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An introductory note: This essay really began in a remote village in the Bellefontaine region of southwest Haiti. I had walked into this village from Kenskoff, one of the hardest things I've ever done in my experiences in Haiti. I was exhausted from a nearly 12 hour walk and quite frightened that I simply couldn't make the walk back out. I simply don't do mountains well and we had gone up and down and over three mountains to get there.
But, over dinner a discussion came up in which the Haitians present were teasing me about how Haiti "saved" the United States. I was fascinated. I didn't know this story. It certainly was not taught in my history courses in school.
When I did finally get back to the states, I started reading about this "saving" story. The glory of the tale is rooted in a late 20th century view of the world. From that perspective little bitsy Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world, by resisting Napoleon's invaders, had saved the U.S. since Napoleon was really on his way to attack the huge and glorious U.S.
But, the real story, as set in the very beginning of the 19th century was much more glorious than the Haitians knew. Haiti was the economic giant, the plum of Napoleon's empire, and the jewel around which he would build his empire. The then small and less interesting U.S. would simply be a feeding ground for the slaves he intended to reinstate in Saint-Domingue.
Even after I researched and wrote this paper, and told the tale to many Haitians, they tend to still prefer the other story, which is not nearly so glorious to Haiti as the true story. Odd. But that's the way it is!Bob Corbettcorbetre@webster.edu
It is general folk knowledge in Haiti that Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian revolutionaries saved the United States from being invaded by Napoleonic forces in 1803. This popular lore surfaces often in discussions with Haitians, particularly when the speakers are complaining about later U.S. policy and treatment of Haiti. The general suggestion is that the United States was indeed saved almost single handedly by the Haitians, and that the U.S. is extremely ungrateful for the service rendered it. Further, I've often heard this point raised to underline the ignorance that Americans typically have of the relative importance each nation held on the stage of world politics in 1802-03.
Certainly the French colony, Saint-Domingue, and the early Republic of Haiti, played a much more important role in Caribbean and world politics than does present day Haiti. The major powers of the region, France, Britain, Spain and the United States, were slave owning, slave trading nations. They faced serious threats from a non-slave nation, particularly one whose citizens were former slaves who had risen up and defeated the major powers in a revolutionary struggle.
The French, of course, regretted the loss of an enormously rich colony. The British feared the impact of the Haitian Revolution on Jamaica and her other slave colonies. The U.S. worried about the impact of the servile revolution on the south of its own nation. Spain had lost her colony of Santo Domingo, next door to Saint-Domingue, and feared the spread of her influence to Puerto Rico and Cuba.
Yet the major powers had their own problems with one another. While Saint- Domingue/Haiti (1) loomed far larger in international significance that present day Haiti, nonetheless, there was no uniform resistance among the four major powers. They each had various problems with one another, often in relationship to Haiti, and thus could not come to exert a unitary resistance. The Haitian Revolution became a tool to be manipulated by the major powers in their own struggles with one another, while, at the same time, each tried to gain its own advantages vis-a-vis the new republic.
In it's strongest form the popular Haitian version of this story is that Napoleon Bonaparte had a secret plot to take the United States. On this view General Leclerc and his troops would first stop off briefly at Saint- Domingue to put down Toussaint Louverture and his upstart revolutionaries, then move on to French Louisiana, which would serve as a base from which to harry the southern parts of the United States. Thus the successful Haitian resistance is seen as having saved the United States. I will refer to this theory as the linear plot, since it moves right along in a line from France, to Saint-Domingue, to New Orleans to Washington. (2)
A seemingly weaker version of this plot theory is that Napoleon wished to establish a strong hold in the West Indies for France and that recovering control over Saint-Domingue, its richest colonial holding, was crucial for this program. Then near-by French Louisiana could be a source of food supply for the more productive and economically more attractive Saint- Domingue, ensuring a strong contribution to France from its West Indian holdings. I will call this view the Saint-Domingue-center view, since the colony of Saint-Domingue is the core of the policy and New Orleans is merely a supply outpost.
