Causes of the Haitian Revolution

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

How much do you know about the Haitian Revolution? You may know that it involved a slave revolt, but there were other factors as well. Read on to learn about the causes of the Haitian Revolution.

Life in Saint-Dominique

Think about your day-to-day life. What time do you wake up in the morning and go to bed at night? Odds are that your day starts pretty early and you have a very busy schedule with school and various activities. Life for a slave your age in the 1700s in Haiti was much different. Imagine waking up hours before sunrise then toiling in the sweltering heat to harvest sugar or pick cotton. Instead of calling it quits at dinner time, you keep working until the sun goes down. Before you know it, you've spent up to 18 hours working in brutal conditions. With just just six hours to rest, your day starts all over again. To make matters worse, you have a harsh master that might threaten you physically to keep you working hard.

If you lived under these conditions, what would you do? For nearly half a million slaves, there was only one option: Start a revolution.

Social Classes in Saint-Dominique

During the late 1700s, Saint-Dominique (currently the country of Haiti) was a French colony located in the Caribbean. At the time, the colony was a source of immense wealth for France thanks to its productive coffee, cotton, and sugar plantations. To be so productive, however, these plantations relied on the labor of nearly half a million slaves.

The institution of slavery led to a distinct separation of social classes in Saint-Dominique. Plantation owners were at the top of the hierarchy; they owned the most land and slaves. Below the owners came the petit blancs, a social class made up of various merchants and artisans. Some of the petit blancs owned slaves, but not nearly as many as the plantation owners. The third social class was made up of free blacks and a group called mulattoes, or people of mixed European and African descent. While this group was free from slavery and could own property, they had very limited rights and were not considered true citizens. In total, the plantation owners and petit blancs only accounted for about 40,000 people, while free blacks and mulattoes totaled roughly 30,000. The largest part of Saint-Dominique society, the very lowest class, was made up of slaves.

Unrest in France and Haiti

Beginning in 1789, France found itself in the middle of a revolution. Around this time, the new government began increasing tariffs in the colonies, and the people of Saint-Dominique were forced to pay higher taxes on all goods that were brought into the colony. Many plantation owners were also frustrated with the fact that they were only allowed to trade with France. To make matters worse, the people of Saint-Dominique had zero representation in the French government. This should sound familiar to you--after all, this was one of the biggest problems the American colonists had with England before the Revolutionary War!

In response to the colonists' complaints, the newly formed National Assembly of France decided to cede some local control. According to the new legislation, 'local proprietors' were now going to be 'active citizens.' But who exactly was a 'local proprietor?' The plantation owners believed that they should be in control of the government, so that anyone who owned fewer than 20 slaves would not be allowed to participate. This was a big problem for the petit blancs! Meanwhile, the free blacks and mulattoes were equally frustrated. They had every right to participate in government as well!

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