Introduction The upheaval and the change of societal structures does not happen spontaneously and simply. Revolutions, which is what often these changes are called, happen due to a complex ideas, thoughts, and actions. These revolutions happen over years with tensions and conflicts plaguing people over an area or ideology. Revolutions are important movements in history because of their ability to transform a country and change the course of lives themselves. One such revolution is the Haitian revolution. The people of color on the island of Haiti faced turmoil over years which became a full scale uprising and changed the course of life on the island.
All though the Haitian Revolution is not a revolution that is in the front of many history textbooks, it is certainly an important one. The Haitian Revolution influenced many other revolutions in the western world and it is important to understand the causes and the impacts of the revolution. Some argue that the causes of the revolution are the influences of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, and others argue that the causes are due to the oppression of the people on the Island. This leads to the question: To what extent was the Enlightenment the cause of the Haitian Revolution? In order to properly answer this question, first the nature of the Haitian colony should be explored, then the Enlightenment should be defined, Haiti Before examining the influences on the Haitian revolution, it is necessary to discern the state of matters in Haiti. Contrary to the ideas of popular opinion, the country of Haiti was not small or insignificant, in fact it was the “fastest growing and most prosperous of all the New World colonies” (Popkin 10) because of the ideal growing conditions on the land. Like any other colonised country during that time period, the country operated under a class and race structure established under European Imperialism. Especially in Haiti, the “the figures were 6,668 whites and 35,451 slaves” (Popkin 12), which indicates the structure of one or two white figureheads owning massive plantations full of slaves, and exerting control over them just because of the sheer number of slaves in the colony.
It is also worth noting that because of the number of slaves that there were, an uprising would overwhelm the white plantation owners. The class structure was clearly organized into “three distinct social castes: whites; gens de couleur, which consisted of mulattoes and free blacks; and the slaves. The whites and gens de couleur held slaves.” (Nicholson 90). This is one reason why it is extremely important for one to understand the causes behind the Haitian revolution it was not underdeveloped area. Not only was it a massive hub of political and economic activity, but it also had a developed class structure. These were the ideal situations for a multitude of tensions between the classes of people, and it gives economic and social insight into the situation that allowed for political upheaval of the people of entire country and the destruction of their seemingly perfect European structure.
This class structure is important because often times colonies were set up with similar class structures, and the success of the Haitian revolution set an exemplar the slaves systems that existed like the ones in Haiti could be destroyed. Another major reason to discern the causes the revolution is that the reformed state had a major impact throughout the Caribbean and throughout colonised countries because “the Haitian model of state drove xenophobic fear into the hearts of whites from Boston to Buenos Aires” ( Knight 105), and the success posed an opportunity for other oppressed groups of people, who hoped to rebel against the tyranny they faced. In fact the Haitian revolution inspired Simon Bolivar ( Nicholson 91). The success and the far reaching impact of the Haitian revolution speaks volumes of its importance, and it was very much like the Enlightenment in this matter. The Enlightenment and InfluencesAs humans observe history, there are key political ideas and movements that change the course of thinking and shape the structures of government and people in an irreversible way.
An example of this is the Enlightenment movement, one of the biggest political movements that brought about profound changes throughout the world in terms of thinking. The Enlightenment was a radical political, philosophical, and religious movement that “spread through Europe since the Renaissance” (Beales 7), that originated in France from French philosophical thinkers such as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Rene Descartes, and Thomas Hobbes. These philosophical and political leaders redefined the naturally occurring human rights and their relationship to their government.
During the process of redefining, however, established systems and orders began to be challenged. This “rebellious” thinking allowed for the ideas of rights to “life, liberty, and estate” (Locke 141), and equality for the masses not just enter the mind of the “bourgeoisie” but also the minds of the people in lower socioeconomic statuses. This philosophy was more than just theory, however it was directly used by many revolutionaries such as Thomas Jefferson, who infamously quoted Locke on his ideas of “life, liberty, and estate” into the Declaration of Independence of the United States, and the “Frenchmen at home and overseas were hopelessly and inevitably divided over the popular political slogans …- Liberty, Equality and Fraternity as well as the Rights of Man” . These philosophies slowly redefined the thinking of people as they more and more turned to these to answer their questions about human rights, and they were radical because for the first time it began destroying the notion of blatant inequality by giving these natural rights to all people, regardless of class.
