Haiti’s history is an inspiration for the fight for freedom
The first successful slave rebellion that led to the forging of one of the first republics in our world.

As I reflect on the island of Hispaniola’s history, where Haiti stands as a testament to the world’s first successful slave rebellion, it’s more than a historical account. It’s a narrative that speaks to the enduring spirit of humanity’s quest for freedom and equality. This story, particularly Haiti’s, isn’t just about the past but also serves as a mirror, reflecting our ongoing struggles for justice and the lessons we can draw from it today.   

The Caribbean was predominantly under Spanish control for over a century since Christopher Columbus’s arrival in 1492. However, in the 17th century, the growing influence of Britain and France in the region led Spain to cede the western half of the island to France, establishing the colony of Saint-Domingue in 1697.

Haiti stands as a nation with a history as glorious as it is tumultuous. It’s the only country born from a slave rebellion and among the earliest to embrace a republican form of government. Yet, its past is often overshadowed by more suffering than triumph.

Haiti’s history represents one of the most turbulent and significant waves in the ocean of the world’s recent historical past. Its complex layers offer profound insights into the broader currents of global historical development, extending far beyond the confines of its national narrative. Through Haiti’s story, we can discern vital lessons about the enduring power structures that have long oppressed societies, and the challenges that linger in dismantling these legacies.

The Haitian Revolution isn’t merely a historical event; it’s a beacon of hope and a reminder that the fight for freedom, even against all odds, can prevail. The courage and resilience of the Haitian folks, rising from the depths of oppression to claim their independence, serve as a powerful inspiration for all who continue to fight for justice and equality in our world today.

At the dawn of the French Revolution in 1789, the population of Saint-Domingue, now known as Haiti, was estimated at around 500,000, and divided into three distinct social classes. This included approximately 40,000 White settlers, about 30,000 free people of colour—comprising mixed-race individuals and emancipated Black people—and a slave population that constituted nearly 90 per cent of the Haitian total.

Fewer than one-third of these slaves were born in the colony; the majority were forcibly brought from Africa. Throughout the 18th century, the number of slaves imported into Saint-Domingue exceeded one million. However, the fact that the Black population was fewer than half a million by 1789 indicates an alarmingly high mortality rate. Faced with this stark reality, slave owners often opted for an “economic” approach: rather than improving living conditions, they chose to let those close to death perish and replace them with new slaves.

In August 1789, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was proclaimed in Paris, heralding the principles of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” for all. Yet, it wasn’t until August 1791 that the slaves of Saint-Domingue initiated their systematic struggle for freedom and equality. This delay prompts a critical question: why did it take two years for these ideals to ignite a revolution in Saint-Domingue?

For slaves, who endured subhuman conditions, the concepts of freedom, equality, and even the essential recognition as humans were distant, almost unimaginable dreams. The free people of colour in Saint-Domingue, situated between the extremes of slavery and freedom, were initially galvanized by the revolutionary fervour from their homeland. They perceived the revolution not as a beacon of universal liberty and equality, but as an opportunity to enhance their status and rights.

It would be anachronistic to retrospectively condemn the free people of colour for their seemingly selective advocacy for freedom, overlooking the plight of the slaves. A burgeoning discourse on human rights marked the era, yet it grappled with the fundamental question of who was deemed worthy of these rights. Only a few progressive thinkers at the time recognized black slaves as deserving of the title “human beings.” In this turbulent context, characterized by the clash between royalists and revolutionaries and the activism of the free people of colour, the enslaved population gradually began to entertain the revolutionary thought: “What about us?”

Toussaint Louverture, born into slavery in Saint-Domingue, rose from these chains to attain freedom. As a local-born “Creole” slave, he was more immersed in the culture of the colonizers than those enslaved Africans brought directly from the continent. This cultural familiarity often led to roles of relative importance, such as field oversight and domestic duties, and eventually to emancipation for some, as was the case with Louverture.

