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In 1804 Saint-Domingue advanced the cause of Black freedom

Posted in Historical articles, History, Revolution on Wednesday, 27 June 2012

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This edited article about Haiti originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 741 published on 27 March 1976.

Saint Domingo, picture, image, illustration

Saint Domingo, Haiti

The drums began softly, beating out their hypnotic rhythm, but soon they were sounding louder, banishing the other night noises of the thick, mysterious forest. Suddenly, a tall figure left the circle of black faces and bounded into the centre of the clearing, his eyes blazing hatred. Flames flickered from a small bowl that he held aloft, then, as the tempo of the drums increased he began a terrible dance, the dance of a man bewitched, a dance of death. Many a white man, woman and child, harsh slave owners and their families, were to die because of it.

The date was 1791 and the place Saint-Domingue, as Haiti in the West Indies was known at the time. It was by far the wealthiest colony of France in those days, particularly in sugar and coffee, and, since 1697, it had spread over a third of the island, the rest – now the Dominican Republic – belonging to Spain. Boom time had started in the early 1700s, when thousands of African slaves were brought to the island, those that survived the horrors of the voyages in tight-packed hell-ships. By 1791, there were some half a million alive in Saint-Domingue.

The colony was on the edge of the abyss, though the plantation owners and their pampered families had no idea that their days on earth were numbered. The French Revolution had broken out back home two years earlier, but, needless to say, ideas of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, current in Paris and elsewhere, had not spread to the colony. Slaves always lived – existed would be a better word – at the whims of their masters, and the slave owners of Saint-Domingue seem to have been particularly nauseating specimens of the breed. One owner wanting to show off the accuracy of a new pistol, imported from Paris, shot one of his slaves. Slaves were easy enough to replace in this richest of colonies.

If ever slaves had good cause to rise up in savage revolt against their masters, it was these unfortunates. And it was hardly surprising that when the volcano exploded, it was the greatest of all slave uprisings, those desperate interludes in the wretched saga of slavery, in which the rebels were crushed with the most brutal ferocity to discourage imitators.

This uprising was to be different. Naturally, it needed not only courage to rebel, the courage of despair, but organisation, for the very distance between plantations played into the owners’ hands. Fortunately for the slaves, they had allies in those already freed and their descendants, a small but significant minority on the island. In earlier days they had been properly treated by the whites, not least because the kings of France ordered it, but by the mid-1700s they were despised and had no hope of making their mark in the island’s affairs. Some owned plantations where – such was the prevailing moral atmosphere – they treated the slaves as badly as any white owner.

A handful of the free blacks, plus some slave foremen, strong slaves who had been made overseers, but who had no more reason to love their masters than their weaker brethren, seem to have master-minded the rebellion. The slaves were fortified by their folk religion, known as Vodun.

Victorian travellers and writers transformed this African cult into Voodoo, complete with Zombies, the “living dead”, who obeyed their master’s every whim, much to the delight of later makers of horror films. The cult of Vodun was a very powerful one, and ceremonies were guaranteed to get participants into an ideal state for carrying out a mass attack on the whites of Saint-Domingue.

The ceremonies were held in mid-August; then, several days later, the uprising occurred. Some planters managed to hold their own for a time but, in those days before repeating rifles, sheer numbers were bound to triumph if the spirit of the attackers was strong enough, and it was.

That night of August 22, 1791, saw the beginning of the end of white rule in Saint-Domingue.

Black leaders arose and by 1804 Saint-Domingue, renamed Haiti (from the local Indian word for Mountainous), became an independent state.

It has had a stormy history ever since, some of it very controversial, but nothing can ultimately detract from its leading place in the fight for black freedom. The bloody events of the night of August 22nd saw to that.

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