In 1791, Africans enslaved in the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue exploded in a revolt unprecedented in human history. Saint-Domingue, the western third of the island of Hispaniola, was at that time the ultimate sugar island, the imperial engine of French economic growth. But on a single August night, the mill of that growth stopped turning. All across Saint-Domingue’s sugar country, the most profitable stretch of real estate on the planet, enslaved people burst into the country mansions. They slaughtered enslavers, set torches to sugar houses and cane fields, and then marched by the thousand on Cap-Francais, the seat of colonial rule...
Minor slave rebellions were one thing. Total African victory was another thing entirely—it was so incomprehensible, in fact, that European thinkers, who couldn’t stop talking about the revolution in France, clammed up about Saint-Domingue...
Haiti’s revolutionary birth was the most revolutionary revolution in an age of them. By the time it was over, these people, once seemingly crushed between the rollers of European empire, ruled the country in which they had been enslaved. Their citizenship would be (at least in theory) the most radically equal yet. And the events they pushed forward in the Caribbean drove French revolutionaries in the National Assembly to take steadily more radical positions—such as emancipating all French slaves in 1794..
Already, however, the slave revolution itself had killed slavery on the island. An ex-slave named Toussaint Louverture had welded bands of rampaging rebels into an army that could defend their revolution from European powers who wanted to make it disappear. Between 1794 and 1799, his army defeated an invasion of tens of thousands of anti-revolutionary Europeans...