January 1st not only rang in the new year. It also commemorates Haitian Independence Day. On January 1st, 1804, a decade-long movement by hundreds of thousands of Black slaves finally shook off slavery and colonial domination, culminating in the Global South’s first Black republic. In so doing, a nation of freed people inspired and influenced events across oceans.
Grassroots International has partnered with Haitian organizations for over two decades. We support their work defending land, human rights, and labor — especially of small-scale farmers still at the heart of Haiti’s society. As we remember 1804’s inspiring victory for independence and social justice, we also reflect on the ongoing resistance of Haitians today, as part of the struggle for racial, economic, and environmental justice around the world.
Roots of Independence
The word “Haiti” comes from the Taino Arawak people, who had lived on the island for generations before European colonization. Upon independence, the Black former slaves adapted the indigenous Arawak name for the island to name their new nation.
But before it was called Haiti again, it was “Saint-Domingue”, the French colony. Nearly two hundred years after Columbus had invaded the island in 1492, the French and Spanish monarchies carved it up between them. While Saint-Domingue served the French, Spain’s San Domingo continues today as the independent Dominican Republic.
French merchants and planters fueled an emerging French capitalism with the brutal exploitation of Saint-Domingue’s land and people. By 1789, the colony’s plantations produced half the world’s coffee, 40 percent of its sugar, and many other commodities, which drove as much land clearing as was possible for the time. Saint-Domingue was soon responsible for more than two-thirds of France’s trade.
The great many hands that created that wealth were branded with shackles and whiplashes. Europe had plundered Africa for slave labor, and many wound up on ships bound for Saint-Domingue. By the time of the Haitian revolution, 500,000 Black slaves were working themselves to death for planters’ profits. Conditions were so brutal that half the slaves died within ten years of arrival, and many poisoned their children rather than doom them to the horrors of servitude.
But the French continued to capture more people to feed their system’s need for plantation labor. Thus on the revolution’s eve in 1791, “more than two-thirds of the slaves had been born in Africa and known relative freedom within the last decade of their lives.”
Even under barbaric servitude, slaves resisted. They held onto their culture and developed community, even as their religions were suppressed. Many slaves escaped and formed maroon communities in the island jungles. This culture of resistance fueled not only Haitians’ struggle for independence then, but it still fuels their organizing for democracy and a better life today.
Internationalism at the Heart of Haiti’s Fate
The struggle for freedom and social justice has always been international. The work of Grassroots International reflects this reality, as we partner with movements around the world. Movements are driven by and also drive events beyond national borders. So it was with Haiti’s struggle for freedom. It found its spark amid the French revolution that ripped up the very same monarchy lording over Saint-Domingue.
From the start, the “liberté, equalité, fraternité” slogan of the French Third Estate was undercut by the slavery and racism at the heart of that nation’s development. Merchants demanded a place of power in society, but ultimately denied it to both the dispossessed sans-culottes in France and the slaves the planters owned in Saint-Domingue. Yet the promise of a more just world opened up space for ordinary people to seek their own liberation.
As news spread of the French revolution, various colonial factions voiced their demands, from the “big white” planters who wanted to keep their brutal system intact to the “small white” landowners and gens de coleur free men of color. Ultimately though, ordinary Black slaves became the greatest champions for emancipation. Under the leadership of former slaves like Toussaint L’Ouverture and Dessalines, they sought democracy and the abolition of both the color line and of slavery in general.
The fates of both the French and Haitian revolutions were bound together. The Parisian sans-culottes had heard the condemnations of the “aristocracy of color” by gens de coleur delegations to the National Convention. When slaves shook off their plantation overseers, they inspired the people in the Parisian streets. As one agent of the colonial planters lamented in a letter after the Tuileries palace was stormed in 1792, “One spirit alone reigns here, it is horror of slavery and enthusiasm for liberty. It is a frenzy which wins all heads and grows every day.”
The sans-culottes briefly came to power through the Jacobin wing of the French revolution, winning the complete abolition of monarchy and slavery in France and its colonies. When right-wing forces ended Jacobin rule and took power away from the French masses, they also sought to reinstitute slavery in the colonies. The right-wing’s attempts to reforge slavery’s chains ultimately turned Black laborers’ struggle into a movement for independence.
A blow-by-blow account of Haiti’s quest for freedom is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say, independence was won, and it served to inspire the movements for social justice around the world. As Black American abolitionist Frederick Douglass stated in 1893 after the end of American slavery:
“We should not forget that the freedom you and I enjoy today; that the freedom that eight hundred thousand colored people enjoy in the British West Indies; the freedom that has come to colored race the world over, is largely due to the brave stand taken by the Black sons of Haiti…. When they struck for freedom… they struck for the freedom of every Black man in the world.”
This spirit of solidarity and internationalism not only guided Haiti’s fate then, but should serve to guide our understanding of social justice today.
Land and Labor at the Grassroots
The new society born out of Haiti’s struggle for freedom was the first Black republic in the world. In retribution, Haiti faced immediate isolation and threats from Western powers. In 1825, with its warships at the ready, France demanded the equivalent of $21 billion from Haiti for “lost property” from its emancipation.
As the United States emerged as a world power at the end of the 19th century, it extended its reach into the Caribbean more and more. With that came American agribusiness and industrial interest in Haiti.
The resulting series of military occupations, U.S.-backed dictators, and land grabs have continued the exploitation of land and people. Between 1804 and 2015, forest cover plummeted from 80% to just 1.25% of the land surface. Free-trade manufacturing zones have left many Haitians earning less than five dollars a day, and after the 2010 earthquake, the government had planned for 35 to 40 new free-trade zones. France’s brutal 18th-century exploitation of Saint-Domingue is still relevant to Haiti today.
A recent report by Grassroots partner PAPDA (the Haitian Platform to Advocate Alternative Development) describes the threat of mega development projects to subsistence farmers, even as the U.S. has destabilized Haitian markets with cheap crops. According to the report, the Haitian government and its investors created an agribusiness free trade zone and expelled nearly 800 peasant households from their land. “For these displaced peasants, the consequences extend beyond the loss of their physical shelter; the land conversion has ‘sociologically changed the habit of the farmers.’”
The agricultural economy that emerged immediately after independence guaranteed Haitians “a better life, materially and socially, than that available to most other people of African descent in the Americas throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,” according to Laurent DuBois. Against a post-colonial government that increasingly represented elites, Haitian peasants sought independence and drove reforms that upended large-scale plantation agriculture.
Ordinary Haitians continue to organize today. It is the defense of rural life, centered on the defense of land and climate by Haitian farmers and laborers themselves, that is at the heart of many Grassroots partners’ work. A majority of Haitians still rely on agriculture for survival. As hurricanes have battered the land, organizations like PAPDA and the Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPP) have worked to address both immediate impacts and the climate crisis at their roots. And just like the struggle for Haitian independence, the struggles of land and labor are also bound up with demands for greater democracy and human rights.
While mainstream commentators portray Haiti as hapless or a victim of its alleged incompetence, the story of Haitian independence paints a different picture. Grassroots International celebrates Haitian Independence Day as we continue to stand with our many partners and allies in the first post-colonial nation in the Global South.