Empire of Liberty: The Haitian Revolution

“It is not a liberty of circumstance, conceded to us alone, that we wish; it is the adoption absolute of the principle that no man, born red, black or white, can be the property of his fellow man.”

-Toussaint L’Ouverture

Excerpt from Konijeti Beevti’s “Years of Revolution: Boston to Bhārata”, Vij Publishing House, 1962 (translation by Earl Henderson).

For nearly 200 years, the jewel of the French colonial empire was not Louisiana, Quebec or India but the colony of St. Domingue, which comprised the western half of the island of Hispaniola. In this territory, plantations harvested cocoa, coffee, indigo and (most important of all) sugar. By the Seven Years War, St. Domingue was among the most valuable pieces of real estate in the world. It generated more wealth than all of the English Atlantic colonies combined. Like most plantation systems, and their fabulous riches, brutal slave conditions propped up this mammoth generator of colonial wealth. In fact, many argue that St. Domingue featured the harshest slave conditions of any colony in the New World.

France imported tens of thousands of slaves from Africa to St. Domingue every year where they could expect horrid conditions, hellish treatment and a 50 percent survival rate in their first year of enslavement. A combination of cruelty and harsh economics ruled the day amongst the French masters. Plagued with yellow fever, malaria, and other tropical diseases, the death rate was so high that plantation owners reasoned there was little point in providing anything more than the barest needs of survival since a slave was just as likely to die regardless. As St. Domingue developed over the decades, the French converted almost every inch of potentially arable land towards the production of cash crops. By the Seven Years War, the vastness of Louisiana essentially existed just to ship food and supplies to St. Domingue.

This horrid system only perpetuated itself. Unlike the North American mainland where a sustainable black population was able to establish itself, slaves died at such a high rate that constant replacement was necessary. This was not just true of St. Domingue but also of neighboring colonies and American island states. The economic necessity of the slave trade is what prevented its abolition during the Philadelphia Convention. Because the population depended on importation, and not births, the slave population (and thus the population of the colony itself) skewed overwhelmingly male. A female slave could expect the additional gruesome burden of constant rape from both her fellow slaves and also the white overseers and masters. The violence and brutality were of such a degree that Louis XIV enacted the “Code Noir” in 1685 to try to regulate and moderate the conditions. Yet, it took further clarification from the Sun King before the whites took its most-basic provisions, such as feeding their slaves and prosecuting slave murderers, semi-seriously. Even the greatest king of France could not undo the isolation of St. Domingue, the constant fear of a slave revolt, and the greed of the plantation owners and slave traders.

The hysteria and fear amongst the white population grew to such levels that by 1758 local legislation had restricted the rights of other peoples until a rigid caste system existed. Whites were at the top of the hierarchy, free blacks and mullatoes existed in the second tier (and were often literate, educated and occupied professional and tradesmen roles), and black slaves made up the vast population of the lowest hierarchical tier [1].

The cultural systems and the hierarchy meant that just about everyone hated each other. French born and rich whites (the gran blancs) looked down on everyone. The middle class and poor whites (petit blancs) and rich mullatoes (mulatto affranchise) were jealous of the privileges of the aristocracy (no different than in metropolitan France) as well as each other. Amazingly, these categories within the caste could be broken down even further since St. Domingue featured so many absentee planters (grand blancs who owned land but lived in France and operated through intermediaries). Gran Blancs in France looked down on Gran Blancs who lived in St. Domingue. The landowners considered themselves above their hired operators: the attorneys (procureurs), managers (gérants) and overseers (économes-surveillants). Naturally, the lines became easily blurred. An économes-surveillants probably would have been considered a petit blanc but what about a wealthy procureur managing several plantations on behalf of an owner no one had seen in the colony for years? These stark divisions amongst even the white population and the conflict between tradesman whites, land owning whites and absentee whites created numerous problems in St. Domginue and many other colonies in the heyday of Caribbean slavery. The British island colonies, especially Jamaica, were notorious for their absentee owners and the American Revolution in the Caribbean was fueled by those divisions as much as anything else. Not a few absentee British landowners lost everything in the Revolution. For years after, London criticized the Revolution as little more than a middle class land-grab flagrantly violating not just the rule of law but also the Eighth Commandment. After the American Revolution, and by the time of the French Revolution, only St. Domingue remained as primarily absentee colony. Cuba, Santo Domingo, Puerto Rico, Martinique, Guadeloupe and the remaining European islands were far more residential than absentee.

