What’s the first name that comes to mind when you think of the abolition of the slave trade? Is it Wilberforce? Lincoln? Maybe Frederick Douglass or Sojourner Truth? It’s probably not Toussaint L’Ouverture. In the UK, many haven’t heard of him.
Perhaps it’s a natural consequence of living here that we see more UK-centric depictions of history. Furthermore, it could be our shared language or Hollywood on our screens that means more of us have heard of American abolitionists than their predecessors from French-speaking countries. Maybe L’Ouverture is better known in France. He’s certainly better known in Haiti, formerly known as Saint Domingue.
This year the 23 August marks the International Day for Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. It was first recognised by the UN and celebrated in many countries – including Haiti – in 1998 and it aims to “honour the memory of the men and women who, in Saint-Domingue in 1791, revolted and paved the way for the end of slavery and dehumanization.”
With the death of George Floyd having sparked worldwide protest and the Black Lives Matter movement bringing modern issues of systemic racism to the forefront of our minds, it is a particularly important moment to acknowledge and remember the systems of dehumanisation and enslavement of millions for over 250 years in the Atlantic slave trade.
The death rate among slaves from disease and dire working conditions was so high that, unlike most colonies, it could not sustain its own population levels
In 1791, Saint-Domingue produced 30% of the world’s sugar and over half the world’s coffee. It was the most profitable ‘possession’ of the French Colonial Empire, wealthiest of all the Caribbean colonies and known as the Pearl of the Antilles.
The production of sugar and coffee in the colony was powered by almost half a million Black slaves.
The plantations on Saint-Domingue were considered among the most brutal in the world. Yellow fever was rife, and the death rate among slaves from disease and dire working conditions was so high that, unlike most colonies, it could not sustain its own population levels. At any point in time, most slaves on the island had been born in Africa, enslaved and transported there to work.
On the night of the 22 August 1791 a slave-led rebellion broke out in the northern part of Saint-Domingue. Initially, it was poorly organised, but over time leaders such as Toussaint L’Ouverture began to emerge. He had been freed from slavery some years earlier and rose to prominence during the first two years of the rebellion, due to his extraordinary military and tactical ability. These skills proved vital for the rebels in fighting off the violent colonial backlash.
The rebellion survived and controlled significant portions of Saint-Domingue when, in August 1793, French political agents moved to abolish slavery in the colony.
Rather than accepting the humanity of the slaves and their inalienable right to freedom, they were likely more concerned with avoiding an all-out military catastrophe and the prevention of the colony falling into British or Spanish hands.
Nevertheless, they sent envoys back to France to seek the endorsement of their decision from the post-French Revolution National Convention.
From slaves to citizens
Among the envoys were two Black freedmen, Jean-Baptiste Belley and Jean-Baptise Mills, who petitioned the convention, speaking in their debates alongside the colonist Louis Duffay.
In 1794, as a result of those debates, the convention decreed that: “Slavery of the blacks is abolished in all the colonies; consequently, it decrees that all men living in the colonies, without distinction of colour, are French citizens and enjoy all the rights guaranteed by the constitution.”
This decree came 40 years before the abolition of slavery in the UK and over 70 years before the US.
It was not, by any means, the final word on slavery in Saint-Domingue or the French Empire, but the decree marked the first step in a century long, worldwide struggle towards abolition.
History is rarely simple and even more rarely pleasant. The Haitian Revolution is no exception. It was a period of brutal violence and rampant disease that resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of freed and still enslaved Haitians, as well as tens of thousands of European troops and colonials.
After becoming governor in 1795, L’Ouverture put the former slaves back to work under military discipline to bring about order and build the economy of Saint-Domingue. But they lived as free people. They were no longer whipped and even shared in some of the profits from the plantations they worked on.
L’Ouverture navigated the intricacies of European colonial wars for almost a decade as a leader, but was betrayed by the French and died in prison shortly before the independent country of Haiti was formed on 1 January 1804. But from independence, hope spread.
Haiti remains the only nation to have been born out of a successful slave rebellion
In the UK, against great resistance, abolitionists struggled to dismantle the slave economy. First, An Act for the Abolition of the Slave in 1807 made it illegal to carry slaves in British ships, although owning slaves remained lawful.
As the movement grew, Mary Prince became the first Black woman to write and publish her autobiography, in England in 1831. She brought to the page the brutal lives of slaves working in Bermuda and Antigua. Causing huge controversy, it provided a spark for the anti-slavery movement to push through the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, marking another important, albeit imperfect, step in the struggle.
Slave owners were paid huge sums of compensation to give up their ‘property’ and a system of ‘apprenticeship’ was instituted where former slaves were forced to work for their former masters for four to six years before being granted full emancipation.
It is estimated that the transatlantic slave trade shipped 12.5 million Africans to the Americas as slaves between 1525 and 1866. After Haiti’s example, the struggle for abolition lasted many decades and contained many compromises in its slow progress.
But as abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass put it: “Without a struggle, there can be no progress”.
Haiti remains the only nation to have been born out of a successful slave rebellion.