The Republic of Haiti was founded in 1804 after a series of bloody revolts against the oppressive rule of the French colonists. The Haitian Revolution (1791) came close on the heels the French Revolution (1789) and was led by mulatto and black leaders. After a long and bloody struggle for freedom, the Haitians finally drove the French off the island and succeeded in establishing the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere. These events are recorded on the Bible Timeline Chart with World History during that time.
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The Spanish and French Colonization of Haiti
The Taínos (Antillean Arawaks) were the first people Christopher Columbus and his crew encountered when they landed in Haiti in 1492. The Spaniards later renamed the island Hispaniola and established mines and farms in the area during the early 16th century. The colonists forced the Taíno people to provide cheap (in most cases, free) labor in their mines and fields.
The backbreaking work and their lack of immunity to Old World diseases, however, decimated the indigenous people. By the early 1500s, many of Hispaniola Taínos had died out and the Spanish authorities were faced with a serious labor shortage. The thriving transatlantic slave trade presented the Spaniards with a handy solution to this problem. Beginning in 1517, thousands of slaves were shipped from West Africa to Hispaniola to fill in the labor shortage.
The Spanish Empire, however, started to crumble during the early 17th century, resulting in the government authorities’ neglect of Hispaniola. This allowed the French to slowly encroach upon the island. They first landed on the island of Tortuga on Hispaniola’s northwest tip. In 1659, the French had established a permanent settlement on Tortuga. They then crossed to the northwest part of Hispaniola mainland during the latter part of the 1600s.
By the 1670s, the French colonists had already established Cap-Haïtien as its largest settlement on the island. These early colonists established coffee, sugar, cotton, cocoa, and indigo plantations. Like the Spaniards, the French used slave labor to plant, cultivate, and harvest crops.
Near the end of the Nine Years’ War in 1695, several European nations signed the Treaty of Ryswick which divided the island of Hispaniola between Spain and France. Spain received the eastern part of the island which it renamed Santo Domingo. France, meanwhile, received the western part which it renamed Saint Domingue.
Social Stratification and Slavery in Saint Domingue
In Saint Domingue, French plantation owners and other elites (grand blancs) claimed superiority above everyone else. A number of plantation owners sexually abused their black female slaves, and the result of these assaults (or in some cases, consensual liaisons) were the gens de couleur or mulattoes. Their white fathers often freed their mixed-race children, and sometimes granted them properties and sent them to France to study. Below the gens de couleur in status were the impoverished or convicted whites (petit blancs) who were sent to the colony as servants or laborers. The grand blancs looked down on the petit blancs and often treated them with contempt equal to the black slaves. At the bottom of the hierarchy were the noirs or black slaves who worked as domestic servants or laborers. They also made up the bulk of Saint Domingue’s population.
Life as a black slave in Saint Domingue was hellish. Healthier and able-bodied men and women bore the brunt of the hard tasks in the fields. Pregnant women, nursing mothers, and those who just arrived from the Middle Passage were given lighter tasks. Work started at 5 in the morning and was broken at intervals so the slaves could eat and rest. Work continued until the sun sets, and the slaves when they were sent to meager dinners. In some cases, sugarcane plantation owners forced their slaves to wear masks to prevent them from eating the cane they harvested. Some masters felt that they should not be responsible for feeding their workers, so they sometimes allocated small plots of land so that their slaves could grow their own food. Managers and foremen supervised the slaves and were ready to whip those who took a break from the grueling work. Some slaves fled to the mountains to escape the spirit-breaking work at the plantations. These escaped slaves (later called Maroons) often mixed with the few remaining Taínos in the mountains.
The mulattoes, too, had their grievances against the system. They initially enjoyed the freedom and privileges of the elites, but the whites later became worried that they might be overpowered when the number of gens de couleur increased. To this end, the whites slowly curtailed the freedom and privileges of the Saint Domingue mulattoes. Segregation in public spaces became a policy. Gens de couleur were forbidden marry white men and women, as well as insult or harm them. Carrying arms was also strictly prohibited.
