The Bloody History of the Haitian Revolution in 10 Events
The Bloody History of the Haitian Revolution in 10 Events

The Bloody History of the Haitian Revolution in 10 Events

Khalid Elhassan - July 3, 2018

The Bloody History of the Haitian Revolution in 10 Events
Rebels hanging captured French officers. YouTube

Revolutionary France Attempts to Rectify the Situation: Civil Commissioner Sonthonax

By early 1792, Haiti’s rebellious slaves controlled a third of the colony’s territory, and the once thriving local economy was in tatters. France was in the throes of revolutionary fervor and turmoil at the time, assailed by a coalition of foreign invaders from without, and beset by internal insurrections within. Even so, the revolutionary authorities in Paris could not ignore what was going on in Haiti: the colony’s sugar industry and the revenue it generated was vital to France’s overall economy.

Accordingly, the French Legislative Assembly addressed Haiti with yet another round of legislation, this one in March of 1792, confirming the grant of full civic rights to all free people in the colonies, regardless of race. However, the legislation did not free the slaves, and sought to return them to their plantations. The authorities also sent out a new colonial governor, Leger-Felicite Sonthonax, whose official title was Civil Commissioner. He was accompanied by 6000 French soldiers to restore order.

Sonthonax (1763 – 1813) was an abolitionist, a Jacobin, and a true believer in the Revolution and its Enlightenment ideals. His sympathies were with the colony’s slave population, and he viewed Haiti’s white settlers, most of whom vehemently resisted sharing power with the colony’s people of color, as royalist reactionaries. Accordingly, Sonthonax set out to curb the settlers’ military powers, which further alienated the whites and hardened their opposition to the new governor.

Many of Haiti’s mulattos tried to convince Sonthonax that they could form the colony’s homegrown military backbone if they were armed and trained, but he countered that the slave uprising had rendered that impractical. Instead, he sought to enlist former slaves into the colony’s armed forces. Sonthonax reasoned that the only way to tamp down the revolt would be to win over the rebels, or as many of them as possible.

The colony’s Civil Commissioner sought to remove the rebels’ main grievance, so he issued a declaration in 1793, freeing all the slaves in northern Haiti. By then, however, the slaves in that part of the colony had already freed themselves, and were in full control of that territory. As a result, Sonthonax’s decree failed to gain him as much support as he had hoped it would. It did, however, further enflame the whites against him, and alienate those mulattos who owned slaves, and who saw the revolutionary governor’s policies as a menace to their property rights and economic interests.

Sonthonax’s position was made more precarious by the outbreak of war in February of 1793 between Revolutionary France and Britain. At a stroke, all those whom he had alienated were presented with the option to join counterrevolutionary emigres in the nearby British island colony of Jamaica. Then in June of 1793, a military commander named Francois-Thomas Galbaud took the side of the white settlers, and mounted a coup. It failed, but in the process most of the colonial capital of Cap Francais was destroyed.

Galbaud was forced to leave Haiti, and most of the colony’s whites left with him. Between those killed, the push factors of the turmoil and dangers in Haiti, and the pull factors of active British recruitment of French counterrevolutionary, the colony’s European population took a nose dive. The number of white settlers went from about 30,000 in 1791, on the eve of the slave uprising, to less than 6000 by June of 1793.

The Bloody History of the Haitian Revolution in 10 Events
Toussaint Louverture. New York Public Library Image Gallery

The Emergence of Toussaint Louverture

Galbaud’s attempt in 1793 to seize power on behalf of the white settlers forced governor Sonthonax to rethink his policies. Until then, he had been attempting to forcibly put down the African slave revolt, but after surviving the failed coup, Sonthonax did an about face and sought an alliance with the rebellious slaves. Freedom was their price for fighting on behalf of the governor and the regime of Republican France.

