The basics facts of the story can be found here, but Wikipedia (ever politically correct) misses too much to give you the full story. Stoddard actually gets closer to summing it up here:
The period opens in 1789 with a resident white population of nearly 40,000 souls, at the very pinnacle of material prosperity and possessed of a complex social organization, jealously guarding its supremacy and race identity in face of a large caste of half-breeds whose only bond of interest with their white superiors was a common exploitation of some half-million negro slaves. The period closes sixteen years later with the complete annihilation of the last remnants of the white population, the subordination of the mulatto caste to the negroes, and the destruction of the island’s economic prosperity.
The division of races, with three races, is the key to understand what happens as the revolution in Frances spills-over into the colony of San Domingo. Our three races are whites, mulattoes and blacks. These groups are important because everyone on the island sees them as important.
Prior to the revolution, the colony was prosperous:
In 1789, San Domingo “had attained a height of prosperity not surpassed in the history of European colonies. The greatest part of its soil was covered by plantations on a gigantic scale which supplied half Europe with sugar, coffee, and cotton.” And the degree of this prosperity was increasing by leaps and bounds. Since 1786, “the planters had doubled their products, and a large amount of French capital had poured into the island for investment — a hundred millions from Bordeaux alone. The returns were already splendid and still greater were expected.”
But French rule was not exactly ideal. It was governed under the Pacte Coloniale, which had five principles:
(1) the colony must send its products only to the mother country; (2) the colony must buy only from the mother country; (3) the colony must establish no manufactures; (4) the mother country agreed to buy its tropical products only from the colony; (5) the carrying-trade with the colony must be the monopoly of the mother country’s merchant marine.
We next get into the characteristics of each group. Stoddard is no defender of slavery:
In spite of their poor quality and bad treatment, these engages had done fairly well, and it seems practically certain that if slavery had been excluded, San Domingo would have become the home of an acclimated white people. But it was not to be. Slavery became the very basis of society — and wrought its logical consequences. . . .
Bryan Edwards, as we have seen, states that the base of slave societies is fear. This is true, — and true in its broadest sense. For, if the slave feared the master, the master also feared the slave. In the background of San Domingan life, there lowered a dark shadow, of which men thought much even when they spoke little.
The mulattoes looked upon the free negroes with unconcealed dislike, but this never caused an open breach within the caste; the free black fully shared the mulatto’s contempt for the slave, and refused to make common cause with his blood-brother. For this reason the free negroes never played an independent role, and the “free people of color” may be treated as the caste of the mulattoes.
Here, we must remember that slavery in colonies like San Domingo was not the same as slavery in the US (though the common understanding of what slavery was like is probably closer to the non-US reality). Stoddard points out:
But rapid as was this increase [in the number of slaves in the colony], it was due to immigration, not to births; the slave population of San Domingo never reproduced itself, and always showed a tendency to die out.
This is still the best discussion of types of slavery that I have read.
To make a long story short, when French rule goes away, the three races on the island begin fighting for control. The result was perhaps inevitable (especially when France went to war with other countries in Europe). Along the way, we get some gruesome stories of some bad actors:
The horror of the race war in the West now almost surpassed that of the North. The mulatto Confederates, in “token of their Royalist sentiments, fashioned white cockades from the ears of then-dead enemies. The atrocities perpetrated upon the white women and children are past belief. ”The mulattoes,“ writes the Colonial Assembly to its Paris commissioners, ”rip open pregnant women, and then before death force the husbands to eat of this horrible fruit. Other infants are thrown to the hogs." . . .Then began a struggle whose horrors have probably never been surpassed. Neither side dreamed of quarter, and the only prisoners taken were those reserved for torture. So ferocious was the racial hatred of the combatants that men often tore one another to pieces with their teeth.
Keep in mind that much of this violence was black on mulatto and vice versa.
I think this about sums up the story best:
The attitude of conservative Frenchmen on the colonial question is well expressed by De Wimpffen in a letter written at the very beginning of the Revolution. “My sentiments, sir, with regard to the slavery of the blacks are no secret to you,” he writes a French correspondent in March, 1789. “You are apprised, then, that I have always agreed, and still agree with those writers who reprobate so strongly the infamous traffic we maintain on the coasts of Africa. But, while I do justice to the purity of their motives, . . . our age is unfortunately too full of political reformers; who are in a violent haste to pull down an irregular edifice, without having either the talents or the materials necessary to construct it again upon a better plan. One simple argument shall suffice for all. Your colonies, such as they are, cannot exist without slavery. This is a frightful truth, I confess; — but the not recognizing it is more frightful still, and may produce the most terrible consequences. You must, then, sanction slavery or renounce your colonies: and as 30,000 whites can control 460,000 negroes only by the force of opinion (the sole guaranty of their existence), everything which tends to weaken or destroy that opinion is a crime against society.”
And so it proved to be. One can’t help but be reminded of Reconstruction, as Shelby Foote said:
This country has two grievous sins on its hands. One of them is slavery – whether we’ll ever be cured of it, I don’t know. The other one is emancipation – they told 4 million people, you’re free, hit the road, and they drifted back into a form of peonage that in some ways is worse than slavery.