An island essential to the economy of Europe
At the end of the Ancien Régime, Santo Domingo was divided into two parts: the present-day Haiti (belonging to France) and the present-day Dominican Republic (belonging to Spain). The French part was reputed to be the richest colony in the world. In 1789, it had 793 sugar factories, 3,151 indigoteries and 3,117 coffee factories, with revenues of 137 million French livres, more than all the surrounding islands, whether French (Guadeloupe and Martinique), English (Jamaica) or Spanish (Cuba). No less than 1,500 ships passed through its waters each year.
The island had about 700,000 inhabitants, comprising 55,000 whites, 30,000 free men of colour and 600,000 slaves from Africa.
Saint-Domingue and the Revolution: the “Toussaint Louverture” moment
At the beginning of the French Revolution, the island was in turmoil – on the one hand the colonists were tempted by ideas of independence and on the other the slaves were frequently in revolt and vigorously suppressed -, until a freedman, Jean-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, took the lead.
Toussaint Louverture was born in 1743, was able to read and write, and had a basic knowledge of medicine (though he was not a doctor). He advocated independence under black rule for the French part of Santo Domingo (now Haiti). In order to avoid that eventuality, the authorities in Paris tried to keep him on their side: first by appointing him brigadier general in 1795; then by making him divisional general in 1796; and finally giving him the command of the army on the island. He took advantage of these developments to deliver abandoned plantations to his lieutenants, creating a new elite from the slave population. By the end of 1797, he was master of the French part of the island, the other part remaining Spanish.
At the beginning of the Consulate, Toussaint Louverture controlled the eastern part of Santo Domingo and cast longing eyes on the Spanish part which, although ceded to France by the Treaty of Basel in 1795, was still controlled by Madrid. He claimed, however, that he wanted to remain linked to mainland France and to fight with it against British advances in the West Indies, where Martinique, St Lucia and the Saintes were occupied by Britain.
The consular regime immediately turned to the question of Saint-Domingue. Bonaparte confirmed the abolition of slavery, while demanding the submission to France of all those who had taken advantage of the Revolution to break away. General Michel, Colonel Vincent and the mulatto Raimond were sent to the island. They arrived at the end of April 1800 and concluded that it was impossible to re-establish the authority of the Republic in the short term. Rigaud’s Métis troops had been crushed. The whites had rallied to Toussaint Louverture, by force of circumstance. The Blacks refused the authority of the mainland French officials. In the Spanish part of the island, the opponents of Toussaint Louverture were fomenting unrest, so much so that the latter was contemplating more and more openly the capture of these territories and the unification of the Big Island, thereby applying, literally, the treaty of Basel of 1795. Whilst Bonaparte’s emissaries wanted to avoid such an outcome, more than anything, they wanted to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of Toussaint Louverture.
The break with Toussaint Louverture
Toussaint Louverture knew what was at stake. He knew that France and England were negotiating and that it was in his interest to provoke matters before the signing of a peace treaty that would free the French navy. In doing so, he made several mistakes, which Bonaparte saw as provocations. His decision to give the French part of Santo Domingo a constitution was a casus belli. This project became known in Paris in the spring of 1801.
The French expedition
A week after the signing of the peace preliminaries with London (October 1801), an expedition of 20,000 soldiers commanded by General Leclerc (Pauline Bonaparte’s husband) was organised to retake control of Saint-Domingue. It left Brest on 14 December 1801, arrived in sight of Cap-Français on 29 January 1802 and was met with cannon fire. The troops were nevertheless able to reach the mainland and Grand Port, which was finally forced to open its doors on 7 February, while Port-au-Prince, Fort-Dauphin and Santo-Domingo (capital of the Spanish part) submitted. The expeditionary force settled solidly in almost all of Santo Domingo, with only the mountains in the west where the Louverturian troops had entrenched themselves resisting them. After heavy fighting and the outbreak of yellow fever (2,000 deaths in the first three months), Toussaint Louverture was forced to submit on 6 May 1802. He was transferred to France and interned at the fort of Joux, near Pontarlier. He died there on 7 April 1803.
