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The Haitian Revolution, Part II: Creating a Nation

In the first part of this story, we explored the founding of the New World’s first European colony, whose residents unwittingly created one of the most mysterious of language types: the creole. The establishment of a new type of civilization necessitated communication and cooperation across the community, blurring the division of social classes on this wild island that no one called home. This unique, inevitable melting pot inspired its most exploited residents to recognize a chance for rebellion like no slaves had ever seen. At best, slave revolts ended with promises of freedom, but this was the New World and the white man’s armies were an ocean away.


A map depicting the Caribbean region before the Haitian Rebellion. “A map of West Indies, Mexico, & New Spain.” (1848)


Despite the Spanish giving up another third of Hispaniola to the French, the French kept colonizing parts of the Spanish side, unofficially gaining control of much of it as the 19th century neared. But the slave revolt the colonists had long feared finally came to fruition in 1791 as thousands of slaves and African freedmen stormed the towns of the Northern Provence. Within ten days, the north was lost. Some estimates of how many slaves rose in revolt just in the first two weeks range as high as 100,000, killing 4,000 colonists and burning over 1,000 plantations, which amounted to over 2 million francs of damage. The next month, the surviving colonists struck back and killed 15,000 Africans.

But that would not halt the slave revolt. The slaves did not actually want to declare freedom from France, only from the French colonists who had treated them so poorly. In fact, they insisted that they were fighting for the King of France, about whom they had heard a critical rumor: he had supposedly issued a decree to free all colonial slaves. The rebels blamed the colonists for continuing to enslave them and unjustly persecute black freedmen.


By the next year, the rebels had taken over a third of the island and the government back in France was starting to get nervous. In response, the French republicans, successful rebels in their own right during the ongoing French Revolution, sent out a proclamation saying that any black freedmen could have all civil and political rights afforded to a white French colonist. Western Europe and the United States were flabbergasted and appalled, but the French rebels knew what was coming if they didn’t take drastic steps to curtail the rebellion that so clearly paralleled their own. They sent 6,000 soldiers to the island along with a new governor who promised reform.


Saint-Domingue’s newly minted Governor Sonthonax was a firm abolitionist and supported the French republicans in the Revolution against the French monarchy back home. He did not get along with the white population of Saint-Domingue, whom he (accurately) assumed were mostly, if not entirely, royalist slaveholders. Out of a sense of moral duty and, perhaps, a bit of sass in the face of these wealthy plantation owners, Sonthonax abolished slavery in the Northern Provence, which the rebels had won fair and square from the colonists two years earlier in their first major victory.

The plantation owners of Saint-Domingue, ostentatiously referred to as the grands blancs, were quite displeased with Sonthonax’s modern reform robbing them of their human property, and so they turned on their own French government to ask Great Britain for intervention. The plantation owners explained to the British that they would gladly support their control of Saint-Domingue as long as they reestablished slavery in the colony. The British government was torn: quashing the slave revolt seemed like it would be a favor to their French nemeses, but they also didn’t think such a long-lasting slave revolt against anyone was good news. What if the slaves employed in British colonies were inspired by these rebels’ success in abolishing their own slavery?

The British Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, decided British forces should hop over to the West Indies and quickly wrap this revolt up themselves, taking Saint-Domingue (and all of its riches) away from the hated French in the process. However, he and his wildly ignorant military staff decided to set sail at the end of November, when everyone knew the mosquitoes would come back from their off-season. Within a few months of setting sail, yellow fever and malaria struck down most of the British forces, leaving the grands blancs in the awkward position of explaining to their French brethren what the British were doing there to begin with.

The Spanish, however, were more successful with their invasion techniques. They already occupied the eastern third of the island and they hadn’t gotten over losing the other two-thirds of their colony to the French. Since the enemy of my enemy is my friend, they invaded Saint-Domingue alongside the slave rebels. Even the recently devastated British forces decided to join in by supplying the rebels with everything from food to military advisers; they figured they could just enslave the rebels after they’d been used as cannon fodder in the neverending quest to strike a blow against the hated French.


“Battle of Palm Tree Hill.” January Suchodolski. (1845).

