Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.
For all the attention First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte had taken to arrange the massive expedition he hoped would soon recapture Saint Domingue. When the Peace Preliminaries were signed with the British in October 1801, he had yet to settle on a commander in chief for the campaign, but by the end of the month, he finally tapped a young general named Charles Victoire Emmanuel Leclerc. All of 29 years old, Leclerc was an intimate member of Bonaparte’s inner circle. The two had begun serving together as young officers at the siege of Toulon. And during the Italian campaigns, Bonaparte elevated Leclerc to the rank of General of Division. Leclerc was the man Bonaparte dispatched back to Paris to tell the Directory that he had just signed the Leoben Peace Preliminaries in the spring of 1797, you know, after he had signed them. The two men were so close that when Bonaparte accidentally stumbled upon his sister Pauline in amorous consultation, he was delighted rather than outraged that Leclerc was the man with whom Pauline was consulting. In fact, just as Bonaparte was settling on Leclerc as the man to lead the Saint Domingue Expedition, he also decided that Leclerc was the right man to make Pauline an honest woman. So Leclerc got both his military orders and a demand that he marry Pauline at practically the same time. In part, this was because Pauline had a habit for scandal and Bonaparte wanted to marry her off. But it also represents a further step in Bonaparte’s long term plans to forge an imperial family to help him rule the world. So Leclerc got his orders, got married, and then departed Paris to join his new fleet.
And what a fleet it was. The Saint Domingue Expedition, known historically as the Leclerc Expedition for obvious reasons, now comprised 50 ships spread out across seven Atlantic ports. Among those 50 were fully half the French navy’s heavy warships. This fleet was manned by 20,000 sailors prepared to ferry 20,000 soldiers across the Atlantic, all of them cracked units and veterans of the Revolutionary Wars. And unlike previous military missions to the colonies, an array of talented and ambitious officers eagerly signed up for the mission. As we’ve seen, these kinds of talented and ambitious officers have been pretty adept at not getting themselves sent to the colonies. But now that peace was at hand in Europe, Saint Domingue was the only place left to go hunting for riches and glory. Every officer no doubt planned to use this opportunity to acquire a plantation or two for himself that would keep him in fine style for the rest of his life. The dream of hitting the colonial jackpot was alive and well.
Also joining this expedition were a number of men that we’ve already met. Leclerc’s second in command, for example, was General Rochambeau, now embarking on his third tour of duty in the colony. Also aboard were most of the colored exiles, André Rigaud, chief among them, but also General Villatte, rehabilitated from his aborted coup back in 1746, Alexandre Pétion, who will remember becoming the first president of the Republic of Haiti. And then Pétion’s 26 year old protege, Jean-Pierre Boyer, who will become the second president of the Republic of Haiti. We also find on board Jean-Baptiste Belley, the one time free black militia colonel who had helped save the Second Commissioners during the Battle of Le Cap, been appointed to the Tricolor Commission, and then been elected to serve as a delegate in both the National Convention and the Council of Five Hundred. Finally, among the Creoles taking part were Toussaint’s two sons, who had both been getting their education in France and then serving as de facto hostages for the past five years. They were ordered by Bonaparte to take part in the expedition, specifically to convince their father to stand down.
But though he had organized a massive armada to go retake Saint Domingue, Bonaparte was mostly interested in using their overwhelming force to forestall a war rather than wage one. And he gave Leclerc a highly confidential three step program to retake Saint Domingue, hopefully without firing a shot. So, step one when you arrive, offer assurances to both General Toussaint personally and the population generally that your intentions are peaceful and just. Promise Toussaint literally anything to get him to hand over the keys to the principal ports and military fortresses. Promise him anything. It doesn’t matter, because you’re not going to keep any of those promises. Once you have control of all the strategic bases, move on to step two. Demand that Toussaint cede both his civilian and military authority. Again, promise him anything to get this done. But more importantly, make it 100% clear that all the other black officers would keep their rank, privilege and position. The point here is to isolate Toussaint by making sure his senior officers knew that their positions would not be threatened by the overthrow of Toussaint. Again, make any promises necessary. Once you’ve secured the goodwill of these officers, use them to pacify any native uprisings that may have sprung up since your arrival. So once you’ve won over the officers, neutralized Toussaint and pacified the colony. Then move on to step three. Arrest every single Creole officer above the rank of captain and deport them from the island in one fell swoop. Anyone who resists with armed force should be summarily shot.
