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.