The Tricolor Commission

Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.

As the Second Commission approached the first anniversary of their arrival in Saint Domingue, it’s fair to say that they had shepherded the colonial crisis from mere revolt to full blown revolution. Remember, when they had shown up, the whites were still attempting to both deny colored equality and make no concessions whatsoever to the slaves. The Second Commission had not only imposed racial equality by force, they had now gone and freed all the slaves. Not that many whites were around anymore. The mass exodus from Le Cap in June was just the start of a larger exodus. The whole rest of the summer of 1793, whites just got on boats and sailed away. But the question now circulating through the entire Atlantic world was, hey, what the hell just happened in Saint Domingue? And is any of it going to be permanent? 

Now, one of the major concerns Sonthonax and Polverel now had was how this was all going to play back in France. They were acutely aware that the men and women they had either actively deported or who had just fled the colony in terror were going to paint a very negative picture of their conduct. And then they became really super concerned when word finally trickled back to the colony about what had happened in Paris in June of 1793, which was, you guessed it, the purge of the Girondins. About three weeks before the destruction of Le Cap, the Sans-culottes in Paris had demanded the expulsion of Brissot and all his friends from the National Convention, and Brissot was the political patron of Sonthonax and Polverel. Even if all they had done upon arrival in Saint Domingue was plant a nice flower garden, their lives and fortunes might at this very moment be in jeopardy. And they had obviously done a hell of a lot more than plant a flower garden since their arrival. 

In mid-September, they got their first unofficial notice of their worst fear. On July 16, 1793, before news of the destruction of Le Cap had even gotten back home, the National Convention voted to recall Sonthonax and Polverel and make them stand before the Revolutionary Tribunal. The commissioners understandably decided to stay in Saint Domingue until an official emissary brought them a written order to depart. They claimed this was to supervise the continued defense of the colony from the Spanish and British until replacement leaders arrived. But when the Revolutionary Tribunal calls, a little foot dragging is not exactly irrational, especially because by now they knew that ex Governor Blanchelande had been executed for far less than anything they had done. So they elected to wait for an actual order. 

And they weren’t just blowing smoke when they said they couldn’t leave without replacement leaders being in place, because with all the chaos and resentment inside Saint Domingue, the British finally decided to make their play for the colony. In mid-September, word came round that the whites in Jérémie had invited a British naval squadron into their harbor and 600 British soldiers had disembarked. At almost that same moment, regular army forces stationed at a naval base at Môle-Saint-Nicolas on the northwest tip of the North Province, surrendered to the British without firing a shot. The British invasion of Saint Domingue had begun. 

Just as the British were invading Sonthonax, and what was left of his little interim commission selected six men to go back to France and defend everything that had happened over the last year. And the very character of the commission would speak volumes. There would be two whites, two coloreds and two blacks – living proof of liberty, equality and fraternity. Now, only three of these guys are actually going to make it Paris, so they’re the ones I’m going to focus on. The white delegate was named Louis-Pierre Dufay. He was a lapsed aristocrat who had been an early white supporter of the commissioners in Le Cap. He had been one of the guys, for example, writing frantic letters back to them right after Governor Galbaud arrived. The colored delegate was named Jean-Baptiste Mills, about whom I can find almost no information except that he was the colored representative in the Tricolored Commission, but presumably he was a landowner and probably an officer in the free colored militia. The black representative we met last week, Jean-Baptiste Belley, the guy who had led the defense of the commissioners at the government house during the Battle of Le Cap. Born in Africa, brought to Saint Domingue as a slave, and then later emancipated, Belley’s role in all of this is going to be particularly groundbreaking, as he’s about to be the first black ex slave to do, well, everything he’s about to do. 

