The San Domingo Revolution


San Domingo, 1758: The Precursors

The Colonial Mentality:

“I want an egg,” says the white colonial child.

“There are no eggs.”

“Then I want two.”

~C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins, 29


The maroon named François Macandal has only one hand, the other sacrificed to a sugar mill and slavery. One day he runs away and becomes the leader of escaped slaves in the mountains, known for poisonings that spread terror throughout the country. He dislikes the pillaging of mansions and the stealing of herds. He wants to make maroonage the center of an organized resistance against the whites in order to free the slaves. He says if the whites catch him and try to burn him, he will become a fly and escape the fire.

He is finally captured and sentenced to death at the stake. Today he is to be burned. A number of slave masters die from poison, t hanks to cooks who are his allies. As the flames rise around him, miraculously the iron rings holding him fall from the wood and he is free. Many believe his prophecy is coming true. The whites capture him again and turn him to ash.

See Jean Fouchard, The Haitian Maroons, 317-321

See The Louverture Project: François Mackandal

Slaves Free Themselves

The black-led revolution in San Domingo not only freed the slaves and established a modern state, Haiti, it sent hope to slaves throughout the Western Hemisphere.

It was a brilliant diplomatic and military victory led by Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines! What started as thousands of untrained claves ended up a disciplined army that defeated the greatest military forces of the day, including the Spanish, the English, and the French under Napoleon. 

The San Domingo revolution occurred in the context of the French revolution, as the cries for freedom and equality were heard on both sides of the Atlantic.

San Domingo was ripe for revolution because of its decades of successful maroon escapes and warfare. There had been a tradition of freedom. The blacks also significantly outnumbered the whites; as late as 1790, forty thousand new Africans were being imported. Those fresh from Africa were more likely to join the revolt since freedom was still in their hearts. When the slaves heard the French peasants cry for liberty and equality, they made that cry their own.


The following chronology puts the San Domingo revolution in perspective. 

July 14, 1788

  • French peasants storm the Bastille; the French Revolution begins under the banner of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”


  • Boukman begins the slave revolt.


  • Toussaint begins training a few hundred troops.
  • Six thousand French troops sail for San Domingo to put down the slave revolt.
  • Paris masses storm the Tulleries, imprison the royal family, dissolve the legislature, and call for the abolition of slavery. For the first time, the black of San Domingo have allies in France.
  • Laveaux, the French commander, defeats Toussaint.


  • The king of France is executed; the revolutionary armies are winning successes.
  • Toussaint issues his call for blacks to unite.


  • Britain sets its sights on San Domingo and other Caribbean islands. The British want to re-establish slavery and make them colonies. One of the leaders of this colonization move says in Parliament that the war in the West Indies was “…not for riches or local aggrandizement but a war for security….” The property owners of San Domingo (even though they are French) rush to welcome the British because they prefer their slaves to the goals of the revolution.
  • Toussaint, a Spanish officer now and ally of the British, has been defeating the French. Seeing the wave of British victories in the Caribbean, he weighs the future carefully. Historian C.L. R. James writes: “It was a crucial moment in history. If the British could hold San Domingo, the finest colony in the world, they would once more be a power in American waters. Instead of being abolitionists, they would be the most powerful practitioners of the slave trade….If the British completed the conquest of San Domingo, the colonial empire of revolutionary France was gone; its vast resources would be directed into British pockets, and Britain would be able to return to Europe and throw army and navy against the revolution” (James, 136).
  • At the French Convention, a member rises to speak: “Since 1789 the aristocracy of birth and the aristocracy of religion have been destroyed; but the aristocracy of the skin still remains. A black man, a yellow man, and a white are about to join this convention in the name of the free citizens of San Domingo.” There is an outburst of applause. The National Convention abolishes slavery in the colonies. (James, 139-140)
  • Toussaint receives the news of the decree just as the fate of the French sits precariously before the might of the British. Toussaint does not hesitate. He decides to join the French. Laveaux, the French commander, is overjoyed and makes him a Brigadier General. Immediately he undertakes a campaign to retake for the French the cities that he had just a while before captured for the Spanish.


