The radicalism of the Haitian Revolution

The Haitian revolution is the years of conflict during 1791 to 1804 between the white settlers and the enslaved black population. The French colony of Saint-Domingue was the center-stage of this revolution, which resulted in the mass murder of thousands of white people and led to the liberation of Haiti from the grips of colonialism. The Haitian Revolution carries a lot of historical significance because it is one of the rare instances where African slaves successfully over-powered their European colonizers and achieved independence.

Needless to say, such a comprehensive overhaul would not have been possible without violent revolt. Although the revolution was seen as a radical transformation, this illusion gradually dissipated in the subsequent years as new holders of power established a system of elite rule not much different from the colonial rule. Indeed, even during the revolution, it was mulattoes who assumed prominent leadership roles in the fight for liberation. Later, having been endowed financially by their white fathers, the mulatto children were given a head start in gaining good education and social status in the independent Haiti. Hence, it is fair to say that radical as the revolution was, it had not drastically altered the political structures left behind by colonialism. And a majority of Haitians continued to remain poor and illiterate even many years after the revolution, continuing to this day. For example, “approximately 80 percent of Haitians live in poverty. State government structures are crumbling. And violent political clashes have left thousands dead. Perhaps, pan-African idealism should be balanced by the practical reality of Haiti’s dangerous streets. A lot of these groups tend to gloss over the political violence and the increase in human rights abuses.” (Murdoch, 2007) Further, the Haitian revolution

“acted as a politico-cultural catalyst, appearing to either accelerate or threaten existing racial hierarchies and tensions. This was due to the fact that the territory that was ultimately to become Haiti was France’s prime eighteenth century imperial possession, accounting for two-fifths of her foreign trade, and the scale and scope of the Haitian sugar industry allowed France to control 40-percent of the world sugar market. Thus the immediate repercussions of the Haitian uprising were seen as threatening the established economic as well as the political order of the entire Caribbean colonial region.” (Burroughs, 2004)

The Haitian revolution was also unprecedented in terms of the economic transformation it brought about. Having been driven out of power by the local majority, the French imperialists sought to get even by imposing economic sanctions and political isolation on the newly independent country. With no other option but to comply, Haiti paid massive reparations to former slaveholders in order to be accepted as a legitimate, sovereign country. And the repercussions of this massive usurpation of wealth is felt even today, as the country is one of the poorest in central America and is in continuous economic strife. In this way, the Haitian Revolution that occurred two centuries ago can be said to be economically radical.

In the realm of political philosophy or ideology, the revolution had a great impact on the region. The success of the revolution continued to inspire freedom-fighters in other colonies in Central and Latin America. It also inspired slave rebellions in the fledgling United States of America and British colonies. Having adapted the slogans of the French Revolution to their own fight, the Haitian revolutionaries left a dangerous precedent – something that shook the complacency of white elites. This is one of the reasons why the domestic policy of the United States turned toward conservatism in the early decades of the 19th century – as a response to the perceived threat of radicalism exemplified by Haiti.


David Patrick Geggus and Norman Fiering (editors), “The World of the Haitian Revolution”, published by Indiana University Press in 2002.

Burroughs, Todd Steven. “After 200 Years, Recalling the Haitian Revolution.” The Crisis, January/February 2004, 13

Murdoch, H. Adlai. “Reinterpreting the Haitian Revolution and Its Cultural Aftershocks.” Journal of Haitian Studies 13, no. 1 (2007): 129+