Égalité for All: Touissant L’ouverature and the Haitian Revolution is a PBS documentary about the Haitian Revolution.
The Haitian Revolution was the only successful slave insurrection in history. It led to the destruction of the French colony of Saint-Domingue, the extermination of the White population, and the creation of Haiti as the world’s first black republic.
No event in black history is more important than the Haitian Revolution. It was the first attempt to build an independent black society on the basis of the liberal principles of the French Revolution: liberté, égalité, and fraternité.
Saint-Domingue was the richest and most valuable colony in the world. As the world’s largest producer of sugar and coffee, it was more important to France than all the American colonies combined were to Britain.
After two centuries of black supremacy and independence, Haiti has been transformed into the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Nowhere was the collapse of European civilization into African barbarism more spectacular than it was under Toussaint L’ouverature and his successors.
The Haitian Revolution went far beyond the abolition of slavery in the United States. The sugar plantations of Saint-Domingue’s fertile northern plain were torched in vast bonfires that turned night into day for miles offshore, masters were slaughtered in their beds by their slaves, and the major cities of Le Cap and Port-au-Prince were burned to the ground in the fighting.
Unlike Dixie, the Whites of Saint-Domingue were exterminated or driven into exile, and Whites were banned from owning property and settling in the country. Blacks seized and retained power in Haiti. There was also a gradual redistribution of property to the former slaves which allowed them to realize the ideal of rural autonomy and self-sufficiency that was denied to African-Americans.
“Égalité for All” tells the story of the arrival of the French Revolution in Saint-Domingue. It takes us back to the very beginning of “the Left” and the Jacobin ideological disease that swept across Europe and rotted the foundation of Western civilization.
Saint-Domingue was a slave society (one of many in the New World) that was created before the Enlightenment. The creole society that had evolved there was blissfully ignorant of philosophical notions like “sacred humanity” and “natural rights” and “democracy” that would catch fire in the French Revolution.
The French West Indies was constructed on the basis of radically different principles which are “rightwing” only in hindsight: the total rejection of humanism and democracy, the violent conquest of indigenous tribes, the systematic violation of “liberty and equality,” the creation of a racial caste system, the exploitation of the labor of the African majority for the benefit of the European minority.
It is hard to imagine a place more offensive to Enlightenment values than Saint-Domingue. This was a society that had been created on the basis of nothing more than the self interest and enrichment of France. It wasn’t founded as a religious utopia like Massachusetts or as a proposition nation like the United States. The creoles of Saint-Domingue never felt the need to justify white supremacy or to prove they had a right to own slaves or to conform to any ideological grid.
The ideology of the French Revolution landed like a stick of dynamite in Saint-Domingue. In 1791, the 30,000 gens de couleur began to demand equal citizenship from the National Assembly which was reserved to the 40,000 grands blancs and petits blancs. The creoles were enraged when the National Assembly granted equality to a minority of the mulattoes and the governor refused to implement the decree.
After the creoles repressed a rebellion by the mulattoes, a voodoo priest named Boukman organized and launched the slave insurrection that would become the Haitian Revolution in the northern plain. A black pig was sacrificed to “the god of the blacks” in a voodoo ceremony. The slaves drunk its blood in a communion ritual and rejected “the god of the Whites.”
Toussaint L’ouverture was a gens de couleur and a slaveowner himself when the Haitian Revolution erupted in August 1791. He was the owner of two or three plantations. The slave insurrection became a war of extermination in the northern plain outside Le Cap between the creoles and the slaves.
After a few months of fighting, France sent reinforcements to Saint-Domingue and L’ouverture attempted to negotiate a surrender of the insurgents in exchange for the freedom of the rebel leadership. The creoles rejected the offer and L’ouverture resumed the insurrection in the mountains.
“Égalité for All” rehearses the story of how the French Revolution escalated into the execution of Louis XVI by guillotine, the Reign of Terror, and the arrival of the Jacobin commissioner Félicité Sonthonax in Saint-Domingue who formed an alliance with the mulattoes.
Revolutionary France was soon engulfed in war with Britain, Spain, Austria and other European powers. In this context, the creoles attempted to rid themselves of the despised Jacobin Sonthonax and the British were invited to invade Saint-Domingue. The Spanish were also supporting L’ouverture and the slave rebellion in the mountains.
Sonthonax abolished slavery in Saint-Domingue on his own authority to preserve French control of the colony. In 1794, the black commissioners sent to France persuaded the National Assembly to abolish slavery throughout the French Empire. Over a million black slaves were transformed into citizens of the French Republic.
For the next three years, L’ouverture ruled Saint-Domingue and attempted to revive the plantation economy by requiring the “cultivators” to submit to forced labor on the plantations. In 1797, “Papa Sonthonax” was placed under armed escort and was put on a ship and sent back to France.
In 1799, Napoleon seized power in a coup d’état in France and established the Consulate. The brief resumption of peace with Britain in 1802 allowed Napoleon to dispatch the Leclerc expedition to Saint-Domingue to restore slavery.
Touissant L’ouverature was beaten by Leclerc, surrendered to the French with his top generals Christophe and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and became a political prisoner in France where he died in 1803. The resumption of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe in 1803 cut off reinforcements to Saint-Domingue. Decimated by yellow fever and malaria, the surviving French troops abandoned the colony in December 1803 and were captured by the British on their way back to France.
Jean-Jacques Dessalines proclaimed the independence of Haiti in 1804. The French population of Saint-Domingue was exterminated on his orders. The Napoleonic Wars would continue in Europe until Napoleon was forced into exile a second time in 1815.
In the final analysis, it was the ideological division caused by the French Revolution and the fratricide of the Napoleonic Wars that allowed the blacks to triumph in Saint-Domingue. Disease and geography were not insurmountable obstacles. Neither was the military genius of the “Black Spartacus” who was beaten twice by French military expeditions and died a prisoner in France.
OD celebrates Black History Month 2012 by remembered the Haitian Revolution which destroyed the richest colony in the world and whose black inhabitants have been reduced to eating dirt sandwiches after two centuries of freedom and equality.