Black History Month

The Slave Army of Toussaint L'Ouverture

Making of a revolution: Haiti, 1791

Revolutionary Worker #996, February 28, 1999

Haiti was the richest colony in the world in the 1700s. Then called San Domingo, it was the pride of the French empire--coveted by rivals like Britain and Spain. Over two thousand plantations on the western part of the lush island produced sugar, indigo, cotton, cocoa and tobacco. The source of this wealth was the brutal exploitation of half a million captive African people.

But then, in August 1791, the slaves of San Domingo rose up with bare hands and farm implements. They overthrew their oppressors. In 12 years of armed struggle, under the leadership of their great general Toussaint L'Ouverture, they defeated all the armed forces their local slaveowners could rally, then a Spanish invasion, a British expedition of 60,000 men, and finally a massive French expedition sent by Napoleon Bonaparte. And having defeated all the great colonial powers of their times, they created an independent state of self-emancipated slaves. With the daring of nothing to lose, they made themselves masters of society. This is the story of how Haiti's slaves started their great revolutionary war.

A Hell on Earth

"The slaves received the whip with more certainty and regularity than they received their food."

C.L.R. James, author of Black Jacobins,
a history of Haiti's slave revolution

San Domingo was a chain of gruesome prison camps where half a million captive Africans slaved under tropical sun and the eyes of armed guards. The slaves were literally treated like animals--forced to live in long houses that were little more than stalls. They were so overworked that they commonly chewed their starvation rations raw, before falling into an exhausted sleep.

At the other extreme of this hateful society were the elite sons of France's bankrupt aristocracy--exported by their fathers to rebuild family fortunes. They formed a population of only about 20,000 planters and hangers-on. Unwilling to shave or dress themselves without slaves, they usually left the administration of the plantations to others--and lived parasitic lives of extreme decadence and inactivity.

For slave women, rape was a constant part of their lives. Over decades the children of this brutality gave rise to a thin stratum of Mulattos--roughly equal in number to the whites. Some Mulattos themselves became slaveowners--but they were viciously suppressed by the ruling whites. Meanwhile, by 1751, at least 3,000 runaway slaves lived in fierce armed farming communities of "maroons" deep in Haiti's backcountry.

This society was deeply marked by the constant violence of enforced slavery. The people were whipped for the smallest infractions. Those caught eating sugar cane were forced to wear tin masks in the heat of the fields. Women slaves suspected of aborting pregnancies were half strangled by tight metal collars until they finally gave birth. It was common to chop off limbs, ears or genitals. One observer described sitting at a dinner table and hearing the lady of the house casually order that the cook be thrown into the oven--death for an unsatisfactory meal.

Planters calculated that it was often cheaper to buy a new slave off the boat than raise a young slave from birth. They deliberately worked the slaves to death and then joked, "The Ivory Coast is a good mother." In 1789, still more than two-thirds of the slaves had been born free in Africa--and, despite the efforts of their masters, they were far from broken.

Revolution in the Mother Country

"Materialist dialectics holds that external causes are the condition of change and internal causes are the basis of change and that external causes become operative through internal causes."

Mao Tsetung

On July 14, 1789--far from Haiti's plantations--the masses of Paris stormed the Bastille prison. The French revolution had started--and it would lead to the overthrow of feudalism. This revolution was embraced by the slaveowning class of Haiti. The old government of France had loaded Haiti with taxes and restrictions--infuriating the French planters on the island. Like their Anglo-American counterparts George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, many Haitian planters dreamed of independence. Haiti's Mulatto slaveowners dreamed of equality with the whites. The talk of liberty and equality made them want a closer union with the French mother country and its revolution.

None of these forces--not the white or Mulatto slaveowners of Haiti, not the bourgeois revolutionaries of France--seriously thought that "the rights of man" meant an end to slavery. The slave trade was a backbone of the French merchant capitalist class. The French revolution upheld the right to property--and African slaves were considered property. In the colony of Haiti, intense and complex fighting broke out --between royalists and "patriots," between whites and Mulattos. It raged for two years, while the slaves watched closely.

When the Night Skies Turn Bright With Flame

"Eh! Eh! Bomba! Heu! Heu!
Cango, bafio té!
Canga, mouné de lé!
Canga, do ki la! Canga li!

[translation: We swear to destroy the whites and all they possess; let us die rather than fail to keep this vow.]

Song of Haiti's slave quarters

"To put it bluntly, it is necessary to create terror for a while in every rural area, or otherwise it would be impossible to suppress the activities of the counter- revolutionaries in the countryside or overthrow the authority of the gentry. Proper limits have to be exceeded in order to right a wrong, or else the wrong cannot be righted."

Mao Tsetung's report on
a violent peasant uprising
in China, 1927

The heart of Haiti's slave country was the northern plain--about 50 miles long and 15 miles from the sea to the mountains. The main harbor, Le Cap, was just a village of docks, warehouses and slave pens. But the plantations were large, and within easy sight of each other.