Bonaparte estimated this three step plan would take about three months, start to finish and preclude the necessity for using the French armada to do anything but sit around and look menacing.
So spoiler alert this is not going to be wrapped up in three months. In fact, it is all going to go so badly that Bonaparte will have to abandon his dream for a French dominated Gulf of Mexico. Instead, when Napoleon was finally exiled for good to Saint Helena, he would tell a companion that the Leclerc expedition was one of his great mistakes. Right up there with the invasion of Russia and the Spanish ulcer. He reportedly said, “With an army of 25,000 to 30,000 blacks, what might I not have undertaken against Jamaica, the Antilles, Canada and the United States itself, or the Spanish colonies?”
There was an opportunity here to make General Toussaint, his senior officers and the well trained army they commanded partners in his plans for global domination. But instead, Bonaparte chose to try to screw them over and push them all aside. And the really big missed opportunity here is that Toussaint and his Creole army would have been permanently immune to the diseases that ravaged European soldiers arriving in the Caribbean. So once Toussaint got going, it might have been impossible for any European power to stop him. But of course, you get into speculating too hard and you wind up wondering whether Bonaparte taking this route would have also led to him kicking himself, except this time for letting Toussaint lupiture get too powerful. Now, this would all make for a great alternative history, but we should probably get back to the actual history.
So after the expedition had been forced to wait and wait until the British promised not to interfere, when the go ahead and order came in October, everyone was eager to depart. Whereupon the wind proceeded to blow in the wrong direction for the next seven weeks, trapping the fleet against the Atlantic coast into December and threatening the whole project. Remember, all three steps needed to be completed before the malaria and the yellow fever started to set in. But just as the whole project was seriously about to be scrapped, the winds reversed and in mid-December 1801, the Leclerc expedition set sail.
But sailing 50 ships across the Atlantic is not an easy job. And the French admiral in charge of the fleet was pretty incredulous at the orders Bonaparte had issued, that the various contingents of ships would all leave the seven Atlantic ports on the same day, sail without problems to a prearranged meeting spot off the coast of Spain arrive there at the same moment and then immediately set sail to arrive in Saint Domingue all together and all at once. The admiral knew that the will of the Atlantic was quite a bit stronger than the will of Bonaparte and he was not wrong. The minute the ships began to depart various storms and mishaps, false starts and perfectly understandable delays wound up scattering the ships all over the map. When the admiral and a core of the fleet got to the rendezvous point, they all waited around for as long as they could for as many ships as they could wait for, but ultimately the admiral had to leave a bunch behind and hope that they would just eventually catch up.
The fleet wound up delayed long enough that back in Saint Domingue Governor for life Toussaint Louverture had plenty of time to prepare. After learning in December both that peace between France and Britain was at hand and that a massive fleet was gathering on the Atlantic coast, he spent the next two months making ready to defend his island. On paper, Toussaint had close to 20,000 men in the regular army and another 10,000 enrolled in local militias. But those numbers were inflated and Toussaint knew it. Throughout history senior officers and military regimes have always made a habit of inflating their troop numbers, pocketing the wages and supplies they received in excess of their actual numbers. This was a practice winked out at every level. But when it came time to actually fight, the real bill always comes due.
But Toussaint was no dummy and the militarization of the plantation economy that we talked about last week was in part meant to make it very easy to raise the people to fight, if it came to that, to launch a colonial levée en masse. When soldiers were discharged back to the fields, they took their guns with them. And Toussaint had himself spent the last year or so hiding weapon caches all over the island. And in the months before the fleet’s arrival Toussaint rode around Saint Domingue making sure everything was where it should be and that his officers holding every fort, garrison and port knew their jobs, which was resist the French for as long as you can but when you can’t resist anymore burn down your town or city retreat to the mountains and will wait until disease kills them all off.
