top of page

The Horrors of Saint Domingo: An Inevitable Revolution?

By Gary Oswald

In August 1791 a number of plantation slaves met in the woods of Bois Caïman in North Haiti. That meeting was the starting signal for the world's most successful slave revolt. Within two months 4,000 white masters were dead, over a thousand plantations had been destroyed and tens of thousands of slaves had been freed. 13 years later a former slave was able to declare that the colony of Saint-Domingue was now the independent country of Haiti, with him as its leader.

This meeting therefore was one of the most important moments in New World history. But because we don't have very good sources on what exactly happened during it, as it was quite obviously kept secret from the white slave owners, it has become so mythologised that it is difficult to separate the truth from the legend.

We know that the meeting was a culmination of months of secret planning on the part of the slaves and we also suspect that the uprising came earlier than it had originally been intended. The original plan had probably been for the first blow to be struck in Cap-Français upon the meeting of a colonial assembly there, the idea was that if enough weapons could be smuggled to the slaves within the city, they could decapitate the Island's leadership by burning the city while all the major land owners were meeting there and then there'd be no organised resistance to the plantation slave's uprising. This plan was abandoned after a minor slave uprising had been put down and one of its leaders, after been tortured, had ratted out the larger conspiracy.

This put the rebellious slaves in a quandary, they didn't know how much of their plans had been spilled and how vigorous the response would be (in actual fact, there was no serious response, the slave owner in question seemed to assume that talk of a widespread uprising was merely wishful thinking and fantasy on the part of the slaves). As a result the decision was made to abandon the initial risky decapitation strategy and concentrate instead on freeing as many of the plantation slaves as possible, which would hopefully create an army large enough to storm the French defensive positions.

The meeting at Bois Caïman was the signal that the timetable had moved forward and the starting gun was about to fire. The man who called the meeting was Dutty Boukman, the first major figure of the Haitian revolution. He is however a figure we know very little about given his importance. Some historians speculate that he was an Islamic scholar from Africa prior to his enslavement, others that he had been sold to Haiti from Jamaica after the British had marked him as a troublemaker due to him attempting to teach other slaves to read and write. Both of these histories are impossible to prove, all we know for certain is that he was a slave in Haiti, that he attempted to run away at least once and was caught, that he later was sold to a plantation in North Haiti where he was given a trusted position and used that to run away again thus becoming a leader of a small band of maroons or escaped slaves. And he used his contacts with other maroons to send messages to the still enslaved men of the plantations. The guests at Bois Caïman included many who were still plantation slaves as well as Maroons.

We also know that while he never had any position of actual leadership over either the maroons or slaves, the rebellion was a coalition of independent bands working together without a strict hierarchal organisation, he claimed the religious position of Houngan that meant his opinions held great weight. At Bois Caïman, Boukman, even if he was indeed privately a Muslim, performed a voodoo ceremony for his guests. The voodoo religion was a useful tool for Boukman, it was largely based on West African vodun but it held enough different elements from other religions (including Christianity and Islam) that all of the slaves, from entirely different areas of Africa could recognise at least elements of it. The slaves had no language or culture in common, but the religion could act as a unifying force.

Georges Biassou

The speech Boukman supposedly gave emphasised the idea that the whites worshipped a god who asked them to commit atrocities, while the true god of the blacks only asked them to do good, but now even that God had lost patience and he was calling for vengeance, for the murderous whites to be repaid in blood. He then supposedly picked out three men at the meeting, the slaves Biassou and Jeannot and, the Maroon, Papillon, and prophesised that these men would lead the slaves into freedom and prosperity. These three men would indeed become, alongside Boukman, major leaders of the revolution which obviously makes you assume either the prophecy was made up after the fact or was arranged by Boukman to support his allies.

Then Boukman called forward a teenaged girl who, channelling the spirit of a voodoo loa, sacrificed a small black pig to the spirits and then Boukman daubed its blood over the members of the meeting, bonding them together in a blood oath for vengeance. The girl herself wasn't identified for another century, when it was claimed that she was the mixed race minor noblewomen Cécile Fatiman, wife of future President of Haiti, Jean-Louise Pierrot, elder sister of future Queen of Haiti, Marie Louise Coidavid, and granddaughter of the polish conman who claimed to be Prince Frederick of Corsica. If this was indeed the girl in question, she'd have been the last surviving witness to the meeting at Bois Caïman.