Even the divisions among the slaves caused hatred amongst the groups. Most slaves were Yoruba, Fonan or Kongolese and they self-segregated into their original tribes. Most plantations acquired slaves in such a way that certain African tribes dominated the internal plantation slave culture at that particular plantation. One plantation might have a Kono-centric slave culture while a neighboring plantation would have a Yoruba-centric culture. Intermixed in this was a minority population of Hispaniola-born slaves who either adopted the culture of their parents or forged their own. In the spirit of hatred on the island, even these locally born slaves looked down on African slaves. Runaway slaves fleeing into the jungles and the highlands established a fringe culture of “maroons” who lived on the margins of society. Languages were mixed and confused. Whites and mullatoes aspired to speak traditional French, while slaves either used their traditional languages or adopted local creole languages. By the time of the American Revolution, almost everyone in the colony spoke two languages because they had too: their birth language (French or an African language) and creole (a mix of French, Spanish and African languages). Catholicism was the dominant religion but the constant importation of slaves ensured that local African beliefs endured. A blend of Catholicism and West African beliefs grew over time resulting in Vodou. A further complication was the geographic stratification in the colony. The largest plantations and most profitable region was the northern half. For decades, Le Cap‑Français (modern Cap Haïten) acted as the colonial capital and remained the colony’s largest sugar port. Most whites lived in the north and it had the strongest ties to metropolitan France. In 1751, the colonial capital moved to Port-au-Prince, and effective irrigation techniques allowed this central region to begin growing in wealth and importance. This created a traditional versus noveau rich problem between the north and the central regions. The south remained isolated and poor but also acted as a haven for free blacks, mullatoes, and rogue maroons.

On the eve of the French Revolution, St. Domingue produced 60 percent of the world’s coffee and 40 percent of the sugar imported to France and Britain. The white population stood at 40,000, the mullatoe and free black population at 30,000 and they were all dwarfed by the slave population that stood at 452,000.

Initially, St. Domingue welcomed the revolution. Powerful landowners saw it as an opportunity to assert independence from France (either through federalism or through creating a new country) and increase their wealth through favorable legislation. A surviving letter from a prominent gran blanc plantation owner was found in the mid-20th century in Dominica where the owner directly inquired about the processes St. Domingue would need to undertake to join the United States as a new slave state if independence was declared. Free slaves and mullatoes had been petitioning Versailles for years for civil equality so the revolution gave them considerable hope. A few mullatoes and free blacks were even present at the National Constituent Assembly and advocated for universal male suffrage, which could then reform society back in St. Domingue.

These initial optimisms faded quickly as disconnects became more realized. Not only was the devolving situation in Paris disheartening but also the treatment of representatives from St. Domingue to Paris was telling. In many ways, the Assembly neglected the colony’s six representatives and their attempts at securing important positions on committees and within the Estates-General, and then the National Assembly, routinely failed. For a society on St. Domingue that always considered themselves French, or at least aspired to be French, it became increasingly obvious that there was a difference between the old feudal and traditional society of France proper, and the new slave and American society of St. Domginue.

The breakdown of society by caste was just as quick back home.

A 1788 petition to the Colonial Assembly of St. Marc requesting “political rights for free persons of color” (free blacks and mullatoes) led to considerable outcry by the ruling whites. When a white colonist submitted a petition to the Assembly in November of the behalf of the free blacks and mullatoes, a mob of petit blancs broke into his house, dragged the screaming man through the streets, beheaded him and paraded his head around on a pike.

