The Third Commission

Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.

In November 1795, news finally reached Saint Domingue of the incredible turn of events back in Europe that we ended with last week. Spain is out of the war. In the all important North Province of Saint Domingue, this news would change everything. Since August 1791, the slave armies of Jean-François and Biassou had occupied most of the province. And they had been able to maintain that occupation because of Spanish support. First, the clandestine support that had seen them transition successfully from passionate insurgents to a stable and pretty well organized army, and then, the official support that saw the Spanish bring that army under their banner. Now, Governor General Lavaux had run some successful campaigns against these forces back when he was still Colonel Lavaux. And as we saw last week, Toussaint Louverture was making inroads of his own. But in the main, Jean-François and Biassou had never been seriously threatened. But it was all premised on Spanish support, and that support was now gone. 

So whatever fancy plans Jean-François and Biassou had dreamed up over the years, whatever that fourth option we talked about last week might have been, it would remain an eternal might have been. When the Spanish said, we’re cutting you off. British agents made contact and offered to replace the Spanish as patrons. But there were a number of problems with this logistically, British supplies could never be counted on the way that Spanish supplies could always be counted on, since they were just coming right over the border. But more importantly, the deal offered by the British was not nearly as appealing to Jean-François and Biassou as the old deal offered by the Spanish. The Spanish had essentially left the slave generals to their own devices with little or no direct oversight. Biassou was currently living like a de facto king down in this homemade palace of his. The British, on the other hand, plan to insert the slave generals into their regular command structure. They would have to take orders from British officers, do whatever the British said. So Jean-François and Biassou declined to hop over to the British. 

Instead, the two slave generals decided it was time to get out while the getting was good. The Spanish offered them asylum as free men, and they said okay. Each general took with him a cadre of senior officers, and they decamped the island, forever. Jean-François and Biassou  are never coming back. Biassou wound up resettling in Spanish Florida, where he was eventually given command of the black militia there, and there he died in 1801. Jean-François and his loyalists, meanwhile, went first to Havana. But the Spanish governor flipped out when the slave general and his entourage showed up, and he begged his superiors to deport them all before they started a slave revolt in Cuba. The Spanish authorities granted this request, and Jean-François’s group was taken back across the Atlantic to Cadiz. And their exile was not a comfortable one. Though the Spanish kept their word and allowed the black officers to live free, they did not grant them any sort of pension or recognize the ranks they had held during their two and a half years of service in the Spanish army. Jean-François himself would die in Cadiz, nearly penniless in 1805. So the grand admiral, and the governor general and royal viceroy are now totally out of the picture. 

With their senior commanders gone, it was finally time for the insurgent army of the north to demobilize. And what to do with them all was a vexing question. These armies had obviously managed to hold out long enough that when their generals ditched out on them, the regular soldiers were not thrown back into chains. They were walking down into a world where they were officially free citizens. And amnesty and reconciliation did seem to be the order of the day. Toussaint, for example, was happy to recruit as many of these guys as he could directly into his own forces. But those who were tired of fighting were welcome to return to work on the plantations as free citizens, though they would, of course, be subject to all the labor laws that were now going into effect. All of this proceeded with no final spasm of death or destruction. And it is pretty remarkable that the final chapter of these original slave armies of the Northern Plains is a story told with practically no bloodshed at all. 

Now, as we have seen many times on the Revolutions podcast, the removal of a shared enemy often leads to a factional conflict on the winning side. So with the threat of Jean-François and Biassou’s army removed, tensions within the French Republican ranks quickly erupted into open armed hostility. The tensions in particular were between two men who stood one rung below Governor General Lavaux in the command structure. Toussaint Louverture is obviously one of these two, and the other is a guy we haven’t talked about yet, and his name is Jean-Louis Villatte. Now, we don’t know a ton about Villatte, but he was a free colored, born in Saint Domingue in 1751. He appears to have joined a regiment of dragoons as a teenager in 1768, and was then among those who volunteered to join the expedition to the United States in 1778, where he fought at the Siege of Savannah. After that, we lose track of him, but I feel pretty confident saying that he was not in on Vincent Ogé’s uprising because most of the guys who escaped that little debacle wound up fighting with the slaves after August 1791. The next time we see Villatte pop up is when the Second Commission arrives and the battles over the Law of April 4 begin. When these battles led Sonthonax to create those free colored militias who were answerable only to the Second Commission, Villatte wound up a colonel in that militia. Villatte was then one of the principal officers, along with Jean-Baptiste Belley, fighting for the Second Commission during the Battle of Le Cap. And then when the British invaded and Lavaux moved his headquarters over to Port-de-Paix to contain them, he left Villatte in charge of the defense of Le Cap. 