  • Toussaint’s power grows. To the people, his word is law. He is as much concerned about winning victories over the British as creating a prosperous society. Trying to rein in the chaos of war, he proclaims, “Work is necessary, it is a virtue, it is for the general good of the state.” He orders workers to begin planting twenty-four hours after a territory is liberated by his army. He institutes a conciliatory policy towards whites because he knows their skill, education, and experience are needed by the colony in order to prosper.


  • At the end of the year, after three years of war, the British have lost eight thousand men, half of them dead. It has cost them millions of pounds.
  • Toussaint combines military superiority with astute propaganda and wins seven victories in seven days.
  • The British ask for a truce.
  • Toussaint forbids pillage by his soldiers and so, starving and half-naked, they maintain their discipline. No singe act of violence happens.
  • Toussaint’s entry into Port Républicainis a triumph. Black laborers and ex-slaves come out to hail ex-slaves who have become soldiers and have defeated one of the strongest nations on earth. Even the whites call Toussaint their liberator. An arch of triumph is quickly erected and some of the richest planters, who at one time were his staunchest enemies, invite Toussaint to mount the dais. Toussaint replies, “A dais and incense belong only to God.”
  • The French send General Hédouville to govern San Domingo. Inept and troublesome, he threatens to have French forces return. Toussaint marches to Le Cap and chases Hédouville from the island. Toussaint addresses the citizens who welcomes him: “Hédouville says that I am against liberty….Who ought to love liberty more, Toussaint L’Ouverture, slave of Breda, or General Hédouville, former Marquis and Chevailer de Saint-Louis?”
  • Historian C.L.R. James comments: “At bottom the popular movement had acquired an immense self-confidence. The former slaves had defeated white colonists, Spaniards, and British, and now they were free….Black men who had been slaves were deputies in the French Parliament, black men who had been slaves negotiated with the French and foreign governments. Black men who had been slaves filled the highest positions in the colony. There was Toussaint, the former slave, incredibly grand and powerful and incomparably the greatest man in San Domingo. There was no need of being ashamed of being a black….The revolution had awakened them, had given them the possibility of achievement, confidence, and pride. The psychological weakness, that feeling of inferiority with which the imperials poison colonial people everywhere, these was gone…” (James, 244).


  • The forces of reaction and counter-revolution are gaining in France. The French leaders suspect Toussaint of wanting complete freedom, Tpussaint suspects them of wanting to restore slavery.


  • Toussaint marches on Spanish San Domingo and routs the Spanish troops; the Spanish formally hand over the colony.
  • Toussaint writes to Napoleon Bonaparte in France telling him that he has relieved the French agent of his duties. Toussaint is laying the ground-work for an independent nation. But, according to C.L.R. James, he makes a fatal mistake, his only one in years of battle and maneuvers: "His error was to neglect of his own people. They did not understand what he was doing or where he was going. He took no trouble to explain. It was dangerous to explain, but still more dangeours not to explain. His temperament, close and self-contained, was one that kept its own counsel. Thus, the masses thought that he had taken Spanish San Domingo to stop the slave traffic, and not as a safeguard against the French..." (James, 240)
  • Toussaint sets out to govern the colony under a military dictatorship--albeit a benevolent one. He is still under the French command. He advocates racial equality, hard work, high morality, and public education. Race prejudice, the curse of San Domingo for two hundred years, is vanishing. In a year and a half Toussaint restores cultivation to two-thirds what it was at San Domingo's height. And this is a country devastated by war. He builds schools, roads, theaters. He sends black and mulatto children to school in Europe so that they can return to govern. All he wants is time. Visitors remark that there is a new spirit in the land.
  • Toussaint sends many letters to Napoleon asking for teachers and technicians to rebuild the colony. Napoleon never answers. Toussaint knows that he and his people are safe as long as the British and the French are fighting each other. One day the war will end, and San Domingo will once again have to fight for its freedom.
  • San Domingo does not have peace. The white colonists cause trouble, while the maritime bourgeoisie in France, the ones who profit so much from trade in human beings, are gaining power. In addition, Napoleon hates blacks.


