The Shadow of Saint-Domingue The First Great African Revolution

The Haitian Revolution was a pivotal moment in the history of the African diaspora, but it encouraged as much Black revolutionary zeal as it deterred.

Haiti hardly ever features among the great revolutions of history—the French Revolution and the ‘Glorious Revolution’ in Britain are usually the hallmarks in any discourse concerning the overthrow of political structures and their replacement with more liberal strains of government. However, between 1791-1803, enslaved Africans in Haiti started a rebellion and created their own nation. There is no other example of a successful ‘slave revolt’ in human history. The results of the Haitian Revolution, though, differ starkly from its more celebrated counterparts due to the consequences imposed on the fledgling country by colonial empires. What ought to have been a celebration of liberalism and equality in line with the tenets of the French Revolution was instead seen by the empires as a dire loss of capital to be recouped, by any means necessary. The influence of the Haitian miracle on Black radical schools of thought is clear, including on movements such as Négritude led by Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor. Thus, the Haitian Revolution is perhaps the single most remarkable political event in the African diasporic context, and its influence on political thought and action on the continent deserves more in-depth analysis.


Haiti is the site of the only successful revolt by enslaved Africans in recorded human history. In 1789, Saint-Domingue had an estimated population of 560,000 with 500,000 enslaved Africans, 32,000 European colonists and 25,000 free Black and mixed-race Haitians. The free population of Saint-Domingue consisted of a rich planter class and poorer free Black people. Despite their freedom, the wealthy gens de couleur of Saint-Domingue had no voting rights and faced discrimination—they had to wear identifying clothing and were forced to live in designated districts. The rejection of the monarchy and the subsequent efforts to create a more egalitarian society emboldened these marginalized colonial ‘citizens’ to campaign for French citizenship and full property rights. They eventually obtained rights including suffrage and the ability to own property after reforms in France in 1791, but the governor of Saint-Domingue refused to enact them on the island.

The Declaration of Rights of Man was passed in France on August 26, 1789. It stated, ‘In the eyes of the law all citizens are equal.’ Subsequently, Vincent Ogé, a member of Haiti’s wealthy class who had just returned from France, led a movement demanding equal rights for the ‘mulattoes’/gens de couleur. He was captured and summarily executed in public to serve as a deterrent. Instead, his fate inflamed the revolutionary passions of the free Blacks and the wider enslaved population. As the death rate on Caribbean plantations outstripped the birth rate, in 1789, Saint-Domingue was still importing enslaved Africans en masse from the continent to work on the island’s tobacco, cotton, cocoa and indigo plantations. So, many of the workers on Hispaniola (the island comprised of present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic) at the time would have been born in Africa.

It is widely accepted that enslaved Africans were much harder to control and provided much more resistance than those born and raised in colonies. As such, it is fitting that a Vodou ceremony in Bois Caïman was the spark to trigger the beginning of the Revolution. Vodou was perhaps the one uniting factor among enslaved Africans that escaped the control of their masters. The practice of Vodou has served as a platform for resistance throughout Haitian history. It served Haitians both as a form of psychological liberation as well as a preservation of their African identity and culture separate from their enslavement. Due to the years of anti-White sentiment built up among the Black populace, the revolt began with high levels of violence. Armies of enslaved Africans went from district to district, burning plantations and killing Europeans. These armies were all rival factions that had their own leaders and allegiances. Spanish forces in Santo Domingo (present-day Dominican Republic), and the British both had a hand in arming and supporting the slave insurrection as they were at war against France.

Ironically, France’s Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen, which promised the equality of men inspired a fight that threatened the colonial powers of the country. Evidently, little thought was spared for the conditions of the overseas departments when the laws were being passed. The declaration was universal in its language—promising rights to all citizens, but, in reality, it did not apply to enslaved people or free people of colour. Nevertheless, the ambiguity of the declaration offered a path to liberty to the citizens of Saint-Domingue. This ambiguity was wiped away in 1792 when a decree was passed in France that granted citizenship to freed, property-owning Blacks. This led the Haitian revolutionary forces back to seeking alliances with France. England and Spain had little tolerance for any sort of popular freedom. Under pressure from the revolt of enslaved Africans, and the threat of British and Spanish intervention, the French commissioner, Legèr-Fèlicité Sonthonax, declared emancipation on Saint-Domingue. This was later ratified in French law in 1794.


Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution, did not receive formal Western education. He was born enslaved on a plantation, and more recently, evidence has surfaced revealing that he eventually became a freed, land-owning Black man of Saint-Domingue. Louverture was fortunate enough to have had a relatively tolerant master. As such, Louverture was able to learn to read and write, and by all accounts maintained a good relationship with his master, eventually even helping him escape at the onset of the revolt. Louverture’s social mobility was unprecedented in Saint Domingue, and this allowed him a unique perspective on the experiences of the different classes. The segregation of Haiti’s population created clear identities and communities along the lines of colour, wealth, and class. Activating the repressed underclass, especially in the context of opposition, typically requires a revolutionary entrepreneur or vanguard. By all accounts, Louverture was a mythical general akin to a Black Spartacus who played this role to perfection.

As the revolt developed, Louverture recruited and trained his own army, leading battles using guerrilla warfare against forces much larger than his own to surprising levels of success. The name Louverture (the opening in English) was not his birth name (which was François Dominique Toussaint) and may, instead, point to his tactical prowess as a general.

In many ways, Louverture was the archetypal African revolutionary. Fearsome intellect, paired with magnetic charisma and legendary military achievements elevated him above his peers. His influence on Black revolutionary thought is undeniable, with figures such as Ralph Ellison, Édouard Glissant, and Bernard Dadié paying homage to him in their work.


By 1801, Louverture had defeated all his political rivals and conquered the entire island of Hispaniola. He established a paid labour force to ensure that the plantations remained productive and that workers could be compensated for their output. He then issued a constitution for Saint-Domingue that decreed that he would be governor-for-life, declared Catholicism the official state religion and called for Black autonomy, and a sovereign Black state. A liberal leader pivoting to authoritarianism at the first possible opportunity draws easy comparisons to Robert Mugabe, Paul Biya, Moammar Gaddafi, and a plethora of other African heads of state that overstayed their welcome in political power and subsequently restricted civil liberties and freedoms.

Unfortunately for Louverture, France became more hostile to Saint-Domingue due to the emergence of Napoleon and his imperial ambitions, coupled with the ruler’s uneasiness with a Black contemporary in France’s richest colony. To fund his military campaigns, Napoleon re-established slavery in the Caribbean colonies. He sent an expedition to subjugate Haiti and detain its military officers. The expedition was led by his brother-in-law, Charles Leclerc, as well as mixed-race officers that Louverture had exiled from Hispaniola. After months of protracted violence, the French and the generals of Saint Domingue came to an uneasy peace, signing a ceasefire agreement. Thereafter, Louverture was betrayed by his generals, Jean Jacques Dessalines and Brunet, and confined by the French. He was then deported to France and died while in captivity.


Once Dessalines realized that France planned to reinstate slavery in Saint Domingue, he led a campaign against the French forces. The French had been ravaged by yellow fever, and Leclerc died of the disease. Dessalines led his armies to victory after victory, culminating in the French defeat, which marked the end of the revolution. Upon taking control, General Dessalines declared the State of Haiti’s independence from France in 1804.

Haiti’s independence made Haiti the world’s oldest Black republic and the first independent nation in Latin America and the Caribbean. Shortly after this declaration, Dessalines proclaimed himself emperor and authorized the ImperialConstitution of 1805. This constitution called for: freedom of religion (Catholicism would no longer be the official state religion); additionally, all citizens of Haiti, regardless of skin colour, were to be known as ‘Black’; thirdly, it called for the indefinite abolition of slavery. Furthermore, no White men were allowed to own property on Haitian soil.

Not long after this constitution was approved, in 1806, Dessalines was killed in a coup by his generals and the island was fractured again with factional leaders staking their claim to different regions.


The island of Hispaniola, which is made up of present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic, was once the richest country in the Western Hemisphere. Between 1776-1800, around 250,000 enslaved people arrived from Africa, accounting for a third of the entire Atlantic slave trade during this period. Ever since the revolution, Haiti’s economy has been crippled by interference and intervention from Western powers, bad governance and corruption as well as natural disasters. During the early 1800s before the abolition of slavery in the West, the prospect of a republic led by formerly enslaved Africans was anathema to the Spanish, British, and French empires. Black freedom was placed in direct opposition with the advancement of Western society, and the retaliation from the West was severe. Revolutions typically succeed when there is collaboration between elites and popular movements against the incumbent regime. However, Haiti’s class differences persisted post-revolution. Formerly enslaved people typically preferred a lifestyle of subsistence; farming the land they owned for themselves. However, the elite class saw that economic might was necessary to fight off any further foreign interventions. The system imposed by the new regime was strongly skewed towards elites; they monopolized political and economic power. Those formerly enslaved did not receive enough civil freedom and were undereducated.


Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the fortunes of France’s empire were declining. France had just lost the Seven Years’ War of 1756–1763 against the British and was forced to renounce all their territorial claims to Canada. The economy of Saint Domingue was booming though. Consequently, the French never really gave up on reclaiming the island because of its economic importance. 20 years after the successful Haitian revolution, France demanded reparations for the ‘lost value of slaves’. The amount demanded (150 million francs) for France to recognize Haiti’s independence in 1825 is estimated to be worth up to $45 billion today and was ten times the amount demanded for the sale of Louisiana to the United States. Louisiana is more than twice as large as the entire island of Hispaniola in terms of landmass, so the reasons for this levy were not purely economic. It took the former colony diverting nearly all its revenue over 120 years to pay this sum.

In Haiti, these debts led to the imposition of draconian taxes, the underdevelopment of public health and infrastructure, and the lack of funding for education. Till today, France maintains an outsized role in the management of the economies of its former colonies. Most francophone African countries do not have monetary policy independence and are required to have their foreign reserves held by France.


In 1867, after the ousting of President Fabre Geffard, a provisional government created a new constitution in Haiti. This was the seventh constitution since the declaration of the republic, as new autocrats appeared frequently to seize control of the state and would draw up their own versions of the constitution. The new constitution abolished presidency for life and imposed four-year term limits for the heads of state. This constitution allowed Haiti to build up credible legal institutions amid increased stability. Despite this, the revolutionary trend continued and the presidential churn that saw most heads of state be exiled or killed was maintained until 1915. After the killing of Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, another autocratic Haitian president, US marines invaded Haiti to restore order and subsequently maintain peace and stability. Haiti at the time was plagued by political violence with guerrilla groups who could be co-opted to seize power at any time.

Consequently, the United States took control of Haiti’s foreign reserve, customs, public works, and police. The US also drafted a new constitution for Haiti; which Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was in the navy at the time, falsefully claimed to have written. Controversially, the new constitution allowed foreigners to own property in Haiti, which had been illegal since 1804. The US officially left Haiti in 1934 in response to mounting domestic opposition to reports of human rights violations, and increasing anti-imperialist sentiments in Congress especially after the results of the US intervention in Nicaragua. The occupation of Haiti was marked by martial law, racial segregation, and a lack of true development and promotion of the Haitian people. It did not achieve the supposed claims of building lasting infrastructure and fostering development through trade and education.


The assassination of Jovenel Moïse, the President of Haiti, in July 2021 is only the latest episode of Haiti’s seemingly unending humanitarian crises, which is a result of its dysfunctional social contract and history of violence and exploitation. The recent increase in political instability only exacerbates the combined effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic hardship and rising gang violence. But the conditions surrounding Haiti’s revolution were not unique to the island of Hispaniola. Similar events took place before the struggles of independence across nascent African countries, and it is obvious that the strategies employed to indict Haiti remain in use today in former colonies all over the world by the West to keep power centralized, and to maintain the unequal, extractive relationships that exist. However, the Haitian story is simultaneously the perfect motivation, and deterrent for any future Black revolutionary actors and states.

It is not a coincidence that the Haitian Revolution was not replicated in any other country afterwards. The attitudes towards Haiti’s independence can be seen just as overtly in Western and global institutional policies on the African continent today. The relationship between the West and Africa remains extractive, and African countries are still saddled with monetary dependence, foreign intervention in governance, and seemingly punitive measures. However, true liberty is always possible. Despite the efforts to silence what is perhaps the most radical revolution in recorded human history, the example of the Haitian people shattering their realities to forge new, freer lives remains inspirational. Haiti is the first site of decolonization as well as of neo-colonialism, which remain burning issues in African actuality

Correction (05 October 2021): an earlier version of this essay stated that ‘about 800,000  enslaved people accounting for a third of slave trade’. This has now been corrected to state that ‘Between 1776-1800, around 250,000 enslaved people arrived from Africa, accounting for a third of the entire Atlantic slave trade during this period’. 

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