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22 August 2008

On this day in history: Haitian Revolution, 1791

At the time of the Storming of the Bastille in Paris, the French territories on the island of Hispaniola, known as Saint-Domingue, produced forty per cent of the world's sugar utilising slave labour. As well as slaves, there were many free men of mixed European and African descent in Saint-Domingue, collectively known as the gens de coleur, who called for an end to the rigidly stratified society and for equal rights in the years before the French Revolution. Following the events of 1789, particularly the Declaration of the Rights of Man, these calls became louder.

Julian Raimond, a rich indigo planter of mixed-race, travelled to France to make an appeal to the National Constituent Assembly for full civil equality. Meanwhile, a colleague of Raimond's, Vincent Ogé, returned to Saint-Domingue, to demand the right to vote. Ogé responded to to the Colonial Governer refusal by leading a revolt against the colonial authorities.

The revolt failed and Ogé along with other insurgents were publicly tortured and executed in February 1791. A few month's later, the Assembly passed legislation granting the right to vote to non-whites in the colonies. Yet, the colonial authorities on Saint-Domingue continued to resist, alienating the gens de coleur.

On 22nd August 1791, thousands of slaves in Plaine du Nord at the north of the colony rose in revolt. While the efforts of Raimond and Ogé were not directed at liberating slaves - in fact, Raimond himself owned slaves - the leaders of the slave revolt cited the treatment of Ogé as a key factor in their decision to revolt. Within two weeks the slaves took control of the northern province. As the revolt spread across the island, the slaves killed thousands of Europeans and burnt their plantations.

It took the invasion of British troops and the promise of the end of slavery to end the revolt. The former slave and leader of the revolt, Toussaint Louverture, defected to the side of the French Republic bringing many of the slaves with him. After defeating the English and local rivals, he ended the revolt and restored the colony to titular French control. Nevertheless, Toussaint effectively ruled the former colony as an independent state, paving the way for the full independence of Haiti in 1804.

See the excellent Louverture Project wiki for more information.