  • England signs the peace treaty with France. Napoleon sends twenty thousand troops to San Domingo under the command of General LeClerc, the largest force ever to leave France. Their purpose--to reinstitute slavery.


  • Even though he is holding a strong position, Toussaint sues for peace. The terms are that all of the black soldiers and officers maintain their rank. He wants to maintain the army and end the destruction. LeClerc happily agrees.
  • Toussaint retires to his plantation.
  • Tricked into coming to Le Cap, Toussaint is arrested, bound, and sent to France.
  • Toussaint dies in prison.
  • Forces led by Jean Jacques Dessalines defeat the French.
  • Declaration of Independence is read. The new state is renamed Haiti.
  • Dessalines is crowned.


  • Dessalines orders all whites massacred.

C.L.R. James writes: "The massacre of the whites was a tragedy; not for the whites. For these old slave-owners, those who burnt a little powder in the arse of a Negro, who buried him alive for insects to eat, who were well treated by Toussaint, and who, as soon as they got the chance, began their old cruelties again; for those there is no need to waste one tear or one drop of ink. The tragedy was for the blacks and the mulattoes. It was not policy but revenge, and revenge has no place in politics. The whites were no longer to be feared, and such purposeless massacres degrade and brutalise a population, especially one which was just beginning as a nation and had had so bitter a past. The people did not want it--all they wanted was freedom, and independence seemed to promise that" (James, 373, 374)

San Domingo, 1788: The Colonial Reality

In San Domingo there are big whites and small whites. The big whites are the planters and large merchants. The clerks, artisans, grocers, vagabond, debtors, thieves are the small whites. No white is a servant, no white does work if he can get a black person to do it for him. Skin color and racial prejudice are the fundamental principles of the society.

A man calls fro the barber. The barber arrives dressed in silk with cane and sword followed by four slaves. One slave combs the hair, another curls it, the third dresses it, and the fourth cleans up. One isn’t fast enough and the barber smacks him, knocking him down. When they are done they leave, following the white barber, who is walking out like an aristocrat.

The slaves do everything—except receive the money.

~See C.L. R. James, The Black Jacobins, 33

San Domingo, 1790: Arithmetic of Racism

François is the son of a white man and a mulatto. He is a quarteroon, 96 parts white and 32 parts black.

Marie is also a quarteroon produced by a white and a marabou in the proportion of 88 to 40; her half-sister is the product of a white and a sacatra in the proportion of 72 to 56.

Christophe is a sang-mele with 127 parts white to 1 part black. In the arithmetic of racism, he is still a man of color, not entitled to the privilege of whites.

~C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins, 38

San Domingo, 1791: The Beginning

It is becoming a long hot summer. While the rich white planters enjoy cold drinks on the veranda, drums are beating in the hills. They are worshipping their tribal gods, say the whites. How primitive and simple-minded, say the whites.

In the hills, a tall man stands behind a make-shift altar. Speaking in a deep penetrating voice, he tells the assembled slaves that it is time to revolt. It is time to avenge the wrongs, it is time to gain freedom. The man’s name is Boukman.

Eight days later, on August 22 at midnight, one hundred thousand slaves begin a movement that will break their chains and found a nation. In a moment, twelve hundred coffee and two hundred sugar plantations are in flames….the whole horizon a wall of flames…Such was their voracity that for three weeks we could barely distinguish between day and night….

~Lerone Bennett Jr., Before the Mayflower, 113-115


San Domingo, 1791: Ideas Can Make History

A priest named Abbe Raynal wrote a book, famous in this time, calling for a slave revolution. He wrote:

Natural liberty is the right which nature has given to everyone to dispose of himself according to his will….These are memorable and eternal truths—the foundation of all morality, the basis of all government; will they be contested? Yes!...A courageous chief only is wanted. Where is he, that great man whom Nature owes to her vexed, oppressed, and tormented children? Where is he? He will appear, doubt it not; he will come forth and raise the sacred standard of liberty.

The man holding the book has read those lines many times. A courageous chief only is wanted. Who is he? The man reading those lines is forty-five years old, a carriage driver, steward of livestock, and a slave. Already his hair is turning grey. It is always the blacks who suffer the most, is a phrase he often says.   His name—Toussaint Breda, soon to be known to the world as Toussaint L’Ouvertune.

