Sugar is so pervasive in modern life—flavoring and sweetening everything from our desserts to our drinks to our McDonald's french fries—that it is difficult for us to imagine that the substance was once both rare and incredibly valuable. But it was.
The sugarcane is a tropical plant native to the Indian Ocean, which spread slowly along trade routes as humans discovered its addictively sweet taste, reaching the Mediterranean by the late Middle Ages. Prior to cane sugar's arrival, the sweetest taste available to the European palate was honey, which provides a much milder sweetness kick; most Northern Europeans prior to the sixteenth or seventeenth century never tasted anything in their lives as sweet as our modern breakfast cereals. Cane sugar thus arrived in Europe as a revelation, imported as a rare luxury spice, first available only to royalty. For a time, a king's wealth and power were demonstrated no less by his gold and jewels than by the sugar in his cakes. However, demand for sugar quickly spread downward through all classes of European societies, especially once people discovered that sugar provided a perfect accompaniment to the bitter new caffeinated drinks—coffee and tea—that had entered the European diet from faraway lands in the Americas and Asia. (What we now consider to be the traditional European beverages—tea with milk and sugar in Britain, café au lait in France—truly manifested globalization in a cup.)
The enormous and growing demand for sugar by European consumers drove sugar prices high enough to justify massive speculative ventures in tropical sugar colonies. First mastered by the Spanish in the Canary Islands off the northwest coast of Africa, the sugar island model—great factory-like plantations worked by imported slave labor—soon spread to the West Indies. There, the emerging sugar islands of the Caribbean became the driving economic forces of the age. The backbreaking labor required to grow and harvest the cane, combined with the immense profits that accrued to the planters, created the African slave trade and helped to fund the early stages of capitalist development in Europe.
Sugar, unsurprisingly, drove patterns of colonial development. Prior to 1670, the most important British colonial venture in America was neither the Puritan spiritual utopia of New England nor the tobacco-farming estates of the Chesapeake, but rather the sugar island of Barbados. (One quick measure of the comparative importance of the islands and the mainland in the seventeenth century: South Carolina was founded essentially as a colony of Barbados.) Similarly, the Caribbean sugar island of Martinique—all 436 square miles of it—was more valuable to France than all of Canada.
By the time of American independence in the late eighteenth century, the world's most important producer of sugar was French Saint-Domingue—the western half of the island of Hispaniola, a country we know today as Haiti. In the memorable phrase of Caribbean historian C.L.R. James, Saint-Domingue was "an integral part of the economic life of the age, the greatest colony in the world, the pride of France, and the envy of every imperialist nation."8 Saint-Domingue at its peak produced more sugar than all the islands of the British Caribbean combined, and accounted for as much as two-thirds of all French overseas trade. The entire edifice rested on the domination and exploited labor of more than half a million African slaves.
In 1791, taking advantage of disunity among the planter elite engendered by the French Revolution, slaves on Saint-Domingue's north slope launched an uprising, which quickly spread throughout the country. The freed slaves liberated their neighbors, attempted to drive the planters from the country, and burned the cane fields to the ground. In time they organized themselves into effective military units, rallying around strong leaders such as Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jaques Dessalines, and Henri Christophe. For thirteen long years, from 1791 to 1804, Saint-Domingue was the scene of a dizzying chronology of violence, alliances, and betrayals among the ex-slave masses, their leaders, French officials (both republican and monarchist), and expeditionary armies from France, Spain, and England. In 1794, fearing the loss of the colony to England or Spain, the French revolutionary government in Paris abolished slavery; in 1802, Napoleon attempted to reimpose slavery by force. Napoleon's army of 40,000 men, commanded by his brother-in-law, captured Toussaint Louverture, who had declared himself Governor-General for life, and deported him to France. Yet still the French could not regain control over Saint-Domingue and its liberated slaves. Decimated by resistance from the ex-slave armies and by tropical disease, the French army withdrew in defeat, and in 1804 the surviving black leader Dessalines declared independence for the new nation of Haiti.
The Haitian Revolution was one of the most remarkable occurrences of all time. The only successful slave rebellion in recorded human history was achieved in the most important colony in the world, despite great efforts to reimpose slavery by the most powerful forces of the day—by the British and Spanish Empires and by Napoleon Bonaparte himself. The sad subsequent history of Haiti—a history marked largely by descent into poverty, autocracy, and violence—does nothing to diminish the magnitude of the remarkable accomplishment of the country's founders.
The young United States had little to do with the Haitian Revolution, although the uprising did induce a panic among Southern slaveholders that the spirit of black rebellion would spread to American shores. But the Haitian Revolution was absolutely essential for the future development of the United States.
Prior to the Haitians' defeat of Napoleon's army in 1802, Saint-Domingue figured as the centerpiece of Napoleon's dreams of a restored French Empire in North America. In 1800, Napoleon reacquired the huge Louisiana Territory (which had been owned by France until 1762) from Spain. Napoleon needed Louisiana to serve as Saint-Domingue's hinterland, growing food and cotton to feed and clothe Saint-Domingue's slaves and providing timber to fuel Saint-Domingue's sugar mills. Once Saint-Domingue was lost, however, Louisiana became virtually worthless to Napoleon—its vast expanse of land expensive to administer and defend, and its farms capable of producing no crop as valuable as sweet sugarcane.
Thus, when President Jefferson's emissaries arrived in Paris in 1803 seeking to buy the port of New Orleans or at least secure American rights to trade there, Napoleon instead offered to sell them the entire Louisiana Territory for a relative pittance—just $15 million, not much more than the $10 million the Americans had been authorized to offer for New Orleans alone. Napoleon thus rid himself of the burden of Louisiana and prevented its takeover by one of his European rivals, Spain or Britain.
However, absent the Haitian Revolution, the Louisiana Purchase would have been impossible. Americans pushing west into the Mississippi Valley and beyond would have encountered not free land acquired by the United States for pennies an acre, but instead a fortified French empire commanded by Napoleon Bonaparte, the most imposing imperialist of his time. The American republic may never have achieved its now-familiar transcontinental scope. Thomas Jefferson's "empire of liberty" was built, to no small degree, on the heroic resistance of Haitian slaves. That the Louisiana Purchase ended up extending the American slave system farther into the South and West is one of history's great ironies.