But though he had carefully prepared and knew that the French were coming, when the French fleet was sighted off the northeast coast of Hispaniola on January 29 1802, Toussaint still despaired at his chances of survival. I think the biggest single batch of soldiers that the French have sent to Saint Domingue so far was 6000 men. The Leclerc expedition was orders of magnitude beyond that and far beyond what Toussaint was likely expecting. According to the tradition, Toussaint himself was in place to watch for the fleet personally and when he saw the size of it, he said, quote, “We are going to die. The whole of France has come to Saint Domingue.” And remember, he is only seeing part of the fleet. Toussaint’s whereabouts over the next week are officially unknown, because that’s the way he wanted it. But there’s a good chance that he rode west as fast as he could and secretly entered Le Cap just ahead of the French fleet. There he would have met in close consultation with the man in charge of Le Cap, General Henri Christophe. Christophe, as I mentioned, will one day be the Emperor of the Kingdom of Haiti. And having just spearheaded the repression of the Moyse’s rebellion, he was now the highest ranking general in the North Province.
Christophe is an interesting guy and often portrayed as a cultural contrast to Dessalines. Dessalines had grown up in the field. He was a hard and brutal man who had won his freedom with the sword. Christophe, by way of contrast, had been raised an urban slave serving in a variety of occupations, but is best known as a waiter in and then manager of a prominent Le Cap hotel. Christophe was also a free man when the revolution began, having received his manumission papers just a few years before, now operating the hotel not as a slave but as a free black. So Christophe is urbane cosmopolitan, used to interacting with men and women of all color and class. He liked lavish parties, sumptuous accommodations in European culture. The contrast between Dessalines, the bloodthirsty field slave and Christophe, the enlightened urban slave is, without question, very overdrawn. But that is the way they are portrayed.
The ship’s bearing Leclerc and his senior staff arrived outside Le Cap on February 4. When they got there, they found Christophe had removed all the marker buoys from the harbor, so navigating their way in was going to be treacherous. So the best thing to do would be to negotiate with Christophe rather than fighting their way in. But Christophe said, “I can’t do anything until Toussaint gives me the okay. And unfortunately, he’s not home right now.”, which, like I say, was probably a lie to buy some time. Leclerc then reiterated his demand to be allowed into the harbor and Christophe said, “If you try to make me do anything without Toussaint’s permission, I’ll burn the city to the ground. And don’t think I won’t.”
But though he couldn’t make a direct approach on Le Cap, Leclerc would not just sit back and wait. So he ordered General Rochambeau to take a contingent of troops to go retake Fort Liberté, that key fort east of Le Cap where Jean-François had massacred those whites and where Hédouville had finally come to ruin when he ousted Moyse from his command. Rochambeau’s approach was resisted, but after a good, hard push, the French took the fort.
Meanwhile, Leclerc himself sailed with the bulk of his men to a landing spot west of Le Cap. But he was outsmarted by Toussaint or Christophe or whoever was actually giving orders inside the city. One of Toussaint’s white supporters talked his way on board Leclerc’s ship and told him that the best place to put in was just a little further west than Leclerc originally planned. Leclerc decided to heed this man’s local knowledge and would not discover for some time that it was actually a trick. The convoy just kept sailing and sailing and getting further and further away from Le Cap. When Leclerc got to this alleged best spot, he realized it was going to take him the better part of a day to march back to the city.
With the French landing on both sides of Le Cap, Christophe decided their intentions were truly hostile and made good on his threat to burn the city, proving his seriousness by setting fire to his own house first. His men then spread out, lighting fires all over. Distraught residents tried to put these fires out, but the blaze quickly spread out of control, and when it got to the arsenal, that was the ballgame. The arsenal erupted in a furious blast that shook the whole city. So we’re now 8.5 years removed from the great Battle of Le Cap of June 1793. And once again, the Paris of the Antilles is being consumed by fire. When the ravaging flames finally died out, 90% of the city was a burned out wreck, again. Leclerc, meanwhile, got to watch an ominous glow appear on the horizon on the night of February 5, knowing full well now that the first thing he had done upon arriving in Saint Domingue would allow Le Cap to burn to the ground. Not exactly an auspicious beginning. And in reports back to Bonaparte, Leclerc would totally downplay the extent of the destruction. But on February 6, the French converged on the city to find it in ruins and Christophe and Toussaint and all their soldiers nowhere to be found.