News of the failed, but massed, slave revolt on Martinique in 1789 filled whites and mullatoes alike with an ominous sense of dread. That fall, the National Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man while St. Marc’s formally passed resolutions to oppose Paris’ attempts to take actions on behalf of free blacks and mullatoes. Several days later, the National Assembly accepted a petition of rights for “free citizens of color” from St. Domingue.

Unpublished private letter of a gran blanc landowner, 1789

“What preoccupies us the most at this time are the menaces of a revolt . . .Our slaves have already held assemblies in one part of the colony with threats of wanting to destroy all the whites and to become masters of the colony.”

Excerpt from Konijeti Beevti’s “Years of Revolution: Boston to Bhārata”, Vij Publishing House, 1962 (translation by Earl Henderson).

The invasive actions of Paris in the fall of 1789 infuriated the white population of St. Domingue and sparked talks of freedom and independence as word of the revolution trickled into the cane fields. In an attempt to assuage some of the fears the whites and the colonial representatives had regarding the rapid change of pace, the National Assembly decreed on March 8, 1790 that each colony could formulate its own wishes regarding the future of its internal status. This decree also allowed the Assembly to sidestep the issue of mullatoe and free black rights, making those local issues for the colonial assemblies to decide.

When the news arrived in St. Domingue that May, the petit blanc whites of Port-Au-Prince and the western province, which controlled the Assembly of St. Marc, began drafting a colonial constitution in 1790. Unlike the other colonies, St. Domingue’s patriots began formulating a constitution with the intent to seek either significant autonomy from Paris or outright independence. This infuriated the gran blanc rich white planters of the northern plain, many who also happened to be royalists, and they began preparing for war. On May 28, St. Marc’s declared that St. Domingue’s decrees were subject only to the sanction of the king and they controlled a colonial veto over any law the National Assembly made regarding St. Domingue. For all purposes, St. Domingue declared itself a federal autonomous province of metropolitan France. In October, Paris dissolved the Colonial Assembly and the governor, and a royalist militia force, marched on the western province, scattering the 85 radical assemblymen.

Nevertheless, the damage (as far as the whites perceived) was done. The confusing combination of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” from the metropole and the harsh crackdown by whites at St. Marc only emboldened the rest of the colonial population. The initial champion of the “free coloreds” (gens de couleur libres) was a wealthy mullatoe coffee planter and merchant from Cap Français; Jacques Vincente Ogé. Ogé happened to be in Paris in 1789 on business when the revolution broke out. He immediately tasked himself with championing the rights of gens de couleur libres. While initially rebuffed in his attempts by absentee gran blancs living in Paris, he made powerful allies amongst the emerging radical factions and became a member of the anti-slave Society of the Friends of the Blacks, or Société des Amis des Noirs. The influential abolitionist group counted Lafayette and Robespierre among its members. Ogé spent much of 1789 and 1790 lobbying the National Assembly on behalf of the gens de couleur libres. When the Assembly placed the onus onto the colonies, through the March 8 decree, Ogé decided to wrap up his affairs and return to St. Domingue, though his enemies forced him to take a roundabout route through Britain and the United States (where he was, possibly, falsely accused by the gran blancs of purchasing weapons).

Ogé raised an army of several hundred gens de couleur libres and sent a letter to St. Marc:

