This Day In History: News that Haiti Declared Independence Begins to Spread (1804)

This day in history news reaches the outside world of the Haitian declaration of Independence.  This declaration was a result of history’s most successful slave revolt.

On New Years Day, 1804 Haiti declared its independence from France. Haiti had originally been named St Domingo but the rebels renamed it Haiti. This was the original name given by the original Arawak inhabitants to the island. Haiti’s population was mainly descended from Africa slaves who have been brought to the island by the French. The island became very rich thanks to the vast plantations on the island and was arguably the most economically important colony in the French Empire.  The French treated the slaves terribly. In 1789 there was a Revolution in France and this weakened Paris’ control of the island. The French Revolution also inspired many slaves to revolt and to see their freedom. One of these was Toussaint-L’ouverture, one of the most remarkable men of his time. He was a self-educated man and a born leader. He led a band of guerrillas that attacked the French slave owners and freed many slaves who usually joined Toussaint- L’ouverture. He was ably assisted by Dessalines and Henri Christophe. In 1795 they former slaves had entered into an agreement with the French. In return for peace, Napoleon declared an end to slavery on the island and elsewhere in the French Caribbean.  Toussaint became governor-general of the colony, but in fact ruled the island independently of Paris. He was a military leader of genius and in 1801 conquered the Spanish portion of island ( the Dominican Republic today) and he freed the slaves there. Toussaint-L’ouverture became the rule of present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte

This was unacceptable to the colonial powers. Napoleon ordered Haiti to be invaded and after several months of often savage battles, a ceasefire was agreed between both sides. Toussaint retired to his plantation but was treacherously seized by the French and sent to France. Here he was imprisoned and tortured and later died in captivity.  Napoleon after the arrest of Touissant re-introduced slavery and broke his earlier agreement with the Haitians.  Dessalines led a new revolt against Napoleon and his attempt to reintroduce slavery.  The rebels were greatly helped by an outbreak of Yellow Fever in the French army. The Haitians fought ferociously as they were determined to remain free. With the help of the British, the Haitians defeated the French and forced them to surrender in 1803. Two months later Dessalines declared Haiti an independent state. Two years later Dessalines proclaimed himself Emperor of Haiti but he was killed soon after in a revolt against his increasing brutal government.  The example of the Haitians was to inspire many African and Caribbean national movements. Haiti has suffered years of misrule and from natural disasters in the over two centuries of Independence.

Haitian Revolt 1
Freed slaves attacking French planters at the Haitian Port of St Charles (1791)
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