The Slaves Who Defeated Napoleon: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian War of Independence, 1801-1804

The Slaves Who Defeated Napoleon: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian War of Independence, 1801-1804

by Philippe R. Girard Ph.D.


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In this ambitious book, Girard employs the latest tools of the historian’s craft, multi-archival research in particular, and applies them to the climactic yet poorly understood last years of the Haitian Revolution. Haiti lost most of its archives to neglect and theft, but a substantial number of documents survive in French, U.S., British, and Spanish collections, both public and private. In all, this book relies on contemporary military, commercial, and administrative sources drawn from nineteen archives and research libraries on both sides of the Atlantic.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817317324
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 11/02/2011
Series: Atlantic Crossings Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 456
Sales rank: 885,581
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Philippe R. Girard is an associate professor and head of the Department of History at McNeese State University. He is the author of Clinton in Haiti: The 1994 U.S. Invasion of Haiti and Haiti: The Tumultuous History—From Pearl of the Caribbean to Broken Nation.

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Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian War of Independence, 1801–1804
By Philippe R. Girard


Copyright © 2011 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-1732-4

Chapter One

The Black Napoléon

Louverture and the 1801 Constitution

Summer 1801

At 3 a.m. on Octidi, 18 Messidor year IX of the French Republic—Tuesday, July 7, 1801, in the Gregorian calendar—child drummers fanned around Cap Français to awaken the city's sleepy inhabitants with a peremptory drum roll. It was early, even by the standards of the early rising inhabitants of the Antilles, but that day's festivities promised to be long and no one wished to be standing for hours in the oppressive afternoon heat of the Caribbean summer. By 5 a.m., the largely black contingents of the colonial army stood on the main square in orderly rows, their bright blue and red uniforms a reminder of the distant metropolis. they stood by detachments from the national guard, a more diverse unit drafted from the city's prominent citizens, including many anciens libres.

An hour later civilian and military authorities left the government house to join the troops lined on the plaza. Following the precise instructions established by Governor Toussaint Louverture, the trade commissioners marched first, followed by the naval administrators, the aldermen, the judges, the nine members of the constitutional assembly, and Louverture himself. His generals closed the march. This was an apt symbol: before Louverture, the civilian pillars of the constitution to be unveiled that day; after him, the real force behind his rule, the Dessalineses, the Christophes, and the Moyses, their ebony skin scarred by countless battles and the older wounds of the slave driver's lash. On one side, his administrators, most of them white; on the other, the upper echelons of his predominantly black army. "Constitutions are made of paper, but bayonets are made of steel," says one of these aphorisms so popular in the local Kreyol idiom.

Soldiers and bureaucrats gathered around the podium. "The deepest silence reigned," an unnamed chronicler wrote in the following day's Bulletin Officiel de Saint-Domingue. "Everyone awaited with impatience the reading of the text that would set the destinies of Saint-Domingue." The occasion called for slow, decorous pomp, for on that day the second constitution in Saint-Domingue's history was to be officially presented to its people. No one could foresee that this constitution would be followed by another twenty-three in Haiti's turbulent political history and that half of the people present that day would be dead or in exile within three years. But everyone knew that metropolitan authorities had not been consulted on the matter and that First Consul Napoléon Bonaparte would react with fury when the news reached him that Louverture had single-handedly set up an autonomous government in France's richest colony.

The sun was now rising on the bay east of Cap, a bustling port with a short but rich history. it was not far from Cap that in 1492 Christopher Columbus had built Fort Navidad, the first European settlement in the New World. pirates had later founded a haven in nearby La Tortue (Tortuga), before the French founded Cap itself in 1676. Blessed with a protected harbor and a large coastal plain, Cap was destined for a bright future. Destroyed by a fire in 1753, the city was rebuilt in stone, its streets paved, fountains and gutters built, and seventy-nine public monuments erected. Its eighteen thousand inhabitants, like the colony's population, were a mix of French-, Caribbean-, and African-born people of all colors whose differences were bridged by ties of labor, love, and commerce. The city reached its peak in the late 1780s, by which time it had acquired theaters, a learned society, freemason lodges, and the nickname of "Paris of the Antilles."

To Louverture the city evoked different, more personal memories. One-third of all the Africans brought by French slave traders had arrived in Cap—almost as many in that city alone as the total number of slaves imported in the entire history of the United States. In 1790 a full nineteen thousand had landed there, more than the population of Boston. The remains of the sickest among them, thrown overboard prior to landing, were still lying at the bottom of the glittering bay, just one mile from where Louverture stood on that early July morning. Louverture was a Caribbean-born Creole, but he may have learned of the horrors of the middle passage from his own father, who according to the oral tradition was the second son of an Arada (Ewe-Fon) chief in present-day Benin. captured in combat (presumably by the neighboring warrior kingdom of Dahomey, a major exporter of African slaves), Louverture's father had been sold to a wealthy Dominguian planter, the count of Noé. His son's constitution ceremony fittingly symbolized the family's unusual arc from political prominence to slavery and back.

