Haiti: 200 Years of Black Independence

By Carruthers, Jacob H. | New African, January 2004 | Go to article overview

Haiti: 200 Years of Black Independence


Carruthers, Jacob H., New African


On New Year's Day, Haiti will celebrate 200 years of independence, the second black nation in the Western hemisphere to achieve independence (the first was Palmares established around 1595 in northern Brazil and finally destroyed in 1694). But Haiti's independence was the most important black revolt against the European colonial system. In this extract from his book, The Irritated Genie, Dr. Jacob H. Carruthers, the founding director of the Association fot the study of Classical African Civilisations, tells the amazing story of the Haitian Revolution.

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In brief, the Haitian Revolution was the armed offence of the black people of the French colony of Saint Dominique which resulted in the national independence of the blacks. It began in the summer of 1791 and ended in the autumn of 1803.

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What happened between those dates is perhaps the most under-emphasised war in modern Western history. A half million blacks, most of them slaves in 1791, revolted and defeated the armies of the two 18th century superpowers--Britain and France (as well as the Spaniards).

In fact, they destroyed the flower of Napoleon's elite corps, which sheds light on the Louisiana Purchase (in USA) during the course of that war. It may also explain what later happened to Napoleon in Russia and Waterloo.

The Haitian Revolution began on 22 August 1791 when thousands of slaves crudely armed with stolen weapons, various tools and torches, overran and destroyed most of the plantations and besieged the towns of northern Saint Dominique, the most prosperous European colony in the world at the time.

Actually, this well-planned offensive was the culmination of nearly three centuries of periodic black rebellions against the European settlers who imported African slaves to supply their labour needs.

When blacks were first imported into the island, the native population was in the process of being exterminated under the leadership of the relatives of Columbus who first invaded the island in 1492. In fact, the first recorded black rebellion occurred on a plantation owned by Columbus's son in 1522.

The blacks who were unable at that time to destroy the European settlements retired to the mountains, made alliances with the remaining natives and settled into Free African Communities which existed through the years of the Haiti Revolution.

These free blacks, called "Maroons" by the Europeans, were in constant struggle against the European settlers. The struggles intensified when in the late 17th century the French took the western part of the island from the Spaniards who had colonised it first under the name Hispanola and later San Domingo.

The French called their colony Saint Domingue. But Haiti or the High Place was the native name which was restored by Jean Jacques Dessalines after the revolution of 1803.

San Domingo, as the whole island was called by the Spaniard invaders, was viewed by early European travellers, including Columbus, as paradise on earth. The island, before the conquest, was verdant and generally considered an ideal place to live. It is thus ironic that such human misery and bloodshed occurred there.

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The island is 450 miles long from east to west, and 150 miles wide at its point of greatest width. The western part, which resembles the front of a crab with encircling claws, is separated from the eastern two-thirds by a rather rigid mountain chain which facilitated the fixing of a boundary between the French and Spanish colonies, and later between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

European settlements tended to hover around the coast where the natural harbours were located. The plantations were hinterland extensions of these fort cities. Thus, much of the country under Spanish as well as French rule was "wilderness".

In these vast and foreboding "wildernesses", existed--almost from the beginning of the European invasion--independent African communities. …

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