While the narrative of the Haitian Revolution has many names and actors who played a role in history, there are a few key leaders who you should familiarize yourself with.
- Vincent Ogé
- A free man of color, Ogé was in Paris during the onset of the French Revolution. Ogé was led to join the Society of the Friends of the Blacks (Société des Amis des Noirs). His membership and leadership in the group inspired Ogé to return to Saint-Domingue to fight for voting rights for free men of color. Together with other free men of color, Ogé gathered a force of approximately 300 fighters. This group fought against various militias sent to quench the uprising. After encountering professional soldiers, the rebels fled to Santo Domingo, only to be captured by the Spanish and returned to Saint-Domingue. Vincent Ogé was brutally executed, signifying an important moment in the lead up to full scale revolution.
- Dutty Boukman
- Although there is no complete consensus, scholars agree that Dutty Boukman was a significant religious priest. Accounts of Boukman’s specific practices range from Vodou, shamanistic Islam, and a syncretic blend of African religion and Christianity, but Boukman was regarded as a Vodou priest (houngan). At Bois Caïman a ceremony took place on August 14, 1791, led by Dutty Boukman. This ceremony served as both a religious ritual and strategic meeting as those in attendance would start revolutionary acts of violence in the following days. Boukman led a ceremony in which a creole pig was sacrificed; the blood of the sacrificed animal was distributed to all in attendance. Boukman declared that those present would lead a resistance that would free all the slaves of Saint-Domingue. This ceremony provided motivation for major resistance from slaves. Combined with the uprisings of Vincent Ogé’s free people of color, the Haitian Revolution had begun.
- Jean-Jacques Dessalines
- Dessalines served with the French army as Toussaint L’Ouverture’s principal lieutenant. Dessalines’ most famous victory came at Crête-à-Pierrot, where he and 1,300 Haitians withstood a 20 day siege from 18,000 French soldiers led by General Leclerc. Though Dessalines was forced to retreat, the casualties inflicted on the French were so great that it resulted in a Pyrrhic victory. Shortly after the battle Dessalines defected to Leclerc’s army, leading to the arrest of L’Ouverture. The defection was short lived; when Dessalines realized the French intended to re-establish slavery, he and several of his troops returned to the side of the Haitians. Dessalines saw the surrender of French general Rochambeau following the Battle of Vertières. On January 1, 1804 Dessalines declared Saint-Domingue independent and renamed the territory Haiti. Part of Dessalines’ rule included declaring Haiti as a black only country and ordering a massacre of white minorities in 1804. Later in the year Dessalines would declare himself Emperor Jacques I.
- Toussaint L’ouverture
- A free man with his own plantation, L’ouverture initially fought for the French against invading British powers. After an agreement that France would grant freedom to all slaves, L’ouverture rallied fellow blacks to fight in favor of France. After order was established, Toussaint ruled the island as an autonomous entity. In 1801, thanks in part to France’s instability from its own revolutions, L’ouverture issued a constitution for Saint-Domingue calling for sovereignty from the French, as well as black autonomy. Napoleon, wishing to reclaim the territory, dispatched an expedition to the island in response to the constitution. During the Saint-Domingue Expedition L’ouverture defeated a French force of 31,000 (the force was led by General Charles Leclerc, Napoleon’s brother-in-law). Toussaint would see some of his closest allies defect to join Leclerc during continuing battles, leading to L’ouverture’s eventual arrest. Toussaint L’ouverture died at Fort-de-Joux on April 7, 1803.
- André Rigaud
- The primary leader of the gens de couleur fighting groups during the Haitian Revolution. Educated and trained in France, Rigaud believed revolutionary France would aid in equality for free people of color in Saint-Domingue. As slave uprisings began in the North, Rigaud organized forces in the West and South by utilizing both black and white fighters. Rigaud and Toussaint did not see eye-to-eye on the future of the island as Rigaud favored a race based caste system where mulattoes would be higher than blacks. Toussaint’s army invaded Rigaud’s territory in 1799, and shortly after Rigaud left Saint Domingue. When General Leclerc landed in Saint Domingue Rigaud came with him to attempt to unseat Toussaint.
The French Revolution also carries many players who helped shape the courses of history. See what, if any, similarities can be found between the major players of the Haitian and French Revolutions.
- Napoléon Bonaparte
- Born on the island of Corsica to a modest family, Napoléon was criticized by French citizens throughout his childhood. Having a distinct Corsican accent alienated Napoléon from his peers and motivated him to withdraw to his schooling. At the age of 24, after successfully coordinating the Siege of Toulon in defense of republican thought, Napoléon was promoted to brigadier general. On November 9, 1799 Napoléon and his allies overthrew the Directory in Paris by a coup d’état and instituted a consulate. Five years later Pope Pius VII crowned Napoléon as Napoléon I, restoring a monarchy in France.
- Louis XVI
- Louis XVI came to power in 1774 at just 19 years old. At the time the French government was deeply in debt and anti-monarchical ideas were beginning to circulate among the French people. An important contribution by Louis XVI was the Edict of Tolerance which granted non-Catholics civil and legal rights that had previously been denied. True to his congenial nature, when Louis XVI called the Estates-General together to try and resolve the debt issue, he retained all of the customs that had been in place the last time the Estates-General met, 175 years ago. This action alienated the Third Estate due specific customs that were now imposed. What followed was a whirlwind of events beginning with the Tennis Court Oath and ultimately ending with Louis XVI’s execution.
- Maximilien Robespierre
- Robespierre was a member of the Estate-General when it convened under Louis XVI and fought for an end to the Monarchy. Robespierre believed the National Assembly should submit itself to the popular will of France, rather than act as an authoritarian dictator. Following the execution of Louis XVI the Jacobins established the Committee of Public Safety with Robespierre as a member. The Committee initiated institutionalized terror as a means of internal policing, beginning the period known as the Reign of Terror. Robespierre was also critical of the role of Catholicism in France but did not support dechristianization; instead, Robespierre was sought to instill a Deist influence over all of France through arbitrary festivals and observances. As a result of the Thermidorian Reaction, Robespierre was executed for his use of terror.