Louverture's own life had taken place within a short radius of Cap. The eldest of eight (or five) children, he was born on the Bréda plantation, a mere one league from cap, around 1743. Louverture probably received an African name, but it has been lost to history. Instead, he was long known as Toussaint Bréda after his master's plantation (fellow slaves also dubbed him fatras bâton, or "contemptible stick," to mock him for his frail stature). the name "Louverture" (the opening) came much later, possibly as a result of his military exploits. Like all Creole slaves, Toussaint's identity was thus an amalgam of French, African, and Caribbean elements, each one layered upon the other. Louverture's body may also have been a scarred palimpsest of his tumultuous life: African slaves often bore tribal scarifications as well as whipping and branding marks, and Louverture claimed that he bore scars from seventeen battle wounds.

Louverture worked for a plantation manager, Bayon de libertat, with a reputation for relative kindness, and he was unusually well treated as a slave. Assigned to the barn and stables, not the deadly sugar fields, he eventually rose to the position of coachman and unofficial veterinarian of the Bréda plantation. he married and learned how to read, neither of which was forbidden under the French servile code, the Code Noir, but both of which were rare among slaves. Some authors claim that he joined Libertat's freemason lodge (as governor, he signed his name above a tell- tale succession of Masonic dots) and that he visited France as a slave, but evidence for such claims is scant.

How distant those days now seemed! Starting in 1789, the whites of Saint-Domingue had begun endlessly debating the latest echoes from the French Revolution, oblivious to the fact that discussing the benefits of liberty and equality when surrounded by half a million people of color who outnumbered them twenty to one might set a dangerous example. It was in cap that early in 1791 Vincent Ogé and Jean-Baptiste Chavannes had died on the executioner's rack for daring to demand equal citizenship rights for free people of color. It was around Cap that in August 1791 the slaves had revolted, ravaged the prosperous plain, and almost taken the city itself. Louverture had soon joined the revolt (or possibly initiated it), but following his usual Januslike persona he had also seen Libertat's family to safety. It was cap that had burned to the ground during a June 1793 quarrel between rival French officers and their black allies, and Cap where the French commissioner Légerfélicité Sonthonax had abolished slavery later that year. it was also in cap that Louverture had helped subdue the rebellious officer Jean-Louis Villatte in 1796, an episode that had launched the political career that now made him absolute ruler of Saint-Domingue.

* * *

Shortly after daybreak, the ceremony began and Bernard Borgella rose to speak. Like most of his colleagues in the constitutional assembly, he was white (the rest were of mixed race; none was black). The racial imbalance might seem odd for a constitution that set the foundations for the future black state of Haiti, but loosening the ties that bound Saint-Domingue to France had long been the goal of white colonists like Borgella. Louverture had probably also calculated that the constitution would be a bitter pill for France to swallow and that it might look more innocuous if its authors were white. At any rate, Louverture had decided on all the crucial provisions behind the scenes, and many of the constitutional delegates were figureheads. four hailed from recently conquered Spanish Santo Domingo and were unlikely to speak up; one had the good taste of dying before the assembly even gathered.

Louverture also employed Borgella because he had the administrative and legal skills that eluded former slaves. He was merely one of a constellation of white advisers, priests, secretaries, and aides-de-camp that formed the backbone of louverture's "black" regime. his director of fortifications, Charles vincent, was white. So were his confessor Corneille Brelle, the comptroller general Joseph Bizouard, his private secretary Pascal, the administrator of public estates Joseph-Antoine Idlinger, and his paymaster and diplomatic envoy Joseph Bunel de Blancamp.

Borgella's speech was a plodding paean to Louverture, "this extraordinary man ... who rose like a phoenix from the ashes." Borgella knew his man. Louverture had immense intellectual gifts, particularly his keen political instinct; his one weakness was flattery. Another reason he employed so many whites may have been that he felt vindicated when planters who had once stood at the apex of Saint-Domingue's social and racial hierarchy waddled in the mud before him, the one-time slave whom only cattle would obey. As governor every town he visited was expected to greet him with triumphal arches, trumpeters, laurels, thrones, adulating crowds, gushing women, and orations comparing him to Spartacus, Hercules, Alexander the Great, and Bonaparte. A week after presenting the constitution, he would create a new region and name it after himself.

After pausing for a second Borgella delivered a second speech, just as adulatory as the first, then began to read the entire constitution, article by article, in its original French. In the audience, many people of color only spoke Kreyol or their native African language; regional dialects would predominate in France for another century, so many lower-class whites spoke limited French as well. One can only sympathize with their boredom as the ceremony proceeded, for hours, in the legalese version of a language they barely understood. But even someone with a full command of French could not fully understand the constitution, since many of its clauses were elaborate smoke screens meant to appease potential objections from the metropolis. The preamble meekly "proposed" the text "to the French government" for approval when it had already been discussed, ratified, and implemented, and would be published before France ever had a chance of asking for modifications. Louverture, the preamble further explained, had played a minimal role in drafting the constitution, which contradicted the historical record but gave him plausible deniability should the text incur the wrath of the metropolis. the first article stated that Saint-Domingue was a "colony, which belongs to the French empire" to better disguise the fact that the constitution turned the island into a virtually autonomous dominion.

