There is nothing more stirring to the blood than the quest for freedom, especially as it lies in the desperate hearts of those who have suffered the brutal lash of slavery. And sometime—in fact, much of the time—the right to freedom is begrudgingly returned only when those in power are threatened. Freedom is not something you ask for, it’s something you demand, even if that means wresting it violently from the grip of a hateful, ignorant society. History is rife with stories of mass enslavement, kings who built entire empires on the scarred backs of the oppressed, and the bloody slave rebellions that tried to right the scales of justice.
The precious token of freedom has played a pivotal role in many battles, but none so poignant, so immediate, as the uprising of those who have the most to gain—slaves. But what can a slave rebellion really accomplish? In American history, certainly, they often ended in mass lynchings and a renewed sense of angst in the white masters. No matter how far the slaves would push, no matter how many whites they might kill, they were eventually destined to collide with the establishment who would violently return them to their place. But what about those oppressed people who managed to say enough by raising a fist (or a musket, or a club, or an ax) and win?
From the Zanj of Iraq to Spartacus of Rome, it has been proven throughout history—every slave rebellion ever mounted was met with ten times the brutality and viciousness needed to beat down those people audacious enough to expect independence. All except one—the most successful slave revolt in history—otherwise known as the St. Domingue rebellion of Haiti that found its initial strength in Voodoo and its later victories in fearless strategy and determination. This eight-year uprising was so fierce, it set fire to an entire colony and changed the very mechanics of a racist structure.
From 1659-1804, St. Domingue was a French colony in the Caribbean on an island once known as Hispaniola, recognized by the Spanish who had controlled it for hundreds of years. The island name may sound familiar because it was the site of the first European settlement in the Americas, having been founded by the illustrious Christopher Columbus on his 1492 voyage.
But before any of these white explorers arrived, there were natives known as the Taíno Amerindians (descending from the Arawak people) who called their island home many names. Because there are no surviving texts from these people, their story remains untold, suggesting all historical evidence is the result of Spanish historians. But the name Haiti has always been verified as the term used by the indigenous people of the island, long before the great ships from Europe arrived on their shores.
Predictably, Columbus changed the name of the island when he arrived in the 15th century—the first affront in a series of appalling gestures. Not long after his arrival, 90 percent of the Taíno population began to die from exposure to the infectious diseases like smallpox brought by the newcomers, and those who did not perish were soon harshly enslaved by the Spanish colonists. But this dwindling group of natives was not nearly enough to satisfy the appetite of ambition, and in 1503, the colony began to import African slaves, believing them more capable of intense manual labor.
Hispaniola had developed into a fierce slave colony with a reported 1,000 Spaniards and 12,000 African slaves by the year 1574—but it would still be a while before the Africans found their inner power. The early 1600’s brought in a steady stream of pirates looking for a respite from the sea, and the Spanish became increasingly bored with the island, moving on to bigger and better regions on the mainland of America. In 1606, the pirate issue had become a bit of a problem for the locals, and all inhabitants were ordered to move inland as a way to establish safe, defensible townships. This meant roving French, English, and Dutch pirates were free to set up their own bases on the north and west coast of Hispaniola—and by 1665, King Louis XIV had decided he wanted it for himself, formally claiming much of the area amenably from Spain and renaming it St. Domingue. It then became the “Pearl of the Antilles” and the most prosperous colony in the West Indies, a thriving territory built on the bloodied backs of over half a million African slaves.
The sugar, coffee, and cotton industries of St. Domingue boomed, demanding a tremendous amount of manual labor from slaves who lived in windowless huts, painfully overworked and underfed. Because the cane was sweet, it was a temptation for hungry workers, and owners often employed metal masks to keep the workers from chewing on the valuable product.
As was the case in many slave scenarios, the oppressed were whipped, beaten, raped, and tortured at the discretion of their masters. But history tells us Haiti set the bar for barbarous slave practices, creating some of the most horrific conditions within an already vile business. Slaves were legally considered public property with no choice or freedom. But the slaves did have will—a fiercely rooted will—that began to simmer in the undercurrent of an oblivious society. Without even realizing it, St. Domingue had become a racial microcosm for the world, mimicking on a small scale what was happening in the United States and around the world.
On the island, there were wealthy white planters and the petit blancs like artisans, teachers, shopkeepers—most of whom owned slaves and were invested in the success of the institution. Then there were the free Mulattoes who straddled the tenuous line between black and white, able to enjoy autonomy on some level but never really finding equality. Their social standing was particularly tenuous, as they were allowed some measure of autonomy while still being restricted from many facets of Haitian society. They straddled the delicate line between black and white, living on the fringe as other and wondering about their value.
And then there were a few free blacks who had been granted their independence through unusual means, a right that never felt wholly secure. The black African slaves were lowest on the totem pole, living in the grips of savage slavery, always looking for a way to change their standing and improve their condition. Like a theatrical backdrop, the island of St. Domingue in the 1700’s perfectly set the scene for one hell of a racial uprising.
The match that would ignite the tinderbox of Haiti’s slave revolt came in the form of the French Revolution which broke out in 1789 and gave both Mulattoes and black slaves the inspiration to fight back against their government—and it didn’t take much. The situation on the island had become so dire and hideous, the colored people of St. Domingue lingered on the brink of something explosive.
Although the most reticent to join any sort of uprising, the slaves were actually the first to strike. They also had the most to gain from a slave revolt, a realization born on a dark, rainy night in the woods during the famous Bois Caïman Voudou ceremony. On August 21 of 1791, representative slaves from nearby plantations came together to confess their resentment and partake in a religious ritual (and strategic meeting) that would galvanize their aspirations and strike the first blow against an unsuspecting white society.
Under the guidance of Dutty Boukman, a prominent leader and Voudou priest, the participants in the ritual slaughtered a black pig thought to have magical powers, marking themselves with the mighty blood which would render them invincible against their French oppressors. Along with months of previous planning, this ceremony would mark the beginning of the most well-orchestrated and relentless slave revolt in all of history.
In the next few days, some plantations owners heard news of a coming rebellion but refused to believe such an indoctrinated system like slavery could ever be questioned. Their doubts quickly faded, however, as the slaves launched their insurrection in the North, vowing “to burn plantations and to massacre the whites, all at the same time.” Armed with torches, guns, sabers, axes, and makeshift weapons, the Voudou priest Boukman and his forces marched through the region, taking prisoners and killing planters, setting fire to every plantation they found and leaving a wake of devastation throughout the night. By the next morning, there were essentially no slaves left who had not joined the violent movement in some capacity, creating a revolt of about 2,000 strong.
Demonstrating their deft strategy, the marauding group then split into smaller bands set to attack designated plantations, laying siege to the cultural hub of the colony, Le Cap, and striking terror into the heart of the government and its citizens. It soon became clear to both slaves and whites that controlling this important city would dictate a great deal of the revolution’s outcome.
Just two days after the Bois Caïman ceremony, the area was rife with plots of destruction, and the slaves were gaining momentum and numbers as they marched into the Limbé district, seizing control and establishing legitimate military-style camps. Any slave who refused to join their forces was mercilessly cut down as an enemy, and by the end of the day, the finest sugar plantations of St. Domingue were devoured by flames and bloodshed.
The next evening, the slaves moved on to Port-Margot where they destroyed more plantations, eventually arriving in the prized city of Le Cap. But the city was well guarded, and the slaves were forced to march against real armed resistance for the first time, as the whites fired guns and cannons into the melee. The slaves were driven back but refused to give up, regrouping and returning by two separate routes to successfully seize the city. They held out for weeks against the planters who were ill-prepared for battle, disorganized, and injured. Simultaneously, slaves who had been relatively quiet up until then rose up in the northeast and, fueled by the bravery of their brethren, advanced like wildfire, burning down plantations and severing any communication between parishes in the upper Northern region.
