The War of Knives

Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.

So last week, Toussaint Louverture not only rid himself of Joseph de Hédouville, the Directory’s official emissary to Saint Domingue, he also opened up independent diplomatic relations with both the United States and Great Britain, who were both at war (or at least quasi war) with France. This was a bold step towards total political independence, but Toussaint was not prepared to go all the way just yet. He rebuffed advances from both the British and Americans to declare independence. And in the wake of Joseph de Hédouville’s departure, he instead called on the Third Commissioner, Philippe Roume, the last man carrying credentials signed in Paris, to leave Santo Domingo and come back to Le Cap, where he would be able to officially rubber stamp Toussaint’s policies. Roume reluctantly came back, and though he would half heartedly push back against Toussaint, there was nothing he could really do. So though Toussaint still hid behind a veneer of fealty to France, he paid them now even less mind than ever. 

Now, as I somewhat cynically mentioned last week, through the whole course of the Haitian Revolution, whatever political faction happened to be on top tended to seek independence from France, while their rivals tended to seek greater ties to France. Now, I don’t know if Toussaint’s ultimate objective was, in fact, total political independence, but it is clear that he is now essentially playing for the program first advanced by the big whites, when they sent delegates to the Estates-General way back in 1789. Their goal had never been independent per se. What they were really after was home rule and the right to free trade. As long as they had those two guarantees in hand, remaining inside the French Empire was fine. They just wanted to replace the system where the superior metropolitan dominated the inferior colony and turned the French Empire into a confederation of autonomous units with a shared loyalty. Toussaint was now angling for almost this identical program. He didn’t need or want any more of the supposed superiors from France telling him what to do. And he wanted Saint Domingue to be able to trade with any power on earth. If I had to speculate, I’d say that Toussaint would have been fine running an autonomous Saint Domingue inside the French Empire rather than actively pursuing a clean break. And certainly the coming war with France would be forced on him by France. It was never anything that he truly sought. 

Now, one thing we absolutely do know, however, is that Toussaint wanted to be the supreme and unchallenged master of the island of Hispaniola. And yes, as we will see here today, he wanted the whole island, not just Saint Domingue proper. And the only man on the island currently in a position to stand his way was André Rigaud. And now that their mutual enemy had been removed from the island, that is the British, the time had come for Toussaint to also remove Rigaud. 

So of course, the flip side of the powerful political factions seeking independence was the weak political faction seeking closer ties to France. And that is now right back where Rigaud has found himself. He and his free colored brethren had begun the Haitian revolution as the staunchest defenders of French authority as the big whites had used home rule as code for racial apartheid. When the whites had been expelled and politically neutralized the coloreds then briefly became the dominant political faction and it was they who brushed off French authority, most dramatically in 1796 with first the coup of General Villatte in Le Cap and then the massacre of all those white in Les Cayes later in the summer. While now that Toussaint has leapfrogged Rigaud in terms of power and prestige, it’s time for Rigaud and his colored allies to head back to the bosom of the Metropole. And in the coming battle with Toussaint, Rigaud would paint himself as the true defender of the French Republic who was battling against this usurper Toussaint, and in this he would cling to the dispatch issued by Hédouville in October 1798 that liberated Rigaud from his subordination to Toussaint and also clearly hinted that Hédouville would be advocating for Rigaud when he returned to France. So in the coming battle with Toussaint, André Rigaud would always keep one eye on the horizon desperately hoping that reinforcements would arrive from France. But spoiler alert these reinforcements are not coming. 

Now, as I mentioned at the very end of last week’s show (right before the outro music didn’t kick in. I’m sorry about that. It should be fixed now), the civil war that’s about to begin between Rigaud and Toussaint, dubbed the War of Knives, is simplistically painted as a race war between the blacks and coloreds. And while this is kind of, sort of true, it’s not really, really true. I mean, we know that Rigaud was setting up a system of colored supremacy. But as open war approached, Rigaud was supported by black leaders in the west and north provinces who were disenchanted with Toussaint Louverture’s rule. There were plenty of blacks who believed that Toussaint was effectively betraying them back into slavery. These are the guys who had just recently chanted “Long live Sonthonax!” in 1796, much due Toussaint’s great annoyance. So Rigaud does have a procolored agenda, but his support orders are not only coloreds. And then more importantly on Toussaint’s side, we know that he was absolutely not pursuing black supremacy. He not only had all the whites in Saint Domingue supporting him, but he also had a fair number of coloreds – practical men, landowners and merchants and military officers who believe that Toussaint’s way forward really was the best way forward. Whatever racial solidarity they might have felt was subordinated to economic solidarity. Toussaint was fighting for all three races to live together and prosper together. This was not about exterminating the coloreds. So though it looks like a war between the blacks and the coloreds, it really wasn’t that at all. 

