Domingue nearly doubled between 1783 and 1789. By the start of the revolution two years later there were almost 800 sugar plantations, more than 2,000 coffee plantations and 3,000 of indigo. While sugar production in the British West Indies was declining, Saint-Domingue was at the height of its productivity and prosperity. Seeking to defend Britain’s mercantile domination of the Caribbean, William Pitt began to agitate for an end to the slave trade (though not slavery itself) in order to cut off the vital supply of labor to the burgeoning French colony.

In Saint-Domingue, the class and caste divisions of pre-revolutionary France overlapped the race/color question. In 1789, this was perhaps the most race-conscious society in the world, legally recognizing 128 “degrees” of blackness (that is, counting all ancestors back seven generations). Broadly, society was divided into three essential strata. At the top were the white planters, economically dependent on the merchants of Bordeaux and Marseille, but dominating a slave society, ideologically attached to privileges equivalent to those of a feudal aristocracy. At the bottom were the black slaves. In the middle were the mulattos, many of whom were freedmen, small businessmen and tradesmen; a significant number themselves owned slaves and were increasingly wealthy. By 1789 the mulattos owned nearly one-third of the property in Saint-Domingue.

Like the classic petty bourgeoisie, the mulattos played a pivotal role, switching allegiances rapidly depending on the situation. At the outset of the French Revolution, these gens de couleur(people of color) were motivated by grievances against the aristocratic plantocracy. According to the Code Noir (Black Code) decreed by Louis XIV in 1685, the freedman was to enjoy “the same rights, privileges and immunities of persons born free.” But a century later, these rights had been eroded so that “free” mulattos were forbidden to be on the streets after 9 p.m., to sit with whites in a public place, to bear a European name, or even to wear clothes of European material and fashion. Mulatto women could wear petticoats of cotton but not of silk, and petticoat inspectors stood at church doors requiring them to raise their skirts as they entered! The 40,000 whites in Saint-Domingue resorted to such grotesque discrimination to shore up their caste privileges against an almost equal number of mulattos, many of whom were educated in Europe and far wealthier than the poor whites.

When the French revolution refused to grant them political rights and threatened existing rights because of their color, the mulattos allied with the black slaves. But when the French bourgeoisie sought an alliance with them based on private property (i.e., slavery), they turned and fought the slaves. Thus in Saint-Domingue the questions of color and class were directly related, and the mulattos’ changes in position were an immediate reflection of this intersection. Originally a reflection of the distinction between property owners (mulattos) and slaves, the color hostility took on a life of its own in the course of the war against the French and the civil war which followed independence, laying the basis for much of Haitian politics even up to the present.

But the central preoccupation of French colonial society was to keep down the more than half a million black slaves. And for this purpose they employed extreme violence with barbarous ferocity. Vastey, a former slave who was secretary to the future black “king,” Henri Christophe, raged against the crimes perpetrated against the slaves of Saint-Domingue;

“Have they not hung up men with heads downward, drowned them in sacks, crucified them on planks, buried them alive.... flayed them with the Lash.... lashed them to stakes in the swamp to be devoured by mosquitoes...thrown them into boiling caldrons of cane syrup...put men and women inside barrels studded with spikes and rolled them down mountainsides into the abyss...consigned these miserable blacks to man-eating dogs until the latter, sated by human flesh, left the mangled victims to be finished off with bayonet and [dagger]?”
-cited in Robert and Nancy Heinl, Written in Blood: the Story of the Haitian People, 1492-1971(1978)

The French masters were even more brutal than their British counterparts of the time as they were “breaking in” slaves imported from Africa in the murderous work of clearing new lands.

In barely 100 years of slavery in the French colony such extreme repression produced a succession of slave revolts, beginning as early as 1679 with the uprising of Padrejean and recurring throughout the 18th century – in 1724, 1730, 1734, 1740 and the legendary conspiracy of Macandal, who organized slaves in the north to poison their masters and was burned alive at the stake in 1758. In addition, there were bands of escaped slaves, the marrons, in the hills. In the last years before the Revolution (1785-1789), as a result of the explosive economic growth, 150,000 slaves were imported into Saint-Domingue. Unlike in the American South in the 1800s, where most slaves were born in captivity in the U.S., fully 60 percent of all slaves in saint-Domingue were born in Africa. The Marquis de Rouvray wrote in 1783: “This colony of slaves is like a city under the imminence of attack: we are treading on loaded barrels of gunpowder.”