~C.L. R. James, The Black Jacobins, 25

San Domingo, 1793: The Opening

On August 29, Toussaint Breda makes this call to all slaves:

Brothers and friends. I am Toussaint L’Ouverture.  My name is perhaps known to you. I have undertaken vengeance. I want Liberty and Equality to reign in San Domingo. I work to bring them into existence. Unite yourselves to us, brothers, and fight with us for the same cause….

Your very humble and very obedient servant,

(signed) Toussaint L’Ouverture


At the news of another victory by Toussaint, the French say, “This man makes an opening everywhere.” “L’Ouverture” means opening.

~C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins, 125


Historywiz: The Slave Who Defeated Napoleon

Hartford-hwp: The Haitian Revolution Revisited


Toussaint L'Ouverture

San Domingo, 1797: Declaration of Liberty

You think me a fanatic, for you read history with your prejudices. But fifty years hence, when Truth gets a hearing, the Muse of history will put Phocion for the Greek, Brutus for the Roman, Hampden for the English, Lafayette for France: choose Washington as the bright, consummate flower of our earliest civilization; and then, dipping her pen in the sunlight, will write in the clear blue, above them all, the name of the soldier, the statesman, the martyr, Toussaint L’Ouverture.

~Wendell Phillips, Quoted in Lerone Bennett, Jr., Before the Mayflower, 117


Toussaint, not six years out of slavery, dictates a letter to his secretary to be sent to the French Director. Working from his broken dialect, the secretaries shape Toussaint’s eloquent ideas into beautiful prose. Fearing that a movement is underway by some in France to restore slavery, he writes:

Do they think that men have been able to enjoy the blessing of liberty will calmly see it snatched away? They supported their chains only so long as they did not know any condition of life more happy than that of slavery. But today when they have left it, if they had a thousand lives they would sacrifice them all rather than be forced into slavery again….

But if, to re-establish slavery in San Domingo, this was done, then I declare to you it would be to attempt the impossible: we have known how to face dangers to obtain our liberty, we shall know how to brave death to maintain it. (Toussaint’s emphasis)

~C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins, 196-197 

The Life of Toussaint L'Ouverture

San Domingo, 1800: Toussaint, the Man

In his room there are always flowers. He loves music and children.

One day while he is riding in the countryside, a ten-year old orphan named Rose stops him crying, Papa, Papa, take me away with you.  He dismounts, takes her in his arms and carries her home. He hands her to his wife Suzanne and says, Here is an orphan who has just called me father. I have accepted the title. Accept also the title of her mother.

In battle he is one with his men. If a cannon needs to be moved, his shoulder is also at the wheel. Wherever the battle is most intense, there he is in the front. Escaping death many times, he seems to lead a charmed life. Once the plume on his hat is shoot off. On another occasion his carriage is riddled. Horses are shot from under him and those next to him are killed. In ten years he is wounded seventeen times.

He governs with the same energy that carried him through years of war. He sleeps only two hours every night. For days he is satisfied with two bananas and a glass of water. He has hundreds of throughout horses scattered throughout the countryside. It is typical for him to ride 125 miles a day.

When he is fighting, it seems to the enemy that he is everywhere, especially where they least expect him. His ability to move troops faster and farther than what seems humanly possible is a main reason for his astounding victories. When governing, he appears out of nowhere to inspect or administer or pass out awards. Then he rides back to his office to dictate hundreds of letters.

He dictates to five secretaries at once.

~See C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins, 249-250, 255

Toussaint L'Ouverture: A Biography and Autobiography

San Domingo, 1801: Black Consul

He seems to know exactly what to say to people.

When the black laborers come to him, nervous about white domination returning, Toussaint takes a jar filled with black corn and then puts in a few pieces of white corn.

You are the black maize; the whites who would enslave you are the white maize. Then he shakes the jar. The laborers leave satisfied.

Other black laborers come to him because the whites and mulattoes have been spreading insults and treating them unjustly. They no long want to obey the whites. Toussaint takes a glass of win and a glass of water and mixes them.

