More than twenty slave revolts occurred in the years 1789–1832, most of them in the Greater Caribbean. Coeval with the heyday of the abolitionist movement in Europe and chiefly associated with Creole slaves, the phenomenon emerged well before the French abolition of slavery or the Saint-Domingue uprising, even before the declaration of the Rights of Man.
A few comparable examples occurred earlier in the century, but the series in question began with an attempted rebellion in Martinique in August 1789.
Slaves claimed that the government in Europe had abolished slavery but that local slaveowners were preventing the island governor from implementing the new law. The pattern would be repeated again and again across the region for the next forty years and would culminate in the three large-scale insurrections in Barbados, 1816, Demerara, 1823, and Jamaica, 1831. Together with the Saint-Domingue insurrection of 1791, these were the biggest slave rebellions in the history of the Americas.
But before that could happen, Saint Domingue experienced a period of chaos between 1792 and 1802. At one time, as many as six warring factions were in the field simultaneously: slaves, free persons of color, petits blancs, grands blancs, and invading Spanish and English troops, as well as the French vainly trying to restore order and control. Alliances were made and dissolved in opportunistic succession. As the killing increased, power slowly gravitated to the overwhelming majority of the population—the former slaves no longer willing to continue their servility. After 1793, under the control of Pierre-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, ex-slave and ex-slaveowner, the tide of war turned inexorably, assuring the victory of the concept of liberty held by the slaves. It was duly, if temporarily, ratified by the National Assembly. But that was neither the end of the fighting nor the end of slavery.
The victory of the slaves in 1793 was, ironically, a victory for colonialism and the revolution in France. The leftward drift of the revolution and the implacable zeal of its colonial administrators, especially the Jacobin commissioner Léger Félicité Sonthonax, to eradicate all traces of counterrevolution and royalism—which he identified with the whites—in Saint Domingue facilitated the ultimate victory of the blacks over the whites. Sonthonax's role, however, does not detract from the brilliant military leadership and political astuteness provided by Toussaint Louverture. In 1797, he became governor general of the colony and in the next four years expelled all invading forces (including the French) and gave it a remarkably modern and democratic constitution. He also suppressed (but failed to eradicate) the revolt of the free coloreds led by André Rigaud and Alexander Pétion in the south, captured the neighboring Spanish colony of Santo Domingo, and freed its small number of slaves. Saint Domingue was a new society with a new political structure. As a reward, Toussaint Louverture made himself governor general for life, much to the displeasure of Napoleon Bonaparte.
The reality of a semi-politically free Saint-Domingue with a free black population ran counter to the grandiose dreams of Napoleon to reestablish a viable French-American empire. It also created what Anthony Maingot has called a "terrified consciousness" among the rest of the slave masters in the Americas. Driven by his desire to restore slavery and disregarding the local population and its leaders, Napoleon sent his brother-in-law General Charles Victor Emmanuel Leclerc with about 10,000 of the finest French troops in 1802 to accomplish his aim. It was a disastrously futile effort. Napoleon ultimately lost the colony, his brother-in-law, and most of the 44,000 troops eventually sent out to conduct the savage and bitter campaign of reconquest. Although Touissant was treacherously spirited away to exile and premature death in France, the independence of Haiti was declared by his former lieutenant, now the new governor general, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, on January 1, 1804. Haiti, the Caribbean, and the Americas would never be the same as before the slave uprising of 1791.
The impact of the Haitian Revolution was both immediate and widespread. The antislavery fighting immediately spawned unrest throughout the region, especially in communities of Maroons in Jamaica, and among slaves in St. Kitts. It sent a wave of immigrants flooding outward to the neighboring islands, and to the United States and Europe. It revitalized agricultural production in Cuba and Puerto Rico. As Alfred Hunt has shown, Haitian emigrants also profoundly affected American language, religion, politics, culture, cuisine, architecture, medicine, and the conflict over slavery, especially in Louisiana. Most of all, the revolution deeply affected the psychology of the whites throughout the Atlantic world. The Haitian Revolution undoubtedly accentuated the sensitivity to race, color, and status across the Caribbean.
Among the political and economic elites of the neighboring Caribbean states, the example of a black independent state as a viable alternative to the Maroon complicated their domestic relations. The predominantly non-white lower orders of society might have admired the achievement in Haiti, but they were conscious that it could not be easily duplicated. "Haiti represented the living proof of the consequences of not just black freedom," wrote Maingot, "but, indeed, black rule. It was the latter which was feared; therefore, the former had to be curtailed if not totally prohibited." The favorable coincidence of time, place, and circumstances that produced a Haiti failed to materialize again. For the rest of white America, the cry of "Remember Haiti" proved an effective way to restrain exuberant local desires for political liberty, especially in slave societies. Indeed, the long delay in achieving Cuban political independence can largely be attributed to astute Spanish metropolitan use of the "terrified consciousness" of the Cuban Creoles to a scenario like that in Saint Domingue between 1789 and 1804. Nevertheless, after 1804, it would be difficult for the local political and economic elites to continue the complacent status quo of the mid-eighteenth century.
Haiti cast an inevitable shadow over all slave societies. Antislavery movements grew stronger and bolder, especially in Great Britain, and the colonial slaves themselves became increasingly more restless. Most important, in the Caribbean, whites lost the confidence that they had before 1789 to maintain the slave system indefinitely. In 1808, the British abolished their transatlantic slave trade, and they dismantled the slave system between 1834 and 1838. During that time, free non-whites (and Jews) were given political equality with whites in many colonies. The French abolished their slave trade in 1818, although their slave system, reconstituted by 1803 in Martinique and Guadeloupe, limped on until 1848. Both British and French imperial slave systems—as well as the Dutch and the Danish—were dismantled administratively. The same could be said for the mainland Spanish-American states and Brazil. In the United States, slavery ended abruptly in a disastrous civil war. Spain abolished slavery in Puerto Rico (where it was not important) in 1873. The Cuban case, where slavery was extremely important, proved far more difficult and also resulted in a long, destructive civil war before emancipation was finally accomplished in 1886. By then, it was not the Haitian Revolution but Haiti itself that evoked negative reactions among its neighbors.
By FRANKLIN W. KNIGHT [http://www.swagga.com/haitian.htm]