[Marxism] Haiti -- brief background article

Tony Tracy tony at tao.ca
Fri Feb 27 12:58:07 MST 2004

In light of the discussion on the list on the developments in Haiti, I 
thought that comrades might be interested in the enclosed article from 
the current (Jan/Feb 2004) issue of New Socialist magazine (which I help 
to edit, etc.) by David McNally. While this piece certainly doesn't 
cover the current events, it is a good survey piece on the history of 
the San Domingo (Haiti) slave revolution which took place 200 years ago.


Tony Tracy



By David McNally

"Brothers and friends, I am Toussaint LÕOuverture, my name is perhaps
known to you. I have undertaken vengeance. I want liberty and equality
to reign in San Domingo."

These words ought to be as familiar to students of modern history as the
opening lines of the American Declaration of Independence (1776) or the
Declaration of the Rights of Man from the French Revolution of 1789. 
After all, they embody the spirit of the worldÕs first successful slave
revolution which created the state of Haiti 200 years ago. Of course,
these words Ð and the story of which they speak Ð are anything but
familiar to most people. The reason for this is remarkably simple: to
this day there remains something deeply threatening to the
powers-that-be about the story of the enslaved blacks who rose up, laid
waste to the soldiers sent by three empires, and succeeded in abolishing

In a very real sense Haiti was the worldÕs first Vietnam, the place
where imperial war machines were vanquished by an army of the oppressed. 
In 1796, Great Britain, the worldÕs premier colonial power, sent its
largest-ever expeditionary force Ð 30,000 men on nearly 100 ships Ð to
crush the insurgent armies of ex-slaves before their example spread. 
Instead, Saint Domingue, as it was then usually known (although the
Spanish name San Domingo was also used), became Òthe burial ground of
Great Britain.Ó At least 40,000 British soldiers and sailors perished in
the campaign against Toussaint LÕOuverture and his forces. Reflecting on
this crushing defeat, the British commander of the time observed that
Òmen after having been told they were free, and after carrying arms, did
not easily return to slavery.Ó It was a lesson the empires refused to


Six years after the British were repulsed, Napoleon Bonaparte, fresh
from his victories over the popular-democratic movement at home in
France, sent 35,000 troops to reconquer the former colony and restore
slavery. Despite a campaign of horrific exterminism against the Haitian
people, Napoleon too was routed. Only 5,000 of his troops returned. At
various times between 1791 and 1804, Spain also threw thousands of
troops against these armies of self-emancipated slaves. It too suffered
massive losses.

Perhaps few historical moments are more propitious than the present one
for remembering and celebrating the extraordinary events that swept
Haiti in the age of democratic revolution. To begin with, January 1,
2004 represents the bicentenary of HaitiÕs declaration of independence. 
Equally significant, however, at a time when new imperial wars are being
waged from Afghanistan and Iraq to Colombia and the Philippines, the
Haitian revolution is a salient reminder of what can be achieved by
oppressed masses mobilizing for freedom in the face of overwhelming
military force.

All social revolutions involve great upheavals in structures of property
and power, and Haiti was no exception. Saint Domingue was the jewel of
the French empire, its largest and most prosperous slave colony in the
Caribbean. As slave production of sugar and coffee soared, the number of
new slaves arriving each year kept mounting, hitting half a million by
1791. St. Domingue was thus the heart of the French colonial system in
the Caribbean, and the envy of rival empires. Little did anyone in the
colony suspect that events in France would turn this prosperous slave
colony upside down.

The story of the revolution in France has been well-told. Amidst growing
tensions between the monarchy and the countryÕs middle class - lawyers,
merchants, small manufacturers, and slave traders - the people of Paris
rose up, taking to the streets, capturing the Bastille, the notorious
political prison, and freeing those inside. Revolutionary committees
were formed in one town after another and peasant revolts swept the

In its early stages, the revolution was managed at the top by moderate
representatives of the middle class who wanted little more than an
English-style constitutional monarchy. But the urban masses insured that
things went much farther than that. A revolutionary crowd arrested the
king in August 1792 and mobilized for a democratic republic free of all
vestiges of monarchy. By January of the next year, the king had been
executed. Demands for social equality and economic justice now began to
challenge those who hoped to limit the revolution to the achievement of
voting rights and equality before the law.

As the revolution in France moved left under pressure from the urban
poor, an earthquake rocked the most prosperous of the French colonies. 
When French soldiers arrived in St. Domingue in March 1791, black slaves
began seizing arms and rising up, declaring their commitments to
equality and Òthe rights of man.Ó In August, these relatively
spontaneous uprisings became a coordinated insurrection, as tens of
thousands of slaves murdered their masters and seized the estates, often
burning them to the ground.

The slave-owners quickly regrouped, welcoming an invasion by British
forces intent on restoring slavery and seizing the colony for the
British empire. Meanwhile, Spanish troops also moved into St. Domingue. 
Facing a full-scale war against colonial armies, 20,000 former slaves
fled their estates and formed armed units. Among the military leaders of
these black armies was one Toussaint Breda, who shortly after replaced
his old last name with LÕOuverture (the Opening). A former slave who had
developed administrative talents as steward of livestock for his master,
Toussaint had read texts in world history as well as political works
that criticized slavery. Although nearly 50 when the revolution erupted,
he quickly emerged as its most intelligent and dynamic leader. 


In the early going, many of the black forces allied themselves with
Spain (which promised freedom to every former slave who joined the
Spanish forces) in order to defeat the old slave-owning class and its
British allies Ð and this was true of Toussaint as well. But in the
summer of 1793, three new French Commissioners reached the colony. 
Although they did not arrive with any intention of abolishing slavery,
the more astute of them soon recognized that the future of the colony
would be decided by the insurrectionary slaves. In August, one of the
Commissioners decreed the end of slavery in the colony, igniting a new
round of slave rebellions and bringing thousands of black freedom
fighters into an alliance with France.

For the next few years, the Revolutions in France and St. Domingue
marched together, each radicalizing the other. Perhaps no moment more
movingly captures this intersection than the early weeks of 1794 when a
three-man delegation from St. Domingue arrived in Paris. C.L.R. James,
author of The Black Jacobins Ð the pioneering account of these events Ð
recounts that on February 3rd, with the three delegates from St. 
Domingue in attendance, the French Convention officially abolished
slavery to resounding cheers and embraces. The motion abolishing slavery
in the French colonies was, as James remarks, Òone of the most important
legislative acts ever passed by any political assembly.Ó And it
constituted a high-water mark for the French Revolution. Driven forward
by the slave insurrection in St. Domingue and the radicalism of the
Paris poor, the revolution had mounted a frontal attack on racial
privilege. Immediately, Toussaint LÕOuverture, now the pre-eminent
leader of the revolutionary black army of St. Domingue, rallied to the
side of France, driving back the Spanish in 1794 and inflicting huge
losses on the British two years later.

But the radical phase of the French Revolution was near its end. The
French bourgeoisie had never supported an end to slavery. Its goal had
always been a prosperous colonial system fueled by slave labour. In
1799, it threw in its lot with FranceÕs most prominent general, Napoleon
Bonaparte, judging a military dictatorship run by Bonaparte a small
price to pay in order to repress the poor, boost profits, restore
slavery and rebuild the colonial system. FranceÕs swing back to a racist
colonial policy based on slavery shattered the alliance with Toussaint
LÕOuverture. Before 1799 had drawn to a close, Toussaint broke with
France and took the first steps toward independence. Still, he hoped for
a negotiated settlement Ð and this was to be his downfall. Despite
holding the military initiative, Toussaint agreed in April 1802 to
negotiations with BonaparteÕs brother-in-law, Leclerc. Shortly
thereafter he was arrested and shipped to France where he would die in a
dungeon in April 1803.


