6 Haiti, or the Beginning of the End

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Topic- Cuba and the Contradictions of Freedom

Week 8: Paper #2 Due

Saint-Domingue in 1788 was a far cry from the lap of luxury. Planters lived in well turned out mansions surrounded by shabby, often bloody, and rough shacks. The shacks were home to an enslaved population that went without the most basic necessities. The opulence of European life was the opposite of life in the Caribbean where all the wealth was being generated.

The Gossipers

Writers and travelers during this time wrote back home or in diaries about what they saw and experienced on these voyages from the Old to the New World. This would be how news of what ‘really’ happened in the Caribbean would make it back to Europe and into our history books. Stories of spoiled mistresses burning cooks for presenting her an overcooked pastry. So common an occurrence would this be that no one flinched. Rage, pain, fear, blood, and a “firm” hand were needed when running a plantation. This would, however, not last long…. 1804!

Rising Up

Knowing exactly what took place during the Bois Caïman voodoo ceremony of August 1791 is impossible, but it in this ceremony that the slaves said enough. Bois Caïman was the beginning of what would become the 13 year long Haitian Revolution.

Prior to this the slaves of Saint-Domingue were well aware of the revolution taking place in France. They understood the divisions that existed between the rich and poor whites. This was their chance for freedom as well. A series of voodoo ceremonies would precede that of the Bois Caïman ceremony and they would serve as a way to communicate and plan for the slaves.

The master of ceremonies was Boukman, who had kept informed and was ready to go to war. Planning to burn plantations and sugar fields in the north, Boukman was ready to send up the signal. However, slaves in Limbé jumped the gun and were speedily put down. Far from deterred, Boukman saw he had no time to waste. On August 14/22, 1791 the Bois Caïman voodoo ceremony was held. Like a raging wildfire slaves swept through the north burning fields and cane as well as killing masters. They were unstoppable!

Me say War!

The following prayer is supposed to have been given by Dutty Bookman during the Boïs Caiman meeting.

“The god who created the earth; who created the sun that gives us light. The god who holds up the ocean; who makes the thunder roar. Our God who has ears to hear. You who are hidden in the clouds; who watch us from where you are. You see all that the white has made us suffer. The white man’s god asks him to commit crimes. But the god within us wants to do good. Our god, who is so good, so just, He orders us to revenge our wrongs. It’s He who will direct our arms and bring us the victory. It’s He who will assist us. We all should throw away the image of the white men’s god who is so pitiless. Listen to the voice for liberty that speaks in all our hearts.”

What is now known as the Haitian Revolution was in reality periods of warfare combined under the one title.

  • Period 1: 1791-1794
    • Basically an extension of the ongoing French Revolution.
    • Result: Abolishment of Slavery
  • Period 2: 1794-1802
    • The rebels had to fight the British who came to the aid of France.
    • There was infighting amongst the revolutionary leaders.
    • Fought to ensure emancipation for all time.
  • Period 3: 1802-1804
    • The final fight to secure freedom for all former slaves
    • Result: Haiti 

“Toussaint Louverture” by Indrid__Cold, licensed under a creative commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.


The greatest weapon in the former enslaved arsenal was fear. As a far reaching plague, fear spread amongst the planter and colonialist class throughout the Caribbean. The majority, if not all, of the islands had a larger black than white population. Although the number of enslaved varied from colony to colony the disproportion instilled a fear that had some of the planters calling for a preemptive military presence. Said fear and unrest ravaged the Caribbean, with colony after colony reporting revolts or early discovered plots. The fear, however, reached new heights after August 1791. Any sound in the night, scream, smell of smoke, or visible flame was seen as the start of a revolt.

For the planters in Haiti, the fear had them planning for an immediate departure. The majority, seeking passage and sanctuary in Santiago de Cuba. Yet, they would not receive it because the Spanish were on alert. Rumors had begun to circulate that similar forms of insurrection were being planned for Santo Domingo.

The pandemonium that ensued saw a drop in importation of slaves from 44,572 in 1790 to 9,862 in 1792. This was because areas in the south remained enslaved although they too would fall.

“jean-jacques dessalines statue” by maher, licensed under a creative commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Spain Interferes 

In the early days of the revolution Spain responded by adding militia men to the shared border. However, these militiamen were made up of free blacks as well as mulattos. Their stance of ‘perfect neutrality’ would shrivel out as the fear of the planter elite increased. Spain in turn called all of the initial leaders of the rebellion and offered them payment as well as freedom for their service in helping Spanish Santo Domingo.

Despite these provisions, the elite were still in a tizzy and sought to flee. Yet, laws had been passed to prohibit their entrance to any neighboring island; lest they spread the disease of rebellion. These planters were absolutely desperate, as having lost their cane fields, they found themselves with their only remaining wealth being in the form of slaves.

Seeking Refuge

Some owners and colonial officials sought refuge in the U.S. when denied entrance to other islands. With donations from George Washington, these refugees found homes in port cities such as Philadelphia, Norfolk, Charleston, and New Orleans; with their slaves. This warm welcome, however, would not last and soon restrictions were put in place to keep from coming in and force out free blacks and people of color. Particularly those coming from Haiti. In 1798, some states banned the entry of any refugees period.

