The Horrors of Saint Domingo: Monarchy or Republic?​

By Gary Oswald

the Battle of Vertières, 18 November 1803, between Dessalines' army and the remaining French colonial army under the Vicomte de Rochambeau.

The men who would later become Emperor Dessalines, King Henry and President Pétion had all been loyal soldiers of France since at least 1794. The mixed race Pétion had been a soldier of André Rigaud while both Henry and Dessalines had been in the slave army and defected with Louverture. Pétion had been exiled alongside Rigaud back to France and returned with Leclerc in 1802, while Henry and Dessalines had loyally served Louverture and helped him put down various several rebellions of plantation workers. Then, after Louverture's arrest, when Leclerc had promised them all that he had no interest in reversing emancipation or racial equality they had all served as his generals in putting down the growing rebellions against his rule and confiscating weapons from the ex-slaves.

By October 1802 however, news had come in from the other colonies. France had reinstalled slavery elsewhere, bought back the slave trade and stripped citizenship from the black Haitians who had gone to France to serve the Republic in Europe. It was blatantly obvious that Leclerc had been lying and that his intentions were to kill or enslave his black and mixed raced soldiers as soon as they stopped being useful. The three generals therefore defected to the existing rebels.

The existing rebels were generally African born slaves who viewed plantation work as unacceptable, wanted to convert the land into farms instead and viewed their rebellion against Leclerc merely as an extension of their rebellions against Louverture and Rigaud and were therefore not entirely thrilled at the idea of taking orders from those men’s enforcers.

But the defecting generals had both the carrot of bringing with them enough men and guns to offer the chance of victory and the stick of being perfectly willing to kill those leaders who wouldn’t cooperate. And well, they were the lesser of two evils. The French at this point were bringing back all the old sadistic slave punishments and merrily crucified, burnt alive, drowned and otherwise painfully killed thousands of captured rebels. In one particularly notorious case, a captured rebel had his belly slit open and then was fed alive to dogs. Against that enemy, a favourable reference could be made to Dessalines.

Jean-Jacques Dessalines

The defection of the generals was a hugely important moment in Haitian history. It was more than anything the moment where the rebellion gained enough unity and firepower to win the war. But it was also the moment when the rebellion was co-opted by an authoritarian military elite who would dominate Haitian Politics for the next fifty years and would backslide on a lot of the aims of that revolution. If the French had arrested the three generals prior to their defection, it is possible that the revolution would have been much less successful but it also possible that the rebels would have created a richer and more equal independent country.

On the 18th of May 1803, in a meeting at Arcahaie, the rebel armies united, created a new flag to represent their new nation and confirmed Dessalines as their leader. Dessalines was an incredibly unpopular man but he was the only man left who could command the entire new army. All the other men of that status, and there were many of them from 1791 to 1803, were either dead or exiled. The options no longer available included the four original leaders of the revolt, Dutty Boukman, Jeannot, Georges Biassou and Jean-François Papillon, some of the most prominent leaders of the pro French faction, Toussaint Louverture, André Rigaud and Jean-Baptiste Belley and Sans-Souci, one of the main leaders of the existing rebellion.

In terms of Alternate History, the obvious question then is what if it was one of the others had survived to be picked in that place. Louverture was probably the most talented politician of the Haitian rebels but he had grown increasingly unpopular and was blinded by the idea that the only possible economic policy for Haiti was the plantation model. This refusal to consider a mixed economy where in at least some of the workers also ran farms or had some stake in the plantation ownership, possibly driven by his own personal self-interest as a plantation owner, would be a flaw that would take him to dark places in OTL and doubtless would do the same in a timeline in which he became a leader of an independent Haiti. The same could be said of Rigaud, who would return to Haiti in 1810 to try and take power then, his insistence on the Plantation model meant he was unpopular among his countrymen. Rigaud also had the problem of being a coloured supremacist who distrusted the pure blacks who were the majority. Belley, a freed slave who had been Louverture's envoy to the USA and France, where he'd served as a member of the National Convention for Haiti prior to being arrested by Dessalines and Leclerc, would have doubtless been less bloodthirsty than Dessalines but otherwise would have been similar politically. To an extent Dessalines offered the Louverture model.

The more interesting possibility is the original slave leaders who would likely go along with breaking up the plantations for farms but here we're relying on speculation due to them never holding power. Boukman died so early it’s difficult to know too much about what exactly his reign would look like. Jeannot was mostly known for his sadistic torture of captives and was killed by Papillion out of suspicion that he was an untrustworthy loose cannon. If Papillion and Biassou had survived their exile in Spain and returned they might have been able to take Dessalines place, and they're probably good shouts for anti plantation leaders.

Dessalines might not have been the Haitians' first choice but he was an excellent General and he would prove that over the next year by winning battle after battle and driving the French out of modern day Haiti entirely. Over 50,000 French soldiers were killed in Napoleon’s failed campaign in Haiti and it was unarguably one of the French Republic’s greatest defeats. The rebels had advantages in terms of numbers, defections, British aid and disease but it was an impressive campaign and for all Dessalines' faults as a peacetime leader, it's possible another General would have been unable to unite the rebels into such a successful army and so win Haitian independence by 1804.

There is, of course, one other thing Dessalines did in 1804 that only Papillion and Jeannot out of the other leaders would have possibly done. Which is round up and massacre every single French born white civilian in Haiti, which numbered around 3-5,000. The most surprising thing about this massacre in many ways was how unpopular it was among the former slaves and free coloureds. For over a decade the Revolution had been fought with no quarter, with captured soldiers from both sides tortured and executed. And yet this cold meticulous murder of civilians managed to be unpopular even those who had every reason to demand vengeance against those who’d enslaved them.

"Revenge taken by the Black Army for the Cruelties practised on them by the French". Illustration by British soldier and self-admitted "admirer of Toussaint L'Ouverture" (chapt.5) Marcus Rainsford from his 1805 book "An historical account of the black empire of Hayti".

Because of this unpopularity, the massacre, which was seen by so many slavers as the inevitable result of a successful revolt, is probably the easiest single step to prevent happening in another timeline. The white minority might well have had a hard time under other leaders, the law to prevent them owning land was broadly popular and civilians often fared badly in sacked cities but Dessalines was pretty unique in having the appetite for just rounding them up and killing them.

Dessalines himself argued repeatedly a) that the civilians had been complicit in the atrocities of the French army and b) that he spared British and American civilians and also Polish defectors from the French army who’d switched sides out of sympathy to the Haitians so he wasn’t anti-white (the story of the latter is largely fiction, there were Polish defectors but only in very small numbers. Mostly the Polish just died.) But it was undoubtedly a propaganda bonus for the French and did a great deal to make the already difficult prospect of Haitian independence being recognised by foreign countries even less likely. It is entirely possible that Haiti would have found itself economically isolated and unable to sell products to the USA and UK without the massacre, but with it, they had no chance. The export plantation economy was impossible to maintain without foreign traders being willing to trade there.

Entitled simply "Desalines", it depicts the general, sword raised in one arm, while the other holds a severed head of a white woman

Perhaps more importantly than even this, the choice of Dessalines as General of the Army and therefore future leader meant there was no separation of civilian and military power. There never really had been as the ex-slaves had all had to fight for their freedom constantly so being a leader meant having to win battles. This cemented Louverture’s martial law, the Army was in charge and Dessalines proved what this meant when rebuilding his shattered country, which had lost nearly a third of its population to war. The first job was to build a series of forts so no invasion could happen again that would do this to them. This was not an unreasonable decision, though in practice they were not used for another century, but if the civilian worker’s councils, that had formed several years earlier, had been given a say it is possible that they’d have instead rebuilt the roads and irrigation. And the choice to keep a standing army of 20,000 men during peace, which took up to half the Haitian's budget, was made by Dessalines due to the Army being in charge.

And, as a follower of Louverture, Dessalines remained largely committed to dictatorial rule and the plantation economy, despite a general popular demand for a farm based economy and mass participation in local politics. If Sans-Souci, who Henry had killed at a parley between them, had remained leader of the rebellion instead of being replaced by the defecting generals then this much more bottoms up revolution would have instead happened. Sans-Souci’s strain of radical politics, demanding land reform and local councils, would reoccur in the future under the likes of Jean-Jacques Acaau but it was not welcome among the military cabal which now ruled Haiti.

If the Generals had not defected but the rebels had still won, then the plantations would have been broken up in favour of share cropping farms and the local workers councils would have had a much bigger say as they tended to make the backbone of Sans-Souci's existing revolt.

Dessalines was assassinated in 1806, his unpopularity finally catching up with him, and the conspirators who had organised it, Henry and Pétion, fought an inconclusive war over the spoils and ended up dividing the country between them. Henry ruled in the north as King and Pétion in the south as President but both would have more in common with Dessalines than Sans-Souci.

In the end, the Kingdom would be overthrown by a peasant’s revolt and the Republic would reunite the country in 1820. But the idea of the Northern Kingdom enduring as a separate country or instead conquering the South is one of the most tantalising prospects of Haitian AH, it’s been the basis of several timelines and a short story I wrote last year on the Sealion Forums.

What kind of man was King Henry and what would his Kingdom look like had it survived longer? Well he was a King. Henry turned the clock back a decade, threw out the rights of man and set down a nobility and a peasantry. He was by nature an authoritarian paternalist. He felt that the nobles shouldn’t be cruel to their servants but that they should be in charge. He beat his sons to teach them to learn and beat the peasants when they didn’t work hard enough. He built hospitals and then equipped them with stocks so patients could be treated against their will. He built schools and an education system which Haiti had not seen before and concentrated on using those schools to throw out the Voodoo religion of Boukman and the slaves and replace it with pure Catholicism.

This was a Kingdom ran from the top down. It was however a Kingdom ran by an ex slave not born in Haiti, unlike the native born mixed race leadership of the Republic in the South. Henry represented, in origin and speech, the majority of the population and so did his nobility. And he was not entirely regressive. Henry was probably the only leader from the revolution to care about the environment and do something about the increasing problem of deforestation.

But much like his mentors, Louverture and Dessalines, he was committed to the plantation economy. Now Henry’s labour code was probably the kindest of the lot, with clear obligations set out for the plantation owners to their workers, they had to provide healthcare and be subject to legal oversight but at the heart of it, it was still serfdom. The workers were assigned a plantation and had no rights to leave it or do other work. And the plantations remained.

Henry attempted to avoid the problem of an essential embargo on Haitian goods by establishing relationships with individual sympathetic Europeans, in particular British Abolitionists who routinely cooperated with him. A Scottish doctor moved to Haiti in 1816 where he’d teach a new generation of Haitian doctors. Likewise an English Plough team were sent to improve agriculture, but unfortunately the differences in climate meant the same techniques could not be applied. Perhaps more important in the long term, Henry began to invite in German traders who could sell Haitian goods to the USA which had the unfortunate by-product of cutting that native Haitians out of the most profitable export trade and handing that instead to Europeans.

Henry also needed to impress the European Monarchs that he was their equal. For all Henry attempted to mimic the Kings of Dahomey, with his own female bodyguard called the Dahomets, his monarchy was far more European than African. He built an elaborate and expensive court life for his chosen nobility. This expense, and in particular the back breaking free labour he demanded to build and rebuild his great folly, the castle Citadelle Laferrière, made him as unpopular as his predecessors. He was overthrown and killed himself in 1820. With him died the plantation economy for good. The people of Haiti would not accept a nobility to work for, they wanted their own land.

It is not impossible for the Kingdom to survive or even for it to conquer the South which had its own problems. Some concessions to the plantation workers beyond healthcare and education would be needed but that is possible. The result would probably be either a richer Haiti but one with deeper inequality and terrible working conditions or merely a later uprising and revolution against the nobilty, a Haitian June Revolution. The Kingdom had far better education than the Republic ever did and in this there would be the seeds for a growing middle class that well be the Kingdom's doom.

In OTL, it would be the Republic that would win. And with Haiti reunited they had the luxury of being able to look abroad. The events on Haiti had not gone unnoticed in the rest of the world, and a number of people felt it was time to export the revolution.

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