But it’s also not surprising that history books would report the War of Knives as a race war, seeing as that’s how Toussaint painted it. As he and Rigaud waged a propaganda war in early 1799. Toussaint launched the first attack of this War of Words in February 1799, practically the minute that Toussaint’s clause was signed into law in Philadelphia, which guaranteed his access to trade with the United States and Britain. He issued an address that denounced Rigaud and the colored regime of the south. Toussaint said, as everyone in Saint Domingue does, that Rigaud planned to re-enslave the blacks the first chance he got. Toussaint said, “I’ve been Rigaud’s superior officer for years now, but he won’t take orders from me because I’m a black man and Rigaud hates black men.” Toussaint also pointedly reminded everyone of the fate of the Swiss. The first slave fighters promised freedom by the coloreds who were then immediately betrayed. Toussaint said, “That’s Rigaud’s plan for all of us: use us to get power and then betray us back into chains.” Rigaud then fired back with an address of his own that said, “I cannot believe I’m the one being accused of hating blacks. I have fought for racial equality my whole life. Sword in one hand, declaration of the Rights of Man in the other. Half. My family is black. I was raised by blacks, I have fought alongside blacks. Toussaint Louverture is a two faced double dealer and you shouldn’t believe him because I promise you, it’s not me, it’s him who wants to put you back into chains. He is planning on selling out everybody to the British who will bring with them re-enslavement. I mean, just a couple of months ago, he expelled the official representative of the French Republic so that he could make deals with the British and the Americans, who are nothing but racists and slavers. So if you think he won’t throw you back into chains, you’re kidding yourself. I am actually the one fighting to keep you free.” 

And the funny thing about all of this is that aside from Rigaud’s very real favoritism of the coloreds, the rival regimes of Toussaint and Rigaud are, like, practically the same. Neither question that plantation economics was the only way forward, neither question that blacks must be the labor force. And despite their mutual accusations, neither planned on re-enslaving the black cultivators. Neither was particularly interested in democratic participation in government, nor being told what to do by France, even as they both positioned themselves as the two representatives of France. And as for cutting deals with the slave powers, I mean, Rigaud has been able to maintain his position thanks to a very brisk trade with American merchants. So what are we really looking at here? That’s right, we are looking at two powerful and ambitious men running into each other. Everything else is just a lot of talk. 

But though they were both ambitious and powerful, there was very little hope for André Rigaud in the final analysis. Because on the eve of the War of Knives, the balance of power in Saint Domingue was hardly a balance of power at all. Between Rigaud’s Legion of the South and various independent forces who would come to back him, he commanded about 15,000 troops. That’s pretty good. But meanwhile, Toussaint now commanded nearly 50,000 troops. Rigaud’s men were better trained and better fighters and better organized, but the brutal math of the thing was overwhelming. Still, though, Rigaud was not content to just sit back and get pushed out of the colony. And so in June 1799, the War of Words ended and the War of Knives began. And Rigaud launched the opening attack of that war. 

This first attack was against a pair of port cities on the north side of the southern peninsula. These two ports were Petit-Goâve and Grand-Goâve. These two ports had been occupied by small garrisons loyal to Toussaint as the British had pulled out in 1798. But in his final dispatch, Hédouville had told Rigaud that those two cities were actually a part of your territory and fall under your jurisdiction. And Rigaud used this to justify mustering a force of 4000 men to go easily expel Toussaint’s little nominal garrisons. This bold strike also earned him the open support from a great colored officer who currently held the important city of Jacmel and who will go on to figure very prominently in the history of independent Haiti: Alexandre Pétion. 

