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The revolution that began in Saint-Domingue in the West Indies in 1791 and ended in 1804 was the only successful slave rebellion in history. The revolt resulted in the establishment of the first republic to be governed by black people. Of importance to Louisiana, France’s loss of this significant colony ended Napoléon Bonaparte’s dream of a North American empire and was a major reason for his sale of the Louisiana Territory to the United States in 1803. Because of the insurrection, many refugees, including free people of color and white planters, fled to Louisiana in the early 1800s. All told, there were more émigrés to Louisiana from Saint-Domingue during that period than Acadians a decade earlier. This influx of refuges added significantly to the French-speaking population of the state at a time when Anglo-Americans were vying with French Creoles for supremacy in New Orleans, and it brought planters long practiced in growing and refining sugar (which was just emerging as a significant crop in the region) and artisans who were skilled in a wide range of trades and crafts to Louisiana.
Historians have debated whether the French failure to put down the revolution ended a secret Napoleonic plot to invade the United States by way of Louisiana. According to that theory, the army that Napoléon sent to the West Indies to end the rebellion was to then continue to Louisiana to establish a base for incursions into the southern United States. Nonetheless, scholars such as Laurent Dubois note:
The most important causal force in . . . France’s sale of Louisiana was . . . the actions of a revolutionary movement in a colony on the verge of becoming the independent nation of Haiti. By refusing Bonaparte’s plan to re-enslave them, the people who made up this movement . . . drastically limited Napoleon’s capacity to . . . project power in the Americas. They therefore rendered French designs on Louisiana irrelevant and . . . paved the way for the cession to the United States.”
Saint-Domingue, known today as Haiti, occupied approximately one-half of the island of Hispaniola, all of which had been claimed for Spain by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Spanish exploitation quickly reduced the population of the native Arawakan people to such a degree that the Spanish colonists had to import slaves from Africa. Thus, the first Africans were introduced in 1502, beginning a slave trade that would profoundly affect the political and economic future of the Caribbean and all the Americas.
Handfuls of French colonists began to appear in the West Indies shortly after the Spanish discovery, but it was not until 1664 that the newly established French West Indies Company took control of the western portion of Hispaniola and formally claimed the land for France. After that, large numbers of emigrants from France began to settle, particularly in the coastal areas of the island, and to establish hugely successful coffee, indigo, and sugar plantations. From the middle of the eighteenth century to the French Revolution, Saint-Domingue grew in prosperity to become the richest colonial possession in the world.
Saint-Domingue’s success was built upon African slave labor, and by the late 1750s slaves far outnumbered white planters. Fearing a revolution, the French created a rigid caste system that included the white planters born in the colony, known as Creoles; French-born bureaucrats and landowners; people of mixed blood, both free men and slaves; and black slaves.
Effects of the French Revolution
Nonetheless, violent conflicts between the slaves and white landowners became more and more frequent. The turmoil was exacerbated by the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. When the new French National Assembly granted full civic rights to Saint-Domingue’s free people of color March 1790, the white planters refused to recognize the decision. The resulting tensions brought on isolated fighting, and then outright rebellion.
On August 22, 1791, the slaves of Saint-Domingue plunged the colony into civil war, quickly taking control of a large part of the island. The three principal black leaders of the rebellion, Toussaint l’Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Christophe, had served whites in various capacities ranging from slave to officer in the French army in Saint-Domingue. In 1792 France sent a political delegate, Leger-Félicité Sonthonax, to try to stabilize the colony, but he met with only limited success, even though he declared an end to slavery as of August 29, 1793. When France declared war on England in 1793, the slave owners quickly made an agreement to support Great Britain and declare British sovereignty over Saint-Domingue. Spain, which controlled the rest of the island of Hispaniola, joined the fight against France and was backed in its efforts by the slave forces.
Intervention from France
Finally, in 1801 Napoléon sent a large force led by his brother-in-law Charles Leclerc to firmly restore French rule in Saint-Domingue. This, the largest colonial expedition ever to cross the Atlantic, included eighty-six warships carrying twenty-two thousand officers and soldiers who were to reinforce the several thousand French troops already on the island. But in addition to the revolutionaries, these forces soon found themselves contending with malaria and yellow fever epidemics. By November, when Leclerc died of yellow fever, twenty-four thousand of his soldiers had been felled by disease and another eight thousand were in the hospital.
The last battle of the rebellion was fought on November 18, 1803, between rebels led by Dessalines and the decimated French forces commanded by Leclerc’s successor, Donatien-Marie-Joseph de Vimeur, Vicomte de Rochambeau. It was no contest. Dessalines became the first emperor of the new republic, renaming it Haiti, “Land of Mountains,” in the indigenous Arawakan language.