My own view leans toward a version of the Saint-Domingue-center theory. I believe that Napoleon wanted to re-establish control over Saint-Domingue and believed that French Louisiana was essential to that plan. Further, the United States was certainly a beneficiary of the successful Haitian Revolution. Since Saint-Domingue, and not Louisiana nor the United States was the center piece of Napoleon's West Indian strategy, once Saint- Domingue was lost to France, Louisiana became an uninteresting and untenable piece of real estate. On this view the United States is indirectly indebted to Haiti for one of the best real estate buys in history--the Louisiana Purchase, but the U.S. was not really "saved" from Napoleonic domination or invasion by the Haitians' successful revolution.
If one follows the documents available, and accepts at face value the various statements of the principals, especially Napoleon himself, then there is no case at all to make for the linear plot theory. The puzzle is that the linear plot theory survives today as the dominate belief in Haitian folk history, and has even persuaded some important historians of its truth. (3)
One might account for its longevity by the tendency of any people to glorify its own history and to accept attractive historical myths as truths. Americans, for example, cling to the romantic George Washington stories of the cherry tree and of his sailing a silver dollar across the Potomac. On the other hand it may be that the story just needs to be clarified and investigated to remind us what was going on in 1802-03. This is the primary aim of my paper.
I try to accomplish four things:
The Haitian Revolution began in 1791. Influenced by the French Revolution's recognition of the Rights of Man, driven by the excessive cruelty of French slavery, the slaves rose up in August of 1791. (4) Toussaint Louverture, over 40 when the revolution broke out, rose in power and by 1793 was a leading general of the revolution, along with Jean-Francois and Biassou. The three had sided with the Spanish against the French and were sheltered in the Spanish part of the island (the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo). The Spanish also supplied weapons and other material support to the rebels.
However, Toussaint returned to the French side when he became convinced that there was a better chance for emancipation with them. French Commissioner Sonthonax had emancipated the slaves and the Directory in Paris recognized this emancipation in Feb. 1794. By April of that year, shortly after word arrived back from France of the Directory's emancipation, Toussaint switched sides and began to war against both the Spanish and British, and to war for France.
By July of 1801 Toussaint had emerged as the leading figure in Saint- Domingue, and seemed headed toward declaring an independent republic. He had defeated the Spanish and British, maneuvered the French Commissioners out of the colony, defeated Andre Rigaud in a Civil War, taken possession of the eastern portion of the island which had recently been ceded to France by Spain, eradicated slavery on the entire island and promulgated a constitution in which he was declared governor general for life.
Both Britain and the United States treated with Toussaint as though he were the head of an independent state, though Toussaint's constitution and public demeanor was to claim that he was a loyal French citizen who had saved the colony for France.
Virtually no one believed Toussaint's claims of loyalty to France. Britain and the United States wanted to deal with Toussaint to ensure an end of French privateering from Saint-Dominguan waters. Both nations hoped to contain the slave rebellion to Saint-Domingue alone. Both nations strove to out do one another in establishing trade relations with Toussaint's government, in defiance of France's regulations for the colony. Thus Napoleon might well be excused if he took with a healthy dose of salt Toussaint's claims of being a loyal son and protector of French rights in Saint-Domingue. (5)
Nonetheless, the general policy which Napoleon followed was not created by him, but by the Directory before Napoleon became First Consul. Napoleon's own coup d'etat in France took place on Nov. 9, 1799. But the essence of what would soon become Napoleon's West Indian policy was already in place.
In 1795 the Directory acquired Santo Domingo, though they never sought to take possession. Also they began to seek retrocession of Louisiana. They recognized that Saint-Domingue was the golden goose of their West Indian possessions, but that it could not be reliably supplied from France because the British fleet controlled the Caribbean. New Orleans was recognized as the necessary supply center from which needed food stuffs could be more easily shipped to Saint-Domingue than from France.
The Directory, as Napoleon later on, perceived Toussaint to be a threat to the continued colonial status of Saint-Domingue. Just as the Directory tried to rid itself of Napoleon himself by sending him off to Egypt, so it sought to rid itself of Toussaint by involving him in disastrous foreign adventures. On May 23, 1799 Edward Stevens, Consul General of the U.S. to Saint-Domingue, wrote to General Maitland, formerly the head of the British forces: "The Agency of San-Domingo had received positive orders from the Executive Directory to invade both the Southern States of America and the island of Jamaica. Gen. Toussaint Louverture was consulted on the best mode of making the attack. (Korngold, p. ix.)