That change in policy convinced Toussaint Louverture (circa 1743 – 1803), fated to become the most prominent figure in the Haitian Revolution, to ally with Sonthonax. Toussaint was born a slave in a sugar plantation where, unlike most slaves, he managed to get an education. He was freed at age 33, but remained on the plantation as a salaried employee.

When the African slave rebellion began in 1791, Toussaint helped his former master escape, then joined the rebels. However, he soon grew disgusted with the rebel leaders’ incompetence and willingness to compromise, so he split and formed his own military unit. He quickly emerged as a gifted guerrilla commander and natural tactician, and his unit became the spearhead for rebel attacks. His ability to break through enemy lines led him to adopt the name “Louverture”, which means “opening” in French.

In 1793, war broke out between France and Spain, which controlled the eastern two thirds of Hispaniola, the island whose western third is comprised of Haiti. Toussaint joined the Spanish, who knighted and commissioned him as a general in their army. The now-general Toussaint Louverture exhibited military brilliance with a whirlwind campaign that secured multiple victories against the French, who suddenly faced the risk of being driving out of Haiti altogether.

It was against that backdrop that the Civil Commissioner Sonthonax freed all of Haiti’s slaves. His decision was confirmed by the French National Convention, which went a step further and freed all slaves in French colonies. Spain and Britain refused to follow suit in their colonies, or confirm the freeing of slaves in Haiti, so in May of 1794, Toussaint abandoned the Spanish and joined the French.

That defection turned the tide in Haiti. The colony had been on the brink of falling to the British and Spanish, but within a short time of Toussaint’s entering the fray on the French side, the British were dealt severe setbacks, and the Spanish were expelled. He was made lieutenant governor of the colony, and by 1795, the situation had been stabilized.

Toussaint became the most powerful and most admired figure in Haiti. The colony’s blacks adored him as their warrior champion, while the mulattos and remaining Europeans appreciated his policies of reconciliation. In order to revive the economy, Toussaint allowed many French emigres to return to the island, in defiance of laws enacted in Paris.

More controversially, he was a firm believer people are naturally corrupt and needed compulsion to do the right thing, and that idle hands are the tools of the devil. So Toussaint used the army to force the former slaves to get back to work. They were no longer whipped, and were paid for their work, but the ham fisted approach rankled, and began to erode Toussaint’s popularity among Haiti’s blacks. It also alienated some of his chief lieutenants, who saw Toussaint’s reconciliatory policies as needless appeasement of whites and former slave owners, and backsliding towards slavery. That would have dire consequences for him down the road.

The Bloody History of the Haitian Revolution in 10 Events
Freed African slaves training to become soldiers. Look and Learn no. 703 (5 July 1975).

Toussaint Louverture Seizes Power

Toussaint’s forces, comprised in the main of former slaves, succeeded in restoring Haiti to French control by expelling the Spanish from their part of the island, and wresting concessions from the British. Once the external threat was removed, however, an internal power struggle erupted within the colony, mainly between Toussaint and a bevy of rivals.

Having made himself master of Haiti, Toussaint was reluctant to surrender too much power to Metropolitan France. After all, it was not Metropolitan France that had saved the colony from the British and Spanish, but Toussaint, by dint of his own efforts and those of his men. So he began to govern Haiti as a de facto independent entity. That pitted him against the colony’s Civil Commissioner, Sonthonax, whose first loyalties were to Republican France. Toussaint attempted to solve the problem by arranging for Sonthonax to leave Haiti in 1797, as one of its elected representatives to the National Assembly in France. When Sonthonax refused to leave, Toussaint dropped the pretense, and forcibly placed him on a ship bound for France.

Another internal rival was Andre Rigaud (1761 – 1811), a free mulatto born to a wealthy French planter and his African slave concubine. A typical affranchist, Rigaud’s power base was with wealthy mulatto planters in Haiti’s south, who sought acceptance by the colony’s whites, and were fearful of the recently freed African slaves. He raised an army, and resisted Toussaint’s efforts to impose his authority on southern Haiti.