After the Tricolor Commission set sail, they did not head straight for France. Instead, they headed up to the United States, which meant that the first thing the Tricolor Commission got to do was run into all the refugees who had fled Le Cap back in June and those people, oh my God, they were so mad. It’s estimated that about 3000 to 5000 residents of Saint Domingue fled in the June exodus. Since none of the ships in Le Cap had been prepared to suddenly be ferrying all of these civilian refugees, I mean, it’s not like they had provisions or accommodations for all these people, they decided to sell them all up to the United States, the only country France wasn’t at war with and just deposit them there. So that’s what happened to all the refugees. Major disembarkings occurred in Charleston and Norfolk, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Now, the response from the Americans was welcoming and generous and benevolent societies were established to help the utterly destitute French refugees land on their feet. As I said, the Americans had been following events in Saint Domingue in the papers and were understandably sympathetic to the plight of the refugees. Well, most of them. Because while twothirds of the refugees were white, the other third were either black or colored, both free or slave. Now, almost all of the blacks and coloreds were women and they came in two principal types. They were either wives of white refugees or they were slaves who acted as nannies and caregivers for the various white children. But there were also a few men, both slave and free, in the bunch. And so along with the general fraternal embrace of the refugees there was quite a lot of hand wringing that some of these blacks and coloreds might have boarded the boats in Le Cap intending to spread the gospel of slave revolt in the United States. But proposals to try to limit disembarkings to only whites got nowhere as angry French refugees barked in French that either this is my wife or this is the woman who was raising my children. So the blacks and coloreds got off the boat with the whites and rumors of a planned uprising, particularly around Richmond, Virginia, were thick in the air. Without really having much experience with free coloreds, for example, the Americans couldn’t quite believe that these colored refugees were enemies of the slave insurgents, not their allies. 

But when nothing actually ever happened, the Americans tried to figure out what to do with the refugees. Working through all of this with the American government and various local authorities was the French ambassador to the United States, our old friend, Citizen Genêt. When he wasn’t driving George Washington up the wall, Genêt worked on the refugee problem and it soon became clear that they fell into three types: those who planned to go back to Saint Domingue, those who wanted to go back to France, and those who were prepared to try to start a new life in the United States. And what with the whole world being an exploded mess of war, revolt, and destruction. For the most part, they all just had to sit tight and live on American charity for a while. It’s also worth mentioning that in the late summer of 1793, Philadelphia was stricken by a pretty catastrophic epidemic of yellow fever. And while you can never be 100% sure of these things, the most likely explanation is that the epidemic came along with the refugees, so that also happened. 

Citizen Genêt was a side character in the story of the French Revolution, but he winds up playing a critical supporting role in the story of the Haitian Revolution, because, if you remember, Genêt was, that’s right, in the Brissot-Girondin faction. That’s why he had been appointed ambassador to the United States in the first place. So though he did not know Santanax and Polverel personally, they had been in regular correspondence with each other all through 1793 and pretty much saw eye to eye on politics. So when the warship bearing the deposed Governor Galbaud arrived in Philadelphia, the deposed governor, like every other refugee, spun a tale of horror about the conduct of the Second Commissioners and how they had destroyed Le Cap and Genêt said, “Yeah, I don’t buy it. I’m pretty sure this is all your fault.” Genêt said, “I’m going to keep your mutinous soldiers here in the United States, but I’m going to send you back to France to face the music.” 

Galbaud and the sailors both strenuously objected to this because they did not want to be separated from each other. Galbaud needed the sailors as witnesses to back up his story, and the sailors needed Galbaud to say, “Yes, I was in charge the whole time.”, so they refused to be separated. Then Genêt found out that Galbaud, the sailors and civilian refugees in Philadelphia were talking seditiously behind Genêt’s back, and so Genêt ordered the ship to sail up to New York, where the refugee population was much thinner. 

In mid-August, Genêt and Galbaud had a final confrontation aboard the ship. Genêt stood by his plan to separate Galbaud from the sailors and send him back to France. So that night, Galbaud and his wife snuck onto a longboat, rode to shore and made a run for it. They made it to an inn in Westchester County before two French military police officers dispatched by Genêt caught up with them. But the ex governor managed to slip out the back door and make for Canada. Meanwhile, Lady Galbaud stayed behind at the inn and entertained one of the military policemen for a week, while the officer wrote reports back to Genêt saying, “I’ve got Galbaud cornered. Don’t worry about it.” Make of all that what you will. As soon as Galbaud crossed over to Canada, he was arrested by the British and taken to Quebec City, where he was held until October, when he escaped and crossed back over to New York. Now basically a penniless vagabond, Galbaud found meager accommodations near the border in case he had to run forward again. 