The destruction of Le Cap, though, was good news for one group: the returning colored exiles. They knew that their own position in the expedition was tenuous, but if the French triumphed quickly, they would see the colored officers as a threat to French domination and just deport them all. But with armed resistance brewing, they all knew that their local military knowledge would be indispensable. And this was true for all of them, except André Rigaud. After arriving in Saint Domingue, Leclerc decided that Rigaud was simply too great a threat, with too many loyal contacts to just let loose on the island. So shortly after landing, Leclerc ordered Rigaud deported back to France. But this would not be the end for André Rigaud, and he would not be kept from his home forever, as we’ll see in our very last episode on the Haitian Revolution.
Now, luckily for General Leclerc, the total destruction of Le Cap turned out to be really the only bad news in the first weeks after his arrival. He had sent ships and soldiers to all the principal ports of Hispaniola with orders to talk their way in and if that failed, then to fight their way in. And his subordinates were far more successful than he himself had been. Especially because plenty of Toussaint’s senior officers were willing to listen to what the French had to say. So the two main ports on the Spanish side, Saint Domingue itself and then another city called Santiago, both fell without a shot being fired. Down in Port-au-Prince, things looked like they were about to get dicey, but the colored commander of the city’s principal fort betrayed this all important fortification to the French. This officer had been a partisan of Rigaud’s, who was subsequently absorbed into Toussaint’s army after the War of Knives and he was all too happy to turn around and stab Toussaint in the back. Now, Dessalines was an overall command of the West Province, but he was not in Port-au-Prince to prevent its fall. But he was able to march a loyal force into Léogâne and after determining that it too, would likely fall, he burned it to the ground. Also going up in flames at this point was the plantation owned by Joséphine Bonaparte, which was located just outside of Léogâne. Meanwhile, out on the southern peninsula, the commander of Les Cayes was similarly indifferent to Toussaint personally. And after being assured that he would be able to keep his rank and privileges, and sensing that the French were about to beat Toussaint’s butt, he welcomed a French naval squadron into the harbor. Then Jérémie, never a fan of Toussaint Louverture, soon followed. The only place the French really ran into trouble was around Port-de-Paix, where a general named Maurepas resisted both French overtures and an armed assault. But recognizing that he would not be able to resist forever, General Maurepas burned Port-de-Paix and retreated inland.
Now, there is a tendency to believe that Toussaint Louverture was always one step ahead of his enemies and that this was all a part of his master plan. But he could not have been thrilled about this opening round of the fight. All of these defections had to have been a blow. And it wasn’t just a few colored or white officers with secret access to grind. Dessalines, for example, marched from Léogâne to Jacmel to ensure the loyalty of the garrison there and having believed that he secured it, marched out again. Whereupon the black general in charge of the city promptly defected and handed Jacmel over to the French.
With things going quite well for Leclerc, aside from the little hiccup of Le Cap completely burning to the ground again, he decided to take one good stab at completing step one of Bonaparte’s plan: talk Toussaint out of fighting. Now, Toussaint was himself hiding up near his favorite plantation in Ennery, which was outside Gonaïves. And yes, there is a map to go along with all of this at www.revolutionspodcast.com.
To act as a go-between, Leclerc brought out Toussaint’s sons, who were, as I said, there for that very purpose. The message they bore was that Toussaint could expect all kinds of awesome treatment and could be assured that slavery was never going to be reestablished just so long as he stood down. Toussaint then demanded an immediate ceasefire to proceed any future negotiations. But Leclerc replied that he could only guarantee that the men under his own immediate control would not fight, but that he couldn’t get word round to any of his other forces. I mean, they’re spread out everywhere. Toussaint took this to be a disingenuous half truth that Leclerc had no intention of ending things peacefully. Some negotiations broke down. Toussaint then sent word round to the officer still loyal to him, that they had carte blanche to deal with the French. A sinister little pun.
