Three Forgotten Revolutions that Changed History

When I was in high school, one of my history teachers remarked that “Math and science books are always about the same size, but history books just keep getting bigger.” And it’s true that sometimes, in order to make sense of how our world got where it is today, we have to take shortcuts and focus on those events we deem most important, or else our brains might get overwhelmed and explode. But sometimes we, as a society, forget historical events that were actually really important, and helped shape the world around us. Today, I’m going to do my bit to help us recall some of these events.

The Haitian Revolution

The French colony of Saint-Domingue was the world’s largest supplier of sugar and coffee in the late 18th century, and like all of the Caribbean island colonies, the economy and society depended on African slaves to do all of the work. About 90% of the population of the colony was enslaved, a ratio that was pretty typical of the Caribbean at the time. And we all know that being a slave was a horrible way to live in the 18th and 19th century New World. But in 1791, the slaves of Saint-Domingue decided to do something about it.

In the largest slave revolt in history, 100,000 slaves attacked their masters in search of revenge. Within weeks, all the white colonists in the northern third of the colony were trapped in a handful of forts dotting a countryside that was now controlled by the slaves. The revolt’s speed and success shocked the world, not only because it was a slave-owner’s worst nightmare come true, but because it happened in the middle of the French Revolution, which had not two years earlier issued the Declaration of the Rights of ManWas France’s revolutionary government going to honor its pledge to apply those rights to all people? In 1794, the answer from Paris was a resounding “Yes”: Slavery was abolished and all the people of France, regardless of race, were given equal rights. Of course, there were considerations that were not so ideological in the decision – Great Britain and Spain had taken advantage of the chaos to invade Saint-Domingue, and the French troops there were on the brink of military disaster. Once the slaves were freed, Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the slave revolt, had his army switch sides and fight for the French against the British and Spanish invaders.

L’Ouverture took advantage of the victory to make himself master of the colony, effectively ruling it as an independent nation. He rebuilt the economy, wrote a new constitution, defeated rival warlords, and invaded the neighboring Spanish colony of Santo Domingo (today’s Dominican Republic). But when Napoleon Bonaparte took over France in 1799, he didn’t like what he was seeing in the Caribbean and sent in the French military to arrest L’Ouverture in 1801. At first Napoleon’s force was successful, but when it soon became apparent that they intended to restore slavery, the people rose up in revolt again and by 1804 had won their independence, renaming their country “Haiti”.

How it changed history: It gave the United States its current size and shape.

Napoleon didn’t simply want to retake control of a Caribbean island and restore slavery. He had grander dreams of conquering a new, massive empire in the New World, to complement his new, massive empire in Europe. He planned to start by retaking the colony of Louisiana, which had been under Spanish rule since France lost the Seven Years’ War in 1763. The real reason he wanted to retake Saint-Domingue and restore slavery was to use the coffee and sugar plantations to raise funds for his conquests. When he lost the island colony, his dreams of global empire were dashed, and his treasury was on the brink of bankruptcy.

Enter the United States, which wanted to purchase the port of New Orleans because that city’s location on the Mississippi River made it vital to American trade. To the American negotiators’ surprise, Napoleon offered all of Louisiana for $15 million. To Napoleon, the colony had no further value to him; to a still very young United States, it would double the country’s size for a mere three cents an acre.

That giant green blob in the middle? That’s what Napoleon was selling.

The decision was extremely controversial to Americans. Many thought President Thomas Jefferson had overstepped his authority, asking where in the Constitution the president was allowed to take such a crazy action. But one the deal was done, the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition was sent out to survey America’s new possessions, and the stories they brought back inspired the nation’s imagination. Talk began of “Manifest Destiny”, and Americans were the ones who now dreamed of a continental empire – a dream they achieved by 1848 with the annexation of California. So, yeah, without the slave revolt in Haiti, my hometown might still be a part of Mexico.

Why we forgot about it:

It is really tempting to use the “r-word” here, but I’m going to give the benefit of the doubt because, to be honest, Haiti is a small country, and its revolution occurred in an extremely revolutionary era. It came just after the American Revolution, during the French Revolution, and just before the Latin American wars of independence. It’s easy for such a small country to get lost in that mix.

Information from Crash Course: World History

The German Revolution

The Russian Revolution of 1917 shocked the world by overthrowing a centuries-old monarchy and bringing to power the world’s first Communist government. Radical revolutionaries around the world took heart and inspiration from the events in Russia, and hoped the revolution would soon spread around the world. Of course, all of this was taking place in the context of World War I, one of history’s bloodiest conflicts and also the death knell for the social order of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Europe. As the British drama Downton Abbey illustrates better than anything else I have seen, the old order was crumbing, and nobody was quite sure where society was going. It was the perfect timing for a revolution.

