The Haitian Revolution was a series of battles fought between occupying French forces under the supreme command of Napoleon Bonaparte and self-liberated slave people in the nation of Haiti. At the end of the bloody insurgency, the French were ejected out of the country and the enslaved natives including people of African ascent and Mullatos took over the running of the state. Many historians attribute the successful uprising as the turning point for enslavement both in the Atlantic regions, in the Americas, and throughout the world. Furthermore, the success of the revolution in creating the free state of Haiti, ruled by non-whites and freed slaves, set a precedent for the slave abolishment movement in other places around the world.
In this essay, we shall evaluate the origin of the Haitian Revolution with special emphasis on how the French Revolution back in France and the Enlightenment movement sweeping through the civilized world at the time contributed to the revolt. Furthermore, this paper shall address the contribution of classism to the revolt as well as the impact and legacy of the Haitian Revolution to the rest of America. The article hypothesizes that the Haitian slave economy was essentially a flawed concept that was bound to collapse and that the external factors simply served as the trigger to an already precarious situation. We also theorize that the age of Enlightenment was in a way responsible for the French Revolution which ultimately triggered the Haitian Revolution.
From time to time, revolutionary ideas sweep through the globe and change at a fundamental level the basic beliefs of men. One such event was the Enlightenment age in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (Nicholson, 2006). The basic concept of the Enlightenment was that all men are created equal and that no one has the right to use the other for personal financial gain. The Enlightenment also introduced the concept of free rule and representative government as opposed to the monarchical regimes that reigned at the time.
According to the Saylor Foundation (n.d.), the French Revolution was a period of widespread political and social turmoil that was responsible for the overthrowing of the monarchial leaders and installation of the republican form of government. The revolution enabled Napoleon Bonaparte to seize power and establish an absolute dictatorship that enabled him to wage war on vast territories of the European continent. These wars were waged all around the world, from the Middle East colonies to Caribbean outposts. At this time, the Catholic Church through its clergy held great sway over French local and foreign policies. As French citizens marched on the Bastille and forced the declaration of equal rights to all men, French colonies remained deeply volatile with hundreds of thousands of oppressed slaves who could revolt at any time. The Haitian Revolution was one such revolt in the aftershocks of the French Revolution.
According to Ghachem, (2004), the colony of Haiti was divided into three main groups based on birth and culture. These groups were the colonists, the freed slaves often of mixed-race, and the slaves imported from Africa. However, divisions among the different groups ensured that Haiti hardly witnessed harmonious co-existence between members of the different classes. Among the colonists, there existed two fractured groups of plantation owners and the low-class white people who served in white-owned farms doing administrative duties. Among the slaves were divisions between Haitian-born and African slaves, with mutual hatred between all these factions. The tensions were further exacerbated by runaway slaves who terrorized white farms for the popular commodity of the colony -sugar- and other items for their sustenance. As the runaways became more organized and grew in number, they presented a serious threat to the continued French occupation of Haiti.
When the declaration of equal rights for all people in France was signed, the first reaction was for the colonist farm-owners to try and disconnect themselves from the government and make more profit from a regulation-free business. The instability that crept up during this time strengthened the oppressed African slaves and created an environment of loathing and distrust between the different classes. Freed slaves who were part of the Enlightenment and who knew about the overthrow of the French monarchy back at home instigated the insurrection by empowering the harshly discriminated slaves and freedmen. Through mass assassinations and acts of extreme violence like rape, pillage, torture, and mutilation, the slaves instigated a civil war with their colonial masters that quickly escalated to open warfare that raged all through the last decade of the eighteenth century (Saylor Foundation, n.d.).
The revolt was so successful because the slaves outnumbered their colonial masters approximately six to one. By mere numbers, the slaves were able to withstand the better armed and resourced whites and ultimately overrun them at the Battle of Vertieres to win the war in 1804 (Saylor Foundation, n.d.). The loss of the North America colony of Haiti greatly weakened the French economy as it generated a lot of revenue from the sugar and other commodities that were grown under its auspices there. Other slaves were also motivated to start challenging the old colonial world order of European domination. Slaves started realizing that they could demand and fight for better treatment from their slave masters and win. While the revolution left some encouraging legacies and empowered other enslaved populaces to revolt, the heavy reparations placed over the Haitian government by the French in exchange for recognition left the country very impoverished for centuries to come (Ghachem, 2004).
In conclusion, the Haitian Revolution followed the French Revolution that was in turn incited by the Age of Enlightenment and its constituent philosophies of equality for all mankind and government of the people. The Haitian Revolution set an example for slaves in the rest of America and was responsible for future slave revolutions that followed. However, the inability of the Haitians to flee the yoke of oppression from the French from the reparations imposed for lost slaves paints a sad picture of continued indirect oppression.
Ghachem, M. W. (2004). The Haitian Revolution, 1789-1804: An exhibition at the John Carter Brown Library. Providence: John Carter Brown University
n.a. (n.d.). The Haitian Revolution. Washington, D.C.: The Saylor Foundation Nicholson, R. (2006). The Enlightenment and Its Effects on the Haitian Revolution of 1789-1804. McNair Scholars Journal, 10(1), 89-96
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