By Simon Huw Angelini
’The transformation of slaves, trembling in hundreds before a single white man, into a people able to organise themselves and defeat the most powerful European nations of their day, is one of the great epics of the revolutionary struggle and achievement.’
C.L.R James, The Black Jacobins, 1938
The Haitian Revolution that began in 1791 and ended thirteen years later with the creation of the first independent state in the Caribbean and Latin America in 1804, is as C.L.R James notes, a truly epic story. It was the metamorphosis of a socially disaggregated and dislocated collection of people, united often only by the continent of their origin, into a revolutionary polity and self-identifying nation. In doing this, they set an example for national struggle around the world. Through collective action, strong leadership, and the influence of the enlightenment ideals of the day, a sense of independence and nationhood formed amongst a group of individuals who lived in what was perhaps the greatest level of social marginalisation of its time. The Haitian Revolution shows us the power that such forces as these can produce, even in the most extreme of circumstances; in the modern day, it provides a refreshingly clear example of the creation of a sense of nationhood, and one which is instructive to those who wish to understand nationalism and the stories related to them that we see today.
San Domingo was by metrics, prior to the outbreak of the French Revolution, the single most valuable colony on the planet. It produced forty percent of Europe’s sugar, sixty percent of its coffee, and was home to almost half a million slaves. Conditions for the slaves were as to be expected: brutal. The rate of death was so high that the majority of the slaves on the island were not born there, making them more disparate in terms of its collective culture and language than many other slave communities in the New World. The rest of San Domingo’s society was also stratified along deep racial and class lines. Below the grands blancs, the planter class, there existed the working petits blancs, who served as artisans and overseers. The lowest of the free men were the creoles and free slaves who, due to their racial ‘impurity’, firmly occupied the third rung of Haitian society. It was in this context that the ideas of the French Revolution were to arrive. The first to take up the banner of the revolution’s rhetoric of liberté, égalité, fraternité, were the powerful planters who sought to use enlightenment ideals as justifications for removing government influence in trade and economics. The slaves, existing as they did almost completely removed from society, would become the tools of these three groups at various points in the revolution’s early days and months; however, in time they would become its most important participants.
It did not take long for the most manifestly oppressed class of people, the slaves, to come to recognise the potential significance of such concepts as individual freedom. Their mobilisation was no easy matter however. Often coming from varied parts of Africa, slaves did not always share even a common language or culture. The development of a sense of identity would take time and energy. The first leader to incite rebellion amongst the slaves was Boukman, a Voodoo priest and maroon leader. In many respects, he occupied an advantageous position for achieving this end, as Voodoo had developed into a syncretic religion in the colony that provided outlets for many strands of African religious worship, as well as a sense of community for many slaves. Boukman’s rebels rose widely and quickly grew in number. The realisation that open resistance was an option for the slaves led many to take up whatever they could to arm themselves; they were not going to accept their conditions any longer. It seemed as if once the fire had started, it was inextinguishable. Indeed, the fires burnt so brightly that according to contemporary accounts, it was possible to read a letter at night by their light from miles away.
This movement was still disparate and had no real leadership or collective goal following Boukman’s death only a few weeks later. Furthermore, it lacked the focus on nationhood and identity which would become so important in the revolution’s later stages. The diffuse participants of Boukman’s initial rebellion were ultimately motivated more by material concerns and anger than any political motives. The slave economy in San Domingo had given both the impetus for the slaves to rise, as well as make it difficult for any leader to radically alter their perception of identity. However, the slave economy also meant that San Domingo was no colonial backwater, but an integral part of the French economy. Its economic significance meant it was well connected to France and events at home, meaning that cross-pollination of ideas was common between the two. News of the Revolution’s ideas of nation, liberty, and national sovereignty soon began to reach even the slaves, particularly those who were literate. It was at this point that Toussaint L’Ouverture stepped in.
Toussaint was a former slave and was now a landowner himself. Having been given some education and through his own interest in contemporary French writers, he had developed a growing sense of the racial injustice in Haiti and the need for the universalist rhetoric of the French Revolution to be recognised on the island. Toussaint would come to lead the revolution in San Domingo until nearly its completion, and would prove to be an adept statesman, military leader, and speaker. He would defeat the armies of three great imperial powers, overthrow the whites of Haiti, and pave the way for the creation of the only successful slave revolt in history. Without wishing to devolve into ‘great man’ history, it is fair to say that it was largely through his own vision that he mustered and created a genuine sense of identity amongst the black slaves he inspired and led on his campaigns.
It was not Toussaint’s initial goal to create a free Haitian state. Toussaint for much of his life saw himself first and foremost as a Frenchman. He came to believe that the universalist rhetoric of the Declaration of the Rights of Man applied to all men, including slaves. He saw the Republic as the means for protecting and propagating these ideals. He spoke glowingly of France and implored the French government, and even Napoleon, to support his vision. C.L.R. James said that revolutionary France was to him ‘the highest stage of social existence that he could imagine.’ He sought to create this same attachment amongst his followers and marched his armies under the French flag until the end. Toussaint only saw independence as his goal when he realised it was the only means through which he could guarantee the abolition of slavery on the island; he would die in the pursuit of this goal. Despite his death in France in 1803, Toussaint’s vision of a sovereign republic in Haiti lived on. Shortly after his death his followers, under their leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines, proclaimed independence from France. They symbolically tore the white from the French flag, with the blue coming to represent the black former slaves who, in rebelling had created a nation.
The story of the Haitian Revolution tells us a great deal about the creation of identity. It shows that political ideals, the drive of strong-willed individuals, and the activism of a people, can create a sense of collective identity, out of those who formerly held no conception of themselves as a nation. The significance of this was felt across the world. In the slaveholding Americas, it created a sense of fear amongst those who held slaves, leading to harsher repression, and a reactionary spike in anti-abolitionist sentiment. The revolution also has a far more inspiring legacy in the work of revolutionary figures throughout history such as Simón Bolivar, who found great inspiration in Haiti and its then leader Alexander Pétion, who he said was ‘the true liberator of my country’. Haiti has become for many a symbol of liberation manifest. In the 1930s, when C.L.R. James penned his seminal history of the revolution The Black Jacobins, he was showing how relevant the struggle was for those pursuing a new wave of liberation movements in the Caribbean. We should look at Haiti when thinking of nations and nationalism because it provides a clear example of the creation of a nation largely from scratch, in a context that when compared to its counterpart in France (where origins, history, and a common experience of the state were at least broadly present), was far less natural a fit for such a thing. Furthermore, due in part to a certain degree of mythologisation, the story has become a rallying point for many throughout history, and one which still makes the spine tingle, even 200 years on.
- James, C. L. R., and James Walvin, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint LOuverture and the San Domingo revolution, London: Penguin Books, 2001.
- Dubois, Laurent, Avengers of The New World. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004
- Egalite for All: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution, PBS Documentary, 2009
Featured Image: Toussain’t L’Ouverture
Simon Angelini is a third year war studies and history student at King’s College London. His areas of interest are Chinese history and Caribbean intellectual history.