Meanwhile, Genêt was continuing to annoy the American government, but also handle the frequent requests of refugees to either go back to Saint Domingue or sail on to France. But Genêt was now purposefully deflecting their requests. He knew that both the British and Spanish had agents recruiting in the refugee communities, so anyone going back to the colony was sure to be going to join the enemies of the Republic. Meanwhile, anyone going back to France was sure to denounce Sonthonax and Polverel, and now likely Genêt himself, and cost them their jobs and possibly their heads. Little did Genêt know that the American ambassador in Paris had already denounced him, and his recall order was in the mail. 

Into this angry, resentful and combative environment, the Tricolor Commission arrived in the United States in early November. On November 8, they landed in Philadelphia and when the French sailors and refugees found out who was on board, they were furious. Mills and Belley elected to remain on their ship and not risk walking the streets publicly. The white delegate, Louis Dufay, tried to go out, but as soon as he went ashore, he was identified and surrounded by an angry mob of Frenchmen, and it was only with the help of a local woman that he was guided safely away. But then a further mob just marched up the gang plank of the commissioner’s ship. They accosted Mills and Belley and ransacked their quarters. Only after some serious pushback was this mob dispersed. 

So the captain of the ship then prudently sailed on up to New York, which, like I said, did not really have a significant refugee population to accost the commissioners. When they arrived on November 10, Genêt welcomed them with a public reception that acknowledged the Commission as an official government delegation. And this is when Belley gets to do one of his first, as he is the first black to be recognized as an official government representative of anything in the United States or in France. The Tricolor Commission remained in New York for the next month under Genêt’s auspices. But the refugee French and French sailors both continued to make ominous noises about attacking and possibly even assassinating a lot of them. So the six commissioners agreed to split up into two groups. And on December 10, Genêt put Dufay, Mills and Belley on one of the French government’s fast messenger boats and ordered the captain to sail them to France as fast as possible. There are rumors that the angry French refugees actually tried to hire some of the sailors to murder the commissioners en route, but to no avail. 

So just to wrap up our loose ends here, not long after the Commission sailed, a penniless Governor Galbaud reemerged in New York City, looking for passage back to France. Genêt tried to get the American government to block this, but by now, Genêt himself was persona non grata with the American government. So Genêt said, “Fine, if you can pay for your passage, you can leave”, and eventually Galbaud will sail back to France. 

Genêt also stopped trying to block the further passage of the other refugees. So by early 1794, they were either headed back to France, which, for the record, yes, seems like a pretty crazy time to be wanting to go back to France. But even crazier are the ones headed back to Saint Domingue. Now, some had decided to reconcile with the new order and reclaim their property, but as Genêt suspected, a bunch of the others joined the Spanish and British as auxiliary forces to go retake what was theirs by force. Other refugees chose to permanently settle in America, where they were soon joined by emigrats fleeing the reign of terror, like, for example, Moreau de Saint-Méry, the great colonial expert and one time big white delegate to the National Assembly. By now, he’s a counterrevolutionary swine, and in October 1793, he ducked out of France, one step ahead of an arrest warrant. After landing in Philadelphia, Saint-Méry would remain there for years. He opened up a bookshop that soon became a hub of the best bred and best educated of the French emigrates, including, eventually, Talleyrand. When Talleyrand arrived in Philadelphia, he spent practically every night hanging out in the rooms above Saint-Méry’s bookshop, chatting, playing cards and waiting for his chance to get the hell out of this backwater and back to the real action. 