By August, there were only a few thousand French colonists left on the island. At the sight of the Royal Navy, the remaining Frenchmen were heard yelling, “Vivent les Anglais!” before surrendering peacefully. The British would go on to reestablish slavery in each town they passed through, prompting General Sonthonax to free all slaves on Saint-Domingue in a last-ditch effort to maintain control of the colony for France. This was approved by the newly elected Assembly of the First Republic led by the infamous Robespierre. The Assembly, a product of the newly formed French Republic, quickly doubled down on Sonthonax’s baffling promise by abolishing slavery across France and its territories, making history and allowing them to laud the moral high ground over the British in less-than-subtle ways:

Representatives of the French people,

Until now our decrees of liberty have been selfish, and only for ourselves. But today we proclaim it to the universe, and generations to come will glory in this decree; we are proclaiming universal liberty […] We are working for future generations; let us launch liberty into the colonies; the English are dead, today.

-Excerpt from Danton’s speech at the French National Convention


André Rigaud was one of the island’s gens de couleur, the mixed-race offspring of French colonists who received their white fathers’ recognition and all the perks that came with that, instead of being relegated to the merciless fate of their enslaved mothers like their American counterparts. Rigaud, like many gens de couleur who enjoyed the upper-class status of their white brethren, did not support the slave revolt. Yet he did support the ideals of the burgeoning French Revolution, chief among them being mankind’s natural right to freedom and equality.

Rigaud was a masterful and brutal military tactician, and he battered the British forces with his troops. It was his troops themselves that unnerved the rebel slaves so fiercely; Rigaud’s was the only army that could brag a force of black, white, and mixed ethnicities. It even included both landowners and freed slaves. This undermined the rebels’ message that they were the champions – the only champions – of the black population, particularly of those who had been enslaved prior to the rebellion.


Left: A portrait of André Rigaud favored by his French commanders. This is still the portrait most commonly associated with Rigaud; it’s even on his Wikipedia page. Right: A more accurate portrait of André Rigaud, according to the U.S. Library of Congress.

For now, the rebels were content to let Rigaud slaughter their British foes, who insisted on re-enslaving the settlements freed by Sonthonax and Napoleon’s French Republic. And slaughter he did, though 5,000 of the 7,000 British troops were actually killed by yellow fever (as usual), in addition to those lost in their initial invasion a few months prior. Sir John Fortescue, a famed British historian, wrote:

It is probably beneath the mark to say that twelve thousand Englishmen were buried in the West Indies in 1794.

On Christmas Day of 1794, André Rigaud led his French forces in a surprise attack on the Tiburon peninsula, killing hundreds more British soldiers and taking no prisoners. The British invasion of Saint-Domingue was over… Or it should have been. But it was not, because the British were still pretty angry about the American Revolution and they had their pride to think of. Plus, they really, really wanted to halt French expansion specifically and slave revolts in general.

The most famous and militarily able rebel was the former slave Toussaint Louverture. He remained suspicious of the French, from whom he’d heard all these promises of abolition before, and so despite France’s newest promise, Toussaint stayed on the side of the Spanish for some time yet. He was portrayed as the great nemesis of André Rigaud, the mulatto fighting for white Europeans and against African slaves. In reality, Rigaud and Toussaint had great respect for each other’s military tactics and leadership abilities, though they vehemently disagreed with each other on whether black people deserved the same rights as white (or, in Rigaud’s case, mixed) people.


A statue of Toussaint Louverture. Ousmane Sow. (2011).

Toussaint bisected the French forces by the end of April 1794, stranding Sonthonax in the north and Rigaud to the south. Within the first week of May, he switched to the French side and ambushed his former Spanish allies as they left Sunday Mass, severely hobbling their forces. The only troops on the island left mostly intact were his own rebels.


A few months later, Spain ceded their beloved Santo Domingo to France and stopped the attacks on Saint-Domingue. Toussaint reiterated the rebels’ original request that they remain French but free. He even encouraged the white survivors of these last two bloody years to help him and his fellow rebels rebuild Saint-Domingue.

The British, on the other hand, were still not quite done. Prime Minister Pitt figured that the absolute disaster of his first invasion was a sign that the next one would go much better. He insisted on what he dubbed “the great push” to win over Hispaniola, specifically the wealthy Saint-Domingue, but word had gotten out that military service in the West Indies was a death sentence. Regardless, he managed to scrounge enough men together to send a fleet out in November 1795. It wrecked almost immediately and he had to send some more out the next month.