Pétion was born in Port-au-Prince in 1770 to a big white father and a mulatto mother. So Pétion himself was classified as a quadroon under the now defunct racial categorization system. Like Julien Raimond and André Rigaud and other sons of wealthy mixed race families, Pétion was sent back to France to be educated in 1788. So just before the French Revolution broke out. He’s a hard guy to nail down but Pétion appears to have been back in Saint Domingue by 1791 and as a young, energetic and educated colored man, he enthusiastically joined the colored revolt against racial apartheid when all hell broke loose in the summer of 1791. He then spent the rest of the revolution under arms and remained loyal to the French Republic when other coloreds started bolting for the British after the emancipation decree of 1793. But he was never a part of Rigaud’s Legion of the south and with Toussaint’s elevation to commander in chief, Pétion’s ultimate chain of command led up to Toussaint, not to Rigaud. So his defection to Rigaud in the summer of 1799 was kind of a blow to Toussaint’s plan for a quick and decisive campaign. And just so you know, Alexandre Pétion is going to wind up the first president of the Republic of Haiti. So, yes, he does play a prominent role in the future of independent Haiti. 

Now, Rigaud was hoping that his attack on Petit-Goâve and Grand-Goâve would help trigger a larger anti-Toussaint uprising. And in the early summer of 1799 he had some reason to hope that it might actually happen because up in the heart of Toussaint’s territory, black revolt against Toussaint’s rule began to flare up. In the countryside surrounding Môle-Saint-Nicolas and Port-de-Paix, ultivators rose up in arms against Toussaint’s regime, forcing Toussaint to hold off making an immediate move against Rigaud while he pacified his own territory. I mean, there was even a flash of insurrectionary anger on the North Plains themselves just outside of Le Cap, practically where Toussaint had been born and raised. 

Now, Toussaint Louverture has always cultivated this image of himself as the generous father figure, always forgiving and forgetting, he’s Papa Toussaint. But he had no time or patience for these revolts and so he sent his soldiers into pretty ruthlessly crushed the insurrectionaries and instead of showing mercy, they showed no mercy at all. And the man Toussaint trusted with this is the man whose time has finally come who, like Pétion, will play a huge role in the future of independent Haiti: Jean-Jacques Dessalines.

Jean-Jacques Dessalines was born most likely in Guinea, in West Africa. His birth date is officially listed as September 20, 1758. But to be honest, I have a really hard time believing this was actually officially recorded somewhere. He was captured and sold into slavery as a young boy, likely along with his whole family because we know, for example, that he had two brothers in Saint Domingue with him. He spent his formative years working in the fields of the North Plains but did eventually rise up the ranks to become a driver, which was somewhat unusual for an Africa born slave. But having been brought into slavery at such a young age, I guess he could be trusted. Now, for most of his young life, Dessalines was known as Jean-Jacques Duclos, taking his name from his owner, just as Toussaint was originally known as Toussaint de Bréda because that was his owner’s name. But while the origin of Louverture is a bit confused thanks to many rounds of mythmaking, Dessalines gets his final last name thanks to something far more mundane. Around 1788, he was sold to a new owner named Dessalines and so his name changed. 

When the original slave revolt started brewing in the summer of 1791, Dessalines was right in the heart of it, but he was not one of the leading leaders. When the fighting began, he wound up attached to the army of Jean-François but was not much more than the equivalent of a lieutenant in the slave armies. And though he may have been amongst those who would have been freed, had the big whites accepted that deal at the end of 1791 to end their revolt, he was almost certainly not amongst the final 60 that Toussaint had negotiated down to at the last minute. Dessalines then stayed with Jean-François and was among those formally enrolled into the Spanish army in 1793. At some point, though, in here, he winds up serving under Toussaint Louverture. And when Toussaint took over control of the far west of the North Province, Dessalines went with him and then defected to the French along with Toussaint in the spring of 1794. Under Toussaint’s patronage, Dessalines rose up the ranks quickly as Toussaint identified Dessalines as an officer who could be relied on to get the job done. In the subsequent battles against their old comrades Jean-François and Biassou, Dessalines was given command of important missions and he never let Toussaint down. 

