Slave Revolt: the Creation of Haiti

The image depicts the slaves revolting against the oppressive French settlers in the colony of Saint-Domingue | Image by Priority World History

The success of the American and the French Revolutions echoed through the people of the new and the old world. These events, powered by the Enlightenment ideas of popular sovereignty, individual freedom, and equality, proved that parting from powerful and oppressive rulers was possible.1 For the first time in recent history, the common man had united and fought for a republic based on the idea and practice of self-rule. This idea of fighting and revolting for independence traveled to slaves on the shores of a Caribbean island where the French had established the colony of Saint-Domingue in 1697.

Now known as Haiti, the land shaded in pink was once controlled by the French and was called Saint-Domingue | Image Courtesy of imgarcade

Saint-Domingue was perhaps one of the most profitable lands that France had in its possession since it produced and exported coffee, indigo, tobacco, cotton, and sugar. The original aboriginal population of the islands had all but disappeared by the time the French had come to the island, and to make use of the colony, the French began to import slaves from Africa to work the fields. It is estimated that by 1789, the colony had a total of 500,000 African slaves, 35,000 white French settlers, and 50,000 colored freedmen who were French citizens and who also owned slaves.2 Despite slaves being the majority of the colony’s population, they lived under a strict and abusive social structure where they worked strenuous jobs under the threat of the whip, and would often starve to death. If runaway slaves were caught, they were often tortured and mutilated in order to dissuade other slaves that there was no escape from the chains of slavery. The daily life for the slaves of Saint-Domingue was one of fear and ill treatment.

Created as the law to slavery, the Code Noir was promulgated by the Louis XIV in 1685 but was not enforced in the French colonies | Image courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library

French King Louis XIV established the “Code Noir” or Black Codes for the colony, which established rules for the treatment of slaves in all of its French American colonies. The code stated that slave owners were prohibited from sexually violating slaves or from torturing them, and they were required to provide food and clothes to the slaves. Nevertheless, slaves were regarded as property and could receive the death penalty if they did not comply with their masters.3

In 1788, fourteen slaves complained to the court that Nicolas Lejuene, a slave master’s son, would burn slaves alive, and although these acts were clearly violating the law, the courts and public opinion on the Island dismissed Lejuene and he was not prosecuted.4 This incident suggests that laws were not uniformly enforced in the colony, so masters had a free hand in their often atrocious treatments of their slaves. Many slaves ran away from their oppressive masters and hid in the mountains forming large communities of maroons. Their resentment to their French masters only escalated.5

Toussaint L’Ouverture led the revolution that freed Haiti from French colonial power | Image courtesy of Latin American Studies

With the ideas of political independence and social revolution circulating the world, slaves in the colony of Saint-Domingue were no longer willing to endure the treatment of their French masters. Tensions in the colony led to a violent uprising. The Haitian Revolution began in August 1791, when about 15,000 slaves destroyed and burned plantations and homes, and murdered white settlers in what was called the “Night of Fire.”6 This event encouraged the educated Catholic and former slave Toussaint L’Ouverture to join the cause. He helped train an army of 50,000 slaves in guerrilla warfare.7 The colony fell into chaos for years as the slaves revolted against French oppression in violent measures, and it was not long before the colony of Saint-Domingue was controlled by the slaves of the island.8

The painting demonstrates that the slaves executed French soldiers in order to gain their independence | Image by Latin American Studies

General L’Ouverture allied with the British in order to drive out the French settlers. But unwilling to let go of their colonial power, the French emancipated slaves in 1794; but they were still unable to secure and control the Haitian revolt. By 1803, L’Ouverture had proclaimed himself the governor of the colony, angering the powerful Napoleon Bonaparte who went after L’Ouverture, capturing and imprisoning him. This, however, did not weaken the resolve of the slaves to form an independent state. As Jean-Jacques Dessalines rose to power in the absence of Toussaint L’Ouverture, he ordered the gruesome execution of all Frenchmen in the colony. A year later, in 1804, Haiti was declared independent from French power.9

