Slave Revolts in the Americas
Toussaint Louverture and
the Haitian Revolution
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.
“Do they think that men who have been able to enjoy the blessing of liberty will calmly see it snatched away?... But no, the same hand which has broken our chains will not enslave us anew. France will not revoke her principles....
“But if, to re-establish slavery in Saint-Domingue, this was done, then I declare to you it would be to attempt the impossible: we have known how to face dangers to obtain our liberty, we shall know how to brave death to maintain it.”
–Toussaint Louverture, “Letter to the Directory” (1796)
In January 1802, a French armada anchored in Samaná Bay on the east coast of Hispaniola. With 20,000 veteran troops and officers, the invasion force was the largest expedition that had ever sailed from France. It was sent, said Napoleon Bonaparte to his foreign minister Talleyrand, “to annihilate the government of the blacks in Saint-Domingue” (Haiti). From the heights overlooking the harbor watched Toussaint Louverture, the ex-slave who led the revolution that broke the chains of slavery, who defeated the British, unified the island and restored its prosperity after a devastating war. All that had been won through colossal struggle was now at risk.
Toussaint knew that Napoleon’s war fleet had come to re-enslave the blacks, just as surely as Napoleon could see that Toussaint’s policy led inexorably to independence. French admiral Le Clerc brought with him a letter promising to respect black freedom ... and secret instructions to restore slavery as soon as Toussaint was eliminated. “Rid us of these gilded Africans,” cried out Napoleon, whose wife Josephine was a plantation owner from the Antilles. But the racist ravings of the First Consul of France and his crack troops could not defeat the revolutionary black army fighting, literally, for “Liberty or Death.”
Toussaint Louverture was a man of the French Revolution. While he did not trust Napoleon, at the same time Toussaint could not bring himself to deny his political origins and break sharply from France. Toussaint presided over what was de facto an independent country. He signed treaties with the British and Americans. In May 1801 he promulgated a constitution proclaiming Saint-Domingue an “independent colony of France” and himself governor-general for life. But he did not come to grips with the fact that Thermidor had partially reversed the conquests of the Revolution. So at a crucial moment, he was politically paralyzed.
Napoleon’s campaign lasted from February to June 1802. During this time Toussaint’s forces bested the French militarily, but his failure to rouse the blacks to all-out resistance, to warn that French victory would bring back the slavemaster’s whip, politically disarmed his followers. As his key generals – Christophe, Maurepas and the mulattos Rigaud and Pétion – defected to the French, Toussaint concluded a truce. Shortly afterwards, he walked into an obvious trap and was kidnapped by the French. He was deported to a cold damp mountain cell in the Jura, 6,000 miles away, mistreated and deprived of medical care until he died in April 1803 at the age of 55.
Toussaint: Black Spartacus and Black Jacobin
All historians have asked the same question: given Toussaint’s brilliance, his awareness of what Napoleon’s expedition had to mean, why did he give up when he could have defeated the French and declared independence? Aimé Césaire, the literary champion of négritude and obedient satrap of the French colony of Martinique, speculates that Toussaint’s surrender was a “sacrifice,” that he would “leave in order to unite” blacks and mulattos against the colonial power. Nevertheless: “The truth is that the defeat of Toussaint was not military in nature but political.... There is a magic word that Toussaint always refused to say: the word independence” (Aimé Césaire, Toussaint Louverture ).
C.L.R. James writes that Toussaint’s “allegiance to the French Revolution and all it opened out for mankind in general and the people of San Domingo in particular ... had made him what he was. But this in the end ruined him” (Black Jacobins ). James, who was then a Trotskyist but later became a Pan-Africanist, contends that Toussaint alienated the black masses, refusing to take racial feelings sufficiently into account, and that this led to his downfall. He writes: “These anti-white feelings of the blacks were no infringement of liberty and equality, but were in reality the soundest revolutionary policy.” What Toussaint rejected was the mass slaughter of whites, carried out later by Dessalines following independence, which far from being “sound revolutionary policy” led instead to economic devastation.
Both James and Césaire assume that the logical outcome of the Haitian Revolution could only be independence as it ultimately occurred. They project 20th century national liberation struggle back to the dawn of the 19th century and equate the Haitian black struggle with the North American and Latin American wars of independence. This misses what was fundamental to Toussaint: the connection with the French Revolution, the vanguard of social progress of the epoch, the only capitalist country which (however reluctantly) had decreed the abolition of slavery. The Liberator of Saint-Domingue was on the cutting edge of the transatlantic bourgeois-democratic social revolution.
