The Climax and Conclusion of the Haitian Revolution
Whatever doubts Haiti’s blacks might have had about French intentions, they were dispelled when news arrived that Napoleon had restored slavery in other French Caribbean islands, such as Guadalupe and Martinique, and resumed the slave trade. Napoleon asserted that those measures would not apply to Haiti, and that the emancipation of slavery there would not be revoked. However, his word carried little weight, as Haiti’s blacks were aware that he had reneged on similar promises regarding Martinique.
Black and mulatto officers and soldiers who had joined the French after Toussaint Louverture’s surrender defected, and took to the mountains, where they rejoined the rebellion. Leclerc blamed the expedition’s failure on Napoleon’s premature restoration of slavery, but he did not get to witness the expedition’s ultimate collapse: he died in November of 1802 in a yellow fever epidemic, which also killed many of his troops.
Leclerc was succeeded by a general Rochambeau – son of the Count Rochambeau who commanded the French expedition that fought alongside the Americans during the American Revolution. Rochambeau adopted brutal tactics that further alienated the black masses, and helped unify the rebel forces, now commanded by Jean-Jacques Dessalines.
Dessalines led his men to a series of victories over the French, culminating in the last major battle of the Haitian Revolution, the Battle of Vertieres, November 18th, 1803. After maneuvering Rochambeau and forcing him to retreat with his French forces to the fort of Vertieres in northern Haiti, Dessalines led his men in a successful attack and forced Rochambeau’s surrender. By December 4th, 1803, the last French forces in Haiti had surrendered their territory to Dessalines’ forces. Of the more than 31,000 who had sailed to Haiti as part of the French expedition, fewer than 8000 had survived to sail back home.
On January 1st, 1804, the former French colony of Saint-Domingue was declared independent, and renamed Haiti – an indigenous word of the Taino people who inhabited the Caribbean when Christopher Columbus arrived. Dessalines made himself Governor General for life, a position he held until September of 1804, when his generals proclaimed him Emperor of Haiti. He was crowned as Emperor Jacques I, and held that position until he was assassinated in 1806.
Things did not go well for the French whites still remaining in Haiti. Many of them had sided with the failed expeditionary force and supported its efforts to reintroduce slavery, and the victors did not wait long before exacting revenge. Dessalines was no Toussaint Louverture, and he was not inclined towards reconciliation. Within days of Rochambeau’s surrender, he ordered the execution by drowning of 800 French soldiers who had been left behind due to illness when their comrades evacuated Haiti. As rumors swirled that the remaining French minority were conspiring to convince foreign powers to invade and reintroduce slavery, Dessalines was criticized for failing to act. He acted in February of 1804, by issuing an order to massacre Haiti’s whites. Within two months, about 5000 had been killed, and Haiti’s white population had been all but wiped out. It was a bloody ending, in line with the bloody course of the Haitian Revolution.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources & Further Reading