How Haiti Destroyed Slavery and Led the Way to Freedom throughout the Atlantic World

How Haiti Destroyed Slavery and Led the Way to Freedom throughout the Atlantic World

The first land to be colonized in the Americas was Haiti. Europeans first enslaved native Americans and captive Africans there, too. But the first permanent abolition of slavery also happened on Haiti, in 1804: 220 years ago this month. Such abolition only occurred in the rest of the Americas later, much, much later.

Haiti’s radical defeat of French colonizers and enslavers—which opened the door for slavery to be outlawed everywhere in the Atlantic World—is not how abolition is remembered today. Instead, conventional accounts of the end of slavery in the Americas typically center ideas about human rights from the United States, Great Britain, and France. The popular narrative of slavery and abolition usually begins with white Europeans from Spain and Portugal colonizing the Caribbean and the Americas, replacing native populations with captive Africans whom they forced into harsh labor as slaves. It continues with the rise of the plantation supported by the English, French, and Dutch and their advent of scientific racism. In these accounts, it was only after abolitionist pamphlets and lectures culminated in bans on the international slave trade in Great Britain and the United States that the age of abolition opened, eventually leading to the US Civil War, which ultimately ended slavery.

This conventional (and terrifically flawed) story of abolition is circular (white Europeans and their US descendants established slavery only to destroy it); almost magical (with the stroke of a pen a few white men upended 400 years of slavery); preordained (abolition could not have happened any other way); evangelical (thank God and Abraham Lincoln); and warrants gratitude, not reparation (descendants of the enslaved are lucky to be free). Yet this narrative oversimplifies and distorts the reality. Yes, there were abolitionists, revolutionaries, lawmakers, and philanthropists involved in abolition, but Haiti and Haitians are most often left out of the story of who the abolitionists were, where they first emerged, and how we got from slavery to abolition in the first place.

Haiti was founded by formerly enslaved Africans from the French colony of Saint-Domingue (indigenous name: Ayiti), who threw off the yoke of French rule during the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804). Haiti then became the first nation to permanently abolish slavery, three decades before Great Britain, over four decades before France, and more than six decades before the US. Now, let’s take a look at some examples of how this history is ignored, if not outright dismissed, in standard accounts of how the world went from slavery to abolition.

In a recent article published in the New York Review of Books, Sean Wilentz characterized antislavery sentiment in the period leading up to US independence as an “antislavery revolution inside the American Revolution.” At that time, the Africans vastly outnumbered the white Europeans that enslaved them across the Americas. Even so, Wilentz matter-of-factly declared that “prior to the mid-eighteenth century” slavery stood “almost unquestioned anywhere in the world,” except, he acknowledged, “by the enslaved.” Referring to some meager antislavery pamphleteering in the era, Wilentz further pronounced that it was the American Revolution that “challenged ancient assumptions about human bondage” and “created the first antislavery political campaigns and movements in modern history.” With this wave of the hand, Wilentz erased much earlier antislavery resistance (and divested it of import) on the part of American natives and the first captive Africans Europeans brought to the Americas.

The bare truth is that the American Revolution did nothing to advance global abolition. Instead, it was the constant resistance of the people they were enslaving that led any of the North American colonists to challenge the “ancient idea” that human beings should ever enslave other human beings.  It is only through suggesting that the ideas, feelings, and actions of Black Africans and American natives do not matter that the mere existence of antislavery opinion among white early Americans can be said to have “prove[d] to be the beginning of slavery’s destruction, not just in the newborn United States but throughout the Atlantic World.” In reality, drastic, effective changes in white public opinion about slavery in western Europe and the United States only occurred after the Black apotheosis in Haiti that inaugurated the age of abolition in 1804.

Similar ignorance about the Haitian Revolution’s material, rather than uniquely aspirational, destruction of slavery is precisely what has allowed the country’s former colonizer, France, to proclaim another related, and similarly blatant, falsehood: that France became the first country, in 2001, to declare slavery a “crime against humanity.” Because the metropolitan French school system does not include teaching about the Haitian Revolution, France’s most prominent newspaper, Le Monde, recently trumpeted this inaccuracy when its reporter Julien Vincent announced, “For the first time, in a solemn law, a nation described the slave trade and slavery as ‘crimes against humanity.’” Vincent was clearly unaware that Haiti had already declared slavery to be a crime against humanity in 1807, nearly two centuries before.

