Caribbean Did you know? History

Relationship between the French Revolution and the Haitian Revolution

Reason for revolution

The Haitian Revolution was a revolution ignited from below, by the underrepresented majority of the population. A huge majority of the supporters of the Haitian revolution were slaves and freed Africans that were treated unequally by society and the law.


Despite the idealist, rational and utopian thinking surrounding both uprisings, extreme brutality was a fundamental aspect of both uprisings. Besides initial cruelty that created the precarious conditions that bred the revolution, there was violence from both sides throughout the revolution. The period of violence during the French Revolution is known as the Reign of Terror. Those killed via guillotine, “breaking at the wheel”, or some other horrific death machines were perceived as adversaries to the revolution and death toll estimates range from 18,000 to 40,000. Total casualties for the French Revolution are estimated at 2 million. In the Caribbean, total casualties totalled approximately 162,000. Violence in Haiti was largely characterized by military excursions, riots, the killing of slave owners, and guerrilla warfare.

Lasting change

The Revolution in Haiti did not wait on the Revolution in France. The individuals in Haiti relied on no other resolution but their own. The call for modification of society was influenced by the revolution in France, but once the hope for change found a place in the hearts of the Haitian people, there was no stopping the radical reformation that was occurring. The Enlightenment ideals and the initiation of the French Revolution were enough to inspire the Haitian Revolution, which evolved into the most successful and comprehensive slave rebellion. Just as the French were successful in transforming their society, so were the Haitians. On April 4, 1792, The French National Assembly granted freedom to slaves in Haiti and the revolution culminated in 1804; Haiti was an independent nation solely of freed peoples. The activities of the revolutions sparked change across the world. France’s transformation was most influential in Europe, and Haiti’s influence spanned across every location that continued to practice slavery. John E. Baur honours Haiti as the home of the most influential Revolution in history.

Influence of Enlightenment thought

French writer Guillaume Raynal attacked slavery in his history of European colonization. He warns, “the Africans only want a chief, sufficiently courageous, to lead them on to vengeance and slaughter.” Raynal’s Enlightenment philosophy went deeper than a prediction and reflected many French Enlightenment philosophies including those of Rousseau and Diderot, even though it was written thirteen years before the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” The declaration, in contrast, highlighted freedom and liberty but still allowed slaves to be characterized as property.

In addition to Raynal’s influence, Toussaint Louverture was a key Enlightened actor in the Haitian Revolution. Enlightened thought divided the world into “enlightened leaders” and “ignorant masses”; Louverture attempted to bridge this divide between the popular masses and the enlightened few. Louverture was familiar with Enlightenment ideas within the context of European imperialism. He attempted to strike a balance between Western Enlightened thought as a necessary means of winning liberation, and not propagating the notion that it was morally superior to the experiences and knowledge of people of colour on Saint Domingue. As an extension of himself and his Enlightened education, Louverture wrote a Constitution for a new society in Saint-Domingue that abolished slavery. The existence of slavery in Enlightened society was an incongruity that had been left unaddressed by European scholars. Louverture took on this inconsistency directly in his constitution. In addition, Louverture exhibited a connection to Enlightenment scholars through the style, language and accent of this text.

Like Louverture, Jean-Baptiste Belley was also an active participant in the colony’s insurrection. The portrait of Belley by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson depicts a man who encompasses the French view of its colonies. The portrait creates a stark dichotomy between the refinement of French Enlightenment thought and the reality of the situation in Saint Domingue, through the bust of Raynald and the figure of Belley, respectively. While distinguished, the portrait still portrays a man trapped by the confines of race. Girodet’s portrayal of the former National Convention deputy is telling of the French opinion of colonial citizens by emphasizing the subject’s sexuality and including an earring. Both of these racially charged symbols reveal the desire to undermine the colony’s attempts at independent legitimacy, as citizens of the colonies were not able to access the elite class of French Revolutionaries because of their race.

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