The Revolution in Saint-Domingue

In January 1804, an event that had enormous repercussions shook the world of the enslaved and their owners. The black revolutionaries, who had been fighting since 1791, crushed Napoleon's 43,000-man army.

In December 1803, in full debacle, the 8,000 French soldiers left on the island (most of the others had been killed in combat and 20,000 had died of yellow fever), boarded their ships, and sailed away. Within twelve years, black Haitians had fought against and defeated not only the French colonists but also the French, Spanish, and British armies.

To erase the symbolic traces of the old order, the victors changed the name of the island from Saint-Domingue back to Haiti (mountainous land), its original name given by the Arawak Indians. Haiti had become the second independent nation in the Western Hemisphere and the world's first black-led republic. The impact of this victory of poorly armed men and women,—who had fought for and gained their freedom back in 1793 — against the best army in Europe sent to re-enslave them, sent shockwaves throughout the Americas.

Paradoxically, at the same time as it influenced enslaved people to rise up, the Haitian Revolution also stimulated the transatlantic slave trade. The withdrawal from international markets of the island, which had produced half the world's coffee and as much sugar as Brazil, Cuba, and Jamaica combined, gave an impetus to these colonies as well as to Louisiana to introduce more Africans — and for Louisiana, more African Americans from the Upper South as well — in order to offset the production shortfall.

Throughout the Americas, slave uprisings had been more closely associated with the presence of large concentrations of men and women born in Africa and newly arrived, and the events in Saint-Domingue were read as a cautionary tale against the slave trade that continuously introduced these "revolt-prone" Africans. Therefore, when South Carolina reopened the slave trade in 1803, the decision was deemed appalling. The specter of Haiti was used by some Americans to bolster the abolition of the slave trade at the earliest possible date, 1808.