Towards Haitian independence
The unrest in Santo Domingo did not end with the removal of Toussaint-Louverture. At the beginning of August 1802, news arrived on the island that slavery had been re-established in the colonies. The Blacks – who had not been disarmed – revolted and Louverture’s former lieutenants took the lead. Deep down, Leclerc was opposed to the government’s policy, but he nevertheless led the repression. However, he was not directly responsible for the worst of it: he died of yellow fever on 2 November 1802.
General Rochambeau (son of the Marshal, hero of the American War of Independence) succeeded him and threw himself into the battle with cruelty. Tortures, training of dogs specialised in hunting blacks, mass drownings and summary executions marked his command, none of which improved the military situation. On the contrary, the black generals won successes with consequences that were all the more disastrous for Rochambeau as the numbers of mainland French continued to drop as a result of disease. Soon the native whites began to abandon Rochambeau, whose zeal would make it difficult for them to remain in Saint-Domingue. The British joined in by blocking the ports and supplying arms to the insurgents. Rochambeau capitulated on 28 November 1803. He was taken into captivity in England, while the whole of the French part was lost to France.
Birth of Haiti
The independence of Haiti, the new name for the French part of Santo Domingo, was proclaimed on 1 January 1804. It was governed (to the best of his abilities) by General Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a former slave, who on the following 8 October proclaimed himself ‘Emperor’ (!), under the name of Jacques I. Having succeeded in unifying the various factions, he had forced the mainland French to surrender. He prepared troops for the conquest of the “Spanish” part, placing them under the command of the French general, Ferrand. Before that, from 16 to 25 March 1804, he proceeded to massacre the whites, sparing only those who could be useful to him, especially the doctors. He ultimately failed however in his conquest attempt of the “Spanish” part.
Having got rid of the whites, he took over the plantations and sugar mills, distributed them to his friends and only rarely made the small black farmers owners. Post-Toussaint Louverture, a system of low-wage labour had even been introduced, hardly more enviable than the old slavery.
Gradually losing the support of Haiti’s people, Dessalines, by now a much weakened emperor, had to face the revolt of the Métis in the south, led by three men formerly loyal to him, Generals Christophe, Guérin and Pétion. On 17 October 1806, the career of Jacques I Dessalines came to an end at the battle of Pont-Rouge, when he was killed by a rifle shot. The republic was proclaimed and Alexandre Pétion was elected president, a position he would hold until 1818, successfully dealing with the secession enacted by Christophe, who proclaimed himself king under the name of Henri I and whose northern ‘kingdom’ collapsed after his suicide on 8 October 1820.
A defeat for the French mainland armies
Saint-Domingue was the first major defeat of a Napoleonic army and further proof of the inability of the imperial navy to help the colonies. Napoleon bemoaned this on St Helena: ‘The affair of Saint-Domingue was a great folly on my part […]. It is the greatest mistake I have made in administration. I should have dealt with the black chiefs as with the authorities of a province […], let Toussaint [Louverture] be viceroy, not send troops there, leave everything to the blacks”. It was far too late to realise this. As for the new state of Haiti, it gained its independence amidst confusion of methods and objectives, infighting between blacks, mestizos and mulattoes, and great institutional instability.
10 December 2020 (Eng. trans 14 April 2021)
More episodes of “Napoleon, the dark side”:
► The human cost of the Napoleonic wars (< 3 min. read)
► Napoleon and the colonies (< 3 min. read)
► Napoleon’s re-establishement of slavery (< 2 min. read)
► Napoleon and Santo Domingo (Haïti and Santo Domingo) (< 4 min. read)
► Napoleon and Guadeloupe (< 2 min. read)
► Did Napoleon enact “genocide” in the French colonies? (< 3 min. read)
► Napoleon and women (< 4 min. read)