“GENTLEMEN:—A prejudice, too long maintained, is about to fall. I am charged with a commission doubtless very honorable to myself. I require you to promulgate throughout the colony the instructions of the National Assembly of the 8th of March, which gives without distinction, to all free citizens, the right of admission to all offices and functions. My pretensions are just, and I hope you will pay due regard to them. I shall not call the plantations to rise; that means would be unworthy of me. Learn to appreciate the merit of a man whose intention is pure. When I solicited from the National Assembly a decree which I obtained in favour of the American colonists, formerly known under the injurious epithet of mulattos, I did not include in my claims the condition of the negroes who live in servitude. You and our adversaries have misrepresented my steps in order to bring me into discredit with honorable men. No, no, gentlemen! we have put forth a claim only on behalf of a class of freemen, who, for two centuries, have been under the yoke of oppression. We require the execution of the decree of the 8th of March. We insist on its promulgation, and we shall not cease to repeat to our friends that our adversaries are unjust, and that they know not how to make their interests compatible with ours. Before employing my means, I make use of mildness; but if, contrary to my expectation, you do not satisfy my demand, I am not answerable for the disorder into which my just vengeance may carry me.” [2]

Ogé’s attempt to march on Cap Français failed and he, and his officers, found themselves forced to flee to Spanish Santo Domingo for protection. Despite promises of asylum, the Spanish handed the rebels over to the French Governor, Philippe François Rouxel, Vicomte de Blanchelande. Blanchelande had Ogé broken on the wheel, and his officers executed, in February of 1791. Their brutal deaths did little to reduce the boiling situation. Instead, many consider Ogé’s Revolt to be the start of the Haitian Revolution.

Two months later, in April 1791, a massed slave revolt broke out on the Cul-De-Sac Plain and plunged the towns of Mirebalais, Arcahaye, Petite-Rivière, Verettes, and Saint Marc into violence. The whites put down the revolt in May but only after agreeing to spare the revolting slaves, and even their leadership, an unheard of truce in those days. The established order of St. Domingue held on by a thread.

Amongst the slave population there existed many viewpoints. Most sided with the royalists as they viewed an independent St. Domingue as more likely to result in harsher treatment. Some sided with the growing radical movement and hoped the Revolution in France could lead to freedom (or at least revolution) in St. Domginue. Most masters kept their slaves deliberately oblivious to the news trickling across the Atlantic. Due to the sheer isolation of some plantations and towns in the interior, not a few educated and wealthy whites and mullatoes were uncertain about what exactly was happening in France themselves. Despite their best efforts, information and the spirit of the revolution spread to the slave population. Ogé’s failed insurrection, which many felt was actually legally justified under the new constitution and the spirit of the revolution, only helped to spark a full slave revolt.

It didn’t help that not a few arrogant whites had actually armed and trained their slaves to fight for their own pet political causes up to this point.

At the same time the insurrection in the western province was unfolding, the National Assembly declared a limited number of gens de couleur libres eligible to be seated in future assemblies, with full citizenship rights. The decree was narrowly tailored, only applicable to persons born of free parents and “possessing the requisite qualifications”, but the whites were furious.

That July, the whites revolted against the National Assembly’s May decree. Every one of the 85 disbanded assemblymen were reelected to a reconstituted Colonial Assembly and the elections notably excluded the participation of any gens de couleur libres.

That summer, St. Domingue balanced on the edge of a knife. The gens de couleur libres had already fought for their rights once and stood poised to continue their struggle. As in France, royalist and liberal factions divided the white population. Now the slaves were revolting in the central portions of the colony and even as white militias put the revolts down, networks of communications and arms caches cropped up between the various plantations. By August, the network spanned from the powerful estates of the north to the maroon communities of the south.

All the while, the whites, in their complacency, seemed keener on debating politics amongst themselves and denying the rights of gens de couleur libres than preparing for the groundswell of anger and revolution headed their way from amongst the vast number of slaves.

Excerpt from Carolyn E. Fick’s “The Making of Haiti”, University of Tennessee Press, 1991.

“Although a few might have foreseen the dangers ahead, most generally assumed that slavery was as inviolable as it was enduring. It had lasted over two hundred years. Slave rebellions had occurred in the past, and marronage had been a constant plague. But the revolts were always isolated affairs, and maroon bands were invariably defeated along with their leaders. For the planters, there was no reason to believe that slave activity was any different from what it had been in the past. They would soon learn, but only by the raging flames that within hours reduced their magnificent plantations to ashes, how wrong they were.” [3]

Excerpt from Konijeti Beevti’s “Years of Revolution: Boston to Bhārata”, Vij Publishing House, 1962 (translation by Earl Henderson).

