By Jan Pachonski and Reuel K. Wilson

East European Monographs, Boulder, Co. Distributed by
Columbia U. Press, NY 1986. ISBN # 0-88033-093-7

Reviewed by Bob Corbett

For years I have been hearing the stories about how Polish legions, supposedly fighting for Napoleon in the last days of the revolution, were said to have gone over to the Haitians and fought side by side with the oppressed blacks. The old story continued that the Poles then settled in Haiti and that even today there can be found Haitian Poles, blue eyed, blond, with European features.

Thus when I ran across Pachonski and Wilson's book, POLAND'S CARIBBEAN TRAGEDY, I was thrilled to have a chance to get the story from the source as it were. Well, if that sort of slant is why one goes to this book it will be a huge disappointment. First of all one will have to be patient, since they do address this old Haitian myth, but not until the second last chapter, pages 307-317 is this tale discussed, and then for only 10 pages at that!

In short, the story of the Poles as friends of Haiti and as settlers is greatly exaggerated to understate the case. However, Pachonski and Wilson do address the interesting question of how the myth grew, and they attribute it in great measure as being a creation of Jean-Jacques Dessaline himself. On Pachonski and Wilson's view, Dessaline was much taken by the fact that the Poles tended to treat the Haitians better than other Europeans and to have less regard for the French. The Poles did not want to be in Saint Domingue and, in general, opposed the war, however, they did follow their own orders and fought for the French cause. At the same time they expressed strong criticism for the French, had great sympathy for the Taino/Arawak Indians whom the Spanish had eliminated, and were not at all as racist as the French.

With Dessaline's prodding, the Haitians tended to treat the Poles much better when they captured them. On one Pole's account this meant that they killed them straight off rather than torturing them as they did the French!

In sum there were about 5200 Poles sent to Saint Domingue by Napoleon. More than 4000 died, primarily of yellow fever. Some returned to France, some were subsumed into the British Colonial Army, and only about 400 remained in Haiti. Even then, 160 of those received permission from Dessalines in 1806 to return to France, and were even sent there at Haiti's expense. Thus, only about 240 Poles actually became and remained Haitian citizens.

Likewise the stories of Poles deserting the French for the Haitian cause are grossly exaggerated with only 120 to 150 Poles ever going over to the Haitian cause, and those are more likely to have do so to save their own lives than as a matter of principle.

I came away from the book having a better sense that the Polish story is one of those myths which every country's history has, based more in wishful thinking than fact, but interesting nonetheless. What is most interesting is the fact of how vigorously Haitians believe the myth and perpetuate it, and the history of its roots and origins.

Along the way, there are many more things in Pachonski and Wilson's book which are quite worth the read. First of all, what were the Poles doing in Haiti to begin with? A bit of background. In 1772 Russia, Prussia and Austria each annexed portions of Poland and there was no nation of Poland. Many of her soldiers, hopeful of uniting in some way to win back Polish territory, made alliance with Republican France and joined her army, but as distinct Polish units. The understanding was that they would fight enemies of France who were allied with Russia, Prussia and Austria, militating for the situation when a frontal attack on former Polish territory could be made and Poland once again established.

Napoleon had other ideas. Wanting to regain the colony of Saint Domingue, but not wishing to deplete his own army any more than he had to, he chose to send Poles, Germans and Swiss and less favored units of his own army to Saint Domingue. Napoleon genuinely wanted to retake the island, reestablish slavery and keep Saint Domingue as a colony, but he didn't believe it would take any serious effort on the part of European troops, thus he could cut corners.

Certainly the Poles had little desire to be in Saint Domingue, and also had a natural sympathy for people fighting for their own independence, which probably gave true cause for Dessaline's beliefs that the Poles were a cut different from the French. (Much of what is said of the Poles in this book also applies to the German and Swiss troops. In general, if the Haitians discovered that captured troops did not speak French, they were automatically singled out for better treatment.)

But the Poles did obey orders, came to Saint Domingue and did their duty as best they could. One of the things which Pachonski and Wilson do emphasize is that the Poles were not really prepared to fight in the style necessary for Saint Domingue. First of all, they were not used to the climate, and dressed in uniforms which were much too hot for them. Secondly, they tended to fight only in tight formations which made them much easier targets for the Haitians, who, on the authors' account, were not very good shots.

A great portion of the book is quite technical, being a listing of how the Polish troops fared battle by battle, and bout of yellow fever by bout of yellow fever. It might be very interesting to people interested in either Polish genealogy or very technical aspects of Polish military history, but not to many others, and this portion of the book would not be of interest to scholars of things Haitian.

The impact on Poland of these troops in Saint Domingue is probably more significant than the impact of the Poles on Saint Domingue. This colonial experience undermined the belief on the part of all Poles that France had good intentions toward Poland. It also led to a wide-spread conspiracy theory, which is almost certainly false, that Napoleon deliberately sacrificed Poles in Saint Domingue. Lastly, nearly 2/3 the existing Polish soldiers were killed or disabled, greatly weakening the hope of an immediate recovering of Polish territory by acts of arms.

However, there is one wonderful service of this book for those of us interested in Haiti. In following the plight of the Polish units, the authors trace down the last days of the revolution, battle by battle, town by town, following the evacuations and defeats of dozens of villages, towns and cities including Jacmel, Jeremie, Les Cayes, Port-au-Prince, Cap Haitien and finally, the last struggle at Mole St. Nicholas. It is a fascinating picture, sort of like the song 99 bottles of beer on the wall, and one by one they fall. First the interior, then the smaller towns in the west, then the whole south, followed by Port-au-Prince, and so on, a genuine domino effect. This way of reporting the last days of the revolution is most interesting and informative.

In the second last chapter, which addresses directly the question of Polish descendants in Haiti, the authors find that there is much more rumor than documented fact. Various journalists and anthropologists, many of them Polish, have attempted to find and document modern day Polish Haitians. Their main suspected regions are: Cazale, La Vallee de Jacmel, Fond des Blancs, especially the near-by village of La Baleine, Port Salut and St. Jean du Sud. But little of substance is found. Again, rumor, a few Polish sounding names, some vague reports of blond, European-looking Haitians, but no photos or documented evidence.

The book itself is not terribly original. In significant measure it is a critical elaboration of an unpublished work by Kazimierz Lux and Peter Bazyli Wierzbicki called HISTORY OF THE POLISH LEGIONS, only available in a hand written copy and written roughly just after the Saint Domingue campaign.

Pachonski and Wilson are at pains to check out the data when and where they can, and there is some laborious scholarship in doing that. But, when in doubt or when other sources aren't available, which is often the case, then this current book is a reiteration of Lux and Wierzbicki's work.


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu