The Caribbean state of Haiti serves as a striking reminder of just how deadly the practice of slavery could be. By 1804, the combined effect of thirteen years of uprisings, murder, and terrorism had destroyed the white population of Haiti, along with all agricultural production and the economy of what was formerly the most prosperous colony in the Western Hemisphere.
The island, originally named San Domingo, had become a center of Spanish activity during the time of the conquistador Hernando Cortes. The Spanish retained a small presence on the eastern side of the island, which is today known as the Dominican Republic. The western part of the island was settled by French traders in 1697 and renamed Saint-Domingue, and it was here that the ferocious race war took place.
The local Amerinds, called Canibales by the Spanish on account of their cannibalistic habits, had been reduced to insignificance by a combination of Spanish force of arms, slavery, and European diseases to which they had no immunity. As a result, the French started importing African slaves to work in the colony.
“The Jewel in the Crown”—Supplies Half of Europe’s Sugar Needs
By 1789, San Domingue was the jewel in the French colonial crown. Its ideal climate and naturally rich soil produced more sugar, coffee, and cotton than all of the then existing colonies in North America put together. San Domingue’s sugar output supplied not only all of France’s requirements, but half of the European continent’s needs as well.
San Domingue’s wealth was legendary, and by the time of the French Revolution, some 40,000 whites had settled in the colony. However, by this stage there were at least 450,000 black slaves toiling in the fields to maintain the island’s prodigious agricultural output, and in addition there were approximately 27,000 mulattoes. This huge nonwhite population, mostly kept under conditions of slavery, provided the demographic time bomb which utterly destroyed the white colony.
French Revolution—Move to Give Nonwhites the Franchise
The French Revolution of 1789 served as a spark which ignited the long-simmering racial pressures in San Domingue. A decree by the French national assembly of May 15, 1791, gave the white and mixed-race population on the island the right to vote.
The white settlers on the island immediately protested. The aptly-named governor general of the island, Blanchelande, sent a message to Paris warning that the implementation of such a form of government would result in “a frightful civil war” and the loss of the colony for France.
The French National Assembly then rescinded the earlier decree and issued a new one saying that the colonists themselves could decide on what form of government was best for their own particular circumstances. When this news was made known in San Domingue, it heightened tensions. The mixed-race population in particular were in an uproar after being informed that they had the vote and then only a few months later told the opposite.
“Amis des Noirs”—French Revolutionaries
A strong anti-slavery lobby, Amis des Noirs (“friends of the blacks”), developed in France, and grew increasingly powerful over the course of the revolution. This abolitionist group agitated constantly for emancipation and full political rights for both mulattoes and blacks in San Domingue, and reacted with outrage to the second decree which took away the right to vote for the mixed-race element.
As a result of the Amis des Noir’s efforts, the French national assembly issued a third decree which gave voting rights back to mulattoes and “free blacks,” that is, those blacks not under any form of indentured labor.
When this news was received in San Domingue, the now-armed black population launched a violent rebellion. Whites were attacked at random, plantations burned, and the island plunged into chaos. The mixed-race population initially sided with the whites but then switched allegiance to the blacks.
Blacks Exterminate All Whites In Haiti
By the end of the uprising in Haiti, every white man, woman, and child had been murdered. Once the whites had been exterminated, the black population then turned on the mixed-race population and wiped them out as well.
Chaos Reigns for Ten Years
The chaos continued until 1802 when a detachment of twenty thousand French troops was sent by Napoleon Bonaparte to restore order to the island. The French forces, under the command of Napoleon’s brother-in-law, General Leclerc, crushed the rebellion. The insurgents were ruthlessly hunted down and the main rebel leaders forced to pledge allegiance to the new French government.
Just when the situation seemed to have stabilized, two disastrous events occurred. The first was the news that the Napoleonic government had given permission for the reinstitution of slavery, and the second was an outbreak of yellow fever on San Domingue. The possibility that the institution of slavery could return reignited black unrest on the island. Meanwhile, the already thinly stretched French forces were decimated by disease, which killed as many as 160 soldiers per day. By August 1802, four fifths of the French troops who had arrived earlier in the year were dead.
Napoleon sent ten thousand fresh troops to bolster the beleaguered French garrison. The new troops were also laid low by yellow fever, and the rebellious blacks, largely immune to the disease, stepped up their attacks. The security situation on the island deteriorated once again.
The conflict then took an even nastier turn. The French authorities decided that the only way to bring the twelve-year-old race war to an end was to kill all black inhabitants over the age of twelve years. The reasoning for this was that any adult black who had, for the previous decade at least, waged a racial war against whites, would never meekly go back to working in the fields. The same applied to black women, the French decided, as the females of that race had proven themselves to be even more vicious and cruel to captured whites than their menfolk. With ruthless energy, the surviving French troops pursued their new orders, and many blacks were killed in this arbitrary fashion. Both sides were plunged into a spiral of tit-for-tat atrocities which seemed to have no end.
French Withdraw and Blacks Rule
The outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars intervened in developments on the island. France became embroiled in a war with Britain at sea, and the French colonial possession of San Domingue came under attack. The British navy blockaded the island, cut off supplies to the French garrison, and supplied the black rebels with guns and ammunition.
The most prominent of the black rebel leaders, Dessalines, launched a number of attacks on the increasingly isolated French garrisons in the coastal towns. Dessalines took town after town from the weakened French forces, and systematically exterminated all the whites taken prisoner. By November 10, 1803, the French could no longer hold out and surrendered to the British fleet off the coast. Of the fifty thousand French troops sent to the island, only a few thousand ever made it back to France.
The Massacre of the Last Whites
With the French gone, the black leader Dessalines had a free hand in instituting his own reign of terror against any whites still unfortunate enough to be on the island state. San Domingue was renamed Haiti in December 1803 and declared independent.
The country because the second independent nation in the Western Hemisphere (after the United States of America) and the first independent black-ruled nation in the Caribbean.
Having disposed of the whites, the blacks and the mixed-race population turned on each other in yet another race war. This ended with the almost complete annihilation of the mulatto population, and in October 1804, Dessalines declared his people to be the winners. To mark the occasion, he declared himself “emperor for life” of Haiti.
The same year, Dessalines asked those whites who had fled, to return and help rebuild the economy. A surprisingly large number of colonists took up his offer, but soon discovered the nature of their error.
Early in 1805 the black population once again rose up against the returned white settlers. Dessalines was powerless to control the mobs, despite the white colonists’ pleas. The Europeans were hunted down and, on March 18, 1805, the very last white person in Haiti was killed.
Comical Haitian “Army” 1899. The Haitian army on parade in 1899: a comical collection of “generals” with almost no soldiers, as vividly captured in the book Where Black Rules White (H. H. Prichard).
San Domingue, which under French rule was once the richest land in all the Caribbean, is today a Third World shambles of poverty, anarchy, and chaos. This state of affairs is even more meaningful when it is considered that the independent state of Haiti is only thirty-five years younger than the United States of America.
It is a devastating counterargument to the “environmental” theory of development—because if time and environment were the only factors influencing civilization, Haiti, in theory, should be as advanced as America.