Black lives in Europe

Three portraits of the Haitian Revolution

The remarkable contribution of Black political actors to the Haitian Revolution

Illustration depicting the Haitian Slave Revolt

Today’s political and social turmoil, sparked by racially motivated injustice seen in many parts of the world, has deep historical roots. Presented as a mere glimpse into a much larger story, this chapter highlights the remarkable contribution of Black political actors to the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, the ultimately successful insurrection for the cause of liberty against enslavement and brutal oppression by European colonial powers.

Toussaint Louverture

Printed portrait of Toussaint Louverture

Known today as the 'Father of Haiti', François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture (1743-1803) led a truly remarkable life. As a military and political leader fighting for the cause of Haitian independence from France, he lived in a complex world of competing European colonial powers. Toussaint Louverture’s legacy inspired many others seeking freedom and self-determination.

Louverture was born into enslavement on a plantation within the French colony of Saint-Domingue on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola (which today hosts two countries, Haiti and the Dominican Republic).

Because birth records were not kept for those who were enslaved, details about Toussaint Louverture’s early life are scarce. Louverture’s godfather Pierre Baptiste educated him and his later letters convey fluency in Creole and French, and knowledge of ancient, Renaissance and contemporary Enlightenment philosophy.

Louverture is remembered today for his inspirational leadership in the revolution in the French colony, which ended enslavement in Haiti and emancipated the Africans enslaved on the island. This led to the establishment of Haiti as a sovereign state and the first Black nation outside of Africa. Beginning in August 1791 and concluding in 1804 with Haitian independence, the Haitian Revolution was the most successful of the many rebellions by enslaved Africans which took place in the Caribbean region during the plantation and enslavement era. The Haitian Revolution defied European colonial rule, military power and the practice of slavery in Saint-Domingue, and acted as a beacon of hope for enslaved Africans everywhere.

an artwork of Toussaint Louverture in uniform on a horse heading to battle

Louverture died in prison after being betrayed to the French in 1803, and did not live to see Haitian independence, which was declared by his fellow leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Dessalines announced the abolition of slavery in Haiti, a first for countries in the Americas. Louverture’s remarkable life and legacy has inspired many seeking the rights of freedom, dignity, independence and self-determination. In 1988, this inscription in Louverture’s memory was installed at the Panthéon in Paris:

À la mémoire de Toussaint Louverture, combattant de la liberté, artisan de l'abolition de l'esclavage, héros haïtien mort déporté au Fort-de-Joux en 1803.

[In memory of Toussaint Louverture, freedom fighter, architect of the abolition of slavery, a Haitian hero who died in deportation at Fort-de-Joux in 1803.]

Thomas-Alexandre Dumas

A near-contemporary of Toussaint Louverture, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was also born in Saint-Domingue, the son of Marie-Cessette Dumas, an enslaved person of African descent, who during this era of chattel slavery, was enslaved by Marquis Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, a member of the French nobility. At the age of 14, Dumas’s father took him to France where Thomas-Alexandre entered the educational system and later joined the French military as a private, aged 24.

Engraving of Dumas in uniform in battle

In the turbulent midst of the French Revolutionary Wars, Dumas established himself as an outstanding military commander, rising in rank to ultimately become general-in-chief in the French army - the first person of colour to do so. Having distinguished himself in the French army’s Italian and Austrian campaigns in the Alps, leading over 50,000 soldiers aged 31, Dumas earned the esteem of his supreme leader Napoleon Bonaparte.

Painting of Dumas on a horse heading to or in battle

In the subsequent campaign in Egypt, however, where he commanded the French cavalry, Dumas disagreed with Napoleon. After leaving Egypt on an unseaworthy ship in spring 1799, Dumas was forced to go ashore in the Kingdom of Naples and he was imprisoned there for two years before returning to France. Despite regaining his freedom, Dumas was denied a military pension and, although he appealed to Napoleon himself for financial support and a new commission, Dumas and his family fell into poverty. He died on 26 February 1806 of stomach cancer.

Jean-Baptiste Belley

Born around 1746 in Gorée, a notorious slave trading post island off the coast of Senegal, Jean-Baptiste Belley was enslaved and separated from his family as an infant, and shipped to the French colony of Saint-Domingue. He eventually bought his own freedom in 1764.

Like many formerly enslaved people of the era, Belley fought in the French army during the American War of Independence before returning to Saint-Domingue and establishing himself as a planter and political figure. In 1793, Belley was elected to the National Convention in Paris, becoming its first Black deputy. He spoke in the Convention debate of 3 February 1794 when it was decided unanimously to abolish slavery.

Painted portrait of Belley with the bust of abolitionist philosopher Raynal

In this striking portrait by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Trioson, Belley wears the uniform of a representative to the Convention and the blue, white and red colours of the Republic. He is posed leaning against a marble plinth with a bust of the French philosopher and anti-slavery campaigner Guillaume Raynal (1713–1796). Belley posed for the portrait in 1797 before he returned from France to Saint-Dominique, and it still hangs in the chapel of the Palace of Versailles. The painting captures the complexity of the Revolutionary era and the fierce struggles for freedom and citizenship in a context of colonial power and empire.

When Napoleon Bonaparte dispatched an army to crush the insurrection led by Toussaint Louverture, Belley became persuaded to oppose the violent tactics of the French colonists. For refusing to support the French invasion, Bellet was forced to return to France where he was immediately arrested and imprisoned in the Belle Île fortress. As a captive there in 1805, he wrote to Isaac Louverture, son of Toussaint Louverture. Belley died in prison later that year.

After the end of the Haitian Revolution in 1804, the legacy of colonial rule, enslavement, and economic sanctions imposed by France have continued to affect Haitian social and political life for years to come. African and Caribbean historians today have no doubt about the importance of the Haitian Revolution, and how the example of this successful rebellion supported the move towards abolition of enslavement by colonial powers. The Haitian Revolution, its mass civic insurrection and the struggle for freedom from colonial rule and enslavement remains an extremely powerful example for us today.