So, until Toussaint came over to the French side in April 1794, Villatte was the principal Creole officer in the North Province, and he was among the very few on the Republican side not absolutely thrilled when Toussaint defected, because right away Lavaux started to show preferential treatment for Toussaint. And of course, it was a little myth that Toussaint had been offered a general ship after fighting against the Republic for the last three years. In July 1795, the National Convention approved all the field promotions Lavaux had doled out to his principal Creole officers, and the Convention officially made brigadier generals of, in the north Toussaint and Villatte, and then in the south André Rigaud and another guy that I have not talked about yet, and that’s Louis-Jacques Bauvais. 

Bauvais was another of these prototypical free colored men who had struggled for dignity in the old apartheid system. Bauvais had been educated in Bordeaux and then, along with Villatte, taken part in the Savannah expedition and then returned to Saint Domingue to be a schoolteacher. When the revolution broke out, he was one of the first to take up arms to defend the Law of April 4. And then he had stuck with the Republic after emancipation and was now Rigaud’s chief lieutenant in the south. And Bauvais, too, is now a full brigadier general. 

So of the four newly created Creole generals, it was three colored, all born free. And then Toussaint, the lone black, born a slave. And Lavaux was super annoyed that Toussaint was now his equal, not only because he was a black ex slave, but because Toussaint had spent the last three years fighting against the Republic that Lavaux had put his own life on the line time and time again to defend. The lot did not trust Toussaint even a little bit. But as long as Jean-François and Biassou were still out there, that conflict would simmer but never boil over. 

Now that Jean-François and Biassou are departing, it’s time for Villatte to boil over. But his anger and frustration with Lavaux is really what got him going, especially after Lavaux moved his headquarters back to Le Cap after having spent the better part of a year in Port-de-Paix. Now, probably some of Villatte’s anger comes from being the boss, because the boss is out of the office. And now that the boss is back in the office, it being kind of annoying that you’re not the boss anymore. But there was more to it than that. The first thing Lavaux did upon his return was release a whole bunch of black prisoners that Villatte had been keeping locked up, which possibly implied a continuation of Lavaux’s growing preference for the blacks over the coloreds. After this initial slap in the face, Lavaux then proceeded to really offend Villatte and his allies. Over the past year, the coloreds in Le Cap, under Villatte’s protection, had been busy rebuilding the city. As I mentioned in passing, Le Cap had been built mostly out of brick and stone. So though everything flammable had burned in June 1793, the core structures all remained and the colored citizens spied a golden opportunity. They laid claim to all the abandoned white property and built it back up. But when Lavaux arrived back in the city, the governor and his treasury secretary were like, “Wow, guys, this looks great. But just so you know, according to Republican law, property abandoned by emigrades automatically reverts to the state. So you can keep occupying the property, but we do expect a small rent.” This came as an abrupt and pretty obnoxious shock. 

But the thing that was really grating is that Governor General Lavaux just wasn’t one of them. And it wasn’t that he wasn’t colored, but that he wasn’t Creole. He was a Frenchman. France was his home, not Saint Domingue. So why should he order us around in our own home? And this gets to the heart of the newly forming conflict that we’re about to see, because back in 1791, it was the whites who wanted self government and the colors allied with the Metropole. Well, now that the whites are gone. It’s the coloreds who are now chafing under French authority and the coloreds who will start agitating for self government. 

Villatte did not make his move right away, though in fact, much to Toussaint’s great annoyance, Villatte was doing a bit of careful planning. He sent agents out into the camps under Toussaint’s command, asking if Toussaint’s men were happy with their situation. They said “Life in Le Cap has been great for us. The lot pays us more and we are treated way better.” 

