The Haitian Revolution of 1791–1804, mostly led by Toussaint Louverture, may well have been the most important single event in the history of New World slavery. Despite the revolution’s relatively small scale, its historical influence for some sixty or seventy years can even be compared to that of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Yet the subject still receives scant attention in most history textbooks.
In 1789, at the start of the French Revolution, the small French colony of Saint Domingue, on the western side of Hispaniola, produced greater riches—in the form of sugar, coffee, cotton, and indigo—than any other colony in the hemisphere. Indeed, by 1789 Saint Domingue exported about half the world’s coffee and nearly as much sugar as Jamaica, Cuba, and Brazil combined. The colony, almost as small as Vermont and even more mountainous, accounted for some 40 percent of the value of all French foreign trade and “the livelihood of as many as a million of the 25 million inhabitants of France depended directly on the colonial trade,” centered in Saint Domingue.
This extraordinary productivity depended on the brutally coerced labor of some half a million slaves, many quite recently imported from Africa. Surprisingly, while the colony’s 30,000 free people of color, virtually all mulattoes (termed gens de couleur), suffered from galling legal and social discriminations, many owned coffee plantations in the West and South Provinces as well as a total of some one hundred thousand black slaves. Saint Domingue’s 40,000 whites included many professional managers of the larger sugar plantations, especially in the North Province, which were owned by rich absentees in France or by great merchant houses in France’s port cities. Most owners of smaller plantations, wealthy merchants, and government officials on the island belonged to the class of grands blancs, as distinct from the petits blancs, the white sailors, traders, artisans, market-women, fortune-seekers, and prostitutes in Saint Domingue’s rapidly expanding port towns, who were much more receptive then the grands blancs to the revolutionary Jacobin ideology imported from France.
Although Saint Domingue had historically been far more stable and free from slave revolts than neighboring British Jamaica, the astounding developments of the French Revolution had an immense impact on its highly imbalanced society. Most of the grands blancs were convinced that loyalty to the French royalist regime was essential for preserving the colonial slave system. They sought to mobilize the gens de couleur (often their own descendants) against the radical white townspeople whose celebration of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man had little effect in moderating their long-term contempt for and hatred of the free coloreds. While the gens de couleur (as well as a few free blacks like Toussaint Louverture) initially supported the slave regime, in which they had a major stake, they rejoiced over the news of the French Revolution and adapted its doctrines to their struggle for racial equality.
Madison Smartt Bell, a distinguished novelist and author of …