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Case Study 1: St. Domingue - The Rebellion

Haitian revolution

Saint Domingue was controlled by the French and had the largest enslaved population in the Caribbean. It had a booming sugar industry that had created the world's richest colony, with half a million enslaved Africans. It produced more than 30% of the world's sugar and more than half its coffee.

Slavery here was as harsh as anywhere.  Enslaved Africans had to live in windowless huts and were over-worked and often underfed. Some owners put tin masks on the slaves, to keep them from chewing sugar cane in the fields. Enslaved Africans were whipped regularly and salt, pepper and even hot ashes were poured onto bleeding wounds. 

A chain of rebellion began when French planters would not grant the free men of colour citizenship, as decreed by the National Assembly of France in its "Declaration of the Rights of Man." A campaign organised by a wealthy, free man, Vincent Ogé, to claim voting rights for coloured people, in October 1790, was brutally crushed.

Another rebellion began in 1791, when enslaved Africans attacked plantation buildings with hooks, machetes and torches. They set fire to everything connected with their hated work on the sugar plantations. The rebellion sent shock waves throughout Europe, as European men and women were killed in their hundreds.

French soldiers were confident that they could put down the uprising, as they had defeated small revolts in the past. Yet, within the space of two months, the rebels had burned more than one thousand plantations and controlled a large part of the north of the colony. Toussaint L'Ouverture emerged as their leader. The great majority of his troops were African-born. The French government agents moved to abolish slavery in the colony during August-October 1793. The National Convention initially denounced this action but eventually voted to abolish slavery throughout all territories of the French Republic on 4 February 1794.

After war broke out in 1793 between Britain and France, British forces attempted to invade St Domingue. They were welcomed by the European inhabitants in the south and assumed that taking control of the rest of the colony would now be easy. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Toussaint L'Ouverture and his army, now fighting for the French, engaged with the British forces and despite sending in reinforcements, the British were unable to defeat his army. In 1798, having lost territory and thousands of men, the British were forced to withdraw. Britain agreed to leave Toussaint alone and to have a trading relationship.

However, Toussaint soon faced a new threat. In 1801, France signed a preliminary peace treaty with Britain. Napoleon had seized power in France and now dreamt of recapturing St Domingue and restoring chattel slavery. Britain did not stand in his way. In 1802, he sent an army of 35,000 soldiers to St Domingue, the largest invasion force to ever leave France. Despite the capture of Toussaint, France failed to retake the colony and lost more than 50,000 soldiers. In 1804, St Domingue's leaders proclaimed the island was now the Republic of Haiti and slavery was abolished. Three centuries of slavery were finally over; the two greatest European military powers had been defeated. The events in St. Domingue changed the way that people in Britain thought about their West Indian colonies. It terrified British plantation owners in the West Indies, where there was a real fear that what had happened in St Domingue could happen in  British Colonies.


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