PETERSBURG AND THE HAITIAN REVOLUTION

The Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) was perhaps the most successful slave revolt in all of history.  It resulted in the establishment of the second independent nation in the New World (Haiti) as well as the New World’s first democracy (although the American Revolution preceded that of Haiti, the newly independent United States continued to rely on and support the institution of slavery, whereas Haiti was the first nation in the New World to abolish slavery).

The Haitian Revolution affected virtually everyone in the Atlantic world.  Slaves, free people of color, and abolitionists in all countries were inspired by Haiti’s Revolution while planters and others who suported (and were supported by) slavery were terrified of “black revolt.”  Petersburg was no exception. Haiti's revolution impacted the Atlantic world not only ideologically and politically but also demographically. The revolution created a Haitain diaspora, where Haitians, black and white, resettled in other regions of the Atlantic world. Again, Petersburg was no exception.

In The Free Women of Petersburg, Suzanne Lebsock discusses the impact of the Haitian Revolution in Petersburg in terms of white Petersburg residents’ fear of black revolt, the African American embrace of the discourse of liberty, and the subsequent restriction of Peterburg’s free black community.  The following is based on and excerpted from pages 91-92 of Lebsock’s Free Women of Petersburg.

In the wake of Virginia’s manumission law of 1782, which, inspired by the ideals of American Revolution, permitted an owner to free any slave under the age of forty-five, Virginia’s free black population grew rapidly.

“In the towns, the change was dramatic.  Petersburg’s free black population more than tripled in the space of twenty years, its size swelled by a high rate of emancipation in the town itself and by the hundreds of newly freed migrants from the countryside who came in search of kin, work, and community.  By 1810, there were more than a thousand free blacks in Petersburg, and they made up close to a third of the town’s free population (31.2 percent).  Free blacks and slaves together outnumbered the whites four to three.

It was the very success of the manumission law that lead to its demise.  In 1805, Petersburg’s common council begged the general assembly for some action to halt the growth of the free black population.  The council feared an uprising, and with seeming good reason.  Petersburg had welcomed its share of refugees from Saint-Domingue (Haiti), where dissatisfaction among free blacks had touched off protracted warfare; in 1803, the whites of Saint-Domingue were ousted altogether.  When Petersburg’s officials looked at their own burgeoning free black population, they imagined it happening all over again. ‘Already we hear of discontent among them—what is liberty say the well informed without the benefit of social intercourse—from such language among the free people of color a train was laid, a mine sprung in St. Domingo that totally annihilated the whites.  With such a population we are forever o the Watch….’

The legislature was quick to respond with two new statutes.  One prohibited free blacks from carrying guns unless they obtained special permission from a court.  The other was a cold-blooded new law of manumission.  It was still legal to emancipate a slave, but the freed person was required to leave the state within a year, or else be sold back into slavery.  For a time, the law was extremely effective.  Five years passed before another slave was set in free in Petersburg, and from 1810 to 1820, the town’s free black community grew scarcely at all.”