C. L. R. James, in his portrayal of Louverture, dubs him a “Black Jacobin,” recognizing him as a steadfast adherent to revolutionary ideology. Louverture, embarking on his revolutionary journey at age 50, consistently pursued strategies and tactics to enhance his influence while minimizing destruction and bloodshed. His approach wasn’t solely focused on overthrowing the ruling class. Unlike many revolutionary military leaders who acted primarily in the interests of their specific groups (mixed-race people, freed slaves, Creoles, and imported slaves), Louverture’s goal was the liberation of all those under colonial subjugation. James interprets this stance as aligning with the ideology of universal freedom and equality.

When the French Revolutionary government declared the complete abolition of slavery, including in its colonies, in February 1794, Louverture and his followers, who had been aligning with Britain and Spain against their mother country, embraced this new “France of Freedom and Equality,” successfully ousting British and Spanish forces. However, Napoleon Bonaparte, seeing the strengthening independence movement in Saint-Domingue, dispatched a large, oppressive force in 1801. Louverture was captured and deported. Despite this setback, the Haitian Revolution continued, culminating in Haiti’s declaration of independence on January 1, 1804, following the defeat of the French forces.

Nearly six decades after James’s influential writings, Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s book, Silencing the Past, emerged as a seminal work, shedding new light on the Haitian Revolution’s legacy. Born in Haiti, Trouillot moved to the US at the age of 19 to escape François Duvalier’s dictatorship. As an anthropologist, he skillfully portrayed the intricate fabric of Haitian society, interweaving historical and contemporary analyses.

Trouillot dissected the societal components unified under “the people” from both nationalist and socialist perspectives, revealing the enduring tragedies in Haiti’s post-independence history. He delved into the root causes of the extreme violence that marked this era, including the infamous massacre following Haiti’s declaration of independence, which saw thousands of White and mixed-race people killed. This event significantly isolated the nascent nation of Haiti from the international community. Twenty years later, surrounded by warships and suffering from economic sanctions, Haiti negotiated with France in a desperate bid to break this isolation, agreeing to pay substantial compensation—compensation for the loss of property and slaves—in exchange for recognition. This decision would burden its future.

The original demand of 150 million francs, later reduced to 90 million francs in 1838, has a modern equivalent of approximately 30 billion US dollars. The original amount was 10 times more than what the US had paid France for the Louisiana Purchase, and it required the fledgling country to take out loans with very high-interest rates from the French bank. With the weight of the interest choking the country, it took Haiti 122 years to pay off its debt. 

In a dramatic turn of events in 2003, the Haitian government demanded $21 billion from France as restitution for the payments made until 1943. However, this request was short-lived; following the coup that ousted President Jean-Bertrand in the subsequent year, the demand was withdrawn. In a symbolic gesture in 2016, the French parliament repealed the 1825 ordinance that had mandated these reparations. Yet, France and its descendants continue to thrive off the wealth they’ve stolen from Haiti. 

There’s a common adage: “History is written by the victors.” Indeed, those in power often dictate historical narratives. Nationalistic perspectives are favoured when the ruling authority leans towards nationalism, and populism is emphasized when the focus shifts to the common people. Yet, this simplistic approach to history, often seeking a convenient scapegoat, is prone to repetitive and limited interpretations. Trouillot, in challenging this notion, might have preferred to say, “History is the writing of survivors.” The purpose of recording history, he implies, isn’t for the glorification of victory but for the essence of survival.

Haiti has endured much suffering. The devastating 2010 earthquake, frequent hurricanes, and pandemics have added to its political and social turmoil. Since the overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, who was elected in Haiti’s first democratic election in 1990, political stability has eluded the nation. Even following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021, a stable successor has yet to emerge.

Despite these challenges, Haiti’s history offers profound lessons. The 1825 “reconciliation” with France, for instance, poses significant questions for our current global context in 2024, a world still marred by wars and conflicts. As I ponder the legacy of the Haitian Revolution, I am reminded that history isn’t just about the past, but it’s a guide for the future. The resilience and determination of the Haitian people inspire us to believe in the possibility of a better world. Let us take forward the torch of freedom and equality, ignited by the heroes of Haiti, and carry it into our battles against injustice today. The story of Haiti teaches us that in unity, perseverance, and unwavering courage lies the power to change the world.  


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