Samuel M. Pierre is co-founder and chairman of the board to the Haitian American Caucus. He also served as campaign manager to Assemblywoman-elect Rodneyse Bichotte, the first Haitian-American woman elected to the New York State Assembly from New York City.
Once known as the “Pearl of the Antilles,” Saint-Domingue was the richest colony in the world. The French-owned sugar cane plantations were maintained by nearly a half million West African slaves. These bondsmen refined sugar cane into granulated sugar and rum that was sold worldwide. If it had not been for the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture, Haiti may have suffered the brutal act of plantation bondage for several hundred years more than it did. Thanks to L’Ouverture’s leadership and improvisation, the people of Haiti were able to defeat one of the eighteenth century’s finest militaries.
The financial success of the French colonial empire of the 18th century was built on the backs of African slaves. Over 2,000 plantations existed on Saint Domingue, now Haiti, and countless Africans were forced to labor under extreme conditions for their French masters. The law of the time sanctioned corporal punishment by slave owners, but often the reality on the ground was much worse. Though the law prohibited starvation, murder, and rape, the reality was that few of these laws were ever enforced. The gross reality was that buying a slave newly arrived from Africa was often cheaper than raising a slave in Saint Domingue. Two hundred years after the first slave ship arrived in the colony, a full 2/3 of slaves remained recent implants from West Africa. In essence, life was made expendable and human beings were dehumanized in a way arguably more appalling than slavery in the American context.
The life of African slaves in Saint Domingue, however, was not always one of passive servitude. Numerous slaves ran away to the forests of Haiti forming colonies of runaways known as “negres marrons.” It was from these groups of “negres marrons” that an army of liberation soon began to emerge. The leader of this army was the general and eventual Haitian Governor, Toussaint L’Ouverture. Realizing the difficulty of facing professional French troops, given their training, cohesion, and better supplies, L’Ouverture began instructing his troops in the “European style” of combat and drill. These newly-trained liberators would ultimately go on to route French armies in pitched battle and regularly frustrate French supply lines through hit-and-run tactics. L’Ouverture’s tactical genius was so impressive that his French adversaries ended up giving him the nickname “L’Ouverture”, which simply means “the guy who finds the opening.”
But leadership on its own is not enough to liberate a people:; it also takes the collaboration and willingness of a broader group. In this case, that group was the Haitian army of liberation and all those others who supported its work by supply and intelligence. One really must ask, “Where would Haiti be if the former slaves comprising Toussaint L’Ouverture’s army didn’t work together?”
The potential answer to this question is grave. As it implies, organization and communication were key components in orchestrating Haiti’s ultimate freedom. Without L’Ouverture’s guidance and effective cooperation among his people, the tyranny of the French would have been successful in erasing hope from the lives of these former slaves and subjecting them again to chattel slavery. Independence would have been a dream deferred and continued French rule would have destroyed the core of the people’s culture. Working together to change the course of defeat allowed the Haitian people to realize who they really were, what they could rise from, what they would not tolerate, and how to be accountable for bringing each other out of darkness into the light.
The Haitian revolution remains perhaps the most successful story of slave-led liberation within world history. It serves as a testament to the ability of a few brilliant and motivated individuals to galvanize a larger community towards systemic change. L’Ouverture’s leadership through this conflict cemented together a group of angry but otherwise untrained ex-slaves who could have made easy cannon fodder for the French professional troops. Instead, L’Ouverture’s army of liberation paved the way for a fully independent and black-led nation that was the first of its kind in the Western Hemisphere.
The revolution, however, was not just the story of one man, but also the story of an entire black nation driven to assert its human right to dignity and equality. This story of liberation was one achieved through purposeful cooperation and clarity of mission that all people deserve freedom. So I ask the question again, “ Where would Haiti be if the people didn’t work together during the Haitian Revolution?” rather what is our potential now, two hundred and twenty three years later, can we work together for a better Haitian community the same way the “negres marrons” did?