Overturning Five Myths of the Haitian RevolutionRoundup
tags: slavery, Haiti, emancipation, Haitian Revolution
Julia Gaffield is associate professor of history at Georgia State University and is the author of Haitian Connections in the Atlantic World: Recognition after Revolution (UNC Press, 2015).
This month marks the 230th anniversary of the beginning of the Haitian Revolution. In August 1791, enslaved people in the French colony of Saint-Domingue revolted, and eventually abolished slavery and created Haiti, the second independent country in the Americas. Recent media efforts to contextualize the assassination of Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, on July 7 have often relied on myths that undermine the country’s leadership in world history and the racist repercussions that it faced during and after its fight for freedom and independence.
Myth No. 1
The French Revolution inspired the Haitian uprising.
In his famous account of the Haitian Revolution, “The Black Jacobins,” C.L.R. James wrote that enslaved men and women in Saint-Domingue in 1791 “had caught the spirit of the thing. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” This perceived link between the French Revolution and events in the colony implies that French revolutionary ideals inspired enslaved people to revolt. Similarly, historian Paul Cheney calls the Haitian Revolution “the French Revolution in Saint-Domingue.” Taking a cue from such interpretations, PBS’s “Africans in America” resource page mistakenly asserts that the French “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” inspired the abolition of slavery in the country now known as Haiti.
The claims of inspiration suggest that France held power over its colony even in revolt, and that it alone was equipped to benevolently bestow freedom on the enslaved. But France had constructed one of the most violent and extractive colonies in the world, and its revolution neither pushed back against that system nor worked to improve it. Though France would go on to abolish slavery, it did not do so until 1794, years after the Haitian Revolution began — and only because of Haiti’s uprising.
In practice, the French Revolution did not provide inspiration for revolt in the colony so much as opportunity. With a divided ruling class, enslaved men and women coordinated an uprising that led to military victories and eventual freedom. The myth of French inspiration also overlooks the fact that France was the only nation to reestablish slavery after its abolition.
Myth No. 2
Mosquitoes defeated Napoleon's army.
In 1802, a massive French expedition of 30,000 soldiers arrived in Saint-Domingue with the goal of wresting control of the colony from the revolutionary leaders. Within two years, a Haitian army led by Jean-Jacques Dessalines defeated the French forces. Some attribute the Haitians’ success to yellow fever. Historian David Bell, for example, argued in the New York Review of Books that the French military expedition “was decimated by an epidemic of yellow fever, which allowed black forces to drive it out.” Nathan Hale’s graphic novel “Blades of Freedom” makes a mosquito one of the main characters in its telling of the revolution, symbolizing the role that yellow fever played in the devastation of French troops.
While yellow fever indeed killed many French soldiers, their defeat was primarily due to the effectiveness of the Haitian forces. The Black revolutionaries waited for the rainy season to battle the French, and they strategically pushed the foreign troops into the hot and humid cities while they retreated inland to the cooler mountains. The revolutionary army also beat the French outright on the battlefield, forcing their evacuation in late 1803.
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