Back in the real action, the Tricolor Commission finally made it to Paris at the end of January 1794, and boy, did they walk into a crazy mess. We are now at Episode 3.36, “The liquidation process”, when the revolution is now truly devouring all her children. There was a paranoid factional struggle between the Committee of Public Safety and the Committee of General Security and the Ultras and the Indulgence, and then Robespierre’s little death cult in the middle. The Tricolor Commission is about to become a pawn in this deadly game. And to explain how and why, we need to back up a little bit. 

So when last we left Paris, king Louis had just signed the Law of April 4. And then in July 1792, Sonthonax and Polverel and ‘the other guy’ had sailed away. The Law of April 4 was a major setback for the big white colonial interests, but it was nothing compared to what came next: the Insurrection of August 10. The Club Massiac was full of liberal nobles and enlightened bourgeoisie, like Moreau de Saint-Méry, who were now all suspected of counterrevolutionary leanings. The Club Massiac pretty much ceased functioning after August 10, but the colonial interests were not done yet. Just before the Second Commission arrived in Le Cap, the Colonial Assembly had selected a few delegates to go back to Paris to make sure that the Law of April 4 was not followed with anything crazy like the emancipation of all the slaves. When these guys arrived in Paris, they discovered, holy crap, the King has been overthrown and France is now a republic. Thinking fast, these colonial representatives denounced the Club Massiac types as being in league with the counterevolutionary aristocrats, and they pitched slavery as necessary for the survival of the Republic, because obviously we’re all patriotic Republicans now. But they still face two major hurdles. First, Brissot remained a major power in the new National Convention, especially on colonial matters. He and his ally, Julien Raimond, were not about to let their work be undone. And second, Paris, frankly, had bigger fish to fry. When the National Convention convened, the Mountain and Girondins descended into their blood feud. They put Louis on trial, and then when they chopped his head off, they had to deal with the mass eruption of war and rebellion. Colonial affairs were totally deprioritized. 

But the white colonial interests did get a few boosts along the way. In January 1793, just as Louis was facing Madame La Guillotine, the first wave of men deported by the Second Commission arrived in Paris ready to denounce Sonthonax and Polverel. But the real boost came in June 1793, when the Girondins were purged from the Convention. Because the Second Commissioners were identifiably Brissot’s boys, the white colonial lobbyists were now able to paint their work as a counterrevolutionary Girondin plot to destroy the colony – a story the now purged Convention was ready to gobble up. So, as I said at the beginning of the show, on July 16, the Convention ordered the recall of Sonthonax and Polverel to return home and face the Revolutionary Tribunal. Then, at the end of August, word of the destruction of Le Cap and the mass exodus of the whites arrived and everyone in Paris now solidly believed that the Second Commission was to blame for everything, and further, that they were an actively sinister force that had to be stopped. But the official agents sent to convey the recall order and bring the commissioners home to stand trial got trapped in Brest thanks to British naval patrols, and spent the next few months just never setting sail. 

As the reign of terror prepared to really get going in October 1793, Paris hit peak anti-Girondin fury. After Brissot’s arrest back in June, Julien Raimond had tried to keep a low profile. But on September the 27th, he too was denounced and arrested. When all his Girondin friends were executed a few weeks later, Raimond had to believe that he would soon be next. It also just so happens that mid-October 1793 is also when word of general emancipation hits and everyone becomes really super convinced that this is all a Girondin plot to help destroy the Republic. 

But then, in December, everything suddenly flipped upside down when two pieces of news were revealed almost simultaneously. First, correspondence between the renegade big whites and the British government about handing the colony over were published. Suddenly, everyone knew that since at least February, the white colonial interests had been actively in league with the enemies of the Republic. And then the second bit of news was the incontrovertible proof of this treasonous alliance. News that Jérémie and Môle-Saint-Nicolas had opened their harbors to the British. Suddenly, the Second Commission and their emergency emancipation order looked like a truly patriotic response to white colonial treason. So the verdict that Sonthonax and Polverel were enemies of the Republic was suddenly being reconsidered. 

