Haiti has suffered enormously over the centuries, but its revolution has been incredibly innovative

Since the New York Times published its recent series of explosive articles on the crippling reparations that France imposed on Haiti after its independence in 1804, much has been written about how this 150 million franc “indemnity” had virtually doomed the fledgling country before it had a chance to take hold. The New York Times articles describe the enormous long-term impact of these forced payments and demonstrate that they are costing the Haitian economy billions of dollars in lost economic growth, affecting the island well into the 21st century.

Haitian historians have remarked that the basic assertions of the New York Times are hardly revolutionary. The long-term effects of debt on the Haitian economy have long been recognized, studied and taught. Nevertheless, the diary’s detailed account, with its additional evidence and new calculations, has allowed the story to achieve the kind of public visibility that most professional historians can only dream of. It is unquestionably positive.

But this narrative, for all its moral force and political relevance, also reinforces a long-standing public perception of Haitian history as one of relentless failures. Of course, this is justified in many ways. To this day, Haiti remains one of the poorest countries in the world, for which France (along with the United States and others) bears an undeniable responsibility. But Haiti’s independence deserves to be remembered for more than its long and tragic consequences. It was, in fact, a startlingly groundbreaking event that radically changed the course of world history.

freedom fighters

Prior to the Haitian Revolution, Saint-Domingue (as Haiti was then known) was the largest and wealthiest colony in France. Its population consisted mainly of enslaved blacks, who lived and worked under a small elite of white plantation owners. When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, it triggered a series of revolts and conflicts on the island. These involved white settlers, black slaves, free blacks and mestizos, as well as the French, British and Spanish states.

By 1804, black and mixed-race insurgents had joined forces and claimed victory. White settlers were driven out or killed. On January 1, 1804, a former slave, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, proclaimed the independence of the island in the name of the Haitian people.

It was a complex, long and shockingly violent process. For a long time it was treated as a bloody footnote in Atlantic history, and left out of the triumphant tales that chronicled the “age of democratic revolutions.” But it is now increasingly seen by historians as a major turning point in world history. There are several reasons for this.

Emancipation in the New World

The first and most immediately obvious reason has to do with the history of colonial slavery. The Haitian Revolution was a multi-faceted conflict – but from 1791 its driving force was the great anti-slavery uprising led by the charismatic leader Toussaint Louverture. To this day, it remains the only truly successful slave revolt in history.

Military genius: Haitian General Toussaint Louverture.
Coastal Elite from Halifax, Canada/Wikimedia CommonsCC BY

It would be difficult to overstate the impact of the Haitian example on the history of emancipation in the New World. It raised the old specter of the slave rebellion and shocked slave owners across the Americas, but it also shed light on the debate over British emancipation. In the 1810s, Haitian support for Simón Bolívar’s liberation movement played a major role in ending slavery in northern South America. Haitian emancipation also encouraged uprisings and rebellions in the United States, Cuba, and Barbados. He continued to inspire black people across the New World until Brazil finally abolished slavery in 1888.

The Haitian revolutionaries have also permanently transformed the international landscape. Emerging from an 18th century world ruled by monarchies and colonial empires, Haiti became the world’s first black republic. It was only the second state to claim independence from a European empire, after the United States.

Notably, it was the first to be ruled by former slaves. Independent Haiti was, in many ways, ahead of its time – it would take another century and a half for another significant decolonization movement to emerge and eventually overthrow the great European empires, in the second half of the 20th century.

Universal human rights

Amid all the turmoil and upheaval of the revolution, the Haitian people’s demand for independence was also philosophically revolutionary. The 1804 Declaration of Independence ended the Haitian Revolution with a powerful assertion of national sovereignty:

We must, by a final act of national authority, secure forever the empire of freedom in the land of our birth…we must live independent or die.

By justifying independence in terms of universal human rights, Haitian leaders were deploying the same innovative philosophical principles that underpinned the American and French revolutions. But, unlike the American and French republics, the new Haitian nation had to root itself in its radical commitment to universal emancipation.

For all the above reasons, the Haitian revolution deserves to be remembered on its own terms – not only as the origin of historical injustice, but also as one of the great revolutions of the Enlightenment and a precursor of the movements of modern decolonization.

Edward K. Thompson