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French Revolution Impact on Haitian Revolution

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Haitian Revolution, series of conflicts between 1791 and 1804 between Haitian slaves, colonists, the armies of the British and French colonizers, and a number of other parties. Through the struggle, the Haitian people ultimately won independence from France and thereby became the first country to be founded by former slaves. The Spanish began to enslave the native Taino and Ciboney people soon after December 1492, when Italian navigator Christopher Columbus sighted the island that he called La Isla Española (“The Spanish Island”; later Anglicized as Hispaniola.) The island’s indigenous population, forced to mine for gold, was devastated by European diseases and brutal working conditions, and by the end of the 16th century the people had virtually vanished. Thousands of slaves imported from other Caribbean islands met the same fate.

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The slave rebellion was also bolstered by an unexpected source: Spanish troops. After the execution of King Louis XVI, the slaves, including Toussaint, no longer trusted that the French could negotiate in good faith and turned to the Spanish, who were also at war with France. Toussaint told French envoy Sonthonax, “We cannot conform to the will of the Nation because from the beginning of the world we have executed the will of a King. We have lost the King of France, but we are esteemed by the King of Spain, who bestows rewards upon us and ceases not to give us succor. Consequently we are unable to acknowledge you, the Commissioners, before you have found a King”. For reasons not clear to historians, however, Toussaint returned to the side of the French during the revolution at this point. It is speculated that because France emancipated all slaves in the colony, which is what Toussaint wanted (however unintentional, as France needed troops and needed to free certain mulattos and their families in order to enlist their aid), or because Toussaint sensed that Spain’s position in Europe was precarious, however no one is sure of his reasons. Toussaint and the French together defeated the white rebellion on Saint Dominique and France and Spain signed a peace treaty. Toussaint then tried to negotiate with France regarding trade with the United States, its black-market partner, and when France would not consent, Toussaint drove France out leaving only Britain for Toussaint to contend with. Toussaint defeated the British and, after a few more minor skirmishes, was able, in 1797, to declared himself Governor General of Saint Dominique, and over the next 4 years expelled all invading forces including the French”. The Haitian Revolution was truly unique in that it was the second Atlantic republic formed in the peri-imperial Atlantic world, that it was a slave uprising that succeeded against a large imperial army, it was one of only two countries wherein armed confrontation was necessary to effectuate the abolition of slavery

The fact that it is remembered scarcely, if at all, in the current history classrooms throughout the United States, the same classrooms that teach the American and French Revolutions in intricate detail, possibly evidence a (possibly unintentional) racial bias. Despite the fact that this small island of slaves fought off one of the largest and most organized armies in the world (the French) from the inside, and then managed to defeat the British and Spanish armies to declare an independent Republic, for 130 years, historians had a tendency to deal with the Haitian Revolution by describing it as “devolution – as a reversion to African barbarism in the absence of White control”. The evidence, they point out, is that Saint Dominique went from being one of the wealthiest colonies in the world to one of the poorest countries. As Reinhardt (2005) points out, however, none of the major powers would engage in trade with Haiti for many years after the revolution, and even if they were poor, they were far better off than the average slave in the United States. Historians, if they do acknowledge a revolution at all (in earlier texts referring to it as murder, disturbances or riots), trivialize it, and relegate it to a footnote in history, despite the fact that it was a revolution that resulted in the second independent republic in the Atlantic world, that fact in and of itself giving it tremendous significance.

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The French Revolution, starting in 1789, pitted the left-wing National Assembly against the will and government of the aristocratic government of Louis XVI (John D. Garrigus, 1996). Due to the regressive taxes that left the lower classes with more of the burden than they could reasonably handle, along with other factors stemming from the advantages of the meritocracy and clergy, the people of France decided to rise up. At this point, tensions rose to the point where the National Assembly and other left-wing groups stormed the Bastille, overthrowing the monarchy and setting up a government based around popular sovereignty. The battle was not over yet, however; as the National Assembly drafted a constitution, the women of Paris marched on Versailles as well, wishing to gain their own sense of freedom and agency within the new government. Along with the dechristianization of France as a result of the Revolution, removing the Catholic Church from political power, the French Revolution saw many social changes to go along with the political upheavals that were experienced. It is this relationship between social and political that can be found in great amounts in the Haitian Revolution. The Haitian Revolution started in the territory of Saint Domingue, a French colony which lies where Haiti is now. Saint Domingue was a French colony, and therefore independently governed; however, it remained very tightly bound to the varying aspects of colonial rule. To that end, the poor were often extorted and threatened into submission; this extended to the Africans who resided there, mostly as slaves. These slaves picked and farmed coffee beans and sugarcane for Britain and France for export, providing more or less half the coffee and sugar for those countries, making it the most profitable colony the French had (Laurent Dubois, 2004). This made it an incredibly valuable commodity for the French; as a result, when the French Revolution hit in 1789, the effects were felt by Saint Domingue most ardently. These dramatic changed and consequences led the elites of the colony to drastic action, which directly and indirectly led to the Haitian Revolution. Even in France, despite the hard-fought and well-earned success of the revolution, left Haiti in dire straits as a result

"Many among the bourgeoisie who were frustrated with the limits placed on them by the Old Regime system were wealthy thanks to the sugar and coffee produced by slaves in the Caribbean"3. To that end, even those who participated in the French Revolution had a vested interest in the coffee and sugar capital that was coming in from Saint Domingue; this left slave owners and other wealthy whites with a choice to make - they soon saw the advantage to capitalizing on the Revolution in order to consolidate their power. They wished to gain independence from France, giving land-owners greater control, and the ability to form advantageous trade regulations that raised the limitations they were previously given. Even after the French Revolution, the plantation owners sought to consolidate their power and capitalized on this shift in government, denying voting rights to blacks and seeking to further restrict their rights. The overarching thought was that, given the more lax French government, it would be a chance to declare independence and operate with less accountability. With less accountability, plantation owners were free to act as they pleased; this meant denying voting rights and citizenship to blacks, despite this going against the principles of the Revolution itself -"This act of racial prejudice went against the French Revolution stood for"4. The Code Noir, enacted by Louis XIV in 1685 noted that blacks were granted the right to citizenships as long as they were freed as slaves.

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Definitely, the newly self-freed slaves of Saint Domingue fought to keep their liberty and managed to create an anti-slavery movement across the world due to their achievement. Though succeeding in abolishing slavery in Saint Domingue was a colossal deed, this uprising along with the progress of capitalism, the ongoing collapse of feudalism and the idealism of the French Revolution altered the fate of the Western society. The significance of the Revolution was that it opposed the principle of black inferiority and the belief that slaves could never uphold their independence and freedom.

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John D. Garrigus. "Colour, Class and Identity on the Eve of the Haitian Revolution: Saint-Domingue's Free Coloured Elite as Colon americains." Slavery & Abolition 17.1 (1996)

Franklin W. Knight. The Caribbean: The Genesis of a Fragmented Nationalism (3rd ed.). (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).

Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 2004).

Jan Rogozinski. A Brief History of the Caribbean (Revised ed.). {New York: Facts on File, 1999).

Thomas E. Weil, Jan Knippers Black, Howard I. Blustein, Kathryn T. Johnston, David S. McMorris, Frederick P. Munson, Haiti: A Country Study. (Washington, D.C.: The American University Foreign Area Handbook Series 1985).

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