Beginnings of the Haitian Revolution

The French Revolution of 1789 overthrew the monarchy and landed aristocracy and brought the mercantile bourgeoisie to power. It proclaimed the watchwords of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity and issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Yet the bourgeois revolutionaries in Paris dragged their feet on equality for freedmen and looked with horror on abolishing slavery in the colonies. This seeming paradox is explained by the fact that the wealth of the leading capitalists of the epoch – the shipbuilders, merchants and slave traders of Bordeaux, Nantes and Marseille – was dependent above all on the enormous profits flowing out of the sugar islands of the Antilles. The Girondins, who took power following the execution of Louis XVI and the proclamation of the French Republic in 1792, were named after the region around Bordeaux, the Gironde. Even as the Revolution radicalized, it was not until the end of the Jacobin reign in 1794 that they reluctantly abolished slavery, and then only in the face of black revolt and to ward off an English attack on France’s most lucrative colony.

The successive stages of the French Revolution were directly reflected in the developing revolution in Saint-Domingue, but through the prism of race/color/class divisions of the plantation society. The first phase of the Haitian Revolution resulted from the debate in the French Constituent Assembly on the question of who should have voting rights. The Amis des Noirs (Friends of the Blacks), which opposed the immediate emancipation of the slaves, asked only for the rights of freedmen under Louis XIV’s Black Code. But despite their modest demands, the Assembly’s resolution of 28 March 1790 did not resolve the rights of mulattos. It decreed that “any adult male person” with certain property qualifications could vote, without specifying that freedmen were “persons.” (Slaves were considered “property.”) And implementation of the decree was put in the hands of the colonial assembly, which refused to promulgate it. Both the mulattos and the planters were infuriated. The balance of forces would decide.

The freedmen’s response came from Vincent Ogé, a mulatto intellectual who had been active in Paris among the Amis des Noirs. Disappointed with the decree of March 28, he returned to Saint-Domingue via the United States where he obtained guns and ammunition. He was joined by Jean-Baptiste Chavannes, a professional soldier who had fought with the French in the American war. The mulatto revolt at Cap-Français in October 1790 was quickly crushed; the leaders fled to the Spanish side of the island, but were captured and turned over to the French colonists. Even though they appealed to the common interests of whites and mulattos as slaveowners, Ogé and Chavannes were brutally tortured and executed on the wheel – at the opposite end of the square to that reserved for the execution of white.

Blood was flowing in the colonies, and the division among the slaveowners threatened to provide an opening for the blacks to rise up. Raymond, leader of the Amis des Noirs, pleaded for equality for the mulattos, arguing that “if nevertheless the blacks want to revolt, they will not be able to, because the persons of color, interested in keeping them in slavery, will unite with the whites and will then constitute a single class.” On 15 May 1791 the Constituent Assembly granted the mulattos some political rights, while constitutionally “protecting” slavery. These concessions were the cement that held together the French-mulatto alliance for the next several years. They were aimed at maintaining property rights and the vital economy of Saint-Domingue, all the more urgent in the face of the rising of the Paris masses and attacks on the French Revolution by the European monarchies. But it was already too late. While the Revolution was marking time in the metropole, the blacks were rising in Saint-Domingue.

Planters in the North were in revolt against the decrees of the Paris Assembly. They had arrested a mulatto leader, André Rigaud, a large landowner who had also fought along with the 800 Saint-Domingue “colored” volunteers at the siege of Savannah in the American Revolutionary War. French troops freed Rigaud, and the mulattos prepared to form a federation in the South. But before they could move, a black slave insurrection broke out. The leader was Boukman, a work-gang leader in Limbé, the same place where Macandal had launched his conspiracy. On the night of 14 August 1791, Boukman held the famous ceremony at Bois Cayman where the slaves vowed to revolt. A week later the insurrection was general in the northern plain – the richest and most prosperous area of the country. Some 200 sugar plantations and 600 coffee estates were laid waste and hundreds of whites killed. At this point, it was more an inchoate jacquerie (peasant revolt) than a revolution. When they attacked Cap-Français, they were defeated and Boukman killed.

The Rise of Toussaint Louverture

Yet the battle had been joined. It was at this time that Toussaint Louverture threw in his lot with the rebels. Toussaint was, as his best biographer, C.L.R. James has written, undoubtedly one of the political and military geniuses of the late 18th century. In ten years of warfare, he forged groups of illiterate slaves into a disciplined army which evoked the astonishment of European commanders and defeated both a British expeditionary force and the best troops Napoleon could muster at the height of his power. A British military historian, Fortescue, has put total British losses at 100,000, including 40,000 dead – more than the total losses of Wellington’s army from all causes in the Spanish Peninsular campaign. The French lost over 55,000 soldiers in Saint-Domingue, including veteran troops of Napoleonic victories.