But though Dessalines was for sure an officer Toussaint could count on in the field, there was an even more specific role for Dessalines to play. He was the bad cop, the heavy, the man who had no mercy in his heart whatsoever. And when you’re trying to be enlightened and generous while simultaneously being an authoritarian strong man, as Toussaint currently is trying to do, you need someone who isn’t afraid to do your dirty work for you. And for Toussaint, that man was, among others, Jean-Jacques Dessalines. And this wasn’t just about roleplaying. Though they were tightly linked, Toussaint and Dessalines had genuinely divergent world views. So Toussaint wanted reconciliation and coexistence with the whites and coloreds. He’s not a black supremacist. Well, Dessalines is. He hated the whites and he hated the coloreds. Had Dessalines been an overall command during the War of the Knives, painting it as a race war would have been a no brainer. But he is still just the enforcer, not the supreme leader. And one of the things that a guy like Dessalines allows a guy like Toussaint to do is avoid taking responsibility for brutal but necessary repression, as happened in the North Province in 1799. When the threat of the recent insurrections was eliminated, Toussaint could then come riding in and say “Oh no, this isn’t what I wanted at all. Oh, my friends, this is not what I wanted at all.”

He could curry favor with the black population by openly reprimanding his officers while quietly saying “Thanks, good work.” once the cultivators were back in the fields. 

But open revolt was not the only threat facing Toussaint during the summer of 1799 and he also escaped not one, but two assassination attempts both of which he escaped only by sheer luck. During the first, a gunman opened fire and put a bullet through Toussaint’s hat and one through Toussaint’s personal physician who was killed on the spot. And then during the second multiple gunmen strafed Toussaint’s carriage and riddled it with bullets. But Toussaint just so happened to be riding his horse near the rear of this entourage and was not in the carriage when the assassins struck. Toussaint would pretty much spend the rest of his life not unjustifiably paranoid about assassins and he took elaborate precautions to stymie their efforts. 

Now, as I just mentioned, the brutal math of the War of Knives spelled doom for André Rigaud, especially after whatever anti-Toussaint elements inside the black population were unable to get anything unified going against him. But even with his mass numerical advantage, the truly decisive factor in the War of Knives was the United States Navy. With the signing of Toussaint’s Clause in February 1799, the United States clearly had an interest in continuing to do business with Toussaint Louverture. And the new American consul in Le Cap, a guy named Edward Stevens, was amongst the most vocal proponents of making sure that Toussaint Louverture stayed in power. In the summer of 1799, for example, Toussaint’s army had actually been struggling to properly arm itself after the Quasi War had shut down access to American munitions. Stevens worked with his counterparts in British Jamaica to organize an emergency shipment of arms from the neighboring island to ensure Toussaint was not seriously threatened until bigger caches could be delivered from the mainland. Stevens also wrote home to his superiors in the Adams White House arguing relentlessly that backing Toussaint was in America’s best interest. 

But beyond keeping Toussaint’s supply, actually supporting him in the war was quite a bit further than anyone in Congress who signed off on Toussaint’s Clause would have been willing to go. But André Rigaud then gave Edward Stevens and the Americans the pretext they were looking for to really enter the fray. Rigaud had a little fleet of pirates operating out of Les Cayes who started to prey on British and American merchants once it became clear that they were supporting Toussaint over Rigaud. With the elimination of piracy being one of the core aims of all the diplomacy between the Adams Administration and Toussaint’s regime, deploying the fledgling U.S. Navy against this new threat posed by Rigaud’s pirates raised no objections. The Americans set up a naval station in Le Cap and then started patrolling the waters around Saint Domingue regularly. And when Rigaud became identified as a pirate enabler, the US Navy showed no hesitation about blockading ports under his control. 

So by the end of 1799, Toussaint was receiving regular shipments of supplies and arms from the United States and their navy was attacking Rigaud. With this support, he then finally launched a full offensive. But before he did, he sent one of his staunchest white supporters, a colonel in the French army named Vincent, back to Paris to explain what he was doing to the Directory and get them to confirm that Toussaint Louverture was in fact the commander in chief of the French Army in Saint Domingue, and that Rigaud not obeying orders was a justifiable cause for the hostilities that were about to commence. Unbeknownst to everyone in Saint Domingue, however, by the end of 1799, the Directory was already dead. 

