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Haitian Revolution

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Haitian Revolution

In 1804, Haiti became the second free and independent nation-state in the Americas after the United States. It also was the first to end slavery and be ruled as a Black republic, becoming a beacon to millions of enslaved peoples elsewhere. Yet, few people know much about this Caribbean island's revolutionary history today.

What caused the Haitian Revolution? Who were its leaders? How did it change Haiti, and what were its consequences? In this Haitian Revolution summary, you will learn about Haiti before the revolution and how this slave colony rose up to claim its independence.

Haitian Revolution Causes

The Haitian Revolution is complex, and it was impacted by outside events. First, let's consider the situation on the island before the revolution so we can better understand the causes of the Haitian Revolution.

Haiti Before the Revolution

Haiti was a French colony in the Caribbean within the island of Hispaniola named Saint-Domingue. With fertile soil, the island became the most important producer of sugar and coffee by the 1700s. It was considered the most valuable colony in the Caribbean. With large plantations requiring grueling labor, these crops also encouraged slavery.

Did you know...

The French colony of Saint-Domingue made up about a third of the island of Hispaniola. Christoper Columbus had claimed the entire island for Spain in 1492. The name Haiti comes from the Taino indigenous peoples, who were almost entirely wiped out by European disease and conquest. The Spanish focused on developing the eastern side of the island in their colony of Santo Domingo (today the Dominican Republic). French pirates settled on the western side and established the colony of Saint-Domingue. After the Haitian Revolution, the new nation-state adopted the name Haiti in honor of the Taino name for the island.

There were four main social classes on the island before the Haitian Revolution:

  • White Planters - the owners of the plantations and wealthiest.
  • Wealthy Free People of Color - often were mixed-race children of French men and slave women. Some were very wealthy and even owned slaves and plantations themselves.
  • White Working Class - also known as the petit blancs, were artisans and laborers.
  • Slaves - many of the slaves had recently arrived from Africa as brutal conditions and treatment prevented reproduction.

By 1800, Haiti's population was 90% slaves, and this tiny island was home to more slaves than anywhere but Brazil. The inequality and disproportionate share of the population held in slavery was a recipe for revolution.

Racial tensions between free blacks and the white working-class were also high, and racist attitudes were deeply ingrained. However, events in France would lead to calls for change in Haiti too, ultimately inspiring the Haitian Revolution.

The French Revolution

The French Revolution began in 1789. The "Declaration of the Rights of Man" issued by the National Assembly inspired all of the three lower social classes in Haiti to want change. Free people of color wanted legal equality and the same rights as whites. The white working-class hoped to improve their position and resented the privileges of both the planter class and the wealthy free blacks. Some even called for independence. Slaves wanted their freedom and were inspired by the ideals of equality for all men expressed in France's ideals.

The French Revolution

The French Revolution began in 1789, when representatives of the Third Estate, resenting the privileges of the First and Second Estates, took control of the Estates General meeting and declared themselves a National Assembly. Their initial goals were the establishment of legal equality for all citizens and a more fair system of taxation and representation in national decision-making. They issued the "Declaration of the Rights of Man" calling for all men to be equal, influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment and the U.S. War of Independence.

The French Revolution was complex and went through several phases. It eventually led to the execution of King Louis XVI, the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte as emperor, and the later restoration of the monarchy. However, the lasting impact of the ideals of legal equality and the call for "liberty, equality, and fraternity" influenced revolutions around the world, including the Haitian Revolution.

Causes of the Haitian Revolution Summary

The Haitian Revolution's causes can be summarized as:

  • Deep racial divisions and inequality
  • Calls for equality based on the ideals of the French Revolution
  • Desire for independence

Events of the Haitian Revolution

The Haitian Revolution began in 1791. Fourteen years later the island was declared independent. The Haitian Revolution went through several phases and was influenced by events on the island and abroad.

Haitian Revolution Begins

In August of 1791, a slave revolt began. Smaller slave rebellions and slaves escaping were common. However, this was a much larger and more organized rebellion and the slaves quickly took many plantations.

Haitian Revolution Leader Toussaint Lourveture

Born a slave, Toussaint Louverture–also spelled as L'Overture–emerged as the leader of the slave rebellion. He had military experience and molded the slaves into an effective fighting force. He was also a skilled politician and his leadership helped steer Haiti towards independence even as he collaborated with the French when necessary.

