world history The New Haiti: Remembering History's Most Successful Slave Revolt  

Jen Jeffers
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Ah, freedom – a state of being so many of us take for granted. Given humans' history of enslaving each other, it's no wonder the idea has been elusive to many. The human experience is rife with stories of mass enslavement, kings who built entire empires on the scarred backs of the oppressed, and the bloody slave rebellions that tried to right the scales of justice. Sadly for those in chains, these rebellions were rarely successful, and those who gained freedom usually only found it through emancipation. Time and time again – from the Zanj of Iraq to Spartacus of Rome to Nat Turner of Virginia – slave rebellions were quashed with 10 times the amount of brutality, a painful reminder to never challenge those in power. But there was one slave rebellion that did not face defeat – the St. Domingue rebellion in Haiti, otherwise known as the most successful slave revolt in history.

Lasting from 1791-1804, it was a grassroots revolution that took shape through the influence of voodoo and found victory through fearless determination and clever strategy. This uprising was so fierce, so unrelenting, that it set fire to an entire nation and changed the very mechanics of a racist structure. When it came to slave rebellions, the end was usually one of defeat, but what about those who managed to raise a fist, or a musket, or an ax – and win?

European Explorers Set The Scene For Genocide And Oppression


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Before it was a French colony in the Caribbean, St. Domingue was an island known as Hispaniola, a prized discovery of Christopher Columbus during his 1492 voyage. The name of the island may sound familiar because it was the first site of European settlement in the Americas and one of the founding locations for the start of the so-called New World. It was controlled by the Spanish for hundreds of years before it transitioned to the French in 1659 as the result of a peaceful treaty.

But, before it was any of those things, it was a pristine island inhabited by natives known as the Taíno Amerindians, having descended from the Arawak people. They called this island home long before European sails appeared on the horizon, but, because there are no surviving texts from these indigenous people, their story remains largely untold. The French eventually lost the island in a bitter struggle with their own slaves, at which time the island returned to one of its native names – Haiti. 

The Colony Was Built On The Backs of Slaves


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In typical fashion, things went downhill pretty fast after those European ships arrived on the island. When he alighted in the 15th century, Columbus changed the name of the island to Hispaniola – the first of many affronts – and it wasn't long before his travelers had essentially wiped out close to 90% of the population by exposing them to various infectious diseases like smallpox. And, from there, the Spanish colonists quickly enslaved those who did not die from sickness. But this dwindling group of natives was not nearly enough to satisfy the Spanish ambition, and, in 1503, they began to import African slaves who the Spanish believed to have more strength and stamina. 

By the year 1574, Hispaniola had developed into a thriving slave colony with a reported 1,000 Spaniards and 12,000 Africans. Although the slaves outnumbered the colonists, the brutality of their condition subdued the captives into acceptance. It was a colorful time in the history of the Caribbean, as the early 1600s brought a steady stream of pirates onto the island looking for respite from the sea – and booze, gold, and women. The Spanish had become somewhat bored with Hispaniola by this point, having set their sites on the bigger prize of mainland America.

By 1606, the pirates had become a problem for the locals, and the island's inhabitants were ordered to move inland to find safety. This desertion of the shoreline left roving French, English, and Dutch pirates free to set up shop on the north and west coasts of the island. But it seemed King Louis XIV of France wanted the island for himself, so the Spanish amicably handed it over, and it was renamed St. Domingue. It then became the “Pearl of the Antilles” and the most prosperous colony in the West Indies, a thriving territory built on the bloodied backs of over half a million African slaves.

Slaves Were Tortured While They Worked


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St. Domingue was booming, as the sugar, coffee, and cotton industries flourished through the unpaid labor of the slaves. The work demanded tremendous amounts of manual labor from the Africans who lived in windowless wooden huts, working from sunrise to sunset. Conditions during this time in St. Domingue were particularly brutal, and it was said the slaves were notably overworked, underfed, and brutalized. Plantation owners bragged about the "sophistication" of their punishments, which included pouring hot wax over the heads of slaves and forcing them to eat their own excrement. They spent countless hours in the sugar fields without food and were often tempted to chew on the sugar cane out of hunger. To keep workers from doing this, plantation owners often employed metal masks to keep the slaves from abusing the product. When a slave's crime was bad enough to warrant death, they were attached to four posts and had their stomachs opened, while the plantation dogs ate their entrails. 

Slaves were legally considered property – with no choice or freedom – but they did have a fierce will that began to simmer in the undercurrent of an oblivious society. Without even realizing it, St. Domingue had become a racial microcosm for what was happening in mainland America and around the world. 

The Chasm Between Blacks And Whites Kept Growing


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The island contained many different kinds of people, the most powerful being the wealthy white planters and the petit blancs, who were artisans, teachers, and shopkeepers, most of whom owned slaves and were invested in the success of the institution. Then, there were the free "mulattoes" who straddled the tenuous line between black and white, able to enjoy autonomy on some level but never really finding equality. Their social standing was particularly tenuous, as they were allowed some measure of autonomy while still being restricted from many facets of society. 

There was a small number of free blacks on the island who had been granted their independence through unusual means, but it was a right that was never a guarantee. And then there were the black African slaves; they were lowest on the totem pole, living in the grips of savage slavery and always looking for a way to change their standing and improve their condition. Like a theatrical backdrop, the island of St. Domingue in the 1700s perfectly set the scene for one of history's most successful uprisings.