My book on the Haitian war of independence is finally out!
"The Slaves Who Defeated Napoleon" will cover the last years of the Haitian Revolution, starting with Toussaint Louverture's 1801 constitution, then the Leclerc-Rochambeau expedition and Haiti's 1804 independence. It is an ambitious book, based on research in more than 20 archives in France, the US, Britain, and the Caribbean. You can check out a description of the book here, or pre-purchase it here, or come to the Louisiana book festival in Baton Rouge on 29 October.
Impatient? Here is the beginning of the introduction...
(c) Philippe Girard 2011
Cape Sámana, at the northeastern corner of the island of Hispaniola, was still a sparsely inhabited wilderness when on the 29th of January, 1802 a small group of riders arrived at full gallop.[i] Their leader rode at breakneck speed, his aides-de-camp straining to keep up. His shining high boots, rich blue and crimson uniform, and tricolor feathers made a vivid contrast with his ebony-black skin under the vertical sun of the tropics [figure 1]. He was only 5’1’’, scrawny, his prognathous chin jutting under a toothless jaw, but six decades into an eventful life he radiated purpose and authority and he bore the military bicorne with an air of august dignity.[ii] His name was Toussaint Louverture; he was a former slave; but he now governed in the name of the French Republic all of Hispaniola, the second-largest island in the Caribbean (present-day Haiti and Dominican Republic) [map 1].
As he flew toward his destination, Louverture’s thoughts probably drifted two thousand leagues across the ocean sea, to Paris and his direct superiors. Eight years before, revolutionary France had emancipated most of the slaves in its colonies, but Louverture’s increasingly autonomous rule had raised many eyebrows and he knew that his enemies were openly calling for his removal from office. Six weeks before, he had learned from Jamaica that France had just signed a peace protocol with England, an important development that now made it possible for France to send a fleet to overthrow him.[iii] The eventuality of his own demise had seemed distant at first, but when visiting the city of Santo Domingo a week before Louverture had received a report from his spies that an expedition was ready to depart from Brest.[iv] Two days later had come the news that several French warships had been sighted off Cape Sámana.[v]
The arrival of the French fleet was the reason why Louverture was now urging his horse—probably Bel Argent, his favorite mount—north and east. He had to see for himself how many troops France had sent to rein him in. If he was lucky, France had sent one lone agent onboard a lowly corvette, whom he would control as easily as he had controlled previous French envoys. But there was always the possibility that France might have used the suspension of hostilities with England to send several frigates carrying hundreds of troops. Louverture’s large army would probably dominate them, but even a few hundred of Napoléon Bonaparte’s soldiers were a force to be reckoned with.
The sight that greeted Louverture as the bay of Sámana finally came into view must have taken his breath away. Below him, lying at anchor, sailed three corvettes, eleven frigates, and ten vaisseaux (ships of the line), the largest warships of their time, each of them carrying upward of 1,000 sailors and troops. There was worse: far to the east, surging from the sea like monsters from the depths of hell, Louverture could see more vessels arriving, their sails seemingly blanketing the horizon from one end to the other. By the time these reached Sámana a few hours later, the combined fleet totaled nine transports of various kinds, nineteen frigates, twenty-two of the massive vaisseaux, and over 20,000 men and women.[vi] Only God knew how many more stragglers were still on their way—and given the magnitude of the catastrophe befalling him Louverture must have been tempted to abandon His Catholic version for the Vodou (Voodoo) bon dieu of his creole upbringing.
The fifty ships maneuvered to form three parallel lines and began ferrying hundreds of troops from one vessel to another, obviously in preparation for a landing. As night fell, each ship lighted three fires to signal its position, and the scintillating armada, reflected on the Caribbean swells, now seemed three hundred strong under the myriad flickering dots of the starlit sky.[vii] The force’s size was evidence enough of Bonaparte’s hostile intentions. “We must perish,” allegedly said Louverture. “All of France has come to Saint-Domingue. They have been deceived, and they have come to seek vengeance.”[viii]
Louverture correctly guessed that the main landing would take place more than two hundred miles to the west in Cap Français or Cap (present-day Cap Haïtien), the largest city of the colony. Reaching Cap in time to warn its commander was of the highest importance. Should Cap fall intact, the French would have sufficient resources to mount a massive, coordinated offensive throughout Saint-Domingue. Louverture’s rule, maybe even his life, would come to an end, but there was even worse to fear. Bonaparte had not sent two thirds of the French navy solely to overthrow an elderly governor. His ultimate goal, Louverture suspected, was to restore slavery. If he was right, the freedom of four hundred thousand men, women, and children was at stake.
Egging Bel Argent down the hill, Louverture began galloping toward Cap. As a young slave, he had been entrusted with the care of the plantation’s horses and he was known as the best horseman in the colony; his entire life had prepared him for this very moment. In a desperate, headlong run, he flew westto Hinche, racing the French fleet to Cap. If he won, he might successfully oppose the French landing and save both his rule and his people’s imperiled freedom; if he lost, his entire world would come crashing down. The Haitian war of independence had begun.
[i] On Toussaint Louverture’s presence in Sámana, see Louverture, Mémoires du Général Toussaint l’Ouverture écrits par lui-même, ed. St. Rémy (Paris: Pagnerre, 1853), 92; Pamphile de Lacroix, La révolution de Haïti (1819; reprint, Paris: Karthala, 1995), 283; Antonio del Monte y Tejada, Historia de Santo Domingo vol. 3 (Ciudad Trujillo: República Dominicana, 1952) , 215.
[ii] Fritz Daguillard, “The True Likeness of Toussaint Louverture,” Américas 55:4 (July-August 2003), 50;
Jacques Cauna, Toussaint Louverture et l’indépendance d’Haïti (Paris: Karthala, 2004), 41.
[iii] W. L. Whitfield to George Nugent (5 Dec. 1801), CO 137/106, BNA.
[iv] Louverture to Members of the Central Assembly (22 Jan. 1802), Reel 5, Sc. Micro R-2228, NYPL-SC.
[v] Louverture to Simon Baptiste fils (27 Jan. 1802), BB4 162, SHD-DM.
[vi] “Etat des troupes parties de France...” (c. 1806), F/5B/67, AN.
[vii] Jean-Baptiste Lemonnier-Delafosse, Seconde campagne de Saint-Domingue du 1 décembre 1803 au 15 juillet 1809 (Le Havre: Brindeau, 1846), 28.
[viii] Lacroix, La révolution de Haïti, 283.