Haitian Revolution Leader Portrait StudySmarter

Haitian Revolution leader Toussaint Lourveture. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Foreign Intervention

In Europe, Revolutionary France found itself at war with England and Spain. Taking advantage of the instability in Haiti, the Spanish supported the slave rebellion as a way to weaken France. The British also invaded the island, hoping to take it for themselves.

Slavery is Ended

In February of 1794, the French abolished slavery. In exchange, Haitian Revolution leader Toussaint Lourveture pledged his allegiance to France and led his forces against the British and Spanish. His forces successfully maintained Haiti as a French colony.

To reward him, France named Lourveture as governor. He tried to walk a middle ground between securing legal racial equality and autonomy for the island while maintaining the sugar plantation system. By early 1802, there was a new constitution and the colony was in practice independent and autonomous.

However, it technically was still part of France, and developments across the Atlantic would lead to renewed fighting.

Napoleon Bonaparte and the Haitian Revolution

Napoleon Bonaparte had emerged as the new leader of France. To help fund his wars against Britain and a coalition of other European powers, he wanted to reestablish French colonial control in the Caribbean, including in Haiti.

Napoleon had reintroduced slavery in other French colonial holdings. So, when he sent a large force of French soldiers to the island in December 1801, rumors circulated slavery would be reintroduced.

Lourveture chose to fight against the French forces. However, he was captured and sent to prison in France, where he died in April 1803.

Haitian Revolution Summary StudySmarter

Painting of Haitian Revolutionary Forces fighting the French. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Dessalines and Independence

A new Haitian Revolution leader emerged on the island. Jean-Jacques Dessalines had been a lieutenant under Lourveture, and he continued the struggle against the French after Lourveture's capture.

The French soldiers suffered immensely from tropical diseases in Haiti such as yellow fever. Dessalines also successfully employed guerrilla tactics.

With the fortunes of war turning against him, in May 1803, Napoleon decided to abandon the idea of a French Empire in the Caribbean. He sold the colony of Louisiana to the United States and looked to withdraw from the Americas entirely. By November 1803, Dessalines revolutionary forces had defeated the last strongholds of the French forces, and they would withdraw from the island. Of the 40,000 French soldiers who went to Haiti, only 8,000 returned to France.

On January 1, 1804, Dessalines declared the former colony of Saint-Domingue to be the independent Republic of Haiti.

Haitian Revolution Leader Portrait StudySmarter

Haitian Revolution leader Jacques Dessalines. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Haitian Revolution Timeline

See a summary of the Haitian Revolution in the major events included on the timeline below:

Haitian Revolution Timeline StudySmarter

Haitian Revolution Timeline. Adam McConnaughhay: StudySmarter Originals.

Haitian Revolution Significance and Impact

The Haitian Revolution had a profound impact on the Age of Revolution of the early 1800s.

Haitian Revolution as Inspiration for Others

The Haitian Revolution had successfully established the second independent nation-state in the Americas. It was the first modern nation-state to be led by Blacks, and the Haitian Revolution was the most successful slave revolt in history. It was a beacon of hope to other enslaved peoples around the world.

Haiti also provided material aid to other revolutions. It provided refuge and arms and troops to Simón Bolívar in exchange for a promise to end slavery in the Spanish colonies of northern South America.

Ostracism

Fearing its symbolic power as independent and led by freed slaves, most of the European colonial powers and the United States ostracized Haiti.

Fears of a "second Haiti" would promote repression and resistance to reforms in the slaveholding states of the United States and other slave colonies such as Cuba. Even Bolívar distanced himself from the island after winning independence in an effort to build closer ties to Britain and France and out of fear of the Black population in his Republic of Gran Colombia rising up.

The Haitian Revolution's Devastation

Fourteen years of constant fighting had left the island devastated. Competing factions after Dessalines's death also engaged in further civil wars that prevented the island from rebuilding its economy. Haiti still suffers today from this legacy of exclusion and internal conflict.

The Haitian Revolution - Key takeaways

  • Haiti was a French colony before the Haitian Revolution.
  • The colony had a plantation economy that made it rich but also caused deep racial divisions. The overwhelming majority of the population were enslaved Africans.
  • In 1791, a slave revolt, partly inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution broke out.
  • By 1801, the slave armies under Toussaint Louverture had established firm control over Haiti.
  • Napoleon tried to reassert French and white control but failed.
  • Haiti was declared independent on January 1, 1804.
  • It was the most successful slave revolt in history, established the first modern Black nation-state, and was the second independent nation-state in the Americas.

