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Haiti: The Period of Strife, 1790-1860


Haiti: The Period of Strife, 1790-1860

Franklin W. Knight, PhD

(Editor’s Note: This is Part III 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

(14 June 2021) — War in Saint-Domingue began in 1790 when the petits-blancs who controlled the Assembly of West Province independently wrote a constitution for the entire colony declaring residence as the sole basis of citizenship, and eliminating qualifications of race, property, or metropolitan birth. That pleased the free coloreds but not the absentee, rich overseas, whites.  It could not last. When the French National Assembly ratified the May Decree of 1791 thereby enfranchising the free coloreds, both white groups temporarily forgot their class differences and forged an uneasy alliance to forestall what they saw as a greater threat from the entire larger non-white population.  Lacking a critical mass for providing manpower, both white groups also began to arm their slaves.

It was a fateful decision.

If the revolution in France continued to be a civil war, then with the revolution in Saint Domingue that civil war became inexorably a sort of race war. In some places whites were fighting alongside slaves against free coloreds fighting with their slaves. In other places the enslaved were fighting against those groups, independently and separately.  Within the year, the enslaved were fighting everywhere for their own version of liberty, equality, and fraternity. It was inevitably the end of white rule in the colony.

Between 1790 and 1802 the colonial war was unusually chaotic. It was difficult to determine who was fighting with whom and for what. The French Revolutionary government sent an army of some 21,900 troops, accompanied by some 6,000 blacks in separate black companies to suppress the slave revolt and restore agricultural production. In addition, initially they counted on their colonial militia of about 7000 free colored men. The English sent an army to assist the French planters in North Province, but they were largely ineffective. The Spanish also sent troops from their eastern part of the island.

Until 1794 Toussaint Louverture (1743-1803) was fighting on the side of the Spanish. But with the abolition of slavery in 1794 he switched sides and joined the ex-slaves who took control of the entire colony in 1797. Toussaint declared himself governor-general of Saint Domingue, doing so in the name of France and the Revolution. That could have ended the violence in the colonies.

Unfortunately, that was not the idea of the self-aggrandizing Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) who came to power in France in 1799. Determined to restore slavery and the grandeur of the French American empire, he dispatched his brother-in-law, Charles Victor-Emmanuel Leclerc (1772-1802) with an army of almost 40,000 troops to, as his instructions put it, “Rid us of those gilded Africans.”  Napoleon was an unapologetic racist who described the Blacks in Saint Domingue as “utterly uncivilized men”.  He ordered Leclerc to kill all males over the age of 15, if necessary, and restore the colony to its pre-revolutionary economic productivity within three months.  That was an impossible assignment. The emperor did not explain how he could do that without any adult males in the colony.

Leclerc managed to restore some sort of order and deceptively kidnapped and exiled Toussaint to an early death in France. But he and tens of thousands of his troops perished in Saint Domingue, victims of yellow fever, malaria and the implacable resistance of a people energized and determined to be free. Both French and local Black colonists fought savagely for their respective cause.

And by 1804, the French were defeated soundly, and Haiti declared its independence.

The aftermath

In 1804 Haiti was a desolate land. The large sugar and coffee estates as well as the fine irrigation systems were destroyed. But the new Haitian masses were not dismayed. In a series of written constitutions, beginning in 1801, they declared themselves to be free, proud, independent, “brothers at home, and equal in the eyes of the law.”  And they set about to reconstruct their new state socially, politically, and economically.

The various constitutions also declared all Haitians to be “Black”, but allowed any white person swearing loyalty to the constitution to become a sort of “honorable Black.” That stipulation would alienate the free coloreds mainly in the South and set the basis for the future color conflict that would plague Haiti forever. Nevertheless, Haiti became a powerful symbol of Black potential creativity and accomplishment.

Before the Revolution, Haiti was the leading commercial sugar and coffee producer in the world. It was also a significant cotton exporter. These were quintessential plantation crops requiring large landholdings and massive amounts of labor. The plantation owners were also largely absentees. The years of war destroyed those plantations and their commodity exports. To get sugar Napoleon had to develop a domestic beet industry that by 1815 transformed the global sugar trade, making most European countries self sufficient in sugar from beet. The Haitian Revolution indelibly changed the world of sugar.

Coffee recovered more quickly than sugar, but as a small farm operation with the major market in Hamburg, Germany.

One important dimension of the Haitian Revolution, therefore, was to change permanently the pattern of Caribbean landholding and emphasize the potential of peasant production.  In the case of Haiti, the major exports increased from three principal commodities before the Revolution to more than twelve, including reed cane mats, hides, honey and beeswax, alcohol, ginger, cocoa, logwood, mahogany, tobacco, coconuts, and bananas.

And the economy changed in other important ways. At the macro-level, trade shifted from the former metropolis, France, to the United States of America. Even though the USA denied political recognition of the new state until 1862, it would eventually accept more than 60 percent of all Haitian exports. More important, the wealth produced by Haitian industry accrued not abroad, but in the country.  Moreover, it was divided among small producers at the local level. That is why Haiti had a higher per capita income than the United States in 1860.

Those glory days, however, could not last. The world was changing, and Haiti was left behind.

© 2021 The Ward Post/Franklin W. Knight

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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