So Leclerc is kind of looking like not the savviest operator here. Bonaparte had told him to promise Toussaint anything to get him to stand down. And instead Leclerc is playing cutesy with the promise of a ceasefire. I mean, why not just say, yeah, full ceasefire, great, done. Now, probably this was just a bit of overconfidence, given the good news coming in from everywhere else, but still he’s botching step one. But that said, step two was actually moving along swimmingly as senior officers across the island were taking the French up on their promises to let them keep their commands. And with additional reinforcements coming in every few days as the missing ships arrived, Leclerc decided that the best way to really cement step two was to bring the hammer down on Toussaint, and only Toussaint. Well, technically, Toussaint and Christophe, since they’re both now together. Leclerc declared those two generals fugitives, but only those two generals. Everyone else could expect immediate blanket forgiveness for anything they had done. And that included Dessalines, who is currently marching around the West Province, lighting things on fire and killing anyone who stands in his way.
Leclerc then also proceeded to bungle the one thing that he really needed to lock down, and that was his supply lines, which were supposed to be running up to the United States. Now, I don’t know if he just hadn’t been properly briefed or what, but when Leclerc got to Saint Domingue, he really did not act as if the Americans were critical to his mission. Instead, he treated all the American merchants in Le Cap as if they were in league with Toussaint, and that his first order of business should be shutting down contraband, going to the enemy, rather than ensuring that his own supply needs were being met. Now, it’s true that the Americans had been supporting Toussaint and some of them would continue to do so. But still, Leclerc treated them all very badly for no good reason. As soon as his fleet arrived in Le Cap, he blockaded the harbor until every American ship could be thoroughly searched. Then he simply decreed that in the future, American ships were forbidden to put in at any port aside from Le Cap and Port-au-Prince. With the American traders now incensed by Leclerc’s heavy handed treatment, they were then really happy to discover that he planned to buy their merchandise not with hard cash, which he didn’t really have, but instead French debt notes, which were trading at, like, 50% face value back up in Philadelphia. So Leclerc is treating the American merchants like the enemy and then underpaying them for their products. Like I say, he’s not really the savviest operator.
But probably not realizing what a mistake he was making or possibly not caring because this was all going to be over in a few weeks anyway, Leclerc launched a full blown multifront campaign on February 17, 1802. The plan was to converge on the forces still loyal to Toussaint, led by Christophe and Maurepas and Dessalines, and drive them into a single spot where they would be forced to risk a single decisive battle – a battle Leclerc was confident that he could win. The natives might be experts at sneaky gorilla warfare, but they would be no match for the battle hardened regiment of the French army in a set-piece battle. So one column marched south from Fort Liberté, hugging the border with Santo Domingo. Another march south out of Le Cap. Another march southwest towards Gonaïves. A fourth marched east from Port-de-Paix. And then the last column marched north out of Port-au-Prince, all of them pushing towards the heart of Toussaint Louverture country surrounding the old cordon of the west and his favorite plantation in Ennery. And, as I said, there’s a map of all this at http://www.revolutionspodcast.com.
Toussaint himself withdrew into a tight mountain ravine that provided a fairly defensible position. But even still, in his first real engagement of the war, Toussaint let General Rochambeau charge up and dislodge him. The governor for life was himself nearly killed, then nearly captured and only barely got away. Meanwhile, outside Port-de-Paix, Maurepas fought as stubbornly as he could but was soon trapped between two French columns, surrounded with no hope of victory. He sent word out that he was ready to accept Leclerc’s blanket pardon and defect along with all his men. So now it was down to Toussaint, hiding out with the bedraggled remnants of an army, Christophe in the mountains south of Le Cap and then Dessalines, who’s marching around the West Province, offering no quarter to anyone. Dessalines tried to retake Port-au-Prince, and when that failed, he raced up to Saint-Marc, fought his way in past the small garrison and burned the city to the ground. He then marched into the interior of the West Province, burning and pillaging all before him with especially notorious massacres of white civilians at Mirebalais and Petite-Rivière, which led the French to start counter massacring captured black prisoners and now this is not going to wind up a pretty war at all.
The early campaign of 1802 peaked in March, when General Dessalines finally holed up in a mountain fortress called Crête-à-Pierrot, setting the stage for one of the most famous battles in Haitian history. The fort had recently been held by the British who had expanded and strengthened it. Dessalines had about 2000 men with him, but soon after arriving, both Toussaint and Christophe demanded he reinforced their depleted ranks. And pretty soon Dessalines was left with just 1200 men inside the fort. Believing Dessalines was trapped, General Leclerc decided to storm the fort rather than sit around and wait for a siege to take him down.