Yet, we must note that these refugees continuously seeking refuge were not all coming from Haiti. In April 1793 uprisings began in other French held territories; especially in Guadeloupe. The end of the French monarchy, in the early days of 1793, saw Léger-Félicité Sonthonax as the civil commissioner of Saint-Domingue. He took power at a time of great debate on whether to continue or abolish slavery. For the slaves, however, there was no debate. For those enslaved under the French the decision was made and they were no longer slaves. Yet, the British fought to keep slavery due to the proximity of Haiti to Jamaica and their ongoing war with France.

France & England

The British took parts of Haiti, all of Guadeloupe (although reclaimed by France), and Martinique (also returned eventually). These British soldiers would be among the only whites in Saint-Domingue as the majority had already left the island. Aside from those listed to the side, some refugees would also turn to Trinidad, other Caribbean islands as well as Venezuela.

In other areas of the Caribbean, during 1795, revolts and oppression of them became a common and constant occurrence.  This with uprisings cropping up in Grenada and St. Vincent, maroons in Jamaica as well as Curaçao. Although the colonial fathers of these colonies, particularly Curaçao, categorically refused to abolish slavery as France had done.


Where there was no revolt, there were plots and conspiracies. Some were actual plots that never came to fruition and others that were figments of the imagination; supported by the “evidence” provided by blood. Of those that were true, many could have their roots traced back to Haiti or with the simple desire to be free.

These fears and rivers of blood were further exacerbated by the Revolutionary Wars in Europe as well as the natives fighting the invading Europeans on all the islands; from their mountain tops. Europeans were being hit on all fronts. The French and British still in Haiti could take no more and the British were finally pushed out in 1798. Despite infighting, 1799 would see the former French portion of the island united under Louverture’s control.


Led by a Zambo slave who spent time in Haiti, an uprising took place in the port of Coro. This would be suppressed and 170 would die.

Puerto Rico

In October 1795, revolts broke out in Aguadilla and later suppressed. The Governor, would put restrictions in place to keep propaganda and refugees from Haiti getting in.

Haiti & Napoleon

The year 1800 was a good one for the revolution and Louverture, yet, Napoleon was coming into power and it wasn’t long before the two shared a mutual dislike. A dislike which flourished when Louverture took over the Spanish side of the island for the French Republic in January 1801.

Many creoles would flee for Spanish territories in the wake of this hostile takeover. Yet, as with the refugees of Haiti before them sanctuary was not readily given. Many simply could not get off the island as British pirates took to the high seas and plundered any ship in sight.

In July 1801 a island wide constitution was drawn up and a French connection cemented with two point sin particular:

  • There was to be NO slavery.
  • That all men were “born, lived and died free and French”.

These developments proved unbearable for creoles. Many of whom, having land and money, fled instead of being under the French or ruled by a former slave.

In the time following this Louverture had to suppress revolts from those opposed to his reorganizing of the economy and productivity of the country. He simultaneously incurred Napoleon’s wrath when declaring himself governor for life. He, however, was prepared for Napoleon’s responding attack when it came.

“Napoleon Bonaparte Emperor” Pixabay License. Free for commercial use. No attribution required.

Rebellious Infighting

In dealing with Napoleon’s General Leclerc, Louverture, would be betrayed by Christophe and Dessalines. By implying that Louverture had been plotting an insurrection, the aforementioned men ensured his kidnapping and later freezing death in April 1803; in the Fort-de-Joux French prison. Leclerc having died of yellow fever the year prior.

Undaunted by both deaths, Napoleon sent in General Rochambeau to deal with the situation. However, Louverture’s death did not mean things would be easy. As a matter of fact, the fight was on! Word had reached the island of French plans to bring back slavery in all of its territories. With their rage fueled attacks, mounting French death tolls due to diseases, and renewed warfare with Britain, Napoleon was stretched thin. In November 1803, Rochambeau and the French surrendered. Meaning Dessalines had maintained freedom and the French gave up the island altogether, choosing instead to deal with things on the Homefront. This is also the time in which France sold to the US their Louisiana territory (Louisiana Purchase).


On January 1st, 1804, Dessalines proclaimed to the world the birth of “Ayiti” or the Republic of Haiti. Following this with a radical constitution which stated in no uncertain terms that slavery was forever abolished and that henceforth all of the countries people would be known as blacks. His attempt to destroy the skin color based class system would fail as the country would fall back into it shortly thereafter. The small remaining white population in the country, who did not declare themselves black, would be massacred.

Dessalines’ time in power was fraught with fights for control of the nation. He, however, would lose his control by declaring himself emperor and his subsequent assassination in 1806. With fights for freedom taking place throughout the Caribbean, the beacon of black freedom was in of itself divided. Dessalines’ death saw the country controlled by (black) Henri Christophe in the north and Alexandre Pétion (a mulatto) in the south.