According to letters sent from Toussaint to Governor Lavaux, we know that at least some of Toussaint’s men began to transfer their allegiance over to Villatte. 

Finally, on March 20, 1796, Villatte made his surprise move. He gathered a company of armed men pushed into Lavaux’s headquarters and arrested the governor general. Then he said that because Lavaux had lost the support of the people, that Villatte was declaring himself governor general. So March 20, 1796 straight up armed coup by General Louis Villatte. To help solidify his position inside the city, Villatte then spread the rumor that the principal impetus for the coup was news that ships had arrived in the harbor and that they were literally carrying chains. That now that the Spanish were gone, Lavaux had new orders from Paris to re enslave all the blacks. 

Now, one thing we do not know is how much of a role colored leaders down in the west or south provinces, and André Rigaud – we are looking at you, had to do with any of this. But we do know that there was no simultaneous rising on their part or ready declaration of allegiance to Villatte. So it’s entirely possible that he was just out there acting on his own. But it was also over so quickly that it’s tough to tell if it was supposed to be a part of a broader colored insurrection. 

So men loyal to Governor Lavaux managed to get word of the coup spread to nearby army camps, camps that were run by men not allied with Villatte, particularly the one led by Pierrot. You remember him? He was the first slave leader to come over to the Republic. He had been fighting alongside Lavaux for years now and raised his men to prepare defense of the governor general. But Pierrot was just one stop on the messenger chain. The final destination was Toussaint. Toussaint was in Gonaïves on March 20, but when he found out that Lavaux had been arrested, he immediately raised his army and sent word back to Le Cap saying I have raised my army. 

Meanwhile, Villatte appears to have recognized that whatever careful planning had gone into the coup was not enough. Because just as he had spread the rumor that the French wanted to put the blacks back into chains, allies of Lavaux spread the rumor, a rumor they might have actually believed, that Villatte’s coup was just the first stage of a plan to hand the city over to the British. It’s not like colored leaders haven’t done it before. So it’s really Villatte who stands for re enslavement. So Villatte was unable to muster unified support for his coup inside Le Cap, and he realized that if Toussaint really did come marching down out of the mountains, that there would be no opposing him. So on March 22, Villatte let Lavaux go. And as Toussaint’s army did indeed start approaching 10,000 strong, by some estimates, Villatte and his principal conspirators fled the city. 

Villatte’s failed coup was so incredibly beneficial to Toussaint Louverture that it’s practically like Villatte was in on some convoluted plan to bring Toussaint to power. Because Toussaint’s army, being the reason the coup failed, meant that Toussaint was now the savior of both Governor General Lavaux and the Republic. If there was any doubt that the one man in Saint Domingue Lavaux could really count on was Toussaint, those doubts were all gone. As a reward for his service, Lavaux promoted Toussaint to deputy governor, second in command of all the French military and subordinate only to Lavaux. Technically, this elevated Toussaint even above André Rigaud. So in less than a year, Toussaint had gone from the third ranking general of a Spanish backed slave army to second in command of the French colony of Saint Domingue. And that Spanish backed slave army he had abandoned no longer existed. Toussaint has very good timing. 

So Toussaint was now in a prime position to do what it’s pretty clear he was now aiming to do: become the master of Saint Domingue. He enjoyed the loyalty and support of men across the board. The whites in the north certainly found him to be a man they could do business with. And though Villatte had attempted to paint Toussaint as anti-colored, it’s clear from his actions over the past year that Toussaint wasn’t anti-colored at all. He just wasn’t exclusively pro-colored any more than he was pro-white or pro-black. So there were a lot of coloreds who also found Toussaint to be a man they could do business with. And then you’ve got Lavaux writing letters back to Paris now saying, this is the guy that you can count on more than any other. So the government back in France supports him. And then, of course, with Jean-François and Biassou now out of the picture, there was no one who could challenge Toussaint’s claim to be the natural leader of the black majority of the population. So in April 1796, there wasn’t anybody in Saint Domingue with more authority nor commanding more loyalty than Toussaint Louverture. 

Except at that very moment, a man was stepping onto a ship back in France who could very much challenge all that authority and loyalty, especially within the all important black community, because Léger-Félicité Sonthonax is coming back to Saint Domingue. 

So as we discussed last week, when it came to colonial matters, the Directory had come to power with two key principles. First, liberty and equality would be upheld no more slavery, no more racism. Second was the theory that the colonies were now simply a part of the French nation – one and indivisible. The colonies did not require, nor did they deserve, special laws, special treatment or special restrictions. And to ensure that this new theory of liberty, equality and unity were upheld, in January 1796, the Directory created a five man commission to transmit this all to Saint Domingue and make sure it was obeyed. This is the Third Commission. And yes, I know the Haitian Revolution loves a good commission almost as much as the French Revolution loved a good coup. 

So, just to remind you, the First Commission was sent by the National Assembly in 1791 to confirm the right of colonial self rule on internal matters. The Second Commission had then been sent by the Legislative Assembly in 1792 to enforce racial equality, but also defeat the slave uprising without freeing all the slaves. The Third Commission is now being sent by the Directory in 1796 to guarantee both racial equality and emancipation, and then also officially fold the colony into the French nation, one and indivisible. 

The most prominent of the new commissioners was, of course, Sonthonax. After being fully vindicated for his work on the Second Commission, he was now being put on the Third Commission to continue his job. Next, was the man that Brissot had so badly wanted to put onto the second commission, Julien Raimond. Raimond, too, had been fully cleared of any lingering political charges in the wake of Thermidor and was now returning to Saint Domingue for the first time in 12 years. Raimond had started his career in France, lobbying the Royal Ministry to undo its apartheid system. Then he had lobbied the National Assembly for colored equality, then the Legislative Assembly, and then the National Convention, and then he had gotten thrown in jail, and now he was lobbying the Directory. And through it all, he maintained a laser focus on racial equality and never really paid more than lip service to the idea of maybe general emancipation of the slaves at some point down the road. But with emancipation now settled, Raimond accepted it and was ready to move forward. The third guy I’ll mention is Philippe Roume, who had been one of the First Commissioners and who will be returning to the colony for the first time in four years. No doubt hoping and praying that when he stepped off the boat in Le Cap this time there wasn’t some new revolt to deal with. The Commission was rounded out by two other guys who do nothing of any importance. So I won’t trouble you trying to remember their names. 

The Third Commission got on a ship in April 1796, and when their convoys sailed, they brought along with them some military reinforcements led by General Rochambeau, who we last saw taking up a post in Martinique. And when we last saw Rochambeau, I mentioned that he would return to Saint Domingue with the Leclerc expedition, which he does, but I totally forgot that he also makes this little interim return to Saint Domingue with the Third Commission. So Rochambeau brought with him 1200 men, which doesn’t seem like much if the French are really serious about pushing the British out of the colony. But they also brought with them 20,000 muskets. It had become clear to everyone that sending more European reinforcements was a waste of resources and also, I suppose, lives. And that one of the biggest practical benefits to emancipation was that all those new black citizens would become patriotic soldiers of the Republic. So the Third Commission escorted the armaments necessary to create a black army. A black army full of soldiers who knew the terrain and who would not just drop dead and who would then go beat the crap out of the British. This is what Danton meant when he shouted, “This is the death of the English!” after the National Convention approved general emancipation. 

The Third Commission arrived in Le Cap on May 11, 1796, and discovered that since they had departed, there had indeed been a revolt, but not a mass black uprising. Rather, Villatte’s aborted coup. So the aftermath of that coup defined the new political environment they stepped into. And that new environment is a weird through the looking glass version of the political environment we’ve seen thus far. Because, as I just mentioned, ever since the French Revolution had hit, the whites had been the ones agitating for self government, while the coloreds had been the staunchest supporters of the Metropole and then the Republic. Well, now, that’s been flipped. The whites who remained in Saint Domingue were way off of home rule and welcomed full integration with France. It is now the coloreds who are agitating for self government and possibly even independence. So why the switch? Well, that’s easy. The whites are now way less powerful than the coloreds. And where the coloreds had once looked to France as their protector, they now did not need a protector. And the Metropole represented merely a check on the power they believed they had fairly won for themselves. 