Can you tell which is which? He asks. We must all live together. They go away satisfied.


~See C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins, 251-252

San Domingo, 1801: Toussaint Prepares for More War

Toussaint proclaims:

I took up arms for the freedom of my color, which France alone proclaimed, but she has not right to nullify. Our liberty is no longer in her hands: it is in our own. We will defend it or perish.


Toussaint addresses the army:

You are going to fight against men who have neither faith, law, nor religion. They promise you liberty, they intend your servitude. Why have so many ships traversed the ocean, if not to throw you back into chains?...Uncover your breasts, you will see them branded by the iron of slavery. 

He takes a weapon from a soldier’s hand and raises it into the air.

Here is your liberty!

-C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins, 226, 281, 307

San Domingo, 1801: The War for Independence

If it was Toussaint L’Ouverture who brought the colony to freedom, it is Jean-Jacques Dessalines who will make it an independent nation. Carrying the scars of slavery, Dessalines is relentless:

Take courage, I tell you, take courage. The French will not be able to remain long in San Domingo. They will do well at first, but soon they will fall ill and die like flies. Listen! If Dessalines surrenders to them a hundred times he will deceive them a hundred times….They will not be able to guard the country and they will have to leave. Then I shall make you independent.

For the first time in the French colony of San Domingo, a black leader speaks the word—independence.

-C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins, 314

Jean-Jacques Dessalines

San Domingo, 1802: Betrayal

French General Brunet writes a flowery letter to Toussaint asking him to come to headquarters for an interview. The general gives his personal assurances of good faith and safety.

It is eight in the evening and Toussaint and General Brunet are talking. Brunet begs to be excused for a moment. Immediately grenadiers with fixed bayonets enter the room. Toussaint rises and draws his sword. Assured that they only want to secure his person, he submits.

They bind him, arrest his son and wife, steal his money and personal papers. They rush him and his family on board a frigate bound for France.

As he steps on the boat, he says to the captain: In overthrowing me, you have cut down in San Domingo only the trunk of the tree of liberty. It will spring up again by the roots that are too numerous and deep.

-C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins, 333-334

Paris, 1802: Reading between the Lines

Napoleon carefully reads the letter from General LeClerc. Four-fifths of the army has died from illness. A general insurrection has broken out in the North. The people know of the plan to reinstitute slavery.

…Fifty prisoners have been hung, these men die with an incredible fanaticism; they laugh at death; it is the same with the women….It is not enough to have taken away Toussaint, there are two thousand leaders to be taken away.

-C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins, 345-346

Charles Leclerc

Fort-de-Joux, France, 1803: One End, One Beginning

He is shivering in this cell in the Jura Mountains. The walls drip with moisture, the logs counted so as never to bring real warmth. He collapses every so often into a coma. It is April 7. The guards enter and find Toussaint L’Ouverture sitting in his chair. He is dead.

Napoleon now believes the war is half won.

Across the ocean, in the hills of San Domingo, the former slaves do not know Toussaint has died. They are busy drawing up their declaration of independence.

-C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins, 365

Napoléon Bonaparte

San Domingo, 1803: They Advance Singing

Toussaint L’Ouverture told how the French would meet their fate: “Their bones will be scattered among the mountains and rocks and tossed about by the waves of the sea. Never more will they behold their native land…and liberty will reign over their tomb.”

-Quoted in C.L. R. Fames, The Black Jacobins, 307-308


It is November 16. The blacks and mulattoes are concentrating for a final assault on the heavily fortified Le Cap and its surrounding posts.

That afternoon, Capois Death, a black officer, leads the charge through a withering crossfire of muskets and artillery.

Forward, forward!

The French drive them back. Capois’s horse is killed from under him. He stands up, gestures contempt to the French, and walks ahead crying, Forward, forward.

A French soldier, a staunch believer in slavery, would write fifty years later:

But what men these blacks are! How they fight and how they die! One has to make war against them to know their reckless courage in braving danger when they can no longer have recourse to stratagem….The more they fell, the greater seemed the courage of the rest. They advanced singing….

-C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins, 367-368

François Capois 'La Mort'

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