Military history



The Haitian War of Independence, 1791–1804

IT BEGAN ON the Noé plantation on the night of August 22, 1791. A dozen or so slaves went to the sugar refinery, seized a young white apprentice, and hacked him to pieces with cutlasses. “His screams,” recounted the planter Bryan Edwards, “brought out the overseer whom they instantly shot. The rebels now found their way to the apartment of the refiner, and massacred him in his bed.”

Similar outbreaks were occurring at the same time on most of the other plantations spread across the northern plains of Saint-Domingue, as Haiti was then known. Amid the general scenes of horror, a few gory details stood out in the colonists’ lurid, and most likely exaggerated, account, which was compiled to galvanize their countrymen back home into coming to their rescue. A carpenter supposedly was seized, bound between two planks, and sawed in half. A policeman supposedly was nailed alive to the gate of a plantation and had his limbs chopped off one by one with an ax. Women and girls supposedly were gang-raped on the still-warm corpses of their husbands, brothers, fathers. Some of the rebels were said to have employed as their emblem the body of a white infant impaled on a stake. “The sword was then exchanged for the torch,” related a group of colonists in an appeal for help, “fire was set to the canes, and the buildings soon added to the conflagration. It was the appointed signal; revolt was the word and with the speed of lightning it flamed out on the neighboring plantations.”

Whatever the literal truth of these stories, reminiscent of the embellished tales spread by the British in the 1950s to build support for the suppression of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, there is no doubt that the slave revolt spread panic among the whites. Nor is there any doubt that this was not a spontaneous outbreak. It had been planned eight days before in a nighttime voodoo ceremony held under a rainy sky in Bois Cayman (Alligator Wood). The participants were the leading slaves from many of the northern plantations—those who exercised some authority over their fellow slaves and enjoyed some autonomy from their masters. Led by a coachman named Boukman, who moonlighted as a voodoo priest, they slaughtered a black pig and drank its blood as they sealed a solemn compact to seek “vengeance” on the blancs (whites).

They had much to seek vengeance for. Saint-Domingue was France’s wealthiest colony. Its sugar, coffee, cotton, indigo, and cocoa plantations accounted for more than a third of France’s foreign trade, 40 percent of Europe’s sugar consumption, and 60 percent of its coffee. The elite class of white planters, amounting to a small portion of the forty thousand Europeans, lived a life that was described by a visitor as “imperious and voluptuous.” They became devotees of “all the arts of indulgence,” with their every whim catered to by legions of slave servants. One of the indulgences of which they freely availed themselves was the sexual exploitation of their female slaves. The result was the creation of a class of thirty thousand mixed-race mulattos who were not slaves but did not enjoy the full liberties of whites either. They became increasingly resentful and ripe for revolt—almost as bitter as the blacks who were literally being worked to death in the fields. Most of them were recently wrenched from Africa and not used to servitude. To keep them in check, they were frequently whipped, with hot pepper, lemon, or salt rubbed in the wounds. More exotic and gruesome punishments were also meted out: some had gunpowder stuffed up the rectum and exploded; others were immersed in boiling sugarcane juice.

On the morning of August 23, 1791, the horrified blancs of Cap-Français, the major town of the north, reaped the whirlwind as they watched “a wall of fire” move across the horizon—turning, in the words of Bryan Edwards, “the most fertile and beautiful plains in the world . . . into one vast field of carnage—a wilderness of desolation.” More than a thousand plantations were reduced to ashes and more than two thousand whites killed.

In “consternation and terror,” the populace of Le Cap, as Cap-Français was called, sent out soldiers to skirmish against the rebels—the “unchained tigers,” some of them naked, “some in tatters, and some grotesquely decked,” wrote one colonist, “in the rich apparel taken from our wardrobes.” They made a “hideous din” by “shrieking” and “beating cauldrons,” and they were armed mainly with “guns, knives, sticks, and all the sharp utensils of kitchen and of farm”—hardly a formidable arsenal. But many of the blacks were veterans of African wars and fought in a style different from that expected by the Europeans. As one colonist recounted in a classic, if little-known, description of guerrilla warfare: “Night and day we chased an enemy who never awaited our approach. . . . Each tree, each hole, each piece of rock hid from our unseeing eyes a cowardly assassin, who, if undiscovered, came to pierce our breasts; but who fled or begged for mercy when we found him face to face.”

