August–September

21-28 Oct 1790

The Ogé Rebellion: Jacques Vincent Ogé, an affranchis representing the colony in France, leads a revolt against the white colonial authorities in Saint-Domingue. Despite colonists’ attempts to prevent him from leaving France, Ogé manages to escape to England, where he is secretly helped by abolitionists. From there he sails to the United States, where he buys weaponry before arriving in Saint-Domingue on October 21. Eluding police, Ogé manages to unite with friends and family and organize a “common front of gens de couleur against the forces of white supremacy.” He amasses 300 men, consisting primarily of mulattoes and some free blacks. The group, fully armed, marches to Grande-Rivière, just south of Le Cap, and joins with others with the intention of taking the city and disarming the white population. The colonists manage to disband Ogé’s army by outnumbering the rebels. Ogé escapes and goes into hiding in the eastern part of the island in Spanish Santo Domingo.

14 August 1791

The Haitian Revolution begins with the Bois Caïman ceremony.  Ready to carry out their plans, the slaves meet in Morne-Rouge to make final preparations and to give instructions. The slaves decide that “Upon a given signal, the plantations would be systematically set aflame, and a generalized slave insurrection set afoot.” Rumors circulate that white masters and colonial authorities are on their way to France to fight the Crown’s recent decrees granting mulattoes and free blacks rights. Though false, these rumors “served as a rallying point around which to galvanize the aspirations of the slaves, to solidify and channel these into open rebellion.”

The Bois Caïman ceremony and subsequent insurrections are the result of months of planning and strategizing. There are two hundred slave leaders involved from around the North.  All hold privileged positions on their plantations, most of them commandeurs with influence and authority over other slaves.Through strategic maneuvering these leaders successfully unite a vast network of Africans, mulattoes, maroons, commandeurs, house slaves, field slaves, and free blacks.

The Bois Caïman ceremony

The Bois Caïman ceremony takes place in a thickly wooded area where the slaves solemnize their pact in a voodoo ritual. The ceremony is officiated by Boukman,  a maroon leader and voodoo priest from Jamaica, and a voodoo high priestess. Various accounts from that night describe a tempestuous storm, animal sacrifices, and voodoo deities. However, over the centuries the ceremony has become legendary, and it is important to note it can be difficult to distill fact from myth. Some historians, for example, believe the ceremony took place on the 22nd of August, not the 14th.

A Note on Vodou:

Rebelion vodouDuring the revolution Voodoo brought together disparate forces in the colony, uniting various rebel factions to fight side by side. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Voodoo was widely misunderstood in the rest of the world. Hollywood portrayed the religion as primitive and savage, ignoring its rich history and complexity. Many researchers have misunderstood its relationship with Catholicism, which has masked and at times fused with Voodoo as it has developed over the centuries.

Voodoo today is still a significant part of most Haitians’ daily lives. A Haitian woman in the 20th century said that “The loa love us, protect us and watch over us. They show us what is happening to our relatives living far away, and they tell us what medicines will do us good when we are sick.”

16 August 1791

Slaves in the Limbé district stray from the leaders’ plan, apparently due to a misunderstanding, and are caught setting fire to an estate. During their interrogation they reveal the conspiracy and the names of the leaders.

Interestingly, though, many of the planters who are warned of the rebellion stand by their slaves and refuse to believe the rumors. One plantation manager, for example, “offered his own head in exchange if the denunciations…proved true.” Other planters, warned of the coming violence, escaped with their lives but still couldn’t protect their property, often losing everything.

The other slaves involved in the conspiracy prepare to move ahead with the rebellion as planned, vowing to “to burn le Cap, the plantations, and to massacre the whites all at the same time.”

22 August 1791

The slaves launch their insurrection in the North. That night Boukman and his forces march throughout the region, taking prisoners and killing whites. By midnight, plantations are in flames and the revolt has begun. Armed with torches, guns, sabers, and makeshift weapons the rebels continue their devastation as they go from plantation to plantation. By six the next morning, only a few slaves in the area have yet to join Boukman, and scores of plantations and their owners are destroyed.

The group, numbering 1,000 to 2,000, next splits into smaller bands to attack designated plantations,  demonstrating their highly organized strategy. As the revolt in the North grows “awesome in dimensions,” whites become anxious about defending Le Cap, where the colonial government is centralized. It is to Le Cap – the social and cultural hub of the colony – that whites flee their burning plantations and rebelling slaves. Later an interrogated slave would declare that “in every workshop in the city there were negroes concerned in the plot.”

