Words of the Editor in Chief

A little page of history to understand well the fight to Independence of our Ancestors in Haiti.

For many, the Haitian Revolution started with the rebellion of two affranchis Vincent Oge and Jean Baptiste Chavannes  on the 21- 28th of October 1790 after they learned, while studying in France that,George Jacques Danton and Maximillien Robespierre will never accept that a newly liberated France from the monarchy, promote Slavery in its outreach territories. The word “Freedom” was heard by these two mulattoes while they were studying in France.

It tooks months for Vincent Oge and Jean Baptiste Chavannes to travel from France to England and then with the help of some abolitionists, they reached the United States to purchase arms. They returned to Santo Domingo to spread the good news but they were prepared to impose their will. After failed discussions with the authorities, they started an insurrection with a group of 300 hundred men mainly mulattoes and ” gens de couleur”. They marched to Grand Riviere, south of Cap Haiti with the intention to joint others, take over the city and disarm the white colonists.

The armies of Oge and Chavannes were soon  disbanded, forcing them to take refuge  in the Spanish part of the island of Santo Domingo. On 20 November 1790 both were captured at Hinche, still then under Spanish control but only Oge and his men were returned to the colonial government of Blanchelande in Cap. Vincent Oge and his men were brutally executed by the “Broken on the wheel”  ( Suplice de la Roue”) on the public square in Cap, the 6th of February 1791. Their treatment raised dissatisfaction among the free men of color in the colony.  Ogé became a symbol of the injustices in a colonial slave society, unwilling to accept the benefits of the French Revolution.

Tradition makes us believe that on the 22nd of August 1791 (not the 14th), almost a year after the Oge and Chavannes revolt, a ceremony at Bois Caiman, took place in a wooded and deserted area where 300  mulattoes, maroons, house slaves, commanders, field slaves and free blacks under the directives of a Muslim leader from Jamaica, Boukman ( Book Man), a priest who solemnize a pact to carry the first slave organized revolt. Other believes that Boukman was preaching or performing in a Voodoo ceremony to ignite the followers. They met again at Morne Rouge to revise the plans..

Rumors circulated then, that the white masters and the colonial authorities were on their way to France to discuss a recent decree granting mulattoes and free blacks, full rights in the colony. These rumors were false but served as a stimulus to galvanize the aspirations of the slaves. History will never be able to separate Myths from Facts but would  like to remember this revolt as the beginning of the Haitian Rebellion. Unfortunately, this revolt was crushed two years later.

One needs to note that none of our ancestors lwho participated in the war for Independence like, Toussaint Louverture, Jean Jacques Dessalines, Henry Christophe, Boisrond Tonnere, Capois La Mort, Alexandre Petion or others were present at the Bois Caiman Ceremony.

It is believed that Voodoo, although prohibited from practices, played a singular role in the life of a slave as a religion giving them spiritual force and a psychologic liberation to break in the chains of Slavery. Voodoo  united various rebel factions to help them fight side by side. The 19th and 20th centuries have widely misunderstood this religion and has viewed it as primitive and savage, ignoring its African origins. Other have seen some similarities within the Catholism because the long relation between masters and slaves over the years. The 21th century continues to confirm adepts of this religion.

Bookman and his force of around 2000, burned plantations, taking prisoners and killing whites, while the revolt was spreading in the North ( Cap, Limbe, Port-Margot). His army reached 15000 because the slaves deserted their plantations to fight for freedom. Planters who were unable to protect their plantations, sent for help in Santo Domingo, Jamaica and Cuba. The revolt spreads and become more organized, ruining financially many planters. Half of the 6000 French troop have already perished from endemic diseases. An army volunteer explained why “one dies like flies and that the colony became a graveyard for them”.

The slaves continued to make demands while the entire colonial system was at stake. The agriculture in Saint Domingue can’t survive without its slaves. The Colony Assembly at Saint Marc recognizes by a decree on May 15, 1791, citizenship to mulattoes and free blacks.

Tensions continue among the white planters and finally the National Assembly in France revokes the May 15 decree. In response, the mulattoes joined the slave revolution and took over the west side of Port-au-Prince, cutting the water supply and blocking all access before they got dislodged by the French troops. And while the Cap was burning as well, on the 28th of September 1791, the National Assembly in France granted Amnesty to all free persons. The slaves however intended to continue their revolt.

Boukman was killed in battle in November 1791. His head was transected by the colonists and exposed on a stake in Cap with the inscription: “Head of Boukman, leader of the Rebels”. The rebels did not know how to proceed so they decided to negotiate with the colonists, requesting better conditions on the plantations in exchange for the release of prisoners. The slave troops, on the other hand, vow to continue fighting for freedom, even if it means killing their own leaders. They were violently opposed to compromising or returning to the plantations and realized that the negotiations were doomed.

At the end of the month, the Colonial Assembly refused all the slaves’ demands and the rebel leaders agreed to return to war but unfortunately, out of supply and outnumbered, they abandoned camps and retreated to the mountains leaving behind women and children that the French troops massacred.

About 3000 slaves returned to the plantations. The colonists celebrated their victory while some determined leaders stayed at large to continue the fight. Indeed in January 1792, the rebels recaptured Ouanaminthe district.

Louis XVI granted equal political rights to the free blacks and mulattoes with the Jacobin decree and sent Leger Felicite Sonthonax to re-enforce the ruling.

In May 1792 Spain declares war against England and France. In Saint-Domingue, the European powers battle for control of the lucrative colony. Blacks and mulattoes in the South ally with the British to begin an open rebellion. In Cap, civil commissioners Blanchelande and Sonthonax flee for protection as rebels attack the city. Every street becomes a battlefield. Over 10,000 slaves in Le Cap are now in open revolt.

Threatened on all sides, French colonists realize that they need the slaves’ support to keep control of Saint-Domingue. Civil commissioners issue a proclamation guaranteeing freedom and the full rights of French citizenship to all slaves who join them to defend France from foreign and domestic enemies. Some leaders refused, allying instead with the Spanish.

A group of marooned slaves answered the call, descending upon the capital “like an avalanche,” and forces the invaders to retreat. Chaos reigns. The entire city burns down and white colonists fight each other. Soon Spain, England and France are to battle constantly for Saint-Domingue.

Civil commissioner Étienne Polverel arrives from France and the slaves offered to negotiate with the colonists once more. Polverel refused to meet their demands but does agree to grant an unconditional pardon to the slaves who surrender.

In France, the Monarchy is abolished and a new Republic is formed. Louis XVI is decapitated. In October 1792 The Vicomte of Rochambeau is appointed Governor General of the Island. This is then, in February 1793, that Toussaint Louverture, a rebel leader, join the Spanish forces to fight the French who declared war to England and Holland.

To Follow

Maxime Coles, MD

Return to homepage