August 23rd is UNESCO's International Day of Remembrance of the Slave Trade and the Abolition. The reason that this date was chosen is a little known historical event in the Netherlands: the Haitian Revolution.

A voodoo ceremony during a tropical storm marked the start of a violent revolution in the then French colony of Saint-Domingue on the night of 22 to 23 August 1791. It became the only slave uprising in modern history that led to the establishment of an independent state.

Slavery on an industrial scale

Ships from European countries sailed since the early 16th century with loads of weapons, spirits and textiles to the African west coast, where forts were built. Local monarchs in return for those goods delivered enslaved people from the interior.

The original population in the overseas European colonies was largely eradicated by disease and violence and the survivors were not considered suitable for intensive work. Africans were, the Europeans thought, and they were easier to keep under control because they were so far from home.

"Haiti was hell, but Haiti was rich." Paul Fregosi, French historian

The enormous demand for farm workers for the colonies in the Americas changed the traditional systems of slavery that existed in West Africa before the arrival of Europeans. The slave trade took industrial forms. In their search for new 'merchandise', African kings no longer had enough of debtors and prisoners of war. Entire villages were invaded and the inhabitants were taken away in chains.

During the approximately four hundred years that the transatlantic slave trade lasted, an estimated 12 million Africans were enslaved and shipped.

Pearl of the Antilles

Saint-Domingue, half of the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean, was formally owned by France since 1697. The other half of the island, Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic), was controlled by Spain.

Saint-Domingue was considered the jewel in the French colonial crown and was one of the most profitable colonies in the world. The production of cane sugar was the main source of income, but also coffee, indigo and cotton were in great demand in Europe. In the eighties of the 18th century, 40 percent of the cane sugar and 60 percent of the coffee consumed on that continent came from the 'Pearl of the Antilles'.

An engraving of the struggle between insurgents and French soldiers in the forests of North Haiti. (Photo: Getty Images)

Half of the slaves died within a year

The slave labor on the plantations was deadly. The climate and diseases such as yellow fever and malaria claimed so many victims that 50 percent of the enslaved people who were brought from Africa died within a year of their arrival on the island.

Plantation owners treated their slaves as disposable items, because it was cheaper to let these people work dead and to bring in new powers than to improve living and working conditions. Horrible torture was the order of the day and the slaves were supposed to grow their own food - after heavy 12-hour shifts on the plantations.

In the 150 years that Haiti was a French colony, slavery cost the lives of a million Africans, estimated Canadian historian Elizabeth Abbott.

"Everyone lived in fear of death for everyone else"

Relations between the different population groups on Saint Domingue were particularly tense. Not only origin played a role in this. Poor white people hated the rich and vice versa, and free people of mixed descent often had more property than the white underclass, but had to deal with much racism. Even slaves born on the island looked down on African slaves, whom they considered barbarians.

"Everyone lived, for good reason, in agony for everyone else," said French historian Paul Fregosi. "Haiti was hell, but Haiti was rich."

In 1789, two years before the revolution, about 40,000 white people lived in Haiti, compared to 28,000 free black people and people of mixed descent and an estimated 500,000 black enslaved people.

A wood engraving by the Haitian rebel leader and talented General Toussaint Louverture (1743-1803). (Photo: Getty Images)

One hundred thousand rebels

Thousands of enslaved people fled to the inhospitable interior, where they kept themselves alive with small-scale farming and from time to time launched armed attacks on sugar and coffee plantations. However, they lacked organization, equipment and strong leaders.

When the bomb finally burst, things went fast. Within ten days the insurgents controlled the entire northern province of the island. Within a few weeks, a hundred thousand enslaved people had joined them. White inhabitants and their families were murdered, often in a horrible way, and plantations were set on fire.

With leaders such as the talented generals Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, both themselves former slaves, the insurgents in the years that followed managed to play European powers against each other. They first joined Spain in the fight against the French, ran over again when France abolished slavery (it turned out to be temporary) and managed to stop a British invasion of the island.

In 1804, Dessalines declared independence and renamed Saint-Domingue to Haiti.

See also: "Poor farmers in Java were responsible for ending slavery"

Revolution was a symbol against the slave trade

Historians are divided as to how far the Haitian Revolution contributed to the end of the transatlantic slave trade. It continued for decades, so the direct influence seems to have been limited.

At the same time, the Haitians were the first example of successful resistance that forever changed the dynamics between slavery and freedom in the Americas, and inspired the fledgling white anti-slavery movements in France, the United Kingdom and the US.

The Netherlands in the transatlantic slave trade

  • 1630: The Netherlands conquers parts of Brazil from Portugal
  • 1637: Conquest Portuguese trading fort on African Gold Coast in Elmina
  • Dutch share in slave trade on average 5 percent: around 600,000 people
  • Slave trade responsible for up to 5 percent of the economy of Amsterdam and 10-20 percent in Walcheren