The Contagious Revolution

Toussaint Louverture Boarding; painting by Alexandre Grégoire
Private Collection/Art Resource
Alexandre Grégoire: Toussaint Louverture Boarding, late twentieth century

Historians have traditionally considered Western Europe the epicenter of early modern globalization. But in the late eighteenth century, no place had a thicker web of connections to other parts of the globe than the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue—now called Haiti. This small but intensely fertile piece of tropical real estate produced 40 percent of the sugar and half the coffee consumed in the world, as well as enormous quantities of cotton, chocolate, and textile dyes. Its ports teemed with ships from Europe, North America, South America, and other points in the Caribbean. Some five hundred a year sailed to the United States alone, returning laden with American food exports. Sailors from dozens of nations made up roughly 15 percent of the people in the capital city of Le Cap. And a higher percentage of Saint-Domingue’s population was born on a different continent than anywhere else on earth.

This last statistic, however, was no evidence of cosmopolitanism. Rather, it reveals the deadly reason for Saint-Domingue’s prosperity: perhaps the most horrific system of slavery ever seen in human history. French plantation owners literally worked captive African laborers to death—over 5 percent of them died every year. Slave traders, however, more than met the hideous demand for labor. Between 1740 and 1789, the number of the enslaved in the colony more than quadrupled, to well over 450,000, which meant that a territory roughly the size of Maryland had two thirds the number of slaves who lived in the entire United States at the time. The enslaved outnumbered the white population by over fifteen to one, with a majority of the adults born in Africa. Early globalization was powered by captive humans.

Oppressive as it was, the system might have lasted, as similar systems did elsewhere in the Caribbean until well into the nineteenth century. But the French Revolution of 1789 fatally destabilized the political order in Saint-Domingue. It set different groups of white colonists against one another and against free people of color who were demanding the “rights of man and citizen” proclaimed in France, but apparently for whites only. Against this violent background, in 1791 enslaved people in Saint-Domingue staged the largest and most successful slave revolt in history. There followed, over the next thirteen years, the extraordinary series of events that now goes by the name of the Haitian Revolution.

French commissioners in Saint-Domingue, desperate to contain an increasingly brutal, multisided conflict, abolished slavery in the colony in 1793, and the radical French Republic soon extended abolition to the entire French overseas empire. Black forces led by the brilliant, charismatic former slave Toussaint Louverture came over to the republic’s side, and after several years managed to take effective control of Saint-Domingue. Louverture became governor-general, supposedly under the French flag but…

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