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‘The paradise of the world’: conflict and society in the Caribbean

Revolution in Haiti

Engraved plate showing black soldiers taking revenge on the French and hanging them from gallowsRevenge taken by the Black Army for the cruelties practised on them by the French, from: Marcus Rainsford. An historical account of the black empire of Hayti. London: James Cunder, 1805 [FCDO Historical Collection F1923 RAI]St Domingue, the French colony on the western side of the island of Hispaniola, was to witness the largest colonial slave revolt and the only one to result directly in the permanent abolition of slavery and the establishment of an independent state.

It was the tumultuous events of the French Revolution which precipitated revolt in St Domingue. In May 1791 the French National Assembly decreed that free-born persons of colour in the colony should be granted the franchise in provincial and colonial assemblies. This decree was fiercely opposed by the colonial government of St Domingue, which refused to implement it and threatened to secede from France. The free black and mixed race leaders took to arms, demanding their rights.

While both sides wrangled, the slaves of the northern region, seeing their opportunity, rose in revolt. Plantations were burnt down, white inhabitants killed and large-scale fighting of appalling brutality ensued, with atrocities committed by all three sides (white, slave and free persons of colour).

The French National Assembly was in no hurry to intervene – chaos on St Domingue suited it well in the short term –and it was not until 1793 that French troops were despatched to the island, to restore some order and to proclaim emancipation (already, in large areas of the colony, a fait accompli). They did not stay long; France was soon at war with Britain and Spain and in March 1794 the British invaded St Domingue.

It was at this point that the black forces found an inspirational and tactically astute leader in Toussaint L’Ouverture (1743?-1803), and under his ruthless command the British were expelled, the mixed race forces defeated and their people systematically murdered. In 1800 a measure of order was restored and Toussaint drew up a constitution for the colony, which confirmed him in office as governor-general for life. Napoleon promptly sent an army to St Domingue to regain control of the colony and reintroduce slavery.

Toussaint was captured and died in France, but the French forces fought a disastrous campaign and were glad to surrender to the British in 1803. Meanwhile, Jean-Jacques Dessalines (1758-1806), a former slave, emerged as Toussaint’s successor and in 1804 he proclaimed himself emperor of the independent empire of Haiti (a word meaning ‘mountainous’ in the indigenous Caribbean Taino language).

Rainsford, a British army officer, writes with considerable sympathy for the black population of Haiti and goodwill towards their newly achieved independence. The plate shows black soldiers taking revenge on the French.

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