As early as January 1918, there were massive strikes in Berlin and across Germany, as the people grew tired of years of war and the hardships that came from it. By October, the Navy was mutinying, workers were striking, and it was beginning to look like German society was crumbing. In November, revolutionary Communists took over Bavaria and declared a “People’s Republic”, the national government in Berlin fell apart into chaos, and a general strike demanded the Kaiser’s abdication. By November 9, a republic was declared, and two days later Germany signed a cease-fire agreement ending the war.

As is so often the case in revolutions, the revolutionary forces now began to turn on each other and struggle for power. In Germany, the two main factions were the Spartacus League made up of revolutionary Communists who wanted to completely overthrow the old order and establish socialism, and the Social Democrats who also wanted to establish socialism but to do so gradually and in a way that “folded in and absorbed” the remnants of the old order. In essence, the German Revolution was a socialist-on-socialist fight about who was more socialist. The Spartacus League had the advantage in the early phases, with famous Communist leaders like Rosa Luxemburg, but before long the tide began to turn thanks to the flood of German veterans returning home in defeat. Many of these veterans were angry about the way the war had gone, and believed that the Communists had stabbed them in the back. They formed roving bands of armed thugs known as Freikorps that attacked and killed the Spartacists, including Luxemburg. This gave the edge to the Social Democrats, who were able to set up the Weimar Republic and build a democratic government. However, fighting in the streets between right-wing extremists and left-wing extremists would continue for years.

How it changed history: It ended World War I, produced many of the trends that characterized the interwar years, and set the stage for World War II.

The German Revolution was born out of a demand for peace, and it was street protests in Berlin that forced the armistice more than anything the Allies did. Meanwhile, the massive national disappointment with the course of the war and the revolution gave birth to one of the most profound eras in art history, as the Weimar years saw the rise of Bauhaus, Dada, Expressionism, and Modernism among German artists, writers, and architects. Many of the styles and visual cues we associate with the period between the wars came out of Germany.

But far bigger than any of these trends was the elephant in the room, an elephant with a tiny mustache:

The Nazi Party was founded in the middle of the chaos of the German Revolution and rose to power on the back of disgruntled war veterans and middle-class Germans who felt the Communists had betrayed Germany and the Social Democrats were leading it in the wrong direction. Add in an economic mess and a crazy anti-Semitic conspiracy theory and you have World War II before you know it.

Why we forgot about it:

Because this.

Yeah, that makes for a more compelling and exciting story than some boring street protests and thugs, doesn’t it?

Information from History in an Hour, John and,, and some books I’ve read.

The British Agricultural Revolution

As the Middle Ages slowly gave way to the modern age, there were huge changes rising in the British countryside. New technologies made farm work easier and more efficient. New fertilizers were discovered, and new crops from the Americas like corn and potatoes were arriving. At the same time, once-open pasture for herding livestock was being claimed and fenced-in, allowing the livestock’s feed to be more carefully controlled and thus producing a greater yield of meat. All of these trends meant that fewer peasants were needed to work the farms, and a handful of specialized farm workers could now do jobs that once required a great number of people. Feudal lords became landlords, their estates no longer a political institution but an economic one that provided the “big house” family with income from rent and from profits off the surplus crops that they were growing.

Gradually, over many years, the British landscape and social order was transformed with nothing more than the power of the free market fueling these changes. It truly was a revolution in that it completely changed how Britain fed itself. Famines became a thing of the past (well, mostly). Advances in scientific knowledge were used to make farming even more efficient and profitable. A journey across Great Britain began looking less like this:

And more like this:

How it changed history: It made the Industrial Revolution possible.

Remember all those peasants that were no longer needed? Well, many of them became Americans. But many more moved to the cities looking for work. This was the same time that the cloth-making industry was also being transformed by new technologies, and when you combined the new machines with the influx of workers, you have factories before you know it. Cities exploded in size from a few thousand residents to more than a million in practically no time at all, and all of those people had to find work somewhere. Inventions could be mass-produced and sold around the world, the machines that made them powered by steam engines that ran on coal that was mined by – you guessed it – more displaced peasants looking for work. And how were these millions of new city-dwellers fed? With food produced by those farms that were putting out record yields, of course!

Why we forgot about it:

This one is a bit harder than the others to pin down. I think a part of it is that to many Americans, all of British history is kind of a blur. When someone says “England” the first thing that pops into our heads is a bunch of “Ye Olden” stuff.

Yup. Something like this.

Besides, the Industrial Revolution takes all of the attention because our lives have now been reoriented around it. The computer you are using to read this blog post couldn’t exist without the Industrial Revolution. But the Industrial Revolution couldn’t begin without the British Agricultural Revolution.

Information from What the Victorians Did for Us

One Response to Three Forgotten Revolutions that Changed History

  1. Pingback: More Countries (and Places) That Changed Their Flags and Why | Cat Flag

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