[1791] - Slave riots in San Domingo

San Domingo had been colonized by the French in the early seventeenth century and had become a major exporter of coffee and sugar. Its industry, however, relied entirely on the slave population who outnumbered their white owners by a ratio of ten to one. Following the outbreak of the French Revolution the previous year (which had declared all me791n to be free and equal), mulattoes and free blacks on the island petitioned their Provincial Assembly for political rights. On 15 May 1791 the French legislature passed racial reforms which granted citizenship to wealthy free men of colour in the colonies. In San Domingo, however, the Provincial Assembly refused to comply with this decision. Consequently, a slave revolt began in August. It marked the beginning of a revolution that would result in the creation of the Haitian republic in 1804.

The revolution began in mid-August 1791 after careful strategic planning by a network of slave leaders throughout the plantations of San Domingo. A ceremony was held at Bois Caïman in the north where the assembled slaves pledged to revolt against their white owners. By the end of August around 100,000 slaves had revolted and taken control of the Northern Province. Violence escalated rapidly as the white plantation owners retaliated, but by the end of the year a third of the island was controlled by slaves. The situation was complicated, however, by the outbreak of war between France, Britain and Spain. Over the next decade they each sent troops to the island to fight for control of the lucrative colony.

Meanwhile, Toussaint L’Ouverture, a self-educated former slave, emerged as the principal commander of the rebels. Initially, he worked with the French forces with the aim of securing the freedom of all slaves on the island. This was achieved on 29 August 1793 through the proclamation of the French commander Sothonax. L’Ouverture fought with considerable success against British and Spanish forces. He defeated a British expeditionary force in 1798 and subsequently invaded Santo Domingo, freeing the slaves who resided there. In 1801 he moved to assert independence from Napoleonic France by drafting a constitution that called for the creation of a sovereign black state free from colonial influence. Bonaparte responded by despatching an expeditionary force to the island to restore French control. After fierce fighting L’Ouverture was captured and transported to France where he died in prison.

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