The Second Commission

Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.

After King Louis signed the Law of April 4, which eliminated the legal basis for racial discrimination, the Legislative Assembly selected three men to sail to Saint Domingue and enforce the law. And for the record, it was in fact a law rather than simply a decree, because the King actually signed the thing. These three men would become known to history as the Second Commission because they were replacing the First Commission, the guys who had been sent over the previous fall to enforce the Decree of September the 24th that had repealed the Decree of May 15, and had itself overturned the Colonial Committee report of March 10. You follow all that? Good. I knew that you would. 

Now, since the Law of April 4 had been a part of the Girondin takeover of the Royal Ministry, it is understandable that Jacques Pierre Brissot had a huge say in who the Commissioners would be, though in the end, he only got two of his top three picks. Brissot really, really wanted Julien Raimond to be one of the three Commissioners to demonstrate to the colonists in no uncertain terms that when we say race isn’t a thing anymore, we mean it. But allies of the Club Massiac inside the Legislative Assembly, and there were a few, managed to block the appointment by way of a clever deflection. To ensure the objectivity of the Commissioners, no one who owned property in the colony would be allowed to serve. This seemed like a reasonable enough restriction to the rest of the Legislative Assembly and the rule was adopted. But it was really just a way of making sure that Raimond, who obviously had extensive property holdings in Saint Domingue, was barred from serving on the Second Commission. But despite this minor setback, Brissot’s other two principal choices sailed through the nomination process, in part because they were pretty obscure and nobody knew who they were. But Brissot knew who they were and he had every confidence in the world that they would not just enforce the Law of April 4 vigorously, but bring the whole chaotic mess in Saint Domingue to a successful conclusion. These two were Léger-Félicité Sonthonax and Étienne Polverel. 

Both men shared a similar career arc and a political worldview, though Polverel was 25 years older than Sonthonax. Born in Béarn in 1742, Polverel studied law in Bordeaux. He was an adherent of Enlightenment philosophy, joined the Freemasons and was an enthusiastic supporter of the revolution when it arrived. He was working in Paris as a lawyer at the time, and when the women dragged the royal family back to Paris, Polverel joined the newly formed Jacobin Club, but merely as a rank and file member. He was not a leader nor a prominent personality at all. He did, however, fall into Brissot’s orbit early and though he was not in the Friends of the Blacks, he was on record supporting colored equality. Polverel’s first really important action came in 1791 when he helped lead the charge to purge from the Jacobin Club members of the Club Massiac, who were held to be counterrevolutionary agents due to their opposition to the recently passed May 15 decree. 

Polverel’s partner, Sonthonax, meanwhile, was 25 years his junior, just 29 years old when he was appointed to the Second Commission. But Sonthonax would be the junior Commissioner in age only. He is going to wind up one of the two or three most important figures in the entire Haitian Revolution, seeing as how he is the emancipator. Sonthonax was born into a wealthy but non noble provincial family and he was sent off to study law in Dijon in the early 1780s. Upon graduation, he wound up securing a coveted position in the Paris Parliament, so he had a front row seat for all the early battles of the revolution. Like Polverel, Sonthonax was not a leader, nor very well known. As the revolution progressed, he too fell into Brissot’s orbit, supported racial equality and, based on an anonymous pamphlet we now know he authored, supported gradual slave emancipation, but was not in the Friends of the Blacks. He did, however, join the Jacobins and sat on the committee that issued the club’s official support for the May 15 decree. 

So when the time came to select the Second Commissioners, Sonthonax and Polverel were Brissot’s ideal candidates. Neither were well known, neither carried the taint of membership and the Friends of the Blacks, but both were privately super committed to racial equality. Now, Brissot, as I just said, really wanted Julien Raimond to be the third delegate, but he couldn’t get it done. And so the Legislative Assembly appointed in his stead well, I won’t even bother confusing things by giving you the guy’s name, seeing as how he’s literally going to desert his post the first chance he gets, so we’ll just call him ‘the other guy’. 

