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Haiti: From Slavery to Emancipation

The Creation of Wealth and The Policies Justification

Fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were crucial for European development as a bourgeois society. However, this socio-political transformation was done by means of exploiting new vast territories and enslaving their indigenous people. Sugar industry, which was brought and intensified in America, was an essential part of capitalist production and accumulation (Dupuy, 2019). In doing so, European countries gained their superiority in the international economic system.

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The transatlantic slave trade was an extensive and large-scale economic system. The major countries involved in the slave trade – Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, England, and France – had the opportunity to make significant profits on every stretch of the “triangular” trade route (Obregon, 2018). Many European cities thrived on income from agricultural production built and supported literally “on the backs” of African slaves.

The practice of slavery was often justified by considerations of a philanthropic or religious nature and was even codified by law in the infamous “Black Code” of 1685. This French law determined the rights and obligations of slaves and their masters in colonies in two parts of the American continent and, in particular, stated slaves as movable property (Dupuy, 2019). The Black Code established a rigid disciplinary system that included corporal punishment and stigma for petty crimes, but the law was often portrayed as a “boon” for slaves and a means of protection against abuse by masters.

The Beginning of Slavery in Haiti and the Troubled Transition to Freedom

The island of Haiti was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492, after which the local population was almost completely exterminated. Having finished with the natives and the gold reserves on the island, at the beginning of the 16th century, the colonialists began to import slaves from Africa to Haiti and cultivate sugar cane plantations (Eller, 2016). In 1677, the French settled in the western part of the island, which is now occupied by the Republic of Haiti. The eastern part, the future territory of the Dominican Republic, still remained with the Spaniards. Then, taking advantage of France’s weakening after the revolution, slaves in the western part of the island conducted a series of successful uprisings and declared independence in 1804. The eastern part’s fate remained uncertain for a long time: its inhabitants either called on Spain to take an active part in their affairs, then became the object of annexation by neighboring Haiti, and independence there was finally established only in 1865.

Years before the start of the revolution, the mulattoes tried to expand their own rights. They were influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment and the Great French Revolution. Many mulattoes were educated people and read the works of, for example, Guillaume Reynal, who criticized the colonialists’ policies. In 1789-1790, the mulatto planter Vincent Auger went to France. He interpreted the laws adopted by the Constituent Assembly of France in his own way. In particular, he decided that whites and wealthy people of color should have equal rights. Upon his return to the island, he demanded that the authorities grant suffrage for mulattoes. The San Domingo government refused him. Then Auger raised an uprising, which was not crowned with success, and the insurgent was executed. Even though Auger fought only for the mulattoes’ rights and did not say a word about the abolition of slavery, his uprising pushed the slaves to their own rebellion.

The rebellion began in August, and by September, the slaves had already destroyed almost a thousand white residents, many coffee and sugar plantations. This was a significant loss: by then, Haiti had been producing nearly 40% of the world’s sugar (Obregon, 2018). The planters responded by executing nearly 10,000 slaves. At the same time, France proclaimed the equality of all people of all skin colors. To suppress the rebellion, a special commission was sent to the island. The white population of Haiti turned to the UK for help.

In 1795, the island passed into the hands of France. Louverture was appointed commander-in-chief of the army of San Domingo. Under his leadership, it was possible to completely suppress the resistance of the royalists (Eller, 2016). In January 1801, the Colonial Assembly on the island again proclaimed the final abolition of slavery. Napoleon did not recognize the Haitian constitution and sent his troops to the island. He restored slavery to the island in 1802, and the Haitians again had to rebel. They were saved by an unexpected yellow fever epidemic, which knocked down the commander-in-chief of the French Charles Leclerc and most of his army. Great Britain also came to the aid of the rebels. The French had to withdraw from the western part of Haiti, but they retained control over the eastern part. In 1804, the independence of San Domingo was declared. Under the old Indian name Haiti, the island became the first country in Latin America to throw off its colonial shackles (Eller, 2016). In 1805, the new constitution finally confirmed the abolition of slavery.

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However, the misadventures of the island did not end there. Despite the freedom, the life of the black population has not improved. They massacred almost all white-skinned people, leaving only doctors, Polish deserters, and German colonists (Dupuy, 2019). The outbreak of conflict between blacks and mulattoes led to Haiti’s being divided into two parts: the State of Haiti in the north, held by the blacks, and the Republic of Haiti in the south, where the mulattoes ruled. The State of Haiti, torn apart by uprisings, did not last long, and soon became part of the Republic.

In San Domingo, despite the anti-French riots, the Haitians did not manage to stay. The briefly proclaimed Independent State of Spanish Haiti was soon destroyed and declared the Dominican Republic (Eller, 2016). Thus, the island, which had lived from uprising to uprising for many years, finally freed itself from the colonial influence and abolished slavery.

The Colonial Legacies

The Haitian Revolution had a significant impact on the African American movements and the subsequent abolition of slavery in many countries of America. Another of the fundamental, but still controversial problems of the Haitian revolution, is the question of the nature of the social order that arose as a result and, consequently, about the revolution’s nature. On the one hand, the revolution abolished slavery, and this is its enduring significance. On the other hand, the specific system of state plantation economy created by the revolution with the forced, but at the same time, paid labor of former slaves posed such a difficult task for researchers that most of them avoid it.

It was not until the end of the eighteenth century that the world embarked on the path of free labor. In fact, compensation is provided for abolition laws in favor of those who have suffered the damage. In the Americas, slave owners are seen as the aggrieved party to be compensated (Obregon, 2018). The slaves are then a legal property, although human, in which the planter has invested a part of his fortune. Harming the property of others, whatever its nature, involves compensation. Some consider that the former slaves are also entitled to compensation for years of work done without pay. These rare proposals in favor of the new freedmen were never followed up (Obregon, 2018). From pressure on the government to legal action, all claims for slavery reparations have so far failed.


Dupuy, A. (2019). Rethinking the Haitian Revolution: Slavery, Independence, and the Struggle for Recognition. Rowman & Littlefield.

Eller, A. (2016). We dream together: Dominican independence, Haiti, and the fight for Caribbean freedom. Duke University Press.

Obregon, L. (2018). Empire, Racial Capitalism and International Law: The Case of Manumitted Haiti and the Recognition Debt. Leiden Journal of International Law, 31(3), 597-616. Web.

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