World marks revolt that helped end slavery

Slave labour is rife in many industries – such as this illegal charcoal mine in Brazil © Getty Images

August 23rd was the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. It marks a crucial anniversary in the fight against slavery – but the war is far from over.

Three hundred years ago, Haiti was very different to the country it is today. Known as Saint-Domingue, it was one of France’s most successful colonies; a lush, fertile land that provided most of the world with coffee and sugar.

For the white plantation owners, Saint-Domingue was a land of prosperity. But their wealth was built on terrible exploitation. Black slaves outnumbered free people by ten to one. As the property of white colonialists, they were forced into constant, punishing work, and faced beatings, squalor and early death.

At the end of the 18th Century, however, something happened to change that forever. Late in the night of the 22nd August, 1791, the slaves of Saint-Domingue revolted.

Mobilised by a call from a High Priest, tens of thousands of slaves rebelled, overpowering their masters. Within days, French rulers were isolated in a few fortified camps. Revenge for years of oppression came swiftly: plantations were destroyed, and 4,000 whites killed.

By 1792, free slaves controlled one third of the island. But this was just the beginning. Alarmed by the uprising – and inspired by the new ideals of their own revolution – France made a bold decision. On February 4th, 1794, it abolished slavery, and granted political and civil rights to black men.

For the West, it was a crucial step in recognising black people not as property, but human beings with an equal right to life and liberty. By 1865, both America and Britain had outlawed slavery.

Today, on the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade, people around the world will pause to consider the struggle to end one of history’s greatest injustices. But slavery is not confined to the past.

Today, millions are trapped in bonded labour – forced to work for free, in brutal conditions, because they owe money to their employer. Traffickers take people away from their communities and force them to work against their will – often in the sex trade. And globally, 126 million children work for a very little in appalling and often dangerous conditions.

History's problem?

Today’s attitudes, however, are very different to those of the 18th Century. Then, whole races were thought of as less than human; nothing more than property, to be bought, sold and worked. Now, many argue, we have a moral understanding: that everyone has an equal right to liberty and opportunity.

Don’t be so sure, others say. The greed that once motivated plantation owners still fuels worldwide exploitation and slavery. And with the same apathy as the normal people of the 1700s, today's majority is turning a blind eye. It may be the 21st century, but few of us have reason to feel complacent.

You Decide

  1. Is modern society more moral than that of the 18th Century?
  2. By choosing to ignore modern slavery, are we guilty of supporting it?


  1. Write a fictional account of Haiti’s slave rebellion.
  2. Today, most people look back on the slave trade and find it difficult to believe that such injustice could ever have been tolerated. Which modern-day problems do you think people of the future might regard in a similar way?

Some People Say...

“The modern slave trade is just as horrific as the last.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How widespread is slavery in the modern world?
Slavery might seem like a distant problem. But wherever you live, it is likely that you could be connected to slave labour. Evidence shows that bonded labour is frequently used in farming raw materials like cocoa, cotton and sugar. Even when it comes to the later stages of producing goods – from hand-knotted rugs to advanced factory-produced technology – illegal labour practices could be widespread.
How do we find out about it?
It’s notoriously difficult to track everything that has gone into a product. Most companies outsource production of their goods to a range of different organisations. Many of these do not pay enough attention to the rights of their workers. If big-name brands do not carefully monitor every stage of manufacturing, they could be using slave or sweatshop labour without knowing it.

Word Watch

A colony is a territory that is controlled by a state. Throughout history European nations like France, Great Britain and Portugal expanded their power by colonising countries in Asia, Africa and South America. The richer European states set up governments in less developed countries, and influenced them with cultural and religious ideas. They also benefited from a colony’s natural resources, and frequently exploited native populations for slave labour. Today, the majority of ex-colonies have been granted independence.
High Priest
Voodoo is the traditional religion of Haiti, but during the French colonisation locals were pressured to convert to Christianity, and the traditional religion was actively suppressed. The catalyst for the Haitian revolution was a call to arms by Dutty Boukman, a Voodoo priest who had escaped slavery.
Their own revolution
Haiti’s slave revolt coincided with radical upheaval in France. Inspired by ideals of liberty, equality and rights for all, the French Revolution overthrew the nation’s ruling monarchy. A period of unrest and violence followed, but its ideals have been instrumental in shaping democratic and secular values.


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