On August 24, 1791 at Bois Caïman, outside of Cap Français, a massive meeting of representative slaves converged. Led by the vodou priest Dutty Boukman, the ceremony was both religious and strategic. Confirmed details are lacking in this meeting but alleged details of the ceremony have reached mythic proportions. According to tradition, the meeting took place during a hurricane. Driving rains and a lightning filled sky painted the auspicious backdrop of a ceremony lit by a roaring bonfire which not even the rain could put out. Boukman called out a decisive prayer that allegedly went as follows:

“Good Lord who hath made the sun that shines upon us, that riseth from the sea, who maketh the storm to roar; and governeth the thunders, The Lord is hidden in the heavens, and there He watcheth over us. The Lord seeth what the blancs have done. Their god commandeth crimes, ours giveth blessings upon us. The Good Lord hath ordained vengeance. He will give strength to our arms and courage to our hearts. He shall sustain us. Cast down the image of the god of the blancs, because he maketh the tears to flow from our eyes. Hearken unto Liberty that speaketh now in all your hearts.”

On that spot the slaves slaughtered a black pig and took a blood oath that they would not stop their imminent rebellion until the white masters had all been killed. The slave representatives trickled back to their plantations. Within ten days, the entire northern plain of St. Domingue burned as the slave revolt began. Revolting slaves pulled whites from their beds and killed them, eyewitness reports talk about soldiers carrying the heads of white children on spikes at the head of rebel columns as they marched from plantation to plantation throughout the countryside.

Despite decades of preparation for a slave revolt, the whites were simply outnumbered. By the end of October over 100,000 slaves were in open revolt. They had killed 4,000 whites destroyed 180 sugar plantations and 900 coffee plantations. White counterattacks failed due to disorganization and disease. Soon, only Cap Français, remained as a bastion of the colonial order in the north. Demoralized, bankrupt and dying, whites fled into the port cities and often paid whatever price they could to afford passage on any ship going anywhere else. As one volunteer militiaman wrote:

“This is the graveyard of the French; here one dies off like flies.”

A white counterattack began in September that led to the death of over 15,000 slaves. Despite the chaos of the situation, the slaves (amazingly) were not yet fighting for outright independence. Rebel leaders actually claimed they were fighting for the king and were demanding their rights as free Frenchmen as had been decreed by Louis XVI in the 1791 constitution. Perhaps more amazingly, the whites still refused to concede to the revolting slaves’ demands. With the cards on the table, the whites proved they would do anything to preserve the slave system. One white from Cap Français wrote:

“For, if we reward with freedom those who have burned our plantations and massacred our people, the slaves who have hitherto remained loyal will do likewise in order to receive the same benefit. Then nothing more can be said: the whites must perish.” 

Another from Port-Au-Prince wrote:

“There can be no agriculture in Saint Domingue without slavery; we did not go to fetch half a million savage slaves off the coast of Africa to bring them to the colony as French citizens.”

On September 21, perhaps in reaction to the devolving situation, St. Marc accepted the decree of May 15 and gave the gens de couleur libres their rights. Astonishingly, many gran blancs fumed at the decision and several free blacks and mullatoes were murdered in the decision’s aftermath. In a display of poor timing, the National Assembly back in Paris revoked their own decree that St. Marc had just consented to. When the news arrived back in St. Domingue the gens de couleur libres reacted violently. They openly revolted in the south and began joining the banners and bands of revolting slaves. That September the rebels seized Port-Au-Prince and burned Cap Français.

