On August 29, 1793, a curious proclamation emerged from Camp Turel, one of numerous small fortified positions in the mountain range that runs from Gonai'ves on Saint Domingue's west coast eastward to the Central Plateau and the Spanish frontier, and which had been occupied, since 1791, mostly by groups of revolting slaves, but sometimes by French soldiers and militiamen who were trying to suppress the revolt. The proclamation was a brief one:
Brothers and Friends,
I am Toussaint Louverture; perhaps my name has made itself known to you. I have undertaken vengeance. I want Liberty and Equality to reign in Saint Domingue. I am working to make that happen. Unite yourselves to us, brothers, and fight with us for the same cause.
Your very humble and obedient servant,
General of the armies of the king, for the public good.1
Probably this proclamation was not the first time that the man formerly known as Toussaint Breda had used the new surname Louverture, since it assumes that the name may already be known to his audience—but if it is not the very first time he entered this new identity into the written record, it is the first time he deliberately announced it to the general public.
Not by coincidence, August 29 was also the date that Leger Felicite Sonthonax, commissioner and chief representative of the French government then in Saint Domingue, proclaimed the abolition of slavery in the colony. The newly minted Toussaint Louverture was then officially part of the Spanish army; Spain was at war with France, and the colonists of Spanish Santo Domingo had adopted the rebel slaves of the French colony as auxiliaries to their own military. Thus, in the close of his proclamation, Toussaint was probably referring to the king of Spain, though his clustering of the words “liberty,” “equality,” and “brothers” is an intentional echo of the most familiar phrase of the French Revolution, “liberte, egalite, fraternite. “ Moreover, and somewhat con-fusingly the rebel slaves of Saint Domingue had been claiming loyalty to the king of France almost from the moment of their first rising.
Since the fall of 1791, Toussaint had been in the mountains with the revolting slaves, though before 1793 his role was not obviously prominent. The proclamation of Camp Turel was his first deliberate effort to call attention to himself and the part he intended to play. Though Toussaint had been fighting a guerrilla war against the French for nearly two years, the timing of the proclamation suggests that he must have known in advance that Sonthonax would abolish slavery and when he was going to do it. What he meant to convey, in his lines and between them, was that Toussaint Louverture, a black man born into slavery in the colony, was the true apostle of liberty here—not the white commissioner Sonthonax, who had only recently arrived from France.
Toussaint Breda had been a trusted retainer on Breda Plantation, near Haut du Cap, and only a short distance from the port of Cap Francais. He served as coachman for Breda's French manager, Bayon de Libertat—an important role, since coachmen often carried messages for their masters, alone and on their own responsibility. In his addi-tional role of commandeur, Toussaint enjoyed considerable authority over the majority of more ordinary slaves on the plantation. Such com-mandeursvrere responsible for organizing and directing work gangs and often had other managerial duties. Surprisingly, they were allowed to carry swords, as an emblem of their authority and perhaps as a practical tool of enforcement as well.
Nocturnal gatherings of Saint Domingue's slaves were prohibited in theory, but often tolerated in practice, as a means of defusing tensions that might otherwise be released in the rebellion which all the French colonists had excellent reason to fear. Commonly called “cal-enda,” these gatherings featured drumming and dancing and sometimes competitive stick-fighting and were officially regarded by the French as innocuous peasant dances—though some observers did report that rituals drawn from African religion were performed on these occasions.
On the night of August 14,1791, an assembly of commandeurs took place in a wooded area called Bois Cai'man, or Crocodile Forest, part of the Lenormand de Mezy Plantation in Morne Rouge, on the border of the richest cane-growing area in all Saint Domingue, the Northern Plain. The commandeurs came from all the important plantations of the Northern Plain and the foothills surrounding it: Limbe, Quartier Morin, Petite Anse, Port Margot, and Limonade. Their purpose, confessed to the French colonists by a couple of conspirators captured several days later, was to plan an enormous insurrection that would lay waste to the entire Northern Department of Saint Domingue and annihilate the white population.
This practical purpose of the meeting at Bois Caiman was set down on paper by European reporters, soon after the fact; Haitian oral tradition holds, with equal conviction, that the most important event that took place there was a huge Vodou ceremony. In real time, it had taken a century of slavery in Saint Domingue to consolidate the religions of various African tribes (along with a dusting of the Catholicism to which all slaves were theoretically supposed to be converted) into a single religion which all the slaves could share. The legend of Bois Cai'man makes this transformation happen in one apocalyptic day.
Vodou practitioners believe that the souls of the dead do not depart. Instead they go into a parallel universe invisible to the living, but quite nearby—and not impossible to reach. Ceremonial observance begins with opening the gateways between the visible and the invisible worlds. When the passage is open, spirits constituted from the vast reservoir of spiritual energy into which the souls of the dead have pooled begin to pass through it into the world of the living. These spirits, called either Iwa or zanj, cover the range of personalities of any polytheistic pantheon, or may as easily be identified with the archetypes of the collective unconscious. Aided by hypnotic chanting and drumming, the Iwa take possession of the bodies of their human believers and servants, suppressing the individual consciousness of the people they “mount” and often endowing them with superhuman powers for the duration of the ride. Tradition has it that the angriest, most warlike spirits appeared at Bois Caiman: Ogoun Ferraille, Ezili Ge Rouj. The Iwa lent their power to the rebellion being planned; a black pig was sacrificed to seal the compact.
Toussaint Breda belonged to the class of commandeurs who presented themselves as leaders of the insurrection, but whether he attended the meeting at Bois Caiman has never been known for sure. Almost certainly, given his position of trust and authority among both blacks and whites, among slaves and free, he would have been well aware of which way the winds were blowing and that an insurrection was being planned. As for the Vodou element of the meeting, Toussaint's ostentatiously devout Catholicism might have kept him away from any African, pagan rite.* On the other hand, from the 1700s until now, many if not most blacks in Haiti have practiced Vodou and Catholicism simultaneously with next to no discomfort or sense of paradox in the combination. In fact, the two practices are often seen as different aspects of the same religion.
If Toussaint was present at Bois Caiman, he remained invisibly in the background. A slave named Boukman Dutty presided; he had been sold, as a troublemaker, from Jamaica. Most likely his offense was sorcery. Legend claims that he was one of the comparatively few Muslim slaves in the West Indies and that his name is a slight French distortion of the English “Bookman,” which implies that he knew how to read. Other commandeurs known to have been present are Jean-François Papillon, Georges Biassou, and Jeannot Billet; these three and Boukman himself were the most prominent leaders in the first weeks of the insurrection, which broke out with explosive violence on the night of August 22.
By dawn of August 23, the whole Northern Plain was devastated, the cane fields and sugar refineries ablaze. The disaster was first announced to Cap Francais by the arrival of a rolling cloud of black smoke, out of which the first battered refugees emerged. Any whites who could not escape to the fortified towns of the coast were slaughtered, some sawed in half between planks, others strung up on steel hooks by their jawbones, still others simply hacked to pieces or burned alive in their houses. Haitian historians have argued that the reports of fetuses cut from the womb and of infants impaled and carried on pikes amount to no more than French propaganda, but such atrocities were also reported during white French reprisals on the gens de couleur‘in the aftermath of the Oge rebellion. Murderous assaults on the newborn and unborn occur the world over as signals of genocidal intent. The August 1791 uprising was among other things the first engagement in a three-way genocidal race war in which each of Saint Domingue's three races—the white, the black, and the gens de couleur—-would do its absolute worst to exterminate the other two.
No one has ever been able to say for certain just where Toussaint Breda was during this initial tumult. If he did have a hand in the August insurrection, he kept it very well hidden. In the midst of the bloody, fiery vengeance that the rebel slaves were taking on their masters, some slaves remained loyally on their plantations and did their best to protect the white families there. Apparently Toussaint remained quietly at Breda Plantation for at least one month after the rebellion first erupted in late August. Curiously, the river of fire and blood flowing over the Northern Plain to lap against the hastily bolstered fortifications of Le Cap seems to have parted around Breda, leaving it more or less intact. Still more curiously, only 22 of Bredas 318 slaves decamped in the early days of the rebellion. The rest stayed—with Toussaint—to protect the plantation and its white mistress, Madame de Libertat.
In 1799 a letter appeared in the French newspaper Le Moniteur, describing Toussaint's conduct during the turbulence of 1791. Though unsigned, it could hardly have been written by anyone other than Breda's manager, Bayon de Libertat.
