This sample essay on The Only Successful Slave Revolt In History Took Place In reveals arguments and important aspects of this topic. Read this essay’s introduction, body paragraphs and the conclusion below.
The Haitian Slave revolt of 1791 has been deemed by some “the only successful one in history”. This has often been measured by the successes that it brought for the black slaves on the island of Saint Domingo (now Haiti), namely independence from France, the abolition of the institution of slavery and the destruction of the “dominant white population and the plantation system”1.
What used to be the “most prosperous colony of the western hemisphere”2 then became the first “whole scale act of emancipation in a major slave society and the creation of modern Haiti, the first modern black state”3.
Also the events of 1791 inspired many more, both black and white to take up arms against those who used the slave trade for their own gain. Although not all achieved what the Haitians did, by the end of the 19th century slavery was abolished across the globe.
This indirectly can be said to be the slave revolt’s greatest success. Firstly the immediate successes of the Haitian slave revolt have to be explained, in order to see why it was more successful than all others before it.
This can be attributed to a number of factors including the horrendous situation existing before the revolt, the leadership of the rebellion, and the problems facing the invading armies. Life for the black slaves before the revolt took place was quite appalling, perhaps only as bad as other colonies but still dreadful enough to make the slaves rebel.
Slaves at that time had few rights and those reforms that were carried out in Paris, were commonly ignored by the slave masters in Haiti.
Furthermore slave owners offered “no hope of emancipation4”, due to the large profits the island was bringing via the large slave labour plantation system. Similarly there were many at the top in France who believed that France’s colonies “existed only for the profit of the mother country”5. Hence “few could buy their own freedom”6 and “manumission was rare”7. Although officially protected from some abuse, in reality slaves could be “tortured, mutilated or killed by their owners”8. The social conditions in Haiti were appalling, especially on the plantations.
Slaves were forced to complete “back breaking labour”9 for long hours in the hot sun with no rest. Failure to work, because of any reason, even exhaustion, would often result in severe punishment. As a result many died from overwork. Also the slaves had very poor living quarters with food levels that barely met their required food levels. Starvation was often rife making the death rate soar among the slaves. This is shown by the fact that more than 800,000 slaves were imported to the colony in the 1700’s, yet in 1789 the population was about 450,00010.
In a more general context the French never set up any form of education of the locals, leaving the “vast majority illiterate”11 . The prospect of freedom was no better alternative as there was racial discrimination in most towns, causing the separation of the different ethnic groups, whites, mulattoes (mixed black and white ancestry) and freed blacks, and also a hardening of attitudes towards one another. These conditions therefore were the breeding grounds for discontent and frustration.
Many chose to end their suffering by suicide; others ran away to the forests in their thousands, thus creating the basis for the revolt in 1791. However social conditions alone did not make the revolt an inevitable success. Violent conflicts between the black slaves and white colonists were “common”12 with bands of runaway slaves carrying out “hit and run attacks throughout the colony”13. These insurrections were always swiftly and severely dealt with and often collapsed because of a lack of “centralised organisation and leadership”14 and military training. However this was not lacking in the Haitian revolt.
Its many leaders each had different qualities that they brought to the rebellion and their military and strategic thinking combined was a major factor in their victory. The main leader was Francois Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture. Despite being born of slave parents he worked for a benevolent master who allowed him to be educated. Soon Toussaint began to “read history, politics and military tactics”, especially those of Julius Caesar. Moreover his “talent for administration”15 got him promoted quickly and he soon “set out to make the masses of untrained and illiterate blacks into an army capable of fighting European troops”16.
Named the “black Spartacus”17 he was heralded the “organisational genius of the revolution”18. Those under him also provided the revolt with much experience and advice, particularly Henri Christophe (who fought in the American revolution), Alexandre Sabes Petion (who was educated at a military school in Paris), Jean Pierre Boyer (a free mulatto educated in France who joined the French military force for a while soon siding with his countrymen helping to unify the group), and Jean Jacques Dessalines (raised a slave and joined the rebellion quite early on).
As well as the leaders many within the slave revolt (about 800) had also fought in the American Revolution (1775-1783) and thereby “gained some military experience”19. Inspired by the French Revolution of 1789 the rebel leaders saw that the realm of the possible had been expanded and they started to assert the rights of their own people. The revolt of 1791 took weeks of planning by the rebel leaders and other elite slaves. Then the slaves started to rebel on August 14th in the larger plantations in the north with blacks burning down plantations and crops and massacring “every white person they encountered”20.
Free blacks joined them, as did mulattoes and soon the army was over 100,000 strong. In one month over 1,000 plantations “fields, and factions” had been torched. However the success wasn’t only to be attributed to the skill of the victorious blacks but also to the failings of and problems incurred by the French and the invading armies of Britain and Spain. The first event that undermined the French government was the French revolution itself which weakened the government and caused splits among the whites of the island as to whom they should follow, the king or the republic.
Those mulattoes, who considered themselves superior to the blacks also saw the revolution as a time for them to “share in the privileges of the white elite”. So whilst internal conflicts dominated the attention of the few elite, it provided a unique opportunity for the 500,000 (out of a total Haiti population of 570,000) black slaves to plan and rebel with high chances of success. Another factor that greatly hindered those trying to quell the rebellion and restore order was disease.
