King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences

The largest colonial slave revolt

Title page and frontispiece showing the court martial of the authorTitle page and frontispiece from An historical account of the black empire of Hayti, 1805The largest colonial slave revolt and the only one to lead directly to the establishment of an independent state and the abolition of slavery occurred in St Domingue, a French colony on the western side of the island of Hispaniola. 

Following the tumultuous events of the French Revolution, 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.

However, the colonial government of St Domingue was vehemently opposed to this and refused to implement the decree, threatening to secede from France. With no agreement forthcoming, a period of chaos on the island ensued: free black and mixed race leaders took to arms, demanding their rights, and slaves in the north rose in revolt, burning plantations and killing former masters. Large-scale fighting of appalling brutality ensued, with atrocities committed by all three sides (white, slave and free persons of colour).

French troops were eventually sent to restore order in 1793; however, following a British invasion as part of a wider conflict between the nations in 1794, they were forced out, leaving the British to face the inspirational and brutal slave leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture (1743-1803). Though L’Ouverture defeated mixed race forces and consolidated control and territory on the island, he often did so through brutal means, including the massacre of mixed race people. Further conflict ensued in the years to come, between the colonial powers of England, France and Spain and between rival ethnic groups, until in 1802 L’Ouverture was captured by the French, following their renewed attempts to re-assert power on the island.
The plates included in this book illustrate the extreme brutality enveloping the island of Hispaniola during this period. There are horrifying images entitled ‘Blood hounds attacking a black family in the woods’ and ‘The mode of exterminating the black army as practised by the French’. The opening reproduced here contains the title page and frontispiece, in which the author is shown being court martialed on suspicion of being a spy, with Henri Christophe (1767-1820), later King and president of Haiti presiding. Though found guilty and condemned to death as a spy, Marcus Rainsford (c1750-c1805), a military officer who had led black troops in the West Indies, was eventually freed, but is thought to have died soon after.

In this exhibition

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