Who Led the Haitian Revolution?

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  • 0:04 The Haitian Revolution
  • 0:48 Boukman
  • 2:25 Toussant Louverture
  • 3:51 Jean-Jacques Dessalines
  • 4:46 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christina Boggs

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

You may know that the Haitian Revolution was one of the most successful slave rebellions in the history of the world, but what do you know about the revolution's leaders? This lesson discusses three important leaders of the Haitian Revolution.

The Haitian Revolution

Haiti is a small island nation located in the Caribbean, but how did it become a country? During the 1700s, Haiti was a French colony known as Saint-Domingue. As a colony, Saint-Domingue was very important to France. Plantations grew valuable cash crops like sugar and coffee. To keep prices low and production high, plantations relied on slave labor. Nearly half a million African slaves lived in the tiny colony. After decades of horrifying brutality, Saint-Domingue's slaves revolted in 1791, leading to over a decade of violence and political upheaval. This lesson discusses three important leaders associated with the Haitian Revolution.


The Haitian Revolution began in August of 1791 when thousands of slaves rebelled against their masters. As you can probably imagine, a rebellion of this size did not just happen spontaneously. Instead, leaders carefully built their following and planned their revolt. Among these leaders was Boukman, a Jamaican voodoo priest. Boukman was a maroon, or a slave that had escaped from his masters. In mid-August, Boukman led a massive voodoo ceremony referred to as the Bais Caiman. During the ceremony, Boukman and other leaders performed ritualistic sacrifices to call up various spirits to help their cause. Some accounts of the ceremony claim that Boukman's sacrifices actually changed the weather.

Led by Boukman, somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 slaves started the rebellion in the northern part of Saint-Domingue. The rebels moved from plantation to plantation burning, pillaging, and killing as they went. As Boukman and his followers moved through the colony, thousands of slaves joined the fight.

Just a few months after starting the revolution, Boukman met a very untimely fate. He was killed in November of 1791 by French troops. The French wanted to make an example of Boukman. They cut off his head and displayed it on top of a stake in the colony's capital of Le Cap. Instead of scaring the rebels, the death of Boukman only made them angrier. Unfortunately, losing Boukman created a small setback for the rebels. They needed a strong leader to take over.

Toussant Louverture

After Boukman's death, Toussant Louverture became the Haitian Revolution's most powerful leader. Born sometime around 1743 into slavery, Louverture earned his freedom in the late 1770s. At the start of the rebellion, Louverture was not actively involved. He was already free, so why bother fighting? Within a few months, his mind began to change. Louverture built up his own personal army of slaves.

In 1793, France went to war with Spain and Great Britain, and the other two European countries became involved in the Haitian Revolution. Both Spain and Great Britain wanted Saint-Domingue for themselves. Louverture immediately threw his support behind the Spanish and led troops for them as a general. In 1794, however, Louverture switched sides. France declared that slavery was no longer legal in the colonies, and Louverture knew that Spain and Great Britain could not promise the same thing.

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