By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
After revolutionary times, Haiti became the world’s first Black republic. Its government was made up of former slaves, who had fought for freedom and won it with great sacrifice. Now, after an assassination, Haiti is more fragile than ever.
Last week, Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry fired two high-level government officials and found himself accused of obstruction of justice by a third. Henry fired Port-au-Prince’s chief prosecutor after the prosecutor linked Henry to one of the suspects in the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, which happened in July 2021.
The day after firing the prosecutor, Henry also fired Justice Minister Rockfeller Vincent. It happened within hours of Renald Lubérice, secretary general of Haiti’s Council of Ministers, resigning and accusing Henry of obstructing justice.
The turn of events compares strangely with the formation of the nation, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. In her video series The Great Revolutions of Modern History, Dr. Lynne Ann Hartnett, Associate Professor of History at Villanova University, recalled Haiti’s trailblazing foundation.
From France to Saint-Domingue
Amid the French Revolution, France’s National Assembly issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, announcing equal rights for all men. In the French colony of Saint-Domingue—now Haiti—free Black people saw the Declaration as an end to racial inequality.
When non-white property owner Vincent Ogé brought this argument to France’s National Assembly, it fell on deaf ears. He started an uprising back home on Saint-Domingue, which ultimately failed. Ogé was tortured and executed. A fuse had been lit.
“In the summer of 1791, thousands of slaves rose up in armed insurrections across Saint-Domingue,” Dr. Hartnett said. “The National Assembly in Paris now issued a decree intended to ease racial tensions, but this exacerbated conflict instead. The new law stipulated that all tax-paying adult males born of free parents would henceforth be able to vote.”
This gave about one-fourth of Saint-Domingue’s free men of color the right to vote. White colonists became frightened, news of slave uprisings on neighboring islands reached Saint-Domingue, and everything escalated. Free people of color gained more political rights from France, which alienated white planters. Meanwhile, Spain supplied the slaves with men and weapons in hopes to destabilize and annex the colony.
Revolution Was Only the Beginning
Finally, between 1793 and 1794, two envoys from France promised the rebelling slaves that if they laid down their arms, they would be granted freedom and enjoy all the rights of French citizenship. They even appointed a former slave and rebel leader, Toussaint Louverture, as Saint-Domingue’s governor.
“Let it sink in what a turnabout this was,” Dr. Hartnett said. “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.”
In 1799, Napoleon seized power in France. Louverture ignored him and signed treaties with Britain and the United States. Napoleonic forces invaded, the Saint-Domingue forces surrendered and Napoleon declared that slavery would be reinstated in the French colonies. Another uprising led to more repression by the French, but this time the rebels gained the upper hand and the French surrendered.
“On January 1, 1804, insurgents proclaimed the independence of a small new Caribbean country to be henceforth known by the indigenous name of Haiti,” Dr. Hartnett said. “Former slaves led the world’s first Black republic. It’s hard to imagine a more pervasive revolution.”