Such long-standing errors and misrepresentations have ricocheting and ever-expanding consequences. On August 21, 2023, Manchester mayoral candidate Nick Buckley tweeted an image of the Union Jack stamped in all caps with the words, “Great Britain ended the international slave trade. No one else did it. We did it. Some gratitude is overdue.” Buckley has been tweeting, YouTube-ing, and blogging this lie since at least November 10, 2021, when he infamously declared in an article titled “Britain & Slavery: A Forgotten History,” “The more I read about slavery, the more I realise I know nothing.” Buckley then went on to state, “The British have an amazing and proud history in fighting slavery. Not just in the UK, but outlawing the practice in most of the world.” If Buckley had intellectual rather than ideological interest in the history of slavery, he would have learned that Great Britain only abolished the slave trade in 1807, three years after Haiti—whose existence as an independent and slavery-free state was a huge factor in parliament’s decision to legislate the ban—and that the British did not go on to abolish slavery itself until 1833/1834.

Despite their belated willingness to join the age of abolition, the United States, France, and Great Britain have historically credited themselves with the eventual destruction of the transatlantic slave trade and the elimination of slavery—in the name of love for human rights, of all things—that they instantiated in the first place. The Trinidadian historian Eric Williams complained about this way back in 1944, in his groundbreaking Capitalism and Slavery, when he wrote of the “humanitarians” who helped “spearhead the onslaught which destroyed the West Indian system and freed the Negro”: “their importance has been seriously misunderstood and grossly exaggerated by men who have sacrificed scholarship to sentimentality and, like the scholastics of old, placed faith before reason and evidence.” In the Haitian case, we must stress that the revolutionaries spearheaded the end of slavery with their physical acts and deeds before they turned to legislating abolition in the new state they proclaimed in 1804. The “humanitarians” who helped make Great Britain the first European country to legislate abolition of the slave trade in 1807, thus followed in the stead of the Haitian revolutionaries.

To fully understand the momentousness of Haiti’s inaugural and largely silenced role in defining the modern freedoms the world now takes for granted—by outlawing slavery and declaring it and the slave trade crimes against humanity—we must dispense with the idea that New World Africans were mere hitchhikers on a highway of historical progress, inordinately moving forward along with the one-way traffic that took the world from slavery to freedom. The Haitian Revolution, long excluded from traditional accounts of the age of abolition, was in fact its heart.

A new history lesson is in order.

Let us start by glancing backward, to the moment of Columbus’s 1492 arrival on the island of Ayiti (renamed La Española, or Hispaniola, by the Spanish crown). Before the Spanish arrived, Ayiti’s original inhabitants lived in five main principalities spanning more than 75,000 square kilometers: Magua, Marien, Maguana, Xaragua, and Higuey. There was never a peaceful coexistence between the Spanish and the Ayitians, as Columbus and his European invaders made immediate war against the natives for resisting their domination.

A Cacique leader named Caonabo, who ruled over Maguana, led one of the most ardent oppositions. But, in 1496, the Spanish captured Caonabo and attempted to deport him to Spain. Though Caonabo died on the ship before he reached Europe, the spirit of Ayitian freedom did not perish with him. A few years later, the Spanish arrested his wife, the Cacique queen of Xaragua, Anacaona. She had refused to become the concubine of a Spanish official. In response, the Spanish executed her with several hundred Xaraguans. Still, resistance continued.

In 1519, Anacaona’s nephew Enriquillo escaped into the mountains. After amassing arms, he convinced hundreds of other Ayitians, as well as dozens of enslaved Africans, to follow him. Enriquillo subsequently waged a 14-year war against the Spaniards, establishing a maroon state in the mountains of Bahoruco (present-day Dominican Republic). Enriquillo’s rebellion only ended when he agreed to a dubious “peace treaty.” Although Enriquillo’s brief submission in 1533 (he died one year later) marked the symbolic end of indigenous opposition, his defeat was hardly the end of the story of antislavery and anticolonial resistance on the island of Ayiti.