Stevens, writing to Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, saw that this was a double edged order--if it succeeded, France would win a great prize in Jamaica, but, if it didn't it would be rid of Toussaint:
"Success would forever separate from Great Britain one of her most valuable colonies and diminish her resources. Should they [Toussaint and his army] fail, they will fall victims to their rashness and presumption or like Bonaparte and his army cease to be objects of dread and jealousy to the Government of France. The old system might then be restored in St. Domingo and slavery reestablished. (Korngold, p. 164)
Toussaint wisely refused this order. However, it has always seemed to me that this direct plot, insincere as it may have been on the Directory's part, is not an unlikely source of the beginnings of the linear plot theory which I described above. The mistake of this interpretation would be putting the plot into Napoleon's mouth, and believing it a sincere plot to invade the United States, rather than an attempt to rid France of Toussaint. (6)
Napoleon may have inherited the essence of his West Indian policy, but he immediately turned up the heat. Having taken over in November of 1799, by August the following year he had already begun negotiations with Spain for the retrocession of Louisiana. France receive the Territory in a secret treaty on October 1, 1800, less than one year after Napoleon's ascension to power in France. However, it never actually took control from the Spanish.
At the same time Napoleon was working to put his West Indian policy into effect. On September 30, 1800, the day before the retrocession treaty with Spain, the French and Americans signed a treaty ending their two year old quasi-war. This left the British, with whom France was at war, as the major stumbling block to Napoleon's plans. It was another whole year before Napoleon managed a peace treaty with Britain, freeing him from the dangers of the British navy in the Caribbean. Just six days after their treaty was signed Napoleon began the plans for an invasion force to be sent to Saint-Domingue.
The British and American attitudes toward Saint-Domingue had been mixed. The British invaded Saint-Domingue in September of 1793, thinking they could achieve an easy victory in concert with the Spanish and pick up a valuable colony. However, after Toussaint and yellow fever (7) soundly defeated them by 1798, the British sought special trade relations with Toussaint, and were prepared to help him against the French, encouraging his independence movement. The only fear the British had, which was shared by the Americans, was that an independent Haiti would spread the concept of a servile revolution. Such a revolution was extremely dangerous to the slave colonies of the British West Indies.
The American position was more complex. First the Adams, then Jefferson administrations had to walk a tight rope of conflicting interests. On the one hand the New England area desperately wanted and needed trade with San Domingue. They traded salted fish, clothing, manufactured goods, weapons and arms for molasses and sugar cane, mainly for the important rum distilleries of the American NOrtheast.
On the other hand, the U.S. was extremely worried about the impact of a free Haiti on the Southern states and the political implications for the administration which would support such relationships. On March 12, 1799 Secretary of State Pickering wrote to Rufus King, American minister to Great Britain: "A Saint Domingue under France was more dangerous. Blacks would stick to agriculture and not go to sea. But 'France with an army of those black troops might conquer all the British Isles and put in jeopardy our Southern States."' (Logan, p. 84.)
There are several noteworthy things about this memo. First of all, it was written prior to Napoleon's coup d'etat, again underlining that the linear plot theory preceded Napoleon. Secondly, it is important to note the belief that as long as Haiti had no sea power, (8) it could not effectively spread its revolution. Finally, there are suggestions in the literature that the whole concept of a French plot to attack the U.S. may have been an American invention.
The leading proponent of this view is Ludwell Montague who argues that the Federalists were vehemently opposed to Revolutionary France. Both Thomas Pickering, Secretary of State under John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton were convinced that it would be possible to keep an independent Haiti from becoming a maritime nation, thus reducing any real threat it might pose to other slave nations. At the same time an independent Haiti, on their view, could be induced to halt piracy from La Tortue and to allow lucrative trade with the American Northeast. The problem was, how to convince the Southern states to support such a policy. The belief in a French plot to use San Domingue as a jumping off place to invade the U.S. through Louisiana was a convenient fiction to float their anti-French policy. What made the plot particularly workable for the Federalist was the claim that Toussaint himself had refused to obey the Directory's order for a foreign adventure against the United States. Thus he was seen as the lesser of two evils. (Montague, p. 39 ff)
I believe there is a strong case to say that the linear plot theory was itself an American Federalist concoction to justify it's anti-French policy without seeming pro-black or pro-Haitian. (9) Rather, Haiti could be seen as the first line of defense against an imperialist France. The primary support for this claim is that the story fits the Federalists' purposes, and that there is virtually no textual evidence at all that supports the linear plot, and much which shows it is sheer non-sense.