That led to an armed conflict for control of Haiti known as “The War of Knives” (1799 – 1800). Toussaint emerged victorious, and Rigaud was forced to flee the colony. One of Toussaint’s deputies, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, then set out to destroy Rigaud’s mulatto state in southern Haiti, and carried out a violent purge that was so brutal, it rendered any future reconciliation with the mulatto planters impossible.

Toussaint then turned his attention to the Spanish part of the island of Hispaniola – the part comprising today’s Dominican Republic. For years, it had been used as a refuge and base of operations for many of his opponents, who raided across the border into Haiti, or smuggled arms and supplies to Toussaint’s adversaries in the colony. Toussaint solved the problem by invading Spanish Hispaniola in December of 1800, in defiance of orders from Napoleon Bonaparte that he not do so. He swiftly overran the entirety of Hispaniola, then issued a decree on January 3rd, 1801, freeing the slaves in the Spanish part of the island.

Now in command of all of Hispaniola, Toussaint dictated a new constitution that made him governor-for-life with near absolute powers. He professed himself a Frenchman, and proclaimed his loyalty to France’s First Consul, Bonaparte, but he also called for black autonomy and a sovereign black state. Bonaparte responded by sending a massive expeditionary force to restore French control over Haiti.

The Bloody History of the Haitian Revolution in 10 Events
Engagement between freed slaves and the French expeditionary force. Wikimedia

Napoleon Attempts to Restore French Control: Saint Domingue Expeditionary Force

In 1801, First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte decided to put an end to Toussaint Louverture, who had declared himself governor for life. Napoleon viewed that, and the former slave’s separatist policies, as unforgivable offenses against French imperial authority. Accordingly, he organized a military expedition to the island of Hispaniola, that came to be known as the Saint-Domingue Expedition. He placed it under the command of his brother-in-law, general Charles Victor Emmanuel Leclerc, whom he ordered to reassert France’s control over its colony. In October of 1801, Leclerc sailed with the largest French expeditionary army to date, numbering over 31,000 men, described by contemporaries as “the elite of the French army”.

Napoleon expected that the expedition would need no more than three months to achieve its goals, and he gave Leclerc detailed instructions on how to proceed, in three stages. In the first stage, of 15 to 20 days, Leclerc was to convince the colony’s residents of French goodwill by claiming that the troops were there to preserve peace and protect Haiti. That should allow them to land peacefully and secure the major ports and cities. The second stage was to attack Toussaint and his generals, break their armies, and break the masses’ morale by leaving them leaderless. To that end, Napoleon ordered Leclerc to deport black officers to France: “Do not allow any blacks having held a rank above that of a captain to remain on the island“. The third stage was to disarm all blacks and mulattos, force them back to the plantations, and restore slavery.

The first stage went relatively smoothly, and in December of 1801, the French began landing at various points in Hispaniola with little opposition, and seized most cities. The better armed and better trained French soon had Toussaint Louverture on the run, and he was forced to beat a hasty retreat to the highlands, with only two brigades. There, he established his base in rough terrain, surrounded by thick tropical vegetation, and behind narrow gorges that the French would have to fight their way through in order to get at him.

From his base, Toussaint rallied his followers, particularly the former African slaves, warning them that the French intended to restore slavery. Nonetheless, the invaders steadily pressed in, and Toussaint found himself pushed into a steadily shrinking territory. His troops were repeatedly bested by the professional French, and his generals began defecting, one after the other. Finally, on May 6th, 1802, Toussaint threw in the towel. He negotiated an amnesty for all his remaining generals, then retired with full honors to his plantation.