The core of the Enlightenment was equality and the freedom of men, and it is important to define the ideas of the Enlightenment because defining them makes tracing the use of these ideas throughout history easier. The Enlightenment was a definite inspiration to multiple revolutions, and can be seen as a far reaching political movement, because of the global impact that the ideas had. As previously mentioned, Thomas Jefferson and other Revolutionaries used the Enlightenment philosophies in the Declaration of Independence which was direct overthrowing of the British rule in the United States of America. The Enlightenment not just influenced the Revolutionary war in the United States, but also the French revolution as well. During the French revolution ” Human rights philosophy had helped undermine the traditional monarchy” (Hunt 18). The people of france were able to redefine their rights as humans, and give themselves power, which is also something that the slaves in Haiti wanted to do for themselves. The impact the Enlightenment had on both the American and French revolutions indicates that the power and reach that these ideas had on the human psyche.
Although the Enlightenment had enough momentum and power to influence multiple countries, it may not have directly influenced the revolution in Haiti itself. Most of the people who had access to the ideas of the Enlightenment were the leaders and the symbolic figures of it, and the slaves on the island rarely did. It is important to understand that the ideas of the Enlightenment, however impactful, have to be evident in the ideas of the people. This was not the case of Haiti. There are some clear Enlightenment principles in the movement, but there are other influences as well.
Toussaint L’Ouverture No revolution is complete without major leaders. These leaders are important because they determine how the revolution is shaped and the purpose of the revolution itself. Observing their roles indicates the impact their ideologies have on the revolution, and learning where and how the leaders learned and developed the ideas of the revolutions can help determine the causes of the revolution . Arguably the biggest leader in the Haitian Revolution was Toussaint L’Ouverture because ” he dominated… the scene. The history of the San Domingo revolution will therefore largely be a record of his achievements and his political personality” (Scott 71) and, like the people he was leading, he came from a slave background.
Looking into Toussaint L’ouverture can indicate the philosophy that led the revolution. Toussaint L’Ouverture was ” a french officer in command of an army of some 5,000 men” (James 145). This was a position of power and it was left largely “unchecked” (James 146) and it allowed him to surround himself with the people that he wanted to (James 145). This demonstrates the multitude of the power that was given to Toussaint, which was not usually given to many people of color in Haiti. And while he was in the army ” the Republic, liberty and equality gave the army morale, its centre was Toussaint himself” (James 147). The ideas of liberty and equality are the key principles of the Enlightenment philosophy, which Toussaint was a center of. The army gave him an idea of things that were happening in the new French Republic, the Republic built on the Enlightenment. Toussaint being the core of the army allowed him to absorb these Enlightenment ideas and reflect these ideas onto the revolution.
His power is also exemplified because he was both the center of the revolution and the army. It is clear that these ideas were put into use because “Personal industry, social morality… racial equality… lay foundations for the new State”( James 247). He was definitely the embodiment of the Enlightenment and he put those ideas in use because ” he now meant to incorporate everything he found valuable in European culture”( Bell 200).
But despite all of these influences, the biggest Enlightenment idea in Toussaint’s mind was that ” he strove to become something that had been denied to him all his life: a Frenchman” (Gerard). He clearly demanded equality, the most key Enlightenment principle, which was a rare thing a person of color during that time period demanded. In addition to the army ideas, Toussaint also got ideas of the Enlightenment because he ” was a partly literate man” (Gerard). Reading is a very obviously a powerful tool for a colored person in a slave state.
Toussaint’s ability to read was not one that most slaves and people of color had on the island, because the white people thought that reading and writing gave tools to the slave. He read often and he read the Enlightenment pamphlets that were written by the Amis de Noirs (Nicholson 90). He was able to use the ideas from these pamphlets because he was able to read. In addition to the pamphlets on the island, Toussaint also had exposure to Abbé Raynal (Nicholson 90). In Histoire philosophique des Deux Indes Raynal denounces the idea of slavery, and white plantations owner were desperate to get the book banned ( Popkin 29).
