Haiti’s Journey: From a Colony to a Semi-autonomous Possession


By Lynne Ann HartnettVillanova University

In the summer of 1791, thousands of slaves rose up in armed insurrections across the French colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti). There was chaos. The National Assembly in Paris issued a decree intended to ease racial tensions. But this exacerbated the conflict instead. It appeared as if the time for a massive insurrection had arrived.

Map of Saint-Domingue
A new law gave approximately one-quarter of Saint-Domingue’s free men of color voting rights. (Image: Mathew Carey/Public domain)

Inflamed Racial Tensions

The new law stipulated that all tax-paying adult males born of free parents would henceforth be able to vote. It gave approximately one-quarter of Saint-Domingue’s free men of color voting rights. However, white laborers without property were still unable to vote. So, with this decree, free people of color seemed to gain an advantage over the petits blancs—the white, predominantly young men, who didn’t own property and worked as artisans and laborers.

The order inflamed racial tensions rather than ease them. More broadly, white colonists from all sectors resented Parisian intrusion in what they viewed as a domestic matter. They stated that only white men would be permitted to vote for a new colonial assembly. This forced tensions to a boiling point.

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Rebellion in Saint-Domingue

With the free population of Saint-Domingue divided, and conflict and instability eroding France’s authority, the colony’s slaves gathered on Sundays throughout the summer to plan uprisings on the sugar plantations across the northern end of the island. And on August 22, 1791, they acted by burning plantations to the ground and killing the white colonists who stood in their way, while demanding that the rights of citizenship be extended to them.

Sketch of the slave revolt in 1791.
On August 22, 1791, the colony slaves burned plantations to the ground. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

By the end of September, more than 1,000 people were dead. And with agricultural production drastically reduced, the price of Saint-Domingue’s goods in France tripled. This fueled the anger of the Parisian working class—the sans-culottes—who would soon drive the French Revolution down an increasingly radical path.

Two former slaves, Jean-Francois and Georges Biassou, were among the leaders of the rebellion in Saint-Domingue. They organized tens of thousands of slaves into guerrilla armies that ransacked and burned plantations and murdered colonists.

Many of Saint-Domingue’s African-born inhabitants had previous military experience, serving as soldiers before they were enslaved, so, they made for an effective, experienced fighting force. Desperation drove the French to fight back brutally. White planters slaughtered old and young alike.

French Authorities Battle against the Rebellious Slaves

Spain soon became involved as well. It pushed men and weapons across the border from Santo Domingo to further destabilize the situation in hopes that this would facilitate the Spanish annexation of the colony.

In turn, France dispatched two civil officers, Étienne Polverel and Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, to serve as commissioners of the colony. Their first move was to convey the news that the French legislative assembly had granted political rights to all free people of color, regardless of property.

The point of the decree was to earn the loyalty and allegiance of the free people of the colony, as French authorities battled against the rebellious slaves. It was only a partial success. While the news did bring free people of color to the commissioners’ side, it also had the unintended consequence of driving other partners away.

White planters feared the pronouncement was merely the first step toward the abolition of slavery. And so they turned away from the revolutionary government of France and toward the British instead. British interest in striking a blow against France seemed an expedient way to achieve independence.

The First Pledge of Emancipation

The planters appeared to have made a wise choice as a new wave of violence in Paris during August and September 1792 swept away the constitutional monarchy in favor of a people’s republic. Four months later, Louis XVI lost his head on the guillotine. And by summer 1793, it was clear that the commissioners Polverel and Sonthonax had one of the most unenviable jobs in the world. Slaves, supported by Spain, wrought havoc across the colony; and planters and royalists allied with Britain were poised to overthrow the regime.

The two envoys from France, in danger of losing their lives and the colony, now made a daring offer. If slave rebels laid down their arms, France would grant them freedom, and extend all the rights commensurate with French citizenship.

There’s no indication that this offer was anything but an improvisation in the midst of emergency. But it was the first pledge of emancipation for the slaves of the New World, and it meant freedom for 500,000 souls. Also, there was no transition period, and former slaves didn’t owe an indemnity.

France Approves Emancipation

Painting of Toussaint Louverture
The French appointed Toussaint Louverture as governor of Saint-Domingue. (Image: Alexandre-François-Louis/Public domain)

Some insurgents, including the popular rebel and former slave Toussaint Louverture—who had been working hand in glove with the Spanish—were initially suspicious. But doubts evaporated after the Parisian National Convention sanctioned the emancipation offer in 1794.

The former slaves now took advantage of social divisions in the colony—and revolutionary upheaval in Paris—to leverage their freedom. It was at this point that Toussaint Louverture, who would come to personify Haiti’s revolution, rose to the fore. Recognized as a leader with military abilities, the French appointed him as governor of Saint-Domingue.

Louverture: Governor of Saint-Domingue

Thereby, the entire colonial social order had been inverted. Saint-Domingue had gone from a colony of a remote European power that enslaved hundreds of thousands of its own inhabitants to a semi-autonomous possession that not only had freed its slaves but was now ruled by one of them.

Louverture’s hands were full. While the slaves had been emancipated, battles still raged between whites, mixed-race individuals, and Blacks in Hispaniola, with the French, British, and Spanish all taking advantage of the ebbs and flows in power. Also, much of the colony’s former wealth had been compromised by the destruction that had accompanied revolution and civil war.

Louverture attempted to restore the plantation system in the north of the island—though without slave labor—but this proved to be a tricky proposition. And shortly after his appointment as the governor of Saint-Domingue, his allies in Paris fell from power.

Common Questions about Haiti’s Journey

Q: Who were the Petits blancs?

Petits blancs were white, predominantly young men in Saint-Domingue who didn’t own property and worked as artisans and laborers.

Q: Who were Jean-Francois and Georges Biassou?

Jean-Francois and Georges Biassou were former slaves. They were among the leaders of the rebellion in Saint-Domingue. They organized tens of thousands of slaves into guerrilla armies that ransacked and burned plantations and murdered colonists in 1791.

Q: Who was Toussaint Louverture?

Toussaint Louverture was a popular rebel and former slave who was appointed as governor of Saint-Domingue.

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