After Boukman’s death, Toussaint rose rapidly. A small, frail man with an iron will, Toussaint had led a relatively privileged life under an enlightened master. He was literate and had read widely, including the 1780 treatise on the politics and economics of the Indies by Abbé Raynal, who declared of the fugitive slaves: “Those lightnings announce the thunder. A courageous chief only is wanted.” From Caesar’s Commentaries he derived valuable military knowledge. He had already gained organizational experience, having risen to the position of steward of livestock, in charge of hundreds of slaves and foremen. With this background, at the age of 45, “Old Toussaint” joined the slave revolt. But with the Constituent Assembly under Girondins in alliance with the mulattos, the former slaves faced the combined forces of the mulattos and the French.

The blacks were considered outlaws, to be dealt with as such. In order to give himself time and establish a safe retreat, Toussaint formed a temporary alliance with the Spanish, retaining his freedom of movement and command, and the organization integrity of his forces. Nevertheless, Toussaint was on the verge of failure when Louis XVI was executed in January 1793. The British, seeing an opportunity both to defeat the hated Revolution and regain a monopoly of trade in cotton, indigo, coffee – and slaves! – declared war on France and prepared to seize the French colonies in the Antilles. The threat of invasion of France and the Paris masses’ demands to halt the spiraling price of food brought the Jacobins to power. Still the Revolution refused to come to grips with the question of slavery. But the all-sided civil war in Saint-Domingue forced the issue.

As the Republic was in its birth pangs, Paris had dispatched three commissioners led by the right-wing Jacobin Sonthonax. By the summer of 1793, he had pacified the South by placing the mulatto leader Rigaud in command, and defeated a royalist uprising in the North by forming black regiments with the promise of freedom to all those who fought against their former masters. On August 29, faced with a British fleet at sea, a Spanish invasion on land and Cap-Français in ruins, he took the fateful step, abolishing slavery with the proclamation: “The slave-drivers and cannibals are no more.... The Republic desires liberty and equality among all men regardless of color; kings are content only amid slaves.” Sonthonax acted of his own accord. As late as November 1793, Robespierre attacked the Girondins for wanting to undermine France by plotting to immediately free and arm all blacks to destroy our colonies.”

By happenstance, the very day Sonthonax decreed the liberation of the slaves, Toussaint issued his famous proclamation, declaring:

“Brothers and friends.
“I am Toussaint Louverture, my name has perhaps become known to you. I have undertaken vengeance. I wish Liberty and Equality to reign over Saint-Domingue. I strive to make them happen. Join with us, brothers, and fight with us in the common cause.”

Since Sonthonax’ decree had not been ratified by the Convention, Toussaint did not trust it and continued to fight against the mulatto armies under Rigaud and Beauvais. Faced with the British invasion and Toussaint’s progress, in February 1794, the Convention finally ratified the abolition of slavery in the colonies. When news of ratification reached Saint-Domingue weeks later, the British were on the verge of successfully occupying the entire island. Toussaint immediately broke with the Spanish and rallied to the forces of the Republic against the slaveholding British. In a series of lightning campaigns, winning seven victories in as many days, Toussaint’s army rapidly reversed the situation, and drove the British onto the defensive.

The Reign of Toussaint

Toussaint Louverture soon became master of the island. The governor was General Laveaux, who after being saved by Toussaint from mulatto rebels at Cap-Français acclaimed his rescuer “that black Spartacus foreseen by Raynal, whose destiny is to avenge the outrages on his race.” In France, in the meantime, the Jacobins had been overthrown in the coup of 9 Thermidor (24 July 1794) and the Directory was in power. Encouraged by Thermidor and by appeals from the colonists, the British hung on in isolated outposts for two more years before finally evacuating. The Directory formally approved Toussaint’s victories and increasing power. He was made Lieutenant Governor of the colony in April 1796 and commander in chief of the French forces in 1797. At the same time, the Directory rightly realized that the logical extension of Toussaint’s course was independence and, unwilling to accept something akin to a commonwealth status, which Toussaint desired, they began plotting his ovrthrow.

In 1797 Paris sent a new emissary as Sole Agent to her colony, [Count Gabriel Marie Joseph] Hédouville. Hédouville had secret orders to do everything in his power to curb Toussaint’s powers and eventually to eliminate him. Hédouville succeeded in poisoning relations between Toussaint and the mulatto leader Rigaud, so that the loose bloc between them became a de facto separation of Saint-Domingue into two entities: Toussaint in the rich plantations of the overwhelmingly black North, and Rigaud in the South, the historical center of mulatto pwoer. When Toussaint defeated the British, he refused to allow Hédouville to accept General Maitland’s surrender, accepting it personally instead. His triumphal entry into Port-au-Prince, renamed Port Républicain, as French representatives looked on, signaled his triumph. Yet Hédouville continued his intrigues, attempting to pit Toussaint’s nephew, Moïse, against him.