When they did manage to catch rebels, the whites were utterly savage. Edwards reported seeing “two of these unhappy men” executed beneath his window in Le Cap on September 28, 1791. The first died a mercifully quick death. In the case of the other, after the executioner had already broken his legs and arms and was about to finish him off with a blow to the chest, the mob shouted arretez (stop) and left him to suffer for forty minutes tied to a cart wheel until “some English seamen, who were spectators of the tragedy, strangled him in mercy.” Another white witness recorded the killing of “Negresses who were completely blameless” and “blacks who were chained up in the hospital.”87

An estimated ten thousand slaves were killed in the initial fighting, as the whites gradually managed to box in the rebellious areas with a series of military outposts, their entrances lined with Negro corpses dangling from the trees. The slave owners eventually might have regained control as they had done after so many previous Caribbean slave revolts had it not been for the extraordinary man who rose to command the insurgents. He announced his appearance in 1793 with a dramatic proclamation: “I am Toussaint Louverture. . . . I want liberty and equality to reign in St-Domingue.”88

HIS ORIGINAL NAME was Toussaint Bréda. He adopted Louverture (“the opening”) to signify his new role as a freedom fighter. He had not been prominent in the initial uprising, but he soon rose to the top, helped no doubt by his relatively privileged background, which was reminiscent in some ways of two future Caribbean rebel leaders—Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Descended from royalty in the west African kingdom of Dahomey, Toussaint retained, in the words of a colonist who met him, “the haughty reserve” of a nobleman. He had been born in the mid-1740s as a slave on a plantation owned by the Bréda family and managed by a benevolent overseer. Unlike most blacks, he was not consigned to punishing labor in the fields. He had started off as a stable hand and had risen to coachman, a relatively privileged position whose holders, notes the historian David Patrick Geggus, had “frequent contacts with their owners and white society.”

Toussaint had acquired some education, probably from the Jesuits before their expulsion from Haiti in the mid-1760s. He could speak and read French, albeit with some difficulty, whereas most slaves were illiterate and understood only Creole or African tribal languages. What made Toussaint especially unusual was a fact that was not discovered until the 1970s. It turns out he was a slave owner, not a slave, at the time of the revolution. Since winning his freedom around the age of twenty-five, he had become owner of a plantation worked by a small number of his own slaves. This essential point was obscured because he continued to live on the Bréda estate and because his wife and children remained in bondage.89

For a while Toussaint, along with other black soldiers, fought with Spanish forces based in neighboring Santo Domingo, today’s Dominican Republic, against the French. In the spring of 1794, following France’s abolition of slavery, he defected to the French side along with four thousand followers. With the help of white and mulatto officers, he turned his ex-slaves into the most formidable fighting force in the entire island. “It was remarkable to see these Africans, naked, equipped with nothing but a cartridge belt, a saber and a rifle, providing an example of the most severe discipline,” wrote Pamphile Lacroix, a white French general. “To have imposed discipline on these barbarians was the supreme triumph of Toussaint-Louverture . . . that extraordinary man.”90

Unable to stand against this formidable foe, Spain had to sue for peace in July 1795, ceding control of the entire island to France. Two years later Toussaint was made commander of all French forces. His primary foes were the British. As part of their broader, global war against France, they had occupied a narrow strip of coastal territory running from Môle Saint Nicolas in the north to Jérémie in the south. The redcoats were skillfully harassed by Toussaint’s “brigands”—“infinitely the most formidable enemy the British arms have to encounter with,” wrote Lieutenant Thomas Phipps Howard of the York Hussars. Their war-making method, he explained, “consists entirely of ambuscades for which the face of the country is particularly calculated. . . . Five hundred European cavalry would destroy five thousand of them in the plain, but the case is much altered when they fight in their own woods & mountain.” The heat added to British difficulties, with “men lying on their backs, their tongues lolling out of their mouths & in the agonies of death for want of water.” Diseases made the situation truly hellish. Soldiers “absolutely drowned in their own blood, bursting from them at every pore. Some died raving mad.”91

King George III’s army finally pulled out in 1798. In return for a promise that the blacks would not foment a slave revolt in Britain’s Caribbean possessions (a promise that Toussaint honored by betraying plans to launch a rising in Jamaica), all of the British troops left the island. Having vanquished various local rivals, Toussaint became governor-for-life of the entire island under a constitution adopted in July 1801.92

