Enslavement of African people was widespread in the colonial Americas, and one of the most brutal slave labor systems was on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. The earliest known slave revolt in the New World took place here in 1522, but a much greater uprising was yet to come. The modern nation of Haiti, which now shares this island with the Dominican Republic, owes its existence to the most successful African slave rebellion in history.

St. Domingue Colony

Hispaniola was divided between Spain and France in a 1697 treaty, which led to the establishment of the French colony of St. Domingue in the western part of the island. To provide labor for the colony’s sugar and coffee plantations, hundreds of thousands of slaves were imported from French colonies in Africa. The French plantation owners effectively ruled St. Domingue, often treating their slaves even worse than the government in France considered acceptable.

Hopes for Freedom

By the late 1700s, intellectuals in France were already beginning to call for the abolition of slavery, but the biggest spark for change was the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. This massive upheaval of French society brought about declarations of equality for all, potentially including African slaves in the colonies. The French colonists in charge of St. Domingue furiously opposed these new ideals, but hope and inspiration began spreading among the slaves nonetheless.

Open Rebellion

In August 1791, a highly-organized revolt broke out among slaves in the north of St. Domingue. The rebel army soon grew to include tens of thousands of deserting slaves, who burned their former masters’ fields, cut down all who stood against them, and took rapid control of large areas of the colony’s countryside. A brutal war against French troops ensued, and later transitioned into an international conflict as rival colonial powers England and Spain declared war on revolutionary France.

The Road to Independence

As the revolution dragged on, an ex-slave named Francois Dominique Toussaint Louverture received the backing of the new French Republic to govern St. Domingue. Louverture ruled Haiti as a military dictator, warding off Spanish and British invasions but gradually drifting apart from France at the same time. By 1802, he had taken so much power that Napoleon Bonaparte, France's new leader, sent in the army to reassert colonial control. However, Napoleon's troops were decimated by Louverture's men in a new round of warfare, and fled the island in defeat the next year. On New Year’s Day of 1804, the former slaves declared an independent country named Haiti, only the second colony in the New World to achieve independence after the United States.