In fact, it was only the beginning. There was always coterminous enslaved African rebellion too.

In 1501, the Spanish king and queen passed a law authorizing the transportation of captive Africans to La Española for slavery. The newly arrived Africans tried to escape or wage war nearly as fast as the Spanish could force them onto the island.

The largest armed revolt of some of the first Africans on the island happened in 1521 on a plantation owned by then governor of the colony Diego Colón, son of Christopher Columbus. The day after Christmas, in what became known as the Christmastime Rebellion, Africans enslaved by Diego joined together with those from a neighboring plantation and took up arms. They attacked their “masters” and set fire to several plantations. When their actions did not spark general rebellion, these enslaved freedom fighters retreated to the mountains. When Diego learned of their attempt at freedom, he gathered his troops and led them in pursuit of the “rebels.” Diego’s troops subsequently beat and killed most of the freedom fighters.

The key point is that Europeans were only able to severely reduce the native populations of the Americas through violent warfare; and they were only able to institute and maintain the transatlantic slave trade and chattel slavery by outright dismissing and viciously suppressing blatant protest of their actions. Still, European violence against native Americans and captive Africans is only one side of the story.

The other, less popularly discussed side reveals that enslaved individuals acted persistently to free themselves. We could talk about captive Africans who threw themselves en masse, and sometimes holding hands, into the sea from aboard slave ships, for example, or that marronnage, or fugitivity from slavery, was rampant, leading to large maroon communities across the Americas. The earliest rebellions and other attempts to resist slavery and colonialism on Ayiti (as well as on Cuba, Jamaica, and elsewhere) demonstrate that opposition to colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade on the part of the people Europeans enslaved was far more complicated, nuanced, and complex than is usually portrayed in European accounts of their “settlement” of the so-called New World.

It was the constant resistance of the people they were enslaving that led any of the North American colonists to challenge the “ancient idea” that human beings should ever enslave other human beings.

We can carry this perspective forward into the age of the Haitian Revolution.

In 1697, the French took over the western side of La Española, renamed it Saint-Domingue, and in only one century’s time, forcibly transported 900,000 captive Africans to toil as their slaves. Sugar was king in Saint-Domingue and earned the colony the dubious reputation of being the “pearl of the Antilles.” The white French colonists of Saint-Domingue subjected the Africans they enslaved to some of the cruelest tortures in the Atlantic World. The enslavers burned and buried their captives alive; severed their limbs, ears, and other body parts; bled them to death; and nailed them to walls and trees, while also subjecting them to routine branding with hot irons and other mutilations meant to signify ownership.

One of the most famous early accounts of enslaved resistance to French colonial repressions is that of a fugitive enslaved man named François Makandal. The white colonists accused him of using poison, as well as a vast network of runaway slaves (or maroons), to sow the seeds of rebellion in Saint-Domingue in the 1750s. Upon his capture in January 1758, French colonial officials ordered Makandal burned alive at the stake, an act that was only one of a series of high-profile executions of maroon leaders in the eighteenth century. However, just as colonial officials set the fire, local storytellers insist that Makandal transformed himself into a mosquito and flew away. The escape of a slave in marronnage was the ultimate counterslavery power move, whether in life or in death.

Even without violent rebellion, enslaved Africans in the colony resisted slavery in countless ways. The island’s maroons, for example, had been raiding and devastating crops since 1719, particularly in the Sud-de-Cap region. Their attempts to resist and disrupt slavery cumulatively challenge the notion (repeated in many textbooks and by many journalists) that enslavers were merely “men of their time,” who should not be subjected to “that righteous mode of judging yesterday according to the ideological framing of today.”  Captive Africans and American natives were people of their time, too. In their own day, long before any white abolitionists or European lawmakers came on the scene, native American and African men, women, and children—victims of white European violence—very clearly denounced, resisted, and ended slavery and colonialism for themselves.

This unquenched and constant opposition to slavery smoldered on the island of Saint-Domingue for nearly three centuries. Finally, a larger flame alighted on August 14, 1791, in a forest in the north called Morne Rouge, when a group of enslaved people clandestinely plotted the revolution. Their plot exploded into literal fire less than two weeks later, on August 23, when the enslaved began burning down plantations and cane fields all over the northern plain. By the middle of September 1791, over 1,500 coffee and sugar plantations had been destroyed; and by the end of the year, between 40,000 and 80,000 of the enslaved were in open rebellion.