Eight days before the insurrection on the Le Cap plain, some blacks of the neighboring plantation set fire to four fields of cane … I was at that moment on my plantation seven leagues distant from Le Cap; Toussaint and the commandeur Bruno, invariably attached to the interests of their masters, succeeded in stopping the fire without any other help than that of the blacks of the plantation. When I arrived the next evening, all the scorched cane had been cut and pressed, and they were just finishing cooking the sugar which had been extracted from it. Toussaint came before me with a pained expression and said, “We have had an accident, but don't alarm yourself, the loss is not serious; I wanted to spare you the sight of it when you arrived, but you have come too soon.” I leave it to the reader to weigh these words.
Toussaint displayed an inexpressible joy to see me constantly in the midst of the blacks, giving them my orders to arouse their vigilance and their courage—and this at a time when it was enough to be white to be massacred.2
Toussaint's ability to keep order and conduct business as usual, in the midst of the anarchy that had engulfed the surrounding region, seems altogether extraordinary. But sometime in the fall of 1791, he left Breda, crossed the ash-strewn ruins of the Northern Plain, and went up into the mountains of Grande Riviere, where he joined a band of rebel slaves led by Biassou. At first he served Biassou as a secretary; later he was given the title of medecin general, or general doctor. At Breda Plantation and the surrounding area, Toussaint had the reputation of an excellent veterinarian, especially for horses, and he was also recognized as a doktefey—literally “leaf doctor.” Along with substantial skill in African/Creole herbal medicine, he seems to have had some instruction in European doctoring.
If Toussaint did any fighting when he first joined Biassou, he was not much noticed as a leader; no white observers picked him out of the fray. However, a couple of his surviving letters suggest that he already had more authority among the rebels than he wanted to be known outside that group. To Biassou he writes on October 4,1791:
My dear friend,
I have received your letter with pleasure; I cannot agree to your rendezvous; we are not able to leave our camp, for both of us to travel to meet the Spaniard. If this Spaniard has something to communicate to me, he has only to get himself to my camp; as for myself, I don't have time to appear; I wish you the most perfect health and am for life your friend.3
Though Toussaint modestly signs this letter “Medecin General,” at a time when Jean-François and Biassou had declared themselves “Generalissime” and the like, there is no sign that he was under Biassou's orders—on the contrary, the message seems to pass between equals. Later on, when relations between the rebel slaves and the military of Spanish Santo Domingo had become more official, Toussaint would explain himself more fully to the Spanish colonial governor: “I reported and accounted for my operations to General Biassou, not at all because I considered myself to be his subordinate, but for love of the good, being familiar with his impetuous, muddle-headed, thoughtless character, likely to do more harm than good, as he demonstrated under circumstances.4
Toussaint wrote to Biassou again on October 15, 1791, referring obscurely to what seems to have been a planned attack on the outskirts of Cap Francais, if not on the town itself. The letter implies, though lightly, that Biassou may have been pushed too far in this direction by the rebels' Spanish contacts; in the event, the attack did not take place.
My Very Dear Friend,
After the requests which I have just made to the Spaniard, and as I am waiting day by day for the things which I asked for, I beg you to wait until we should be in better shape before we undertake what you have had the friendliness to write me about. I would very much like to go for it, but I would like to have, on all the plantations, enough crowbars to roll rocks down from the mountains of Haut du Cap, to hinder them [the enemy] from approaching us, for I believe there is no other way, unless we expose our people to butchery. I beg you to make certain that you will have the spy you have sent explain very well the location of the powder magazine of Haut du Cap, so that we can succeed in seizing the powder; my good friend, you can see from the above that I am taking every precaution in this affair; and you may say as much to Boukman; as for Jean-François he can always keep going on carriage rides with the ladies, and he has not even done me the honor to write me a word for several days. I am even astounded by that. If you need rum, I will send it to you whenever you want, but be careful how you manage it; you know that you must not give them [the rank and file of the rebel slaves] so much that they are deranged by it. Send me some carts, for I need them to haul wood to build cabins at La Tannerie to house my people.5
Though this letter is also signed “Medecin General,” it is noticeably devoid of medical concerns (apart from the judicious ration of rum). In both tone and content it shows Toussaint, behind the scenes of the revolt, to be confident of an authority comparable to that of the recognized chiefs: Boukman, Biassou, and Jean-François. Not only is he in regular communication with the top leaders of the rebellion, but he is also enough their equal that he can make sport of one in a letter to another. He has considerable supplies under his control and an interest and ability to procure more. Already he has begun to fortify his camp at LaTannerie, an important post at the bottom of the gorge of Grand Gilles, which protected the approaches to Dondon above and the passes to the Black Mountains and the Central Plateau beyond, and which would be the theater of important engagements in the months to come.
Moreover, this letter provides an interesting glimpse of the military situation of the rebel slaves in the fall of 1791. The leaders lacked firearms and powder—in the beginning they had only what they could capture from the whites—and they had very few men skilled in the use of musket or cannon. By October, the Spanish had begun to furnish some munitions, but the opaque references in Toussaint's letter suggest that this supply line was not very reliable.
In the beginning, when the rebels had been able to overwhelm better armed and trained opponents by the sheer force of their numbers (but with a terrible loss of life), Toussaint had stayed well out of it. At the time the letter was written, he had begun to develop a strategy to prevent his underarmed and still poorly trained men from confronting the fire of organized European troops at close quarters. Instead, the mass of rebel slaves would hurl down boulders from the bluffs—out of range of muskets and field artillery—while the best-organized strike teams raided the arsenals for powder and guns. Even at this early stage, Toussaint was beginning his famous practice of raiding the enemy for arms and ammunition. There was hardly anywhere else for him to get them.
Further hints of Toussaint's evolving role among the rebel slaves occur in a series of letters written by Biassou to the Abbe Guillaume Sylvestre Delahaye, parish priest of Dondon, who had been captured when this small mountain town was overrun by Jeannot on August 27, 1791. Jeannot, notorious for torturing and murdering the white prisoners in his hands, was savage enough to shock the other rebel leaders, but the Abbe Delahaye seemed to enjoy special treatment—though confined to the Dondon parish house, he was apparently unmolested, and even promised money for saying masses when Jeannot demanded it (though it does not appear that he was ever actually paid).
Many whites already suspected Delahaye of abolitionist tendencies. Now he came under suspicion of active collaboration with the rebel slaves during the long period he spent in or near their camps. He hotly denied these accusations after he returned to the white-controlled area—at a time when other priests were being executed for the same sort of collaboration of which he was accused. Other white prisoners grouped Delahaye with a handful of priests who were actively encouraging the slave insurrection, and Biassou once wrote to request his help in drafting laws to govern the men in his command (there is no evidence that Delahaye ever responded).
Both Jeannot and Biassou showed Delahaye special consideration, the latter writing to him on October 28, 1792, that “M. le Marechal Toussaint” had put an end to certain unspecified “hostilities” bothersome to Delahaye, and had ordered Delahaye's domestic servants (i.e., his slaves) to return to work at the Dondon parish house. The same letter reports that Toussaint had ordered a Senor Garcia, presumably a white Spaniard, to be put in irons for insolence to Delahaye, which suggests that his authority had grown quite considerable. By the end of October, at least, Toussaint had been promoted from medecin general to marechal; some six weeks later, on December 18, Biassou mentioned in another letter to Delahaye that “Toussaint is recognized to be general of the army”6
By November 1791, the military situation had drifted into a kind of standoff. In the beginning, Boukman had been the principal leader of attacks on the whites and their property that more resembled enormous riots than any sort of organized military campaign. Boukman was himself a houngan, or Vodou priest, as Biassou and many of the other early leaders of the revolt were reputed to be, and according to contemporary white observers, many of the men who followed them into wild charges were probably possessed by their Iwa when they attacked. Some waved bull's tails to fan away bullets; others would simply wrap themselves around cannon mouths so that the men behind them could advance in safety.
At first these jihadlike onslaughts had been very successful. As Muslim soldiers believe that death in battle guarantees them Paradise, so the rebel slave warriors saw death as the fastest road to Ginen anba dlo. The defenses of the whites scattered over the Northern Plain were frail, and the rebel slaves needed just a few days to drive the survivors to refuge in Cap Francais. The first few sorties by the town's defenders were also overwhelmed by the frenzy of the rebel attacks—these were men who seemed to care nothing for death, and though many of them were slaughtered by organized fire, the sheer force of their numbers was still enough to rout the white military. As the weeks wore on, though, the rebels began to notice their casualties. Accordingly, their tactics changed. “They did not expose themselves en masse with the former fury,” wrote Des Fosses, a French combatant, “they formed groups, hiding in thickets before falling on their enemy. They even withdrew swiftly into the undergrowth. We were dealing with an enemy who, instead of making a concerted attack on the colors, was disposed in small groups so that they were able to surround or wipe out isolated or small detachments. It was a new type of warfare, more dangerous because it was unknown.” Unknown at least to European soldiery, who in the eighteenth century had a confirmed habit of confronting each other on open ground in tightly composed squares. The guerrilla tactics so bewildering to the French troops were common in African wars of the period (in which many of Saint Domingue's slaves had first been captured), and also very well adapted to Haiti's mountainous jungle terrain. Toussaint's letter of October 15 suggests that he may well have had an influence on the tactical change.
