Many people are aware of the phrase that opens the 1776 declaration of independence by the American colonists against British rule:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…
As is obvious, this declaration of ‘equality’ did not extend to black slaves who remained enslaved until 1865.
Fewer are probably familiar with the history of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola and its French controlled colony of St Domingue (now Haiti). In particular, what is less well known is how, after the arrival of deputies from St Domingue, in 1794 the French state abolished slavery in all its colonies in the following decree:
Decree of the National Convention, 16 Pluviose year II of the French Republic, 1794:
The National Convention declares the abolition of Negro Slavery in all colonies; in consequence it decrees that all men, without distinction of colour, dwelling in the colonies, are French citizens, and will enjoy all the rights guaranteed by the constitution.
The decree lasted eight years until Napoleon Bonaparte took control of France.
And fewer still are likely to know of the Haitian constitution framed in 1805 by revolutionary leader and former slave Jacques Dessalines. Amongst other articles Dessalines disallowed any non-resident white person from owning property in Haiti but at the same time enabled Polish and German soldiers who had fought in the colonial wars to naturalize as citizens. In perhaps the most striking provision, he decided that all Haitians regardless of skin colour would henceforth be called ‘blacks’ (preempting the sociological debate on ‘normative whiteness’ by two centuries).
1805 Constitution of Haiti, promulgated by Emperor Jacques Dessalines:
Article. 1. The people inhabiting the island formerly called St. Domingo, hereby agree to form themselves into a free state sovereign and independent of any other power in the universe, under the name of empire of Hayti.
2. Slavery is forever abolished.
3. The Citizens of Hayti are brothers at home...
7. The quality of citizen of Hayti is lost by emigration and naturalization in foreign countries...
12. No whiteman of whatever nation he may be, shall put his foot on this territory with the title of master or proprietor, neither shall he in future acquire any property therein.
13. The preceding article cannot in the smallest degree affect white woman who have been naturalized Haytians... The Germans and Polanders naturalized by government are also comprised in the dispositions of the present article.
14. All exception of colour... being necessarily to cease, the Haytians shall hence forward be known only by the generic appellation of Blacks.
It seems tragic and paradoxical that Haitian independence should have come to be framed in racialist, isolationist terms having begun amidst strong claims for universal human equality and freedom. The current situation of Haiti as the poorest state in the Western hemisphere seems starkly at odds both with its historical significance in the region and these early hopes. I raise these issues here from the point of view of historical interpretation: how do we weigh up the relevant historical details which might make sense of Dessalines declaration? Recently I tried to create a chronology that would somehow contextualise his constitutions looking at what happened before and after; the more events I added the more I felt I needed to add...
(It goes without saying that a starting point for understanding the Haitian revolution in depth is CLR James' The Black Jacobins)
Here is my faulty attempt at a chronological context:
1507: New World slavery initiated by Spanish.
1522: Slave rebellion breaks out in the sugar mills of Hispaniola including those of Columbus' son, Diego Colon. Slaves capture the town of Azua near Santo Domingo, are defeated and hanged.
1648: English Puritans settle on a small Bahamian island calling it ‘Eleuthera’ - ‘freedom’.
1650s onwards: intensive New World slavery begins focused on plantation-based sugar production in the Caribbean, Brazil; tobacco and cotton in Southern states of British America.
1655: Having failed to capture Hispaniola, British invade Jamaica which becomes their largest slave colony.
1667: The Dutch cede New Amsterdam (now New York) to the British in return for guarantees over the (formerly British) slave colony, Surinam.
1688: English writer, Aphra Behn, publishes her fictional account of a slave revolt in Surinam, Oronooko, probably based on first hand knowledge of the colony.
1697: French colonists acquire control of Western Hispaniola (St Domingue, later Haiti).
1759: The French cede Quebec to the British in return for guarantees over their lucrative slave colony, Guadeloupe.
1775. The Thirteen Colonies of British America rebel against British rule.
1776: A group of white, ethnically English lawyers draft the Declaration of Independence: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…’
1778: Volunteer slaves from Haiti leave to fight with the French against the British in the American war of independence.
1783: Britain grants the United States independence under the treaty of Paris.
1783: The 'Book of Negroes' lists 3000 (mostly West Indian) blacks who fought with the British against the American independentists with a view to resettling them in (what is now) Canada and later Sierra Leone.
1787: British Quaker anti-slavery committees encourage Clarkson and Wilberforce to bring an anti-slavery bill to the House of Commons.
1789: French revolution begins.