But as I said, colonial policy is very much now being viewed through the lens of the really super dangerous world of Paris politics during the Reign of Terror. For complicated reasons, the white colonial lobbyists had wound up attached most especially to the Ultras in all of this, and particularly had allies in the Committee of General Security. So it was by order of the Committee of General Security that Julien Raimond had been arrested. And when the Tricolor Commission arrived in Paris at the end of January 1794, the Committee of General Security acted on a colonial lobby request and arrested them too. Oddly enough, though, only Dufay and Mills were tossed in jail, while Belley was left alone, no one quite knowing what to do with him. But the Committee of Public Safety soon ordered all these guys released because, like I just said, one, this was just a further skirmish in the power struggle between the Committee of Public Safety and the Committee of General Security. But then two, the official story was now changing. The white colonial lobbyists are the really real traitors in all of this. So let’s hear what this Tricolor Commission has to say. 

On February 3, 1794, the Tricolor Commission were presented to the National Convention and were then accepted as official delegates from the North Province of Saint Domingue, making Jean-Baptiste Belley the first black legislator in French history, possibly even European history, unless I’m missing somebody. The next day, Louis Dufay delivered a stirring speech in defense of the Second Commission and more importantly, the Emancipation Decree. But critically, Dufay blew right past the moral reasons for ending slavery, because nobody cares much about that. He focused exclusively on the role the freed slaves, now free citizens, would play in defending the Republic in the Caribbean. He also told a pretty sweet lie about how the slaves had spontaneously rallied to the commissioners during the Battle of Le Cap and had cried, “Long lived the Republic” as they went into battle. The same black citizen soldiers were now the only thing protecting Saint Domingue from falling to the British. Dufay also stressed the restrictive nature of emancipation, that the commissioners had made sure to put rules in place to make sure the economy kept going, and he said, “You will see that your colony of Saint Domingue, cultivated by free hands, will be more flourishing, that this new colony will produce more for the Metropole than before.” 

When Dufay was finished, the National Convention took a vote. And what a vote it turned out to be on that day. 16 Pluviôse, Year II – February 4, 1794, to you and me, the National Convention ignored Dufay’s careful focus on the legal restrictions of emancipation and unanimously decreed, quote “the National Convention declares that slavery of Negroes is abolished in all the colonies. In consequence, it decrees that all men, without distinction of color domiciled in the colonies, are French citizens and will enjoy all rights guaranteed by the Constitution. This degree is referred to the Committee of Public Safety, which will report immediately on measures for its implementation.” 

This was a stunning blanket emancipation order of all the slaves, not just in Saint Domingue, but the entire French Empire. This was not freedom for service. This was not freedom with labor rules. This was not gradual. There was no compensation to former owners. This was just freedom. 

In the euphoric aftermath of the vote, Belley took to the floor and said, “I was a slave during my childhood. 36 years have passed since I became free through my own labor and purchased myself. Since then, in the course of my life, I have felt worthy of being French.” He then went on to say that the Tricolor flag had become the beacon of liberty that he and his brothers would defend with their lives. Danton, in one of his last public speeches before getting beheaded, cried, “This is the death of the English!” All the slaves in Saint Domingue were now free citizens of France. 

And before we head back to Saint Domingue, though, I will note a little coincidence that I did not realize until I was putting this week’s show together – that the very next day, February 5, 1794, is the day Robespierre came forward and delivered his famous speech on public morality, with its link between virtue and terror that we discussed in Episode 3.37, “The Republic of Virtue”. Oddly enough, the man who had once fought to ensure that the word ‘slavery’ was not included in the French constitution made no reference to the incredible abolition of slavery that had just been decreed the day before. 

So now, heading back to Saint Domingue, the Second Commission would have a long time to wait before this epic vindication of all their work arrived. After the Tricolor Commission set sail, it was a harrowing seven months before they found out, and even then, the vindication was not without a major caveat for them personally. So after the Tricolor Commission sailed away, Sonthonax and Polverel were quickly dealt another major blow. The colored leaders in Saint-Marc, long one of their main bases of support, decided that the commissioners had gone too far and that emancipation was an intolerable betrayal. After making contact with British agents in November, the Saint-Marc coloreds voted to invite them into the harbor. The deal was straightforward: if you recognize racial equality and help us maintain slavery, we will help you take Saint Domingue away from the French. 

