An essay in four parts by Bob Corbett

Quick Review of Revolution Part II

The middle period of the Haitian Revolution is the story of Leger Felicite Sonthonax, French Commissioner to Saint-Domingue, and the rise of Toussaint Louverture.

Sonthonax worked tirelessly to save the colony for France. Toussaint worked tirelessly to free the slaves. Each was jealous of his power. It was inevitable that they would be in conflict, and Toussaint ultimately won this confrontation, shipping Sonthonax back to France. However, before he left Sonthonax assured his position in Haitian history by abolishing slavery from Saint-Domingue. Toussaint, after initially fighting against the French and for the Spanish, came back over to the French defeating not on the Spanish, but also driving the British out of Saint-Domingue.

The French, fearing Toussaint's growing power and suspecting that he had sentiments toward independence, sent special agent Thomas Hedouville to save the colony for France. douville managed to hammer home the fatal wedge between Toussaint and mulatto general, Andre Rigaud. Hedouville, safely back in France, could watch the unfolding civil war between Toussaint and Rigaud.

Part III

Toussaint and Independence

Thomas Hedouville fled Haiti on Oct. 22, 1798. Toussaint was the leading figure in the colony and playing both ends of his spectrum -- apparent loyalty to France; apparent sympathy to the United States' pushing Saint- Domingue toward independence. Not only was the U.S., herself a newly free nation, a model that Toussaint might follow, but Secretary of State Timothy Pickering was presenting a very friendly and supportive position. Finally, Toussaint felt much more comfortable with the small, fledgling United States than with either Britain or France. The primary interest which Toussaint felt toward the United States was the better deal Saint- Domingue could get in trade. France imposed the "exclusif" on Saint- Domingue. Under this law of colony to metropole, Saint-Domingue could only trade with France, who then had the power to set the prices. Further, manufacturing of finished goods from the raw farm products was forbidden by France. All manufacturing of Saint-Domingan goods was reserved for France. The United States, on the other hand, paid a more competitive price for Saint-Domingan goods and placed no restrictions on their form. Even the landowners supported trade with the United States. At first it would seem that this was not in their economic interests. Sonthonax had freed the slaves and Toussaint would certainly uphold this emancipation. This meant that the former slaves became paid field hands, and the landowners would lose approximately 50% of their income to the government and to farm labor. Nonetheless, the 50% that they could earn on the free market was more than 100% of what France was willing to pay under the exclusif.

Nonetheless, Toussaint kept up the appearance of loyalty to France and appointed Philippe Roume, French agent in Santo Domingo, to replace Hedouville as France's representative in Saint-Domingue. Toussaint's loyalty to France was not all posturing. There was a very strong call of culture from France. This was especially true among the affranchais, the blacks and mulattos freed before the general emancipation. They wanted to separate themselves from the slaves. They had adopted French culture and customs as their identity, scorning anything African. They spoke French, dressed in European fashion, practiced the Catholic religion and, in general, idealized France and French culture. Even Toussaint was pulled in this direction and had a strong bond to France.

Roume, Toussaint and Rigaud

Roume continued the work of Hedouville, fostering the growing conflict between Toussaint and Rigaud. Rigaud, an extreme mulatto chauvinist, worried France because of his readiness to kill the whites and blacks. Toussaint's independence tendencies frightened the French too, so they sought the safety of keeping either Rigaud or Toussaint from having complete power. However, by pushing Rigaud and Toussaint into civil war, France assured itself that one or the other was likely to emerge a stronger person from his victory.

In January, 1799 the formal break came in a dispute over who ruled Petit and Grand Goave. Roume had included the towns in Toussaint's authority, but Rigaud walked out of the meeting and civil war was inevitable. By June, Toussaint pressured Roume into declaring Rigaud in rebellion.

The War of Knives

On June 16, 1799 Rigaud attacked Petit Goave, putting many people to death with the sword. It was from Rigaud's violence with the sword that this civil war got it's name -- The War of Knives.

The first five months of war were characterized by gruesome excesses on both sides. Finally, by mid-November, the war centered on Rigaud's stronghold at Jacmel, defended by Alexander Petion. Jean-Jacques Dessalines was the besieging general for Toussaint. Dessalines was to become the first president, then emperor of free Haiti in 1804, and Petion was to become the president of The Republic of Haiti in 1807. On March 11, 1800 Jacmel fell, virtually ending Rigaud's resistance. Nonetheless, he hung on until July, finally fleeing to France until he returned as part of Napoleon's invasion force in 1802.