The Second Commission set sail from France at the end of July 1792 aboard a warship called the America. Also on board was a 72 year old military officer named General d’Esparbès, who had been appointed governor general to replace the disgraced Governor Blanchelande. The appointment of the positively ancient d’Esparbès is something of a historical mystery. No one quite knows how we got the job, but we don’t have to worry about it too much because on the voyage across the Atlantic, the Commissioners and d’Esparbès started budding heads immediately. As we’re about to see, they will pack up General d’Esparbès and send him back to France as soon as possible. 

Also setting sail with the Commissioners were 6000 more armed reinforcements, 2000 regular army troops and 4000 volunteers from the National Guard. Though France was now officially at war with both Austria and Prussia, the Legislative Assembly decided it could spare a few regiments to go put down the slave revolt. Combined with the 6000 troops the Metropole had already sent to reinforce the First Commission and the garrison is already in the colony, the Colonial Ministry was under the impression that with these additional reinforcements on the way, there would be close to 20,000 troops in Saint Domingue, more than enough to end the revolt once and for all. 

This, however, turned out to not even be close to accurate. Because, as we will see time and time again for the whole rest of the show, the first thing new European soldiers do upon arrival in Saint Domingue is get sick and die. When the Second Commission arrived, there would turn out to be only about 2000 men actually fit for service in the colony. And of the 6000 reinforcements they just brought with them, they would be down to 3000 in a matter of months. 

The America landed in Le Cap on either September 17 or September 20 – I’ve seen both dates reported with great conviction. They were greeted by big white leaders who were outwardly eager to work with the Commissioners. Blanchelande’s humiliating defeat at the hands of the Kingdom of Platon and the aborted race riot back in August meant that they were now ready to turn over whatever new leaf was required to bring this whole terrible business to a close, at least that’s what they said. Now the Second Commission carried with it instructions to implement three principle objectives. First, dissolve the all white assemblies and create a mixed race government for the colony. Second, end once and for all any loose talk of independence that might still be floating around out there. And third, defeat the slave uprising. And to dispel the rumors that were floating around out there, Sonthonax announced at the ceremony welcoming the commissioners to Le Cap, that they were not, repeat, not there to abolish slavery. And this was likely true. In a letter back to the Metropole these early days, Sonthonax wrote that he believed mass emancipation was inadvisable because it would lead directly to the massacre of every white in the colony. 

Now, obviously the most pressing matter, though, was what to do about the slave revolt. But the commissioners were hampered right off the bat. For one, they discovered that their manpower was not nearly what they thought it was. Then they debriefed Governor Blanchelande, who had not yet gone back to France to get guillotined, and he told them that fighting slaves is not as easy as it sounds. This new information made them all a little less eager to rush into action. Then friction between the Second Commission and Governor d’Esparbès led to delays and mutual accusations that the other side was to blame for those delays. The forces at the Commission’s disposal were then given an unexpected boost just days after their arrival, when the vicomte de Rochambeau showed up with 3000 additional troops, kind of out of the blue. 

Rochambeau was the son of the comte de Rochambeau, who had served as Commander in Chief of the French Army in the American War of Independence, and who had just recently resigned his position as Commander of the Army of the North in the French Revolutionary armies. Rochambeau the Younger had just been assigned governor of the small French colony of Martinique. But counterrevolutionary royalist forces had staged a hostile takeover of the island and prevented him from landing. So let’s not get distracted by that, but just know that Rochambeau is now in Saint Domingue. 

I mentioned earlier that one of the running jokes of the Haitian Revolution will be that the colony constantly has to play catch up with the rapid fire pivot of the French Revolution. Well, here we are again, because just two weeks after the Second Commission set sail with new, new instructions. What happened? That’s right. The central pivot of the whole French Revolution – the insurrection of August 10. They missed it by just two weeks. You cannot make this stuff up. So, right on queue, two weeks after the Second Commission arrived in Le Cap, a ship came into the harbor bearing the absolutely incredible news that the King had been overthrown and France was on the verge of becoming a republic. Okay, so I guess that’s now happened. And then get this. By the time Saint Domingue heard about the Insurrection of August 10 on October 2, France had been further rocked by the invasion of the Austro-Prussian army, the panic inducing Brunswick Manifesto, the resulting September Massacres, the surprise victory at Valmy, and then the even more surprising retreat of the Austro-Prussian army. Keeping up with the French Revolution is nearly impossible.

With the Insurrection of August 10 now known, however, the very legitimacy of the Second Commission hung in the air. Seeing as how their appointments came bearing the signature of a now deposed king. But confirmation of their mandate came from the Legislative Assembly very quickly. And not just confirmation, but expansion. The Second Commission now had the authority to dismiss any public official or military officer who stood in the way of their mission. On October 12, the commissioners officially dissolved the whites-only Colonial Assembly. Until a new mixed assembly could be elected, an executive committee of twelve men, called the Interim Commission, was established to act as the colony’s executive government. Six of the delegates would be chosen by the outgoing Colonial Assembly and six would be chosen by the Second Commission. And signaling that their long term commitment to racial equality might be a lot of hot air, the Colonial Assembly selected six white delegates. So to balance this, the Second Commissioners chose six colored delegates, including Julien Raimond’s brother François. 

For the moment, though, the big white leaders in Le Cap were not focused on resisting racial equality. They were focused on settling old scores with the royal administration. Remember when we talked about the web of tension back in Episode 4.2. One of those lines of tension was between the small clique of royal bureaucrats and military officers whose authority had long been resented by the big whites. That hatred, as we’ve seen, has now morphed into the widespread belief that these officials were the secret hand guiding the slave uprising. Well, with news that the monarchy has now been overthrown, it is time to get rid of those guys once and for all. 

So, three days after the Colonial Assembly dissolved, its delegates reformed as a private political club called the Society of the Friends of the National Convention. The following day, reports began circulating that the senior officers of the Le Cap garrison had insulted the newly arrived troops, most of whom were patriotic National Guardsmen. And then a meeting of the new club the next day turned into a mass meeting of every patriotic minded citizen in Le Cap. 

On October 19, 1792, a unified patriotic front that included big whites, small whites and free coloreds, all backed by armed units from the newly arrived troops and sailors from the naval convoy, staged a huge demonstration. They had a list of 100 men who they called traitors to the country, and they wanted them all deported. Among them was the commandant of the Le Cap garrison. He was the guy who last week had asked for martial law, but that request was denied because of the suspicion that he was in league with the slaves. Faced with this sudden mass demonstration, the Second Commission decided to side with the demonstrators, and they ordered Governor d’Esparbès to put the commandant in custody and then prepare to deport him. But Governor d’Esparbès refused the order. Meanwhile, the commandant himself had taken refuge inside his garrison’s barracks, surrounded by loyal officers and troops. Shots were then fired as the demonstrators threatened to storm the barracks. But other military officers, well known in Le Cap but not in the commandant circle, managed to help the Second Commission talk down both sides. The commandant and the officer still loyal to him agreed to board a ship that would take them all back to France post haste. The Second Commission then exercise their newly expanded powers and demanded that Governor d’Esparbès, who had disobeyed a direct order, immediately resigned the governorship and himself returned to France. Having served as governor general for less than a month, d’Esparbès was already on his way home. In his place, the commissioners appointed General Rochambeau to temporarily fill the vacant position until a new new governor general was appointed. 

With the crisis of October 19 resolved, the Second Commission decided to split up and attend to the colony as a whole. Sonthonax would stay in Le Cap and take care of the North Province, Polverel would take on administration of the West Province and ‘the other guy’ would take over the south. And it is right here that ‘the other guy’ truly earns his status as ‘the other guy’, because instead of going down to the South Province, he just bolts, deserts his post and disappears back to France. I dug around a little bit trying to figure out what happened to him, but he just falls off the face of the earth. So whatever. See you later, ‘other guy’. Polverel then had to take on administration of both the west and the south. And we’re going to come back to his attempt to impose the Law of April the Fourth onto a white population already literally up in arms about colored equality. Because the North Province, for the moment, must remain the center of attention. 