But the coloreds were in for a rude awakening. The British agents likely would have promised 10,000 magical unicorns to get the British in the door. But official ministry policy, as agreed to back in February with the renegade white colonists, was that, quote, “coloreds will have the same rights as this class in English colonies”, which meant that whatever territory the British controlled, the coloreds were about to go back to being second class citizens. So, no unicorns. 

With the coloreds betraying the Republic, Polverel rushed to Port-au-Prince to make sure the always seditious capital didn’t flip too. And I forgot to mention this, but in fine revolutionary fashion, after the Second Commissioners had retaken the city back in April, they had renamed it Port-Républicain. But since this was pretty short lived, I’m just going to keep calling it Port-au-Prince, if that’s cool with everybody. Now the situation became critical enough that then Sonthonax rushed down, too, leaving Colonel Lavaux in charge of the military situation in the north. Lavaux then moved his forces over to Port-de-Paix, which was west of Le Cap, where he planned to hold the line against any British encroachments. I’ve got a map of all this at http://www.revolutionspodcast.com. But luckily for Lavaux, Sonthonax and Polverel, the British were about to make no headway over the winter. They captured a few more ports and held some coastal territory, but were unable to push inland or link any of their captured territories together. 

For one, like all Europeans, British soldiers were dropping like flies from tropical diseases. And then the mountainous interior of Saint Domingue is, as we’ve seen, pretty brutal territory and riddled with armed enemies, whether independent slave insurgents who had no interest in the British trying to reimpose slavery, or armed colored armies who had elected to stick with the Republic, because the emancipation order had split the colored community right down the middle. So some of the Second Commissioners’ allies defected to the British, but others, like André Rigaud in the south, denounced the perfidy of his brothers and stayed true to the Republic. 

It was as a result of his conduct during these troubled months that Rigaud really cemented the foundation for his rule in the south. With the emancipation decree in hand, he was, for example, able to talk most of the leaders of the Kingdom of Platon into joining what Rigaud was now calling the Legion of Equality, a mixed colored and black army that would uphold racial equality and slave emancipation by force against all comers. Most of the leaders accepted the deal and were enrolled as captains in the Legion, and they brought with them about 1200 men. And I can’t nail this down, but I’m also pretty sure this is the moment when the Kingdom of Platon gets redubbed the Republic of Platon, which is what it’s called in many history books on the subject. But Rigaud’s vision of emancipation was enforcing the rules of labor imposed by the Second Commissioners. And in the territory Rigaud is controlled, those blacks not fighting were expected to return to their plantations and work, and he expected the black leaders to help keep them there. 

But while the staunch support of Rigaud and his forces will be critical to the survival of the mission of the Second Commissioners, there was nothing quite like the almost miraculous news they received in May 1794: Toussaint Louverture was prepared to switch his allegiance from Spain to France. Now, it is likely that Toussaint had been considering this option even as he was denouncing Sonthonax’s emancipation decree back in August. With the Republican cause both in Europe and the Caribbean seemingly on the brink of collapse, the principal slave generals were already positioning themselves for the new order to come. Jean-François and Biassou’s partnership was now more tenuous than ever as each prepared to rush into the post-French vacuum and become the supreme leader of the colony. Meanwhile, Toussaint, who was technically Biassou second in command, had positioned himself in the greatest position of all. Jean-François controlled the eastern part of the North Province, Biassou controlled the southern part, both with easy access to the Spanish. Toussaint, meanwhile, had gotten himself put in charge of the west territory that bordered the cordon of the west. 