Without waiting for confirmation from Paris that what he was doing was actually legitimate, Toussaint’s army marched south led by Jean-Jacques Dessalines and this army was too much for Rigaud’s forces to handle. But still, the ensuing battles were hotly contested and very bitter. Neither side offered the other any quarter and when prisoners were taken their usual fate was either execution, or torture and then execution. But against the mass onslaught, Rigaud had to retreat into the mountains of the South Province. And this retreat then became engulfed in flames as Rigaud elected to burn everything to the ground rather than let it fall intact into Toussaint’s hands. Now, Rigaud hoped to raise the black cultivators of the South Province to join him in his fight, but he found almost no takers. The black cultivators of the South Province pretty much hated André Rigaud’s guts and they welcomed the arrival of Toussaint’s army. But sadly, what we’re seeing here and what we’ve already seen earlier in today’s episode is the black cultivators everywhere engaging in a bit of the old ‘grass is greener on the other side’ fallacy. The cultivators under Toussaint hoped Rigaud was their salvation. The cultivators under Rigaud hoped Toussaint was their salvation. But there was no salvation to be had. This was a war between two men running authoritarian labor regimes. This was not a war for anyone’s salvation. 

So Dessalines then peeled off from his pursuit of Rigaud to lay siege to Jacmel where the defenses there were led by Alexandre Pétion. In November 1799, a prolonged siege began that would be as bitter as any battle. It’s reported that somewhere on the order of 4000 people died of starvation over the next four months as the siege continued. Meanwhile, by early 1800, the United States Navy was now fully on Toussaint’s side. Though Edward Stevens did resist requests from Toussaint to actually transport Toussaint’s troops, the US Navy did blockade all the southern ports and they ran a very close patrol of maritime shipping in Saint Domingue waters. Ships loyal to Toussaint were issued passports by the American consulate that allowed them to operate freely and anyone not holding one of these passports was liable to be boarded and have their ship seized. Now, this made for the rather uncomfortable reality that in Saint Domingue, which was still French, the leaders of Saint Domingue could not operate in their own waters without express written permission from a country that had no legitimate claim to jurisdiction in Saint Domingue waters whatsoever. But Toussaint did not raise any fuss about this since it was all for his benefit. 

In February 1800, Jacmel, now surrounded by Dessalines army on land and the US navy by sea, finally fell. Whatever forces Rigaud had left in the south now fell back to Les Cayes. But there wasn’t much left at all. The story goes that when Rigaud reentered his capital that he rang the toxin bells to turn out the local blacks to come in from the fields to fight and not a single one came. Now, they had all come to his defense in 1796 because they had been told that the Third Commission was going to re-enslave them, but that had turned out to be a lie. And in the two and a half years since, the lives of the black cultivators had not improved one bit under Rigaud. But still, Rigaud continued to hold out. And from Toussaint’s perspective an all out assault on Les Cayes would have been a very bloody exercise. So rather than rush to a conclusion that seemed inevitable, Toussaint’s forces proceeded slowly and methodically. And rather than give it up Rigaud kept his eye on the horizon hoping, hoping, hoping that reinforcements would arrive from France to help him win the war. But in May 1800 word finally did come from France and it was not what Rigaud wanted to hear at all. 

In the meantime, Toussaint, confident of victory, was already moving on with the next phase of his plan, controlling not just Saint Domingue, but all of Hispaniola. He went to Commissioner Philippe Roume, now under a sort of de facto house arrest and said, “Commissioner, I have grown concerned about reports that honest French citizens are being kidnapped and sold back into slavery over on the Spanish side of the island. This is going on with impunity and it must be stopped. So please sign off on my plan to send French forces to Santo Domingo to ensure that the rights of French citizens are protected. I mean, Santo Domingo is ours, right? Right. So please sign here.” 