Frequently Asked Questions about Haitian Revolution

Specific factors that caused the Haitian Revolution were inequality and the large numbers of slaves on the island who were inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution that called for all men to be equal.

The Haitian Revolution took place over 14 years from 1791 when a slave revolt began to 1804 when the nation state was declared independent.

Toussaint L'Ouverture led the Haitian Revolution in its early stages. After his death in 1803, Jean-Jacques Dessalines led the final stages of the revolution, declaring Haiti independent in 1804.

With Napoleon's forces failing to reestablish control in Haiti, he decided to abandon the idea of constructing an empire in the Americas and sold the Louisiana colony to the US in 1803.

The Haitian Revolution started in August 1791 when slaves on the island rebelled.

Final Haitian Revolution Quiz

Question

What other revolutions inspired the Haitian Revolution?

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Answer

US independence and the French Revolution inspired the Haitian Revolution.

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What was Haiti's colonial economy based on?

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Answer

Sugar and Coffee plantations

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How much of the population were slaves in Haiti before the revolution?

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Answer

90%

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Who became the leader of the Haitian Revolution, leading the slave armies?

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Answer

Toussaint Lourveture

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Why did the Haitian Revolutionary forces realign with France?

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Answer

The French promised to end slavery if they helped them defeat the Spanish and British forces on the island.

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Why did Napoleon send troops to Haiti?

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Answer

He wanted to rebuild the colony as part of the French Empire, including restoring white rule.

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How did Toussaint Louverture die?

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Answer

He was captured by the French and sent to France where he died in prison.

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Who became the leader of the Haitian Revolution after Lourverture's death?

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Answer

Jacques Dessalines

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What factors explained the French army's defeat?

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Answer

Diseases such as yellow fever and successful guerrilla tactics by independence forces.

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What was the name of the French colony in Haiti?

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Answer

Saint-Domingue

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Why did Haiti adopt the name Haiti after independence?

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Answer

It was the indigenous name for the island before coloniazation.

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How did the Haitian Revolution impact the Louisiana Purchase?

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With French forces unable to control Haiti, Napoleon decided to give up the idea of an empire in the Americas, selling the colony of Louisiana to the US.

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Toussaint Louverture was born a slave but later became free.

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Answer

True

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Toussaint Louverture fought against what 3 empires?

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Answer

France, Spain, and Britain

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Toussaint Louverture did what during the Haitian Revolution?

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He first joined the armies as a doctor but quickly became a leading general and later governor of the colony.

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Why did Toussaint earn the nickname Louverture?

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His skills as a military tactician, known for finding openings in the enemy's lines.

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Why did Napoleon decide to remove Louverture?

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Naploeon wanted to rebuild France's empire in the Caribbean and he thought Louverture's leadership of the colony was a threat to doing so.

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Why had Louverture been willing to ally with the French against the Spanish and British?

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They had promised to permanently end slavery.

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Why can Louverture's time as governor be considered as important for Haiti's independence?

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He ruled the colony as practically independent, signing a new constiution.

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How did Toussaint Louverture die?

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Answer

He was imprisoned by the French and died in prison from illness.

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When did Haiti become independent?

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Haiti became independent on January 1, 1804, about 8 months after Louverture's death.

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Who led the final struggle for independence after Lourverture's capture and death?

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Answer

Jacques Dessalines

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Jean Jacques Dessalines was born into slavery.

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True

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Jean Jacques Dessalines was treated well by his owners.

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True

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What leader did Jean Jacques Dessalines serve under in the Haitain Revolution?

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Toussaint Louverture

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Why was Dessalines given the nickname of "the Tiger?"

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He was a fierce military leader.

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Why did Dessalines resume fighting the French in 1803?

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He believed they intended to reintroduce slavery and white rule.

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When did Dessalines declare Haiti's independence?

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On January 1, 1804.

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Why was Jean Jacques Dessalines considered a brutal ruler?

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He instituted forced labor on the plantations and killed many white landowners.

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Which of Dessalines's former allies rebelled against him?

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Answer

Alexandre Petión and Henri Christophe

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How did Jean Jacques Dessalines die?

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He was killed in an ambush by rebel forces.

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What happened after Dessalines's death?

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Answer

Haiti entered into civil war.

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