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Haiti: The Glory Years, 1760-1794

Haiti: The Glory Years, 1760-1794

Franklin W. Knight, PhD

(Editor’s Note: This is Part II of IV of a four-part series recognizing Haiti and honoring this Caribbean country’s history-changing role in the hemisphere and the world. This series is written by noted historian Dr. Franklin W. Knight for The Ward Post)

Dr. Franklin W. Knight

(12 June 2021) — Between 1760 and 1861, Haiti experienced a most remarkable history.

This history can be divided into three distinct phases. The first phase was the French colonial period before the Revolution. Saint Domingue was then the most successful sugar plantation society ever in Caribbean history.  That came to a precipitous end in 1804, when Jean-Jacques Dessalines (1758-1806) and his intrepid colleagues boldly established the first Black-ruled state in the Americas, and the second republic anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. That was a unique achievement. The second period encompassed the equally remarkable local revolution that began as a part of the wider transatlantic French Revolution and quickly set its own exceptionally independent course. That is the story between 1789 and 1804. Finally, there was the successful struggle to retain its independence against wind and tide in a universally hostile world.  But after 1865 Haiti began an irreversible period of political and economic collapse that has lasted until today.

In the case of Haiti, it is very important to consider not just the contemporary period, but the entire historical experience, over what the French would call, le long durée.

To understand Haiti today, we must begin in the late eighteenth century.

The colonial period before revolution

In 1780, the French colony of Saint Domingue, occupying the western one-third of the island of Hispaniola constituted the single richest colony in the world as we noted above.  Historian David Geggus pointed out that the colony of just about 10,000 square miles, or two and one-half times the size of Jamaica, accounted for

… some 40 percent of France’s foreign trade, its 7,000 or so plantations were absorbing by the1790s also 10-15 percent of United States exports and had important commercial links with the British and Spanish West Indies as well. On the coastal plains of this colony little larger than Wales was grown about two-fifths of the world’s sugar, while from its mountainous interior came over half of the world’s coffee.

The colony was demographically and geographically complex in a way that the average resident of France simply could not understand.

About 80 percent of the population was enslaved Africans and persons of African descent. Their labor made possible the wealth of the colony. Another 15 percent were mixed, largely between Europeans and Africans. Called gens de couleur, they ranged across a wide spectrum of individual wealth and social significance and considered themselves superior to the poor white French who lived mainly in the small towns in the center of the colony. The remaining five percent were white French residents, subdivided into two antagonistic social groups described as grands blancs – mainly senior imperial administrators and large property owners – and petits blancs – usually white small farmers, and urban commercial representatives.

The colony was divided into three provinces. North Province was the area of very large sugar estates. It had the largest proportion of the enslaved, and a very small proportion of white settlers. Some estate owners lived in France. West Province, in the center of the colony had a number of small towns as well as a concentration of small farming petit blancs and white colonial administrators. The hilly South Province was the area of densest coffee cultivation and home to the majority of the free colored population.

In France social divisions derived from lineage and occupation.  In the French colonies social divisions reflected skin color, social class, legal status, and occupation. But skin color and occupation assumed inordinate importance, especially for the white groups. By contrast, the free colored population emphasized that their wealth and formal education made them better potential citizens than poor whites.

Altogether the complex social organization made for a perpetually explosive colonial condition.  Both groups looked down on the enslaved.

Strangely enough, the revolution in Saint Domingue did not begin with the coerced enslaved population. Rather it began with the surprising decision by the colonial whites that they were Frenchmen and therefore eligible for sending cahiers de doleances (petitions) and representatives to the meeting of the Estates General at Versailles called by King Louis XVI (1754-1793) in 1789.

Equally strange, in France they aspired to join the heterogenous Third Estate.

The colonial cahiers de doleances did not reflect, as they did in the metropolis, a cross section of the population. Instead, they came from a few wealthy plantation owners, some of whom had never even lived in the colonies. The rest were from middling merchants, mostly from West Province and especially from the town of Saint Marc.