Philippe Roume, however, resisted sanctioning Toussaint’s annexation of Santo Domingo without approval from Paris. So to help Roume get over whatever hesitations he might be feeling, Toussaint had his adopted nephew, Moyse go round the Northern Plains and raise angry cultivators to march to the very edge of Le Cap and demand that Roume take action to stop their brothers and sisters from being sold back into slavery by the sinister Spanish. And in the face of this mob, Roume capitulated and signed off on Toussaint’s plan. Toussaint then put Roume under an even closer house arrest in the parish of Danton, where he would no doubt think twice about thinking for himself again. But though he had official permission now to take Santo Domingo, the actual expedition east would wait until after the War of Knives. 

Now, the war was actually brought to a fairly peaceful conclusion. When a commission, yes, another commission arrived from France in May 1800, bearing official proclamations from the new government in Paris. A new government in Paris? Okay. Now, for whatever reason, this latest commission is never anywhere called, like, the Fourth Commission. So I’m not going to introduce new nomenclature that won’t be present in any other history book. And besides, they didn’t really have the same power or authority as previous commissions. They were more like emissaries of First Consul Bonaparte. When they arrived, it became clear that Toussaint’s emissary, Colonel Vincent, had been very persuasive in arguing Toussaint’s case to Bonaparte, seeing as how Vincent himself was one of the three commissioners now getting off the boat. The other two were a random general I won’t bother you with, but the third guy is Julien Raimond. After skipping town with Hédouville in October 1798, Raimond spent less than a year in France before accepting Bonaparte’s request to return to Saint Domingue and represent the Consulate. And I’m sure he was just thrilled to be delivering the news that Bonaparte had taken Vincent’s advice and confirmed Toussaint Louverture as commander in chief of the French army in Saint Domingue. 

This news deflated André Rigaud completely. There would be no French reinforcements to support him. There was really no one anywhere supporting him. And knowing that this was the end for Rigaud, Toussaint then did what Toussaint does best. He issued a general amnesty for anyone who laid down their arms and gave up the fight. He also did not force his defeated rival to bend his knee to him. And he quietly approved Rigaud’s plan to leave the island and sail into exile. In June 1800, Rigaud and his family boarded a ship and sailed for France. But this is not the end of André Rigaud. Once he got to France, he would join a small community of colored Creole and exile. Alexandre Pétion would soon follow, and these guys would continue to lobby for their rights and soon enough, would be headed back to Saint Domingue. But we’ll get into all that next week. 

With Rigaud out of the way, Toussaint personally led his army into Les Cayes. And unless I’m mistaken, I think this is the first time Toussaint has actually ever set foot in the capital city of the South Province. When he arrived, he publicly confirmed the general amnesty. But right on cue, his junior officers carried out a swift massacre of prisoners identified as possible sources of future trouble. Once again, Toussaint expressed horror at the bloodthirsty conduct of his officers and he reprimanded Dessalines, saying, “I asked you to trim the tree, not tear it up by the roots.” But we are talking about hundreds of dead here, not thousands, as later anti-Toussaint rhetoric would have it. And Dessalines himself appears to have personally intervened to save some men slated for execution. 

So Toussaint is triumphant. He is the master of Saint Domingue. But of course, as history has shown us time and time again, final victory often just sets the conditions for the next conflict. And so it was in Saint Domingue in 1800. So just as he defeated his last internal rival, Toussaint suddenly had to start worrying about external threats again. With Bonaparte now in power in France, the whole international arena was undergoing an upheaval. And Saint Domingue had always been merely one piece in a much larger game of chess being played by the Great Powers. Both the Americans and French, for example, were sick of the Quasi War which was hurting them both; negotiations began in March 1800 to end the conflict. And though these negotiations dragged on over sticky issues like whether the Treaty of Friendship of 1778 was still in effect and whether France would pay reparations for the merchandise they had seized from American traders, the matter of Saint Domingue helped keep the two sides at arm’s length. The Americans wanted to guarantee that they would be able to keep trading with the island without interference. And the French negotiator said, “Yeah, we’ll think about it, but we are not very happy with the way you’ve been issuing American passports so that French flagged ships can sail peacefully in French waters. So, I mean, don’t expect a ton of consideration on the Saint Domingue front.” 

