On this day in history, August 22, 1791, the Haitian war of independence began in flames under the leadership of a religious leader named Bookman. On the night known as the “Night of Fire”, over one hundred thousand slaves rose up against the vastly outnumbered and infinitely hated French. Unlike the French Revolution and the American Revolution, the Haitian revolution was entirely driven by the passions of men and women who had been enslaved most if not all of their lives. Over the next three weeks, the Haitian slaves burned every plantation throughout the fertile regions of Haiti and executed all Frenchmen they could find. The French fled to the seacoast towns and pleaded with France to help them out while the island burned.
Inspired by French Revolutionary ideology and angered by generations of abuse at the hands of white planters, the initial slave uprising was quelled within several days, but ongoing fighting between the slaves, free blacks, and planters continued. The great hero of the Haitian Revolution, François Dominique Toussaint L’Overture, was compared to George Washington and later to Napolean Bonaparte, was not even part of the original revolution. Although he was free, L’Ouverture joined the slave insurgency and quickly developed a reputation first as a capable soldier and then as military secretary to Georges Biassou, one of the insurgency’s leaders.
He didn’t participate in the burning of the plantations or the executions of the slaveowners, but he rose to his own when he realized that the revolution could not hold unless the slaves became militarily and politically organized to resist outside pressures. His first move when he joined the revolution was to train a small military group. He then realized that the Haitian slaves, who now occupied the eastern 2/3 of Haiti (now the Dominican Republic), were caught between three contending European forces, all of whom wanted Haiti for themselves. The French, of course, wanted Haiti back. The Spanish and English saw the revolution as an opportunity for seizing Haiti for themselves. Toussaint’s great genius was to achieve what he wanted for the slaves by playing each of these powers off of each other, for they all realized that the slaves were the key to gaining Haiti. In the end, Toussaint allied his forces with the French from 1794 to 1802, he was the dominant political and military leader in the French colony. Operating under the self-assumed title of General-in-Chief of the Army, L’Ouverture led the French in ousting the British and then in capturing the Spanish controlled half of the island. By 1801, although Saint Dominque remained ostensibly a French colony, L’Ouverture was ruling it as an independent state. He drafted a constitution in which he reiterated the 1794 abolition of slavery and appointed himself governor for “the rest of his glorious life.”