Because so many slaves were left homeless as a result of the devastation, the slave forces rose to 15,000 strong, creating a hardened, violent group of freedom fighters. All passivity that once existed on the faces of the slaves as they took orders from their masters had dissolved into masks of fury and determination. The planters sent frantic calls for help to Cuba, Jamaica, and the U.S., but with such a quick and targeted strike, there was no way to rescue the island from the grips of the angry rebels.
By September 8th, the rebellion had spread widely, becoming increasingly organized and militant, and leaving planters feeling devastated by financial ruin or, even more, just grateful to have escaped with their lives. The slaves then made some demands of the planters for better conditions and a laborer’s wage, all of whom were appalled at the idea of negotiating with those they used to command. Even further, to give in to the requests of the slaves would signal the end of white supremacy on a colony who “did not go to fetch half a million savage slaves off the coast of Africa to bring them to the colony as French citizens.” Just 13 days later, however, the Colonial Assembly at Saint Marc recognized the citizenship of mulattoes and free blacks, infuriating planters and heightening tensions in the colony.
But it seemed the folks in France did not agree, and they revoked the decree once more with the hope of restoring order in St. Domingue, a decision that only achieved the opposite. As a result, rebels in Port-au-Prince cut the water and food supply to the capital while Le Cap was burned to the ground by rebelling slaves.
“During those first weeks of revolution, the slaves destroyed the whites and their property with much the same ruthlessness and cruelty that they had suffered for so many years at the hands of their masters. The scenes of horror and bloodshed on the plantations, as whites hopelessly tried to defend themselves or, at best, to flee from the unleashed terror and rage of their former slaves, were only too reminiscent of the brutality that the slaves themselves had endured under the plantations regime. Yet as atrocious as they were, these acts of vengeance were surprisingly moderate, in the opinion of one of the best-known historians of that revolution, compared with the cold-blooded, grotesque savagery and sadistically calculated torture committed by their oppressors throughout the past. These were impassioned acts of revenge, of retribution, and were relatively short-lived.”
Although both the French and Haitian governments agreed to amnesty of free people at this point, the slaves had tasted freedom and remained intent on putting an end to the whites. Period. In the following months, Port-au-Prince is burned to the ground during a battle between Mulattoes and whites, and the movement has gained another prominent military leader, Toussaint Louverture, who would eventually lead them to success. But the enduring priest, Dutty Boukman, remained true to the cause, fighting alongside the slaves with bravery and determination, until he was killed in battle in November 1791. He was the first of the rebel leaders to die and served as a juicy token for the angry colonists who cut off his head and left it on a spike in Le Cap for all to see.
The rebellion went on for the next few years, erupting in different battles, all of which reminded the colonists not to disregard the slaves’ fury. Several open revolts occurred again, leading to more fear and destruction, and commissioners from France arrived to negotiate peace. But by 1793, Le Cap was deserted by white residents, and slavery was completely abolished in the North. British, French, and Spanish troops arrived to fight and push their national agendas, none of which worked, and rebel forces continued to dominate. By 1800, Louverture had consistently asserted his power and instituted new policies for plantations, sometimes at the disdain of his own rebel forces.
The rebellion carried on for another five years, as factions collided and the oppressed refused to give up their freedom quest. In 1804, the Haitian leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines finally proclaimed the island’s hard-fought independence, signaling the world’s very first black republic. But there were still plenty of places in the world, America included, where slavery was an acceptable and important industry, and the European world shunned Haiti economically, a factor many say led to its later impoverishment.
At this point, it seemed Haiti had achieved everything it could ever want—Dessalines was crowned Emperor and the constitution guaranteed the permanent abolition of slavery; all Haitians became free and equal, able to own land and determine their own lives—they had achieved a singular place in world history. Dessalines promised the French residents of Haiti protection, and it seemed all were destined to live in peace. But old feelings die hard, and the thirst for revenge had not been fully sated. In the beginning of 1804, Dessalines ordered the execution of the remaining French residents in the colony, despite his past assurances of safety, killing more than 4,000 citizens in his final campaign for black justice. And so it seemed, this slave revolt would do a lot more than claim its freedom—it would show the world just what it means to want something.
And the rest is history.