The Haitian Revolution is an indelible pillar within the history of slavery in the Americas the ramifications of which were felt throughout the hemisphere spurring change. Just as slavery created racism, the Haitian Revolution was used to legislate bigotry, harshening oppression, and stigmatize African culture.
France’s colony on the island of Saint-Domingue was in political disarray in the lead up to the Haitian Revolution. Saint-Domingue had risen to world’s foremost sugar producer. In May of 1791, the Paris Estates-General, “granted the free colored of the West Indies the right to vote,” and this led to, “both the planters and the local royalist governor reject(ing) this decision, and open conflict ensued” . The disorder presented an opening. “The slaves of the sugar plantations of the Northern Plain, the center of the island’s sugar industry, rose in revolt in August 1791” . The authorities were, “more concerned with a free mulatto uprising in support of their civil rights than with a slave rebellion” . The off guard Saint-Domingue officials failed to return retaliation after the revolution was initiated. “With no effective counterattack the rebellion became a violent machine that destroyed all before it” . What began that August would end years later with the formation of the first African Democracy in the New World. Haiti was proclaimed an independent republic in January 1804.
The economic impact of the Haitian Revolution was international. The world’s top sugar producer had fallen upon insurrection. France fought relentlessly trying to reclaim the island; however, “the ex-slaves violently resisted, and in two years of harsh fighting the French army was destroyed” . This threw a wrench in the machine of the global market, of which Saint-Domingue had been such a prominent player. A new plantation system needed to take the disarrayed island’s place.
One economic shift that the Haitian Revolution had was on sugar. “The slave insurrection in Saint-Domingue sent the prices of sugar in the European market spiraling. Prices rose by fifty per cent between September, 1788, and April, 1793” . European sugar refiners, “were no longer as modest as they had been the past forty years,” and “blamed the evils of the West Indian monopoly” . At one point, the public believed the refiners were behind the high prices. The Haitian Revolution disrupted the status quo.
As the island was churning with war, a niche in the market opened. “The immediate impact of the decline of Saint-Domingue was to give new life to old industries such as sugar and cotton” . Competing sugar plantation systems scrambled to fill the top position which was held by Saint-Domingue. This led to one of the tragic ironies of the Haitian Revolution. “The elimination of the world’s richest and most heavily populated plantation regime provided an incentive to the expansion and growth of
new slave and plantation regimes in the other colonial societies of America” . As the revolutionaries on Saint-Domingue fought and died to wipe the institution of slavery off their island, it was being ramped up on all the nearby plantations. Victory against the peculiar institution in one place brought an even deadlier, ruthless strain of it upon others. After an influx of enslaved Africans into the New World, Cuba took Saint-Domingue’s place as the world’s largest sugar producer.
The Haitian Revolution’s dynamic with the institution of slavery is convoluted. As Haitians fought and fended for their liberty, cash flow was interrupted and a demand was left unmet. This resulted in competing plantation systems in the New World to hike their production, which meant increased enslavement. Also, those in the New World who were enslaving became even more calloused towards their victims. Campaigns of further dehumanization ensued. The enslaved and freed slaves would encounter increased brutality and persecution.
The common perception of the Haitian Revolution held by those enforcing slavery was that lax, tolerant behavior towards the enslaved and previously enslaved led to the insurrection. “The Haitian revolution’s primary effect on the Spanish mainland was on the colonial elite and government’s perspective, it was the idea of liberty that circulated amongst Haiti’s slaves that was potentially most transformative to Spanish American slavery, looming as a specter over the remaining slave populations” . Legislative shifts would ripple throughout the Americas, due to the Haitian Revolution.
The Haitian Revolution struck a serious chord of fear throughout the Americas. A century after the uprising in 1900, while the United States occupied Cuba, laws were crafted specifically in the light of Haiti. These laws demanded literacy, property, and other requirements in order for citizens’ eligibility to vote. The laws were guised as race neutral; however, “the law had the virtue of excluding ‘the sons and daughters of Africans imported into the island as slaves’ from political process, which would in turn prevent a ‘second edition of Haiti or Santo Domingo in the future’” . This oppressive and racist legislation was, “following the precedent set in the southern states, where blacks had been effectively disenfranchised” . Preventing African progress in the New World and preserving slavery was on full fledge mode.
The perpetrators of slavery, in light of the Haitian Revolution, became fearful and harsher. The Haitian Revolution “brought a considerable tightening of the slave laws and slave-control mechanisms in every slave-dominated society,” and, “a less tolerant attitude toward free coloreds” . The United States was one such society. “One of the measures that whites in the southern United States took to forestall slave insurrections was to place restrictions upon free Negroes, who were widely believed to be fomenters of slave conspiracies and revolts” . Freed slaves were widely blamed as the cause of the Haitian Revolution. Sheer intolerance for their existence took fruition within the southern states. The U.S.’s southern states passed stringent, racist legislation. Such legislations as requiring, “all free Negroes entering South Carolina’s port as seamen be lodged in the public jail for the duration of their stay in port” . Despite the United States Attorney General declaring the law unconstitutional, South Carolina didn’t budge. Other southern states were soon to follow South Carolina. Freed slaves were outlawed in the south, forced to leave the state. Eventually, the entire act of manumission was outlawed. Terrified of insurrection and losing the institution of slavery, the south was departing from the Constitution and the northern states.
Every discernable characteristic of the Haitian Revolution and the rebels was spun and propagandized by those in the New World trying to ensure a blockade against even the chance of another insurrection. Voodoo was one such characteristic that, to this day, continues to be branded as wickedness. One of the Haitian Revolution’s several leaders was Boukman, a Voodoo priest. Voodoo was a significant player in the revolution. “The slave uprising in Saint-Domingue was intimately linked to African Voodoo” . Voodoo was a unifier amongst the rebels. It was used to organize and inform the rebels throughout the many stages of the revolution. Due to its role, Voodoo was stigmatized and propagandized as evil and of the Devil.
To this day, Haiti continues to endure. As Haiti was suffering in the days after the devastating 2010 earthquake, prejudices, originating from the revolution were hurled at the nation and its people. U.S. demagogues proclaimed the earthquake to be God’s wrath for the revolution and the practicing of Voodoo.
It can be argued that whether or not the Haitian Revolution transpired, the constricting attitudes and treatment of Africans, both enslaved and free, in the New World was inevitable. Calls for abolition and modernization were beginning to gain. Uprising plots and maroon societies were constant. All of these point towards the heightened push and pull over the issue of slavery.
As long as there has been slavery, there have been revolts against it. The full scale and successful nature of the Haitian Revolution struck fear and at the same time opportunity within slave owners and slave-dominated societies. There was propaganda to be made playing on racial fears and objectification of African heritage. Fear mongering and race baiting, the signatures of seedy capitalism and politics, were pulled resulting in even more oppressing laws being passed throughout the New World. The resulting legislation was twofaced; preventive measures towards insurrection were in place and the preservation of slavery was accomplished.
Haiti has endured invading armies, natural disasters, and global prejudices. Born in a revolution, Haiti toppled humanity’s original sin and eradicated it off the island. Despite centuries of bombardment Haiti has warded off subjugation. It is Haiti’s unifying, liberated spirit that keeps her standing.