The Horrors of Saint Domingo: The Trotsky Option?​

By Gary Oswald

Coat of Arms of the Republic of Haiti, originally introduced in 1807.

In 1820, in the aftermath of King Henry’s suicide, troops from the Southern Republic of Haiti invaded the Northern Kingdom of Haiti and, facing no real opposition, conquered it bloodlessly in a matter of days. But this was not really a triumph of democracy because the Republic was not really a democracy. It had started with the ambitions of being a genuinely open government in which the senate held most of the power and President Pétion went as far as to allow any citizen to enter the senate room and question and advise the senate in session. But this did not last long.

The senate was soon reduced to five people, all members of Pétion’s family and firmly under his thumb. There was a democratic chamber, the house of deputies whose members were voted in by universal male suffrage, but they were basically reduced to an advisory role. While the president, and his senate, called the shots. By the end of his reign, the law was that the president would be the only one able to nominate new members of the senate and the president would serve for life and be the only one with the power to introduce new laws. Pétion would never call himself King or Emperor but he ruled as if he was one.

Where Pétion genuinely was far more progressive than Dessalines or Henry was in his economic policy. Pétion was the first major leader to truly realise that it was impossible to run the plantation system with free men. He encouraged instead the break-up of the plantations into farms and introduced more share cropping which gave farm workers more freedom in terms of what they grew, finally providing a legal framework for what the workers had been trying to do since 1791.


He also tried to help the agricultural worker by removing all tax on produce kept in Haiti. Food made in farms and sold in the cities wouldn’t be taxed at all, only products sold at ports (at this point primarily coffee thanks to the decline of the sugar plantations) to go abroad would be. This was a very popular policy at the time as it reduced food shortages, though it had unforeseen effects in terms of forcing the government to be reliant on an export model in order to fund anything and because of the way foreign merchants were allowed to gain control of external trade at the expense of Haitians increasingly this tax would become an excuse for merchants to underpay for the coffee from farmers.

Even more crucial then helping the landless farm workers was that he increased the number of land owners. Largely because he paid his solders in his war against Henry in land rather than money as the dream of land was far more attractive to them. He did pass a law which prevented the sale of agricultural land of less than 30 acres which acted as a glass ceiling that prevented the rank and file from buying their own family plots but the landowning officer class vastly increased during his rule and as a result Haiti had a far larger percentage of land owners than other countries of the time.


Jean-Pierre Boyer. By Pôlehistoire and licenced by the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 generic licence

Pétion died in 1818, two years before his rival Henry, and was succeeded by Jean-Pierre Boyer. Boyer is arguably Haiti's most hated leader, both for setting up the military police state governance that would rule Haiti for the next sixty years and for leaving Haiti in terrible debt that would strangle its finances. In his defence he inherited a terrible situation, there was no real infrastructure in place in Haiti, the slaves had been deliberately kept uneducated and foreign powers were hostile to them by dint of them merely existing. Moreover Pétion's government barely controlled anything beyond the cities. Boyer simply didn't have enough control of the countryside in terms of being able to tax or enforce laws, so because he was reliant on the Army as the only power he had, his officers becoming strong men ruling their provinces as private kingdoms was, at least partly, beyond his control.


Likewise Boyer is criticised for his lack of interest in funding health and education, particularly that upon his conquest of Northern Haiti in 1820 the schools and hospitals of King Henry quickly ran into ruin, but Port-au-Prince didn’t really have the funds required to keep them running. However given how Boyer acted in the Cities where he did have control, where he harshly oppressed potential dissidents, shut down privately run papers and schools so they couldn't ferment revolt and created a caste of privileged coloured land owners and army officers who controlled the country and locked out liberals and radicals both, the issue was at least as much one of mentality as resources. And given that the main plan he wanted to do, but couldn't carry out through lack of resources, was to bring back the plantations, it's difficult to argue he'd be less hated had he inherited a more powerful government.

However, the situation remained that Boyer lacked money. And the only way he could increase his government’s funds was to encourage more exports as that tax was their main source of revenue. This dream would lead him to his most famous mistake. In 1825, Haiti had been independent for more than twenty years but as of yet no other government in the world recognised this. Boyer was convinced that this lack of political recognition was preventing Haiti from getting the share of trade they were pre revolution and if he could only get that recognition, the trade and money would start flowing again. He also recognised that the main obstacle to Haiti getting that recognition was France and their desire for reconquest. France had sent envoys to Pétion and Henry, years earlier, but they’d been heartily rejected by both men. In 1825 a naval squadron was sent from France to blockade the country, cutting their exports out entirely unless a deal could be reached.


The deal on offer was that the Haitians would pay their enslavers for the money they’d lost during the slave revolt, they would compensate their owners for their own freedom. In return France would encourage recognition and trade and agree a peace so Boyer wouldn’t need to always worry about what if the French came back and in theory Haiti would save money by having no need for the bloated military of Dessalines ever again. If they said no however, they’d be at war with France and external trade would only happen through smugglers.