Word of the scope of the revolt quickly reached the Assembly back in Paris. Despite a spiraling situation in the metropole, the Assembly was keenly aware of the economic value of St. Domingue and wanted to prevent further death and destruction. Paris sent three civil commissioners to St. Domingue to get a handle on the situation, unaware that the whites and slaves were slaughtering each other in droves while the gens de couleur libres found themselves caught in the middle, fighting on both sides. White militia killed Boukman in November and left the revolting slaves without one of their primary leaders. Many slaves fled into the mountains to mourn and regroup. With the slaves in temporary disarray, a white army massacred a slave encampment at Plantons in January. Unbeknownst to the whites celebrating in Cap Français, it was a hollow victory. Women, children and the elderly comprised most of the dead slaves. The best fighters and the best leaders remained in hiding in the mountains. Late that January, the slaves resumed their attacks throughout the north.

In April, Louis XVI affirmed a Jacobin decree, granting equal political rights to free blacks and mulattoes. The Assembly formed a second commission, led by Léger Félicité Sonthonax, to enforce the ruling. Accompanied by 6,000 fresh French soldiers, Sonthonax set forth for Cap Français.

The situation truly spiraled when the domestic conflict turned into international disaster upon the declarations of war between France and Britain and Spain. Spain, through its neighboring colony of Santo Domingo, shared a direct border with St. Domingue and was keen on ensuring the security of its colony and the slave revolt did not spread eastward. Britain saw the war as an opportunity to reestablish profitable colonies in the Caribbean to replace those lost in the American Revolution. London viewed Martinique, Guadeloupe and St. Lucia as the easiest targets but Prime Minister William Pitt ignored his better judgment and set his sights on the immense riches of St. Domingue. What was a little yellow fever and racial violence in the face of one of the richest locations on the planet?

What Pitt didn’t know was that St. Domingue’s whites were on the verge of a civil war in their own right. Petit blancs increasingly found themselves willing to support abolition if it brought slaves into the French fold and meant that St. Domingue could fend off the foreign invaders. Conversely, gran blancs increasingly saw the metropole as standing against them so they were more than willing to work with Britain in exchange for safety and the continuation of slavery. Pitt did not have to press his case to parliament. Many politicians saw the conquest of St. Domingue as the answer to their financial prayers. No one realized the military and financial disaster the British prepared to walk into.

Spanish forces invaded from Santo Domingo first and were surprised to find an open welcome by the rebels. British soldiers landed from Bermuda in late September where they also found warm greetings. In fact, the best of the rebel generals, Toussaint L’Ouverture, accepted a Spanish officer’s commission and was knighted into the Order of St. Isabella. On September 22, the main French naval base in the colony surrendered to the Royal Navy. A strange quagmire soon developed as all of the various factions learned about their goals:

  • The Spanish were willing to work with rebel slaves and royalists in an attempt to protect the status quo in Santo Domingo and keep the violence on the French side of the border;
  • The British were willing to work with white planters with ambitions to conquer St. Domingue, fought royalists and slaves, and re-instituted slavery wherever they went;
  • While nominally allied, the Spanish and British did not work closely together. Spain did not care who controlled the western side of the island so long as the integrity of Santo Domingo was ensured.
  • Some white planters were willing to accept British rule if they maintained the pre-revolution order;
  • Some white planters wanted the pre-revolution order but under some form of official French rule;
  • Some whites agreed with the radical principals of the revolution and were willing to work with some blacks and mullatoes to fight the foreign invaders;
  • Mullatoes tended to be pro-revolutionaries who saw the revolution in France as an opportunity to free themselves from the caste system at home;
  • Blacks were fighting for freedom from slavery, generally opposed the British, opposed pro-slavery white French forces, fought with the Spanish and it generally varied if they were fighting for France or for independence (the independence phase occurred later in the war);
  • Everyone was fighting yellow fever and malaria and the diseases generally won.

It is little wonder that the revolution in St. Domingue quickly devolved into a chaotic and bloody mess.