The slaves of Saint-Domingue were not expected to take on the example of the American colonies and the Enlightenment Era in order to fight for their independence. After the gory and terrible deaths of almost half the population in the colony–including French settlers, free black men and slaves–Haiti stood tall and free, shocking the world.10

  1. Jerry H. Bentley, Herbert F. Ziegler and Heather E. Streets-Salter, Traditions and Encounters: A Brief Global History Vol 2 (New York: MacGraw-Hill Education, 2016), 471.
  2. Encyclopedia of Emancipation and Abolition in the Transatlantic World, 2007, s.v. “Haitian Revolution,” by Eugenio Matibag and Junius Rodriguez.
  3. Philippe R. Girard, “Code Noir,” in Africa and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History, no.1 (2008): 1.
  4. Laurie M. Wood, “Across Oceans and Revolutions: Law and Slavery in French Saint-Domingue and Beyond,” Law & Social Inquiry 39, no. 3 (Summer 2014): 5.
  5. Jerry H. Bentley, Herbert F. Ziegler and Heather E. Streets-Salter, Traditions and Encounters: A Brief Global History Vol 2 (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2016), 478-479.
  6. The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed, 2007, s.v.  “L’Ouverture Toussaint (1742-1803),” by Deborah McNally.
  7. J. R. Beard, The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Negro Patriot of Hayti: Comprising an Account of the Struggle for Liberty in the Island, and a Sketch of Its History to the Present Period (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library, 2012), 54.
  8. Matt Clavin, “Race, Rebellion, and the Gothic: Inventing the Haitian Revolution,” Early American Studies, no. 1 (2007): 5.
  9. Matt Clavin, “Race, Rebellion, and the Gothic: Inventing the Haitian Revolution.” Early American Studies, no. 1 (2007): 2.
  10. Matt Clavin “Race, Rebellion, and the Gothic: Inventing the Haitian Revolution.” Early American Studies, no. 1 (2007): 5.
Slave Revolt: the Creation of Haiti
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  • Interesting article. It’s always sad to hear about the tragedies that were caused by European exploitation on small countries. The Europeans Colonist have a bad habit of invading lands and enslaving the people. I’m glad the Haitian people were able to conjure up the courage to rebel against their masters. Continue the good work, this is a great article!

  • This is extremely interesting as I love a good fight against the system story. However it is harrowing to think of all of the ‘slaves’ that were killed during this terrible time. I find it amazing how the Haitians were able to come together and defeat their owners and obliterate slavery in their country and make it what it is today. A well written article with extremely eye-catching images

  • I didn’t know much about Haiti’s independence. It’s actually an interesting article and about “Noir Code” which I didn’t know it existed. It actually disappointing how they treated slaves. I love how they made the revolt and prepared themselves and actually claim their independence. It’s inspirational how people need to rebel to gain what they deserved. Great article and nice organization in the storytelling.

  • This is a very informative article. I had previous knowledge of this event from world History however that doesn’t take away from how well structured the article is. The article did well to re-inform me of the reasons for the Hawaiian rebellion. How that even with a clear set of rules the french slave owners on the island wouldn’t treat the slaves fairly. The article also told of slave’s trying to speak out against this injustice however with little success. In closing this is just a all round well written article.

  • It is awful to think about how all over the world people are judged and tortured simply because of the color of their skin. I think it is also weird how there were freedmen living in the same place as people still living in slavery. Having no prior knowledge of this subject, I found this article very informative and interesting. It makes me wonder how the French really did not see this uprising coming and why they thought emancipating the slaves was going to make a difference.

  • Ana Gonzalez provides readers with an informative a factual article about the history of Haiti independence. The author manages to remain objective about the events without prejudicing Haiti and the French. She incorporates the testimony of Nicolas Lejeune to intentionally capture the reader’s attention and intensify the tone.

  • I loved reading this article especially because of my experience with Caribbean History. Before reading this article I knew quite an amount of information about the Haitian Revolution as well as the seperation of the island between Hispaniola and Sainte-Domingue, which is why there is still quite a bit of French influence in Haiti even up to this day. While this event is one of the more important events in World History, it just comes to show the cycle of how things work and the need for people to have independence. This article was very well organized and perfectly managed to capture the struggles of the people of Hispaniola and their desire to be free from the control of the French, as well as Toussaint L’Overture and Jean Jacques Desssalines’ roles in being victorious in the fight for Hatian Independence.Great Work!