The French colonial administration made efforts to keep slaves and free people of color from Saint-Domingue out of Louisiana during the eighteenth century. Then in 1763, [who?] outlawed the exportation of slaves from the West Indies to Louisiana because they considered slaves to be dangerous. And, while white and black people fled from Saint-Domingue during the thirteen-year uprising, most of them went first to other places in the Caribbean, particularly to Cuba. Most of the émigrés to Louisiana came a decade later, after France invaded Spain in 1809, and anti-French sentiment spilled into the Caribbean.
In just sixty days between the first of May and the end of July 1809, thirty-four vessels brought nearly fifty-eight hundred people to Louisiana from Cuba. Others came later from Cuba, Guadalupe, and other islands. In all, some ten thousand West Indian refugees came to Louisiana during 1809 and 1810. About one-third of them were the white elite, another one-third were free people of color, and the other third were slaves who belonged to either the whites or the free blacks. The U.S. Congress passed a special law to allow the refugees and their slaves into the United States. The influx also brought its share of opportunists. One of the ships to arrive in May 1804 was the Sœur Chérie carrying five cannons, a crew of fifty men from Saint-Domingue, and its commander, Jean Lafitte.
Lasting Effects in Louisiana
The general consensus among Haiti scholars such as Gabriel Debien and René Le Gardeur is that the influx of refugees had a great effect, particularly on the character of New Orleans. In numbers alone, the presence of Haitian refugees in Louisiana doubled the free colored population of New Orleans and doubled the number of French-speakers in New Orleans.
That was an important demographic factor, Debien and Le Gardeur wrote. “It accented [the city’s] Creole character and . . . these newcomers from the islands permitted New Orleans to preserve for a few more years [after the Louisiana Purchase] its colonial character, its exotic charm, and a life-style similar to that of an island just offshore from the continent, even as thousands of Americans were arriving from the eastern seaboard states.”
Another expert, Alfred N. Hunt, largely agreed, “While it is generally recognized that French cultural influences were significant in early Louisiana, the role of the St. Domingan refugees in maintaining that unique cultural identity has never been properly acknowledged. With their help, Louisiana became the cultural center of the Gulf states and gave the area an excitement that denies the traditional characterization of antebellum southern society as moribund.”
Hunt pointed out, “Louisiana was the most desirable region in North American for the Creole refugees. . . . Not only was it accessible and its population sympathetic, but the former French colony was the major repository of Gallic culture in the United States. . . . Only Louisiana afforded the St. Domingans the opportunity to attain success as a group without having to assimilate into the dominant culture.”
Jean-Marc Allard Duplantier also noted, “These refugees . . . made great contributions to the economic and cultural development of the state. Not only were these immigrants largely responsible for the establishment and success of the state’s sugar industry, they also gave New Orleans many of its most notable early institutions including the French Opera, newspapers, and schools and colleges. . . . Furthermore, the Saint-Domingue gens de couleur and their descendants both reinforced the existing broader identity of Francophone New Orleans and maintained a separate identity that lasted into the twentieth century.”
Hunt concluded: “Had it not been for the influx of survivors of the rebellion in St. Domingue, French Creole culture in Louisiana would not have developed to the extent that it did. . . . As a group, the St. Domingans were the single most influential Gallic element in Louisiana, and perhaps in all of American society,” influencing Louisiana politics, law, business (particularly the sugar industry), language, folk religion, architecture, dance, and music.
A Contrary View
Historian Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, noted for her African American studies, thinks the common assessment may be a bit out of proportion. “They certainly influenced Louisiana’s evolving Creole culture,” she said, “especially among Louisiana’s mixed-race elite which intermarried with members of this Haitian colored elite. Many of Louisiana’s mixed-race . . . trace at least some of their ancestors to Haiti.
“But the cultural influence of these Haitian refugees in Louisiana has been exaggerated. They arrived long after the Louisiana Creole language, folklore, cuisine, and music had been created by enslaved peoples brought directly to Louisiana from Africa and by their Louisiana Creole descendants,” Hall said.
Debien and La Gardeur agreed with Hall that it was not the rich Saint-Domingue landowners who made the biggest mark in Louisiana.
“We are not led to believe that the transition from one colony to the other was easy,” they wrote. “Even in a land that presented social characteristics analogous to those in Saint-Domingue, this exile was a tremendous shock. For the most part, a new society was forming on the banks of the Mississippi. This change of status among the large [Saint-Domingue] Creole families who went to the continent is ample proof of this fact. As a rule of thumb, the large, rich families who played an important role in Saint-Domingue are nowhere to be found in Louisiana. They no longer enjoyed the social status afforded by a large number of slaves or vast plantations. Most of them carried only the memory of past wealth. On the other hand, most of the refugees who left their mark on nineteenth-century Louisiana were drawn from families of low status in Saint-Domingue.”
Cite This Entry
Chicago Manual of Style
Bradshaw, Jim. "The Saint-Domingue Revolution." In KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published , . http://www.knowla.org/entry.php?rec=765.
Bradshaw, Jim. "The Saint-Domingue Revolution." KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana. Ed. David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, . . Web. 25 May. 2013.