The rapid fire pivots of the French Revolution did not just have implications for the free citizens of Saint Domingue, it also had huge implications for the slave armies occupying the Northern Plains. By the summer of 1091, the slave insurgents had settled into the territory they held and had faced no meaningful attempt to expel them for quite some time. Jean-François and Biassou, simultaneously partners and rivals, divided up the black held territory, with Jean-François taking the eastern part of the North Province and Biassou taking the south part. They were comfortable enough that Biassou actively enlarged an old plantation house, transforming it into something resembling a full-on royal palace. And as I mentioned last time, they also both took on grandiose military titles. Jean-François was now Grand Admiral. Biassou was governor general, and his second in command was now Toussaint Louverture. Their followers were spread out in camps all over, with no one encampment numbering more than a few thousand. With the war stalled, these guys spent most of their time tending to and expanding the old personal plots that gave them the food that they needed to live. 

Having failed to negotiate an end to the revolt the previous winter, the slave generals have now expanded their demands. There is a letter they allegedly sent, whose authority is questioned by some historians, that roots these new demands principally in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which included in its very first clause the right to resist oppression, which, they argued, is all we’re doing. But regardless of the authenticity of this specific argument, the slave demands were now nothing less than one, general liberty and two, general amnesty. The slave leaders recognized that plantation labor was essential to everyone’s survival. The colony was a cash crop economy that had to trade sugar, coffee and indigo to live. But when the blacks returned to work, it would be as free men paid for their labor, not as slaves. They insisted these demands be presented to King Louis and the Legislative Assembly and that the presentation be witnessed by Spanish ambassadors. But of course, by the time these demands were being made, the French monarchy had already been overthrown. 

Now firmly in control of the political situation in Le Cap, or at least that’s what he thought, Sonthonax was able to turn his attention to these slaves and their demands demands that were now so couched in appeals to the King that he could paint the entire slave revolt as counterrevolutionary. He ordered Rochambeau on a coordinated offensive that ran through early November that was, on all fronts, quite successful. The slave soldiers were everywhere, driven from their camps and into the mountains. But then Sonthonax and Rochambeau learned the difference between invading slave held territory and holding it without nearly enough meant to actually garrison the Northern Plains. When Rochambeau’s forces returned to Le Cap, the slaves simply came back down out of the mountains and reoccupied their old camps. And then when word filtered back up to the slaves that the King had been overthrown, the slave general doubled down on their counterrevolutionary royalism. In early December, Biassou declared himself the King’s viceroy, who would rule in the King’s name until the monarchy was restored. 

As Sonthonax learned the hard way what fighting the slave armies was really like. He was also learning that the whites in Le Cap were now practically as counterrevolutionary as the slaves. The Friends of the National Convention started making noises that “Hey, look, the Law of April 4 is great and all, but it’s also signed by a deposed king and so we’re not super convinced of its legitimacy.” Given his mandate and his powers, Sonthonax believed that it was his prerogative to simply assert that the Law of April 4 was completely legitimate and then he made sure everybody knew it. He took a very controversial and confrontational step: he appointed a free colored officer to every military unit in Le Cap. This led to angry white denunciations from inside these military units that were loudly echoed in the Friends of the National Convention, who were starting to fancy themselves as shadow government à la the Jacobins back in Paris. 

But Sonthonax wasn’t having any of this. On December 1, he banned the club from holding further meetings, a decision even his colleague Polverel thought overly dictatorial. But Sonthonax pressed on. The following day, December 2, he ordered the core regiments of the regular army garrison, the still white National Guard units, and the colored militias to muster for a mass oath, swearing to uphold the Law of April 4. The colored militias showed up, obviously. The regular army regiments showed up, but were not happy about it. The white National Guard units, meanwhile, straight up ignored the order and did not come. Then, when Sonthonax ordered the men to take the oath, the coloreds did, because, of course they did, but the white soldiers refused. Then word came that a white mob was gathering on the other side of town and preparing to march on the regiment Sonthonax had mustered. With the mob approaching, Sonthonax completely lost control of the situation. Chaos set in, confusion took over, and pretty soon, shots were being fired. One of the colored regiments surrounded Sonthonax and saved his life, while the white regular army troops seized control of the central arsenal. The colored regiment, having gotten Sonthonax out of the fray alive, then fell back to the outskirts of the city. Well, actually, a bit outside the city, taking over a small settlement on the road out of town that had been fortified to prevent the slave armies from breaking in. They seized control of this critical point of the city’s defense, and by holding it, they held the fate of Le Cap in their hands. If they had wanted to, they could have opened the doors and just let the slaves in to massacre all the whites, but they didn’t. Nor did they really want to. 

The coloreds held this post for three days until on December 5, 1792, Sonthonax was able to reassert control of Le Cap with the help of Rochambeau, the troops who had come over with them from France, who were still loyal, and a charismatic and well respected regular army colonel named Étienne Lavaux, who we’ll get to in a second. The colored regiment was talked into standing down, and Sonthonax furiously turned on the white agitators who had sparked the crisis, arresting most of the prominent leaders of the Friends of the National Convention and imprisoning them on ships anchored in the harbor. It was as a result of this December crisis that Sonthonax made a firm political decision: the slaves were counterrevolutionary enemies of the Republic; the whites were counterrevolutionary enemies of the Republic; the only true patriots and viable allies in the colony were the coloreds. So he made an outright alliance with the free colored leadership, putting them in charge of the municipal government of Le Cap and allowing them to form totally independent military units, staffed and led by coloreds, and answerable to no authority but Sonthonax himself. 

Following the December crisis, word came in that the little royalist rebellion in Martinique had been suppressed and that Rochambeau is now free to take up his assignment. So he will now depart from our story, but only temporarily, because he will return at the very end as the second in command of the Leclerc Expedition, the massive French invasion force sent by First Consul Bonaparte in 1801 to reassert French control over Saint Domingue. With Rochambeau gone, Sonthonax elevated Colonel Étienne Lavaux to take on overall command of the colony’s military forces in the North Province. Colonel Lavaux came from minor nobility and was a career army officer. He was considered intelligent and capable. But his only claim to fame prior to his arrival in Saint Domingue was his very willingness to go to Saint Domingue. He had volunteered his unit, the 16th Dragoons, for the expedition that was preparing to follow the Second Commission. I’m sure his men were thrilled. He was obviously an ardent revolutionary patriot and one who clearly believed in racial equality. When resistance to the idea of colored officers started up, Lavaux stood up and said, the next vacancy in the 16th Lagoons would go to a colored. This earned him the lasting friendship of Sonthonax and so, upon Rochambeau’s departure, Sonthonax happily put this obvious ally in charge of the North Province military.

But that military was shrinking fast. The newly arrived European soldiers were dying like flies, and if they were going to make a move against the slaves, it was going to have to be soon. So in January 1793, Lavaux led the forces in the north on a widespread attack. They drove Viceroy Governor General Biassou from his palatial headquarters and forced him to take refuge in a nearby fort. But then Lavaux managed to get a hold of the high ground, and a company of free colored soldiers breached the walls and Biassou had to run for the safety of the mountains. At the same time, colonial forces drove Grand Admiral Jean-François from his base and over the border into Santo Domingo. This renewed offensive was also more comprehensive, and wherever the colonial forces went, they torched all the garden plots that kept the slave armies fed and then burned whatever lodgings the slaves had been using. Soon the residents of Le Cap were getting news of actual honest to God victories. After 18 months of miserable, fatalistic gloom, things were looking… up?

