If, as Americans do, Haitians counted the birth of their nation from the launch of the revolutionary war, August 2017 would have marked the 226th anniversary of Independence. Instead, they chose the end of the Revolution, 1 January, 1804.
On New Year’s Day 214 years ago, after his decisive defeat of Napoleon’s elite forces, Jean-Jacques Dessalines stood triumphantly in the seaport town of Gonaïves, a pre-Columbian indigenous settlement, to declare the independence of the self-governing dominion created by his predecessor, Toussaint Louverture, which he renamed the Republic of Hayti.
The declaration stunned the imperial powers of the day, compelling many to reset the parameters of colonial rule and transatlantic human trafficking.
It all began one night in late August 1791 when the black rebel leader known to history as Boukman Dutty made the first declaration of general emancipation in the Caribbean. In the midst of a pre-insurgency, oath-taking ritual, Boukman addressed the revolutionary congress of about 200 enslaved persons gathered in Bois Caiman, with the solemn words that would change the course of history:
“You have been torn from the womb of slavery and born again to freedom. The past is now dead and now you are free. Free! As you and your fathers were free in Guinea.” [My favourite version, quoted from The Black Sun by Lance Horner & Kyle Onstott].
Boukman was killed only three months into the Revolution. It would take the black and free coloured revolutionaries all of 13 years, the loss of approximately 100,000 of their people, and the defeat of mighty armies of Spain, England and France before Dessalines could declare the former colony a sovereign state, the second republic in the Americas.
Dessalines’ republican constitution of 1805 set new boundaries: it was the first state to combine a proclamation of enlightenment principles of equality and freedom with the enactment of laws to protect those principles for all citizens.
Haitians are some of the proudest peoples of the region, and for good reason. They know their history, its text, context and subtext. Although the Cubans fought a brutal war of independence, they ended up exchanging one colonial power (Spain) for another (the USA) under the deceptive Pratt Amendment of 1901. The legacy of that humiliation continues with American control of Guantánamo Bay.
Haiti might have remained an outpost of France had Napoleon Bonaparte had the foresight to accept Toussaint Louverture’s proclamation of a self-governing, slave-free dominion within the French empire. Toussaint’s decision to stay within the empire was not surprising because, from 1794, he had united all the fighting forces of revolutionary St Domingue as free soldiers fighting under the French flag and backed by the French revolutionary government’s declaration of emancipation. Toussaint’s self-governing dominion, however, was intended to secure that freedom from a possible change of French policy.
Napoleon was so furious at this black upstart that, under cover of the Treaty of Amiens (1802), he despatched a massive expeditionary force of some 40,000 men, including many of his elite troops and under his trusted brother-in-law, General Charles Leclerc, to restore slavery not only in St Domingue but also throughout the empire. In all, Napoleon despatched some 80,000 troops and auxiliaries to the former colony.
The Haitian Revolution had almost collapsed under the weight of overwhelming French military force, but more decisively from French deployment of treachery, leading to the kidnapping of Toussaint, who was transported to France to be imprisoned like a common criminal. When all seemed to be going the French way, Dessalines took the fate of Haitians in his hands and dealt the French one of their worst defeats before World War l.
For more than two decades after the declaration of Independence, France remained the major counter-revolutionary threat to the young republic. The first of their many problems was the constant threat by France to invade and restore the old regime of plantation slavery. It is customary for military victors to exact indemnities from defeated nations. The French demand, however, was a historical aberration, because they were the vanquished and Haiti the victor.
This curiosity is underscored by the fact that France itself was at the time made to pay reparations for the Napoleonic wars. The threat only abated after 1826 when Haiti agreed to pay France an indemnity of some 10,000,000 francs, equivalent to the value of the colony in 1789. At any time, defaulting on payments could mean military invasion.
Haiti’s precarious independence was compounded by the US conspiracy to exclude only Haiti from the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which explicitly protected all other new America republics from European invasion and re-colonisation. In retrospect, this exclusion was an open invitation to France to tighten the squeeze on Haiti and, if necessary, invade to restore the old system.
Haiti’s impact on the hemisphere has been largely underrated and even disregarded because of the insidious label, “poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.” While still a French colony, black Haitians had fought with regular French troops against England to help rebel Americans win the War of Independence. One of the most prominent among these Haitians was Henri Christophe, a leader of his own revolution, and President of Northern Haiti after Dessalines’ death.
The eminent Pan-Africanist, WEB Dubois, was the first scholar to fully explore the dramatic impact of the Haitian Revolution and the infant Haitian Republic on American policy and economy, including its westward expansion.
In his dissertation, “The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870,” Dubois argues that the Haitian Revolution was the “prime” cause “which led Napoleon to sell Louisiana for a song.” Louisiana was the gateway to the American hinterland.
Dubois further argues that the combined effects of the Haitian Revolution “rendered more certain the final prohibition of the slave-trade by the United States in 1807.” Other scholars have drawn a similar conclusion that the Haitian Revolution was decisive in Britain’s acceleration of the timeline of abolition of her own transatlantic slave trade.
Better known but still underrated is Haiti’s direct role in the decolonisation of Latin America. Simón Bolívar, the Father of continental Spanish American independence, twice sought refuge in Haiti under President Alexandre Pétion. Pétion provided Bolívar with over 4,000 rifles, ammunition, food and 300 veteran soldiers to launch his military campaigns in exchange for a promise of emancipation of enslaved Africans in the liberated territories.
It was this debt that the late President Hugo Chávez recalled when he sought to finance a feature film of the Haitian Revolution.
Notwithstanding Bolívar’s ultimate success, it was Haiti that started the ball rolling against Spanish colonialism when Toussaint overran the French and Spanish forces and annexed Santo Domingo to Haiti. It was the first time that the island was united under a single government. When Santo Domingo won independence in 1844, it was not from Spain but from Haiti.
For several decades, the Haitian Revolution inspired slave insurgencies, including in Cuba in 1812 and 1843, Louisiana in 1811, South Carolina in 1822, Virginia in 1831, Jamaica in 1831, Brazil in 1835 and even Trinidad in 1803.
Haitians continued to participate in revolutionary movements in the Caribbean up to the mid-20th Century. Haitian fighters and doctors, for example, were with Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestra in the year leading up to the attack on the Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista. Haitians were also with Che Guevara in Africa and Latin America.