Toussaint had a reputation for clemency and avoiding unnecessary bloodshed. But, he appointed the blood thirsty and violent Dessalines as pacifier of the south. Dessalines butchered many mulattos (the estimates range from 200 to 10,000!). When Toussaint finally halted the massacre he reportedly said: "I did not want this! I told him to prune the tree, not to uproot it."

The Conquest of Santo Domingo

By August, 1800 Toussaint was ruler of all Saint-Domingue and no foreign power was on Saint-Domingue soil. He was governor general of the whole colony. However, Santo Domingo, present day Dominican Republic, was an intolerable situation to him. The Spanish had ceded Santo Domingo to the French in the Treaty of Bale on July 22, 1795. Nonetheless, the Spanish never turned the colony over to the French, and the French, unsure of Toussaint's loyalties, never pressed the issue. Spain's presence in Santo Domingo was in France's interest. They could keep an eye on Toussaint. But he now set out to claim France's (and his own) authority over the entire island of Hispaniola.

After initial resistance on the part of Roume, who, recall, had been the French agent in Santo Domingo before Toussaint appointed him to the Saint-Domingue post, Roume was pressured into approving the unification movement. However, Spanish Captain-General Don Joaquin Garcia y Moreno was unwilling to turn over command to black Haitians. He prepared to resist, and his resistance gave Roume the courage to rescind his order. This gave Toussaint a pretext to charge Roume with disloyalty to France -- after all, France owned Santo Domingo by treaty -- and Roume was held prisoner for nearly a year. Meanwhile Toussaint massed his troops for the invasion of Santo Domingo. He encountered only tentative resistance and entered the capital, Santo Domingo City on Jan. 26, 1801. He quickly consolidated his power and emerged as the governor-general of Hispaniola.

Toussaint's Constitution:   The Document that Tweaked Napolean

On July 26, 1801 Toussaint published and promulgated a new constitution for Saint-Domingue which abolished slavery, but did allow the importation of free blacks to work the plantations. The constitution recognized the centrality of sugar plantations to the Saint-Domingue economy, and accepted Roman Catholicism as the state religion. Perhaps two of the most significant items were that Toussaint was governor-general for life and that all men from 14 to 55 years of age were in the state militia. Nonetheless, the constitution professed loyalty and subservience to France. The most galling thing for Napoleon was that Toussaint published and proclaimed the constitution without prior approval from France and the First Consul.

Thus by July of 1801 Toussaint had emerged as the leading figure in Saint-Domingue, and seemed headed toward declaring an independent republic. He had defeated the Spanish and British, maneuvered the French Commissioners out of the colony, defeated Andre Rigaud in a Civil War, taken possession of the eastern portion of the island, eradicated slavery on the entire island and promulgated a constitution in which he was declared governor general for life.

Both Britain and the United States treated with Toussaint as though he were the head of an independent state, though Toussaint's constitution and public demeanor claimed that he was a loyal French citizen who had saved the colony for France.

Virtually no one believed Toussaint's claims of loyalty to France. Britain and the United States wanted to deal with Toussaint to ensure an end of French privateering from Saint-Dominguan waters. Both nations hoped to contain the slave rebellion to Saint-Domingue alone. Both nations strove to out do one another in establishing trade relations with Toussaint's government, in defiance of France's regulations for the colony. Thus Napoleon might well be excused if he took with a healthy dose of salt Toussaint's claims of being a loyal son and protector of French rights in Saint-Domingue.

For Napoleon, the die was cast. "This gilded African," as he called Toussaint, would have to go. Bonaparte chafed at the power of the black first consul, but there was little he could do while France was at war with Britain. However, on Oct. 1, 1801 France and Britain signed a peace treaty and Napoleon's hands were free to deal with Toussaint.

It is important to note that Bonaparte's personal detestation of Toussaint was only one factor in his decision to retake Saint-Domingue to more trustworthy French rule. The French Directory, before Napoleon's coup d'etat of Nov. 9, 1799, had already set a West Indian policy in which Saint-Domingue was the center piece. Napoleon inherited this foreign policy and inherited the constant political pressure of the French planters who had been disenfranchised by the liberation of the slaves. Bonaparte needed the wealth of Saint-Domingue and there seemed a grave danger that Toussaint would lead the colony toward independence. All of these issues, and others, weighed in Bonaparte's decision to launch an invasion against his own governor-general of Saint-Domingue.

The Leclerc Invasion

Once committed, Napoleon sent a well-outfitted troop of 12,000 soldiers under the leadership of his brother-in-law, General Charles Leclerc. In Leclerc's invasion force Toussaint was going to have to deal with many old enemies including Alexander Petion and Andre Rigaud.

