HIST2F90: Money & Power in the Atlantic World

The Haitian Revolution

The big question this week is

How did the Haitian Revolution fit into the broader age of revolutions?

Video introduction

Learning outcomes

By the end of this week, you should have …

Questions to consider, and learning activity

This week you will contribute to the Forum as usual. Remember to add new analysis and evidence to the discussion. Do your best to respond constructively to other students in your Forum.

You should also ask yourselves,


Until very recently, when historians spoke of the “age of revolutions” they meant Western revolutions, like the French and the American.  The expansion of interest in colonialism and the colonial Atlantic world has encouraged historians to pursue other revolts that while not “Western” (which in this instance seems to mean conducted by white people) were nonetheless part of the Western pattern of Enlightenment, liberalization, and revolution. Some of these revolutions were successful, and some not; some were against the very people leading the Western revolts!  Of these, the revolution in the French colony of St. Domingue [which was to be renamed Haiti after the revolution] was by far the most important. Indeed, its importance is so obvious that the lack of attention it received until recently is truly remarkable. Between 1790 and 1804, Haiti saw:That sounds important! But in R.R. Palmer’s classic The Age of the Democratic Revolution (two volumes, Princeton University Press, 1959 and 1964), the author discusses France and America, plus Sweden, Austria, Italy, Germany, Poland, Switzerland, and Belgium over the course of more than 1200 pages, but he does not so much as even mention Haiti.

But even those “firsts” underplay the incredible shockwaves that this successful slave revolt sent through the late-18th-century Atlantic world. Much of the economy of the Atlantic world was predicated on slavery. While non-slave-based economies like New York, Boston, and Montreal would eventually emerge as dominant players in the international economy, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the slave societies of Brazil, and Caribbean islands such as Cuba, Jamaica, Martinique and St. Domingue [Haiti] were by far the most valuable centres in the Atlantic economy. Haiti’s principal export, sugar, was the biggest of these products, a raw material whose incredible growth was a major part of the expansion of the consumer economy of 18th-century Britain, American, and western Europe. Haiti was only a small island in the Caribbean, but it produced as much wealth for France as the entire thirteen colonies did for Britain. Thus Haiti was an incredibly important link in a global imperial economy. All of it was based on slave labour. And all of this was threatened by revolt.

As we saw two weeks ago in our examination of the American Revolution, slavery was a fraught dimension of the American colonists' struggle for independence. While their principles spoke of all men being equal, a fifth of their population was enslaved; while several of the northern colonies were moving toward abolition, half of them relied on slavery for their economies. Indeed, during the American Revolution, while free African-American men in the north were willing to fight for the American colonies, enslaved men in the south were willing to fight in defence of the British Empire. At no point, however, was there a dramatic moment where widespread slave revolt seemed imminent. The revolution in Haiti changed that. Haiti, combined with smaller outbreaks in Jamaica and Martinique, sent a message that slave revolt could be very real, and that all the slave masters of the Atlantic world were in dread danger. It was, as the poet William Blake said, a moment when “all the Atlantic mountains shook”.

The revolution itself was complex and protracted. The story connects with the French Revolution, and the political forces that revolt unleashed. Haiti’s actions, too, began in 1789 with the efforts of the colonial assembly to gain representation in the French National Assembly. Those efforts initially excluded the large (and fairly influential) free black population of the island.  Haiti’s population consisted of approximately 30,000 white colonists, 30,000 free black colonists (made more complex by the fact that much of this group was mixed race), and almost 500,000 slaves. Soon, the free black population attempted to regain the political rights they had lost to the white colonists. And as rebellion spread into warfare, the possibilities of slave rebellion were quickly seized upon. The result was a decade-long war, intervention by French and British troops, and the ultimate victory of the Haitian military and its freed slave soldiers. The results could not have been more dramatic: In 1789, Haiti [then St. Domingue] was a slave-based colony producing fabulous amounts of wealth for French investors; by 1804, it was an independent republic where slavery had been abolished and an all-black leadership prevailed. In the white, slave-holding world, Haiti reinforced their greatest fears.

As we've often seen in this course, our examination will be limited by available sources. In particular, the fact that there are very few slave sources, and those that do exist are in French, means that we are largely limited to some translations of works by free black Haitians and French writers on the events. Of course, that’s also helpful because slavery, much more so than the United States, was very much in the forefront of discussions of liberty during the French Revolution. As we’ll see, the French revolutionaries did not immediately abolish slavery. Like the Americans, they too had to weigh political considerations, and one of those was the wealthy French sugar interests. But much more so than in America the hypocrisy of demanding “Liberté, fraternité, et egalité” in a slave-holding society was debated forcefully.

What is harder for us to see, however, is the powerful will of the insurgent slaves to free themselves​. If the French Revolution, the growth of abolitionist thinking, and the emergence of a politically powerful free black population changed the circumstances, it was only by the slaves themselves risking everything in open rebellion that fully transformed the French slave colony of St-Domingue into the free black-ruled society of an independent Haiti. That insurrection was violent, and retribution was dispensed freely. Indeed, from afar, where the images of Blacks slaughtering whites were printed​, the scenes must have horrified anyone who looked on. These images were undoubtedly sensationalized, but they were also undoubtedly rooted in real events. Slavery, as we’ve already seen, was a system predicated on extreme violence. The scenes of slaves exacting revenge on “innocent” white colonists, of that violence being turned back upon the masters, were undoubtedly shocking. It signaled not merely political change, but also a visitation of violence that they had seen but never felt. From South Carolina to Havana, slaveholders everywhere shuddered.

Primary sources

Secondary sources


Supplementary Readings

This page references: