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The Horrors of Saint Domingo: The French Connection?​

By Gary Oswald

"Burning of Cape Français. General revolt of the Blacks. Massacre of the Whites." ("Incendie du Cap. Revolte générale des Négres. Massacre des Blancs") As described on the original portrait: [Frontispiece from the book Saint-Domingue, ou Histoire de Ses Révolutions. ca. 1815.jpg]

The goal of the original slave uprising in Haiti was simply that they didn’t want to be slaves anymore. These were people who had been forced into one of the worst lives imaginable, they worked themselves to the bones doing dangerous back breaking work, were routinely beaten and raped, had no privacy or rights at all and could be killed painfully at the whim of their masters. Fundamentally, what the slaves wanted was not to have to live like that anymore and to kill the people who did that to them. They weren’t motivated by any nationalist desires.

On the contrary, slaves routinely chanted the name of the French King who they imagined had tried to free them but had been blocked from doing so by his elected council. The slaves had no real shared culture, no Haitian nationalism, their issues with being enslaved by France were that they were enslaved rather than that they were ruled by France. Some slaves set up minor Kingdoms (and later Republics) in the liberated areas but by and large the slaves primarily used their freedom to force the European empires to recognise their emancipation.

The French commissioners sent to Haiti were originally supposed to defeat the rebellion and put the slaves back into chains, but they quickly worked out this wasn’t really possible. European soldiers sent to the Island tended to die of diseases, the local freemen were resentful of French rule and couldn’t be relied on, Haitian white sailors rioted and burned down Cap-Francais in June 1793, and where the slaves couldn’t win pitched battles they could retreat into the mountains where pursuit was difficult. In August 1793, Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, a French commissioner with abolitionist sympathies, realised that the only chance of France holding the colony was to win over the slaves and announced that he was freeing all the remaining slaves in the North of the Island and offering amnesty and freedom to all ex slaves who’d come over to his side.

Late 18th-century oil painting portrait of Sonthonax

This in itself was a huge overstep of his powers, he had been given no orders to do so. But In February 1794 the National Convention in France accepted Sonthonax’s delegates to argue his case. These delegates’ argued that Haiti with free workers working on the plantations would actually be more valuable to France than Haiti as a slave slate. The workers would fight fanatically to protect Haiti from foreign attack and to remain French and critically would work harder with a stake in their labour and so make France more money. The Convention bought their argument entirely and indeed took it further, they declared that every single slave in the French Empire was now freed and a French citizen will full rights.

This was, on the surface, a huge incentive for the slaves to prefer French rule to that of their enemies. But, on the other hand, France was losing. Facing civil war in the Vendee, huge armies invading its soil in Europe and vastly outnumbered in Hispaniola, the general opinion was that the First Coalition was on the verge of Victory over France. So the Slaves weren’t inclined to take seriously promises from a Power that wouldn’t be able to deliver them. Especially since by this time, the major Slave armies had already committed themselves to alliance to the Coalition.

The Coalition invasion of Haiti happened across two fronts. The British, with the support of a considerable amount of the free citizens of Haiti - that is, most of the whites and some coloureds - captured a series of coastal cities. Here, they acted as the face of the Ancien Regime. They would restore to the old French nobility everything they had lost. The Blacks would be reenslaved, the Free Coloured’s reinstalled as second class citizens. The only difference is the profits from those restored plantations would now flow to London rather than Paris. This was Great Britain at its most reactionary. They did offer Freedom to some slaves in return for fighting for them against the French but these were individual exceptions not the rule.

The Spanish on the other hand, launched their invasion from the modern day Dominican Republic and, while they too maintained slavery, they sent messages to the remaining leaders of the Slave Army saying that they recognised that all the current free slaves had won their freedom through their feats and would be welcome to join the Spanish empire as freemen. This was not unusual for colonial powers, both Spain and Britain had welcomed free slaves to their armies in Florida and Canada, indeed Biassou, one of the slave leaders, would become an officer of the freed slave regimens in Florida after leaving Haiti. The slaves accepted.

Had the French Republic indeed collapsed in 1794, this then is what Hispaniola would have looked like. Spain and Great Britain would control the cities, with slavery and white supremacy the order of the day, but tens of thousands of maroons would live in the mountains, in a larger version of the Maroon Towns of Jamaica. Here they’d do what they did all over Haiti upon winning their freedom, they’d settle down on their own little patch of land, growing their own food and trading it among themselves. The slaves hated their plantations and converted them into farmland at the earliest opportunity. Any existing whites or free coloureds in these areas would doubtless be killed and though it’s probable for low level trade and conflict to happen with the Europeans, for most of these maroons they’d never have seen a white before. They’d exist only in terrifying tales they’d hear from their elders and worry about the buried whites coming back from the dead to continue their evil ways.

General Toussaint Louverture

But ultimately the French Republic did not collapse. Sonthonax’s plan took a while to work but it did. André Rigaud, a mixed race free coloured, took up the cause of emancipation with gusto in the South, forming an ‘Army of Liberation’ of slaves and coloureds to oppose the British. And in May 1794 two of the most promising junior leaders of the slave revolt, Touissant Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, switched sides to the French bringing with them thousands of slaves.

Over the next few years, Sonthonax, Rigaud and Louverture would together conquer all of Hispaniola for France, driving out the British and Spanish entirely before turning on each other and fighting a new civil war, which Louverture and Dessalines would win, sending both Sonthonax and Rigaud into exile. But this was over power not principles. All of these men had the same dream for Haiti, it would remain part of the French Empire but without slavery or racial discrimination, though Rigaud at least always treat other mixed raced people a little better than he did whites or blacks. Still all the men dreamt of a Haiti where all men could own land and have a place in it. But the Plantations would remain in order to send the money to France that they expected from their colonies, which meant that the labour code must prevent the plantation workers from having too much freedom. None of these men seriously wanted independence and so they needed to live up to the promise France had been made, that abolition would be better not just morally but also economically.

This particular dream ended when Napoleon’s armada came to Haiti in 1802 with the orders to end this experiment in racial equality and re-establish slavery and Louverture was taken to prison in France where he died less than a year later. But avoiding Napoleon’s invasion of Haiti is not difficult. He was in two minds for months about whether Haiti would be more valuable to him as a source of black troops or sugar and coffee. And even once he decided on his course of action, he waited months more to get an assurance of safe transit from the British and for the winds to be right for the armada to leave. If this couldn’t happen, he’d have sent a letter, which he’d written, to Louverture confirming his position and giving him new orders. In his later years of exile, Napoleon bitterly cursed himself for deciding that he had to crush Haiti in order to discourage other potential rebels. In his own words, he had at his disposal the finest army in the New World and threw them away.

The extent in which he did have that army is somewhat dubious. For a start, he couldn’t send ships to the Americas without British compliance, so how exactly was he to get that army to Louisiana to use to expand his American Empire? Secondly, Louverture liked the idea of remaining part of France but he didn’t exactly listen to French instructions or even ask for them. He’d made his own foreign policy in terms of dealing with the Spanish, the French and the Americans and even written his own constitution for Haiti. It’s far from sure that he’d have followed Napoleon’s orders to lead his army on an attack on Mexico or Canada.

Invasion of Cape Haitian by the French army

And if he had, it’s entirely likely Haiti would have collapsed in his absence. The bitter truth is that the idea that France could enjoy all the benefits of a plantation economy without its cruelties, was a fairytale. The slaves didn’t want to work on the plantations, they had to be kept on it by force and draconian labour laws. Plantations belonging to the whites were sold off by auction but the workers didn’t earn enough money to buy their own even in groups, they went instead to soldiers, leading to a literal situation of martial law. Where the army owned land and used brutal punishments to keep their workers in line, where the whip had been replaced only by a soldier's club. Louverture was not a popular man by 1802, his arrest happened without any outrage from a Haitian population that had been consistently rebelling against Louverture themselves for years. Louverture needed his army where it was.

And yet this wasn’t enough. Haiti had been ravaged by decades of fighting, the plantations could never be restored so quickly to their old profit making. Haiti simply couldn’t produce enough sugar and coffee to buy all the stuff they needed, let alone make a profit for France. You can remove both Napoleon and Louverture but this essential problem will remain, France has no use for a colony that won’t pay its way.

Which brings us back to Napoleon’s armada under Charles Leclerc. He was under orders to restore Haiti to what it had been. Napoleon was under the impression that if Leclerc lied about his intentions for long enough to get close to the main generals and arrest them, the other slaves would surrender meekly. He was very wrong. Leclerc won over the Generals but faced constant resistance from the common man and woman who remembered slavery and would not go back to it. They had fought Louverture and they would fight Leclerc too. As Leclerc wrote, they had 2,000 different Generals. In his last letter, he had decided that there was only one way slavery could ever be restored, every living Black on the island over the age of 13 must be killed and then the Island repopulated with new slaves.

This was not a realistic plan, Leclerc simply didn’t have enough white men to commit atrocities on that scale. But he still managed to kill thousands with what he had. The War in Haiti, far more than even the Terror, showed the revolution at its worst, going back on the courageous and hugely progressive declarations of ten years earlier. In a world in which Leclerc was successful, the historiography of that genocide would doubtless be deeply controversial. For the slaves the fact that the plan was even on the table, illustrated starkly that remaining in the French Empire was no longer, if it had ever been, a viable solution.

By October 1802, the choice was simply between annihilation and independence. The future Emperor Dessalines, King Henry and President Petion all went over to the rebellion in that month. From that point an independent Haiti was inevitable. But there was still the question as to what exactly that Haiti would look like.



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