Meanwhile, having officially declared the restoration of slavery, France
now tried full-blooded terror in St. Domingue. ÒYou will have to
exterminate all the blacks in the mountains, women as well as men,
except for children under twelve,Ó Leclerc urged Napoleon. ÒWipe out
half the population of the lowlands and do not leave in the colony a
single black who has worn an epaulette.Ó French forces imported 1500
dogs to hunt down blacks and proceeded to drown people en masse. They
chained 16 of ToussaintÕs 17 generals to a rock where they wasted away. 
They burned and murdered. Still, ToussaintÕs remaining forces fought
heroically. But, as James remarks, it was not the army that defeated the
French. ÒIt was the people. They burned San Domingo flat.Ó Unprepared
for a war in which a people would rather burn their own land than return
to slavery, the French bogged down, losing more men every day. Before
they withdrew,

30,000 had died in a futile effort to reconquer the liberated slaves of
St. Domingue.

Having vanquished three colonial armies, and suffered betrayal by
France, ToussaintÕs former general, Dessalines, proclaimed the
independence of the new state of Haiti on January 1, 1804. It was the
second independent state in the Americas to be ushered in by an
anti-colonial revolution. More importantly, it was the first to abolish
slavery. And in its first 20 years, it inspired a wave of black
uprisings, particularly in Cuba, the United States, Brazil and Jamaica.

>From the beginning, however, the new state was deeply flawed. Those
capable of creating an army often absorb the authoritarian habits of
military discipline. Yet, no vibrant and viable democracy can thrive on
the giving and receiving of orders. Toussaint himself had often erred in
this regard, instituting military discipline over labourers for
instance. But Dessalines took this to the extreme, declaring himself
Emperor of Haiti and becoming the first in a long line of authoritarian
leaders modeled more on Napoleon than on the struggles of enslaved
Africans for their freedom.


Of course, imperial powers bear the primary responsibility for the
misery to which the Haitian people have been subjected throughout their
history. After 1804, they isolated the fledgling state, punishing it
economically and diplomatically. In the forefront of this was the United
States whose leaders, particularly Thomas Jefferson, feared the example
Haiti represented to enslaved African-Americans. Then, in the 20th
century, America turned to invasions, occupations and pro-US
dictatorships. The cumulative effect has been to render Haiti the most
impoverished nation in the western hemisphere.

The working class movements in the global North also bear a
responsibility for the hardship that has befallen the Haitian people. 
While the most militant sections of the labouring poor of France and
Britain rallied to the cause of the Haitian rebels in the 1790s Ð
creating a rare solidarity between Northern workers and the racially
oppressed masses of the global South Ð western labour movements have all
too often been complicit with racism and colonialism. Still, against all
these odds, and despite crushing poverty and military repression, the
Haitian people have never relinquished the spirit of resistance. In
their midst are courageous left-wing activists who know they are the
heirs of a powerful revolutionary tradition, one which has yet to speak
its final words. These brave descendants of Toussaint LÕOuverture are
privy to a profound secret: that slaves can overturn their masters, and
that the wretched of the earth can defeat imperial armies. Despite two
centuries of suppression and distortion, these secrets continue to find
eager ears in barrios, factory quarters and guerilla encampments.

Two hundred years after the declaration of Haitian independence, we need
to pay tribute to the magnificent freedom fighters of 1791-1804. The
poet Pablu Neruda offers a moving tribute in a poem in memory of
Toussaint LÕOuverture. While acknowledging the Òpathetic petalsÓ that
the garden of the Haitian revolution now brings forth, and remembering
the sad image of Toussaint dying in a French dungeon, Neruda insisted
that all is far from lost:

   But on the Island the cliffs burn,
   hidden branches speak,
   hopes are transmitted,
   the bastionÕs walls rise up,

   Freedom is your forest, 
   dark brother,
   preserve your memory of suffering,
   and let heroes of the past
   safekeep your magic foam

In safekeeping the memory of the self-liberating slaves of St. Domingue,
we cultivate the seeds of a different future. 

(David McNally is a member of the New Socialist Group and on the
Editorial Board of New Socialist magazine. He teaches at York University
in Toronto.)


Originally published in Issue #45 (Jan/Feb 2004) of NEW SOCIALIST
magazine (see http://www.newsocialist.org) -- a publication which aims
to help build unions and social movements along the lines of solidarity,
democracy and militancy, a new Left committed to making change through
struggle, and a renewed socialism from below current. 

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