These ideas are powerful and his reading and exposure allowed him to establish ideas of revolution in his mind.The People of HaitiIt is important to examine mentalities of the actual people of the island. Toussaint may be important and the center of the revolution itself, but he himself is not the representation of the people, nor the motive of the people. Often times “the slaves often construed the idea of emancipation to fit their own frame of reference, defining freedom from slavery as freedom from work” (Nicholson) which was an idea ” that continually plagued” ( Nicholson) Toussaint.
His Enlightenment ideas led to him establishing a European culture on the island, but those ideas were not what inspired the people because they were in clear fundamental disagreement with Toussaint about the nature of freedom. It is necessary to know what motivated the people of the island, because that is what caused the rebellion of the people. The ideas that Toussaint had would not have motivated the people on the island the same way they motivated Toussaint, and a revolution has no power unless the people are behind it. Although the Enlightenment philosophies are clear in the actions of Toussaint, they may not be what generally influenced the people of the Haiti to take action of the state of matters on the island.
Toussaint had these ideas about him because he ” was a partly literate man who regularly visited Cap” (Gerard), and so did some other free colored people, but the other slaves on the island did not have the same access because “Uneducated slaves could not philosophize on the Rights of Man, as elite free people of color were prone to do… they understood the French Revolution (Gerard). The general population just did not have the same ideas that Toussaint had, and most of their ideas come off of the French revolution, because they understood what happened and the implications of the Revolution. They understood that “the white slaves killed their master” (Gerard), which was extremely dangerous for the white slave owners because they constantly feared an uprising and they believed that the news of the French revolution would make that mentality possible in the slaves. Any such uprising would cleary prove fatal to the white plantation owners because of the sheer amount of slaves on the island of Haiti.One of the biggest causes of the tension on the island was the constant fear that the white plantation owners held of the slaves on the island. ” Whites lived in fear of being poisoned by their slave servants or, more commonly, of seeing their livestock decimated by deliberate sabotage” (Popkin 28). The constant fear caused them to argue that ” slave owners had to be free to torture or execute slaves who resisted them” ( Popkin 28), and sometimes they would. It is easy to see how this anxiety can snowball into fearful oppression.
Any prolonged oppression does not last long, which is evident by the multiple revolutions that happened before the Haitian Revolution. Slowly this oppression and lack of basic human rights led to the rise of tensions between the slaves and the slave owners. Slaves would often run “away and become ‘maroons'” and they would form small free communities (Popkin 28).
The communities were an issue because the white people lived in constant fear of being overthrown and killed by free people. In their fear they only made matters worse. Any idea of revolution they met with harsh violence and intense reactions.
Such was the case of Vincent Ogé. He was a free man of color who used to be a lobbyist in Paris for the equality of the slave population in Haiti. He came to Saint-Domingue and “started a small rebellion” (Popkin 35). He was brutally executed, which worsened the relations between the white slave owners and the colored populations on the island (Popkin 36). There was brutality at even the smallest ideas of rebellion and change. The brutality led the people of color and the slaves on the island to hate the white people that were oppressing them (Nicholson 90).
As a result of their suffering the runaway “maroons” came back and ” destroyed the most richest and valuable plantations in France’s largest and most important colony” (Popkin 17). The former slaves on the island clearly did not like the control of the white people, and they rebelled in small amounts, like burning the plantations but there was not a clear organization of rebellion that was feared. Eventually these small tensions grew into one and “in August of 1791, the first organized black rebellion ignited the twelve-year San Domingo Revolution” ( Slave Resistance). As the slaves continued they burned down the plantations of the white people and they took control of the island (Slave Resistance). Toussaint being a intelligent general bonded the slaves on the island “with a sense of community” (Nicholson 95).
Through this sense of community he was able to keep the island of Haiti together and govern them according to the Enlightenment principles that he felt were essential for the advancements of the Haitian people.