The Revolution Builds
24 September 1791
The National Assembly in France revokes the May 15 decree, which had granted limited rights to free blacks and mulattoes, and names three commissioners to restore order in Saint-Domingue. In response, mulatto agitation in the South becomes open, armed rebellion in collaboration with the black slaves. Rebels in the west seize Port-au-Prince capital, cut its water supply and block all access to incoming food supplies before they are overcome by the French troops.
26 September 1791
“During those first weeks of revolution, the slaves destroyed the whites and their property with much the same ruthlessness and cruelty that they had suffered for so many years at the hands of their masters. The scenes of horror and bloodshed on the plantations, as whites hopelessly tried to defend themselves or, at best, to flee from the unleashed terror and rage of their former slaves, were only too reminiscent of the brutality that the slaves themselves had endured under the plantations regime. Yet as atrocious as they were, these acts of vengeance were surprisingly moderate, in the opinion of one of the best-known historians of that revolution, compared with the cold-blooded, grotesque savagery and sadistically calculated torture committed by their oppressors throughout the past. These were impassioned acts of revenge, of retribution, and were relatively short-lived.”
The “horrible carnage” gives way to strategic military operations, tactical maneuvers and new political alliances as the slaves gain territory and stabilize their positions.They raid plantations for military equipment, loot the whites’ forces after they are repelled, and trade with the Spanish for weaponry.
28 September 1791
The National Assembly in France issues a decree granting amnesty to all free persons in Saint Domingue charged with “acts of revolution.” The slaves however are still intent on continuing warfare and pursuing “an end to the whites.”
Of 170,000 slaves in the North Province, 80,000 have by now joined the rebel forces. The slaves set up camps in Platons with thousands of dwellings, two infirmaries, a civil government, crops and food supplies. The three new civil commissioners named in September arrive in the colony from France.
Boukman is killed in battle, becoming the first of the original leaders to die. His head is cut off by colonists and exposed on a stake in Le Cap with the inscription “The head of Boukman, leader of the rebels.” In response, the slaves mourn intensely, retreating into the mountains to hold services. Fervor builds amongst the rank-and-file soldiers to kill every white they see, including all their prisoners. The grief and rage is finally channeled into a three day calenda ceremony.
Without Boukman, the rebel leaders falter, unsure of how to proceed. Against the wishes of their troops, they choose to negotiate with the colonists, asking for improved quality of life on plantations in exchange for the release of prisoners, namely the leaders’ wives. The slave troops, on the other hand, vow that they will continue fighting for freedom, even if it means killing their own leaders. They, more than their commanders, are violently opposed to compromising or returning to the plantations and realize that the negotiations are doomed.
At the end of the month, the Colonial Assembly refuses all the slaves’ demands. The rebel leaders agree to return to war.
9 January 1792
Governor Blanchelande marches against the slaves encamped at Platons. The rebel army, out of supplies and outnumbered, abandons camp and retreats to the mountains. They leave behind noncombatants, consisting of a few hundred women, children, elderly and infirm, whom they expect will be treated leniently by the French. Instead the troops massacre them, “their heads cut off and their bodies slashed to pieces as the women fought ferociously to protect their children.” About 3,000 other captured slaves are returned to masters, and many are killed to set an example. The colonists celebrate their victory, but in reality the core of the insurgent movement – including its strongest, most determined, leaders – is still in hiding.
22–23 January 1792
Slaves begin their attack to recapture the Ouinaminthe district in the northeast of Saint-Domingue, attacking Le Cap to secure ammunition and replenish their supplies.
4 April 1792
Louis XVI affirms the Jacobin decree, granting equal political rights to free blacks and mulattoes in Saint-Domingue. A second commission is assembled, led by Léger Félicité Sonthonax, to enforce the ruling.
Spain declares war against England, then France. In Saint-Domingue, the European powers battle for control of the lucrative colony.
20 June 1792
Blacks and mulattoes in the South ally with the British and begin an open rebellion.
In Le Cap, civil commissioners Blanchelande and Sonthonax flee for protection as rebels attack the city. Every street becomes a battlefield: “Terror and panic spread like wildfire as the women and children desperately tried to escape; atrocities and pillaging were committed on both sides.”
21 June 1792
Over 10,000 slaves in Le Cap are now in open revolt. Threatened on all sides, French colonists realize that they need the slaves’ support to keep control of Saint-Domingue. Civil commissioners issue a proclamation guaranteeing freedom and the full rights of French citizenship to all slaves who join them to defend France from foreign and domestic enemies.
Though some leaders refuse, allying instead with the Spanish, a group of marooned slaves answers the call, descending upon the capital “like an avalanche,” and forces the invaders to retreat. Chaos reigns, as nearly the entire city burns down and white colonists fight each other. In the coming months Spain, England and France are to battle constantly for Saint-Domingue.
17 September 1792*
Civil commissioner Étienne Polverel arrives from France and the slaves offer to negotiate with the colonists once more. Polverel refuses to meet their demands but does agree to grant an unconditional pardon if the slaves surrender. The colonists protest angrily to this concession, and Polverel, like Blanchelande before him, is forced to attack the slaves in response to the pressure.
*The year marks the three hundred year anniversary of Columbus’ landing on Hispaniola.