In 1791, a vast conspiracy bound the slaves together--spreading wherever the slaves gathered for their Voodoo ceremonies. The central organizer was the high priest Boukman. The plan was breathtakingly simple: On a central signal, slaves outside Le Cap would set their plantations on fire. Fire in the skies would signal slaves everywhere to kill their masters and join the revolt. The uprising would continue until all the whites were dead, and the island was in the hands of the slaves.

August 22, slave leaders met in the thick forests of Morne Rouge overlooking Le Cap and launched the uprising. On plantation after plantation, the slaves rose up, killed their masters and burned everything to the ground. Their weapons were whatever they could find or seize--farming tools, sharpened sticks, a few swords, pistols and fire. The rebels formed in large crowds and simply swarmed over any opponents--dying in large numbers as they swept their enemies away.

The slaves destroyed everything that fell into their hands--like prisoners burning their cell blocks. They hated the plantations and wanted to leave no trace of these hellholes or their masters. For three weeks it was difficult to tell day from night. The skies were a continual wall of flame and black smoke, white ashes fell like snow, burning embers forced ships far out to sea.

The slaves had gotten nothing but the most extreme brutality, rape, killing, and torture from the French--and they answered with a harsh justice. In the beginning they killed all whites--with very few exceptions, like respected doctors.

After a few weeks, the movement paused. There had never been a strong central organization--and Boukman himself died in battle. The slaves formed scattered groupings, and started to clash with each other. And there, this rebellion might have peaked--like so many other slave revolts in history.

The slaveowners were regrouping their forces. Boukman's head was displayed in Le Cap, and dozens of captive rebels were publicly tortured to death in the town's main square every day. Sections of the ruling class offered the Mulatto population eventual equality with whites, if they would help suppress the slaves. A formidable counterrevolutionary force took shape for the bloody work of retaking the plantation lands. The arrogant slavemasters saw their own victory as inevitable.

A Black Spartacus

In fact, this revolt was not crushed. There were many positive factors in play: The colonial mother country itself was gripped by revolution. This slave society was isolated on an island where the slaves formed an overwhelming majority. The local ruling class there was deeply divided and incapable of agreeing on Mulatto equality. And, perhaps most decisive of all, a disciplined leadership emerged among the slaves with a plan and a vision for actually carrying through the revolution.

Toussaint L'Ouverture was born in slavery, the son of a captured African. He caught a glimpse of the outside world working as a coachman. He got the job (rare for a slave) of overseeing the plantation's livestock. A man of great self-discipline, Toussaint trained himself relentlessly--both physically and mentally. He spoke only Creole, but taught himself to read French and Latin--and studied Caesar's military writings and illegal revolutionary writings from France. When the slave revolt broke out, Toussaint was already 45--old for a slave in Haiti. He simply took over the plantation--and waited to see what would happen. After several weeks, he decided that there was a chance of something really lasting. He sent his own family into safety across the border in the Spanish colony, and rode into the surrounding rebel camps. Step by step, he set out to build a disciplined fighting force.

Toussaint arrived at the most dangerous moment of all. The rebel camps faced starvation. Their leaders had no plan for facing (or defeating) the regular troops. By November, the counterrevolutionary soldiers had started driving the rebel slaves off the plain, into the mountains. Key slave commanders lost heart, and secretly offered to surrender their forces to the slavemasters--asking amnesty for themselves. The slaveowners rudely rejected this--they were determined to punish the slaves with cold steel. Toussaint watched these negotiations closely and, from that moment on, understood that only the armed defeat of the slave system and its ruling class would liberate the slave. Throughout a life filled with flexible alliances and complex choices, he maintained a bulldog grip on that key contradiction of his time.

Toussaint set about forming a disciplined core and deliberately started small. He recruited a few hundred men and launched offensive actions against the advancing counterrevolutionary troops.

Early in 1793, the French commander suddenly received orders to return his troops to France to defend the revolution there against invading monarchists. The slave forces advanced back onto the North Plain--and among them was the new-born unit led by Toussaint. A new governor arrived from France, triggering new infighting among the whites. In that confusion, 10,000 slaves swept down from the hills into Le Cap, driving the French soldiers and planters into the sea. It was the end of centralized French domination on the island. Haiti was now a chaotic checkerboard of warring factions--flying many different flags.

From Rebellion to Revolution

Toussaint developed a distinctive military and political policy.

First, his units did not rush at regular troops like a mob. They lay in wait in dense woods and ambushed small groups by rushing in from the sides and overwhelmingly them quickly in hand-to-hand combat. Their method required a disciplined system of command. It enabled the fighters to win victories, arm themselves--and then attract new fighters from the surrounding rebel bands.

Second, Toussaint announced the startling slogan "No reprisals." He killed those who opposed the slaves with arms, but insisted on mercy for any who gave up the fight. Toussaint's slave army could win victories without suffering casualties--as cornered opponents became willing to surrender.

Toussaint linked his command closely with the rank-and-file fighters--he lived among them and repeatedly led them in key charges. He was wounded 17 times during the years of constant warfare.

Toussaint fought passivity among his commanders--urging them onto the offensive, and sharply criticizing them when they settled in or allowed the enemy peace. There was no hint of liberalism about him--he was stern, calculated, self-contained, sharp-tongued, and deeply trusted by his fighters.