The great majority of the colonial population, being enslaved, neither wrote petitions nor engaged in the political discourse, nor sent representatives to Versailles. But they could not escape being involved, especially after the two small white colonial groups in Saint Domingue armed their slaves and started a civil war between themselves in early 1789.

That was a fateful decision. After that, things rapidly fell apart in the colony.

Taking seriously the domestic French national declarations of “liberty, fraternity and equality” and the “Rights of Man” the colonists deliberately re-interpreted them to reflect their local colonial situations, although at first, they all tried to operate within the limits of French law. That is, they made a revolution in the name of the emerging French revolution, emphasizing that they were loyalists not royalists. Rich planters justified the slogans on the basis of their assumed wealth. Poor whites justified them on the basis of their pigmentation. Free colored justified parts of the slogans on the fact they were wealthier and more educated than poor whites and if those could become citizens then so should they. The enslaved took all the terms literally and acted accordingly.

From Versailles or later from Paris, the colonial various distinctions were difficult to ascertain or understand. A common language was interpreted differently in the metropolis and overseas.

In France, where everyone thought they were already free, liberty reflected a wish to abolish authoritarian government as well as a general wish to remove restrictions on general commerce and occupational guilds. In Saint-Domingue, liberty was taken more literally. For colonial whites it referred to greater colonial autonomy and loosening the commercial restrictions of trade.  For the enslaved, all individuals were to be completely free, regardless of color, gender, or occupation. Acting on this presumption, the enslaved in the Plain du Nord, the area of large sugar estates, started a major revolt in 1791 that within two years engulfed the entire colony.

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In August 1793, the newly arrived French Jacobin Republican commissioners, Etienne Polverel (1740-1795) and Lėger-Fėlicitė Sonthonax (1763-1813) abolished slavery in Saint-Domingue. They had no choice. The slaves were in total control and appeared to be the only reliable revolutionary loyalists. That was several months before the National Convention in Paris, inspired by the colonial precedent, abolished slavery throughout the French Empire in February 1794.

In France, the idea of fraternity related to the elimination of social preferences between the nobility, clergy and so-called Third Estate of urban merchants and workers. In Saint-Domingue it was mainly a racial and color issue. Whites used it as a sort of group solidarity signifier. That is, all whites were “brothers”.  Free coloreds used the slogan to imply a quality of distinction between all free individuals.

For the enslaved the overwhelming priority was liberty – the burning desire to be free individuals in a free state. With their superior demographic majority, it was only a matter of time before that view dominated.

But it would be a long and difficult struggle.


© 2021 The Ward Post/Franklin W. Knight

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About the author

Franklin Knight, PhD

Franklin W. Knight is currently Leonard and Helen R Stulman Professor Emeritus and Academy Professor at the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore where he taught for 43 years. Born in Jamaica, he attended Calabar High School, the University of the West Indies, Mona (BA Hons., 1964), and the University of Wisconsin, Madison (MA (1965), PhD. (1969). He has published widely on the social, cultural, economic and political dimensions of Latin America and the Caribbean as well as slave systems in a global perspective. His publications include 13 books, 108 professional articles, and 184 refereed reviews in professional journals.

In addition, he has made more than 304 presentations at national and international professional meetings. At Johns Hopkins he directed the Program in Latin American Studies (1998-2010) and the Center for Africana Studies (2011-2014). He served as president of the Latin American Studies Association between 1998 and 2000 and as president of the Historical Society, [USA] between 2006 and 2008. Between 2000 and 2014 he wrote a bi-weekly column for the Jamaica Observer. He has been honored by the Academy of Letters of Bahia, Brazil (2001); the Dominican Academy of History in the Dominican Republic (2006); the University of the West Indies (2007); The National Research Council of the National Academies (2008); the Asociación de Historiadores de América Latina y del Caribe (ADHILAC) (2011); the Cuban Academy of History (2012); the Asociación de la Historia Económica del Caribe (AHEC), as well as the Institute of Jamaica (2013), the Fundación Fernando Ortiz (2016), and the State of Maryland (2019).

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