The Haitian Revolution and Reflections on Political Strategy

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by Tim Shenk
Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)

We owe incomparably more to Haiti than to all of our abolitionists. I regard her as the original pioneer emancipator of the nineteenth century. It was her one brave example that first of all started the Christian world into a sense of the Negro’s manhood…. Until she spoke no Christian nation had given to the world an organized effort to abolish slavery. 

Frederick Douglass, Chicago, 1893

Haiti today is frequently cited as the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Nearly 60 percent of Haiti’s 11 million people live on less than two dollars a day.

Yet barely more than two centuries ago, the Haitian Revolution became a rallying cry for oppressed people around the world. The 12-year slave rebellion struck fear into plantation owners and merchants from Paris to New Orleans, and its example posed a threat to the slave economies of the U.S. South and the Caribbean.

How did they do it? This must be a question on the minds of those who seek deep and lasting social transformation today.

When enslaved African- and Caribbean-born people rose up in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, colonial powers did all they could to divide the blacks from the lighter-skinned Mulattoes and buy off their leaders. When this failed, with superior weapons they attempted to subdue the rebels in battle. In desperation, the French commander Charles Leclerc even proposed a war of extermination — they would kill all of the blacks on the island and bring in new Africans to work who knew nothing of revolution. Yet Leclerc died of yellow fever, along with thousands of French soldiers, worn out by the guerrilla tactics of the ex-slaves.

Haitians won their freedom, and finally they would be able to claim the liberty and equality promised to French society back home. Under the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and others, former slaves defeated the local plantation-owning class, a Spanish invasion, and the British and French army and navy.

How did they do it? This must be a question on the minds of those who seek deep and lasting social transformation today. How did an oppressed class of people, who had no right even to control their own bodies, manage to overthrow those who owned the land, controlled the courts and the military, and whose profits and livelihood depended on the continuation of chattel slavery?

For one, the black rebel generals came to agree on a common objective. They wouldn’t be satisfied with simple revenge against their masters, defeating the French only to be ruled by the British or the Spanish. And they weren’t fighting to become the new slave masters themselves.

The enslaved people they led demanded full emancipation and the right to enjoy the fruits of their labor. They even burned Saint-Domingue to the ground, from the cities of Port-au-Prince and Le Cap to the highly productive sugarcane fields of the northern plain, rather than have others continue to profit from their toil.

In this way, the rebels correctly identified their enemy. It wasn’t a single policy they fought, or the right to better treatment in the fields. They saw they had to kill the slave-economy system that shackled them as property to make profit, before the system killed them.

Another key to the successful revolution was training a dedicated leadership. Toussaint saw as early as 1792 that a slave revolt could not succeed without trained leaders.

Their commitment went beyond their own liberation to ending slavery more broadly. They liberated their enslaved brethren in Spanish Santo Domingo and later would provide Simon Bolivar with weapons, ammunition and a printing press in the fight for independence in Venezuela, on the condition that Bolivar’s forces would end slavery upon gaining independence from Spain.

All systems of oppression must be ended in the mind before they can be ended in fact. In that sense the rebels of Saint-Domingue had a certain advantage. Because sugarcane production there was so intensive and conditions were so harsh, black laborers only lasted an average of seven years in the cane fields before being literally worked to death. That meant that fully two-thirds of the enslaved workforce there in the late 1700s was African-born.

Though the psychological damage of slavery was present, it was not yet widely internalized, and this allowed for clarity among the ranks. They knew they were not to blame for their own condition. It was the oppressive hand of the grand blancs — the rich whites — that held them in bondage. Ending the relationship between owner and property became their only chance for survival as a people, requiring one of the most profound revolutions in world history.

The first sign of a thoroughly ill-adjusted or bankrupt form of society is that the ruling classes cannot agree how to save the situation. – C.L.R. James

Another key to the successful revolution was training a dedicated leadership. Toussaint saw as early as 1792 that a slave revolt could not succeed without trained leaders. In The Black Jacobins, historian C.L.R. James notes that the massive riots of the early years of the revolution had a spontaneous character, and untrained blacks could gain temporary victories but could not build sustained resistance. Fighters began to flock to his call for complete liberty for all.

“Toussaint could have had thousands following him,” writes James. “It is characteristic of him that he began with a few hundred picked men, devoted to himself, who learnt the art of war with him from the beginning.” With study and discipline, this group of soldiers would become Toussaint’s generals over the next decade. This united core of generals would draw many thousands more to them in time. They would be “decisive in the struggle for freedom,” according to James.

Though we know few details about what sparked the consciousness of those who would follow Toussaint, once a few were willing to lay down their lives for freedom, many more gained courage. James chronicles French soldiers’ journal accounts of the reckless heroics of the formerly enslaved who marched against cannons, singing, with no weapons except sticks or bent pieces of metal. The unwavering desire to be free emboldened their comrades and intimidated their adversaries. One French officer wrote with dismay, “These were the men we had to fight against.”

