Was it Really Emancipation in Saint Domingue?

The Haitian Revolution was quite unique in the way that slavery was handled.  The nation of France in their own countryside was struggling to determine who should receive the full political rights.  If they were having struggles at home, how were they going to control their territories that are an ocean away?

It had been decided through the Declaration of the Rights of Man that all men are made equal.  This, in essence, would have made all of the enslaved men on Saint Domingue free.  Sonothax and Polverel had proclaimed that all men would be emancipated in 1793.  However, this was just the start of a struggle to enforce emancipation.  This was not an official decree because Sonothax hadn’t the power to free everyone.  The government and structure of the colony was in absolute chaos throughout the entire Haitian Revolution and it was inevitable that France would lose the territory; it was just a matter of time.

“Official” emancipation is not until they declare for their independence after pushing the French out of Saint Domingue.  Official is in quotations because of the obscurity of this entire situation.  Although the enslaved people had legally been free prior to independence, there was not a way to enforce it.  The colony had also been economically powerful because of their plantation-driven system. Without people to work the plantations, the production would stop, which would lead to a stop in trade and a slower economy.  There were still plenty of rebellions happening over time, but they still needed overseers to watch over plantations to keep economic growth stable.  The People of Saint Domingue never really gained all of their freedoms from emancipation until the new country of Haiti was created.


The Louisiana Territory is often regarded in American history as a bargain.  It is almost always looked at from the American perspective.  However, it really had much more world significance than people realize.  Yes, we know that Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon Bonaparte were the key individuals in orchestrating this exchange, but why was it so significant to Saint Domingue? There was a significant amount of pressure on Napoleon financially because of the raging wars with Britain and Spain in the European continent.  The colony of Saint Domingue was in absolute chaos.  It certainly seems like Napoleon was giving up on colonialism in the western hemisphere.  By selling the Louisiana Territory, he pulled out a French presence.  There would be no more reinforcements from Louisiana to help in the colony.  French imperialism in the western hemisphere was dead (at least while Napoleon was in power).

The concept of leadership and influential powers throughout the Haitian Revolution were quite strange.  Toussaint Louverture spent practically all of his time “leading the revolution” while he was in the French military, fighting for France, whether it was against the Spanish or the British.  He had gained control of thousands of troops over his time and would eventually use them to rebel and fight off the French.  These military revolts made fighting seem like a civil war.  Both General Leclerc’s army and Toussaint’s army sang the same revolutionary songs, but they were fighting each other for control of the same territory.  Eventually, Toussaint would surrender to Leclerc and he would be sent to prison in France, where he later died.

Another revolutionary leader was Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who also happened to be in the same situation as Toussaint.  He was fighting for the French and rebelled against them in the same battles as Toussaint.  He also surrendered to Leclerc, but he was not seen as a big of a threat as Toussaint.  This changed the course of what emancipation would look like.


Dessalines was a much more violent man than Toussaint.  He led more viciously, while Toussaint would have been more diplomatic.  After the French had finally surrendered to Dessalines, he wanted to rid the colony of whites.  Could this be considered genocide?  Dessalines was deliberately focusing on the white people, and massacring them.  This is really interesting because it seems like a very different vision from Toussaint.  There was the belief that the plantation system should exist, and overseers could still exist, and they could still be white, but the cultivateurs would be paid for their labor. Some, like Dessalines, would argue that this is still a system of slavery.  Others, like Toussaint, would think that it was just a colony reaching its potential economically. This debate could continue indefinitely.

The people of Saint Domingue would eventually be the people of Haiti.  Their awkward fight for emancipation was never clear until the country declared their independence.  There are many situations in which the revolution could have gone a different direction; the most important being the final revolutionary leader.  If Dessalines had been put into prison instead of Toussaint, how would Haiti look today?


Dubois, Laurent. Haiti: The Aftershocks of History. New York: Metropolitan, 2012. Ebook.

Geggus, David. The Haitian Revolution. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc, 2014. Ebook.

Popkin, Jeremy D. A Concise History of the French Revolution. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. Ebook.


  1. In a way this could be considered genocide. Dessalines wanted to “get rid of” all of the whites because they were seen as a threat to emancipation. He believed that massacring the whites would destroy any threat to ending emancipation.

  2. “… it was inevitable that France would lose the territory …” I don’t agree – there would possibly have been a chance, if Napoleon would have come “earlier” or had been proclaimed leader, then emperor “just in time” to give the Haitians a sense of purpose and with his decisiveness could have a) used his military prowess to deter any breakaway tendencies as well as at the same time through his military operations have given the landless employment and a vent for their revolutionary zeal. If half of Europe could have come under the Napoleonic spell, where many people had a lot more to lose than the poor Haitians I think that Napoleon, who due to his Corse origins himself was from a “colony”, could have funneled all that revolutionary verve into a movement where the Haitians would have thought themselves equal partners in “world conquest”. and maybe Napoleon, who got as far as Egypt/North Africa, would have been able to make more colonies in Africa than any other power of the time.

  3. I find your point of view to be really interesting. I agree in a lot of ways that they weren’t really free until after the French left, though I did not necessarily equate complete freedom with Emancipation, so I found it interesting that you decided to use the end of the revolution itself as the time that they were emancipated.

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