The Bloody History of the Haitian Revolution in 10 Events
Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Pintrest

The Arrest of Toussaint Louverture, and the Revival of the Haitian Revolution

Toussaint Louverture would not enjoy his retirement for long, and few weeks after laying down his arms, he was betrayed by one of his chief lieutenants, general Jean-Jacques Dessalines. On May 22nd, 1802, Dessalines wrote the French military commander, Leclerc, accusing Toussaint of violating the terms of the amnesty by failing to instruct a local rebel leader to lay down his arms. Leclerc had Toussaint arrested on suspicion of plotting an uprising, and deported him to France. He reached France in July of 1802, and was imprisoned in a mountain fortress. There, Toussaint Louverture would die within a year, on April 7th, 1803, from malnutrition, exhaustion, pneumonia, and possible tuberculosis.

With Toussaint removed from the picture, leadership of the Haitian Revolution fell to the man who had betrayed him to the French, Jean-Jacques Dessalines (1758 – 1806). Born in bondage, he had grown up toiling as a slave in the sugarcane fields, where he rose to the rank of foreman. When the African slave uprising erupted in 1791, Dessalines, whose years as a slave had embittered him towards whites and mulattos, joined the rebels. He distinguished himself as a natural leader, and also as a ruthless commander who fought hard, seldom took prisoners, and was not squeamish about committing atrocities, including massacres and putting entire villages to the torch.

In March of 1802, Dessalines made a heroic stand at the Crete-a-Pierrot, where he held a fort for 20 days against a larger French army led by general Leclerc. Dessalines inflicted heavy casualties on his opponents, before launching a successful breakout through the besiegers’ lines, and leading his surviving men to safety in the mountains. After the Battle of Crete-a-Pierrot, Dessalines defected from Toussaint Louverture and briefly sided with Leclerc. However, when it became clear than the French intended to reestablish slavery, Dessalines returned to the rebel ranks in October of 1802, and assumed command of the Haitian Revolution.

By then, the French expedition to Haiti was in dire straits, and its ranks had been decimated by battlefield casualties and tropical diseases, particularly yellow fever. Napoleon’s estimate that the expedition would need only three months proved wildly optimistic, and as Leclerc put it: “the difficulties involved in reconquering Saint-Domingue are eminently more formidable than Bonaparte had ever presumed“.

By June of 1802, Leclerc had come to the realization that the forces at his disposal were insufficient for their assigned task. He wrote: “Every day the blacks become more audacious . . . . I am not strong enough to order a general disarmament or to implement the necessary measures . . . . The government must begin to think about sending out my successor“.

Leclerc made things worse in July of 1802, when he ordered the former rebels back to the plantations. As it became more evident that the French were going to reintroduce slavery, the rebellion, which had seemingly died with Toussaint’s surrender in May of 1802, flared back to life. Efforts to disarm black laborers only heightened suspicions of French intentions, and prompted many to flee to the mountains, where they joined maroon bands. When Dessalines rejoined the rebellion in October of 1802, he united the disparate bands into a formidable force, and led it into a final showdown with the French.

The Bloody History of the Haitian Revolution in 10 Events
Massacre of French whites. Black Then

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

Knight, Franklin W., American Historical Review, Vol. 105, No. 1, February 2000 ­- The Haitian Revolution

Brown University, History of Haiti – General Leclerc in Saint-Domingue, 1801 – 1802

Encyclopedia Britannica – Haitian Revolution

Encyclopedia Britannica – Toussaint Louverture

Girard, Philippe R. – The Slaves Who Defeated Napoleon: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian War of Independence (2011)

Heinl, Robert – Written in Blood: The Story of the Haitian People, 1492 – 1995 (1996)

James, C. L. R. – The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Overture and the San Domingo Revolution (1989)

Perry, James – Arrogant Armies, Great Military Disasters, and the Generals Behind Them (1996)

Popkin, Jeremy D. – Facing Racial Revolution: Eyewitness Accounts of the Haitian Insurrection (2008)

Slate, August 6th, 2015 – The Bittersweet Victory at Saint Domingue

Wikipedia – Haitian Revolution

Wikipedia – History of Haiti