Over the next two years, British forces got annihilated once again by yellow fever and malaria. The impending attacks from Great Britain only caused everyone’s favorite nemeses, Toussaint and Rigaud, to team up against them. The rebels swarmed one of the British fortresses, failing only after four hearty attempts. Rather than be encouraged by their eventual victory, the British officers were concerned that an inexperienced slave had efficiently organized such a ferocious, skilled army of untrained soldiers. One British officer wrote of a rebel training exercise to which he had been a witness:

At a whistle, a whole brigade ran three or four hundred yards, and then, separating, threw themselves flat on the ground, changing to their backs and sides, and all the time keeping up a strong fire until recalled […] This movement is executed with such facility and precision as totally to prevent cavalry from charging them in bushy and hilly country.

-Captain Marcus Rainsford


The repeatedly failing British invasions were starting to get expensive and there was no end in sight if this was any indication of how poorly even their victories were destined to go. British commanders sailed back to England and came back the next year to agree to an armistice with Toussaint. The rebels lost relatively few soldiers compared to the 100,000 British soldiers dead from yellow fever alone. Once the British people found out about the four million pounds “the great push” had cost their treasury, Pitt lost nearly all his support and credibility. Toussaint and his rebels were finally left alone (by the British, anyway) and all Prime Minister Pitt got in return was a promise from the rebels not to talk the Jamaican slaves into revolting against British rule.


Now it was finally time for Toussaint to deal with Rigaud once and for all. Rigaud was known for being ruthless and the conflict of 1799 proved to be no exception. He and his forces spared no prisoners, killing every individual in their way regardless of skin color, gender, or age. But unfortunately for Rigaud and France, the only thing the United States feared more than a slave revolt near their shores was a strong French presence near their shores. The Americans supplied Toussaint with heavy naval artillery, from which Rigaud fled in 1800. Toussaint continued to maintain that he wanted his island to remain French, though he also declared himself governor-for-life and proclaimed the island to be a sovereign black state.

The discovery and successful colonization of the New World only inspired in Europe a rampant thirst for conquest. Such independence as Toussaint was promising had become increasingly rare among societies deemed “uncivilized” by white settlers, and not just in the Americas: even the continent from which these slaves had been kidnapped and exported was falling victim to imperial conquest. Indeed, the notorious “scramble for Africa” is one of the greatest and most devastating examples of this colonial fever. Only one nation, Ethiopia, successfully defended its independence.


“European Colonization of Africa.”  Some issues with this mapLiberia: At the height of colonization, the lucrative trade port of an existing African kingdom was conquered by (and this isn’t a joke) the American Colonization Society. It was eventually settled, however, by black Americans and Caribbeans and has its own fascinating story you should check outZimbabwe and South Africa: They both continued to be ruled by the white population that descended from these colonists for decades after their “independence.” Namibia: Germany traded Namibia to South Africa in 1918, but did win its independence from South Africa in 1990. Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania: All conquered by Germany first.


Charles Leclerc slinked around the island under Napoleon’s explicit instruction to reestablish slavery at every settlement he could reach. Meanwhile, Leclerc’s accompanying troops showed up on Hispaniola’s shores, led by none other than André Rigaud. Rigaud threatened Toussaint, saying he must show up to surrender or every last one of his men would be shot. Toussaint hid, but Rigaud just responded by pursuing another rebel commander, Henri Christophe, instructing him to hand over the city of Le Cap. Knowing he could not possibly defend the city against such a large force, Christophe burnt it to the ground. Leclerc was not pleased with such insolence but tried to win flies with honey instead of vinegar in his subsequent letter to Toussaint:

Have no worries about your personal fortune. It will be safeguarded for you, since it has been only too well earned by your own efforts. Do not worry about the liberty of your fellow citizens.

When Toussaint remained hidden after reading these obvious lies, Leclerc sent another message, this time in the form of a public proclamation with slightly less finesse:

General Toussaint and General Christophe are outlawed; all citizens are ordered to hunt them down, and treat them as rebels against the French Republic.

Toussaint, who had long since lost whatever bond he once felt with the French, directed his notoriously ruthless governor-general, Dessalines, to perform terrifying acts against the French invaders as a warning to Leclerc and his troops:

Do not forget, while waiting for the rainy reason which will rid us of our foes, that we have no other resource than destruction and fire. Bear in mind that the soil bathed with our sweet must not furnish our enemies with the smallest sustenance. Tear up the roads with shot; throw corpses and horses into all the foundations, burn and annihilate everything in order that those who have come to reduce us to slavery may have before their eyes the image of the hell which they deserve.