Meanwhile, from his base down in the west, Polverel had come to the same basic conclusion as Sonthonax. And though he was less confrontational than his colleague, the dynamic turned out to be the same. The whites were going to resist the Law of April 4, and his best allies were the free coloreds. So Polverel too allied with them both against the insurgent slaves and the intransigent whites. By resisting equality, the whites were suddenly in danger, not just of having to share power with the coloreds, but being surpassed by them completely. The whites, however, were not going to go down without a fight. Polverel’s arrival in the west and his very clear preference for the coloreds led white leaders to once again seize controlled Port-au-Prince and then also Jacmel, the city on the Caribbean seaside of the southern peninsula. Polverel decided to leave that battle for another day, though, and instead turned his attention to avenging Governor Blanchelande’s defeat of the Kingdom of Platon. Since their victory, the kingdom had formed a pretty stable community up in the mountains with a network of settlements with as many as a thousand cabins, a functioning hospital, and elected kings. The increasingly prominent colored leader, André Rigaud, had remained behind in Les Cayes after Governor Blanchelande departed, and he managed to convince the local provisional assembly to offer more generous terms to the slaves freedom, not just for the leadership, but for the rank and file as well. 

But even Rigaud’s more generous terms came with a heavy stipulation. With the Law of April 4 now passed, it was clear that the coloreds were the, quote, unquote, “winners” of the little civil war that had erupted. And so only those slaves who had been armed by the coloreds would have their promise of freedom recognized. Those armed by the whites would be returned to slavery because they had fought for the quote unquote “losers”. Now, some slaves took this deal because, hey, why not? But the kingdom as a whole held out. 

So just as Lavaux was undertaking his offensive in the north, Polverel arrived in Les Cayes and launched a new offensive against the Kingdom of Platon, this one better organized and better executed than Blanchelande’s fiasco. When the colonial forces came marching up this time, the leaders of the kingdom determined that they were not going to be able to hold their camps and decided to retreat even higher into the mountains. Unfortunately, they had among them slaves too weak, too old, or too sick to join the quick retreat. When the colonial forces reached the settlements, they burst in unopposed and then proceeded to massacre all the blacks they found, the ones who were too weak, too old, or too sick to flee. It was a glorious victory. 

So by February 1793, the slave revolt looked like it was finally going to be crushed. And everywhere, the slave armies were breaking apart and in retreat. But then what happened? That’s right. By now, the National Convention has executed King Louis, and both Britain and Spain have joined the war against France. So rather than being able to press their advantage against the slave armies, the Second Commission had to suddenly swivel to face the very real threat now posed by their colonial neighbors in Jamaica and Santo Domingo. The sudden arrival of the European war to the Caribbean had massive implications for the course of the Haitian Revolution, as both the British and Spanish looked for allies inside sandoz to pry the colony out of French hands. 

The Spanish, of course, looked to the slave armies that they had been covertly supplying since the fall of 1791. The Spanish government in Madrid ordered its colonial representatives in Santo Domingo to take the next step and formally recruit the French slaves into a full blown auxiliary army. The offer to Jean-François and Biassou was pretty straightforward: if you fight under the flag of the Spanish crown, we will recognize your freedom and grant you land titles when we all together inevitably crush the upstart French Republic. And the wording of this is key. The Spanish were not offering to grant the slaves their freedom. They were offering to recognize the freedom the slaves had already won for themselves. With this adroit nod to the dignity and honor of the slave fighters, and with the promise now of endless arms and supplies, Jean-François and Biassou signed up with the Spanish, bringing over 10,000 men right away with the promise of many more to come. The slave armies now fought under the flag of the Spanish Bourbons. 

Meanwhile, the British looked to the bitter big whites as their best allies in the colony. White planters, who had fled to Jamaica after the start of the slave revolt, had already communicated their willingness to support a British invasion if it meant the reimposition of slavery and the recovery of all their property. While now, official representatives of the big white interest residing in London signed a formal agreement to that effect with the British Ministry. The whites would help the British invade, conquer and hold the colony, and in exchange, the British would allow them to reimpose racial apartheid and put all the blacks back in chains. 