In 1793, the famous Toussaint Louverture had risen to prominence and his army successfully forced the formal liberation of all Saint-Domingue’s enslaved people. At the turn of the century Louverture even established the island as a semiautonomous colony. Yet in 1799, a French general named Napoléon Bonaparte assumed power in France and made it his mission to get rid of Louverture so he could bring back slavery.

In late 1801, Bonaparte sent his brother-in-law, General Charles Victor Emmanuel Leclerc, with 30,000 French soldiers to the shores of Saint-Domingue. Arriving at the end of January 1802, this was the largest military expedition to ever set sail from France. Leclerc and his army, which eventually comprised more than 60,000 soldiers, proceeded to rain down a murderous and genocidal campaign upon the island’s Black inhabitants. The French used, alongside more conventional weapons, floating gas chambers, hangings, drownings, and dog attacks.

Yet French attempts to reinstate slavery met fierce resistance. General Henry Christophe, the future king of Haiti, even burned the colony’s principal port city of Cap-Français to prevent French military occupation.

Things took a dramatic turn in June 1802, when the French army tricked General Louverture into a meeting. The French subsequently arrested and deported him to France. In April 1803, Louverture’s French jailers reported they found him dead in the cell where they had denied him medical care and starved him to death. The news of Louverture’s terrible demise only encouraged the revolutionaries, now led by the formerly enslaved General Jean-Jacques Dessalines, to fight for “Independence or Death!” The Haitian revolutionaries, who adopted the title of the armée indigène, or indigenous army, defeated French forces at the famous Battles of Vertières on November 18, 1803. They declared their preliminary independence from France about ten days later, on November 29.

On January 1, 1804, the Haitian revolutionaries made their independence official and changed the name of the island from Saint-Domingue back to its indigenous appellation Ayiti (Haïti in modern French spelling). “It is not enough to have expelled the barbarians who have bloodied our land for two centuries,” Dessalines announced in the famous speech he gave while presenting the Haitian Declaration of Independence on New Year’s Day. “It is not enough to have restrained those ever-evolving factions that one after another mocked the specter of liberty that France dangled before you. We must, with one last act of national authority, forever assure the empire of liberty in the country of our birth; we must take any hope of re-enslaving us away from the inhumane government that for so long kept us in the most humiliating torpor. In the end we must live independent or die.”

One year later, in May 1805, Haiti (which had become an empire under Dessalines, who adopted the title Jacques I) saw its first constitution ratified. Articles 2 and 3 solidified into constitutional law the founding prohibition against slavery and the slave trade: “Slavery is forever abolished” and “Equality in the eyes of the law is incontestably acknowledged.”

Although Dessalines was assassinated by members of his own army in October 1806, all subsequent constitutions in early Haiti repeated the interdiction against slavery. And in May 1807, the Haitian statesman and journalist Juste Chanlatte changed the trajectory of global political thought when he declared slavery a “crime against humanity.” In an article he penned for northern Haiti’s official newspaper, the Official Gazette of the State of Hayti, Chanlatte wrote of the Spanish and Portuguese inventors of the transatlantic slave trade, “They were a fierce people who dared to teach others to tolerate such a crime of lèse-humanité!”

To ignore or dismiss the momentousness of how Haitians opened the age of abolition with their war for independence, a not at all inevitable historical event, is to shrug off history.

Today, it is established that slavery is wrong and inhumane. It is so well-established, in fact, that it is easy to forget that the Europeans who enriched themselves from enslaving Africans in the Americas did everything they could to prolong slavery, despite African and native American resistance to their domination. The fact that the state of Vermont took patently incomplete steps toward abolishing slavery in 1777, and that in an earlier draft of the US Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson railed against the evils of slavery while hardly proposing its abolition, demonstrates the utter determination of the US founders to preserve chattel slavery. Indeed, in the 1780s, while creating the US Constitution, congress claimed not to have the authority to act to abolish or limit slavery until 1808, the year of the proposed ban on the international slave trade. The US republic was founded on principles designed to preserve slavery for as long as possible. This contrasted greatly with Haiti, founded on principles designed to uphold and spread freedom.

