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Saint-Domingue Revolution

The revolution that began in Saint-Domingue in the West Indies in 1791 and ended in 1804 was the only successful slave rebellion in history.

Saint-Domingue Revolution

Public Domain.

An engraving depicting a scene at the Battle of Vertières during the Saint Domingue Revolution. The battle was fought between Haitian rebels and French expeditionary forces on 18 November 1803 at Vertières.

Between 1791 and 1804 the Saint-Domingue revolution in the West Indies led to the abolition of slavery in the former French colony and the establishment of Haiti, the second independent republic in the Western Hemisphere and the first Western nation governed by persons of African descent. The insurrection forced thousands of refugees, including many free people of color and white planters, to immigrate to Louisiana in the 1790s and early 1800s. Among the immigrants were planters and workers experienced in growing and refining sugar, an industry just emerging as a significant crop in Louisiana, as well as artisans skilled in a wide range of trades and crafts.

The Colonization of Saint-Domingue

Saint-Domingue occupied approximately one-third of the western portion of Hispaniola, the island Christopher Columbus claimed for Spain in 1492. Spanish exploitation quickly reduced the native Arawakan population to such a degree that colonists had to import slaves from Africa. The first Africans were brought to the island in 1502, beginning a slave trade that would profoundly shape the political and economic future of the Caribbean and the Americas. Small groups of French colonists began to appear in the West Indies shortly after the Spanish discovery, but it was not until 1664 that the newly established French West Indies Company wrested firm control of western Hispaniola from Spain. In 1697 the Treaty of Ryswick between France and Spain formally recognized the French title to this western portion. Afterward, large numbers of French emigrants began to settle, particularly in the more accessible coastal areas of the mountainous island; about three-fourths of the island is made up of rugged mountains interspersed with fertile valleys.

Many of the early planters established hugely successful coffee, indigo, and sugar plantations. From the mid-eighteenth century until the French Revolution (1789–1799), Saint-Domingue prospered, becoming the richest colonial possession in the world and the basis for French colonial wealth in the West. Its success, however, was built on enslaved African labor, and by the late 1750s the slave population of around five hundred thousand far outnumbered the white population of around thirty-two thousand. Fearing a revolution, the French created a rigid caste system dominated by grand blancs, white planters born in the colony (known as Creoles) and French-born bureaucrats and landowners. Poor whites, or petit blancs, formed an underclass, while people of mixed ancestry and free men, known as affranchise, came next in the social hierarchy. At the bottom were enslaved Africans.

White masters, who were outnumbered by enslaved workers, often used physical violence to maintain control and quell any chance of rebellion. Slaves who left the plantations or disobeyed their owners were brutally whipped and sometimes subjected to more extreme forms of torture. Although France established the Code Noir in 1685 in an attempt to regulate the treatment of slaves in the colony, the code was rarely enforced. Further, local legislators reversed parts of the code during the eighteenth century. Attempting to escape the brutality, large numbers of runaway slaves, called maroons, lived on the margins of large plantations and often stole supplies from their former masters. Other slaves fled to towns, blending in with the urban and freed slaves (free persons of color) living there. When they were caught, these runaway slaves were severely and violently punished. The hard labor on sugar plantations also led to an extremely high death rate among the slaves who worked them. But with sugar profits so high, planters found it more cost effective to work enslaved people to death and replace them with new imported slaves. As a result, it is estimated that Saint-Dominque alone imported as much as 40,000 enslaved Africans annually and accounted for approximately one-third of the Atlantic slave trade.

Effects of the French Revolution

Despite the attempts of grand blancs to maintain control, violent conflicts between slaves and white landowners became more and more frequent. The French Revolution in 1789 exacerbated this turmoil. When, in March 1790, the newly formed French National Assembly approved the Declaration of the Rights of Man, giving Saint-Domingue’s free people of color full rights as citizens, white planters refused to recognize the decision; instead, they saw it as an opportunity to gain political independence from France.

These tensions led to increasing conflicts, between factions of whites at first and then between whites and free people of color. On August 22, 1791, the slaves of Saint-Domingue plunged the colony into a civil war and quickly took control of the important northern province of the country. The three principal black leaders of the rebellion were Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Christophe, each of whom had served whites in various capacities, ranging from slave to French army officer. In 1792 France sent a political delegate, Leger-Félicité Sonthonax, to stabilize the colony. He met with only limited success, even though he declared an end to slavery as of August 29, 1793. The effect of his declaration was minimal, as freedmen rebels in the northern provinces were not affected, and it was not enforced in the southern provinces.