Napoleon gave Leclerc a set of secret instructions which demanded Leclerc give his word of honor about many things and then violate it. The general plan was to first promise the black leadership places of authority in a French-dominated government. Then, once having established control, to move to the second stage of arresting and deporting any black leaders who seemed troublesome, especially Toussaint Louverture. The third and final stage was not only to disarm all the blacks, but to return the colony to slavery and the pre-Revolutionary colonial state. Virtually no one in Saint-Domingue was fooled by Leclerc's protestations of benevolent purpose.

On Feb. 2, 1802 Leclerc arrived in the bay of Cap Francois, the city governed and defended by Henri Christophe, one of Toussaint's most important generals, and later on Haiti's second president and first and only king. Christophe would not allow the French to disembark, and prepared to burn the city to the ground if they tried. Leclerc pressed the issue and, true to his word, Christophe torched this Paris of the Americas. The black armies retreated to the interior to fight a guerilla war and Leclerc took over a huge pile of ashes. The final stage of the Haitian Revolution had begun.

The Leclerc Campaign

Phase 1:   Crete-a-Pierrot

Leclerc's forces quickly took most of the coastal towns, though Haitians burned many of them before they retreated. Eventually a decisive moment came as Dessalines and his second in command, Lamartiniere, were asked to hold the small former British fort, Crete-a-Pierrot, an arsenal of the Haitians.

Both sides claimed victory. It sort of depends on what measure one uses. The French ended up with the fort, but they lost twice as many men as the Haitians, and were shocked to discover how well the blacks could fight in a pitched battle. The Haitians took great solace in their ability to hold off the French for so long. For the rest of the war they used Crete-a-Pierrot as a rallying cry. After abandoning the fort, the Haitians retreated into the Cahos mountains and fought a guerrilla war from then on.

Phase 2:   Surrender

By April 26 Christophe and his troops surrendered to Leclerc. Toussaint followed on May 1st. Even though things had not gone as Napoleon planned, within two months Leclerc had achieved Napoleon's first goal--pacification of the leaders. Now Leclerc was free to implement phase 2 -- the arrest and deportation of "trouble makers."

The Arrest and Deportation of Toussaint Louverture

After Toussaint's surrendered, he ostensibly retired to his plantation at Enery to live out his days. However, there is a good deal of historical controversy about this. Some argue that Toussaint immediately began to plot anew against the French. I really don't know which way the factual evidence leans, but the logic of the situation leads me to suspect that these charges against Toussaint were true. First of all it is not like Toussaint to simply walk away and abandon the struggle of the past 10 years. Further, he had to have suspected that the French would reinstate slavery and the old colonial system. Again, it's not like Toussaint to quietly acquiesce in such a turnabout. Finally, he must have known how weakened the French were becoming from the ravages of yellow fever. How long and how seriously could the French fight with only a fraction of their men?

But all of this is mere logical speculation, not factual knowledge. What we do know are the details of Leclerc's dishonorable subterfuge to arrest and deport Toussaint. On June 7 Toussaint received a message from French General Brunet to meet with him at a plantation near Gonaives. Brunet assured Toussaint that he'd be perfectly safe with the French, who were, after all, gentlemen!

Shortly after arriving at the plantation he was arrested and shipped off to prison in France. Toussaint was taken to Fort de Joux, a cold, damp prison near the Swiss border. Toussaint soon withered away and died on April, 7, 1803. So much for French honor!

The Final Up-Rising and French Defeat

The dishonorable treatment of the aging Toussaint was not only a moral outrage, but a practical error of irreversible scope. The Haitians were so incensed, and recognized that if Toussaint could be so treated, so could anyone else. The masses realized the French must be defeated once and for all.

Leclerc made a second tactical blunder upon the heels of Toussaint's arrest. He immediately began a disarmament campaign, planning to disarm all the blacks. The net effect was to open the eyes of many and drive thousands back under the banner of the revolution. From June to October, 1802 Leclerc's soldiers carried on this mainly unsuccessful campaign.

During this period both Dessalines and Christophe were working with the French. Dessalines was a particularly vicious warrior against the rebels. However, there is a strong case to be made that he was more interested in his own position of power than anything else.

Working with the French he could have it both ways. On the one hand, if the French prevailed he was becoming increasingly indispensable to whatever order prevailed, thus assuring his position there. On the other hand, he was capturing and killing rebel leaders. Thus if the revolution were to once again catch fire, he was in a position to bolt the French and take up leadership of the rebels, which is exactly what he did. Haitian independence and black rule seem to have been honestly desired by Dessalines. But, first and foremost he wanted Jean-Jacques Dessalines to be an important power in whatever government prevailed in Saint-Domingue.