Regardless of the exact details, at Bois Caïman a spark was lit that would change the world. The whites of Haiti would either die or flee to other countries, in arguably the first American refugee crisis. The second country in the New World would be established from a revolt against European rule and this one would become an arsenal of liberty during the revolts of Spanish America. The French Empire would be humiliated and forced to abandon its New World ambitions, ultimately selling Louisiana to the USA. And slave owners and abolitionists alike would spend the next century debating the 'Horrors of Santo Domingo'.

The main questions asked in the aftermath of the slave revolt was 'why Haiti and why then?'. Slave revolts were inevitable when you had slaves, Haiti itself had a history of escapes and minor revolts that dated back centuries, but nothing on this scale had ever happened before or would again. Horrified slave owners across the New World tried to work out why this had happened and how they could avoid it repeating. This is precisely what this article is interested in, though with different motives. Was a successful slave revolt in Haiti inevitable?

The first reason for why Haiti was that Haiti simply had more slaves than most places. Slaves outnumbered the free citizens of Haiti by about 10-1. Most other slave states such as Cuba, Brazil or the Southern USA had more free citizens than slaves or at worse an equal number. However Haiti was not unique in this, the British colony of Jamaica had similar numbers and while there were slave revolts in Jamaica, and the UK's policy towards Haiti would largely be governed by their fears of a new revolt there, they were nowhere near as successful. If Boukman had indeed originally been a Jamaican slave, the question arises as to whether he could have pulled off a revolt there with the same success. It is likely he would have found it harder.

The difference is that Jamaica was stable. There was no invasion by foreign forces, no attempted rebellion against it's colonial masters and no civil war within the colony. Boukman was planning his rebellion at Bois Caïman because he knew that the slave masters were divided and unable to muster a coherent response against the slaves. This was because Haiti was, in August 1791, in a low-level civil war. The reason for this was that while the free citizens were outnumbered 10 to 1 by the slaves, only around 60% of the free citizens were white, the others were either freed slaves or the children of slaves. These free persons of colour were often slave owners themselves and had been generally treat as equals by the whites up until the aftermath of the Seven Years War when a racial code had been established that saw the free coloureds reduced firmly to second class citizens. Tensions over this would build until the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789 saw France officially recognise that all men were equal. When word of this spread to the colony, the free coloureds demanded equal rights, the whites refused and when France went over their heads to enforce it, those tensions erupted in violence. This gave Boukman his opportunity.

Burning of the Plaine du Cap - Massacre of whites by the blacks". On August 22 1791, slaves set fire to plantations, torched cities and massacred the white population

So the existence of the free coloureds was seen as the second reason for the slave revolt by the other slave powers. They demanded their rights which led directly to a slave revolt and emancipation, without them the slaves would have been more docile. But the free coloureds were not initially friends of the Slaves, they were mostly opposed to emancipation. It is possible for the free coloureds to be bought entirely on board if different decisions had been made both in France and in Haiti, as the white leaders did at various points introduce full racial equality among freemen.

Moreover a civil war over the rights of the free coloured is not the only way you can have the instability that Boukman needed. The civil war was also partially a class revolt with the poor whites of the colony rebelling against their richer counterparts, the free coloureds being given full equality only makes this more likely. Also there was serious talk of Haitian independence by the Island's elite thanks to the French enforcing a trading monopoly that saw French traders buying goods cheaply from Haiti and selling it elsewhere for huge profits and also forcing the Haitians to serve in and fund a militia force to protect the island despite promising to send the regular army there instead. France was often worried that if racial equality between freemen had been established, Haiti would be united enough to declare independence. A white dominated independent slave state of Haiti would have been a basket case of a state, it was built entirely around producing and selling cash crops and so was not self sufficient in terms of food and products and had few schools or hospitals and no history of local democracy. The USA was practically already a country, Haiti was just a prison. But people have made worst decisions and any war between France and the Haitian elite over independence would have been a huge opportunity for the Island's slaves.

