By the late 1700s, the revolutionary fever that gripped Western Europe had spread to Latin America. There, discontent was rooted in the social, racial, and political system that had emerged during 300 years of Spanish rule.
The Enlightenment Inspires Latin Americans
In the 1700s, educated creoles read the works of Enlightenment thinkers. They watched colonists in North America throw off British rule. Translations of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States circulated among the creole elite.
During the French Revolution, young creoles like Simón Bolívar (boh lee vahr) traveled in Europe and were inspired by the ideals of “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” Yet despite their admiration for Enlightenment ideas and revolutions in other lands, most creoles were reluctant to act.
Napoleon Invades Spain
The spark that finally ignited widespread rebellion in Latin America was Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1808. Napoleon ousted the Spanish king and placed his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne. In Latin America, leaders saw Spain’s weakness as an opportunity to reject foreign domination and demand independence from colonial rule.
Slaves Win Freedom for Haiti
Even before Spanish colonists hoisted the flag of freedom, revolution had erupted in a French-ruled colony on the island of Hispaniola. In Haiti, as the island is now called, French planters owned very profitable sugar plantations worked by nearly a half million enslaved Africans. Sugar plantations were labor-intensive. The slaves were overworked and underfed.
Toussaint L’Ouverture Leads a Slave Revolt
Embittered by suffering and inspired by the talk of liberty and equality, the island’s slaves rose up in revolt in 1791. The rebels were fortunate to find an intelligent and skillful leader in Toussaint L’Ouverture (too san loo vehr toor), a self-educated former slave. Although untrained, Toussaint was a brilliant general and inspiring commander.
Toussaint’s army of former slaves faced many enemies. Some mulattoes joined French planters against the rebels. France, Spain, and Britain all sent armies against them. The fighting took more lives than any other revolution in the Americas. But by 1798, the rebels had achieved their goal: slavery was abolished, and Toussaint’s forces controlled most of the island.
Haiti Wins Independence
In 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte sent a large army to reconquer the former colony. Toussaint urged his countrymen to take up arms once again to resist the invaders. In April 1802 the French agreed to a truce, but then they captured Toussaint and carried him in chains to France. He died there in a cold mountain prison a year later.
The struggle for freedom continued, however, and late in 1803, with yellow fever destroying their army, the French surrendered. In January 1804, the island declared itself an independent country under the name Haiti. In the following years, rival Haitian leaders fought for power. Finally, in 1820, Haiti became a republic.
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