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.