Boyer’s commission sent to meet the envoy rejected it straight away. France was asking for 150 million Francs and a 50% reduction of the tariffs on French trade to the island in perpetuity. The economic benefit of peace and recognition were vastly outweighed by this capitulation and France had no intention of landing troops. Boyer however was convinced to have another meeting with the envoy in private and, after doing so, he overturned his own commission and agreed the deal.

Unable to pay the 150 million Francs, he then negotiated loans with French banks whose interest rates meant the debt just kept increasing. It is facile to point to this one decision, rather than many others, as the reason for Haiti’s ongoing poverty but in an AH wherein Boyer is not in power and another leader rejected the deal it is difficult to see the blockade causing more economic damage than the deal did. Recognition did increase foreign trade but without the plantations, which the government couldn’t afford to bring back by force, it could never make up for the crippling effect of the debt. And the debt only amplified the other economic problems of Haiti; the bloated military and the lack of education. In 1838, 50% of Haiti’s money went to the Army to protect the elite from peasant uprisings, 30% went to France ... and 0.8% was spent on schooling.

Negotiation of the Franco-Haitian Treaty of 1825 - Unknown artist

And this debt affected more than just Haiti itself, because by 1825 Haiti had begun to have power far outside its borders. The first Haitian revolutionaries to try and export the revolution elsewhere went out during Louverture’s reign. In 1799, Louverture sent several ships of men to France to join the Republic’s army and fight for equality and liberty across Europe. In 1802, the year Louverture was arrested, Napoleon attempted to purge his army of these men, sending nearly a thousand back to the West Indies when he stripped the citizenship of black men in France. But some, such as the mixed race Joseph Courtois, survived the purges. Joseph served in Spain until 1814 when he was captured by the British and he would not return to Haiti until 1818 when the French temporarily lifted a ban on free movement for black and coloured people so he could leave.

The problems which prevented Napoleon realistically being able to use the Haitian Army in conquests elsewhere in the New World (British naval supremacy and the need for the Army to remain in Haiti to prevent uprisings) would also prevent a wholesale use of them in Europe, but it was the beginning of a trend of Haitian soldiers from the revolution serving in other armies. This accelerated after Haitian independence, when many soldiers left Haiti to either escape reprisals for having backed the wrong leader, or earn money abroad. As the Spanish New World devolved into chaos, many a rogue and revolutionary would dock at Haiti, an unrecognised country with no treaty of extradition with anyone, to buy supplies and recruit men. Haitian freemen would fight for the Mexican army, the Colombian army and in failed attempts to free Texas and Florida. Haitians were even recruited by the Greek Rebels in their war against the Ottoman Empire.

The attempt in Florida is probably the most interesting of these from an AH perspective as it was sparsely populated by whites and full of ex slaves fleeing the USA who the Spanish recruited into the armies. Florida after all was where Biassou, one of the four original leaders of the Haitian slave revolt, ended up after joining the Spanish army. It is not inconceivable, though it is unlikely, for a majority black republic to form there if the Haitian supported rebels were more successful, though it would doubtless have a very short lifespan given a direct border with the USA and the Americans' longstanding interest in the area. Perhaps a surviving Biassou could even end up as one of it's leaders.

A free republic led by Haitians did arise elsewhere in the Caribbean in OTL, although it, likewise, had a short lifespan. Providence Island, off the Nicaraguan coast, was captured by Haitian pirates fighting for the rebels during the Spanish-American Wars of independence and was run as an independent republic until 1822, when the last commander, Joseph Courtois’s younger brother Sévéré, pledged alliance to Gran Columbia. One could imagine, in a world where the Columbians were less successful, Sévéré pledging Providence Island to Haiti instead. These efforts were, however, private ones; the various Haitian governments were more reluctant to entangle itself in foreign adventures.

Dessalines’ declaration of independence in 1804 angrily denounced the French atrocities in Haiti on one hand, while making it perfectly clear on the other hand that he was quite happy to accept British, Spanish and American atrocities against their slaves and had no moral opposition to those states. Henry said the same, though he always made it clear that the threat of inciting rebellions in Jamaica and Cuba was there too, if they didn’t ally with him. To an extent, however, the idea of the revolution not spilling over was an impossible promise. The very existence of Haiti meant that things had changed in the other slave colonies. We often focus on how white slave owners and abolitionists were effected and radicalised by the Haitian Revolution but it also gave new hope to the slaves themselves, Brazilian slaves were loudly celebrating Haitian victories within a week of them happening. Given that trade between Cuba, Haiti, and Jamaica was rife, that white Haitian refugees settled in both of those places, and that Cuban military officers helped train the black slaves during their alliance with Spain, it was inevitable someone on another island would try to repeat the Haitians’ success.