The constitution was carefully phrased to avoid offending its metropolitan audience, but it was also meant to take effect in Saint-Domingue, where the black majority was more concerned with individual freedom than national independence. most Dominguians were nouveaux libres who had only been freed officially with Sonthonax's 1793 decree of emancipation, which had then been confirmed by a 1794 law and the 1795 French constitution; in the areas of western and southern Saint-Domingue that were under English occupation at the time, slavery had survived until 1798. But Bonaparte's 1799 constitution had vaguely specified that colonies would be governed by distinct laws, which seemed to imply that he did not recognize colonial subjects as full-fledged French citizens and that he might restore slavery one day. Louverture thus preemptively enshrined the sacred principles of citizenship and emancipation in his 1801 constitution in case France ever chose to forsake them. "There can be no slaves on the territory; slavery is forever abolished," the third article read. "All men are born, live, and die free and French." in the crowd even those who spoke little French understood the words. the same idea was expressed three times in as many sentences. They were free.

To the people of color known as anciens libres, emancipation was a secondary issue since they had already been free before the revolution; many had in fact owned slaves. Foremost on their minds were the discriminatory laws that had curtailed their rights in the prerevolutionary era. In 1792, after much hesitation, the French national Assembly had extended full citizenship to free people of color, but the anciens libres knew that the more conservative whites still rankled at the idea that miscegenational bastards could be their equals. The constitution's next clause, also formulated in three different ways, was intended to appease their fears. "Every man, whatever his color, has access to all jobs. The colony makes no distinction except for virtue and talent.... The law is the same for all, whether it punishes or protects." They were equal.

Louverture could easily relate to the slaves' main concerns because he had been one himself. A less widely known fact was that he had been emancipated before 1776 (a rare feat for a black male) and that he qualified as an elite ancien libre whose political and social interests were distinct from those of the black majority. There was a third, final aspect to his prerevolutionary life, known only to himself and a few close relatives, and that would remain unknown to the rest of the world for almost two centuries: after his emancipation, Louverture had purchased slaves of his own. Such was the secret to Louverture's inordinate ability to rule Saint-Domingue's fractious population: during the first half century of his life, he had been successively a slave, a freedman, and a slave owner.

Hopefully, only the French-speaking planters were listening to Borgella by this point. Despite the previous clauses guaranteeing liberty and equality, the sixth article of the constitution explained that the colony's wealth stemmed from exports of tropical produce and that one could not allow the plantations to whither for lack of workers. "Our plantations," Louverture allegedly said, "are our gold mines." The two biggest sources of government revenue were the export tariff on tropical crops and rent from publicly owned plantations, so allowing former slaves to stop working would have led to his regime's collapse. On a more personal level Louverture needed laborers for the many estates he had acquired during the revolution and that dotted the colony from the plain of Cap to Gonaïves and Ennery. His generals were not forgotten; Dessalines was rumored to earn one hundred thousand francs a year from each of his thirty-two plantations, which if true meant that the former slave was one of the richest men in the world. Rich, that is, if he and Louverture could find workers for their sprawling estates.

Land in Saint-Domingue had long had little value in and of itself; labor mattered far more. For much of the eighteenth century, royal officials had given away concessions, free of charge, to all those who promised to provide the workers. By 1789 French assets in Saint-Domingue amounted to the fantastic sum of 1.5 billion livres, 1.1 billion of which was human property, by far the biggest investment of a typical planter. A planter's wealth was thus measured in scores of slaves, not acreage, a concept that Louverture and his followers could easily grasp when in underpopulated West Africa a chief 's prominence also depended on the number of subjects under his control.


Excerpted from THE SLAVES WHO DEFEATED NAPOLÉON by Philippe R. Girard Copyright © 2011 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations....................vii
1. The Black Napoléon: Louverture and the 1801 Constitution....................11
3. Eve of a Battle: Planning the Leclerc Expedition....................50
4. King of the Tropics: The Atlantic Crossing and the Moyse Uprising....................67
5. Parley: the French Landing....................86
6. Supply and Demand: Leclerc's Diplomacy with the United States, Cuba, and Jamaica....................101
7. Ash and Iron: The Spring Campaign....................113
8. Lull: Love, Loot, Labor, and Louverture's Exile....................139
9. Mal de Siam: The Yellow Fever Epidemic....................159
10. Faux Pas: The Maroon Uprising....................182
11. Revolt: The Defection of the Colonial Army....................203
12. Reprieve: Rochambeau and the French Counteroffensive....................224
13. Unity is Strength: Dessalines and the Unification of the Rebel Army....................248
14. Echoes of Saint-Domingue: Louverture's Captivity and the Louisiana Purchase....................267
15. New Enemy, New Partner: The British Navy at War....................282
16. Sodom and Gomorrah: Life in Besieged French Towns....................291
17. Resolution: The Rebel Victory....................302
18. Liberty and Death: Haitian Independence....................313
19. The Long Way Home: French Refugees and the Fall of Santo Domingo....................329
Glossary of French and Kreyol Terms....................429
Bibliographic Essay....................431

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