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Haitian Revolution 1791-1804

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Haiti revolution was a forerunner and a model for the anti-colonialism movements in many third world countries that came later. During the era of abolishment, there were several attempts by the African slaves to champion for their cause. One of such historical attempt was The Haitian Revolution between 1791 and 1804. This was one of the radical attempts by African slaves for self emancipation in the whole of the Western Hemisphere. Arnold et al.  (1994) assert that the Haiti revolution was not only a major attempt by the African slaves for self emancipation but it also led to the establishment of Haiti as free republic under black majority rule. Haiti therefore became the first republic in the world to be government by people of African origin. It marked the end of French rule in Haiti which was by then known as Saint-Domingue. The Haitian Revolution starting from 1791was the hallmark of a number of revolutions by the French enslaved blacks in the slavery era. Therefore we can argue that Haiti revolution was a forerunner and a model for the anti-colonialism movements in many third world countries that came later.

The course of the revolution

The Haitian revolution can be considered as vibrant struggle that lead to the emancipation of the more than 500,000 blacks in the revolution. (Hart, 2002) In 1791, these African slaves took arms and rose against British, Spanish and French imperialism which culminated in the initial emancipation and later to their independence in 1804.

In the ear when European countries subdivided the world as their own property, Saint Domingue colony was perhaps the most prosperous French colony with one of the highest agricultural production in the Caribbean region. Saint Domingue colony had supplied France with important food material in an era when the French revolution took place around 1789. Haiti used to supply not only France but half of the European countries with agricultural products like sugar, coffee, cotton, and others which means it was not only important  to France but to the  rest of Europe.  Economic statistics shows that more than two thirds of France’s foreign trade was based on the agricultural production from the island. (Alvin, 2006)

However it was sad that the slaves who provided labor for the colony were not treated well. They were exposed to all forms of inhuman practices. Most often there were not limits to the sex and age in labor provision and men, women and children were forced to labor in French farm. However, the colonial master made a mistake by increasing the number of African slaves. (Hart, 2002)From 1787, there were more than 40,000 African slaves who were shipped to Saint Dominguez. This meant that there was majority of the minority group in the Island. The politic of numbers helped the slaves to launch a successful revolt against their colonial masters.  This was one of factors that led to the eventual success of the revolution.

The French revolution had a lot of impact on the revolution. The declaration of human rights in 1788 declared all men to be free and equal and this was one of the causes for the slaves to rise upon realizing the status. The situation back in France meant that French were more occupied with their revolution and could not concentrate on what was happening in their colonies. In 1791, slaves under the leadership of Boukman set fire on the fertile fields of Plaine du Nord and later they took control of the whole northern part destroying colonial properties.  French forces could not deal with revolution as major disturbances followed under the leadership of Jean Francois and Georges Biassou. In 1792, the French legislatures declared the equality of all people in all French colonies. This means that there were equal rights to the gens de couleur although it did not mean the end of slavery.  This revolution was ignited by Vodou service which had been organized by Boukman. The Vodoun ceremony helped to bring people together and provided a spirituality movement that united people against French slavery. Vodoun service had been described in four words which shaped the course of the revolution in term of coercion, resistance, acculturation and appropriation. (Hart, 2002)

Although there were many leaders of the French revolution, Toussaint Louverture is remembered to have been one of the most admired black commander who was self educated and a former slave. Initially Toussiant had fought alongside the Spanish crown just like Francois and Biassou.  When England understood the situation in Saint Domingue, they came in to fight against the revolution which means that they were fighting against France for instituting free status to all slaves despite their color. English though that his would have serious implication on their colony. (Hart, 2002)

Therefore when English invaded Saint Dominigue, Toussaint promised to fight on the French side against the English on condition that all slaves in Saint Domingue would be set free. Many of the enslaved Africans were recruited in Toussaint’s army where he insisted on maintenance of high discipline. Toussaint fought hard and drove English and Spanish force away and the Saint Domingue was restored to France again.

Toussaint established his authority in the Island. He did not want to govern the island with France and therefore he used all means to edge influential French administrators. However there was a sharp division between freed African slaves and gens de coleur who were light skinned and considered close to colonial masters. This sharp division force Toussaint to assert his authority to edge away his rivals. His leadership successfully defeated English expeditionary forces which had invaded the Island in 1798 further reestablishing his rule. In 1801, Toussaint lead a successful invasion of the Santo Domingo and freed all slaves there. After his success in Santo Domingo he issued a constitution for Saint Domingue declaring that he would rule for life. This did not go well with Napoleon Bonaparte. (Grant and Bishop, 2002)

In 1801, Bonaparte sent and expeditionary forces to attack the island and restore the initial French status and slavery. The expedition force also consisted of the mulatto who had been edge out of the rule of that country three years earlier. In the course of the war, some of his allies defeated to the French side and Toussaint was offered freedom in exchange of integration of his forces to the French army. However he was deceived and shipped to France in 1802 where he died imprisoned at Fort de Joux.

It was Dessalines who was a former general in Toussaint army who lead Haitian war for independence.  His style of revolution led to destruction of French properties and carried out a scorched earth policy. On January 1, 1804, he declared the Republic of Haiti marking the end of French colonialism in Haiti. However his government had to pay France 150 million francs which was later reduced to 60 million francs in 1838 in recognition for Haiti independence. This indemnity for the freedom of the country bankrupted the country and mortgaged the future of the country to French banks. This bankruptcy seriously affected the operation of the Haiti government in provision of basic needs to its citizens. It also made it difficult for the new republic to establish a viable economy that could benefit its citizens. (Hart, 2002)


Haitian Revolution starting from the even of French Revolution in 1791 to declaration of the new republic in 1804 is considered as the first successful struggle of a minority group against slavery. The condition at France during the time of revolution and the declaration of human rights in France together with the aggressiveness of the Haitian leaders helped the slave to defeat France, British and Spanish invasion of the Island. Notable among the leaders who changed the leadership landscape of the Island was Toussaint who had first established his rule in Haiti before being deceived by the French forced and shipped to France. Dessalines finally declared the independence of the island in 1804. The indemnity the early Haitian government had to pay to France for recognition of its independence bankrupted the country and severely affected its ability to form viable economy.


Alvin, O. T. (2006): Flight to freedom. University of Oklahoma Press

Arnold, J.,  Rodriquez-Luis, J. & Dash, M. J. (1994):  A history of literature in the Caribbean: Hispanic and Francophone  regions. John Benjamins Publishing Co.

Grant, J. N. & Bishop, H. (2002): The Maroons in Nova Scotia. Formac

 Hart, R. (2002): Slaves who abolished slavery: Blacks in rebellion. University of West Indies Press

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