In November, Boukman was killed in a battle with the regular French army on the plain near Acul. The whites, still more or less besieged, impaled his head on a stake on the public square of Cap Francais with a sign reading “The head of Boukman, leader of the rebels.”7 When news of Boukman's death reached Grande Riviere, there was a spontaneous lunge to slaughter all the white prisoners there in reprisal. However, cooler heads prevailed, if by a narrow margin.
When the rebels first overran the Northern Plain, they had swept many prisoners from the plantations and taken them into their camps around Grande Riviere. The more temperate leaders saw the value of the white captives as hostages, but for others they were tempting victims for torture and rape. The not-so-temperate leader Jeannot had control of a good many prisoners, and amused himself by torturing a few of them to death every day. Finally, the other rebel leaders decided he had gone too far. Jeannot was apparently lighting a fire to roast the remaining white captives alive when a party led by Jean-François arrived, put Jeannot through some sort of hasty court-martial, and executed him just as summarily.
The white prisoners were not set free after Jeannot's execution, but they were no longer egregiously mistreated. Procurator Gros, one of Jeannot's surviving captives who'd been a legal functionary before the rebellion, was drafted as Jean-François's secretary. Much correspondence needed to be done, for the surviving rebel leaders were preparing to negotiate terms with the whites.
In France, the revolution had been hurtling forward for two years. The feudal privileges of the aristocracy and the clergy had been abolished early on. In late June 1791, Louis XVI and his family were captured at Varennes while attempting to flee the country and brought back to Paris as prisoners in all but name. Procurator Gros, still a prisoner of the rebels in the territory they controlled around Dondon, Valliere, and Grande Riviere, was startled at just how well his captors seemed to be informed of these events in Europe and how interested they seemed to be in the fate of the French monarchy.
The slave insurrection in French Saint Domingue was alarming to British slavery-based colonies in the Caribbean, especially in nearby Jamaica. The idea that French Jacobin ideology could provoke revolt among African slaves was unthinkably awful—and yet it had happened just next door. At the same time, as England verged upon war with France, the chaos in France's heretofore most prosperous colony presented an interesting point of vulnerability. Philibert-François Rouxel de Blanchelande, the military governor of French Saint Domingue, appealed to both his British and his Spanish neighbors for help; the British kept mum, while the Spanish Santo Domingans were already giving covert support to the rebel slaves camped near their border with the French colony. Toussaint, before joining Biassou, had taken his wife and children to sanctuary in the region of Saint Raphael and Saint Michel on the Central Plateau, which was then in Spanish territory, though no great distance from the rebel camps on the French side.
For the slave states of the southern United States, the insurrection in Saint Domingue was their worst nightmare made real. The tabloid newspapers were full of horror stories, some exaggerated or fabricated outright for propaganda purposes, but many of them true enough. The panoramic destruction of the plantations of the Northern Plain was practically impossible to exaggerate. In Charleston and other slave-trading ports, there was a move to stop importation of West Indian blacks. But aside from the very real concern that the rebellious contagion might spread from Saint Domingue to the plantations of the American South, the greatest U.S. interest in Saint Domingue was trade. Despite the monopolistic French trade policy, Saint Domingue was already a significant trade partner for the United States, thanks to a few small relaxations of the French exclusifsmd still more to widespread, vigorous smuggling. And for the duration of the American Revolution, trade with the United States had been legalized by the French.
There were fifty American merchantmen in the Cap Francais harbor when the insurrection first broke out on the Northern Plain, so it was not long before the United States began to receive frantic requests for supplies and military aid from the besieged French colonists. The official response was hesitant at first. The fledgling United States was short of cash and wary of being drawn into bewildering French internal conflicts. Two years of strife among Saint Domingue's blancs had not gone unnoticed by American tradesmen in the ports. In general, American officials and diplomats were having a hard time formulating a coherent attitude toward events in France and her colonies— understandably, since the most drastic differences between the American and the French revolutions had not yet become obvious. But despite some ambivalence of the U.S. government, unofficial shipments to Saint Domingue soon hit a high enough level to make the French representative in the United States worry that the French exclusif be completely shattered.
A one-way voyage from France to Saint Domingue took six weeks, more or less, depending on the weather. Reaction of the home government to events in the colony could never be rapidly expressed. On May 15,1791, the French National Assembly had passed a hotly contested piece of legislation which granted civil rights and the vote to gens de couleur born of free parents. In July, the colored men in Saint Domingue's Western Department, the area surrounding Port-au-Prince, raised a clamor for enforcement of the new law. Denied, they then raised an armed rebellion commanded by Louis-Jacques Beauvais, who like so many leaders of the Haitian Revolution was a veteran of the siege of Savannah during the American Revolutionary War. In late August and early September, as the fires of the black rebellion were sweeping the Northern Department, Beauvais's troops won a couple of engagements with French troops and colonial militias.
In the meantime, a clash between royalist grands blancs and revolutionary petits blancs in Port-au-Prince had ended with the slaying of the Chevalier de Mauduit, the ranking regular army officer there. His royalist partisans retreated to the village of Croix des Bouquets, a few miles inland from the capital. By then, news of the huge slave rebellion to the north had begun to filter through the mountains that separated the Cap Francais region from Port-au-Prince. At Croix des Bouquets, the grands blancs suddenly thought it best to recognize their colored relatives as equals. A mutual defense pact was struck—the Concordat of Croix des Bouquets—by whose terms the whites recognized the law of May 15, with its extension of civil rights to mulattoes. In the Southern Department, on the long jawbone of Hispaniola's southwest peninsula, similar arrangements were made between the grands blancs and the gens de couleur, who after all shared not only a blood tie but also a vital interest in the plantation system and the slave system on which it depended. The success of these pacts was partly explained by the fact that the gens de couleur were proportionally more numerous in the Western and Southern departments than in the north—they were still outnumbered by the black slaves but not by such a crushing margin.
Word of the slave rebellion in the Northern Department and the general unrest in the Western Department had not yet reached Paris when on September 24,1791, the National Assembly passed yet another law. This one abrogated all the terms of the decree of May 15 and threw the question of mulatto civil rights back to the white colonists. Three civil commissioners—Edmond de Saint-Leger, Frederic Ignace de Mirbeck, and Philippe Roume de Saint Laurent—were quickly dispatched to deliver the new decree to Saint Domingue. They also brought news of a general amnesty declared by the National Assembly for “acts of revolution.” Of course the amnesty was meant to settle conflicts among whites, but the black rebel leaders in the Northern Department were quick to claim a share in it.
In fact, the rebel leaders had made efforts to open negotiations before the commissioners ever arrived, writing to Governor Blanchelande, and to the Chevalier de Tousard, a senior officer of the Regiment du Cap; the latter responded, “Do not believe that the whites … would lower themselves so far as to receive conditions dictated and demanded of them by their rebel slaves.”8 Unconditional surrender of the rebels was the only solution that the whites would even consider, though they were in no position at all to enforce it. However, after all the damage the whites on the Northern Plain had suffered, emotions among the survivors inevitably ran high. The commissioners (who did not know the full extent of the disaster before they arrived in Cap Francais on November 22) did their best to calm them, though with small success. Unfortunately, the Colonial Assembly took the position that the commissioners should not be involved in negotiations with the rebel slaves at all, since the commissioners themselves had just delivered a decree from the home government giving the assembly an overarching authority to decide “the fate of the slaves.”9 This controversy over jurisdiction crippled all the commission's efforts to resolve the crisis.
Freeing the slaves of Saint Domingue was not the original goal of the rebellion in the north. According to the rhetoric of the political seg-ment of the meeting at Bois Cai'man, the slaves were to revolt not for their freedom but to demand an end to whipping and other abuses, to gain three free days per week, and to win enforcement of some other provisions of the official Code Noir which were generally ignored by plantation owners. Throughout the summer of 1791, rumors had circulated through the whole colony's slave population that King Louis XVI had already granted the three free days but that the slave masters of Saint Domingue had refused to implement his order. This rumor inspired a plot for rebellion in the area of Les Cayes in the Southern Department, which was discovered and snuffed out some weeks before the mass insurrection exploded in the north.
