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Haitian society was segregated by skin color, class, and gender. The “white” population comprised grands blancs (usually merchants and landowners/royalty), petits blancs (craftsmen), and blancs menants (peasants). The affranchis, who were mostly mulattoes, were sometimes slave owners themselves. They aspired to hold the economic/social levels of the Europeans. The colonists generally discriminated against the mulattoes which added another factor in the colony’s struggle for independence. Some slaves managed to escape into the mountains, where they became known as Maroons and who fought guerrilla battles against colonial militia. Seeking for some sort of spiritual aid, large numbers of slaves, Maroons, and affranchis found solace in Vodou, and Roman Catholicism. Inspired by the French Revolution (1789) – slaves in Saint-Domingue and the French West Indies pressed for freedom and more civil rights.
In May 1791 the French government granted citizenship to a group of wealthier affranchis, but Haiti’s European population refused to agree. As the disagreement continued, within two months, fights broke out between Europeans and affranchis, and thousands of slaves rose in rebellion. The Europeans tried to appease the mulattoes in order to end the slave revolt, resulting in the French assembly granting citizenship to all affranchis in April 1792. In 1793 Léger Félicité Sonthonax, offered freedom to slaves who joined his army; he soon abolished slavery altogether, and the following year the French government confirmed his decision.
Spain soon gave the rest of the island to France in the Treaty of Basel (1795). In the late 1790s Toussaint Louverture who was a military leader and former slave, gained control of several areas and earned the initial support of French groups. He gave a formal allegiance to France while pursuing his own political and military ideas that included negotiating with the British, and in May 1801 he had himself declared “governor-general for life.” Napoléon Bonaparte, wanted to maintain control of the island so that he could try to restore the old regime (European rule) by sending General Charles Leclerc from Saint-Domingue. Toussaint struggled for months against Leclerc and his forces until he finally agreed to an armistice in May 1802; however, the French got involved and broke
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