Christopher Colombus landed in Haiti in 1492 and began the European project of slave labor in the New World, which Spain first undertook with the aboriginal inhabitants. African slaves eventually took their place.
France took possession of part of Haiti from Spain according under the terms of the Treaty of Rijswijk (1697) and it became an important French colony. Spain formally ceded authority over the whole island to France in 1795.
The Enlightenment had a deeply contradictory legacy in its effects on white European views of human liberty and the less "civilized" peoples. The best of the liberationist aspect of that legacy arrived in Haiti, known as Saint-Domingue at the time, after the French Revolution when Léger-Félicité Sonthonax (1763–1813) abolished slavery there in 1793 while he was in command of the French forces there on behalf of the revolutionary government. Like most major political decisions, it was done from a mixture of motives. But as Hegel might have said, the World Spirit was pushing history in that direction.
In this case, the real history of the French emancipation in Haiti was preceded by a slave rebellion that began in 1791. John Hope Franklin and Alfred Moss, Jr. write about it in From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (8th edition; 2003). The "magnitude and intensity" of the uprising in August 1791 "demonstrated the blacks' determination to secure freedom and equality." After two years of conflict, the French offered freedom to slaves who adhered to the French cause, which Sothonax soon extended to all slaves.
|Toussaint Louverture (c. 1743-1803)|
Toussaint Louverture (c. 1743-1803) emerged as the main leader, fighting against French forces that he feared would try to restore slavery. He also successfully liberated the remaining slaves by overrunning Santo Domingo, which was still held by the Spanish and where slavery had been maintained. He was eventually captured by France and died in a French prison in 1803. But France was unable to reconquer the island, which became independent and took on the name of Haiti on the first day of 1804.
Franklin and Moss explain the reverberations of these events in the United States:
The effect of these events on the course of American history was extremely important. Of Toussaint, W. E. B. Du Bois said, "He rose to leadership through a bloody terror, which contrived a Negro 'problem' for the Western Hemisphere, intensified and defined the anti-slavery movement, became one of the causes, and probably the prime one, which led Napoleon to sell Louisiana for a song, and finally, through the interworking of all these effects, rendered more certain the final prohibition of the slave-trade by the United States in 1807." Americans were terrified at the news of what was happening in Haiti. For more than a decade beginning in 1791 many Americans were more concerned with events in Haiti than with the life-and-death struggle that was going on between France and England. Despite the fact that Southern states wanted more slaves, they were afraid to import them. In 1792 South Carolina found it inexpedient to allow blacks "from Africa, the West India Islands, or other places beyond the sea" to enter for two years, but many entered illegally. In 1794 North Carolina passed an act "to prevent future importation and bringing of slaves." Virginia and Maryland strengthened their nonimportation laws. Though the Middle Atlantic and New England states did not seem as disturbed over Haiti as their Southern neighbors, there were attempts by Quakers and other humanitarian groups to take advantage of the situation and to strengthen various aspects of antislavery legislation. The revolution in the West Indies did much to discourage the importation of slaves into the United States.Speaking of mixed motives, even the reduction and eventual prohibition of the international slave trade was being driven by fear as well as love for liberty and humanitarian considerations.