Dessalines had already taken to the field before Toussaint’s letter reached him, but his plan was already to burn down the target city and kill every last Frenchman within. As brutal as Toussaint’s original plan was, what Dessalines came up with on his own was hardly less horrific:

Men, women and children, indeed all the whites who came into his hands, he massacred. And forbidding burial, he left stacks of corpses rotting in the sun to strike terror into the French detachments as they toiled behind his flying columns.

-C.L.R. James, Trinidadian historian

This response was untenable to the French. They had genuinely expected the former slaves to be glad to see them, even more so because of the return of their enslavement. After all, the western philosophy of the day emphasized the supposedly natural state of blacks as subservient to whites; servitude was the only way they could fulfill their purpose, much like a farm animal. This, Toussaint and Dessalines informed the French in no uncertain terms, was not the case. Even the worldly French General Lacroix was bewildered by their violent response to Leclerc’s amicable messages earlier in the year.

Paired with these ferociously unforgiving leaders were the even deadlier killers: the wet seasons referenced in Toussaint’s letter to Dessalines. Time and time again, yellow fever had done much of the rebels’ dirty work before they ever saw a battle. A less appreciated and more intentional tactic of the rebels was psychological warfare in the form of songs loudly and defiantly sung from the walls of any fort to which the French laid siege. The former slaves’ mastery of Haitian Creole allowed them to understand or at least imitate the lyrics of the French republicans’ most treasured songs about the right of all men to be equal and free.

These were songs of the French Revolution, which was supported widely by the very French republicans who kept attacking them in retaliation for their pursuit of freedom. General Leclerc was the brother-in-law of the famously successful rebel leader Napoleon himself, who had sent Leclerc to lead French troops in the suppression of the primary ideals of his new French Republic. One can only imagine his troops’ morale as they stormed the forts of men singing their own anthems back at them, dripping with contempt instead of nationalism and pride. What irony the soldiers must have felt when they returned home and heard these same songs bellowed out in earnest by those who had not sacrificed their principles on the island of Hispaniola.


Bill of Rights (Declaration of the rights and duties of the Man and of the Citizen) of the French Constitution of 1795. This was the first constitution of Napoleon’s French Republic, and included the legislation abolishing slavery.

Whenever the French did defeat the Haitians in battle, it was often at great cost to French lives. Even Rochambeau, a notorious white supremacist even by contemporary standards, was forced to admit that these black people were, if nothing else, worthy military opponents in both victory and defeat:

Their retreat – this miraculous retreat from our trap – was an incredible feat of arms.


Shortly after Rochambeau’s glowing review, Henri Christophe turned coat and joined the French while Toussaint simply gave up. The most likely explanation for this was that they were simply exhausted after 11 years of hard fighting against technologically advanced armies from multiple developed nations. This sudden victory was perhaps the only thing that could still surprise the French troops by this point. Napoleon’s brother-in-law appeared on the scene again, swearing that in return for Haitian surrender, slavery would never again be established on Saint-Domingue. He even had the decency to finally get killed by yellow fever, but still the fighting did not subside.


Jean-Baptiste-Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, Marechal De France. He is largely remembered for his major role in assisting the 13 Colonies to gain independence during the American Revolution.

The rebels did not want to be under the thumb of these Frenchmen who had lied and cheated and killed them for generations. The new firing squads did not deter them in the least. Leclerc’s replacement, Rochambeau, was even more brutal than Leclerc could have imagined. He went so far as to invent brand new ways to murder the maximum number of rebels: he named his favorite technique “fumigational-sulphurous baths,” which were made by throwing hundreds of Haitians into the hold of a ship and igniting sulphur therein and closing the hold, gassing them with clouds of sulphur dioxide in a slow, agonizing death. Over a century later, Nazi leaders would use this very tactic as inspiration for their gas chambers.

It was not a surprise to the former slaves that France had no intention of keeping their oft-repeated, oft-rescinded promise to abolish slavery; they had recently re-enslaved the residents of Guadalupe after just making such a promise. Yellow fever helped the rebels out once again, killing thousands of Frenchmen and their Polish allies, but the maniacally racist Rochambeau was near genocidal in his continued attacks on the Haitians. To Rochambeau’s continued surprise, Dessalines, the last of the three famous rebel commanders still fighting, matched him blow-for-blow: when Rochambeau summarily executed 500 black rebels, Dessalines beheaded 500 white Frenchmen and stuck their heads on spikes around Le Cap. Rochambeau had met his match.