Now, for the moment, all this talk of war was just urgent rumor, but still it was clear what was coming. On February 26, Sonthonax left Le Cap in the hands of Lavaux and their colored allies and met up with Polverel in Saint-Marc on March 5 to hammer out their next move. They quickly decided that securing control of the principal port cities against the likely threat of foreign invasion would have to be the priority for the moment, and that meant pivoting from attacks on the slaves to attacks on the white holdouts. 

At the beginning of April, they went on the offensive. Their first objective was Port-au-Prince, which, as I just mentioned, is of course, once again an active revolt and being held by small white agitators. Obviously, the previous round of arrest had not been thorough enough. Supported by a force of 1200 men marching overland, the commissioners sailed the naval flotilla into the Port-au-Prince harbor on April 5 and demanded the city’s surrender. The commissioners waited until the land army was in position, and then, when the city refused to yield again, the commissioners ordered a general bombardment on April 12. Resistance collapsed at once. When the forces of the Second Commission entered the city, they did not bother trying to weed out the principal leaders from the other suspects. Hundreds of whites were indiscriminately rounded up and imprisoned on a troop transport in the harbor, to be dealt with later. Then the forces of the Second Commission went round and rescued Jacmel. By early May 1793, almost the whole of the colony had submitted to the authority of the Second Commission, either by force or by choice. The only part of the colony still held by intransigent whites was the rugged northwest tip of the southern peninsula, the Grand-Anse surrounding the port of Jérémie. This will become important once the British do invade, because Jérémie is going to be their first and most permanent beach head. 

While the Second Commission was putting down the last of the whites, they were also rethinking their strategy towards the blacks. Even with the victories of January, it was painfully obvious that no true military victory was ever going to be won. As soon as the exhausted colonial forces moved on from whatever territory that had just cleared, the slaves simply came back down out of the mountains and retook it. The policy of winning the war and then imposing a settlement was never going to work. Sonthonax had already written back to France, urging them that the time had come to, quote, do something for the slaves, but he received no reply. Not only was the government a little busy, what with it being the spring of 1793 and all, but with the British navy now out on patrol in the Atlantic, communications between Saint Domingue and the Metropole were all but severed. 

Left on their own, Sonthonax and Polverel decided to unilaterally issue a decree on May 5, 1793. The core of the decree reaffirmed both the Code Noir and the Royal Decrees of 1784 and 1785, that the masters had an obligation to provide for the slaves, but there were limits to how badly slaves could be treated, and that if masters mistreated their slaves, that slaves would have the right to appeal to authorities. But the content of this decree, while obviously hated by the master class, was not nearly as offensive as the means by which it was disseminated. Aware that the previous slave protections had been ignored by the colonists, the Second Commission had the decree translated into Creole and then ordered it read aloud on every plantation and transmitted to the slave insurgents. So not only would the slaves have rights, they would all know that they had rights. The commissioners hoped that this would start the process of coaxing the slaves back to the plantations. 

Luckily for everyone, just two days after the May 5 decree was issued, General François-Thomas Galbaud, the new new governor general appointed by the National Convention, arrived in Le Cap, and everything got upended again. As soon as Galbaud landed, he was treated to a thousand horror stories by prominent whites in Le Cap about the horror of life under the horrible commissioners who had been appointed by a horrible king, and how, thank God, a true patriotic representative of the Republic is here to save us from the horrible horror. Galbaud took a liking to all this fawning attention, but still he exchanged a few cordial letters with the Second Commissioner saying, “I’m here I look forward to meeting with you and coordinating strategy, et cetera, et cetera.” To which the Second Commission cordially replied, “Oh, we’re so glad to have you and look forward to working with you, but please, the situation here is very complex. Don’t be misled by enemies of the Republic. And whatever you do, take no official action until we are back in Le Cap and we can confer in person.”

Next week, Governor General Galbaud is totally going to take official action before the Second Commission returns to Le Cap. And when Sonthonax and Polverel do arrive, the resulting political confrontation will lead to nothing less than the total destruction of Le Cap and the mass emancipation of every slave in Saint Domingue.

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