By Gerald Horne
The revolution that created the United States of America was a turning point in the history of the world. This revolution made a clean break with the feudal order that was dominated by kings, queens, and royal families. However, after the revolution, chattel slavery continued to be the law of the land. This was in spite of the fact that the Constitution declared, “all men are created equal.”
Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, wrote the Constitution. Jefferson lived an opulent lifestyle because of the slaves he owned. He clearly did not believe these slaves were his equals.
The Haitian Revolution
Then, in 1791 a revolution in the French colony of San Domingue erupted. The primary goal of this revolution was to abolish the dreaded institution of slavery. Initially the revolutionary slaves sided with the Spanish who controlled the eastern section of the island of Hispaniola. Then, as the revolution in France erupted, the new French government abolished slavery. The revolutionary government of San Donmingue responded to this development by siding with France and taking control of the entire island.
Then, the British invaded the island only to be defeated decisively. Napoleon betrayed the French revolution and attempted to reestablish slavery on the island. This decision led to Napoleon’s first decisive defeat and France lost about 60,000 soldiers.
As a result of this defeat, Haiti was established as an independent nation. Napoleon sold the French colony to the United States. This sale is known as the Louisiana Purchase.
Understanding this background, my opinion is that the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) is one of the many historical events we need to be aware of in order to begin to have an understanding of the history of the world. I didn’t learn about this in high school, but from C.L.R. James wonderful book, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. While I believe that this book continues to be the best source for information on that event, today we can read Gerald Horne’s book that looks at the Haitian Revolution from a different perspective.
The theme of Horne’s book Confronting Black Jacobins looks at the interaction of revolutionary Haiti with the United States, Britain, France, and the Dominican Republic. We can start the narrative of this book with the fact that the nation of Haiti abolished slavery at a time when all the other nations that dominated the Americas gouged out tremendous profits from slave labor.
The Caribbean islands had been the prime location to gouge out profits in the world over 100 years before the Haitian Revolution. Sales of sugar were the primary source of this fantastic wealth and the French colony of San Domingue was the most lucrative center for this trade. When the Haitian Revolution erupted, this relationship of forces began to change. We can see this by taking a look at all the nations affected because of this monumental revolution.
The revolution transformed Haiti from a place where hundreds of thousands of people lived in slavery, to a place where former Black slaves became the political force of the nation. The Haitian constitution made it illegal for Caucasians to own land. The government actively worked to prevent its citizens from being kidnapped and sold into slavery.
As a result, for a time, there was little crime between Haitians. Murder was unheard of. For a time, the only crime on the island was petty theft. This new atmosphere attracted thousands of Black people from the United States.
These U.S. citizens understood that they were treated as second-class citizens. They also understood that they could be kidnapped and sold into slavery. Under this environment thousands of Black citizens of this country were attracted to a government run by Black people that outlawed slavery.
The slave owning republic, and the colonial powers
Gerald Horne labeled the pre-Civil War United States as the “slave owning republic.” The Haitian Revolution struck a gripping fear into the minds of slave owners. Haiti represented a nation where slave owners lost virtually everything. Haiti also was the place where former slaves freed themselves to bring justice to those who had tortured them for over a century. Slave owners in this country took extraordinary measures attempting to avoid the fate of the former slave owners of San Domingue.
The United States didn’t recognize Haiti until after the Civil War. Recognition of Haiti would mean that representatives of Haiti and the U.S. would have to discuss numerous issues as equals. Until the Civil War, slave owners were the dominant force in this country, and they viewed recognition of Haiti as totally unacceptable to their way of life.
The British Empire transformed itself during the 19th century. On the one hand, British industry became a dominant force because of the cotton purchased from the United States that had been picked by slave labor. On the other hand, in 1834 the British outlawed slavery in Jamaica responding to slave rebellions on that island. However, Britain had already recognized Haiti in 1825. Part of the British government’s motivation was to have a policy that challenged the other powerful nations of the world.
The French government recognized Haiti in 1838. However, this came at a price. The French threatened Haiti with war unless Haiti paid France 60 million Franks as reparations for defeating France in the Haitian Revolution. Rather than risk fighting a war that might have been extremely destructive, the Haitian government agreed to pay the insulting reparations for winning independence.
The Spanish monarchy had been one of the most powerful in the world. This monarchy literally looted the Americas for gold and silver. The problem was that Spain didn’t develop manufacturing. This meant that the gold and silver looted from the Americas went to Britain, France, and Amsterdam. This problem led to the decline of the Spanish empire.
Spanish colonies throughout the Americas erupted in revolutions demanding independence. Haiti gave the revolutionary leader Simon Bolivar asylum while Spain viewed him as a fugitive.
The creation of the Dominican Republic
During the period of slavery, the colonial powers created divisions between Black and colored people. These divisions continued after the revolution. As I mentioned, revolutionary former slaves took control of the eastern part of the island of Hispaniola.
This eastern section of the island had a much smaller population. The people were predominantly colored and spoke Spanish. The colonial powers fomented the divisions between the eastern and western parts of the island. The eastern section of the island received heavy armaments that were used to become independent and establish the nation of the Dominican Republic. While the new government became independent of Haiti, they were also successful in resisting Spanish attempts to colonize the island.
The colonial powers also had their eyes on the Bay of Samana, considered to be one of the most important in the world. Samana is located in the Dominican Republic and the area of the bay became the home of hundreds of Black immigrants from the United States.
With all the problems that faced the nation of Haiti, I agree with the following conclusion of Gerald Horne about the significance of the Haitian Revolution.
“Still, the spirit of Back Jacobins has yet to be quelled, not least since the revolutionary example of Haiti spread throughout the Americas and created a general crisis of the slave system that could only be resolved—thankfully—with its collapse. As a result, Africans in particular and the international working class in general owe a massive debt of gratitude to the Black Jacobins of Hispaniola.”
155 years after the Haitian Revolution, a revolutionary government took power in Cuba. The revolution started in the eastern section of Cuba that is closest to the nation of Haiti. Haitian slave owners as well as slaves who left San Domingue because of the revolution immigrated to this eastern section of Cuba. This French speaking community had an enormous influence in Cuba. This is just one example of how the Black Jacobins continue to influence our reality today.