There is a direct connection here to Toussaint’s attitude toward the former plantation owners. He was motivated not by love toward the Saint-Domingue whites, whose bestial crimes against the slaves produced the black masses’ thirst for vengeance. Rather, as James writes, “he was convinced that San Domingo would decay without the benefits of the French connection.” While criticizing Toussaint’s supposed “unrealistic attitude toward the former masters,” James is right in recognizing that this sprang “from a recognition that they alone had what San Domingo society needed.” Similarly, with the French connection the white officers who made up Toussaint’s staff were in the forefront of revolutionary struggle; without it they became at best mercenaries, at worst fifth columnists.
For Toussaint, independence was not a “magic word” but required collaboration with the most socially and economically advanced countries. He recognized intuitively that an isolated Haiti was condemned to sink to a poverty-stricken subsistence level. As Leon Trotsky wrote in “Three Concepts of the Russian Revolution” (1939) referring to peasant revolutions in ancient China, “So long as the revolution maintained its purely peasant character, society did not emerge from these hopeless rotations.” In Europe, in contrast, a peasant uprising proved victorious only to the extent that it managed to establish the position of the city population’s revolutionary sector.” Haiti without a connection to the vanguard of the bourgeois revolution – France – was a peasant revolt without the city.
The key to understanding Toussaint, as C.L.R. James’ title accurately puts it, is that Toussaint was above all a black Jacobin:
“What revolutionary France signified was perpetually on his lips, in public statements, in his correspondence, in the spontaneous intimacy of private conversation. It was the highest stage of social existence that he could imagine.... No one else was so conscious of its practical necessity in the social backwardness and primitive conditions of life around him.”
Toussaint desperately tried up to the end to influence the course of the French Revolution, linking up with the most advanced elements embodied by the Jacobins. But following the overthrow of the Jacobins on 9 Thermidor (27 July 1794), a political counterrevolution set in which ultimately meant the reestablishment of slavery in the colonies. The defeat of Toussaint in Saint-Domingue was not due to some “unrealistic attitude” toward whites, but was the direct consequence of the defeat of Robespierre and Saint-Just in Paris.
The triumph of Thermidorean reaction with the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte cut short the international spread of the revolutionary-democratic wave. For blacks in Hispaniola it meant that without an alliance with an advanced country where the industrial revolution was taking hold, like France, an isolated national independence was the only alternative to the reimposition of slavery, as the “party of property” decapitated the Jacobin revolutionaries, white and black.
Dessalines and Thermidor
Following Toussaint’s death, Dessalines broke with the French, ripped the white stripe out of the Tricolor and began the struggle for independence. When news of the restoration of slavery in Guadeloupe reached Saint-Domingue in July 1803, the revolt became general. In six months, it was all over. The French withdrew in December, independence was declared on 1 January 1804, and the new state was named Haiti (Ayiti is an Arawak Indian word meaning mountains). The annihilation of the Napoleonic armies led immediately to Napoleon’s decision to abandon further expansion into the Americas and thus opened the door to the Louisiana Purchase of 1804.
Dessalines fought and won the final battle for independence. Today the Haitian left uncritically accepts the Duvalierist glorification of Dessalines as “founder of the nation.” But Dessalines succeeded where Toussaint failed precisely because he brought Thermidor to Saint-Domingue.
While Dessalines’ Declaration of Independence speaks eloquently of freedom, it does not mention Equality or Fraternity. In symbolic imitation of Napoleon, he had himself crowned Emperor Jacques the First in October 1804. As a result of Dessalines’ large-scale slaughter of whites (although it pales in comparison with the standard treatment those same whites had routinely inflicted on black slaves) he destroyed the trained cadres crucial to economic progress. For the masses of blacks, he reintroduced whipping in barely disguised form with the liane (a lash made up of vines), as a means of ensuring labor discipline.
To his advisors who protested that the masses should be provided with moral eucation in the spirit of the French Revolution, Dessalines replied: “you are wrong: the laborers can be controlled only by fear of punishment and even death; I shall lead them only by these means; my ‘morale’ shall be the bayonet.”
Within two years, there was a widespread revolt. Desalines was assassinated by his own army in October 1806 and his body stoned by the crowd as it was dragged through Port-au-Prince. The country split. After 1806 the black north was ruled by Christophe and the mulatto south first by Rigaud and then Pétion. Christophe instituted an autocratic regime in the north, while in the mulatto south the forms of a republic were maintained. But there the plantations were broken up into small plots and the economy rapidly declined toward bare subsistence level, with the new mulatto bourgeoisie firmly in the saddle. It was not until 1820 that Haiti was reunited under the mulatto Boyer following Christophe’s death.