It was a hard-won achievement for which Toussaint paid, by his own count, with seventeen different wounds. These included “a violent blow on the head from a [British] cannonball, which knocked out the greater part of my teeth, and loosened the rest.”93 This deformity only added to the impression that Toussaint was, as the biographer and novelist Madison Smartt Bell puts it, “funny-looking”—“short and slight,” with a disproportionately large head, and a “jockey’s build.”94

Opinions of his character were split. A British officer who had met Toussaint several times and went on to publish a biography of him in 1805 found him “full of the most prepossessing suavity—terrible to an enemy, but inviting to the objects of his friendship or his love. His manners and deportment were elegant when occasion required, but easy and familiar in common.”95 A French author who published an even earlier biography was less impressed: “His character is a strange and frightful mixture of fanaticism and fierce passions. He passes without remorse from the altar to premeditated carnage, and from devotion to the darkest contrivances of perfidy.”96

Toussaint’s conduct once in power provided ample fodder for such differing impressions. He refused to break up existing plantations or drive out erstwhile slave owners. Instead he mandated that former slaves return to their old plantations to work for wages. Those who resisted were whipped or killed. While becoming the scourge of black laborers, Toussaint worked to protect wealthy white landowners, with whom he socialized and with whose women he carried on multiple affairs. He created a “brilliant” court and traveled in “splendor,” while, noted a colonist, “applying the lash of his oppressive control to men who didn’t show him respect.”97 Before long some blacks grew disenchanted with their “liberator”—although not as disenchanted as his nominal French superiors.

Although Toussaint was careful not to declare outright independence, Saint-Domingue’s increasing autonomy irked France’s new first consul. Napoleon needed the revenues generated by this colony to fund his war machine. So he dispatched an army to reestablish control. Its commander was Victor Emmanuel Leclerc, a twenty-nine-year-old general married to Napoleon’s sister who was known as the “Blond Bonaparte” for his attempts to emulate his brother-in-law. He brought along his four-year-old son and his wife, “the celebrated and beautiful” Pauline,98 who was gaining a legendary reputation for infidelity. (Her lovers may have included her own brother, the first consul.) While she allegedly experimented with “white and black lovers to see which she preferred,”99Leclerc set about executing his grim orders to deport or kill all blacks of any standing. “Rid us of these gilded negroes,” Napoleon told him, “and we shall desire nothing more.”100

The first part of Leclerc’s expeditionary force, which would eventually total more than sixty thousand men, arrived off Le Cap on February 2, 1802.101 Toussaint knew he had scant chance of beating Leclerc’s veterans in open battle. Hoping that the invaders eventually would be decimated by tropical diseases, he decided to play for time by resorting to a strategy of “destruction and fire.” He ordered his followers to “tear up the roads with shot; throw corpses and horses into all the fountains; burn and annihilate everything, so that those who have come to return us to slavery will always find in front of them the image of the hell they deserve.”102

Toussaint’s men set fire to Cap-Français, Gonaïves, Saint Marc, and other towns and retreated into the mountain wilderness. After three months of costly fighting, however, several of Toussaint’s generals lost heart and began surrendering to the French, who offered them amnesty and equivalent positions in their own ranks. Toussaint followed suit on May 6, 1802, accepting a pardon from Leclerc and pledging loyalty to France. Perhaps he hoped to resume the fight at a later date. If so, he never got the chance. Notwithstanding Leclerc’s “word of honor” that he would be allowed to live in peace, Toussaint was, in his own words, “surrounded . . . seized . . . bound . . . and conducted . . . on board the frigate Créole,” which set sail for France. The most famous Negro in the world died in a “frightful dungeon” in France the following year.103

NOTWITHSTANDING THEIR SUCCESS in eliminating the revolt’s leaders, the French found the battle swinging against them, showing the limitations of a “decapitation” strategy when fighting a deep-rooted insurgency—a lesson that would be confirmed centuries later in Israel’s wars against Hamas and Hezbollah. Because his European troops were dying at the rate of 130 a day from tropical diseases, Leclerc was left increasingly dependent on black soldiers.104 Unfortunately for him, many of the blacks went over to the rebels once they realized the French could not be trusted and were bent on reestablishing slavery. The most dangerous defector was Jean-Jacques Dessalines, “a bold, turbulent, and ferocious spirit” who assumed command of the insurgent forces.105 Born in Africa, “the inhuman Dessalines” was known for massacring whites and mulattoes with equal gusto; he was said to view “white people with the ferocious eyes of a famished tiger.” Among them, rumors of his very appearance induced “panic.”106