There are a couple of diplomatic memos which suggest that two of Jefferson's minions did believe the plot. Minister to Paris, Edward Livingstone wrote to King on December 30, 1801: "I know that the armament destined in the first instance for Hispaniola is to proceed to Louisiana provided Toussaint makes no opposition." (Montague. p. 43)
In another letter Tobias Lear, the new American consul in Cape Francois claimed to have "...obtained positive information that some of Leclerc's regiments were destined for Louisiana, but at the same time he was able to observe that no troops could be spared from Saint Domingue for an indefinite period." (Montague, p. 43)
However, even if Livingstone and Lear were sincere and correct in their intelligence, (10) this does not support the linear plot theory. The French had not yet taken possession of Louisiana from the Spanish. This area was constantly beset with problems from hostile Indians as well as disgruntled settlers. It is reasonable to expect that they would need some protection of their interests once they repossessed Louisiana. Also, Napoleon was quite aware of Jefferson's opposition to the French in Louisiana. But we cannot forget that Louisiana was a French possession, and legally re-taking it from the Spanish is not an invasion of the United States, however much Jefferson might have disliked it. Again, fearing a French presence in Louisiana is one thing, believing that the French were on their way to Washington is totally another.
I have tried to establish that the French West Indian policy was not an invention of Napoleon's, but something he inherited from the Directorate. Perhaps the clearest evidence that Napoleon's strategy called for the San Domingue-center plan, and not the linear plot, comes from his secret instructions to Laclerc. (11) The primary aim of the instructions is to tell Laclerc how Napoleon wants Toussaint subdued, slowly, with flattery to lower his guard, and then with ruthlessness. This is exactly what Laclerc seems to have achieved. Napoleon's primary mistake was to think that the elimination of Toussaint was the immediate end of the revolution.
But, more to the point of this story is that the secret instructions make clear that Napoleon was out to re-establish Saint-Domingue in all her prior glory. This he recognized required the reintroduction of slavery and the complete return of the old regime.
He tells Leclerc:
"The Spaniards, the British and the Americans are equally worried to see a Black Republic. The admiral and the major general will write memorandums to the neighboring establishments in order to let them know the goal of the government, the common advantage for the Europeans to destroy the Black Rebellion and the hope to be seconded." (Roloff, p. 249)
Later on he is more specific:
"Commerce must, during the 1st, 2nd and 3rd periods be accessible to Americans, but after the 3rd period, Frenchmen only will be admitted and the ancient rules from before the Revolution will be put back into force." (Roloff, p. 252-253)
In order for France to recapture the grandeur that was Saint-Domingue, Napoleon needed to put down the black rebellion, reestablish slavery, and equally importantly, refuse all trade with Britain and the United States. When Saint-Domingue was producing her fabulous wealth for France it was because the exclusif was in effect, that is, Saint-Domingue was required to trade exclusively with France, both for her imports and exports.
Certainly Louisiana played an important role in Napoleon's policy. As Henry Adams says:
"St. Domingo, like all the West Indies, suffered as a colony under a serious disadvantage, being dependent for its supplies on the United States--a dangerous neighbor both by its political example and its commercial and maritime rivalry with the mother country. The First Consul hoped to correct this evil by substituting Louisiana for the United States as a source of supplies for St. Domingo."&bbsp; (Adams, "Napoleon," p. 124)
Napoleon's vision is a Saint-Domingue-centered vision. She was to be the great producer of wealth, reverting to her slave status. Louisiana was important to the plan, but Louisiana was relegated to the role of an agricultural supplier for the hungry slaves of Saint-Domingue, and as a front-line protector from allowing the United States a trade foot in the door. Nonetheless, Napoleon's West Indian policy looks first and foremost to Saint-Domingue.
Perhaps one of the strongest arguments against the linear plot and for the Saint-Domingue-center plot is the Louisiana Purchase. Napoleon was soundly defeated in Saint-Domingue and Haiti was born of the ashes of that battle. But, if Louisiana had been the actual target, then Napoleon could have extricated himself earlier and by-passed Saint-Domingue to continue on toward his main target. He would have reasoned that it was not Toussaint who defeated him, but yellow fever, which was a favorite explanations of many white racists. (see note # 7 again). He would have given up on Saint- Domingue as unfit for Frenchmen, and moved on to Louisiana. What he did in fact, however, was to sell Louisiana as soon as it became clear that he was not going to retake Saint-Domingue. What's the point in an excellent supply depot if there's nothing to supply.