Rights of Man published in 1789: 'Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be based only on common utility'.
1791: Slave insurrection and revolution begins in the French controlled St Domingue (Haiti, the largest producer of sugar in the world).
1791 (April): Wilberforce introduces the first bill for the abolition of the slave trade in the British House of Commons; defeated 163 votes to 88.
1793 (January): Louis XVI executed.
1793: British ally themselves with French plantocracy in Haiti and invade.
1793/4: Toussaint L'ouverture, leader of the Haitian troops, allies himself with Sonthonax general of the French army in Haiti on an understanding that Sonthonax will free Haitian slaves.
1793: Sonthonax sends three blacks, three whites and three mulattos to argue for an alliance between the Haitian Revolutionaries and the French Republic at the Convention of the French republic.
1794: The National Convention proclaims its Decret du 16 Pluviose An II, Abolissant l'esclavage.
1798: Toussaint defeats the British and leads invasion of Spanish Santo Domingo, freeing slaves there (slavery later reintroduced).
1799: Napoleon takes power in coup of 18 Brumaire; crowns himself emperor.
1802: Napoleon reimposes slavery, sends an expeditionary force to Haiti.
1802: Toussaint is captured and sent into exile in France where he dies in 1803.
1800s: The slave plantocracy in Haiti shifts its activities to Cuba developing slave plantations there.
1804: Former slave, Jacques Dessalines, leader of the Haitians defeats French expeditionary forces.
1804: Dessalines crowns himself emperor of Haiti.
1805: Dessalines proclaims a new Haitian constitution.
1806: Dessalines is assassinated.
1807: Henri Christophe, former slave, restaurateur, revolutionary is declared president of Haiti.
1807: Southern Haiti secedes under mulatto general Petion and the country is split.
1807: British Parliament abolishes the slave trade.
1811: Christophe declares himself King of the northern state of Haiti. He forms an alliance with the British entertaining a long correspondence with abolitionist Thomas Clarkson.
1815: Simon Bolivar seeks refuge in Haiti.
1816: Bolivar sets out to liberate South America with Haitian troops supplied by General Petion.
1820: Christophe commits suicide and his son is assassinated in the palace at Sans Souci.
1821: Haitian president Jean-Pierre Boyer leads an invasion of the Dominican Republic freeing slaves there and imposing a 22 year period of Haitian rule.
1825: France forces Haiti to pay an indemnity of 150 million francs in return for recognising its liberty.
1838: Britain abolishes slavery in its colonies.
1848: France abolishes slavery in its colonies.
1865: The U.S. abolishes slavery.
1865: Morant bay rebellion in Jamaica leads to direct rule by Britain as a crown colony.
1868: first slaves manumitted in Cuba.
1886: Cuba abolishes slavery during its anti-colonial struggle with Spain.
1888: Brazil abolishes slavery.
1897: Germany demands an indemnity of $30000 from Haiti for imprisoning one of its citizens.
1898: Under the pretext of the Maine incident, the US annexes Cuba and Puerto Rico.
1914: Jamaican Marcus Garvey co-founds the Universal Negro Improvement Association.
1915-1935. US Marines invade Haiti in defence of US economic interests. In a violent counterinsurgency 2000 Haitians are killed. The US imposes racial segregation and the extensive use of chain gang (corvee) labour.
1930: With US backing, Rafael Trujillo becomes dictator in the Dominican Republic until his assassination in 1961.
1933: With US backing, Fulgencio Batista becomes dictator in Cuba until he is forced into exile in 1959.
1937: Trujillo orders the massacre of thousands of Haitians near the border with the Dominican Republic.
1957: Papa Doc Duvalier comes to power in Haiti.
1959: Cuban revolution.
1962: Britain gives independence to Jamaica its largest Caribbean island colony.
1983: On the pretext of a Cuban military presence, 9000 US troops plus 300 regional allied soldiers invade the left leaning island state Grenada.
2004-2009. UN (MINUSTAH) peace-keeping forces led by Brazil are accused of human rights abuses including, in collaboration with the Haitian National Police, atrocities against civilians in Cite du Soleil.
There is a novel of Victor Hugo based on the historical facts you describe called VUG ZARGAL. I read it as a fiction in the childhood but now it seems to me that it has strong historical roots. Do you know what connections Victor Hugo could have with Haiti since he never travelled there ?
‘This Toronto is the New American South. And the Wild Wess – Calgary and Alberta, and all out there in the wilderness of the West! This is Birmingham, Alabama.’