When France declared war on England the same year, the white planters (grand blancs) quickly agreed to support Great Britain. Most of the slave forces backed Spain, which controlled the rest of Hispaniola, and joined its fight against France. When the British invaded Saint-Domingue, however, L’Ouverture told the French that he would fight on their side if they would agree to total emancipation of all enslaved persons. French general Étienne Laveaux agreed to this demand, and, in May 1794 L’Ouverture and his army of former slaves fought for the French side, eventually restoring control of Saint-Domingue to France.

After having effectively demonstrated his power, L’Ouverture proved reluctant to relinquish it. Though he lacked an official title, L’Ouverture proceeded to oust local rivals, defeat a British force in 1798, and lead an invasion of neighboring Santo Domingo, where he freed the slaves in 1801. He also created a constitution for Saint-Domingue that decreed him governor for life.

Intervention from France

In retaliation for L’Ouverture’s actions, Napoleon Bonaparte, the First Consul of France, sent troops—led by his brother-in-law, Charles Leclerc—to the island to restore French rule. The troops had secret instructions to restore slavery at least in the part of the island formerly held by Spain. This expedition included eighty-six warships carrying twenty-two thousand troops, who had been instructed to reinforce the several thousand French troops already on the island. Upon their arrival, they soon found themselves contending with malaria and yellow fever epidemics in addition to revolutionaries. In November 1802 Leclerc died of yellow fever; his troops also fell victim to the epidemic. French leaders promised L’Ouverture his freedom if he agreed to integrate his remaining troops into the French army, which he did in May 1802. Despite L’Ouverture’s apparent fealty to France, the French did not keep their word: L’Ouverture was arrested and sent to France, where he died after several months in prison.

The last battle of the Saint-Domingue revolution was fought on November 18, 1803, between rebels led by Dessalines and the decimated French forces commanded by Leclerc’s successor, Donatien-Marie-Joseph de Vimeur, Vicomte de Rochambeau. It was no contest. The victorious Dessalines named himself “Emperor Jacques I” of the new republic and renamed it Haiti, which meant “land of mountains” in the indigenous Arawakan language.

Effects on Louisiana

The Saint-Domingue revolution had a great impact on Louisiana from the 1790s through the 1810s; first and foremost was France’s loss in its attempted re-conquest of the island during 1802 and 1803. Napoleon had hoped to retake Saint-Dominque in order to revive the sugar trade and reestablish the island as a source of wealth for France. In 1800 he negotiated with Spain in the Treaty of San Iledefonso for the French possession of Louisiana, which would serve as a breadbasket for Saint-Dominque. When French forces were defeated by Haitian rebels, Napoleon no longer needed the colony of Louisiana and decided to sell the entire colony to the United States in April 1803. Thomas Jefferson had sent emissaries Robert Livingston and James Monroe to negotiate with France for the sale of the Isle of Orleans (the City of New Orleans). Napoleon, who realized he could use the sale to finance his planned campaign against Great Britain, then offered to sell the entire colony for $15 million. Livingston and Monroe agreed to the sale, and on December 20, 1803, Louisiana was officially transferred from French to US control.

The revolution also had a great impact on Louisiana’s slave and immigration policies. In the 1790s Louisiana’s Spanish colonial Governor Francisco Luis Hector de Carondolet feared that immigrants from Saint-Domingue would import dangerous, revolutionary ideas, so he attempted to keep slaves and free people of color from the island from entering Louisiana. The discovery of a planned slave rebellion on Julien Poydras’s plantation in Point Coupee in 1795 seemed to confirm this suspicion. Aware of the revolution in Saint-Domingue, Poydras’s slaves plotted to burn several buildings and then use the ensuing confusion as a way to seize weapons and kill their masters. Though the rebellion was aborted, white anxieties about slave insurrections remained. Unwelcome in Louisiana initially, most of the whites, slaves, and free people of color who fled Saint-Domingue during the uprising went to other places in the Caribbean, particularly the eastern Cuban port of Santiago de Cuba. As tensions between Spain and France over the Napoleonic wars escalated, these refugees found themselves unwelcome in Cuba by 1809.