On March 4, the French officer leading the first French units at the scene let his low opinion of the blacks get the better of him. He launched an unsupported attack, promptly lost 300 men and fell back in disarray. A week later, reinforcements arrived, led by Leclerc personally that included a company of Creole defectees led by Alexandre Pétion. As soon as everyone was in place, Leclerc launched a second assault that saw massive casualties on both sides. Leclerc himself was wounded and though the French nearly took the fort, they were repelled at the last minute. After this vicious little battle, neither side showed any interest in letting the other side tend to their dead. And apparently, decades after the fact, there were still skeletons strewn about the remains of the fort.
But with French honor now on the line, Leclerc couldn’t afford to walk away. The wounded commander in chief rode down to Saint-Marc to gather up heavy guns and he had them dragged up to the siege lines. While he did, Dessalines himself appears to have lost his nerve. He told his subordinate officers, “I have to go check on something, but you hold the fort until I send orders that it’s okay to evacuate.” And then he slipped out the back door. By March 22, Leclerc was back at the fort with the heavy guns and he opened up with a constant bombardment. Casualties inside were heavy, but the men refused to give up. Watching this from whatever vantage point he had slipped off to, Dessalines finally decided that holding Crête-à-Pierrot was hopeless and smuggled in order through the lines to tell the remaining forces to evacuate. That night they melted away, sneaking silently right through the French lines. In the morning, the only men left inside the fort were those too sick or too wounded to run. When the French realized that there was nobody defending the ramparts anymore, they marched on in, looked around and massacred everybody left inside. This is not a pretty war.
The siege of Crête-à-Pierrot is practically the dictionary definition of a pyrrhic victory between those killed in the fighting and those dying of their wounds. General Leclerc reckoned he just lost 1500 men, more men than had been in the fort that he had just taken. And while the French had emerged victorious, Dessalines and about half of his men had gotten away and were still on the loose. But the really important thing was that Dessalines’s heroic and defiant stand against overwhelming odds became the stuff of instant legend. The story spread across the colony undermining with every glorious retelling the aura of inevitability that surrounded the French reconquest of Saint Domingue. There now actually appeared to be a chance that the French could be beaten.
But that was a seed that was going to take some time to grow. And the immediate military situation facing Toussaint Louverture and his defiant officers was too dire to ignore. They had been surrounded so quickly and so thoroughly that it was hopeless to even try to orchestrate a last ditch levée en masse. In the North Province, Christophe had about 4000 cultivators already under arms and was raiding around the North Plains, right up to the city limits of Le Cap. But this appears to have just been an excuse to get close enough to say “Hey, I’ll defect if you’ll let me.” After securing a promise from a senior French officer that first, liberty and equality would remain the foundations of any new colonial order and second, that Christophe’s status as a fugitive would be canceled, Christophe defected at the end of April with 1500 regular troops and those 4000 armed cultivators.
With the end in sight, Toussaint finally decided that combat was no longer an effective strategy. On April 29, he sent agents to Leclerc to arrange a ceasefire so that the two men could meet in person. On May 7, at a plantation outside Le Cap, the senior staffs of both sides sat down to talk. Toussaint said that this had all been a great misunderstanding and then secured a promise that he and all his men would be kept in their positions. Leclerc having finally learned that he should promise Toussaint whatever to get him to lay down his arms. The dinner held that night to celebrate the peace was attended by, among others, Dessalines, Christophe, Alexandre Pétion and Jean-Pierre Boyer, who is, remember, just 26 years old. Between them, and in various combinations, these four men would wind up ruling Haiti until the last of them, Jean-Pierre Boyer, was deposed by a coup in 1843.
But though this was a perfect opportunity to make a bold start to step three of the plan (:arrest and deport every creole officer above the rank of captain), Leclerc didn’t do it. He was not sure where he actually stood. And the coda to step two was to use the generals to put down any native uprising. So the dinner party broke up and everyone was allowed to go their own separate ways – a decision that Leclerc would come to regret.
