This Day in History: January 1, 1804

Happy 2010!

January 1 is a signifcant date in world history, and especially in the colonial history of the Western hemisphere; on this day in 1804, Haiti declared its independence from France following years of rebellion and tumult in the richest colony in the "New World". The consequences of Haiti's independence (the second in the colonial world, following the United States), drastically altered the institution of slavery.

Haiti's independence movement, the world's only successful slave rebellion, led to the creation of the world's first black republic. Haiti, as the slaves who took control of the former French colony of Saint-Domingue renamed it, was the second colony in the Americas to gain independence. The rebellion remains a source of pride for Haitians, and those who fought for the country's independence are considered among Haiti's greatest heroes.

In 1593, the first Africans were imported to Hispanola to work as slaves on the island's plantations, taking the place of the native peoples, who had been decimated under brutal Spanish treatment. Europeans clashed violently with the African slaves on the Western third of the island (the French colony of Saint-Domingue). Major slave uprisings began in the 1750s, and by the early 1790s the hundreds of thousands of African slaves who had been brought to Saint-Domingue began to threaten the precarious power of the colony's French rulers who numbered approximately 40,000, As chaos spread across the colony, Spanish and British forces descended upon Saint-Domingue in hopes of seizing it for themselves. While many blacks joined the Spanish army in an attempt to thwart the French, the French abolition of slavery in 1794 prompted some black soliders to switch alleigances and join the French army.

The French retained their hold on Saint-Domingue, and Francois Dominque Toussaint L"Overture, who had led French troops in battle, was named governor of the colony. However, when L"Overture began to dismantle French power in hopes of liberating Saint-Domingue from France in the early 1800s, Napoleon Bonaparte sent French troops back to the island in 1802. L'Overture held off the French for a few months, and then suddenly surrendered. The French captured L'Overture and exiled him to France, where he soon died, but black commanders, inlcusing Jean-Jacques Dessalines (1804-1806) and Henri Christophe (1807-1820), soon reinitiated the independence struggle. Preoccupied with a war against Britian, French troops withdrew within a year. On January 1, 1804, Dessalines declared Haiti independent, though no foreign country would recognize the new republic. Though its leaders remained extremely wary of another foreign invasion, Haiti was never again a colony of Europe.

Haitian independence sent a wave of shock and fear through colonial North and South America. Slave owners and colonial governments tightened their control through new laws and harsh punishments, while enslaved blacks passed the word about the revolution, inspiring many to rebellion.

The tiny island nation of Haiti has a tremendous history. Violence, government corruption, drug trafficking, and destructive international intervention (mostly from the United States) has left most of the population severely destitute.

For further reading on Haiti check out: anything by Edwidge Danticat, but especially "Brother, I am Dying" for a terrifying and sobering look into the plight of Haitian refugees in the United States; Amy Wilentz's "The Rainy Season", an amazing book about the fall of the Duvalier (Papa Doc and Baby Doc) dictatorship; and Paul Farmer's "The Uses of Haiti", about the off-balance relationship between the United States and Haiti - the title of the book itself pretty much sums it up.

This entry is from the Encyclopedia of Latin American Politics published by Greenwood Press.

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