Louisiana Territorial Governor William C. C. Claiborne was reluctant to allow Saint-Domingue refugees into Louisiana. In 1809 and 1810 Claiborne believed that their presence would be a hindrance to the growth of American democratic principles. At the same time, U.S. slave laws passed in 1807 prohibited the importation of slaves from outside the nation. On the one hand, Claiborne allowed enslaved persons—referred to as “servants” on ship manifests—into the Louisiana Territory to appease planters’ need for labor. On the other hand, Claiborne prohibited the immigration of free men of color but allowed free women of color passage.

Between the beginning of May and the end of July 1809 thirty-four vessels brought nearly 5,800 Saint-Domingue émigrés to Louisiana from Cuba; immigrants from Guadalupe and other Caribbean islands soon followed. In all, some ten thousand Saint-Domingue refugees arrived in Louisiana between 1809 and 1810. About one-third of them were white elite, another third were free people of color, and the remaining third were slaves, who belonged to either the whites or the free blacks.

In 1811 the largest slave revolt in U.S. history, known as the Deslondes Revolt, occurred upriver from New Orleans. Once again, U.S. authorities and planters blamed the revolt on the political effect of the Haitian revolution. While the rebellion was ultimately put down, the political legacy of Haiti’s success was great and far-reaching.

The influx of Saint-Domingue refugees undeniably shaped Louisiana culture, particularly that of New Orleans. The number of free people of color in New Orleans doubled, as did the number of French speakers in the city. As a result, Louisiana Creoles generally encouraged such immigration, seeing the refugees as potential cultural allies in the struggle against Americanization. Some immigrants became citizens of great standing in the community. Gilbert Joseph Pilie, for example, was a prominent Creole architect, surveyor, and civil engineer who made a lasting impact on New Orleans and Louisiana. He served as city surveyor, beginning in 1818, and mapped out the plan for the Esplanade Prolongment (Esplanade Avenue), which serves as the lower border of the French Quarter and connects the Mississippi riverfront to City Park. As an architect, he designed the main house at Oak Alley Plantation, perhaps one of the most iconic plantation homes in the country, for his son-in-law Jacques Telesphore Roman. He is also credited with designing the main iron gate of the Cabildo entrance and the iron fence around Jackson Square.

The revolution also left a huge void in the global market for sugar—a void that Louisiana subsequently filled. The large influx of Saint-Domingue immigrants helped to further develop Louisiana’s nascent sugar industry. In the late 1790s sugar planters, such as Etienne Bore, used Haitian refining techniques to successfully granulate sugar. This development made the crop more profitable. Whereas tobacco and indigo were the principal plantation crops in the Spanish colonial period, by the American era sugar and cotton had emerged as the two most important export crops and fueled a great labor demand—and therefore a boom in the market for enslaved persons.

New Orleans’s signature dish, red beans and rice, is also credited to the Saint-Dominguans. Immigrants from the island brought to New Orleans a preference for mixing large red kidney beans with rice and pork flavoring; in the city, it became a dish associated with Mondays, which were traditional wash days when a pot of beans could be easily cooked without much supervision, leaving time for tending to the day’s wash. Today in Haiti riz national, the Creole dialect term for “national rice,” is the nation’s most popular rice-and-beans dish. And in the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba, where many Saint-Dominguan immigrants settled in the 1800s, red beans and rice is still the local dish, which differs from black beans and rice (moros y cristianos), the signature dish of western Cuba.

The Saint-Domingue refugees also left a considerable cultural mark on New Orleans. Voodoo is often associated with both Haiti and New Orleans. The religion is essentially a syncretic blend of West African spiritual beliefs and Catholicism. In Louisiana, the Code Noir required all enslaved Africans to be baptized in the Catholic Church, and those who became Christian often blended their traditional spiritual beliefs with Catholic rituals. The influx of voodoo practitioners from Saint-Domingue in the early 1800s added another layer of voodoo culture, which became more prominent in the mid-1800s under priestess Marie Laveau and her daughter.

Historian Emily Clark has argued that the New Orleans legends of the quadroon balls and plaçage were a consequence of the immigration as well. Quadroon balls, in which balls only admitted free women of color and free white men, were practiced in Saint-Domingue in the 1790s, and the practice was employed to a limited degree in New Orleans during the 1810s. Travelers’ accounts of the balls and the practice of placage helped to associate the practice with the city and become part of New Orleans’s exaggerated and inaccurate history promoted by tour guides in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.