In June of 1793, L’Ouverture secretly offered to aid General Étienne Laveaux, Chief Commander of the republican army near Cap Français. L’Ouverture pledged the support of his 6,000 troops in exchange for full amnesty and general emancipation. Laveaux refused.

By late 1793, Republican French leaders, in an effort to galvanize support for the Republic, and against foreign invaders, issued a series of decrees that effectively freed the slaves throughout much of the island. Contrary to public myth, the abolition was gradual and hardly noticed on the ground. The commissioners only granted emancipation at first to rebels that pledged support to France, then neutral maroons who would fight, then the newly freed soldier’s wives and children, slaves on certain plantations and in certain provinces and so on and so forth until slavery was virtually extinct from Port-au-Prince northward. Increasingly, colonial laws and decrees referred to the former slaves as “laborers” but the law existed in such a way that the difference between a laborer and a slave were minimal. A general strike broke out across the north in the fall of 1793 as a result, and many whites could do little to stop it.

A confirmation of emancipation from the Assembly arrived in February of 1794. This move did tend to bring the revolting slaves onto the side of the Republic but it pushed the existing plantations in the central and southern parts of the country into the British camp. In November of 1793, the main British force left Portsmouth for the West Indies. These forces took Guadeloupe and St. Lucia in the summer of 1794, attacking the islands in the middle of hurricane system and took the remaining French garrisons off guard. The British spent the spring of 1794 deploying troops and offering support for the large scale invasion of St. Domingue. While the decision to attack the French Windward Islands in the summer is widely praised, the timing of the invasion of St. Domingue is widely panned. Before the development of quinine and modern medicines, it was best to plan a tropical campaign for a region’s dry season so the mosquito population would be minimal. The best time to campaign in Hispaniola in those days was July through October and even then, the disease threat remained. The British arrived in late January and began their operations with the capture of the colonial capital at Port-au-Prince (choosing to forego the more important, but tightly controlled, ports of Cap Français and Port-de-Paix). This denied the French forces their main operating base in the central part of the country. L’Ouverture divided French forces in St. Domingue in two in May of 1794 then turned on the Spanish and soon expelled them altogether from St. Domingue. In a stunning move, L’Ouverture announced that he was not seeking independence from France, was willing to work with whites to rebuild the country and only wanted freedom for the slaves.

Years later, L’Ouverture explained his intense maneuvering in the spring of 1794. To himself, the widespread British invasion combined with the announcement from France to demonstrate that St. Domingue’s separation from France was assured. Paris would never have abolished slavery willingly and if they did it was either a desperate move to keep the colony in line or a demonstration that the revolution had become radicalized which traditional Europe would never tolerate. L’Ouverture demanded freedom for the slaves above all else and that would never happen if the British conquered the island or eventually some coalition member, perhaps even Spain, conquered the island after they pacified France. Therefore, to ensure freedom, St. Domingue had to achieve its own independence and its greatest enemies were not the French but rather the coalition. Yes the pro-slavery whites in St. Domingue, whether they be royalist or radical, were still an enemy to be dealt with but the primary threats were now Britain, Spain and other coalition members. Of course, this does not explain why L’Ouverture went out of his way to say he was not seeking independence from France. The explanation is simple, he was not seeking independence from France yet. He knew he had to unite the French population of the island whether they be white, black or mullatoe and then they could either work with France if the situation changed in Europe or they could seek independence. At no point in the thought process did L’Ouverture anticipate American annexation being a viable option, he figured the surrounding U.S. slave states would never accept it.

By the fall of 1794, the French had pushed the British in the center of the colony back to Port-au-Prince. The initial British force had been utterly decimated by disease along the way. Instead of pulling out, Pitt doubled down. He sent 30,000 troops and 200 ships to St. Domingue in the largest invasion ever conducted from Britain in what he termed “the great push”. Reinforcements in Port-au-Prince did little to change the war. An amphibious attempt to take the city of Leogane was repulsed by the brilliant artillery strategy of the mullatoe general Alexandre Pétion.

