The Haitian Revolution: Tracing a lineage of Black resistance

Learning about our history remind us that no matter how hopeless we feel in the present, we have the capacity to shape the future.

by Athian Akec
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18 July 2022, 4:00pm

This article is the first in a series by Athian Akec: Beyond Black History Month.

Ask yourself: how do you think the Trans-Atlantic slave trade ended? The dominant narrative impressed into our collective consciousness by school curriculums, films, and culture-at-large is that the end of the slave trade was fuelled by the moral rejection of the trade by various progressive groups in the west. We typically overstress the importance of these western abolitionist movements and, in doing so, erase the role of resistance by enslaved people against the physical violence and loss of freedom, culture, and identity that became synonymous with trans-Atlantic commerce. 

We are a generation of young people who want racial justice. The explosion of energy seen in the protests of the last two years demonstrates the desire for change, but collectively we have to ask ourselves: beyond these moments, how are we going to bring about this new world beyond these isolated moments of outrage? In 1791, a group of enslaved people in the French-controlled plantation island of Santo Domingo (also known as Saint-Domingue) defeated the system of slavery they lived under and, in the process, birthed the world’s first Black Republic -- a story that is all too often left untold, but can offer lessons for a generation that is driven to seek racial justice across the world. 

You’d be hard-pressed to find a power dynamic more unequal than slavery. It’s commonly overlooked, but the important statistic is that the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was the largest forced migration in human history -- a process layered with violence, death, and destruction. The violence started when people were chained to the bottoms of ships and transported away from their communities in central and western Africa. The extent of violence in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was far greater than we can possibly conceptualise, but so was the level of resistance. The resistance was physical, and involved countless acts of rebellion and insurrection. New languages, cultures, and means of keeping in touch with their African roots emerged as a response to this loss of identity, family and language that enslaved people experienced -- it was an act of survival and cultural resistance. 

No event shatters the perception of Black people as passive victims of slavery more than the Haitian Revolution. Whilst enslavement was undoubtedly a story about the loss of autonomy and freedom; it was also a story of rebellion and resistance -- a story that embodies the spirit that we need to navigate the times we are living in -- an era defined by back to back crises, that makes us feel like we have no control over our collective destiny.

Santo Domingo was the world’s most profitable slave colony, and drove the development of French society and the modernisation of its economy. The fertile land of Haiti, combined with the brutal system of plantation economies, drove the trade of sugar, cotton, and coffee as the main cash crops. At the heart of the system was brutal violence as a means of increasing productivity and profit margins, enacted by overseers who acted on behalf of plantation owners, who typically still lived in France. The levels of violence were so high that the average life expectancy of slaves on the island was just 21 years. So, in the context of these brutal conditions, how did the only ever successful slave revolution happen? 

The Haitian Revolution started with a highly energetic but disorganised slave insurrection in August 1791. This came shortly after the French Revolution, which saw the abolition of the French monarchy and the start of a democratic system of governance. The ideals of the French Revolution inspired leaders of the Haitian Revolution, but also asked new questions about the extent of freedom, liberty, and justice that it claimed to stand for. Namely: how could the French Revolution stand for these ideas of liberty and simultaneously still control the world’s most profitable slave colony? The Haitian Revolution asked to whom the egalitarian ideals extend to. 

Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines were two of the most important leaders of the Haitian Revolution. Both, in their own way, played a vital role in helping bring together a group of enslaved people and transforming them into a fighting army capable of defeating those who enslaved them. Understanding their backgrounds helps us understand the role they played. Toussaint Louverture spent most of his early life before the Revolution in a privileged position on the plantation that he lived on, and later emerged to be one of the most important leaders in transforming the revolutionary participants into disciplined fighting forces. At the end of the Revolution, he was deported and imprisoned in France by Napoleon -- who was driven by a desire to suppress the Revolution. Jean-Jacques Dessalines is remembered as the liberator– in Haiti, the key to declaring the liberation of the nation and defeating Spanish, French, and British attempts to reimpose slavery on the island. 

As a generation of young people, we have sparked a vital conversation, through social media and physical protest, in pushing for racial justice. But to achieve the goals, we have to think beyond moments and attempt to understand how, as marginalised communities, we can find autonomy in a world set up to rob us of it. For those of us who come from Black communities and for those who we are working in a coalition with, the Haitian Revolution should remind us that no matter how hopeless, powerless, and defeated we feel; we have the capacity to shape history for the better. This is the spirit, energy, and determination we have to bring not only when protesting but also when building community projects, organising direct action, and spreading political education -- it’s the spirit we have to embody even when the news cycle has long since moved on from talking about racial injustice. 

Fully understanding the story takes further scholarship. A good starting point is The Black Jacobins by the historian CLR James, who documents the history with profound storytelling ability. It’s important that, in the face of the ecological, societal, and racial crises that we are currently experiencing, we remember and embody the spirit of resistance that defined the Haitian Revolution. The erasure of this story from school curriculums, popular culture, and our collective historical awareness is rooted in how the story challenges the idea that power is unbreakable. The leading academic and former Black Panther Angela Davis says: “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time”. Remembering stories like the Haitian Revolution will keep us constantly reminded, even in the bleakest moments, of this possibility. 

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Beyond Black History Month