Haiti and Caribbean Slave Revolts
But as the ex-slaves of Saint-Domingue were defeating the colonial armies of Britain and France, they were not alone. The Haitian Revolution sparked slave revolts throughout the Caribbean: more than that, it linked them to international bourgeois-democratic revolution.
From the beginning of the plantation system, slaves had risen up to throw off their chains of servitude. The first black slave uprising in the New World was recorded in 1522, on the island of Hispaniola, when West African Wolofs fled from the sugar estate of Admiral Diego Colon. From then on, slave risings occurred almost yearly during the 16th and 17th centuries on one or another Caribbean island.
The slave uprisings were everywhere viciously repressed. Those who escaped fled into the interior to set up colonies of maroons (marrons in French, cimarrones in Spanish). Maroons frequently sought to come to terms with the slaveholders, tracking down runaways and aiding in suppressing slave revolts, yet the planters turned on them, finding the existence of communities of free blacks intolerable. However, in the maroon revolts, slaves at most sought to escape the master’s whip, never to overthrow the system of slavery.
The Haitian Revolution changed all that, shifting the goal from restoration of primitive communal African social relations to the spread of social revolution. And this was made possible precisely by the combination of the greatest slave revolt of all with the bourgeois revolutions in France. As Eugene Genovese has written, “the French Revolution provided the conditions in which a massive revolt in Saint-Domingue could become a revolution in its own right”:
“By the end of the eighteenth century, the historical context of the slave revolts shifted decisively from attempts to secure freedom from slavery to attempts to overthrow slavery as a social system. The great black revolution in Saint-Domingue marked the turning point.”
Saint-Domingue was no backwater but the world’s most lucrative colony, linked to the most dynamic sector of French capitalists. The ex-slaves of Hispaniola did not seek to erect an “oversized maroon colony” but joined with Parisian in the vanguard of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. As Genovese notes: “The Haitian Revolution, in contradistinction to one more rising of slaves, would have been unthinkable without the French Revolution.” And their fates were necessarily linked.
But before the (failed) Napoleonic invasion of Saint-Domingue, in the heyday of Jacobinism, the struggle for liberty, equality, fraternity and the destruction of slavery spread throughout the Caribbean, irrespective of the colonial master. An American historian has noted:
“...British slaves in most colonies were agitated by the potential of revolutionary unrest elsewhere and in Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and Grenada took an important part in actual uprisings, which included radical whites as well as free coloreds, Caribs and maroons.”
–Michael Craton, Testing the Chains: Resistance to Slavery in the British West Indies (1962)
Much of this story turns around the activities of Victor Hugues, a mulatto Jacobin leader dispatched as a Republican commissioner to carry the revolution to the Windward Islands. Hugues came with only 1,500 men, a guillotine to impose revolutionary terror, and above all a printing press to publish the revolutionary decree of 16 Pluviose of Year II (4 February 1794) abolishing slavery in the colonies. Landing in Guadeloupe, he raised an army of ex-slaves who quickly drove out the British invaders. Soon Hugues was dispatching emissaries throughout the Antilles.
In 1795 revolts broke out in Grenada, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, Dominica and Jamaica. As a result, the British had to weaken their expeditionary force in Saint-Domingue. The first big rebellion was that led by the mulatto French planter Julien Fédon in Grenada. The mulattos, chafing under British colonial discrimination, sent delegates to Hugues in Guadeloupe who supplied them with arms and ammunition. They gathered an army of several thousand slaves which defeated successive British reinforcements. By the beginning of 1796, Grenada was effectively a black republic with the British hanging on only in the capital of St. George’s.
Simultaneously Black Caribs in St. Vincent rose up together with French-speaking mulattos and likewise had bottled the British up in that island’s capital. Meanwhile, the largest British Caribbean possession, Jamaica, was racked by the last of several maroon wars. As a result of the revolt in Trelawney Town in July 1795, the British were forced to withdraw to Jamaica troops just dispatched to bolster the expeditionary force in Saint-Domingue being pounded by Toussaint’s black army. Even then, it took eight months to force the surrender of the last of the several hundred Jamaican insurgents led by Leonard Parkinson.
The Jacobin commissioners in Guadeloupe had also attempted to spark an uprising in June 1795 in Dominica, but the rebellion was discovered and crushed. Meanwhile, in the colony of Demarara (now Guyana) on the South American coast, slaves and maroons had revolted in 1795, the last year of Dutch rule. They were put down with difficulty as whites were divided between pro-British conservatives and partisans of the short-lived pro-French Dutch Batavian Republic. The unrest in the Windward Islands was crushed after the arrival in March 1796 of a British expeditionary force of 17,000 men.