Yet the Haitian Revolution did not succeed only out of unflinching will or charismatic leadership, though it had both. Fundamental to conquering state power was Toussaint’s astute political strategy. His goal was liberty for his people, and his tactics varied according to changing material conditions and the changing tactics of his many enemies.

In France, the bourgeois revolution was bringing down the monarchy. While some French revolutionaries initially supported the Haitians, eventually both republican and monarch factions sided with the white colonists of Saint-Domingue. The poor whites in Saint-Domingue favored the French Revolution because it promised a better future for them, and the Mulattoes were gaining economic power, which worried the colonists. In addition, France was intermittently at war with Britain. The English “set up a great howl for the abolition of the slave-trade,” not out of love for enslaved blacks, according to James, but because Britain had lost its prized colony and didn’t want France to have the upper hand.

In short, a crisis reigned among the ruling classes of Europe and the colonies. To this point, James writes, “The first sign of a thoroughly ill-adjusted or bankrupt form of society is that the ruling classes cannot agree how to save the situation. It is this division which opens the breach, and the ruling classes will continue to fight with each other, just so long as they do not fear the mass seizure of power.”

Toussaint knew he and his ragtag army of former slaves were not the strongest force to be reckoned with. Because of this, he alternately accepted weapons from the Spaniards to fight the French, then declared himself a defender of the French crown while fighting off a British invasion. At all times, Toussaint played his stronger enemies against each other, moving more boldly when they were busy at war with each other.

According to James’s account, Toussaint kept some white officers among his troops, left most private property in the hands of the white colonists and forbade his men from pillaging. As a leader he modeled a surprising amount of moderation, considering the atrocities of slavery and war inflicted on his people.

Ultimately, even though Toussaint armed the black laborers with 30,000 guns bought from the Americans, moderation would fail. Toussaint would be tricked into capture, sent to die in prison in France.

Dessalines assumed leadership of the rebel troops, and had no tolerance for reconciliation with the white planters. It was he, Toussaint’s brilliant lieutenant, who rose to lead the black masses to victory. They fought the largest military expedition ever to set sail from France, whose ships were loaded down with chains to re-enslave the rebels. When the rebels won, Dessalines was declared emperor of the hemisphere’s first independent black republic.

The next part of the story often paints Dessalines as a monster for ordering the killing of all whites in the new Republic of Haiti. However, lesser known is the ultimatum presented to Haitian leadership by the British: His Majesty would protect the new independent nation from other colonial powers and trade with Haiti “only when the last of the whites had fallen under the axe,” according to historian M. Camille Guy. This ploy had the goal of eliminating French influence in Haiti to weaken the French for in the ongoing war with Britain, which some have described as the truly first world war. Racial loyalties among Europeans, it seems, were secondary to questions of economic and political power.

After independence, challenges for the Haitian laboring class never subsided — ever since, the ruling class has plotted to reclaim control. James warns, “The rich are only defeated when running for their lives.”

In 1825, the French threatened to reconquer the island and extorted its leaders to the tune of 150 million francs, a debt Haiti finally finished paying off in 1947. The U.S.-backed Duvalierist dictatorship impoverished and terrorized Haitians in the latter half of the twentieth century. Coups against democratically elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2001 and 2004, then the devastating 2010 earthquake and subsequent U.S.- then U.N.-led military occupation, have further decimated the country.

Still, it is hard to overestimate the influence of the Haitian Revolution on other struggles for liberty and equality, especially in the 19th century. U.S. abolitionist Frederick Douglass said Haiti awoke the world both to the horrors of slavery and to the intelligence of formerly enslaved blacks, who could not only win a war for independence but also govern themselves.

Those who fight today’s injustices would do well to study revolutionary periods in history, both victories and defeats of oppressed peoples. Malcolm X said, “Of all our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research.” History comes alive when it is not simply names and dates to be memorized, but when it is read for lessons in political strategy.

A note about The Black Jacobins

The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, was written by C.L.R. James in 1938. James was a historian from Trinidad who was interested in aiding the struggles for independence in Africa at the time. He found lessons from the Haitian Revolution instructive for those dealing with questions of colonialism, racism and class society in the fight for equality.

James’s book follows Toussaint, the formerly enslaved black leader who guided the revolutionary effort in the French colony from 1791 until his imprisonment in 1802. Yet James is clear from his preface onward: “Toussaint did not make the revolution. It was the revolution that made Toussaint.”

James notes that individuals and groups act within the limitations of their context. Historical figures and processes cannot be understood separate from economic forces, “the sub-soil from which they came.” He writes: “Great men make history, but only such history as it is possible for them to make. Their freedom of achievement is limited by the necessities of their environment. To portray the limits of those necessities…is the true business of the historian.”

In this way, The Black Jacobins does not offer blueprints for today. Rather, through the thoughtful organization of historical documents, treaties, letters and journals of the day, James shows a method of studying and presenting history in such a way as to make it a tool for reflection on political strategy.

Thank you to Jeb Sprague-Silgado for his thoughtful and precise comments in making this a much better piece.

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