The British in particular fell victim to tropical disease which “thinned their ranks far more quickly than combat against the French”21. Also France’s army was decimated by yellow fever especially during the second invasion by Napoleon when he sent out forces to try to recapture the island, wanting to put it under the control of a white general rather than Toussaint. Once the revolt had become a full scale civil war, the British and Spanish sent invasion forces, “hungry for her (France’s) rich colony”22 and keen to take advantage of the anarchy raging there.
This prompted the French to go to war with Britain and Spain and to send its own 6,000 strong force, out to the island to fight them, also trying to appease the rebels. Initially many rebels including Toussaint had joined forces with Spain but then changed allegiance when France abolished slavery in 1974. Toussaint claimed he was ready to join the French and “he would be loyal to the mother country as long as she remained loyal to blacks”23.
This reasoning combined with a realisation that the Spanish and British had no plans for their own abolition of slavery prompted him to become the colonies commanding general, driving Spain out by 1795 and the British by 1798. By 1801 Toussaint had restored order, winning the confidence of blacks, mulattoes and whites and becoming general governor of the island for life. So foreign intervention prompted France to appease the rebels who had destroyed her prosperous colony, in order to prevent any other power gaining a foothold.
This in turn meant more military experience for the rebels, when they would later take on France, and more prestige for the movement as a whole. Napoleon was offended that Toussaint had taken control of “France’s prized colony”24 and undermined the position of the French whilst fighting with them. He wanted to regain complete control and reinstate slavery once again (as abolishing it had meant all slaves in all the colonies were free – Napoleon reinstated slavery in every colony except Haiti).
He sent a force of 16-20,000 to Saint Domingue where the army “outmatched, outmanoeuvred and wore down the black army”25. Many generals agreed to transfer their allegiance and Toussaint himself surrendered to the French on May 2nd 1802. He had been assured that he would able to retire quietly but instead was taken to France where he “died of neglect in the dungeons of Fort de Joux”26 in 1803. However this is when the leadership of the rebels shone out, as despite their main leader being taken, they fought on with even more determination, “convinced that the same fate lay in store for them”27.
As a result they battled against the disease ridden army and that combined with the fact that France was distracted by war on the continent with Britain, and therefore was not able to send any reinforcements to help its army. Bonaparte had to “concentrate his energies on the struggle in Europe”28 and in April 1803 he signed a treaty allowing the purchase of Louisiana by the United States, thereby “ending French ambitions in the western hemisphere”29. Consequently in 1804 Dessalines declared Haiti to be the world first black republic.
The Haitian slave revolt success can also be measure by the message it sent abroad, in both a positive and a negative sense. In some places the revolt “chilled many white Americans’ ardour for emancipation measures”30 convincing many that freeing slaves would “result in a race war”31 and they became “even less willing to end slavery”32. Abolitionists on the other hand such as Wilberforce, Clarkson, and James Stephen “took a considerable interest in Haitian developments and used it to show how emancipation leads to progress and to prosperity33”.
David Rice was one person who applauded the blacks of Saint Domingue who were “bravely sacrificing their lives on the altar of liberty”34. But sadly the vast majority of the western world didn’t agree and sought to isolate Haiti in order to prevent its idea of emancipation from spreading as a model for their own slaves. “Haiti’s isolation continued for more than 200 years”35 and this was obviously a setback for its economy and foreign relations.
Not only that but the revolt itself left the country in ruins as “most of the countries plantation infrastructure had been destroyed and all the experienced administrators had been eliminated”36 Another major impact of the slave revolt was that “racial equality and slave emancipation were put onto the agenda of the French revolution thereby benefiting all French Caribbean possessions”37. Anti slavery agitation was blamed continually for igniting the black revolution and for encouraging other ones like it.
The Haitian slave revolt inspired “a firestorm of slave revolts including Gabriel’s in Richmond (1800) and an 1811 uprising in Louisiana”38 (which may have involved tens of thousands of slaves) There were also major revolts in Curacao (1975), Barbados (1816), Demerara (1823), and Jamaica (1831-1832). The slave revolt did however “awaken slaveholders in neighbouring countries to the possibility of a similar crisis”39 and in taking Haiti out of competition in the sugar producing market it “helped to stimulate slave-based production elsewhere”40 especially in Cuba, Brazil and North America.
The Haiti slave revolt was the first and last slave system to abolished by the slaves themselves. However despite the negative consequences of the revolt, namely that slave production increased elsewhere and the anti slavery movement incurred a setback, the positive consequences far outweigh it and therefore deem it the “solely fully successful one”41. It was the starting point from which slavery was seen to be immoral and unjust and by the end of 19th century all the major western powers had abolished slavery, including Britain (1834), France (1848), and the Dutch/Spanish (1886).
Although the colony was “eclipsed”42 economically the revolt still provided a model of hope for other slaves around the globe, showing that anything was possible. It immediately succeeded because of the bad conditions beforehand, and also due to its leadership during the revolt. It succeeded in the long term as it eventually brought about the death of slavery altogether.