The Haitian Revolution and Black Emancipation
Most importantly, as we have seen, the Haitian Revolution transformed struggles for black freedom from isolated, backward-looking slave revolts and linked them with the revolutionary-democratic tide throughout the Americas. Britain’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807, while reflecting the commercial interests of the English bourgeoisie whose Caribbean colonies were in decline, was strongly influenced by fear of contagion spreading from Hispaniola. The young black republic was seen as a beacon for independence struggles worldwide in the 1820s, the Greeks struggling for independence from Turkey appealed to Haiti for aid. Haiti responded by sending the only thing it could: coffee.
The Haitian Revolution also had an impact on the Latin American wars for independence. After Simón Bolívar had suffered a string of defeats in Venezuela, in 1815-16 Haiti twice gave him refuge and provided him with money and arms to return to the mainland to fight. At Haiti’s request, the Liberator proclaimed the abolition of slavery in Spanish America. But Bolívar, scion of a landowning family, repaid the aid of the black former slaves by never recognizing Haitian independence and refusing to have Haiti invited to his projected Congress of American States in Panama.
News of the black revolution in Saint-Domingue also spread to the American South. In the wake of the slave insurrection, large numbers of French planters fled to North America, primarily to New Orleans and Charleston, bringing their slaves with them. Toussaint took care to spread the news, publishing official notice in the Charleston City Gazette of the decrees issued by the regime after its consolidation.
From the early 1790s on, real or suspected slave revolts were ascribed to the pernicious influence of the French Revolution. Thus a 1793 report in Portsmouth, Virginia notes: “Our town swarms with strange negroes, foreign and domestic.... The Household family negroes are trusty and well-disposed, but many others did belong to the insurrection in Hispaniola.” In 1796 a series of recurrent fires in Charleston were ascribed to arson by “French negroes” who “certainly intended to make a St. Domingo business of it.”
The leaders of American slave conspiracies and revolts all looked to Haiti as an example. The undeclared war between the U.S. and France led Gabriel Prosser to expect French assistance for his aborted revolt in 1800. In Philadelphia in 1804 embattled blacks rallied against a racist mob attack under the shout of “show them a San Domingo.” And in the slave revolt in southern Louisiana in 1811, the largest in American history, one leader, Charles Deslondes, was a free mulatto from Saint-Domingue.
In many parts of the American South, free blacks refused to celebrate July 4th, celebrating instead Haitian Independence Day. In 1822, Denmark Vesey, who had visited Haiti, twice wrote to the Haitian president seeking aid for his revolt. His plan was eventually to escape to Haiti after seizing Charleston. Indeed, he originally symbolically scheduled the revolt to begin on Bastille Day [July 14], in honor of the French Revolution. Following Vesey’s revolt, South Carolina outlawed the entry of blacks from the Caribbean and the disembarkation of any black crewman coming from the region.
In 1825, Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri declared, “We receive no mulatto consuls or black ambassadors from [Haiti]. And why? Because the peace of eleven states will not permit the fruits of a successful Negro insurrection to be exhibited them” (Nicholas Halasz, The Rattling Chains ). The next year, slaves hijacked a ship and attempted to force it to sail to Haiti. Nat Turner, who rose up in southeastern Virginia in 1831, was also inspired by the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man.
Despite all the corruption an shortcomings, Haiti stood as a beacon to the oppressed of all countries. And its impact was above all to join the fight for black freedom to a broader revolutionary-democratic struggle. The prime example was the American Civil War, with the Emancipation Proclamation which finally declared the abolition of slavery, and the enrollment of 200,000 black troops under the Union banners. Haiti was the only former British or French colony which backed the North in the war, and it was only in the course of this second American revolution that the U.S. finally recognized the black republic.
Frederick Douglass, the great black abolitionist, summed up the impact of the Haitian Revolution in 1893 after spending several years in Port-au-Prince as the U.S. consul:
“We should not forget that the freedom you and I enjoy to-day’; that the freedom that eight hundred thousand colored people enjoy in the British West Indies; the freedom that has come to the colored race the world over, is largely due to the brave stand taken by the black sons of Haiti ninety years ago.”
Haiti has “taught the world the danger of slavery and the value of liberty,” he went on, and “striking for their freedom, they struck for the freedom of every black man in the world.” ■