It was in the Americas, however, that the freedom struggle first reached dramatic international proportions. Throughout the Americas small groups of blacks had gained their freedom, a few had never been slaves, but they all developed their own way of life and although powerless to influence general public policy, followed with interest world developments affecting black people. As a group, both they and the black slaves were profoundly influenced by the events on the island of San Domingo (Haiti).
Just two years after the United States of America had adopted the constitution that gave moral and legal sanction to slavery, a revolution erupted in France with the slogan: Liberty! Equality! Fraternity! It shook the structure of the French settlement on San Domingo, a prosperous sugar colony where 500 000 slaves and 24 000 free persons of colour lived under the domination of some 32 000 French settlers known for their opulence and cruel treatment of their slaves. The free African population, which included several slave-owners, took the revolutionary French slogan seriously and demanded full equality with the whites. Then, in 1791, the great black masses moved under the leadership of an illiterate fieldhand, Boukman, who bound his followers with voodoo ritual and African-style secret oaths to rise against their masters. The revolutionary government in Paris dispatched an army to restore order. It was at this stage, that one of the most remarkable figures in history appeared on the scene – a literate, Christian, slave-coachman, diaspora-born with an African father – Toussaint who took the name L’Ouverture (The Opener).
Toussaint called for guerrilla action to support his small army and, within five years, had defeated Napoleon’s invading army – with assistance from yellow fever. He restored order and prosperity to Haiti and was proclaimed throughout the world for his military ability, administrative skills, humanity and statesmanship. His reputation spread rapidly, reaching blacks in the United States through black sailors who played an important role in disseminating information throughout the black world.
The success of the African liberation movement in Haiti created terror among whites in the United States who feared that American Africans might also seek their freedom through violence. More stringent legislation was passed, police security was tightened and steps were taken to restrict the movement of blacks in the country and prevent black immigration, especially from Haiti. On the other hand, Africans in the United States were inspired by the achievement of their brothers in Haiti. Haiti and Toussaint L’Ouverture thus became symbols inspiring blacks in other parts of the Americas and the Carribean to seek their freedom with the possibility that independence could be theirs.
J. E . Harris (USA): specialist in African diaspora; author of various publications and articles on the subject; currently Professor at Howard University, Washington D C .
Source: General History of Africa Vol.V. [Editor: B.A.Ogot] Africa from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century. Chapter 5. The African diaspora in the Old and the New Worlds.