As the situation deteriorated for the French, Dessalines, Christophe, Petion and Clairveaux all conspired with rebel leaders. On Oct. 13, 1802, Petion and Clairveaux deserted to the rebels. Christophe and Dessalines followed and within days only Cap Francois, Port-au-Prince and Le Cayes were fully in French hands. The final battle had begun.

The Arcahaye Conference and the Death of Leclerc

Nov. 2, 1802 the rebel leaders met at Arcahaye, a small village south of St. Marc. The leaders elected Dessalines as rebel commander-in-chief and chose the red and blue flag as their banner. The story is that Dessalines took the tricolor French flag -- a band each of red, blue and white, and tore out the white, announcing to the cheering assembled mass that Haiti, too, would drive out the whites. Certainly such a dramatic symbol, if it actually occurred, would have been an inspiring and motivating gesture.

On the same day as the Arcahaye conference, Leclerc died of yellow fever. General Rochambeau took command. He was an able and fearless commander, and reinforced by another 10,000 troops in mid-November, carried on the French defense for another year.

By the time of the Arcahaye conference most of the maroons had also come to see that the French were the true enemy. Prior to this the maroons had been separated and vacillating, not really joining the revolution, but fighting an independent war of self-interest wherever and whenever it served their purposes. But now they joined in unified fashion with the rest of the Haitians to drive the French from the island for once and for all, and to preserve the nation as a free, non-slave entity.

Dessalines and Rochambeau

Each side was under the leadership of a capable and ruthless leader. Each side traded atrocity with atrocity, the particular description of which are sickening and defy credulity of even those used to human inhumanity to humans. Torture, rape, brutal murders, mass murders of non-combatants, mutilation, forcing families to watch the torture, rape and death of loved ones and on and on. The last year of the Haitian Revolution was as savage as any conflict one can read of in human history. Thomas Ott says this had become a war of racial extermination on both sides.

Despite the ravages of yellow fever and the increasing numbers of Haitians joining the revolution, Rochambeau's forces made considerable gains in early 1803. Napoleon, heartened by the return of slavery to Guadeloupe, sent a further reinforcement of 15,000 troops. Rochambeau seized the moment to launch a vigorous attack on the rebels.

A New European War Helps Shift the Balance

On May 18, 1803 Europe was again plunged into war, and Britain declared war on France. Dessalines was now a welcomed ally of Britain who provided arms and naval support. At the same time this European war announced the end of reinforcements and supplies for the French. The conditions were set for a reversal of the fortunes of the revolutionaries.

By the end of October the French were reduced to holding only Le Cap and were besieged and in danger of starvation. Finally on November 19, 1803 Rochambeau begged for a 10 day truce to allow the evacuation of Le Cap, thus giving Haiti to the Haitians.

Independence Day, January 1, 1804

After 13 years of revolutionary activity France was formally removed from the island and Haitian independence declared, only the second republic in the Americas. The country was in ruins, the masses mainly uneducated and struggling for survival. The western world's large and interested nations, the United States, Britain, Spain and, of course, France, were all skeptical and nervous about an all-black republic. After all, the large nations were all slave-owning states.

Born in dire straights and struggling, nonetheless the nation came to be through the efforts of the revolutionaries.

Coming soon!


What's left to do? I've taken us up to independence. The revolution is over. There are many issues of controversy surrounding the story of the Haitian Revolution. I've tried to present a brief relatively non-controversial account of the central struggles toward Haitian independence.

The last essay is this series will address the question: What were Napoleon's ultimate plans? It is often said that Napoleon was on his way to invade the United States, or at least to consolidate France's position in Louisiana. I will try to shed light on the larger plans of Napoleon's West Indian policy.

There are two other issue which interest me a great deal, and perhaps I'll tackle them in the near future. They are:

  1. Who really won the revolution: yellow fever or Toussaint, Dessalines, Christophe and their gallant troops? This is another age-old debate in Haitian history. I'd like to sort out some of the issues and arguments and come down squarely in the middle by arguing that both yellow fever and revolutionary leadership and struggle share importantly in the final outcome.
  2. Will the real Toussaint Louverture please stand up. Historians of Haiti usually choose sides. Some say Toussaint was humane, a brilliant strategist, a mover of people, creator of the nation -- the first Haitian saint, a hero. Others see a Machiavellian schemer out to aggrandize his own position no matter what happened to his brother and sister Haitians. Again, I'd like to sort out the arguments and shed some light on the WHO of Toussaint Louverture.

But, will I get to these soon? Unlikely. Any of you have any thoughts?

email me!

This is the third in a four part series of articles on the Haitian Revolution written by Bob Corbett.
Go to Part 1
Go to Part 2
Go to Part 4


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