The slaves who gathered at Bois Cai'man were given to understand that King Louis XVI wished them well and had created the Code Noir for their benefit, but that he himself was being held hostage by evil white men who surrounded him (a distorted but not entirely groundless view of what was actually going on in France). This understanding explains, at least in part, why so many bands of rebel slaves used royalist flags and insignia and declared that they were fighting for the king.
Perhaps a hundred thousand slaves had risen in arms in August, but on December 4, the leaders (including Jean-François, Biassou, and by this time Toussaint) offered to return them peaceably to the plantations in return for abolition of the whip, one extra free day per week, and freedom for a mere three hundred people—a very small number which was later reduced to around fifty. By Gross account, “the negro Toussaint a Breda” was instrumental in persuading Biassou to accept the smaller number; without him “the conference would have ended without success.”10
Impervious to the diplomatic efforts of Mirbeck, Roume, and Saint-Leger, the Colonial Assembly rejected this proposal in such contemptuous terms that Biassou, when he got the message, flew into a rage and wanted to kill all the white prisoners without delay. According to Gros, only Toussaint's quick and eloquent intercession saved him and the rest from an ugly death; “braving all dangers, he tried to save us, were himself to be the victim of the monster's rage.”11 Another white captive, M. la Roque, saw Toussaint report the breakdown of the deal to Jean-François: “Toussaint a Breda … told him, with tears in his eyes, that all was lost, that the twenty-some prisoners that had come from the different camps would no longer be going to Le Cap, and that war had again been decided.”12
The rebel leaders had not only sent emissaries to the Colonial Assembly but had also directly approached military leaders like Tousard, and had begun to make direct contact with the commissioners recently arrived from France. As the commissioners were much more conciliatory than the Colonial Assembly, the rebel leaders preferred to deal with them—despite the fact that the assembly had formally forbidden the commissioners to treat with the rebel slaves.
Soon after the collapse of the original deal to exchange the white prisoners for a limited number of liberties, a new meeting with the commissioners was arranged for December 21 on Saint Michel Plantation. Again, the discord on the white side took its toll: as the two parties approached each other, M. Bullet, who had been master of Jean-François, rushed out and struck him in the face. But Commissioner Saint-Leger went after Jean-François, who had quickly retreated to the midst of his men, and persuaded him to swallow the insult and return to the conversation. Tradition has it that Jean-François was so impressed with Saint-Leger's approach that he knelt at the white man's feet.
On the strength of this parlay, the white prisoners finally were released. This time they were gathered at the camp of LaTannerie; from there Toussaint himself would escort them safely into Le Cap. By the end of December Toussaint had dug himself in deep at La Tannerie, which Gros describes as one of the two most seriously fortified camps under rebel control, equipped with cannon and surrounded by ditches and pitfall traps ‘which could wound a lot of our people.”13
“What was our surprise,” Gros goes on, ‘when once we arrived at La Tannerie, we saw the blacks gather and fall upon us with saber in hand, threatening to send only our heads to Le Cap, and cursing the peace and their generals.”14 Again it was only thanks to Toussaint's intervention that a wholesale slaughter of the prisoners was prevented.
Toussaint's more cynical observers find this episode suspicious. How likely was it that he could be attacked in this way by his own men in his own best stronghold without any inkling it was going to happen? In the future, Toussaint would become notorious for secretly instigating violent popular uprisings which only his authority could subdue. And perhaps he wanted to make sure that the white prisoners would remember that he, Toussaint, had been their savior on the very day of their release. However, it is at least as likely that the attack at La Tannerie was a spontaneous response to the discovery, on the part of the mass of insurgent slaves, that their leaders meant to send them all back to the fields for the pittance of fifty liberties. That would have given them good enough reason to curse both the peace and their own generals.
Whatever had sparked it, the attack was deflected, and Toussaint led the prisoners out of the mountains, “across the countryside hostile to the whites,” reports Roger Dorsinville, “and the streets of Le Cap, hostile to himself, all the way to the seat of the Assembly. He was seen, apparently tranquil behind his mask, traversing these stormy double lines.”15 He rode at the head of 150 cavalry dragoons—a show of organized force which must have been startlingly impressive to the whites of Le Cap, and more than sufficient to guarantee Toussaint's safe passage in and out of town. Once the prisoners had been returned, Toussaint had hoped to negotiate a complete peace settlement, but the assembly refused even to receive him, sending out a note instead: “Continue to give proofs of your repentance … Address yourself to the commissioners.”16
The last fillip must have been derisory, since the assembly had undercut the commission at every turn and derailed every settlement the commissioners could arrange. Whether Toussaint had tears of frustration in his eyes when he left Le Cap that day has not been recorded; more likely he remained impassive, as Dorsinville described him on the way in. Certainly he understood very well that the whites' inability to agree among themselves had ruined their last chance to reach a peaceful settlement with the blacks.
During the weeks of talks with the whites, the rebel slaves had maintained a sort of cease-fire. By Gross account, Biassou meted out serious punishments to any of his men who went raiding in white-controlled territory during that period. But once the assembly's contemptuous attitude derailed the negotiations, the Northern Department was back at war. By mid-January 1792, Jean-François and his men were on the offensive, capturing the district of Ouanaminthe on the Spanish frontier, while Biassou made a daring night raid on l'Hopital des Peres de la Charite on the edge of Cap Francais itself, rescuing his mother, who was a slave there, and slaughtering the patients on his way out. To reach this hospital (where he himself had formerly been a slave), Biassou had flanked the outer defenses of Le Cap, briefly occupying Fort Belair, which protected the southern approach to the town along the road from Haut du Cap. He could most likely have captured or destroyed the entire town, if the goal of his raid had been less limited.
Jean-François had intimated to Gros that he felt himself to be almost a captive of the great mass of rebel slaves he was ostensibly leading. Of course, Jean-François could anticipate that Gros would report to the Colonial Assembly upon his release and so may have been simply hedging his bets. However, it does seem somewhat doubtful that he and the other leaders really could have delivered their followers back into slavery, especially on such disadvantageous terms as those being discussed in December 1791. An eyewitness reports that when the amnesty offer of September 24 was read in Biassou's camp, Toussaint followed it with such a persuasive speech that the rebel slaves in his audience were moved to declare themselves ready to return to work that very day, if he asked them to. At most other times, however, their mood was very much more intransigent.
The original purpose of the revolt in the north was not to end slavery for the majority of the slaves, but simply to improve its conditions. Soon enough, though, the stream of events they had started carried them far beyond that limited goal. In the last days of September, when white troops routed an encampment of insurgent slaves from Galliflet Plantation on the Northern Plain, they found a letter addressed to “Monsieur le general and the citizens of Le Cap,” dated September 4, 1791, and signed by Jean-François. “Come down to where we are,” the missive exhorts its audience,
and see this land which we have watered with our sweat—or what shall I say: with our blood; these edifices we have raised in the hope of a just compensation; have we received it? No, Monsieur General; the king, the universe have bemoaned our fate, and have broken the chains which we were dragging, while we, humble victims, were ready to bear anything, we never wanted to leave our masters: what shall I say: I deceive myself, those who should have been fathers to us, after God, were tyrants, monsters unworthy of the fruit of our labors … No, it is too late; God who fights for the innocent is our guide; he will never abandon us, thus our device: Victory or death.
The letter goes on to demand that all the white colonists evacuate the Northern Department and Le Cap itself; they might depart unmolested if they left the country to the former slaves—”we are only after our dear liberty.” The letter concludes by swearing a third time “to win or to die for liberty”17
This letter was never sent, however, unless leaving it to be found in the routed camp could be considered away of both sending it and not. And hard-pressed as the white colonists might have been in 1791, they were a long way from considering evacuation of the north. By the summer of 1792, the goals of the rebel leaders were changing again, in the direction of conciliation and settlement.
