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On the night of 14 August 1791, a man named Boukman organised a meeting with enslaved Africans in Bois Caiman, in the northern mountains of the island of Santo Domingp (depicted). This meeting preceded the uprising that began on 22 August 1791 and which would pave the way towards Haiti's independence. The French quickly captured Boukman, who was leading the uprising, beheaded him and brought the rebellion under control. They exhibited Boukman's head on Cap's square to show the slaves that their invincible leader was dead. By 1804 the enslaved Africans had established the first independent Black state in the Americas - sounding the death knell of French imperial ambitions in the Americas, becoming a beacon for enslaved Africans, and leading to the eventual demise of plantation slavery.

SLAVERY'S ABOLITION is often portrayed as the work of conscientious and dedicated white activists, such as William Wilberforce of Britain. The central role played by enslaved Africans is almost invariably marginalized. Richard Hart, one of the foremost scholars on slave resistance in the Caribbean, observes that there appears to exist "a desire, perhaps sub-conscious, to erase the record of their decisive participation in the anti-slavery struggle." Hart emphasizes, "large numbers of slaves struggled for their freedom with unflagging determination.' Eric Williams further amplifies this point by underscoring that "the most dynamic and powerful social force in the colonies was the slave..." As C.L. R. James demonstrates, the Haitian Revolution of 1791 best exemplified this, where the risen slaves defeated "the most powerful European nations of their day...." The Haitian revolutionaries led by Toussant L'Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines were able to fight off successive European powers, the French, Spanish and British, eventually establishing an independent republic in 1804.

While - quite correctly - much is made of the impact of the French Revolution (the slogans of liberté, equalité, fraternité) on the Haitian revolutionaries, it is crucial to underscore that the enslaved Africans (the majority of whom were African-born) had their own ideas and conceptions - their own African thought material - upon which to draw and base the struggle for a new society. Organized rebellion to slavery in Haiti predates the outbreak of the Haitian Revolution. For example, from 1751 until his capture and execution by immolation in 1758, Francois Makandal, a vodoun priest, led a sustained guerilla campaign. The strength of his organization rested on the unity of various maroon (escaped slaves) communities: a unity forged by Makandal on the ideological and philosophical basis of African religions, traditions, values and motifs. Poignantly, the catalyst for the Haitian Revolution 33-years later was the actions of another vodoun priest Dutty Boukman.

The Haitian Revolution was the seminal event in the struggle against slavery. As Selwyn Cudjoe emphasizes, "for New World Africans, the Haitian Revolution was decisive, for it established how they saw their position in that part of the world, and it set in motion ideas about their own liberation." This new self-realization, influenced by ideas of the French Revolution, lead to the repudiation of slavery not only by slaves, but also by some plantation owners, and, as Cudjoe notes, "were powerful precepts for action everywhere in the West Indies." The abolition of slavery from above was inevitable due to its unprofitablity and economic disadvantages in comparison to wage labour, but it was the continual and growing slave resistance that accelerated and sealed the institution's end.

Portrait of Sam Sharpe National Library of Jamaica
The 1831 slave rebellion in Jamaica, lead by Sam Sharpe, was one such action that drew its inspiration from the Haitian Revolution. The rebellion was the death knell for slavery in the British Empire. The rebellion began on 27 December 1831 and lasted well into January 1832. It was not suppressed until serious physical and economic damage had been wreaked on the island's best plantations. Two hundred and twenty-six plantations were affected. More than 60,000 slaves - almost one fifth of the enslaved population - participated in the uprising encompassing 750 square miles. As Richard Hart, in his seminal work on slave rebellions in the Caribbean notes, the slaves "had destroyed an appreciable part of the material basis of their enslavement. They had succeeded in making slavery an insupportably expensive system to maintain."