  • It is sad to read about the difficulties Haiti’s population faced due to European exploitation. It is interesting to see that France enacted laws to help protect the slaves from abuses but also horrifying to see that they were never supported. It is amazing to see that amidst all that was going on, the population was able to rise up, face their “masters”, and defeat a strong European power. What a shock it must have been to the French to see that they lost an important colony in the Caribbean.

  • This was an incredible article Ana! This was truly a dark time in human history. It is truly tragic what these slaves were forced to endure. What’s even more incredible is how they were able to rise up and rebel, under the leadership of an extraordinary character like Louverture. While researching for my articel on Jean Lafitte, I discovered one of his rumored origins was him escaping from the Haiti slave revolt. Now i woud very much like to know what happened after and even before the revolt.

  • I see you were nominated for the “Best in World History” category, rightfully so I might add. I really enjoyed that you shed light on various aspects such as the black codes and slaves revolting to gain a more favorable stance. I generally enjoy history that sheds light on the oppressed people of color coming to their own, banding together, and attempting to alleviate their people.

  • Great article Ana! I found I very interesting that this slave revolt had stemmed from the French Revolution. It actually ironic that they would be inspired by the French revolution and revolt against the French. Since the slaves were the majority and they were being treated so awfully even when there were laws against mistreating them the revolution was inevitable.

  • Interesting article, I didn’t realize that the French had such a difficult time trying to get the revolt under control. Or that the French had tried to prevent this by imposing a code that protected the slaves from rape and torture from their masters, while it did ultimately fail and the revolt did take place. Most countries that used slaves didn’t bother imposing a code to somewhat protect slaves and France is the only one that I know of, but it still surprises me that the French would do something like that.

  • I read this article earlier in the semester and I didnt know it could get any better but you proved me wrong! Once again, I made it a point to notice your choice of images, because they’re so intriguing. I can totally understand why you chose this topic, and why this article was nominated for the “Best in World History” category. This is such an interesting topic to read about!

  • Your article was not exactly what it seems to be at the start. It starts off rather slow to then unravel a story of chaos and destruction. I like your topic! I had heard of French of settlers in many of the Caribbean islands and recently I had heard of Haiti being one of them. It is truly devastating how a population rich of culture and color can be dispersed at the power of white men. I think the revolt of the slaves was wise and heroic, calling for much strategy, tactic, anger, determination, and hunger for freedom. Great article!

  • Great article! I didn’t know that the slave problem was as big as it was. It is sad to think that even though there was a law in place, that salve owners still mistreated their slaves terribly. I can’t believe that they would even burn innocent lives to death. Overall, I really enjoyed the structure of your article and how it builds up to the end how the salves were able to end up being free.

  • Wow! I was scrolling along the nominees for the St. Mary’s University History Media and saw this article. I hadn’t known a lot about Haiti before, but I am glad that I picked to read this article! This is such an interesting topic! This story is one of revolution and cheering on the underdogs and you did such an amazing painting this violent, yet liberating story. The pictures you used only emphasize your writing. Great Job!

  • Great information in this article. I had learned some of Haiti’s role in the slave trade, but I did not realize that there were so many more slaves then French living there. I also did not know that the French had a Code Noir to protect the slaves, even if it was not strictly enforced. It is great that the slaves were able to rise up and take over the island, ending Haiti’s role in the slave trade. I have heard though that this is related, at least in a small part, to the poor economic status and living conditions that Haiti has today. That might be an interesting follow up to this story.

  • Very great article! Your writing style is very powerful. It of course disgusts me to know these people were treated so horribly. The fact that a law had to be passed that slave owners could not sexually abuse their slaves is terrifying in itself. It is sad that those slaves thought they could report their slave owner for burning the slaves, but they were ignored. Fortunately, they revolted and were able to be free, like they always should have been. Overall amazing article and congratulations on your nominations.

