Haiti’s Slave Revolt and the American Civil War
by Jack R. Johnson
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY DOUG DOBEY
Although most Americans are unfamiliar with its history, Haiti has had a dramatic influence on the cultural shape and politics of our nation to this day.
According to Historian, Richard Hooker, in 1791, the French plantations on the island of Hispaniola offered some of the cruelest conditions that African-American slaves had ever suffered. But the plantations in Haiti differed from North American plantations in one key way: the coffee and sugar plantations required vast amounts of labor. As a result, the slave population greatly outnumbered the French colonialists. The slaves by their sheer numbers were allowed to retain much of their culture and to establish more or less independent social systems.
On August 22, 1791, egged on by a voodoo priest named Boukman, over one hundred thousand slaves rose up against the French plantation owners. Outnumbered, the French fled to relatively safe regions along the coast and begged for assistance from Napoleon Bonaparte, then the leader of France. According to Hooker, “Aside from the fact that Bonaparte did not like sharing power, he was also a deep-seated racist. Napoleon sent General Victor Leclerc with over twenty thousand soldiers to unseat the leader of the rebellion.” The slaughter that Leclerc perpetrated on non-combatants would not be equaled until the Jewish pogroms and the holocaust of World War II. Despite the slaughter, the Haitian revolution was eventually successful.
When reports of the bloodshed caused by the Haitian revolution reached the United States it triggered considerable agitation and fear –and not without reason. The Haitian revolution eventually allowed former French slaves to gain independence and create the republic of Haiti in 1804. Many whites from Haiti had fled to Charleston as refugees during the uprisings, and brought their slaves with them. In the city, the French /Haitian slaves’ accounts of the revolts spread among the Charleston’s slaves. At least one free man named Denmark Vesey was inspired by these tales. He formed a plan that involved killing the slaveholders in Charleston, and liberating the Charleston slaves. He intended to set sail with the freed slaves to the new black republic of Haiti.
Vesey almost succeeded. It was only the day before they began the revolt that a slave, who knew the entire plot, betrayed Vesey. He and his co-leaders were hung, but only one confessed.
Nat Turner from Virginia had considerably more success in his uprising. Influenced by the Vesey attempt, Turner began his revolt on the evening of August 22, 1831. He and his followers moved from house to house throughout the night and executed every white plantation owner they could find with the exception of a white family that owned no slaves. Turner was eventually captured and hung, but the damage was done. Virginians were seized with panic. Hundreds fled the county and many left the state for good.
Reacting to the Haitian Revolution, and the various slave revolts, particularly Nat Turner’s, Southern slaveholders increased the repression of their own slaves. Laws were passed “to control the movements of Blacks and to prohibit the assembly of free Blacks and slaves.” In many instances, the simple education of slaves was strictly forbidden. This repression in turn infuriated the Northern abolitionists and galvanized opposition to slavery, inevitably increasing tensions that led directly to the American Civil War.