That spring, when it had become clear that the members of the first commission were having no success at all in resolving the crisis in Saint Domingue, the French National Assembly also decided to change tactics. French legislators were inclined to believe, without much other basis than the colonists' propaganda, that the gens de couleur were behind all the disturbances in the colony, not only those in which they themselves took part but also the hugely destructive slave rebellion in the Northern Department. No one was quite ready to believe that the black slaves could have organized and carried it out all on their own. This suspicion was reinforced by Procurator Gros after his release; he had enjoyed a privileged view of the rebel organization and insisted that it was manipulated by hommes de couleur and by free blacks—two racially and socially different groups which were easy to confuse and commingle on paper. So the comte de Guiton, addressing the National Assembly, was referring mostly to the mulattoes when he said, “We are without the means to resist them. Their progress is frightening. So we will have to treat with them; nothing is more immediate than this necessity.”18
On April 4, 1792, the National Assembly, increasingly radicalized and now influenced by an organization called Les Amis des Noirs, a French society advocating mulatto rights and with strong abolitionist leanings, passed a law guaranteeing civil and political rights to all free men, regardless of their race, or parentage, or status at birth. Still more alarming to Saint Domingue's white colonists was the term that all elected bodies formed without the participation of voters recognized by the law of April 4 were void and must be dissolved, pending new elections. Saint Domingue's Colonial Assembly accepted the new law as regards the rights of free men of color, but quickly decreed, on the 12th of May, that slavery would be perpetual in the colony.
On the strength of the law of April 4, Governor Blanchelande toured the Western and Southern departments, where he had some success in reconciling the confederations of grands blancs and gens de couleurthsit occupied most of the countryside with the petits blancs who had occupied Port-au-Prince and the other port towns, often with the support of sailors from ships in the harbor; these sailors were more and more inclined to identify themselves with the Jacobin revolutionaries in France. Meanwhile, the Northern Plain and the mountains surrounding it remained very much a no-go area for colonials of any faction. What the rebel slaves were actually doing up there, no one could know for certain. But they had at least temporarily eliminated slavery in a large swath of territory, creating a sort of free zone that included Dondon, Grande Riviere, Valliere, and the border town of Ouana-minthe on the Massacre River, and they had a wide open line of communication with Spanish Santo Domingo.
In July 1792, a wonderfully eloquent letter emerged from this quarter, addressed by the “Chiefs of the Revolt” to the General Assembly and the national commissioners (though the latter, except for Roume, had given up and gone back to France):
Those who have the honor to present you with these Memoirs are a class of men whom up to the present you have failed to recognize as like unto you, and whom you have covered in opprobrium by heaping upon them the ignominy attached to their unfortunate lot. These are men who don't know how to choose big words, but who are going to show you and all the world the justice of their cause; finally, they are those whom you call your slaves and who claim the rights to which all men may aspire.
For too long, Gentlemen, byway of abuses which one can never too strongly accuse to have taken place because our lack of understanding and our ignorance—for a very long time, I say, we have been victims of your greed and your avarice. Under the blows of your barbarous whip we have accumulated for you the treasures you enjoy in this colony; the human race has suffered to see with what barbarity you have treated men like yourself—yes, men—over whom you have no other right except that you are stronger and more barbaric than we; you've engaged in [slave] traffic, you have sold men for horses, and even that is the least of your shortcomings in the eyes of humanity; our lives depend on your caprice, and when it's a question of amusing yourselves it falls on a man like us [sic] who most often is guilty of no other crime than to be under your orders.
We are black, it is true, but tell us, Gentlemen, you who are so judicious, what is the law that says that the black man must belong to and be the property of the white man? Certainly you will not be able to make us see where that exists, if it is not in your imagination—always ready to form new [phantasms] so long as they are to your advantage. Yes, Gentlemen, we are free like you, and it is only by your avarice and our ignorance that anyone is still held in slavery up to this day, and we can neither see nor find the right which you pretend to have over us, nor anything that could prove it to us, set down on the earth like you, all being children of the same father created in the same image. We are your equals then, by natural right, and if nature pleases itself to diversify colors within the human race, it is not a crime to be born black nor an advantage to be white. If the abuses in the Colony have gone on for several years, that was before the fortunate revolution which has taken place in the Motherland, which has opened for us the road which our courage and labor will enable us to ascend, to arrive at the temple of Liberty, like those brave Frenchmen who are our models and whom all the universe is contemplating.
For too long we have borne your chains without thinking of shaking them off, but any authority which is not founded on virtue and humanity and which only tends to subject one's fellowman to slavery, must come to an end, and that end is yours. You Gentlemen who pretend to subject us to slavery— have you not sworn to uphold the French Constitution of which you are members? What does it say, this respectable Constitution?—what is the fundamental law?; have you forgotten that you have formally vowed the declaration of the rights of man which says that men are born free, equal in their rights; that the natural rights include liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression? So then, as you cannot deny what you have sworn, we are within our rights, and you ought to recognize yourselves as perjurers; by your decrees you recognize that all men are free, but you want to maintain servitude for four hundred and eighty thousand individuals who allow you to enjoy all that you possess; by your creatures you offer us only to give liberty to our chiefs; but it is still one of your maxims of politics that is to say that those who have been the half of our work would be delivered by us to be your victims. No, we prefer a thousand deaths to acting that way toward our own kind. And you want to accord us the benefits which are due to us, they must also shower onto all of our brothers …
Gentlemen, in very few words you have seen our way of thinking—it is unanimous and it is after consulting everyone to whom we are connected in the same cause that we present to you our demands, as follows.
First: General Liberty for all men detained in slavery.
Second: General amnesty for the past.
Third: The guarantee of these articles by the Spanish Government.
Fourth: the three articles above are the basis and the sole means to be able to have a peace which would be respected by the two parties, and only after the approbation that would be made in the name of the Colony and approved by M. the Lieutenant General and the National Civil Commissioners to present it to the King, and to the National Assembly. If like us, you desire that the articles above be accepted, we will commit ourselves to the following: first, to lay down our arms; second that each of us will return to the plantation to which he belongs and resume his work on condition of a wage which will be set by the year for each Cultivator who will begin to work for a fixed term.
Here, Gentlemen, is the request of men who are like you, and here is their final resolution: they are resolved to live free or die.
We have the honor to be, Gentlemen, your very humble and obedient servants.
Biassou, Jean-Fran$ois, Belair19
Between this letter and the one signed by Jean-François in September 1791 falls the failed negotiation with the members of the first commission. Only a few months before, the leaders of the revolt had been quite ready to sell their brethren back into slavery in return for a handful of liberties to be shared among themselves. Now it must be liberty for all or death, a demand expressed in similar terms to those of the September ‘91 letter, and founded on the idea of a natural human right to freedom. That notion had first been derived, by both the American and the French revolutions, from the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
When the revolt first erupted out of Bois Caiman, most of the slaves who took part understood it to be a protest against the conditions of slavery. As of the writing of this letter, the rebellion now focused its attack on the entire institution of slavery—and did so in extraordinarily sophisticated terms for a gang of supposedly ignorant, illiterate, and generally uncivilized blacks. The authors show a detailed knowledge of the rhetoric of both the American and the French revolutions, and a familiarity with specific documents of the latter, like the Constitution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Their grasp of the abstract principles is very firm and they are astute and accurate in applying those principles to their own situation. Moreover, the practical clauses at the end of the letter show a thorough knowledge of the various levels of the French governmental system, at both the colonial and the national level: the writers had a clear idea of what it would take to make such an agreement stick.
Who wrote it? The white colonists of Saint Domingue dismissed it as the work of white or mulatto conspirators and instigators, which the uneducated blacks could never have written themselves; they must have merely signed it, perhaps without even understanding the content. At this time, the white colonists were, somewhat understandably, in a very paranoid and cynical state. They also had a near-pathological tendency to underestimate their black adversaries.
Most likely the letter was the product of a committee, and much of its phrasing may have been the work of other hands than those that signed it. All the black leaders (whether or not they could read and write themselves) made use of secretaries, often captured clerks like Procurator Gros. There were also the priests who had entered the rebel slave encampments, notably the Abbe Delahaye, who did have an interest in improving the lot of the slaves. It has long been assumed that Delahaye and other priests in the rebel-ruled free zone played a large part in composing such missives. Under interrogation by the French in 1793, Delahaye reluctantly admitted to having helped draft a few of them.
At the same time it really does seem that the letter expresses the point of view, the fears, and the hope of the vast majority of rebel slaves who could not read or write but nevertheless had become aware of their leaders' earlier scheme to sell them down the river. One senses that this demand for liberty for all, not just a few, must have been composed with their full knowledge and dispatched with their approval. That point is underlined by the statement that the authors' “way of thinking” has been formed by “consulting everyone to whom we are connected in the same cause.”