But though he would not strike at the senior black and colored generals, Leclerc did have his eye on Toussaint and very much wanted to remove him from the island as soon as he was sure that the other generals would not object. Toussaint, meanwhile, was no doubt hoping that he had bought himself the time he needed for disease to take its toll on the French so that he could resume the war. But though disease would start to ravage the French and the war would continue, Toussaint Louverture would not be there to lead it. His estrangement from the black population made him vulnerable and all around him senior officers were cutting deals with the French that did not include provisions for the governor for life. Even Dessalines is suspected of feeding Leclerc rumors that Toussaint was up in his plantation plotting a revolt. In June 1802, about a month after the peace, Leclerc decided Toussaint was sufficiently isolated to make his move. Now, he apparently tried to talk Dessalines into making the arrest, but Dessalines refused. So Leclerc settled on one of his own senior white officers. On the pretext of asking Toussaint’s advice on how best to purchase and run a plantation and a hint that this might be the first step towards Toussaint continuing to play a role in the new colonial order, this general lured Toussaint to a plantation house to talk it all through. Toussaint arrived with 20 guards but left them out front while he went inside. And when he went inside, he was arrested. He was then taken quickly to a boat waiting in the harbor at Gonaïves and three days later he was bobbing in the harbor of Le Cap. There he was joined by his wife, niece and two sons. On June 15 1802, the ship carrying the Louverture family sailed away for France.
Born a Creole slave in Saint Domingue, it was the first time Toussaint had crossed the ocean. Recognizing that this was very likely the end for him he famously told his captors, quote, “In overthrowing me, you have cut down in Saint Domingue only the trunk of the tree of liberty. It will spring up again from the roots for they are numerous and they are deep.” The ship reached France in July and by August Toussaint Louverture was thrown into the infamous Fort de Joux, a mountain fortress on the border with Switzerland. There he would sit in the cold and the damp and wonder if anyone back home was fighting for his return.
Back in Saint Domingue, no one was fighting for his return, and this came as a surprise as much to General Leclerc as anyone. He had braced himself for popular revolts, military coups or assassination attempts and none of it came. The arrest and deportation of Toussaint Louverture caused hardly a ripple. And though Toussaint is not technically dead yet, he soon would be. He’s not going to last even a year in prison.
Toussaint Louverture was a political genius and had he lived in practically any other time or place, he would be as famous as any other great leader in history. I have no doubt that he would have been as adept for example, at maneuvering his way through European war and politics as he was maneuvering his way through colonial war and politics. But he suffers both for being a big fish in a very small pond and because that pond was a successful slave revolt and no other country had an interest in glorifying or promoting the leader of a successful slave revolt.
But though he was a cunning strategist and blessed with an almost preternatural foresight, at least until the end when he fell for an obvious trap, Toussaint did lack a certain kind of imaginative vision that did help bring him down. He could never see past plantation economics. And so even as he attempted to transcend the racist past of the colony, he simply re-entrenched its economic model as deep as he could, leaving him very unpopular with the people that he had led to freedom. And there were other options out there. Sonthonax had tried to encourage collective ownership of plantations by the workers. Moyse had advocated allowing a small, freehold planter community to emerge that would create some measure of self-sufficiency and, dare I say, economic justice. But Toussaint couldn’t see it. Like everyone else, all he saw was coffee and sugar.
He was also, we should note, a classic political survivor who ensured his own position first and accounted for everything else second. He did not join the revolt of 1791 until he was sure it had legs. And even then, the first thing he did was try to negotiate everyone back into chains in exchange for freedom and pardons for the leadership. He turned on his old comrades in 1794 the minute he thought fighting against them served his interest better than fighting for them. And after he killed or exiled all his domestic opponents, he imposed an authoritarian labor code that treated the black cultivators with only slightly better regard than the old slave system had.
Toussaint Louverture was a genius who had a dream for himself and his country that he nearly saw fulfilled, and he deserves to be put alongside the other great men of history. But like all those other great men, he was ultimately incredibly self interested and occasionally a moral catastrophe.
On April 7, 1803, Toussaint Louverture was found dead in his cell. The cause of death is unknown. He was just about 60 years old. He had steered Saint Domingue from slavery to the brink of independence. But it would be left to other men to complete that journey. Next week, we will join those other men as they attempt to complete the journey. The peace with France will be short lived. The fighting will resume, finally culminating in 1804 with a full blown declaration of independence.
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