The whites and slaves both realize that controlling the city would be critical in determining the revolution’s outcome.

Blanchelande writes that “Fears of a conspiracy [in Le Cap] were confirmed as  we had successfully discovered and continue daily to discover plots that prove that the revolt is combined between the slaves of the city and those of the plains; we have therefore established permanent surveillance to prevent the first sign of fire here in the city which would soon develop into a general conflagration.”

23 August 1791

The slaves march to the Limbé district, adding to their forces. The group moves from plantation to plantation, seizing control and establishing military camps. Along the way more slaves join the rebellion, and those who don’t are cut down mercilessly.

By the end of the day, “the finest sugar plantations of Saint Domingue were literally devoured by flames.” A horrified colonist wrote that “one can count as many rebel camps as there were plantations.”

24 August 1791

The slaves continue west to Port-Margot in the early evening, hitting at least four plantations.

25 August 1791

The rebels march to Le Cap, after burning down the region’s largest plantations and killing scores of whites. Every entrance to the city is guarded, and the slaves march against the whites’ cannons and guns, meeting armed resistance for the first time. Though the whites manage to drive the slaves back, the rebels divide up and regroup, returning by two different routes to successfully seize the city. The slaves hold out for three weeks against the planters, who are badly armed, disorganized, injured, and desperately in need of help. The slaves’ strategy is clear: every time the  planters circle or overcome them, the slaves retreat to the mountains to reorganize and prepare a new attack.

At the same time, slaves in the northeast rise up, “torch in hand, with equal coordination and purpose,” and advanced “like wildfire.” The slaves burn down the plantations methodically until all the major parishes in the upper North Plain region are hit and communication between them is severed.

30-31 Aug 1791

The slave forces reach nearly 15,000. Slaves join because they “had deserted their plantations, by will or by force, or by the sheer thrust and compulsion of events purposefully set in motion by the activities of a revolutionary core.”  They are transformed from fugitive slaves into “hardened, armed rebel, fighting for freedom, ”a mental and physical process “accelerated by collective rebellion in a context of revolutionary social and political upheaval.”

A colonist writes that “We had learned . . . that a large attack was afoot, but how could we ever have known that there reigned among these men, so numerous and formerly so passive, such a concerted accord that everything was carried out exactly as was declared? . . . The revolt had been too sudden, too vast and too well-planned for it to seem possible to stop it or even to moderate its ravages.”

The planters are able to protect Le Cap but cannot save their plantations. They send frantic requests for military aid to Santo Domingo, Cuba, Jamaica, and the United States to no avail. Within 8 days the rebels devastate 184 sugar plantations in the north, losing planters millions of French livres. By September all the plantations within fifty miles of Le Cap are destroyed.

8 September 1791

The revolution spreads, becoming more militant and organized. On the plantations it takes less incite riots. Plantation crops are ruined as entire fields of slaves desert or simply stop working. In the “magnificent” Plaine-des-Cayes, comprising of almost 100 sugar plantations, every single plantation is destroyed.  Many of the planters, “financially and morally ruined,” are desperate to save their fortunes while others consider themselves fortunate “just to get out of this wretched colony with their lives and a shirt on their backs.”

The white troops are completely unprepared for the rebel’s guerrilla tactics, which include surprise attacks, thefts of supplies and livestock, ambushes, and poisoned arrows. The slaves, more resilient than the whites, are merciless, taking no prisoners of war. Over half of the 6,000 troops from France have at this point already “perished from the ravages of a tropical climate and endemic sicknesses reaching epidemic proportions.”

An army volunteer writes: “This is the graveyard of the French; here one dies off like flies.”

Mid-Sept 1791

Slaves continue to make demands, but with the entire colonial system at stake, the planters can’t concede.

One colonist writes presciently  of the colonists’ dilemma in negotiating with the slaves: “For, if we reward with freedom those who have burned our plantations and massacred our people, the slaves who have hitherto remained loyal will do likewise in order to receive the same benefit. Then nothing more can be said: the whites must perish.”

Another states “There can be no agriculture in Saint Domingue without slavery; we did not go to fetch half a million savage slaves off the coast of Africa to bring them to the colony as French citizens.”

21 Sept 1791

The Colonial Assembly at Saint Marc recognizes the May 15 decree and grants citizenship to mulattoes and free blacks. White planters object violently and tensions in the colony rise.

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