And unlike Jamaica, Haiti would be invaded by both the Spanish and the British during the 1790s. As France's largest and most profitable colony, there was interest from Foreign powers to take it away from them. An invasion seems inevitable even if France managed to solve its internal problems and such an invasion would once again open the door for Boukman.

Which brings us to the third reason, one the French in particular noted. They said that Haiti had always been a basket case ready for this revolt. But the slaves had previously lacked the leadership required to take advantage. Boukman would provide that leadership but without him it might have never happened. The main evidence for this is that in the South of Haiti, there was never anything as effective as Boukman's revolt in the North. Plenty of slaves rebelled and escaped and some achieved minor successes, capturing towns and forming their own maroon bands but there was no grand coalition that overturned the game board like in the North. It is hard to deny that Boukman's revolt was unusually well organised for a slave revolt, it achieved astounding successes in its opening weeks and didn't splinter like many revolts did when it encountered resistance. Slaves joined the rebellion or were killed, white doctors and craftsmen were captured and enlisted, other whites were killed, plantations were looted for weapons and then burned, trade was established with the Spanish for more weapons and farms for food were set up by former plantation slaves to feed the armies in the future. It was a ruthlessly efficient army albeit one that struggled to break the stone fortifications of the major cities.

But Boukman was killed in October 1791. His death was a huge blow to the rebellion, it took the heart out of a lot of the rebels and led to infighting between the other leaders with Papillon soon killing Jeannot. The whites mounted his head on a banner to prove that the slave army's greatest leader had died and his death marked the end of the initial successes of the revolt. But it didn't mark the end of those successes entirely and in later years other men in that army such as Touissant Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines would prove themselves at least his equal as a war leader. It is tempting to argue as the Marxists would that there would always a man like Boukman ready to take the opportunity if presented. African born slaves had often previously been chiefs or other men of high status who knew how to organise armies, and while many killed themselves or ran away to join the maroons, Boukman was not the first with grander aims. Francois Mackandal had attempted a large slave revolt in 1758 before being captured and executed while supposedly plotting to poison the slave owner's water supplies. The very existence of the Maroons and the presence of their leaders at Bois Caïman shows where other leaders could have come from.

But just because a slave revolt was likely to happen does not mean it was likely to succeed. It is possible that another leader could have been less successful and even Boukman got lucky. If the slave owners had acted faster upon the information they had they could have captured him and shut down his revolt prior to Bois Caïman. Moreover in the aftermath of Boukman's death, the heart went out of the rebels and in 1792 Papillon and Biassou were willing to surrender to the French and abandon their armies to slavery as long as 30 of the main slave leaders would be given amnesty and freedom. Amazingly, the French were confident enough to refuse this agreement. If they had agreed, they doubtless still would have had problems with the slaves who weren't happy to be sold out by their leaders but the old system of plantation slavery could have been restored.

On the other hand though, Boukman could have achieved more. Had he been able to pull off his initial plan and burn Cap-Français it is not impossible for him to have gained complete control of Northern Haiti within 1791. Under this scenario, it is actually possible for South Haiti to remain as a slave economy as everyone pulled together to protect what they had while fighting border wars with the free blacks of Northern Haiti. The Maroons had been tolerated as an escape valve for angry slaves to flee to and it is not impossible that, in the short term at least, Northern Haiti would go the same way.

Haiti was an unstable situation for all of the 18th century but had different decisions had been made it is not impossible for the status quo to remain. It is fascinating to imagine the political differences in a world where there is no Haitian white diaspora, where the Cuban slave society doesn't get a boost from Haitian exiles and where the American South doesn't develop a fresh paranoia about slave revolts. Abolitionism predated 1791 obviously as did the fears of black revolts among slave owners, but both were changed and influenced by it in profound ways.

To do this however, you'd need a pre-1793 POD, as by that date the idea of restoring the status quo was largely off the table. Civil war between the free citizens continued and French, Spanish and British armies were fighting over control of the colony. Under these conditions, the easiest source of soldiers at hand for everyone were the black ex slaves. From 1793 onwards it became a game of who could offer these men the best deal.

Which leads to a second question, if a slave revolt could not be either avoided or crushed, was independence still inevitable or could these men be kept as free citizens within a European empire? In my next article I will discuss that.



bottom of page