Nowhere was this through the looking glass version more apparent than in the attitude of Sonthonax himself. Remember, he had concluded as soon as he arrived in Saint Domingue back in 1792 that the only people he could really trust were the coloreds. Since emancipation, he had changed his mind completely. The slew of colored affections to the British had really ticked him off. And then, stepping off the boat to find that General Villatte had just staged a coup against Lavaux, Sonthonax now identified the coloreds not as the Republic’s best friends in Saint Domingue, but their worst enemy. Well, aside from the British. The Third Commission had been sent to keep Saint Domingue free and keep Saint Domingue French. And the coloreds now clearly stood in the way of that mission. 

So if not the coloreds, now, who does Sonthonax now see as his potential best friend in Saint Domingue? Well, the blacks. And there is no doubt that the black community was 100% ready to be Sonthonax’s best friend. They all knew Sonthonax, they all loved Sonthonax. He was the emancipator. The undisputed claim to leadership of the blacks that Toussaint had been cultivating was suddenly challenged by a very credible rival. A rival who had freed all the slaves and then fought for the Republic that had guaranteed that freedom at a time when Toussaint wanted nothing to do with it and was in fact fighting against it. 

So Toussaint met with Sonthonax and said all the right things. But I have to imagine that from their very first meeting, Toussaint was trying to figure out a way to get Sonthonax the hell off the island. Now, luckily for Toussaint, with the coloreds identified as Problem A1, there was no need to rush into a confrontation just yet. And the Third Commission did indeed begin with the problem of what to do with the coloreds. So right away they ordered General Villatte tracked down and arrested, which they appeared to have done in very short order, because Villatte was then put on a boat and deported back to France for trial. Now, I can’t for the life of me figure out exactly what happened to him after that. But obviously something about the constantly changing state of revolutionary politics back in Paris led Villatte to not be convicted of anything, because he’s going to return to Saint Domingue as one of the rehabilitated colored exiles accompanying the Leclerc expedition sent by Napoleon to take back control of the colony from Toussaint Louverture. But now I’m getting ahead of myself. 

After dealing with Villatte, the Third Commission then turned to the problem of André Rigaud in the south. Aside from Toussaint, Rigaud had been the most important ally the French Republic had in the colony and Polverel certainly trusted him enough to hand over kind of emergency absolute authority in the south to Rigaud. But now that the Third Commission had arrived, it was time to cancel that emergency authority and restore normalcy. And what the Commission meant by normalcy was military officers not having independent authority to just do whatever they wanted. They would have to answer to the commissioners. So Sonthonax put together a small delegation to go down to Les Cayes and investigate the situation as a first step towards winding down Rigaud’s emergency dictatorship and restoring normal government. 

But curiously enough, for this mission, not one of the five commissioners went along. Instead, Sonthonax picked some locals to go, and specifically some white locals who turned out to be really bad men for the job as they are about to make a giant mess of things. Now, I suppose it’s credible that Sonthonax wanted to stay in Le Cap, where he had spent the majority of his life in the colony. And you obviously don’t want to send Raimond down there if your intention is to rein in the coloreds. Philippe Roume, meanwhile, was already heading over to Santo Domingo to begin the process of transferring authority of the whole island from the Spanish to the French, because remember, that’s also supposed to be happening. And then the other two guys had no ties or connections or special knowledge whatsoever. So instead of any of the commissioners going, Sonthonax picked these white locals to go down. 

Now, I don’t want to get too deep into these guys because they’re going to come and go very quickly, but one of them was a guy named André Rey. And in 1791, Rey had been one of the most vocal pro-white anti-colored agitators in the whole colony. Rigaud actually suspected that when the white-colored civil war broke out in 1792, that Rey had tried to assassinate him. Meanwhile, one of the other guys was known to be nothing more than an opportunistic con man. So if the Third Commission thought these guys were going to do anything but bungle the job and provoke a major crisis while they thought wrong. 

But accompanying this little delegation was also a senior French military officer named General Desfourneaux, who was ordered to bring Rigaud’s Legion of the South into the regular army command structure. 