Finally Toussaint reacted, dismissing Hédouville, who fled back to France. His last act was to promote Rigaud to equal rank with Toussaint and to declare him the independent commander in the South. In his official report, Hédouville called on the Directory to “embitter the hate which exists between the Mulattoes and the blacks and to oppose Rigaud to Toussaint.” The mulattos were to be the beachhead for the return of French power and, eventually, the restoration of slavery. Toussaint obviously could not tolerate this situation and had to subdue the South. The bloody civil war, pitting blacks against mulattos, lasted about a year and cemented the distrust and even hatred between the mulattos and blacks. When Toussaint sent his lieutenant Dessalines to restore order in the rebellious army, Dessalines unleashed a bloodbath against mulatto officers. In response Toussaint is reported to have said: “I said to prune the tree, not to uproot it.

With the South integrated, Toussaint marched on the slaveholding Spanish half of the island (directly contravening the instructions of the French) and took it over in a lightning campaign. On 7 February 1801, he proclaimed in Santo Domingo the liberation of the slaves (Juan Bosch, De Cristóbal Colón a Fidel Castro: El Caribe, frontera imperial [1969]). In contrast to Dessalines’ later invasion and Solouque’s bloody debacle in 1844, Toussaint carefully avoided aggravating racial tensions, appointing a mulatto governor. Ruler of a unified and rich island, Toussaint now faced problems more intractable than those posed by foreign troops. Twelve years of warfare and civil war had devastated the island’s economy. Two-thirds of the whites had left or been killed (though three-quarters of the mulattos remained) and perhaps a third of the black population had perished. Ever since Sonthonax, blacks had said, “Moin pas esclave, moin pas travaye” (I’m not a slave, I won’t work).

The plantations were in ruin: Toussaint urgently had to salvage them. To restore productivity, he was forced to militarize the entire economy, placing planters and laborers under what amounted to martial law, eventually confining workers to the plantations. Anyone without employment was to be conscripted into the army. Instead of breaking up the large plantations into subsistence plots, he maintained them as the most efficient form of production. At the same time, he banished the whip, that symbol of slavery, and decreed that laborers receive one-quarter of the produce. Realizing that he needed the skills that only the whites and mulattos possessed, Toussaint left them in charge of the plantations. But he made them directly answerable to the black army, and purchased 20,000 guns from America. He would wave a rifle at public gatherings, shouting to the black laborers: “Here is your freedom!” His general staff was composed almost totally of whites, but his army was led by black generals.

Not unlike Trotsky, who following the October Revolution used tsarist officers in building the Red Army, Toussaint made use of the most talented and capable people he could find. And it worked: in the two years of his administration, Toussaint was well on his way to restoring the economy to its former wealth. There was a noted drop in black-mulatto hostility and thriving trade with the United States, from which Saint-Domingue imported foodstuffs and arms. But he was faced with an intractable problem: the Haitian economy was based on large-scale plantation cultivation of coffee, sugar, cacao. At that point in history, before the industrial revolution mechanized farm production, the only possible way this production could succeed was with a degree of labor discipline at least roughly equal to what had existed under slavery, whether voluntary or not. Nevertheless, freedom was decisive for the black ex-slaves. As C.L.R. James put it:

“The black labourers were free, and though there might be dissatisfaction with the new régime, as in the Paris of 1800, there was no regret for the old. Where formerly the labourers had worked from dawn until far into the night, now work began at five and ended at five. No employer dared to beat them. Dessalines whipped blacks in his province, and Toussaint threatened to take away his command at the least complaint.” –C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’ Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1963)

Toussaint’s use of whites and mulattos in positions of privilege caused wide-scale resentment among the blacks, in particular in the Northern province, governed by Toussaint’s nephew Moïse. In September 1801 revolt broke out, in some places under the slogan “Long Live Moïse.” Moïse refused to take a clear position, and the revolt was defeated by Toussaint, Christophe and Dessalines. Toussaint had Moïse shot.■

  1. 1. Francois Duvalier, a former country doctor known as “Papa Doc,” ruled Haiti from 1957 until his death in 1971. His son, Jean-Claude (known as “Baby Doc”) was president from 1971 until he was forced to flee a popular insurrection in February 1986, living since then in gilded exile on the Côte D’Azur in southern France on the many millions stolen from the Haitian treasury.