Saves unloading ice in Cuba (1832) -By Samuel Griswold Goodrich

That man was freed slave José Aponte who in 1812 led a revolt in Cuba which explicitly used Louverture, Dessalines, and the newly crowned King Henry as models and inspirations. Given that Jamaica had slavery until 1834, and Cuba still had it in 1886, it is tempting to instead imagine the Haitian revolution as merely the start of a round of rebellions that would see a number of black republics founded. But it is tricky to see how to get there; Aponte’s revolt was put down very quickly. The unique circumstances of Haiti, in terms of having both far more slaves than Cuba and far more political turmoil than Jamaica, meant Boukman had advantages Aponte didn’t.

Other freed slaves took inspiration from the Haitians' success not by trying to mimic it but rather by simply moving to Haiti; over 6,000 emigrated from the United States to Haiti during the reigns of Henry and Boyer. In fact, Haiti was an initial destination for the American Colonization Society; in 1824, Loring D. Dewey convinced Boyer to pay for the emigration of American black freemen to his country, a scheme Boyer defunded post 1825 and the French indemnity. This was after the first settlements of Liberia but it is tempting to imagine that if Boyer had refused the French ultimatum, Haiti might have got at least some of the money and people that Liberia did, which would change both countries hugely.

The Haitian Government did fund one other project to help slaves in areas outside of Haiti, too. Pétion is probably most famous, outside Haiti, for offering refuge to Simón Bolívar in 1815 after the failure of the Second Venezuelan Republic. Pétion gave Bolívar the men, arms and ships he needed to succeed in his founding of the Third Venezuelan Republic in return for Bolívar agreeing to free the slaves in Latin America if he succeeded. It’s going too far to point this as the exact moment the white dominated rebellions of Colombia became more inclusive and so successful but their time in Haiti undoubtedly radicalised a lot of the Latin revolutionaries who went there, abolitionism wasn’t in Bolívar’s plans prior to his help from Pétion. The Haitian government under Pétion, directly and indirectly, had a huge role in the end of slavery in Latin America. It’s possible that if King Henry had won the civil war outright, Bolívar’s career and the history of Spanish American independence would have been very different. If Pétion was hoping for direct support from the new countries though, he’d be disappointed. None would recognise Haiti as independent.

There was one Spanish colony which Haiti had rather more firm plans for. Santo Domingo, what is now the Dominican Republic. Louverture had conquered it for France in 1801 and it had remained French, with slavery restored, during Dessalines’ successes in 1803. In 1805, Dessalines did invade but was forced to break his siege of Santo Domingo after the arrival of a French naval squadron. In 1808, a Spanish force from Puerto Rico reclaimed it for Spain but Haitian interest remained. In 1812, freed blacks and slaves attempted a revolt in Santo Domingo with the aim of joining one of the countries of Haiti. A timeline in which they are successful and Henry and Pétion restart their civil war over who gets them would be interesting but in OTL they were defeated and executed. Spanish rule was nonetheless unpopular and in 1821 independence was declared and the new Republic of Spanish Haiti desired to join Bolívar’s Columbia much as Providence Island had. If Haiti was still divided or under Pétion this might have even happened. Under Boyer it did not, instead he invaded and in a mirror of his conquest of the North, annexed the country without facing any major resistance. Many of the Dominicans welcomed him in. That situation would not last.

The Haitian occupation of the Dominican Republic was brutal. Boyer had debts to pay and all he saw in his conquests was a cash cow. He stripped many of the land owners of land, raised huge new taxes, confiscated church property and closed down the University. And, of course, he attempted to restore the Plantation Model. In 1844, the Dominicans rose in rebellion and while future Haitian leaders would attempt to reconquer the Eastern half of the Island, none would do so. There were cultural differences between Haiti and Santo Domingo that made unification a difficult prospect regardless but it probably would not have been quite as striking a failure with a different man in charge than Boyer and without the French debt hanging over him.

Regardless Boyer’s occupation did do one thing. It put an end to Slavery in the Dominican Republic for good, albeit not forced labour.

Which leads us to my conclusion. To an extent, it is difficult to read the story of Haiti and not get angry. That the country is still so poor is because of the brutality of slavery, of the unfairness of the French demands for compensation, of American imperialism and above all the way a corrupt elite has refused to invest in infrastructure and has allowed foreign powers to gain control of their resources without paying for them to the extent that some American Oil companies in Haiti right now do not pay any tax at all. Part of the point of these articles is to look at those early leaders, Boukman, Louverture, Dessalines, Henry, Pétion and Boyer and with the benefit of hindsight see how they could have been luckier and wiser and so ensure that tragedy was avoided.


But we must not lose sight of what those men achieved. The slave system was unspeakably brutal and the revolutionaries ended it in Haiti, ended it in the Dominican Republic and ensured that Bolívar ended it through out Spanish America. Boukman, in many ways, succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. As a direct consequence of that meeting in Bois Caïman, hundreds of thousands of slaves were freed. A slave revolt in Haiti was not inevitable, it could have been put down before it started. The slaves could have also lost, they were on the verge of agreeing a surrender in 1792.  But in our time line, they won and they made the world a better place by doing so.

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