Haitian independence forced those across the hemisphere not simply to espouse antislavery ideals, but to take material steps to bring about immediate emancipation. In 1816, Venezuelan freedom fighter Simón Bolívar requested support from Haiti in his war of independence from Spain. In response, Haiti’s then president Alexandre Pétion offered material and economic aid—money, ammunition, weapons, and soldiers—but only if Bolívar agreed to abolish slavery. In 1819, Bolívar founded the short-lived state of Gran Colombia (comprising today’s Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama). By 1821, enslaved people in Bolívar’s Gran Columbia achieved their liberty, thanks to the insistence and assistance of the Haitian government.

After that, the tide of abolition unleashed by the Haitian Revolution persistently rose, until it grew into an unstoppable swell. Mexico began to gradually abolish slavery in 1821, immediately following its own war of independence from Spain, achieving full emancipation by 1829. In 1833—one year after the Great Jamaican Slave Revolt of 1831–32, also known as the Baptist War—Great Britain abolished slavery (with full implementation in 1838). France definitively abolished slavery as a part of the French Revolution of 1848. Most of South America then saw slavery’s end by 1850, with the Netherlands declaring abolition in 1863. The United States most directly followed the path of the Haitian Revolution, achieving unilateral emancipation only after a long and bloody war from 1861 to 1865. Never again would the fight to end (or preserve) slavery reach the same intensity. In the wake of Haiti’s tsunami, the abolition of slavery emerged more like coastal erosion on the shores of Puerto Rico (1873), Cuba (1886), and Brazil (1888).

This long interval does not demonstrate that the Haitian Revolution’s message of freedom for all, regardless of skin color, was ineffective. Instead, it showcases the stubborn, racist, and violent determination of the rest of the Atlantic World—people and their national governments—to preserve slavery for an embarrassing amount of time, given the profound example set by Haiti.

Other rulers in the Atlantic World could have followed in Haiti’s stead to end slavery right after the Haitian Revolution. Instead, most held out, until the contradiction of a free Black nation in the Western Hemisphere overwhelmed their own colonies and nation-states with slave rebellions, threatening to split them open with revolution and civil war. To ignore or dismiss the momentousness of how Haitians opened the age of abolition with their war for independence, a not at all inevitable historical event, is to shrug off history.

In 1998 UNESCO designated August 23 as the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and Its Abolition, in honor of the Haitian Revolution, which formally began on that day in 1791. But the occasion usually comes and goes, as it did in 2023 and 2022, and all the years before, with only a passing mention, if it is noticed at all, by mainstream media outlets.

This lack of recognition is sadly not surprising. While the contemporary world stands in near universal agreement that slavery is morally wrong and abhorrent, how that consensus came about remains filled with convenient silences about Haiti.

In 1945, the Nuremberg Charter, whose creators did not acknowledge the precedent set by Haiti, declared slavery a “crime against humanity.” That declaration was repeated by the International Court of Justice in 2001, the same year that France belatedly passed the Taubira Law recognizing the same. Neither charter referenced nor referred to Haiti, either. Now—with some politicians in the United States fighting to prevent honest discussions of race and racism in the classroom—how we teach the history of slavery and abolition has become more of a hot button election issue than perhaps ever before. This is not the time for further distortion. What we need are more, not less, honest discussions.

My hope for 2024, and every year hereafter, is that those who write about slavery’s abolition for the public sphere will not elide or skip over the Haitian Revolution and its precursors in early modern Ayitian and enslaved African resistance. It was not the United States, Great Britain, or France that first ended slavery. It was Ayiti/Haiti. This bare fact puts Haiti at the vanguard of one of largest and most extensive human rights movements in the world, something that should be taught in every classroom. The first abolitionists were the enslaved themselves. icon

This article is part of a series commissioned by Marlene L. Daut
on the 220th anniversary of Haitian independence.

Featured image: Heroes Monument for the Battle of Vertières (Cap-Haïtien, Haiti, 2021). Photograph courtesy of the author.

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