  • It was very fascinating to read how slaves managed to successfully revolt against the French. I wonder why this was the only successful slave revolt in history, as I am sure there has been many throughout the centuries. A few questions still remain; what happened to the ex-slaves after Haiti was liberated and what type of government did they form after separating from the French? In any case, this was a well researched and detailed article, superb job!

  • I really enjoyed reading this article! Often do I find myself reading articles that I had prior knowledge of, but your articles/article topics never cease to amaze me! Your choice of images were really interesting. The image that caught my eye the most(as well as the image caption) has to be the last one. “The painting demonstrates that the slaves executed French soldiers in order to gain their independence” What!? I was so flabbergasted at the fact that the roles were reversed. This was such an interesting topic to read about!

  • This was a fantastic article Ana! It was well written and interesting to read throughout. It’s crazy how the Code Noir was supposed to regulate the treatment of slaves and yet they could still be put to death for simple silly things. It’s a relief to learn that the slaves finally stood up to the masters and fought against them. Thank you for the great article Ana!

  • What an interesting article Ana. It was well written and had a great flow to it. I never knew how Haiti came about or its history. In the beginning the slaves were pushed around and treated unfair by the French. It is always nice to hear that the slaves come together and revolt against the French. This gave hope to all other slaves around the world that they too can revolt. Once again great article Ana.

  • Haiti was off on a rough start and throughout years has undergone tragedy after tragedy. But I am glad that the slaves were courageous enough to revolt against the French. Time and time again British interaction has done some nations good and Haiti was one of the fortunate, so I’m glad the British allied with the slaves. No lie they shocked the world! Who would have thought this possible. Interesting topic and good article!

  • This was an interesting article, very well written. I never knew about Haiti and what it has gone through. After reading this article about the slaves revolting against the French shows that it has been through a lot. Learning about the “Code Noir” it is ironic that they were made for slaves to be treated as property but if they did not follow orders they were given the death penalty. Overall, great article keep up the great work.

  • Such a great article that was very well written. Your article flowed nicely and I was even able to create a visual. I really like the pictures that you chose, they gave your story a deeper understanding. Reading about the slaves revolting against the French was very interesting. The “Code Nior” always interested me so reading more about them. Over all, very great read!

  • This topic covers a subject that I am very interested in, but never hear about. Revolutions are always interesting topics. I did not know that during the time of the Haitian Revolution France was in control of the island. I find it fascinating that, although Europeans never intended it, slaves were responded to the Enlightenment, proving they were not just property. This article seems very well researched. Great job!

  • Great topic ! I do not believe I knew much about Haiti or how it came to be a sovereign nation. It is a well written article. As I read the article I began to realize that perhapes many of us forget that our nation wasn’t the only one that imported slaves. It’s fascinating to see how events played out for the Haitian people. They fought for their freedom, against many odds.

  • I would like to say that it is quite ironic how the “Code Noir” was introduced for how the slaves were treated. But if they did not listen to their masters, they could receive the death penalty! So they are basically feared and forced into obeying their masters. However, the Haitian Revolution came about and the “Night of Fire” took place. This is really interesting because the slaves were able to stand up and take action. Interesting article!

  • I thought this was a very good topic. I enjoyed reading about the revolt of the slaves against the French, the article did a very good job of telling the story and the photos were an added bonus. It was interesting to learn about the “Code Noir” and the rules that were supposed to be enforced as a result of this. Of course, being from Scotland, I was happy to read that the British acted as allies with the slaves to drive out the French.

  • I wish you would have provided some background on how the aboriginal population just “disappeared.” Was this due to the French people killing them off? Seems plausible. Anyways, I found the “Code Noir” incredibly surprising. I did not know that there were any laws set in place that aimed to, in a small degree, protect slaves from being raped or tortured.

  • Yes! Yes! Yes! What an interesting and eye-catching article Ana! You never fail to enlighten me with cool topics that I would have never really learned about unless you were the one talking about it. You have such an amazing tone all throughout your essay, and the images you posted are incredible. My personal favorite is the last one, slaves executing French Soldiers, I promise I am not a killer but for some reason having the roles be reversed is super fascinating! Great job, I am proud of you friend!

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