Of the three signatories, Jean-François and Biassou were by then recognized as the two most formidable leaders of the black revolt. Charles Belair, who was Toussaint's nephew by blood or adoption, was a child of fourteen in 1792. Given his tender age and the relationship, some suspect that Belair's name was used as a screen and that Toussaint was really the third author of the document. Though pure speculation, the idea is intriguing nonetheless. Toussaint had signed other missives that were sent to the whites earlier—but those messages were a lot more moderate than this one. During this early period of the revolution, Toussaint seemed to be doing everything in his power to pass completely unnoticed. If he was noticed, by an observer like Gros, he was always playing a mediatory role—displaying his willingness and his ability to temporize between violently opposed factions.
The letter of July 1792 describes very clearly almost all the points of policy which Toussaint Louverture would fight to achieve over the next decade. Jean-François and Biassou would both be trafficking in slaves themselves before they were done. Toussaint, from this day forward, was always committed to general liberty. The idea of restoring the plantations with free, wage-earning labor was one he pursued to the very end. And the principle of natural human rights was bedrock to which he would always return. That black slaves were laying claim to the natural rights which white Frenchmen had declared for themselves is the most radical aspect of the document. The black leaders, and especially Toussaint, understood very well that in order to justify the institution of slavery, the white slave masters needed to define black men as something less than human. The black men would fight, and many would die, to annihilate that definition.
• • •
Given that the 1792 letter was addressed as an appeal to the French Colonial and National assemblies, the requirement that it be ratified by the Spanish government seems a little peculiar. But for some time before the letter was written, the rebel slaves in the Northern Department had a much healthier relationship with the Spanish colonists on the eastern two-thirds of the island than with the French to the west. Jean-François and Biassou had established themselves in the mountains along the Spanish border. Ouanaminthe, which they controlled, was a border town with its Spanish sister Dajabon just across the Massacre River, related like Ciudad Juarez to El Paso. These positions also gave the rebel slaves access to the grassy savannah of what is now Haiti's Central Plateau, then a sparsely populated Spanish possession. There the black warriors could find beef on the hoof, and perhaps fresh horses; it was also the area Toussaint thought safest for his wife and children in the fall of 1791.
Both Toussaint's first letters to Biassou and the report of Procurator Gros offer evidence that the Spanish were supplying arms and ammunition to the insurgent slaves from an early date. Gros, whose memoir is practically the only eyewitness account of what went on in the rebel camps around Grande Riviere, believed that the whole slave rebellion had been instigated by Spanish and probably French royalists, using the mulattoes as pawns. It must be remembered that Gross pamphlet was published as a piece of propaganda; the first edition, printed when Gros was a refugee in Baltimore, puts an English translation first, with the French original in small print in the back. Gros was trying to make a particular case to the anglophone community where he had been dropped. Given these conditions, his analysis is best taken with a pinch of salt, but there were some mulatto leaders taking part in the northern rebellion (a man named Candy was the most notorious) and three hommes de couleur (Desprez, Manzeau, and Aubert) had signed the December 1791 peace proposal, along with Jean-François, Biassou, and Toussaint.
On January 21, 1793, Louis XVI was guillotined in France. Within the next few weeks France found itself at war with England, Holland, and Spain, and the latter conflict could now express itself openly across the border between French Saint Domingue and Spanish Santo Domingo. The white colonial response to the passionate letter sent by the black rebels in July 1792 could be summarized thus: “We did not fetch half a million savage slaves off the coast of Africa to bring them to the colony as French citizens.”20Early in 1793, the warriors led by Jean-François and Biassou were incorporated into the Spanish army as auxiliaries; their presence in the French colony now constituted an invasion, and they were joined by a few Spanish troops and officers. Both Biassou and Jean-François were elevated to the rank of general in the Spanish service and copiously, gaudily decorated by Spanish officialdom.
At this point Jean-François and Biassou had divided the free zone into two spheres of influence, with Jean-François claiming Ouanaminthe, Valliere, much of Grande Riviere, and the area along the Spanish border. Biassou established a headquarters and a sort of government at Grand Boucan, on the heights above Grande Riviere, identified by Gros as one of the two best fortified posts in the free zone (the other being La Tannerie, where Toussaint was based). Biassou's command extended from La Tannerie in the gorge of Dondon along the mountainous border of the Northern Plain all the way through Ennery and Limbe to Port Francais on the north Atlantic coast, a point only a few miles west of Cap Francais itself. The western extension of this line meant that Le Cap could be isolated, surrounded, and attacked from all sides; Biassou had used those positions as a base for the raid that rescued his mother from l'Hopital des Peres.
Toussaint, who was not quite yet Toussaint Louverture, remained nominally subordinate to Biassou, but quietly began to develop a certain autonomy. Not only did he command at La Tannerie, he was also involved in the western end of Biassou's line, and he took a particular interest in maintaining a string of small posts called the Cordon de l'Ouest, which ran from Gonai'ves on the west coast across the mountains through Plaisance and Marmelade to Dondon, at the pass to the Central Plateau. Upon the first outbreak of rebellion in the north, Governor Blanchelande had tried to occupy this line and use it as a cordon sanitaire to keep the insurrection from spilling over into the west. This measure was roughly half-successful, though white occupation of these mountain posts was always hotly contested by the rebel blacks.
Gonai'ves, though smaller than Cap Francais or Port-au-Prince, ‘was a significant seaport. Toussaint understood its strategic worth very'well, and he also grasped the importance of the line through the mountains that connected Gonai'ves to the island's inaccessible interior—and also to the town of Saint Raphael on the Central Plateau, where he had stationed his wife and children, just across the Spanish frontier from Dondon. When he joined the Spanish army in 1793, Toussaint had already begun to accumulate troops who really were answerable only to him; they were attracted because Toussaint ran a more orderly camp than Jean-François or Biassou. A few French regular army officers, unhappy with the revolutionary trends in their barracks, had drifted into Toussaint's region, and he used them to train his black soldiers in European military discipline and in the European style of war. Most likely based at La Tannerie, these troops also patrolled the Cordon de l'Ouest and sometimes ranged as far as Port Francais.
On September 18, 1792, a new civil commission had arrived in Cap Francais. Again, there were three commissioners: Jean-Antoine Ailhaud, Etienne Polverel, and Leger Felicite Sonthonax. Their mission was to enforce the law of April 4, ‘which not only gave the right to vote to all free persons of whatever race but required that all elected bodies in Saint Domingue be dissolved and replaced by new ones chosen by this racially expanded electorate. The new commissioners were empowered to overrule and even disband any and all colonial assemblies, and to deport anyone who disputed their authority for trial and judgment in France. Sonthonax, especially, would make heavy use of the power of deportation.
Both Sonthonax (a lawyer by profession) and Polverel were proteges of Jacques Brissot, a rising power in the French Revolutionary government who was also a fervent abolitionist and member of Les Amis des Noirs. Brissot had sponsored Sonthonax and Polverel in the Jacobin Club of Paris. The commissioners soon started similar clubs in the towns of Saint Domingue, where they proved to be magnetically attractive to the petits blancs. The overthrow of the hereditary French nobility was well under way by the time the Second Commission set sail from Rochefort; Sonthonax soon began to denounce the grands blancs of Saint Domingue as aristocrats de la peau, or aristocrats of the skin. During Sonthonax's first tour of duty in the colony, many in this class ‘would be deported, including Governor Blanchelande and his replacement, General Desparbes.
Though abolitionist in their personal sentiments, Sonthonax and Polverel had no authority to abolish slavery in Saint Domingue, and the home government did not intend them to do any such thing. Moreover, they brought no significant military force to back up any of their policies, and most of the army units already in the colony were of a much more conservative, if not outright royalist, disposition. The commissioners' official policy was to recognize no race or class differences in the colony other than the difference between free men and slaves. In the beginning, Sonthonax was in no rush to end slavery. He believed, and wrote to Brissot, that to free the slaves abruptly would “undoubtedly lead to the massacre of all the whites.”21 But leveling social differences betweenblancsand gens de couleur turned out to be a very stormy business.
In October 1792, Polverel went to Port-au-Prince to supervise the Western Department. Ailhaud, who had failed to adapt to either the meteorological or the political climate of Saint Domingue, started on a similar mission to the Southern Department but somehow ended up back in France. Thanks to the slow communications in the colony, Sonthonax was left to act unilaterally in Cap Francais. His pressure to integrate colored officers into the all-white Regiment du Cap provoked a firefight between the two groups on the main parade ground of the town, but with the help of a more progressive officer, Etienne Laveaux, Sonthonax won back enough military support to regain control.