This delegation arrived in the south a few weeks later and started stirring up trouble immediately. Before they even entered Les Cayes, they first went round on an inspection tour of the plantations of the south, and everywhere they went, they intentionally stoked black resentment of the coloreds. They told the black cultivators that they were all being exploited by the coloreds and that these rules and accompanying punishments were not what France wanted for them, that Rigaud and the boys are planning on restoring slavery the first chance they get. And I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that from here on out, everyone is going to be telling the blacks that the other side wants to put you back in chains. When this delegation then got into Les Cayes, they made an inspection of the city’s jail and discovered there were 900 prisoners, 898 of whom were either white or black. It would appear that in Rigaud’s regime, coloreds did not go to jail for anything. 

So with very little tactical diplomacy, the delegation began to assert a new governmental structure. And then Desfourneaux told Rigaud that the days of running a truly independent command without oversight were done. And you now have higher ups you need to be taking orders from. Rigaud and his colored allies were not going to take this lying down, but to prevent them from organizing any real resistance, Desfourneaux announced that Rigaud and the Legion of the South were to undertake an immediate offensive into the mountains of the Grand-Anse surrounding British-held Jérémie. 

Now, I am totally willing to believe that given the nature and attitude of the delegation, that this offensive was not just meant to distract Rigaud, but discredit him and his men. The offensive had very little chance of success. If you look back to Episode 3.40 on the French Revolution, we are now at the point in the war back in Europe where the British have elected to abandon land action on the continent and focus entirely on the naval war. Well, part of that new focus was booting the French out of the Caribbean for good. And by July 1796, 12,000 British reinforcements were now arriving in Saint Domingue. So when Rigaud attacked, he was attacking fortifications as well manned and well armed as they had ever been. When the assault failed, Desfourneaux know put the blame squarely on Rigaud incompetence and the lack of patriotic resolve in the Legion of the South. Desfourneaux then ordered the arrest of a few of the principal covered leaders in Les Cayes to complete the hostile takeover by these agents of the Third Commission. And this was all finally too much for the coloreds. 

With Rigaud still on his way back from the failed campaign, coloreds in and around Les Cayes, led by Rigaud’s brother, by the by, rose up in armed rebellion. And to build up their ranks, they marched around the plantation surrounding Les Cayes and told all the black cultivators, you guessed it, the delegates have lied. France means to reimpose slavery, and these delegates are here to put you back in chains. Soon they had raised an army nearly 4000 strong and marched into Les Cayes. On August 11, 1796, they entered the city and let loose their fury on any white they saw, unleashing a full blown massacre. André Rey and General Desfourneaux managed to get on a boat and they sailed over to Santo Domingo. But the other delegates were not so lucky. Though they were able to seek refuge with General Bauvais, who put them under his, quote, unquote, “protection”. Then Rigaud came marching back into Les Cayes with 3000 or 4000 men of his own. He met with the delegates and they begged him to stop the killing and restore order by any means necessary. Rigaud promptly stopped the killing, and when it was done, about 300 whites lay dead in the street. But Rigaud then expelled the delegates from the south and sent them back to Le Cap with a message that “Because things are still so unsettled, I’m just going to go ahead and maintain my emergency authority until further instructions come from France.”

When these guys made it back to Le Cap, Sonthonax in particular was furious and denounced Rigaud’s actions, but there was very little he could do beyond stomp his feet. The principal enemy in Saint Domingue really was the British. And without Rigaud, there would be no expelling the British. And it certainly would be insane to try to break Rigaud by force at this point. That would be a disaster for everyone. So for the moment, Rigaud holds his little de facto dictatorship. 

While these events unfolded in the south, the Third Commission busied itself restoring normalcy in the north. The Third Commission, broadly speaking, adopted Toussaint’s vision for the future of Saint Domingue. The three races must all have a place, but the plantation economy must also be maintained, and the blacks must be the principal laborers. But they did adopt one of Rigaud’s innovations: that truly abandoned plantations that had reverted to the state should be leased out to private individuals. It seemed to provide the best incentive to get them back up and running and provide the government with a revenue stream. But unlike in the south, where connections to Rigaud were key, in the north, public auctions would be held. Now, obviously, this still means that men with money are going to dominate the auctions. But Sonthonax had hopes that in the end, Saint Domingue might become a mixed blend of Toussaint’s vision for the future and then that fifth option we talked about last time – blacks living and working for themselves. Sonthonax hoped that black cultivators and foreman might be able to pool their resources and put in collective leases on property. But when the bidding started, none of those collectives have the resources to compete with the real men of means. And who were the real men of means now in the north? Well, a new elite cast is forming that is about to become majorly, hugely important: black army officers. 