The British suddenly appeared again, this time to help the rebels. They blockaded the ports containing French troops, cutting off their supplies even as the British flooded the rebels with ammunition and reinforcements. Rochambeau got pretty grumpy about this stalemate and completely lost interest in commanding his troops, deciding instead to spend his time with prostitutes and fancy balls.

By October, Rochambeau abandoned Port-au-Prince so he could reinforce his remaining stronghold at Le Cap. One hundred white settlers and soldiers stayed behind in Port-au-Prince, greeting Dessalines as a hero, but Dessalines felt that this was far too little and far too late. He thanked them profusely for his kindness and support of equality, then hanged every last one of them as retribution for his own mistreatment at the hands of their countrymen.

Rochambeau tried to procrastinate in his inevitable surrender to the rebel forces and their British allies, but eventually, he had no choice but to give in. On New Years Day 1804, Dessalines declared independence for the former colony of Saint-Domingue. The new nation was christened Haiti in the Arawak language of the native Taíno, who had been all but wiped out 300 years earlier. Jean-Jacques Dessalines was dubbed Emperor Jacques I of Haiti by his fellow generals.


Haiti, 1804-1822, covering the former Saint-Domingue. “Carte De La Partie Francoise De St. Domingue.” Mathew Carey. (1814).

All was finally as it should be after a long and brutal fight, resulting in the only successful nation of former slaves in the world. But the once-wealthy, fertile colony once known as the “Pearl of the Antilles,” the home they’d been fighting for all these years, had been ravaged by the endless battles and the over-working of the fields by the French for 200 years.

After the Revolution

While all this was happening, the French had also been fighting a short, sloppy war with the nascent United States for just under two years starting in 1798. It was sarcastically dubbed “The Quasi War,” and French-American relations did not recover until decades later when the French gifted them the Statue of Liberty. Just over twenty years later, the Haitians took over the Spanish side of the island. An abolitionist group in the United States encouraged freed and escaped slaves to move to the famous slave nation of Haiti, and while 6,000 former slaves did end up moving there, most of them moved back after experiencing the foreign, rough island life.


Haiti, 1821-1844. During this brief time, the Haitians controlled all of Hispaniola.

As a result of their animosity toward France during this time, the United States helped criollos, islanders of Spanish descent, take back the eastern side of the island in 1844 and declare their independence from both Haiti and Spain. While this obviously diminished the power of the Haitians, it also robbed European forces of any reasonable chance to invade the island from now on. Indeed, they never did again.

Neither the United States nor France would acknowledge the newly-formed Republic of Haiti. Approval of the nation, they opined, would encourage other slaves to revolt. America desperately needed slave labor to build their own developing nation, so the fear of another revolution trumped any animosity with France. France got the support they needed from America to charge Haiti for their slaveholders’ loss of property at the highest possible rate. This, of course, was despite all their high praise for themselves after abolishing slavery only a few years earlier in the French Republic’s first constitution.

Haiti was saddled with an impossible debt that needed to be paid if they ever expected to function as part of an increasingly globalized economy, and as a result, it became (and remains) one of the poorest countries in the world. To make matters worse, the entirety of their land was now barren from the colonists’ irresponsible farming over two centuries, removing the one kind of trade that the Haitians had any access to or experience with.


The barren lands of Haiti are on the left, while the nutrient-rich forests of the Dominican Republic are on the right. 2008.

By the 19th century, the eastern side had again become a lush and verdant region mostly because the Spanish had long lacked the finances and manpower to maintain an overabundance of plantations like those found in the western side following its lucrative sugar boom. This half of the island became the Dominican Republic, though one often hears it referred to still as Santo Domingo around the Caribbean region. By any name, it is currently the second largest economy in Central America, standing out from its closest neighbor in nearly every way.


5 replies »

  1. I’m currently writing a book set in this time, and this laid it out in full colour for me, even more so than the collections of Toussaint’s speeches and letters I only just finished last week. Great writing; even greater story!

    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

      • It was a challenge to write fiction in that era, so I imagine the details of telling that specific story was even greater. I also had the French Revolution setting to deal with. The book is finished now actually, and being beta read.

        I will say, however, that based on Toussaint’s works that I read, he was loyal to the French to a fault. Even to his death, he would not believe that Napoleon had left him to die, and would not part ties with the French. It makes no sense to me, really. Maybe 11 years of fighting fatigue did finally do him in, but I think Toussaint really wanted to be respected not as a black soldier in Haiti, but as a Frenchman, irrespective of his colour. He desperately wanted that acknowledgement from France and would not abandon hope of it.


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