"The Revolution Commences" by Carolyn Fick, Ph.D.

Fick is Associate Professor of History at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. She is the author of The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below (1990).

On the night of August 14th, 1791, a Sunday, some 200 slave leaders from all of the plantations across Saint Domingue’s northern plain—coachmen, slave drivers, domestics and others in whom the planters had placed their confidence—met at the foot of a densely wooded mountain, known as Morne Rouge, near the sugar estate of Lenormand de Mézy, located in the Plaine du Nord parish, there to discuss the ongoing political developments in the colony, set the final plans and fix a date for the insurrection that would break out on the night of the 22nd.

Before the actual outbreak, however, probably on the night of the 21st, also a Sunday, the famous Bois Caïman vodou ceremony took place to sacralize their decision to revolt and to invoke the protection of their deities in its execution. This much we know from one or two contemporary sources. However, much controversy exists today over the exact geographical location of this wooded area in Haiti’s northern plain, presumed to be at some distance from the Lenormand plantation, and over the role in the ceremony played by Boukman, a coachman on the Clément estate in the neighboring parish of Acul, where he launched the rebellion on the night of the 22nd.

According to Haitian oral tradition, Boukman rose during the ceremony to deliver an impassioned speech inciting the adherents to reject the god of the whites, who sought only to make them suffer, and to embrace their own African beliefs. Their god would guide their hands and aid them in the war to come: they must "listen to the voice of liberty that speaks in all of our hearts." Whether or not these were Boukman’s actual words is less important than the fact that the speech he delivered addressed the predominance of African religious beliefs, was a call for revenge and a call to arms. The ceremony was officiated by a vodou high priestess, a mambo, and a sacrificial black pig was killed, strongly suggesting Congolese ritual practice. The blood of the pig was passed round for all to partake, committing the adherents to a blood pact requiring utmost secrecy, solidarity and the vow of revenge. The following night the insurrection broke out in full scope.

By November, three months after the onset of the rebellion, Boukman was killed in battle and two other slave leaders, Jean-François and Biassou, both reputedly fugitive on the eve of the insurrection, took over command of the rebel forces. Jean-François assumed the highest rank of generalissimo, with Biassou second in command and Toussaint Louverture serving as physician of the black army.