As I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, the difference between being a slave and being a cultivator isn’t that huge. And the money you made was never going to be enough to really allow you any kind of upward mobility. If you were a cultivator, there was a 99% chance you were going to remain a cultivator until the day you died, and then your kids were going to become cultivators after you. The only institution in Saint Domingue that offered a black man any chance of bettering his lot in life was the army. If you showed some talent, you could rise to be an officer. Bigger share of the plunder, better opportunities for economic and social advancement. And it’s right here, in mid 1796, that we really see the fruits of this begin to be harvested. Toussaint himself acquired the first of many plantations he would come to own in his life. Then his chief, lieutenant, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who I swear I’ll introduce more fully when the time is really right, started buying and leasing property all over the colony. Their fellow officers then joined them in property acquisition. And by the end of the year, you had your first batch of ex slaves vaulting into the ranks of the planter class. 

Julien Raimond, ever the pragmatist, couldn’t resist the deal when he saw it and acquired extensive new holdings at the same time. And if you remember from way back when, the Raimond family fortune had been built by acquiring abandoned plantations. So this was all right in his wheelhouse. 

Adding to the slow entrenchment of a new elite in Saint Domingue were the rules of who would have a political voice in the new system. The Third Commission had orders to hold elections to select Saint Domingue’s delegates to the Council of Five Hundred. And there were now property requirements to be a voter. Remember, when the Directory came to power, they brought with them the old active passive citizen distinction. In 1796, maybe 5% of the population of Saint Domingue could actually meet those requirements. So acquiring property was not just about economic advantage, it was about political advantage. 

When the elections got going in the fall of 1796 to elect delegates back to the Council of Five Hundred, Toussaint Louverture canvassed hard for his two favorite candidates, Governor General Lavaux and Commissioner Sonthonax. You know, the two guys who stood in the way of his own upward trajectory. Now, Lavaux, for his part, was perfectly amenable to being elected. He was coming up on his fourth anniversary in command of Saint Domingue, and not one single day of it had been easy. He had fought in street riots against angry whites and pitched mountain battles against black insurgents, and he had fought the British and the Spanish, he had been the target of a coup. Lavaux was probably pretty tired, and I would not blame him. But Toussaint also pitched his candidacy in terms of making sure that there was a voice back in Paris who could defend Toussaint’s tricolor future for Saint Domingue, a vision of the future shared by Lavaux. So Lavaux said, all right, let’s do it. And he was elected. Also elected on this slate were Louis Dufay and Jean-Baptiste Belley, who were already, of course, still in Paris, ready to just roll into their new offices. And then, yes, Sonthonax was elected. 

Unlike Lavaux, Sonthonax was really resistant to this idea. He had just gotten back to Saint Domingue and believed that he was essentially coming back to complete his life’s work. Going back to Paris was the last thing he wanted to do. But Toussaint was able to convince enough voters that Toussaint was the best man to have back in Paris, speaking French to the French government on their behalf. Leave Creole business to the Creoles back here in Saint Domingue. So, against his will, Sonthonax was elected a delegate to the Council of Five Hundred. But though elected, he refused to leave. He said, “I am going to stay and complete my term as Commissioner.” So in October 1796, Governor General Lavaux boarded a ship to go back to France and took with him Toussaint’s two sons who were to be educated in France, but Sonthonax did not join them. 

But though the rivalry between Toussaint and Sonthonax was now growing, on the surface, they remained allies. And so when Lavaux left Sonthonax named Toussaint commander in chief of all the French forces in Saint Domingue, And, I mean, who else could he choose? Any other candidate likely would have provoked a whole new rebellion. 

So we’re going to leave everyone there for now. Toussaint is now commander in chief of all the military forces in Saint Domingue, but he still has to contend with Sonthonax. André Rigaud is still running the south as a personal dictatorship, and the reinforced British continued to occupy territory across the west and south provinces. And I sure hope nothing happens back in France to upset this new balance of power.

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