Over the winter of 1793-1794, Toussaint methodically took the forts of the cordon one by one and by October he had captured the port city of Gonaïves, and suddenly it was Toussaint who held the all important line between the West Province and the North Province. Operating now on his own and away from Spanish supervision, Toussaint likely began to think hard about what to do with this new position. He was never going to be able to outmaneuver Jean-François and Biassou by way of the Spanish. They had more direct and deeper ties to the Spanish authorities and Toussaint would always be a mere subordinate in the Spanish hierarchy. So if he wanted to be anything more than that, and by now it’s pretty clear that he wants to be a lot more than that, then the Spanish are not his best allies. Then, at the end of 1793 word started filtering up that all those Spanish boasts that the French Republic was on the brink of collapse was a lot of hot air. The Republic still stood and was possibly even winning the war back in Europe. So whose promises really counted for what around here? 

And then there was also the subtle distinction between the emancipation offered now by the French, which was general, and the Spanish, which was limited to the soldiers – the standard freedom for service deal. The Spanish had made it clear that they had no intention of abolishing slavery as such and Toussaint may have by now made up his mind that general emancipation was the only way forward for Saint Domingue. So a calculated jump over to the French at this moment might be the perfect move. And it was. 

In March 1794 Toussaint and Biassou exchanged a serious set of letters indicating that they were both getting pretty tired of each other. Then it is supposed that in April, news of the National Convention’s mass emancipation decree arrived and that pushed Toussaint over the edge. At the end of April, Toussaint’s black soldiers in Gonaïves suddenly turned on their Spanish comrades, killing them all and forcing the town’s people to flee. Toussaint said, “I had nothing to do with this. Let me go look into it and I’ll punish the perpetrators of this crime, blah, blah, blah.” When he arrived, he suddenly announced the existence of a secret offer from Colonel Lavaux to join the French Republican Army as a Brigadier General. Then Toussaint announced he was taking the deal. He brought with him 4000 well trained soldiers, the cordon of the west, and all the parishes under his control, including Acul, Limbé and Dondon, parishes that had been at the very heart of the initial revolt. He also brought with him top flight black officers who would soon go on to play a major role in the history of Haiti, for example, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe. 

Toussaint’s sudden defection to the French breathed new life into the Republican cause and not a moment too soon. In early June, the depleted British got some reinforcements and launched a renewed assault on Port-au-Prince. Sonthonax and Polverel could not hold them off and were forced to flee down to Jacmel. The British captured the capital on June 4. Four days after that, while in Jacmel, the agents of the National Convention finally, finally arrived with two pieces of news. The first so, so sweet, the other so, so bitter. The agent invited Sonthonax and Polverel onto his ship and said the Convention has not only ratified your emancipation decree, it has taken them even further. The slaves are all free. They are all now citizens. Emancipation had been the Second Commissioners’ most controversial act. The unanimous endorsement by the home government must have been a huge relief. But then the other news dropped. The Committee of Public Safety had upheld the recall order. Sonthonax and Polverel were to remain on board the ship for immediate deportation back to France to face the Revolutionary Tribunal. 

The commissioners were not even allowed to return to shore. But they were able to hastily dispatch a few final arrangements. By order of the Convention, Lavaux was officially promoted to governor general, which is finally a really great choice. And Sonthonax wrote him a letter that said “Whatever happens, you have to hold the colony at all costs.” Polverel, meanwhile, wrote to Rigaud invested him with autonomous authority over the south. With the colony so divided and with the British everywhere, it was pointless for Lavaux and Rigaud to try to work together. So with this last order, Polverel said to Rigaud, “You are the absolute authority in the south.” And Rigaud would keep this authority until he was defeated by Toussaint in the final War of Knives in 1800. Because don’t worry, gang, the fun never stops in the Haitian revolution. 
Next week, the new Republican Tricolor Triumvirate of Lavaux, Toussaint and Rigaud will launch simultaneous campaigns against both the British invaders and Toussaint’s old comrades, Jean-François and Biassou. With France now exploding outward back in Europe, thanks to the levée en masse and the Republican forces winning battles in the field in Saint Domingue, Toussaint had to be quite gratified to know that he had indeed switched sides at the perfect moment.

Return to The Haitian Revolution >>

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: