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
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.

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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

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