Laveaux turned out to be a very capable commander. Under his leadership, French troops began to take back segments of the devastated Northern Plain, driving the insurgent blacks into the mountains. But in 1793, when the rebel slaves became Spanish auxiliaries, these gains began to be eroded. Moreover, the presence of a Spanish-sponsored black army along the Cordon de l'Ouest interfered with communications between Cap Francais and the north of Saint Domingue with Port-au-Prince and the Western and Southern departments. To further worry the beleaguered commissioners, a British invasion of the colony, abetted and encouraged by grand blancs plantation owners, was looking more and more likely.
From the first, Sonthonax and Polverel were regarded with the deepest suspicion by grand blancs landowners and members of the government. After all, the new commissioners had a mandate to dissolve any colonial assemblies elected before the law of April 4 was enacted, and they were prompt in carrying it out. The ensuing power vacuum in the structure of government lent credence to a charge made against the commissioners in a letter that circulated among conservative colonists in 1792:
Do not doubt it, Gentlemen, I am sure of it, the work has all been readied in the National Assembly, and it will be proclaimed as soon as the commissioners have seized control of all the authorities … The scheme of this assembly is to free all the negroes in all the French colonies, then to use these first freedmen to pursue the freeing [of all the slaves] in all the foreign colonies, and so to carry revolt, followed by independence, all over the New World … Repel, Gentlemen, repel these blood-drunk tigers!22
Though this message was false in its details, its gist was not without a certain plausibility. The French Revolution was very much interested in propagating itself outside the borders of France, and for that reason it was on the brink of war with most of the rest of Europe. Radical extremism in France had already become unnerving to the United States; the French Revolution could no longer be understood as a reen-actment of the American Revolution on European soil.
The notion of using the black revolutionaries of Saint Domingue to overthrow slavery in other West Indian colonies and even on the North American continent would become significant later, but if it had already occurred to the members of the French National Assembly it was nowhere near being part of their program. At this point, the majority in the assembly was too pragmatic to consider disrupting the slave system of its colonies, for the economic price would have been too great. Given the revolutionary turmoil at home, the West Indian colonies in general and Saint Domingue in particular were practically the last functioning elements in the economy of the whole French empire (provided that healthy economic function could be restored in Saint Domingue). It is not cheap for a nation to wage war on all its borders at once. Far from abolishing slavery, the object of the Second Commission was to bring an end to the slave rebellion and put the insurgent blacks back to work. That was easier said than done.
Sonthonax, especially, seems to have been an ambitious man, but although technically the commissioners could “seize control of all the authorities,” their grasp on real power was very weak. In theory the commission was the highest civil authority in the colony, and the deportation of men like Desparbes and Blanchelande left them without a competitive leader on the military side, but with the Colonial assemblies abolished by the law of April 4 and following the precipitous departure of Ailhaud, the commission amounted to just two men, widely separated by geography and out of communication for long periods.
The military forces in the colony were a threadbare patchwork of militias and regular army units which included, for example, a sizable contingent of Irish mercenaries stationed at the tip of the northwest peninsula, at Mole Saint-Nicolas. The military had been strained by armed rebellions all over the colony, not only the huge one in the north, and their loyalty to representatives of the French Revolutionary government was questionable. The petits blancs who'd taken control of many of the bigger towns like Port-au-Prince had been quick to declare for the revolution and to join the Jacobin clubs—maneuvers which got them out from under the heel of the grands blancs. But the petits blancs hated the gens de couleur even worse than they hated the grands blancs, so the commissioners' program of appointing colored men to public posts and inserting them into the officer corps (in the case of Sonthonax a very aggressive program) soon eroded the popularity they had enjoyed when they first arrived. Both commissioners knew they were walking on eggshells with every step they took.
In their regions divided from each other by the Cordon de l'Ouest, Polverel and Sonthonax were so busy trying to manage the volatile tensions among the grands blancs, the petits blancs, and the gens de couleur in the urban centers that they had little time or opportunity to do much about the masses of insurgent slaves in the countryside. Operations led by Laveaux on the Northern Plain had at first been successful. The huge but ill-disciplined bands of Jean-François and Biassou folded quickly before organized European assault—the blacks had learned that they would lose confrontations with massed troops in open country. For a short time the French military had hopes that these two insurgent chiefs might be captured.
Tougher resistance came in the mountainous terrain between the lowlands and Dondon, and Laveaux had a couple of very hard battles to fight at Morne Pelee and La Tannerie. Toussaint commanded the insurgent blacks in these two engagements, making himself known to the French for the first time as a significant military leader. He had spent much time and energy on the fortification of La Tannerie, and was not dislodged from it easily. When Laveaux finally won the position in January 1793, he found seventeen cannon there, including a couple of twenty-four-pounders.
By mid-February Sonthonax had begun to suspect that military force would not be sufficient to solve the problem of the slave insurrection, but large areas of the Northern Plain had been secured by Laveaux's campaign, and some colonists felt safe enough to return to the cinders of their plantations. Sonthonax decided to rejoin Polverel in the Western Department. His brother commissioner had been grievously overloaded since Ailhaud's departure, trying to govern the west and the south at the same time, across unmanageable distances.
During the commissioners' joint tour, the petits blancs of Port-au-Prince started an open rebellion against them; the preference the commissioners showed the gens de couleurhad moved this faction toward the counterrevolutionary camp. On April 12, 1793, Sonthonax and Polverel (who had established their base at Saint Marc, the next significant port up the coast) launched a combined assault by land and sea to subdue the revolt. The ship from which they directed the attack was hit several times by cannon on shore; a fire that resulted was finally put out. Since war had been declared between England and France as of February 1, the commissioners also feared that the arrival of a British fleet might interrupt their conquest of the colonial capital, but it did not come.
Following the success of their operation at Port-au-Prince, the commissioners were able to regain control of the Western Department and most of the Southern. On May 15, the town of Jacmel on the southern coast admitted them without much struggle. But counterrevolutionary activity held out at Jeremie, on the tip of the southern peninsula otherwise known as the Grande Anse. An expedition against Jeremie led by Andre Rigaud, a colored goldsmith and experienced militiaman whom the commissioners had promoted to the rank of general, failed to subdue the rebellion there. In fact the counterrevolutionaries on the Grande Anse had now opened communications with sympathizers in Cap Francais. Sonthonax and Polverel rushed back there, arriving on the 10th of June.
For decades, the home government in France had intentionally divided the administration of Saint Domingue against itself. Power was shared, or contested, between a military governor and a civilian intendant. From the point of view of average white colonists, the main activity of the governor was to inconvenience them with militia service requirements, while the only thing the intendant did was burden them with taxes and obnoxious restraints on trade. Therefore both officials were normally detested by the citizens they governed, and since their spheres of authority were apt to collide, they did not like each other much either. Paris fostered animosity between governor and intendant, with the thought that so long as they were at odds, each would prevent the other from nurturing any sort of independence movement of the sort that had recently cost England its American colonies.
The powers of the Second Commission superseded those of the intendant, and soon after his arrival Sonthonax had deported Governor Blanchelande. But on May 7, while the commissioners were frantically trying to restore their authority in the west and the south, a new governor landed at Cap Francais: Thomas François Galbaud. Sent out from France to replace Blanchelande, Galbaud was himself a Creole, born in Port-au-Prince, and he owned property in the colony. He had achieved the rank of general in the regular French army, and he was thought to be loyal to the revolution; however, counterrevolutionary colonists in Paris believed that he would take their part in Saint Domingue, and had lobbied for his appointment to the governor's post. Though Galbaud's orders subordinated him to the authority of the commissioners, his status as the colony's military commander in chief allowed the owners of plantations and slaves to hope that he would become a rallying point for their interests.23 In the volatile situation of Saint Domingue in 1793, the tension which the home government had long nurtured between the civil and military powers in the colony proved a recipe for disaster.
Galbaud found the city government of Le Cap in the hands of the gens de couleur Sonthonax had appointed, and he was not pleased. The governor's presence and the commissioners' absence brought white counterrevolutionaries flocking to the town. By the time Sonthonax and Polverel arrived on June 10, tension between mulattoes and whites was close to a flash point. Between the commissioners and the new governor, whatever diplomacy was attempted failed. On June 13, Polverel and Sonthonax ordered Galbaud and his party aboard the Normandy for deportation to France.
The move turned out to be a rash one. The many deportations already ordered by Sonthonax had roused resentment of the commission at all levels of white society. The ships in Le Cap harbor were packed with deportees who had not yet set sail, and crewed by sailors who sympathized with the petit blancs class that had so recently been in rebellion. Confined on board the anchored ships were some five hundred planters who in the words of one observer “had done no wrong except to be white and above all to be landowners.” To add injury to insult, the commissioners had just confiscated their harvests of sugar and coffee to pay for foodstuffs imported from the United States and England. The sailors in the fleet, meanwhile, were irked by the commissioners' order that none of them could be on shore after nightfall. Sometime during the evening of June 19, a delegation from these two groups approached Galbaud and suggested he do something about it.
