The Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) was a slave revolt in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, which culminated in the elimination of slavery there and the founding of the Haitian republic. The Haitian Revolution was the only slave revolt which led to the founding of a state. The revolution was one of the two successful attempts, along with the American Revolution, to achieve permanent independence from a European colonial power for an American state before the 19th century. Furthermore it is generally considered the most successful slave rebellion ever to have occurred in the Americas and as a defining moment in the history of Africans in the New World.
Although an independent government was created in Haiti, its society continued to be deeply affected by the patterns established under French colonial rule. The French established a system of minority rule over the illiterate poor by using violence and threats. Because many planters had provided for their mixed-race children by African women by giving them education and (for men) training and entrée into the French military, the mulatto descendants became the elite in Haiti after the revolution. By the time of war, many had used their social capital to acquire wealth, and some already owned land. Some had identified more with the French colonists than the slaves, and associated within their own circles.
Their domination of politics and economics after the revolution created another two-caste society, as most Haitians were rural subsistence farmers. In addition, the nascent state’s future was practically “mortgaged” to French banks in the 1820s, as it was forced to make massive reparations to French slaveholders in order to receive French recognition and end the nation’s political and economic isolation. These payments may have permanently affected Haiti’s economy and wealth.
In 1758, the white landowners began passing legislation that set restrictions on the rights of other groups of people until a rigid caste system was defined. Most historians have classified the people of the era into three groups. One was the white colonists, or blancs. A second was the free blacks (usually mixed-race, known as mulattoes or gens de couleur libres, free people of color). These tended to be educated, literate and often served in the army or as administrators on plantations. Many were children of white planters and enslaved mothers. The males often received education or artisan training, sometimes received property from their fathers, and freedom. The third group, outnumbering the others by a ratio of ten to one, was made up of mostly African-born slaves. A high rate of mortality among them meant that planters continually had to import new slaves. This kept their culture more African and separate from other people on the island. Many plantations had large concentrations of slaves from a particular region of Africa, and it was therefore somewhat easier for these groups to maintain elements of their culture, religion, and language. This also separated new slaves from Africa from creoles (slaves born in the colony), who already had kin networks and often had more prestigious roles on plantations and more opportunities for emancipation.Most slaves spoke a patois of French and West African languages known as Creole, which was also used by native mulattoes and whites for communication with the workers.
White colonists and black slaves frequently had violent conflicts. Much of these conflicts surrounded the slaves who were able to escape the plantations. Many of these runaway slaves, called maroons, lived on the margins of large plantations and lived off what they could steal from their previous masters. Others ran away to towns, where they could blend in with urban slaves and the freed slaves who often concentrated in those areas. If caught, these runaway slaves would be severely and violently punished. However, some masters tolerated “petit marronages”, or short-term absences from plantations. Often, however, larger groups of runaway slaves lived in the woods away from control. They often conducted violent raids on the island’s sugar and coffee plantations. Although the numbers in these bands grew large (sometimes into the thousands), they generally lacked the leadership and strategy to accomplish large-scale objectives. The first effective maroon leader to emerge was the charismatic François Mackandal, who succeeded in unifying the black resistance. A Vodou priest, Mackandal inspired his people by drawing on African traditions and religions. He united the maroon bands and also established a network of secret organizations among plantation slaves, leading a rebellion from 1751 through 1757. Although Mackandal was captured by the French and burned at the stake in 1758, large armed maroon bands persisted in raids and harassment after his death.