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Case Study 1: St. Domingue - Vincent Oge & Toussaint l'Ouverture

Toussaint L'ouverture

Vincent Ogé

Vincent Ogé (Oje) was born in Dondon in 1750, one of a growing number of free men of colour. As a well educated and comparatively wealthy man, he was sent to plead before the National Assembly "for the concession of civil rights to free men of colour and for the emancipation (freedom) of enslaved people in Haiti."

The outbreak of revolution in France, in the summer of 1789, had a powerful effect on the French colony of Saint-Domingue. The free men of colour claimed that they, too, were French citizens under the terms of the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

In Paris, a group, led by the wealthy Julien Raimond and Vincent Ogé, petitioned the European delegates from the plantations in support of their claim for civil and political rights. They were backed by a group called the Societe de Amis des Noirs (friends of the Blacks). In March 1790, the National Assembly granted full civic rights to all persons over twenty-five years old, who had certain income qualifications but the French assembly left it to the colonial assembly to decide if the men of colour would be included.  

They were refused. Failing in his mission, Ogé returned to Saint-Domingue (Haiti) in October 1790 and, when the French governor refused to remove restrictions, he tried to start a revolt amongst the mixed race population of St-Domingue. Ogé was advised to involve the enslaved population but refused. With only a limited army of supporters, he was easily defeated. He was tried and convicted of treason.  

At Port au Prince on 26 February, 1791, Ogé and another rebel, Chavannes, were escorted to the church to repent, before being taken to La Place d'Armes where they had their arms, legs, hips, and thighs broken with hammers. They were then tied to a wheel and left face upwards in the sun to die. After their death, they were beheaded and the heads put on poles on the main road.   

The barbaric death of Ogé created a backlash of disgust in France, against the planters. The National Assembly eventually passed a decree giving citizenship to all coloured persons in the colonies, born of free parents and, also, making them eligible for seats in the colonial judicatures.

When the news of the passage of this decree reached the island, it filled the planters with fury.  However, the continuing conflict had given the enslaved people an opportunity to fight for their own freedom and a second revolt broke out in August 1791. 

Toussaint l'Ouverture

Toussaint, an enslaved person, was initially against the rebellion and bloodshed. He protected the plantation and helped his master's and his own family to escape to safety. When a slave revolt broke out in the Northern Province in August 1791, he travelled to the camp.

He found the rebels very unorganised. He trained a guerilla force of his own. In 1793, he became an aide to Georges Biassou (an early leader of the 1791 slave rising). His army proved successful against the European troops. When France and Spain went to war in 1793, his army joined the Spaniards.

By this time, recognised as a general, Toussaint demonstrated extraordinary military ability. Later that year, the British had occupied most of the coastal settlements and Toussaint's victories in the north, together with the successes of rebel forces in the south, brought the French close to disaster.

However, the French Revolutionary Government abolished slavery throughout all territories of the French Republic. In May 1794, Toussaint went over to the French. His reason, he said, was Spain and Britain had refused to free the enslaved people and he had become a republican. Toussaint put together a well trained, determined and highly effective army. Toussaint had started with a few hundred followers but soon skilfully built up an experienced army of 14,000. Under Toussaint's increasingly influential leadership, his French army defeated the British and Spanish forces.

By June of 1795, the English had been driven back to the coast and, in July, the Spanish officially withdrew. The British left Saint-Domingue in 1798, leaving Toussaint to fight against other rebel forces for control. Toussaint appointed Jean-Jacques Dessalines to govern the South Province.

By 1799, Toussaint had subordinated all remaining rebel forces. He expelled the French commissioner and wrote a constitution naming himself governor. Between the years 1800 and 1802, he tried to rebuild the collapsed economy of Haiti and reestablish commercial contacts.  He was to become appreciated by most ethnic groups on Saint-Domingue for helping to restore the economy.

He allowed many planters to return and used military discipline to ensure former enslaved people worked.  However, they now shared the profits of the restored plantations. Toussaint preached reconciliation. However he was deceived by Napoleon and exiled to France and an early death in a prison dungeon. Nevertheless, he had given the colony a taste of freedom that could not be taken away.

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