Thousands of British troops died of disease throughout 1795 for no gain whatsoever. When news of peace between Britain and France arrived in January of 1796, they viewed it as a divine mercy. Pitt’s “easy conquest” of the French Caribbean had netted Britain Guadeloupe and St. Lucia, 23,000 dead and millions of pounds wasted. These losses combined with the continental losses of the Austrian Netherlands, Dutch Republic and northern Italy and almost toppled the ruling government of William Pitt the Younger in London. Only the virtual takeover the Dutch Empire kept London from its own devolution into political and economic turmoil. Interestingly, peace with Spain was supposed to net France the ancient Spanish colony of Santo Domingo, thus uniting all of Hispaniola, but the chaotic situation in St. Domingue and the situation in Europe never actually allowed a practical transfer of power.

On February 2, 1796, the British evacuated Port-au-Prince and L’Ouverture triumphantly entered the capital.

This evacuation of the British provides a good stopping point to review the situation in St. Domingue before it entered its final phase. The first phase, that of 1791 to 1792, was about the arrival of the revolution, the initial slave revolt and internal conflict in the colony. It was in this phase that the revolution began, that the black ex-slave Toussaint L’Ouverture took command of the slaves in the north and the mullatoe André Rigaud took command of mullatoes and freedmen in the south.

The second phase, that of 1792 to 1796, was about foreign intervention. The French Republican commissioner freed the slaves to counter foreign invasions and attempt to keep the republican faction (whether they be white, mullatoe, or black) somewhat cohesive. L’Ouverture and Riguard became allies in 1794 when they formally began fighting for the French Republic.

The third phase, that of 1796 to 1798, was about independence. By the start of 1796, both L’Ouverture and Riguard had defeated the external threats to St. Domingue. L’Ouverture dominated the north and middle of St. Domingue, and possessed the unwavering support of the colony’s black populace, while Riguard dominated the southern portion of the colony. Several republican commissioners, including Sonthonax, exerted control in and around coastal cities.

That March, after Leveraux found himself imprisoned after a mullatoe revolt, Leveraux would proclaim L’Ouverture to be the lieutenant governor of St. Domingue. In July, the Directorie forced the Vicomte Rochambeau, the nominal Governor-General of St. Domingue, to return to France.

The mullatoe general of the south, André Rigaurd would take his place.

With the expulsion of the foreign powers, the question became where was the revolution going and how would it finish.

—————- Author’s Notes —————

[1]: You’ll often find that our in-timeline author’s utilize mullatoe, mestizo, metis and others to refer to mixed race individuals and populations. For the purposes here, Mr. Beevti is using the term mullatoe to refer to those people born to a white parent and a black parent, usually (as was often the case in our timeline) a black woman and a white male, typically within the context of a master-slave relationship.

[2]: All of these quotes are actually real quotes from our timeline.

[3]: This is actually an unedited excerpt from a source The Making of Haiti, a source that exists in our timeline and is cited below.

Source Materials

Knight, Franklin (February 2000). “The Haitian Revolution“. The American Historical Review. 105

Beard, J. R. (John Relly) (1863). “Toussaint L’Ouverture: A Biography and Autobiography”, Boston: James Redpath, Archived by Academic Affairs Library, University of North Carolina

Francois Bluche (1984). Translated by Mark Greengrass. “Louis XIV”. Basil Blackwell Ltd. 617-618.

B.W. Higman (2005). “Plantation Jamaica 1750-1850: Capital and Control in a Colonial Economy”. University of the West Indies Press.

Stoddard, Lothrop. The French Revolution in San Domingo. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1914.

The Haitian Revolution 1796-1801. Accessed December 08, 2017. https://library.brown.edu/haitihistory/8.html.

“Haitian history.” Haiti – History. Accessed December 08, 2017. http://kreyol.com/history004.html.

Next Chapter: De Diefstal

One thought on “Empire of Liberty: The Haitian Revolution

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