The Haitian Revolution was the first successful slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere and established Haiti as a free, black republic, the first of its kind. Historians traditionally identify the catalyst as being a particular Voodoo service in August 1791 performed at Bois Caïman by Dutty Boukman, a high priest. At the time, Haiti was a colony of France.
After two years of dispute of the free population, in 1791 a great slave uprising plunged the country into a complex, many-sided civil racial conflict among whites, gens de couleur (people of mixed African and French descent), and blacks (many of them slaves of African birth), the country was polarized by regional rivalries between the North, South, and West; class conflict between rich white planters (grands blancs), poorer whites (petits blancs), free blacks or gens de couleur (affranchis), and slaves; and conflict between proponents of independence, those loyal to France, allies of Spain, and allies of Britain. Closely shaping the course of the conflict was the French Revolution which began in 1789, and was at first widely welcomed in the island. So many were the twists and turns in the leadership in France, and so contorted were events in Haiti itself, that various classes and parties changed their alignments many times.
Agitation for independence was at first carried on by the rich white planters, the grands blancs, who had resented France's mercantilistic limitations on the island's foreign trade. This class mostly realigned itself with the royalists and the British within a few years of the Revolution.
The affranchis, most notably Julien Raimond, had been actively appealing to France for full civil equality with whites since the 1780s. Raimond used the Revolution to make this the major colonial issue before the French National Assembly. At length, in 1792, the National Convention proclaimed the equality of all free people in the French colonies regardless of colour, and sent Léger-Félicité Sonthonax to Saint-Domingue ensure that the colonial authorities complied.
However, even larger disturbances were underway, as the slave uprising begun in August 1791 and led by Jean François and Biassou, associated itself with the pro-royalist Spanish authorities in Santo Domingo. The slave rebellion began on the plantations in the north and spread across most of the colony. Slaves burnt the plantations where they had been forced to work, and killed masters, overseers and other whites. One of the most successful black commanders was Toussaint L'Ouverture, a former domestic servant. A French general, Étienne Laveaux, was able to convince him to change sides in May 1794 and fight for the French Republic against the Spanish; meanwhile Sonthonax proclaimed an end to slavery in 1793.
Under the military leadership of Toussaint, the rebellious slaves were able to gain the upper hand and restore most of Saint-Domingue to France. Having made himself master of the island, however, Toussaint did not wish to surrender power to Paris, and ruled the country effectively as an autonomous entity. Toussaint overcame a succession of local rivals (including Sonthonax, André Rigaud, and Hédouville), defeated the British expeditionary force in 1798, and even led an invasion of neighboring Santo Domingo, freeing the slaves there by 1801.
In this same year, Toussaint issued a constitution for Saint-Domingue which provided for autonomy and made Toussaint himself governor for life. In retaliation, Napoleon Bonaparte dispatched an expedition of French soldiers to the island, led by Bonaparte's brother in law Charles Leclerc, to restore French rule. After being deceived by false guarantees, Toussaint was seized and shipped off to France where he died two years later while imprisoned at Fort-de-Joux. For a few months the island was quiescent under Napoleonic rule, but in October of 1802, the Haitian generals revolted under the leadership of Jean-Jacques Dessalines (one of L'Ouverture's generals and a fellow former slave). Dessalines led the rebellion from that point until its completion when the French forces were finally soundly defeated at the Battle of Vertières in 1803.
On January 1, 1804, Dessalines declared Haiti a free republic and joined the United States as the second independent nation in the Western Hemisphere. However, due to the fact that France and its allies (including the United States) forced Haiti to make reparations to French slaveholders in 1852 in the amount of 90 million gold francs ($21 billion today), Haiti was forced to pay France for the next one hundred years for its independence and has subsequently become the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
The end of the Haitian Revolution in 1804 marked the end of colonialism, but left in power an affranchi élite and the formidable Haitian army. These elements split into two factions – the supporters of Alexandre Pétion who were predominantly milat (mulatto, light-skinned), and those of Henri Christophe who were mainly nwa (noir, dark-skinned). Both factions assumed control of most of the businesses in the new country.
How the revolution was won
The slaves' rebellion developed into a revolutionary war over the course of some 12 years, as first forces loyal to the French Crown, and the Spanish, the British, and finally, the French Republicans, tried to win control of the territory. During these often overlapping interventions both the black ex-slaves and the mulatto freemen entered into a series of tactical alliances with the contending foreign powers. The commander of the black armies, Toussaint L'ouverture, in particular, displayed an astute understanding of inter-colonial rivalries, forging and breaking these alliances to maximum effect to further the struggle for freedom from slavery.
A number of other factors also counted against the European forces. In the context of a war against elusive and mobile ex-slave armies, the Europeans' military tactics and strategy proved absolutely inappropriate. Fixed positions and static formations may have worked in Europe, but not in Saint-Domingue against guerrilla forces with a far superior knowledge of the terrain on which they were fighting. The European troops were also at a significant disadvantage, being neither able to cope with the fiercely hot climate, nor with the local tropical diseases. Yellow fever and malaria are estimated to have claimed the lives of thousands of British and French troops, and the leader of Napoleon's invasion force, his brother-in-law General Charles Leclerc, himself died of a fever on the northern island of La Tortue in November 1802.