The privileges enjoyed by the white elite caused great resentment among the poor whites, the mulattoes, and the African slaves. It was only a matter of time before this resentment would boil over and upend the French dominance in the island.
The Haitian Revolution (1791-1804)
News of the success of the French Revolution during the spring of 1789 quickly reached Saint Domingue. The mulattoes, led by Vincent Ogé, hoped that the Revolution’s motto “liberty, equality, fraternity” also applied to them. The colonial government, however, thought otherwise. The French authorities knew that if they granted rights to the mulattoes, they would also be compelled to grant the same rights to the slaves. The prosperity of the island hinged on the exploitation of the black slaves, so setting them free was out of the question. Vincent Ogé led the disaffected mulattoes in a rebellion, but it was quickly crushed by the colonial authorities. His execution outraged both the National Assembly in France and the black slaves of Saint Domingue.
In 1791, a number of black slaves started attending meetings led by the Vodou priest Dutty Boukman. These night meetings were disguised as Vodou rituals to escape the notice of the French authorities. On August 22 of the same year, Dutty Boukman and his rebel forces launched brutal attacks against their white masters. They burned down plantations and massacred their white masters along with their wives and children. Thousands of French plantation owners died in 1791 alone, while those who survived fled Saint Domingue for France. Mulattoes soon joined the rebellion against the whites, but would sometimes turn against the blacks. Peace was finally restored when the French government sent reinforcements in 1792. In his eagerness to address the island’s problem, the colonial commissioner and abolitionist Léger-Félicité Sonthonax declared the abolishment of slavery in 1793 without the knowledge of the National Assembly.
In 1799, the black forces led by Toussaint Louverture and the mulatto régiment led by Rigaud faced off in the War of the Knives. Toussaint Louverture’s troops were able to rout Rigaud’s. By the end of the war, around 10,000 mulatto lives were extinguished. Rigaud and other mulatto leaders fled to France upon their defeat.
With the French colonialists and Rigaud out of the way, Toussaint Louverture was free to establish a new Saint Domingue government with him at the helm. His regime tried to modernize the island and improve its economy, but he and his cronies proved to be just as corrupt as the French. His military cronies became the new plantation owners. The implemented the fermage system which initially improved the condition of the workers but later proved to be slavery in all but name. To his people’s dismay, Toussaint Louverture’s regime became as oppressive and tyrannical. In response, disaffected blacks and mulattoes took up arms and launched an uprising in 1801. The uprising, however, was quickly crushed by Toussaint Louverture and his troops.
In February 1802, Charles-Victor-Emmanuel Leclerc, Rigaud, and 21,000 French troops landed in Saint Domingue. They had been sent by Leclerc’s brother-in-law, Napoleon Bonaparte, to retake the island. Toussaint Louverture knew that his troops were no match for the French, so he retreated to the mountains with his forces. They burned fields and massacred white civilians as they made their retreat. Toussaint Louverture later tried to sue for peace, but he was arrested during a meeting and was soon shipped as a prisoner to France in exile. He died in France in 1803.
Nature was the blacks’ and mulattoes’ best ally against the French. One by one, Leclerc’s soldiers died of yellow fever until he himself succumbed to the disease in October 1802. He was succeeded by the tyrannical General de Rochambeau who wanted to reinstate the unequal system of the French colonial government. This united Toussaint Louverture’s black general Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Rigaud’s mulatto supporter Alexandre Sabès Pétion against Rochambeau. In 1803, their combined black and mulatto forces defeated the French and successfully drove them out of the island.
In January 1804, Dessalines declared Saint Domingue independent and soon reverted the island’s Taíno name Haiti. Haiti was the first independent black state in the Americas. Its constitution was ratified in the following year. Violence, however, continued as blacks and mulattoes took part in the massacre of the few remaining French settlers of the island.
Picture by: Unknown – NYPL Digital Gallery, Public Domain, Link
Collier, Simon, Thomas E. Skidmore, and Harold Blakemore, eds. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Latin America and the Caribbean. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Fagg, John Edwin. Cuba, Haïti, & the Dominican Republic. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1965.
Girard, Philippe. Haiti: The Tumultuous History – From Pearl of the Caribbean to Broken Nation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
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