On the morning of June 20, Galbaud led two thousand of these men in a landing by force. Colored troops defended the commissioners with real fervor, but on the second day of fighting, Sonthonax and Polverel were forced to flee to Haut du Cap; by coincidence they established a headquarters at Breda Plantation, where Toussaint Louverture had been a slave.
That same day, as a last resort, the commissioners released a proclamation which read, in part: “We declare that the will of the French Republic and of its delegates is to give freedom to all the Negro warriors who will fight for the Republic under the orders of the civil commissioners, against Spain or other enemies, whether internal or external … All the slaves declared free by the delegates of the Republic will be equal to all free men—they will enjoy all the rights belonging to French citizens.”24
This message was carried to the rebel slaves camped outside Le Cap by the mulatto officer Antoine Chanlatte, accompanied by Ginioux and Galineux Degusy “two white adventurers still more frenzied than he.”25 The first to receive it were Pierrot and Macaya, whose bands of insurgents occupied the territory beyond Haut du Cap and also had encampments on the heights of Morne du Cap, the steep mountain which dominated Cap Francais. Toussaint himself was camped near Pierrots band, at Port Francais on the far side of the mountain from the town; it is likely he received the same proffer as the other two leaders but if so he took no overt action.
It was the bands of Pierrot and Macaya, ten thousand strong, who stormed Le Cap late in the day of June 21. Galbaud and his faction fled to their ships. When they sailed they brought with them most of the whites who had taken their part—the remnants of thegrand blancs landowners and the petit blancs counterrevolutionaries (including Procurator Gros); this huge flotilla of refugees eventually landed in Baltimore. Though ready enough to sack the town, the rebel slaves did not seem particularly responsive to the orders of the civil commissioners or anyone else. Some fires had apparently already started while Galbaud was nominally in charge of the town. During the huge onslaught of the insurgent slaves, the fires spread uncontrollably. By the time the ten thousand blacks had carried their loot back into the hills, and Sonthonax and Polverel reoccupied Cap Francais, five-sixths of the Jewel of the Antilles had been destroyed.
The commissioners were back in control of the colony, but at a crippling cost. Again they separated, Polverel returning to Port-au-Prince. Olivier Delpech, who'd been sent to replace Ailhaud, took up the reins of administration in the south. Both Polverel and Sonthonax continued to circulate their proclamation of June 21, hoping to win over the black insurgents with the promise of freedom in return for military service. But, frustratingly, Jean-François and Biassou, when approached on behalf of the commissioners by the Abbe Delahaye, kept protesting their fealty to the idea of royalty in general and (now that the king of France had been executed) to the king of Spain in particular. Macaya, who'd helped the commissioners repel Galbaud, now returned to the rebel camp, declaring: “I am the subject of three kings; of the king of the Congo, master of all the blacks; of the King of France, who represents my father; of the king of Spain, who represents my father. These three kings are the descendants of those who, led by a star, came to adore God made Man.”26
Toussaint, whose importance as a commander had been recognized by the French since his engagements with Laveaux, replied that “the blacks wanted to serve under a king and the Spanish king offered him his protection.”27 In the course of this negotiation, Toussaint persuaded the French commander Allemand (who was supposed to win him over to the commission and the republic) to surrender to him the camp of LaTannerie with all its weapons and ammunition. This turn of events, deeply disconcerting to the French as it once again cut off Dondon from Le Cap, is one of the first examples of Toussaint's remarkable skill in winning bloodless victories.
During the months of internal struggle between the gens de couleur and the various white factions, Spain's black auxiliaries had had time to recover and regroup. Again they posed a serious threat to the French republic, especially in the north. The commissioners' limited proffer of freedom for military service had not proved effective. More and more it seemed that universal emancipation of Saint Domingue's slaves might be the only solution—although at this point it would be no more than formal recognition of the fact that the slaves had succeeded in freeing themselves. Many of the whites remaining in Le Cap now backed the idea of emancipation; on August 15, fifteen thousand people voted in its favor, and on August 29, Sonthonax proclaimed it. Whether the French home government would endorse the abolition of slavery (which went far beyond the powers the commissioners had been granted) remained to be seen. For the moment, there was no one nearby to tell Sonthonax he couldn't do it.
Toussaint had probably been as busy as Sonthonax and Polverel during the summer of 1793, though he left fewer traces in the white man's record books. But the battles he fought at Morne Pelee and LaTannerie proved what a redoubtable combatant he could be. At Morne Pelee, Toussaint had a vigorous sword fight with the Chevalier d'Assas, finally retreating, with a sword cut on his arm, to his second and most important line of defense at La Tannerie. Though Laveaux finally drove him out of that position too, Toussaint, with a force of just six hundred men, was able to cover the retreat of Jean-François's and Biassou's much larger groups into the mountains beyond Dondon. The small unit under his direct command now included men who would be important members of his officer cadre in the future: Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the teenaged Charles Belair, and another of Toussaint's adoptive nephews, known only as Moyse.
Soon Toussaint would become notorious for his rapid movements: no one could ever be certain just where he was, and often he seemed to be in several different places at the same time. Morne Pelee and La Tannerie are a considerable distance, over very difficult terrain, from the western end of the Cordon de l'Ouest, an area in which Toussaint was extremely active. A French colonist complained in a letter to the Spanish authorities about “several useless little posts that Toussaint Louverture has established, supposedly to protect travelers, while his agents who occupy them commit robberies and assassinations every day—thus the complaints and murmurs of all the inhabitants and plantation owners. Toussaint profits from the outcry of the inhabitants to denounce them as suspects, he kidnaps and arms all the slaves from their plantations; he announces to these wretches that they will be free if they are willing to assassinate the whites.”28
By the time this letter was written Toussaint had already issued his own proclamation from Camp Turel. He who eighteen months before would have put the slaves back into harness in exchange for fifty liberties was now and henceforward completely, fervently committed to liberty for all the blacks of Saint Domingue.
As if to cast off his former self, Toussaint a Breda, he had chosen and announced his new name. The origin of the appellation “Louverture”— or “the opening”—has been much discussed. Some suggest that it comes from a small gap Toussaint is supposed to have had between his two front teeth. Others claim it derives from Polverel's reaction to Toussaint's string of lightning attacks in 1793 and 1794—”That man makes an opening everywhere.”
Yet it is clear enough from the record that Toussaint selected the name Louverture for himself, and with particular purposes. Like many Haitian rhetoricians who would follow him, he was a master manipulator of layers of meaning. The name Louverture has a Vodouisant resonance: a reference to Legba, the spirit of gates and of crossroads, a rough equivalent of Hermes in the Greek pantheon. In the conflation of Vodou with the Catholic cult of the saints, Legba is identified with images of Saint Peter, holding his key to Heaven's gate. Practically all Vodou ceremonies begin with a version of this song: “Attibon Legba, open the way for me.” It is Legba's special power and special role to open the gateway between the world of the living and the world of Les Invisibles, Les Morts, et Les Mysteres.
Toussaint was outwardly an extremely devout Catholic, and late in his career he set out to repress Vodou, which only means he may have been the first (but far from the last) Haitian ruler to forbid Vodou publicly while at the same time secretly practicing it. The association of his surname with Legba lent a spiritual power to the essential message of the proclamation from Camp Turel: that Toussaint Louverture alone was master of the crossroads of liberty for the former slaves of Saint Domingue. At the moment that Sonthonax announced emancipation, it was critical for Toussaint to distinguish himself from the Frenchman and to do whatever he could to place himself at the head of the men who would henceforth be known as the nouveaux libres, or newly free.
This maneuver was all the more important since Toussaint himself was actually an ancien libre. When the Haitian Revolution broke out in 1791, Toussaint was a free man, and had been free for at least fifteen years. He had been an owner of slaves himself, though he did not want anyone to remember it.
*An old priest in the Cul de Sac plain argued (years after the insurrection had bloomed into revolution, Toussaint had been deported to France, and the independence of Haiti had been declared) that Toussaint's absence from the early phases of the insurrection was explained by the fact the Arada iwa, water spirits who were his ancestral protectors and guides, forbade him to associate with the angry fiery Petro iwa invoked at Bois Caiman to lend the heat of their rage to the destruction of the slave-master colonists. To this day some explain Haiti's difficulty in ending its cycles of political violence by the fact that the revolution was originally founded on fire instead of water.