The year is 1791. The United States is in its first years as the first republic in the western hemisphers. Europe is in disarray as the French Revolution burns across the face of France. The revolutionaries in France are getting ready to draft the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which will declare rights, liberty, and equality to the basis of all legitimate government and social systems. On the French island of Haiti, far from anybody's eyes, French planters, craftsmen, soldiers, and administrators are all closely watching the events unfold across the Atlantic. It's an uncertain time; the results of the revolution are up in the air and loyalties are deeply divided. While they watch the events in France, however, the planters are unaware that a revolution is brewing beneath their very feet. For the French plantations on Haiti offers some of the most cruel conditions that African-American slaves ever had to suffer. They differ from North American plantations in one key element: the coffee and sugar plantations require vast amounts of labor. As a result, the slave population outnumbers the French by terrifying amounts; the slaves, also, by their sheer numbers are allowed to retain much of their culture and to establish more or less independent social systems. But the French, even with the example of the American and French revolutions, are blissfully unaware of the fire they're sitting on.
On August 22, 1791, the Haitian war of independence began in flames under the leadership of a religious leader named Boukman; over one hundred thousand slaves rose up against the vastly outnumbered and infinitely hated French. Unlike the French Revolution and the American Revolution, the Haitian revolution was entirely driven by the passions of men and women who had been enslaved most if not all of their lives. They didn't simply desire liberty, they wanted vengeance. Over the next three weeks, the Haitian slaves burned every plantation throughout the fertile regions of Haiti and executed all Frenchmen they could find. The French fled to the seacoast towns and pleaded with France to help them out while the island burned.
The great hero of the Haitian Revolution and a man considered one of the great revolutionaries and generals in his own time throughout America and Europe, was François Dominique Toussaint L'Ouverture. This man, whom all his European contemporaries compared to George Washington and later to Napolean Bonaparte, was not even part of the original revolution. When the war of independence broke out in August, Toussaint was fifty years old. Having spent his life in slavery, he was entering old age as a carriage driver. Like so many other slaves, though, the revolution fired his passion and he discovered within himself a greatness that fired the imagination of both his contemporaries and distant Europeans.
He didn't participate in the burning of the plantations or the executions of the slaveowners, but he rose to his own when he realized that the revolution could not hold unless the slaves became militarily and politically organized to resist outside pressures. His first move when he joined the revolution was to train a small military group. He then realized that the Haitian slaves, who now occupied the eastern 2/3 of Haiti (what is now the Dominican Republic), were caught between three contending European forces, all of whom wanted Haiti for themselves. The French, of course, wanted Haiti back. The Spanish and English saw the revolution as an opportunity for seizing Haiti for themselves. Toussaint's great genius was to achieve what he wanted for the slaves by playing each of these powers off of each other, for they all realized that the slaves were the key to gaining Haiti. In the end, Toussaint allied his forces with the French, and Haiti remained part of France under the consulship of Toussaint.
Toussaint by all accounts was a brilliant and charismatic statesman and leader. Although Haiti was nominally under the contol of France, in reality the Haitian Consul ran the island as a military dictator. Despite the fiery vengeance that animated the beginning of the revolution, Toussaint managed to maintain a certain level of racial harmony&emdash;in fact, he was as well-loved by the French on Haiti as he was by the freed slaves. His reign, however, came to an end with the rise of Napolean Bonaparte in France. Aside from the fact that Bonaparte did not like sharing power, he was also a deep-seated racist who was full of contempt for blacks. Napolean sent General Victor Leclerc with over twenty thousand soldiers to unseat Toussaint, who then waged guerilla warfare against the French. Eventually he made peace with the French and retired from public life in 1802 on his own plantation. In 1803, the French tricked him into a meeting where he was arrested and sent to France. He died in prison in April of 1803.
With the death of Toussaint, the revolution was carried on by Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Unlike Toussaint, he was angry over his treatment as a slave and was determined not to allow its return. The war fought between Leclerc and Dessalines was, on both sides, one of the most horrifying struggles in history. Both resorted to atrocities. Leclerc was desperate, for his men were dying of yellow fever and the guerilla attacks took a surprising toll. So he decided to simply execute blacks whenever and wherever he found them. The slaughter that he perpetrated on non-combatants would not really be equalled until World War II; Leclerc's successor, Jean-Baptiste Rochambeau, simply continued this policy. Dessalines responded that every atrocity committed by the French would be revisited on the French. Such was how the war was waged. As the fighting wore on, Dessalines ordered the summary execution of all Europeans that opposed the new revolutionary government. During this time, Napolean's government did little to help the harried French troops.
Finally, on November 28, 1803, Rochambeau surrendered and Dessalines declared Haiti to be a republic. He took the French three-colored flag and removed the white from the flag to produce the bi-colored flag of Haiti, the second republic of the Western hemisphere.
The response in North America was immediate. The Haitian Revolution suddenly changed the equation that had been operating in the North. Believing themselves to be kind and paternal and the slaves to be child-like and grateful, white slaveowners suddenly became aware of the tinderbox that they were sitting on. Although slaveowners would publicly declare that slaves were, in fact, happy being slaves, in reality they knew otherwise. All throughout the southern United States, white slaveowners began to build "slave shelters" to hide in should the slaves revolt. Many of them regularly occupied these shelters whenever they feared a slave revolt. Guns became bedside companions and fear became the rule of the day.