The uprising was the accelerant for the abolition of slavery throughout the British dominion. Hart observes that in the years leading up to the rebellion, the prevailing attitude among British ruling circles was "that the abolition of slavery, though ultimately to be desired was not to be contemplated in the near future." The insurrection in Jamaica transformed this stance, placing the emancipation of the slaves at the forefront of the agenda. Thus, it was not, as is frequently asserted, "the anti-slavery movement [i.e., the abolitionist struggle in Britain] that proved the decisive factor in precipitating emancipation." The Reverend Henry Bleby, a Baptist missionary on the island, summed up the rebellion's impact in the opening page of his report, The Death Struggles of Slavery:

Facsimile, Death Struggles of Slavery: Being a Narrative of Facts and Incidents Which Occurred in a British Colony, During the Two Years Immediately Preceding Negro Emancipation, By Henry Bleby, London: Hamilton, Adams and Co., 1853. National Library of Jamaica
"The revolt failed of accomplishing the immediate purpose of its author, yet by it a further wound was dealt to slavery, which accelerated its destruction for it demonstrated to the imperial legislature that among the Negroes themselves the spirit of freedom had been so widely diffused, as to render it most perilous to postpone the settlement of the most important question of emancipation to a later period. The evidence taken before the Committee of the two Houses of Parliament made it manifest, that if the abolition of slavery was not speedily affected by the peaceable method of legislative enactment, the slaves would assuredly take the matter into their own hands, and bring their bondage to a violent and bloody termination."

This view was echoed by Bernard Martin Senior, an officer in the campaign to repress the rebellion, who observed:

"It will not be surprising that so propitious a circumstance as the late rebellion should be seized with avidity for their furtherance and immediate accomplishment. A bill was brought into Parliament ... by which it was enacted that 'all slavery should cease throughout the British dominions on the first of August 1834'."

Thus, this decision from 'above' was accelerated by the fear that incessant slave resistance would result in another rebellion on the scale of the Haitian Revolution, which would then spread across the Caribbean with all the attendant economic and political consequences for Britain. As Richard Hart, underscores: "The abolition of slavery was carried out from above by enactment. But barring the minor details, it was the rebellious slaves who re-set the time table for emancipation."

Eric Williams is even more succinct: "In 1833, therefore, the alternatives were clear: emancipation from above or emancipation from below. But EMANCIPATION."


Selwyn Cudjoe. 2002. Beyond Boundaries: The Intellectual Tradition of Trinidad and Tobago in the Nineteenth Century (Wellesley, Mass.: Calaloux Publications).

Peter Fryer. 1993. Black People in the British Empire (London: Pluto Press).

Shirley Gordon. 1983. Caribbean Generations (London and New York: Longman Caribbean Ltd.).

William Green. 1991. British Slave Emancipation: The Sugar Colonies and the Great Experiment 1830-1865 (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Richard Hart. 1985. Slaves Who Abolished Slavery, Volume Two: Blacks in Rebellion (Kingston, Jamaica: University of West Indies).

Richard Hart. 1980. Slaves Who Abolished Slavery: Volume 1. Blacks in Bondage (Kingston, Jamaica: University of West Indies),

Thomas C. Holt. 1992. The Problem of Freedom: Race, Labour and Politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832-1938 (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press).

C.L.R. James. 1980. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Overture and the Dan Domingo Revolution (London: Allison & Busby).

James Millette. 1964. Society and Politics in Colonial Trinidad and Tobago (London: Zed Books).

Cedric Robinson. 1997. Black Movements in America. (New York and London: Routledge).

Eric Williams. 1991. Capitalism & Slavery (London: Andre Deutsch).

The destruction of Roehamton Estate
A print depicting the destruction of the Roehamton Estate, property of J. Baillie, Esq. in the parish of St. James in January 1832 Creator Duperly, Adolphe 1832 National Library of Jamaica

A view of Montego Bay from Reading Hill
A Duperly photograph showing rebel slaves destroying the road and the burning of the Reading Wharf Creator Duperly, Adolphe 1833 National Library of Jamaica

* Source Jerome Handler, personal collection; slide taken Dec. 1985


Isaac Saney studied at Dalhousie and St. Mary's universities in Halifax and the School of African and Oriental Studies in London. He is on faculty at Dalhousie University, has taught extensively on Black History, is editor of Shunpiking Magazine's supplements on Black History and African Heritage, and is the author of Cuba: A Revolution in Motion (Fernwood, Zed Books).

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