Leclerc, derided by Napoleon’s secretary as “one of the youngest and least capable of all the generals in the army,”107 made the situation worse by trying to disarm and arrest all the remaining black soldiers. A thousand black soldiers were loaded onto a ship off Le Cap and thrown overboard to drown with heavy sacks of flour tied around their necks.108 Leclerc advocated and practiced genocide, writing to Napoleon on October 7, 1802, “We must destroy all the Negroes of the mountains, men and women, and keep only children under twelve years old, destroy half of those of the plain, and not leave in the colony a single man of color who has worn an epaulette.”109

Less than a month after scribbling those chilling words, Leclerc himself died—a victim of the same diseases that had claimed so many of his men. His successor, the “fat and squat” General Donatien Rochambeau, son of the general who had commanded French forces in the American Revolution, proved to be equally sadistic. He imported attack dogs from Cuba, nourished on blood, to rip black prisoners to shreds. Blacks caught setting fire to a plantation were burned alive. Helpless blacks were even suffocated with sulfur fumes in a makeshift gas chamber constructed in the hold of a ship. An English officer wrote that the air around Le Cap “became tainted by the putrefaction of the bodies.” But, as in Spain, these “atrocious acts of horror” simply drove more of the population into the enemy ranks and encouraged them to treat French prisoners with equal inhumanity.110

Although many of the rebels had muskets, they also resorted to simple booby traps such as hiding boards studded with nails beneath leaves where French troops would be likely to tread on them.111 A boy who marched with French troops recalled that “if any unfortunate soldiers, worn out by exhaustion, lagged behind the column, they soon saw a black head with fiery eyes come out of from behind each clump of cactus, and soon these demons sprang on them, their knives in their hands, and carried out their work of destruction in silence.”112

The French, their ranks dwindling from “the dreadful fever,”113 found themselves unable to cope with this growing threat. “The enemy held nowhere, and yet never ceased to be the master of the country,” complained one of the beleaguered French officers.114

The last place the French held was Le Cap. But even this stronghold became untenable when, following the resumption of war between Britain and France, the Royal Navy cut off the garrison from reinforcement or resupply. On November 30, 1803, Rochambeau sailed away with his remaining troops, having “brought about the definite loss of the island by his severity,” in the words of Napoleon’s secretary.115

ON JANUARY 1, 1804, independence was proclaimed for “Haiti,” the old Arawak Indian name of the island, making it the first black republic in the world and only the second republic in the entire Western Hemisphere. This was the culmination of the only successful slave revolt in history, ancient or modern.116 Other slaves in the Americas, known as maroons, managed to run away from their plantations and to successfully defend their fugitive communities. The maroons of Jamaica, notes one historian, “developed extraordinary skills in guerrilla warfare” and enjoyed considerable success in beating back British counterattacks for decades.117 But eventually they were subdued. Only in Haiti did slaves succeed in toppling the entire colonial regime.

A substantial part of their success can be explained by Haiti’s tropical climate, which was a breeding ground for mosquitoes that, unbeknownst at the time, spread yellow fever and malaria. These insect warriors, “the most terrible of all enemies,”118 as a contemporary magazine dubbed them, accounted for the vast majority of casualties among European troops. Also helpful to the rebels was Haiti’s location (on the other side of the planet from France), the timing of its revolt (in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars), and the disparity in population between slaves and slave owners (500,000 slaves versus 40,000 whites).119 But considerable credit for the outcome must go to the former slaves who showed infinite determination born of desperation—and to their extraordinary leader, the Black Spartacus.120

The cost of winning independence was sad and staggering. By some estimates the war that ravaged Haiti for thirteen years claimed the lives of 200,000 blacks and mulattos, 25,000 white colonists, 50,000 French soldiers, and 15,000 British soldiers. As one scholar notes, “Six times as many Haitians as Americans died during their respective wars for independence,” even though the population of Haiti was one-fourth that of the North American colonies. Few if any people have ever paid a higher price for independence. That France failed to regain control despite its willingness to slaughter without mercy shows that even the most unrestrained counterinsurgency strategies can come up short.121 This was a lesson that France would learn anew more than two centuries later in Algeria and Indochina.

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