Toussaint initiated a series of alliances with forces capable of providing him arms--starting with the Spanish colonialists. He insisted that such allies acknowledge the freedom of Haiti's slaves. But he understood that all outside forces--the Spanish, French or English ruling classes--were scheming to seize the wealth of Haiti. They all expected, sooner or later, to force Haiti's slaves back under the whip. At every point, Toussaint insisted on the independent command of his troops.

With Spanish support--his troops moved from fort to fort on Haiti's north shore. As the French and planter resistance crumbled, the British invaded--landing with an army of 7,000 in 1794 on the Central Coast of Haiti, and taking Port au Prince with the backing of the white Haitian planters.

By then the revolution in Paris was in its most radical days, and the new rulers hoped to keep Haiti by supporting the abolition of slavery (which had already been accomplished). They could provide no arms or aid, but Toussaint announced a new alliance with France--not the monarchist France of the old order, but the new Republic of the guillotine. With his small disciplined core in the lead, he drove the Spanish forces from the North and isolated those slave commanders who remained allied with them. He then turned south to face the British. Officially Toussaint was still a minor officer in the armies of others--but in reality, he headed an army of 4,000 slave fighters--the most disciplined force in the field. His army had a reputation for victory, flexibility and unwavering dedication to slave emancipation.

The Struggle for Production and A New Mode of Production

"Grasp revolution, promote production."

Mao Tsetung, during the
Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution

The revolution started with the utter destruction of plantations. Yet, the revolution itself would collapse from famine unless some way was found for leading the free slaves back into the fields. Wherever his army held power, the slave soldiers enforced a new mode of production. Forced labor and whipping were strictly forbidden and punished. Nighttime work was abolished. The plantation lands were not broken up, but wages were paid for all labor--usually in the form of food, lodging and a quarter of the production.

While the revolution waged its armed struggle with the organized troops of counterrevolution--it also fought an internal struggle, in the liberated areas, against the restoration of slavery. Sometimes the new order started to look like the old order. Former slaveowners or new leaders sometimes treated the people as slaves. There were cases of whippings imposed by commanders within the slave army. And there were repeated work stoppages in the liberated areas--as former slaves protested the work discipline or demanded the promised wages.

The minority of former slavemasters who survived and stayed were protected--but strictly forbidden to act as the owners of human beings. They were needed--since the slaves had very little experience with the organization of production or trade.

Revolution had radically changed life for the freed slaves. Meanwhile all those willing to accept the abolition of slavery were offered a place in the new society.

Toussaint maintained a network of horses and shelters so he could ride rapidly back and forth across the countryside, throughout those war years--investigating incidents, campaigning for production, learning from the masses, enforcing the revolutionary changes, and uncovering cases where disturbances were instigated by British agents. His statements became folk sayings that guided the freed slaves. "Toussaint says that unless we slaves plant, slavery will return." And he backed it all up with the armed force of the slave army. At large gatherings he would hold a rifle high and proclaim, "Here is your liberty!"

Unthinkable Victories
Shake the World

"We have known how to face dangers to obtain our liberty, we shall know how to brave death to maintain it."

Toussaint L'Ouverture, to the
Directory ruling France, 1797

The British invaders expected to defeat a demoralized French force, but found themselves facing an army of freedom fighters. Toussaint's force fought with a conquering spirit that soared among the clouds and rainbows. When they ran out of food, they fought hungry. When they ran out of ammunition they fought with stones. When the British troops spread splintered glass on the battlefield, Toussaint's fighters advanced on bloody, lacerated feet. In January 1798, the slaves beat the British in seven battles over seven days and forced them from the island.

In 1800, his army defeated the Spanish army on the eastern half of the island. By then, Toussaint commanded an army of 55,000 veteran fighters. (George Washington never commanded more than 20,000.) In 1801, Haiti declared independence--a republic of self-emancipated slaves.

In France, Napoleon Bonaparte seized power, reversed many revolutionary verdicts and tried to build a French empire through war. He restored slavery in colonies under his command. Fresh from military victories in Italy, he sent huge armies to retake Haiti under his brother-in-law General Leclerc.

Toussaint boarded a French ship to negotiate and was treacherously taken captive. Toussaint L'Ouverture, one of history's greatest revolutionary leaders, died far from Haiti in a cold cell high in the French Alps. The revolution continued under his lieutenants, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe. They delivered the first military defeat to Napoleon in 1804 and forced the French to accept Haitian independence.

One by one, armies of oppressors had stepped forward, hoping to re-enslave Haiti's people. The slave army, forged by former coachman Toussaint L'Ouverture, defeated them one by one.

This Haitian revolution was an earthquake that triggered aftershocks throughout the slave colonies of the Americas. The slaveowners of the U.S. tried to suppress news from Haiti--and of course it did not work. The Haitians inspired the conspiracy of Denmark Vesey in 1822, the slave revolt of Nat Turner in 1831 and the militant abolitionists like John Brown. In the victory of Haiti--in the brilliance of its revolution and the endurance of its independence--slaves everywhere took heart, and the oppressors saw a foreshadowing of their defeat.