But even as the American negotiators were pressing for trade concessions, the actual American merchants coming in and out of Saint Domingue started reporting that this place isn’t nearly as lucrative as it used to be. As we’ve talked about, the years of revolt and war and devastation had left Saint Domingue a shell of its former self and the War of Knives had not improved anything. Toussaint’s attempt to revitalize the plantation system ran into a trifecta of problems, some of which we’ve already mentioned. 

First, there was his own need to keep as many young men under arms as possible. 

Second, the material devastation of the formerly industrialized sugar plantations was starting to look permanent. And third, the unwillingness of the cultivators to work themselves to death to maximize sugar and coffee exports. 

So both British and American merchants sailing regularly into Saint Domingue Harbor since the signing of Toussaint’s Clause the year before, were very disappointed by what they found. Saint Domingue was not producing enough exports to make the trips worthwhile. The merchandise the British and Americans carried into Le Cap went unsold and the mountains of coffee and sugar they were supposed to be picking up did not materialize. The opening of Saint Domingue was supposed to be a boon to the merchant fortunes. And instead, it was a deflated bust. Suddenly, the northeastern merchants weren’t quite so hot to demand American foreign policy make special concessions for Saint Domingue. And with the war with France winding down and Thomas Jefferson and his Democratic republicans ready to storm the government in the election of 1800, the whole relationship between the United States and Saint Domingue, which had been so critical to Toussaint’s final victory, was about to be reappraised entirely. 

And then, back in France, First Consul Bonaparte is obviously not the kind of guy who is going to let a key piece of the French Empire operate without proper oversight. Of course, at the moment, Bonaparte had European wars and politics to contend with, so colonial affairs were not his top priority. But in the Constitution of Year VIII, that created the consulate, he wrote in an article that addressed colonial policy that spelled big trouble for Toussaint Louverture, because Bonaparte was about to take French policy round back to where it had been before Thermidor. No more of this French nation ‘one and indivisible’ nonsense. The article in question, Article 91, is short, and so I’ll quote it in full: “The form of government of the French colonies is determined by special laws.” 

That’s it. But in Saint Domingue, special laws had always meant one thing: apartheid and slavery. So when Bonaparte sent his emissaries to Saint Domingue, they carried with them both the Constitution of Year VIII and a letter written by Bonaparte to placate colonial fears that those special laws would mean a return of slavery and apartheid. And though it’s a little longer than Article 91, I’m also going to quote it in full because it’s an interesting little document and clearly written with Montesquieu open in Bonaparte’s lap. 

“Citizens, a constitution that wasn’t able to defend itself against multiple violations has been replaced by a new pact destined to solidify freedom. Article 91 states that the French colonies will be ruled by special laws. This disposition derives from the nature of things and the differences in climate. The inhabitants of French colonies located in America, Asia and Africa cannot be governed by the same laws. The difference in habits, in mores and interests, the diversity of soil, crops and goods produced demand diverse modifications. Far from being a subject of alarm for you, you will recognize here the wisdom and profundity of vision that animate, the legislators of France, the consuls of the Republican announcing to you the new social pact, declare to you that the sacred principles of freedom and equality of the blacks will never suffer amongst you the least attack or modification. If there are ill intentioned men in the colony, if there are those who still have relations with enemy powers, remember, brave blacks, that the French people alone recognize your freedom and the equality of your rights. Signed, First Consul Bonaparte.”  

Now, this was a wild pack of bullshit. Bonaparte was too busy with more pressing affairs to get going on his expanding dream of true global domination. But when he said, “The blacks had nothing to worry about.” – Man, they had everything to worry about. Because when Bonaparte finally got free of European war, he turned the full force of his attention to completely and thoroughly reimposing French authority in Saint Domingue, reinstituting white supremacy, and re enslaving the blacks. 

But before Bonaparte could draft the kind of special laws that would tend to do well, all of this, Toussaint would beat him to the punch. And next week, without the permission or even consultation with the French government, Toussaint Louverture will draft the Constitution of 1801, which he will then unilaterally assert fulfills Article 91 of the Constitution of Year VIII. You said we are to be governed by special laws? Well, great. I’ve got your special laws right here, and I dare you to do anything about it.

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