The Haitian Revolution: Slave Revolts, Civil War, and Revolution in Haiti, 1791-1804

Of the many celebrated, little known, or completely forgotten conflicts of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Haitian Revolution fought from 1791-1804 is one of the most culturally relevant conflicts. Currently the Haitian Revolution has garnered more attention from military and popular historians, which as a study as a revolt, rebellion and colonialist war nevertheless deserves more attention from historians.

Luckily a resurgence in the study and historical interpretation of this period has occurred, with more many books written or currently being written on Napoleon’s ‘West Indian Policy’ and campaign within the context of the greater Haitian Revolution period from the Haitian/Caribbean perspective.

Soldier & Haitian patriot, François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture

As a French colony, Saint Domingue what is today the nation of Haiti, and the greater island of Hispaniola in general, split in half by the Spanish and French in the early colonial period-had been under the threat of a massive slave rebellion and middle class revolution for five years before the events of the French Revolution. Saint Domingue had come under the implied but specific control of the French plantation owners who relied on slave labor to make a hefty profit through the lucrative growing of sugar which was in high demand in Europe and America in the 1700 and 1800’s.

Slave rebellions and Mulatto revolts, 1790-17

It was the French Revolution indeed and its great turmoil which lead to the rise of the Haitian independence movement which began most certainly as a rebellion of slaves, which eventually mobilized all castes of Haiti at this time including free men of color (mulattos), some of whom were very rich and well connected sons of White planters. Other patriots included outlaw slaves living in the mountains known as maroons. These two groups played a major part in the early rebellions of 1790-1792, leading up to a 1792 decree which made free men of color (many of whom were mixed heritage Haitians) legal citizens.

'Pantheon of Haitian revolutionary heroes 1790-1804' Rebels, Generals, Emperors, Kings & Presidents of Haiti

The Haitian Revolution was fought sporadically often in isolated conflicts as well as in several important inter-connected wars and battles. There was significant infighting especially between the predominantly slave and former slave militias, and the private armies & regiments' of the mulatto generals, most notably André Rigaud. Rigaud was a well known noble, a veteran of the French mission to America during the American Revolution he controlled close to 7,000 soldiers in south of Haiti before emancipation as a dictator-general.

Rigaud was an influential mulatto supported by the French whose personal rivalry with General Toussaint Louverture led Haiti into the first rebellion as an united but not technically a sovereign nation during the War of Knives, 1799-1800. In the aftermath of this war future president and emperor of an independent Haiti, General Jean-Jacques Dessalines was ordered to the rebellious territory, where his forces slaughtered, burned, and pillaged the mulatto villages and settlements, killing perhaps 10,000 people or more.

André Rigaud, influential French educated general who fought Toussaint in 1799-1800 & in 1802

Haiti as first a semi-independent unincorporated territory and later as a young nation, became an important secondary theatre in the growing Napoleonic conflicts of 1798-1815. Led by the historically under appreciated leadership of Toussaint Louverture (b.1742-1803), one of the greatest for lack of a better term, New World African leaders of the 18th-19th centuries. He was an able commander of soldiers, charismatic and cunning on campaign and on the battlefield. Toussaint was  a nation builder, a Haitian patriot and later martyr and revolutionary hero then as well as now in Haitian and Latin American culture.

As leader of a nominally independent Haiti at this time, Louverture courted trade and diplomatic treaties with the United States of America and with the British Empire both at war with France at varying times before and after Napoleon's rise. Yet he also maintained a pact with France and at least the appearance of loyalty which few truly believed.  Louverture set the stage for a French invasion when he gained the personal attention of Napoleon I (b.1769-1821), who referred to his later adversary as “This gilded African” following his rise to power and the ouster of the French.

Napoleon's Invasion, The bloody War for Independence & the rise of Jean-Jacques Dessalines

As apart of the ‘West Indian Policy’ which Napoleon inherited following the coup of November 1799 and following the Treaty of Amiens in Europe 1802, an invasion force led by Victor-Emmanuel Leclerc was sent to invade Haiti and take back control from the rebels. Arriving in the port of Cap-Français (Cap-Haïtien) the capital of Saint Domingue at the time, Haitian patriot and future president & King Henri Christophe burned the city rather than let the French take it by arms.

General Leclerc (b.1772-1802), Napoleon's brother-in-law 
and the first French Commander of the Haiti expedition

The Haitians retreated quickly with both Toussaint and Christophe surrendering to General Leclerc’s forces, with eventually Christophe and Jean-Jacques Dessalines working with the French as officers in their army. Though the event remains clouded historically to this day, Touissaint Louverture was offered clemency perhaps but then arrested in an act of treachery later, promptly shipped to a French prison, the Fort-de-Joux near Switzerland, General Touissaint Louverture died a sickly, cold death, alone in the dungeon of his enemy in 1803, thousands of miles from the homeland he fought so hard to control and protect in the decade before.

Battle of Snake Gully, victory for Leclerc's 5th Light Infantry Regiment, Toussaint's last battle

Leclerc as did most of his force died of fever in 1802 and shortly after many of the Haitian generals including Dessalines & Christophe changed sides yet again, openly plotting for a total overthrow of French power in Haiti forever. A popular folk story has it that Dessalines tore the out the white color bar of the French flag in defiance, vowing to drive out & kill the white man to win independence for Haiti, and thus was created the nation Haiti and its flag.

Battle of Vertieres

Eventually the Haitians won total victory over Napoleon & General Rochambeau, winning independence in 1804 through decisive victories in the field, a successful guerrilla campaign, and the eventual French withdrawal following Napoleon’s renewed war with Britain, and his other enemies on the continent in 1805.

 Jean-Jacques Dessalines leads the first independent Haiti as emperor and autocrat before his assassination in 1806, succeeded by Henri Christophe who later became King of Haiti from 1811 until his death in 1820.

Jean-Jacques Dessalines (b.1758-1806), as Emperor, Jacques I, 1804-1806

There are many reasons why the conflicts of the Haitian Revolution are important, the socio-cultural impact being felt most certainly in Haiti today. The greater colonial impact of the revolutionary period on the island of Hispaniola are a unique and critical example of Napoleonic warfare in the dawn of the the modern age, and this is why the Haitian Revolution is a Conflict You Should Know.

Conflicts and Rebellions of the Haitian Revolution 1791-1804

Rebellion of Vincent Ogé & Jean-Baptiste Chavannes 1790-Rebellion of two rich mulatto leaders, inspired by Ogé who been in Paris when the Revolution began. They set up camp with a small contingent of rebels in Grand Riviere where they hoped to rally white & mulatto support to their cause. Eventually defeated in battle, both ringleaders escaped to Spanish Santo Domingo where they were eventually captured and handed over to the French. They were subsequently publicly tortured and executed in March of 1791.

Northern Voodoo Slave Rebellion of August 1791-Inspired by followers of a Haitian voodoo cult the Cape Francois region went into rebellion with hundreds of plantation owners tortured, raped, and murdered with their homes and plantations burned and sacked. An uprising known for the particular brutality inflicted on the white landowners by slaves before French General Assembly forces gained control again.

War with Spain, Britain, and France 1793-1798- Initially led by Frenchman Léger-Félicité Sonthonax (b.1763-1813) after Revolutionary France declares war on Britain. Many white plantation owners and Frenchman (already culturally & politically from metropolitan France) sided with England and it was Sonthonax’s emancipation of August 1793 that set the stage for the rise of Louverture. As author Bob Corbett notes during the years 1794-1798 “he [helped to drive] the British out of Saint- Domingue, overseen the retreat of the Spanish, ousted all genuine French authority and become commander in chief and governor general of the [former coloney/dependent protectorate] Saint-Domingue.”

War of Knives or War of the knife, 1799-1800-Led by General André Rigaud, who had his own mulatto led army in south, where he was known to be a dictator and authoritarian. He allied with two future presidents of Haiti, Jean-Pierre Boyer & Alexandre Pétion, challenging General Toussaint's authority. The rebellion is defeated following the battle for the port of Jacmel, with Rigaud escaping to France where he later has an as audience with Napoleon.

Quasi War, 1799-1800-Franco-American maritime war which General Riguard became apart of on January 1, 1800, engaging in an indecisive naval skirmish with an American merchant convoy with his small convoy of war sloops.

Toussaint’s invasion of Santo Domingo 1801-Haitian army invades Spanish Santo Domingo, technically a French possession but never occupied or turned over officially to the French. General Toussaint becomes the governor-general & de facto leader of the island of Hispaniola, drawing Napoleon’s France back into conflict with what they viewed as a rogue regime in their former rightful colonial possession, Saint Domingue.

Napoleon’s Invasion of Saint Domingue, War for Independence 1802-1804-General Leclerc invades Saint Domingue with 12,000 French soldiers sending the Haitians into the jungles and mountains of the interior. Many Haitian generals turn coat and Touissant Louverture is arrested and imprisoned in France. Eventually the Haitians under Jean-Jacques Dessalines rebel against the French again following the brutal practices of Leclerc’s successor, General Donatien-Marie-Joseph Rochambeau, who was to be killed at the Battle of Nations, LeipzigSaxony, October of 1813. Atrocities mount throughout 1802-1803, perpetrated by both sides trying to frantically end the war. France loses the will and need to fight in Haiti following the renewed war with Britain. The war was all but won by the Haitians at the Battle of Vertieres in 1803 in which Dessalines defeated General Rochambeau’s forces, with Independence Day coming January 1, 1804.

Rebel Haitians and Dominicans fight the Polish Legion  

Suggested Further Reading


  1. Thank you for this concise history...

  2. A very interesting account of the events, thanks very much. You might be interested to know that I've been publishing some eyewitness accounts of the revolution here:


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