When was slavery made illegal? 

Yes, Haiti is the first black country in the world, and one birthed by its former slaves, however, we need to understand that slaveries death took place with and through others as well. 

  • In 1792, the Danish made the decision to abolish the slave trade, however, it did not go into effect until 1803. These planters had 10 years to adjust and continue trading.
  • In 1807, the British managed to pass a bill in which the slave trade was outlawed.
  • In 1808, the US ended the slave trade although it would not end slavery itself until “1865”.
  • Sweden abolished the trade in 1813 and the Dutch as well in 1814. 

Haiti was the first to end the trade on its soil and the first free black country in the sea. The slave trade was basically dead, yet. slavery itself had no end it sight. 

Cuba & Napoleon

At the time of British abolishment of the trade and Haiti’s divided rule was established, Cuba began its rumblings of freedom. Refugees from Haiti had settled in the mountains and they would grow coffee, among other crops, or resort to what they knew; sugar. As a matter of fact, the rapid rise of sugar on the island could attribute some of its success to the refugees and their modern processing of cane. By 1806, Cuba was exporting 186,000 tons a year which was 96,000 tons more than in 1796. This prosperity, however, would not last as there was war once more in Europe. Napoleon was at it again! European politics were affecting Spain and in turn it was destabilizing Cuba, D.R., and P.R. Yet, this would prove beneficial to the Dominicans themselves. Embattled at home and the Haitian side of the island divided, France found a mounting insurrection in their hands. The Dominicans, however, did not want freedom; they wanted freedom from the French and dreamed of re-joining Spain.

The fight was underway in 1808, with leader Sánches Ramírez and an accompanying 2,000 men. The resulting attack would lead to victory for the Dominicans and end in suicide for disgraced French Governor General Ferrand. Yet, none of this caught Spain’s attention as they were embroiled in a fight with Napoleon.

“Florence sugar cane mill” by Hercules Florence, This image is in the public domain due to its age.

US, Spain & Napoleon

Like circling vultures, the US would see Spain’s impending doom as the perfect opportunity to start scoping out which Spanish colonies they should take. Cuba as the prominent producer of white gold and Spanish Florida seemed like prime candidates. Unfortunately, Spain was able to push Napoleon back and the US dreams were crushed. This, however, did not deter the ongoing trade relationship between US and Cuba; one of sugar for the US and US exports to Cuba.

Cuban Gold Mine

As we’ve discussed, the Haitian Revolution had rippling effects throughout the Caribbean, however, for Cuba those effects made the island rich. Prior to the revolution Cuba was not a major player in the sugar trade with Jamaica (60,900 tons) and Haiti (78,696 tons) out stripping them, yet this would change.

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Moving on Up

The once insignificant Spanish colony became the pearl of the Caribbean for its coffee grounds and sugarcane fields; a change that took place primarily from 1796-1800. A German naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt, acted as a witness to this change and noted that the use of oxen’s switched to mules in mills along with the change to water-power was made; something Dominicans had long ago put into practice. By 1823, Cuba was exporting 300,211 cases of sugar. However, with this growth in wealth and prosperity, Humboldt among others, thought an impending end of slavery on the island was in sight. Humboldt would not live to see himself made a prophet. Yet, Cuban slaves had been bitten by the revolutionary bug and many revolts had to be put down. Far from a mind of abolishment, the importation of slaves would increase. Cuba became the legal safe haven for those wanting to circumvent the abolishment of the slave trade laws in effect. As sugar and slave numbers grew so to did the Havana port.

Spain Once Again Stands

“Image from page 147 of “Annual report of the Ohio State Board of Agriculture” (1857)” by Internet Archive Book Image, No known copyright restrictions.

In 1814, Napoleons emissary, Joseph Bonaparte, was kicked out of Spain and a Bourbons once more sat on the throne. Cuba and Puerto Rico were given permission shortly thereafter to allow Catholics from other areas to settle on the islands. These settlers would be allowed to plant on the acres given to them. However, despite these efforts Ferdinand VII would not take the throne and rule over the same empire his father had before him.

Rumors, suppressed revolts, and religious fervor soon set about destroying the empire. In New Spain, Priest Miguel Hidalgo started el grito de Dolores, in October 1810,for equality and land reforms. He would later be executed, yet, the damage was done and Venezuela won its independence in 1811. The first of many fighting for freedom in New Spain. Spain had little cause for worry from its Caribbean islands. Santo Domingo was once more under Spanish rule (as they wished it) and Cuba as well as Puerto Rico were thriving with their slave economies (there was no need to rock the boat).


“Image from page 568 of “Cane sugar; a textbook on the agriculture of the sugar cane, the manufacture of cane sugar, and the analysis of sugar-house products” (1921)” by Internet Archive Book Image, No known copyright restrictions.

  • Topic- Cuba and the Contradictions of Freedom
  • Week 8: Paper #2 Due


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Licensed by Mahalia Méhu under a Creative Commons Attribution- Share Alike 4.0 International License.




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