On January 1, 1804, ex-slave Jean-Jacques Dessalines officially declared Haiti as an independent nation, bringing an end to a thirteen-year struggle for independence from France.
Haiti’s struggle for independence dated back to 1791. Saint Domingue, as it had previously been known, had been a French colony, where roughly 30,000 white Europeans oversaw over 500,000 slaves who produced sugar and coffee for the French and English. When the French Revolution began in 1789, revolutionaries spoke of freedom for all mankind; however, like their American counterparts in 1775-1776, it became clear that they were increasingly hesitant and even openly opposed to freedom for non-whites, including slaves in the colonies. However, the revolutionary rhetoric had already made its way across the Atlantic, and in August of 1791, slaves rose up against the colonial government, killing over 4,000 whites before the year was out, and by the time of Haitian independence 13 years later, 100,000 Afro-descendants and 24,000 Europeans had died.
As revolutionary fervor led to war and regicide, the French National Convention abolished slavery in 1794. The move shocked slaveholders who feared slave rebellions in both the United States and in Latin America, a shock that only increased when the French National Convention abolished slavery in 1794. However, the Haitian independence movement did not dissipate with abolition; Tossaint L’Ouverture, an ex-slave, continued to fight, ultimately overcoming rival leaders to assume control over the fight for independence from France. Throughout the remainder of the 1790s, L’Ouverture fought British and French forces and freed slaves in territories where abolition had not been implemented. In 1801, L’Ouverture wrote a constitution for Saint-Domingue that would have made it autonomous from the French; in response, Napoleon sent French troops to the island, and some of L’Ouverture’s supporters, including Dessalines, abandoned him. In 1802, L’Ouverture promised to reintegrate his troops into the French army in exchange for his freedom, but he was betrayed and arrested, dying that same year while held prisoner.
Upon Ouverture’s arrest and death, Jean-Jacques Dessalines assumed control of the movement. As rumors swirled that Napoleon planned on re-establishing slavery in Saint Domingue, rumors that proved to be true, and the atrocities of French commander Vicomte de Rochambeau led many former French loyalists to join the independence movement. Dessalines was among those who switched sides, and he abandoned the French and began fighting for independence and against slavery. With Napoleon increasingly having to concentrate on his war efforts in Europe, French troops on the island were increasingly isolated and ravaged by yellow fever, which killed 27,000 troops. In 1803, Dessalines put an end to the French empire’s presence in Saint Domingue, defeating French troops at the Battle of Vertieres in November 1803. In accordance with L’Ouverture’s 1801 constitution, Dessalines became the leader of the country, and on January 1, 1804, he declared the existence of Haiti as a free republic.
Not all would go smoothly with independence. Dessalines exercised dictatorial authority in accordance with the constitution, and members of his cabinet began conspiring against him, ultimately assassinating him in October 1806. Haiti itself would continue to face significant challenges in establishing a stable political system or economy, and the social inequalities that emerged out of the revolution continue to indirectly shape Haitian society today. Nonetheless, Dessalines’s declaration in 1804 created the first independent republic in Latin America, the first Afro-descendant-led country in the hemisphere, and indirectly marked the culmination of the most successful slave rebellion in the Americas, providing slaves throughout the hemisphere with a model of how to fight for freedom.