Slave Resistance Gains Momentum
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.
9 March 1791
Ogé is extradited from Spanish territory and executed at Le Cap. He is forced, cords hanging from his necks, to repent for his crimes on bended knee before being tied to a wheel and killed on a scaffold. His head is cut off and displayed on a stake. Two days later 21 of his supporters and troops are sentenced to death. The next month 13 more are sentenced to the galleys for life.
“Such were the consequences of the ambiguous March decrees [which were] designed to leave to the colonists ‘the merit and option of exercising an act of generosity toward mulattoes and free blacks, an act which would inspire in them sentiments of affection and gratitude and establish the most perfect harmony among the different classes composing the population.'”
General insurrection breaks out amongst the 10,000 to 15,000 slaves in the Cul-de-Sac plain. Slaves mobilize around Mirebalais, Arcahaye, Petite-Rivière, Verettes, and Saint Marc until nearly half the province is in armed rebellion. Blacks throughout the colony become increasingly restless.15 May 1791The debate on mulatto and free black rights resumes in heated discussions in France. One proponent writes that “We will sacrifice to the colonial deputies neither the nation nor the colonies nor the whole of humanity . . . I ask the Assembly to declare that the free persons of color be allowed to enjoy the rights of voting citizens.”
The National Assembly responds by declaring a limited number of free-born persons of color eligible to be seated in future assemblies, with the rights of voting citizens. Though the action is conservative – only applicable to persons born of free parents and “possessing the requisite qualifications” – colonists are furious.
Slaves in the Cul-de-Sac plain are disarmed and returned to their plantations. In the West, rebels surrender in exchange for their leaders’ freedom. In the South, slaves refuse to back down and continue to agitate for the freedom, due to the fact that by now they “had fought as equals and considered themselves free.”
It is important to note that at this point the slaves are not fighting for general emancipation. Instead, they are demanding freedom for their leaders, additional free days during the week, and abolition of the whip as punishment. However, colonists refuse to negotiate at all. Meanwhile the slave forces continue to grow, reaching nearly 4,000 by the end of July.
Black and mulatto leaders increase their organization efforts. Mulattoes agitate in the South for their rights separate from the efforts of the slaves. At the same time the slaves, emboldened by their participation as armed equals in the insurrection movements, begin to form their independent movement for emancipation.
Slaves in the Cul-de-Sac plain begin abandoning their plantations including: those from the Fortin-Bellantien plantation near Croix-des-Bouquets, who assassinate their commandeu; groups from five nearby plantations, roughly 50 in number; and the entire ateliers of two other plantations. The slaves begin holding frequent gatherings in the woods to plot their revolution.
When the planters attempt to break up the meetings, the slaves resist with “unrestrained courage and determination.” Of the group, 13 slaves are mortally wounded and captured, 60 retreat with arms, 2 are killed and 8 of their leaders are executed.
Planters increase their surveillance, patrolling at night and searching the slave cabins for arms. Despite these efforts, their slaves still manage to communicate and plan with slaves from different districts.
Colonists revolt against the May 15 decree issued by France. Different factions from the white community all unite to subvert the decree and reestablish the legislative powers of the colony. Nearly all 85 members of the disbanded Colonial Assembly are pardoned in France and return to Saint-Domingue where they are re-elected. The elections exclude free blacks and mulattoes from voting.
By this point “it was not the few hundred mulattoes and free blacks included in the law that the planters feared. The entire social and economic structure of the colony, slavery itself, and the precious fortunes tied to it were at stake.”
The entire structure of Saint-Domingue is changing rapidly. In addition to internal divisions between royalists and reformists, the planters’ strained relations with colony officials erupt into open fighting. Saint-Domingue is in social and administrative chaos and France dismantles the colony’s power structure.
Amidst the upheaval, nearly every planter is too preoccupied with the colony’s power struggles to pay attention to the slaves’ growing unrest. Few of the colonists understand how the changes taking place affect their slaves.
The planters’ lack of understanding was due primarily to hubris: “Although a few might have foreseen the dangers ahead, most generally assumed that slavery was as inviolable as it was enduring. It had lasted over two hundred years. Slave rebellions had occurred in the past, and marronage had been a constant plague. But the revolts were always isolated affairs, and maroon bands were invariably defeated along with their leaders. For the planters, there was no reason to believe that slave activity was any different from what it had been in the past. They would soon learn, but only by the raging flames that within hours reduced their magnificent plantations to ashes, how wrong they were.”
The above quote is by Carolyn E. Fick from The Making of Haiti, pp.87-8829
End of July 1791
Violence breaks out in Les Cayes after failed negotiations between colonists and rebel slaves. 2,000 slaves attack a plantation being used as a military camp by the planters. The slaves then divide themselves up into smaller groups to simultaneously attack plantations throughout the Torbeck region. During their attacks, the rebels kill any slave who refuses to join their forces. Their army, growing with each new attack, torches 14 of the colony’s finest plantations.
In response, the colonists charge Governor Blanchelande with disarming the slaves and suppressing the insurrection. Blanchelande amasses hundreds of troops and plans his attack. However, he is overly naïve and plans his offensive publicly, ensuring that the slaves receive detailed information on his planned attacks, allowing them to prepare and strategize against him.
4 August 1791
Blanchelande’s troops are attacked by slaves. The rebels descend on Port-Saltu from all four sides in a coordinated offensive. By the time they are through, not a single plantation is left in the area. The slaves then set successive ambushes, pushing back each column of the colonist army and advancing along the mountainous cliffs. The slaves succeed in destroying the coordination of the whites’ attack and causing confusion and disorder. More than 200 of Blanchelande’s troops are killed.
8 August 1791
Blanchelande returns to Les Cayes with his dilapidated army. In his retreat, he leaves behind 2 cannons and large supplies of munitions and arms. The white residents in Les Cayes are furious and accuse him of aiding the slave insurrection. Blanchelande replies that the planters would have been better off negotiating with the slaves and granting their initial demands.
10 August 1791
Blanchelande goes to Le Cap, fleeing angry colonists in Les Cayes. He is later deported to France. Despite their defeat, Les Cayes planters still refuse to negotiate with slave leaders.