Henry Adams gives evidence that Napoleon was considering selling Louisiana as early as April, 1803, seven months before the French finally surrendered in Haiti. (Adams HISTORY, p. 329) Adams sums up the situation succinctly:
"Without that island the system had hands, feet, and even a head, but no body. Of what use was Louisiana, when France had clearly lost the main colony which Louisiana was meant to feed and fortify?... Not only had the island of St. Domingo been ruined by the war, its plantations destroyed, its labor paralyzed, and its population reduced to barbarism...but...the army dreaded service in St. Domingo, where certain death awaited every soldier; the expense was frightful; a year of war had consumed fifty thousand men and money in vast amounts, with no other result than to prove that at least as many men and as much money would be still needed before any return could be expected for so lavish an expenditure. In Europe war could be made to support war; in St. Domingo peace alone could but slowly repair some part of this frightful waste." (Adams, HISTORY, P. 311-312).
The deal to sell the Louisiana Territory was well underway in the last days of the Leclerc expedition, and was actually concluded before the French left Saint-Domingue, though the official sale, like the official birth of Haiti, is in 1804.
The interesting and ironic part of this story is that what at first seems to be the weaker and less glorious of the plots is actually the stronger and more glorious position for Haiti. On the linear plot theory, Napoleon was headed for the United States through Louisiana with a quick stop over in Saint-Domingue. Then, Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian masses stopped the French dead in their tracks. The French, beaten and discouraged, spared the United States and returned home.
But notice that what makes this story interesting is the assumption that the most important entity is the United States and not Haiti. What is glorious is that the tiny, insignificant nation of Haiti saved the important great giant with its unlikely victory over the French forces.
However, on the Saint-Domingue-center theory, Haiti is the key and center of Napoleon's whole West Indian strategy. Louisiana, which recall is not the United States, but a French colony, is an important supply depot, but secondary to the whole plot. The United States is a competitive nation, trying to cut into France's trade relations with its richest colony.Certainly the United States feared France's presence in Louisiana, especially with the imperialist Napoleon Bonaparte on the throne. But it was the lost trade with Saint-Domingue that most frightened the U.S.
Jefferson recognized this. He was himself a Republican and not a Federalist, and was president during Napoleon's attack on Saint-Domingue. He seems not to have feared that Napoleon had designs the United States. Nonetheless he had a clear idea of the interrelation between Louisiana, Saint-Domingue, France and the U.S. On April 18, 1802 he wrote Edward Livingstone, American Minister in Paris, that New Orleans "...is the one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy...The day that France takes possession of New Orleans fixes the sentence which is to restrain her forever within her low water mark...From that moment we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation." (Logan, P.134)
Jefferson was confident that the French would not succeed in Saint- Domingue, and supplied Toussaint with arms, munitions and food, regarding him, as the Federalist linear plot did too, as the first line of defense against Napoleonic aggression. But the aggression Jefferson feared was not a direct threat to United States territorial integrity, but an undesired and untenable French presence in Louisiana. He believed that Toussaint would put up considerable resistance, and he counted on pressing affairs in Europe to turn Napoleon from his West Indian policy.
Thus on the Saint-Domingue-center theory Haiti becomes much more important than it would otherwise. It is recognized by Napoleon, and the French Directorate before him, as the most important factor of its West Indian's policy, and more important than Louisiana. At the same time, the heroic fighting of the Haitians presents Louisiana to the United States on a silver platter. Consequently, the part of the story which the Haitians so love to acknowledge -- their contribution to the well being of the United States -- is well preserved.
Finally, this view emphasizes that in the relative importance of nations, there was a time when Haiti was not important for what she did or didn't do for the big brother across the gulf stream, but extremely important in her own right, sought after by Napoleon himself. The seemingly "lesser" view becomes the more significant when viewed from this perspective.
I believe I have a copy of Napoleon's "Secret Instructions" to Leclerc and will post them as soon as I can.
This is the fourth in a four part series of articles on the Haitian
Revolution written by Bob Corbett.
Go to Part 1
Go to Part 2
Go to Part 3
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