Haiti: Napoleon’s Great Betrayal


Captains, as you sail across the Caribbean you will note that news of the Haitian revolution may reach you when you are docked at the ports, after 1791. From 1791 to 1804, the Caribbean was the scene of many uprising and revolutions, inspired by the events that were taking place at the same time in revolutionary France.

With the new update, the flag of Haiti will be unlocked for those captains sailing in and after the year 1804. The story of the Haitian war of independence and the birth of Haiti is our focus in this note.

Haiti was formed from what was previously the French and Spanish territory of Hispaniola, where the local economy was based on the practice of slavery and forced labour. Hispaniola was an important colony for both France and Spain, and for more than a hundred years it was one of the richest colonies that sustained both these European empires. The turning-point was reached with the slave uprising of 1791, that was further ignited by news of revolution in Europe as well. In the decade that followed, the French monarchy was toppled, King Louis was executed and France was declared a republic.

One of the catalysts that accelerated the process of revolution in Haiti was the ending of slavery by France, and the declaration of the universal rights of man. Key Haitian leaders like Toussaint l’Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessallines quickly rallied to the banner of France to gain control of Santo Domingo, weakening the hold of Spain while strengthening the grip of France across Hispaniola.

In time Toussaint l’Ouverture was declared the de facto governor of the Haitian people, and assumed command of Western Hispaniola (Haiti), ruling in the name of the French republic. He began trade negotiations with the United States, and organised a people’s army that eradicated the last traces of slavery across the island.

The disastrous u-turn came in 1801, when France and Britain both attempted to end the hostilities between them. While France had succeeded in expanding its territories across Europe, the French economy was in bad shape, and exhausted by the war. As Britain and France planned for peace, Napoleon made it clear that he wished to regain control of Haiti and rule it directly from Paris, via a governor that would be appointed by the French government – and not the Haitian people.

It was then that Napoleon committed perhaps one of the biggest moral errors of his career: In a bid to regain Hispaniola and to revive its economy, he re-introduced slavery, that had been abolished by the revolutionary government before him. A massive invasion force was assembled, led by General Leclerc; comprising of more than 35,000 soldiers, transported by a fleet under the command of Admiral Villaret-Joyeuse.

News of this impending invasion swiftly reached Haiti, causing anger and panic among the black and mulatto troops. The time had come for Haiti to defend itself against France. In the war of independence that ensued, horrific abuses and killings took place; and Toussaint l’Ouverture was betrayed and captured.

Notwithstanding this loss, the Haitians rallied behind other leaders like Jean-Jacque Dessalines and Alexandre Petion; and after three years of brutal warfare the French army was thoroughly defeated – by guerilla combat and disease. Finally in January 1804 Haiti was able to declare itself the first truly independent republic of the Caribbean, and France had lost her colony forever.

The historian Paul Fregosi has noted that Napoleon, in his final years, admitted that the attack on Haiti and the re-introduction of slavery were among the biggest mistakes of his life. But though the human cost was high, Napoleon’s mistake led to the birth of the first free republic of the Caribbean, that would later inspire other anti-colonial movements from Venezuela to Colombia to Mexico and beyond.

So do check the news whenever you are docked at port captains- You are sailing in one of the most remarkable periods of history.



[Image: The painting ‚Oath of the Ancestors’ by Guillaume Lethiere (1822), depicting the meeting of generals Alexandre Petion and Jean-Jacques Dessalines who united their armies in the Haitian war of independence. Source: open web/internet]


Farish A Noor