Jean François Papillon

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Jean-François Papillion was an African-born slave that worked in the Papillon plantation, in the North Province of Saint-Domingue. He escaped the said plantation some years before the revolutionary outbreak in Saint-Domingue, living as a maroon until 1791. So when the Haitian revolution started, he had already enjoyed a previous experience of liberty and he was one of the "slave leaders" that led that historical process.

The beginning of the Haitian revolution

Though the mythic vodou ceremony at Bois Caïman, in the night of 21 August 1791, has been usually regarded as the origin of the slave insurrection, some preeminent scholars, significantly David Geggus, have argued that there is no almost no historical evidence for it. For that reason, Geggus states that the slave leaders planned the black revolution one week before, on 14 August 1791, when they gathered in the plantation of Lenormand de Mézy and agreed to rise up in rebellion to conquer freedom exclusively for them. As they knew that they needed the support of the slave masses, crucial for the triumph of the insurrection, they pretended to fight for universal emancipation. Nevertheless, none of the leaders of the insurrection believed in that principle; in fact Jean-François himself declared to the North American agents, present in Le Cap François at the time, 'that he had not created himself General of the negroes, that those who had that power had confered [sic] upon him that title; that in taking up arms, he never pretended to fight for General Liberty, which he knew to be an illusion'.

The first black commander-in-chief was Boukman Dutty, who had supposedly acted as papaloi or vodou priest in the ceremony at Bois Caïman. But Boukman was killed in a confrontation with the French troops in November 1791. The situation of the rebel army was critical, because they needed to choose another general as soon as possible to lead the rebels to victory. It was then that Jean-François Papillon was made new commander-in-chief of the rebels, assisted by the black officers Jeannot Bullet, Georges Biassou and Toussaint Bréda, later known as Toussaint Louverture.

Though the main reason for the Haitian revolution was the former slaves' discontent with their condition, they were assisted by two external elements: many French planters that had fled Saint-Domingue from September 1789, when news of the French revolution were first heard in the colony. The latter were terrified by the chance that the revolutionary ideas that were triumphing in France reached the colony, encouraging the coloured-people to revolt against the whites and seize power, so they crossed the Dominican border and took refuge in Santo Domingo. From that Spanish territory, they took advantage of the royalist mentality of Saint-Domingue's slaves and spread the false rumour that the French King has granted them a three-day holiday per week and had also prohibited physical abuse on the part of the planters. They also told the slaves that the colonial Assembly of Le Cap had prevented that decree from being published in Saint-Domingue, because it harmed the interests of the white elite. The French monarchists exiled in Santo Domingo acted that way because they wished to provoke a slave uprising to defend the Ancien Régime in that colony and to defend the rights of the French King. That was why the slaves that rose up in rebellion in the night of 21 August 1791 waved the French white royalist flag and claimed that they had revolted to defend Louis 16th.

Yet the cited monarchists did not have enough resources to finance the slave uprising, since they were political refugees. For that reason, they had to count on foreign support, which they received from the Spanish Crown and the Dominican government. Both sold the slave rebels of Saint-Domingue food and weapons to carry out their insurrection. The Spanish government did so for two reasons: first, because it also wanted to stop the spread of the French subversive ideas in Saint-Domingue, as there were many chances that the latter reached Santo Domingo and other Spanish possessions, too; second, because the Spanish Crown knew that there were many chances that the slave insurgents went out of control of the monarchist faction that was trying to use them for their own benefit. When that happened, the Spaniards would send troops to the Dominican border to erase the risk of a black invasion of Santo Domingo, and they would wait until the whites and the blacks of Saint-Domingue killed each other. Then Spain would be justified to send troops to restore order in that French colony, but its actual goal would be to re-conquer that territory that had been a Spanish possession until the late 17th Century.

Hence, Spain stayed in touch with Saint-Domingue's rebels from the early days of the Haitian revolution, through the Dominican government. The latter never mentioned its contacts with the former slaves in its documents, in order to preserve Spain's official neutrality towards France. But the black generals did mention their dealings with the Spaniards; for example, in October 1791 Toussaint Bréda told some other black officers that he was in conversations with the Spaniards, whom he had asked for some supplies for his troops. In addition, in January 1792 the black General Georges Biassou addressed the Dominican governor, Joaquin García, for asking him to stop Jean-François' ascent to absolute power in Saint-Domingue as soon as possible, before it was too late.

The turning point: 1793

Spain kept its contacts with the former slaves in secret until 1793. In late January, the French National Convention executed Louis 16th, the cousin of the Spanish King, Carlos 4th. Two months later, France and Spain declared war to each other. As a consequence, the Spanish government did not feel the necessity to keep its contacts with Saint-Domingue's rebels in secret anymore. So the Spaniards started to mention their dealings with the slave insurgents in the official documents and even intensified them, in order to join them to the Dominican colonial army, following the King's instructions. Significantly, the said instructions are dated in February 1793, one month before the declaration of war between France and Spain, which means that the Spanish Crown had been in contact with the black rebels for a long time and also that he planned to declare war to France as soon as possible, after the execution of his cousin the French sovereign.

Carlos 4th told the Dominican authorities to offer Jean-François Papillon and Georges Biassou freedom exclusively for themselves and the main black officers, together with lands and slave labour within Santo Domingo, in exchange for their collaboration with the Spanish army that would confront the French in Hispaniola. The Spanish offer is quite relevant because it appealed to the black leaders' original plan to pursue exclusive freedom and return the mass of slaves to the plantations when the revolution was over and they had already reached their goal. They had to turn that program down in the first days of Saint-Domingue's revolution, which turned all the slaves into free people de facto. From that moment on, the generals were aware that they could not go on fighting for their exclusive freedom without losing the support of the slave masses, essential for the triumph of the revolution. But when the Spanish Crown transmitted the described offer to them, they embraced it happily.

Still the Dominican Archbishop, Fernando Portillo, told the King to send white troops from Puerto Rico to Santo Domingo, to counter-balance the big amount of coloured troops that would become Spain's soldiers in the forthcoming weeks. Portillo named an intermediary to carry out the negotiations with the black generals; the man chosen for that task was the mulato priest of Dajabón, José Vázquez, who had been Jean-François' friend for several years and enjoyed the latter's trust. Vázquez carried out negotiations in April 1793. In the early days of May, Jean-François swore loyalty to the Spanish King, in his name and in the name of his main collaborators. He made it clear that he had accepted Carlos 4th's help because the Spanish sovereign had promised to avenge Louis 16th and to defend Catholicism against the French revolutionary heathenism. Finally, in the correspondence exchanged between the Spaniards and Saint-Domingue's rebels, the latter admitted that they had been receiving food supplies and war items from the Dominican side from the beginning of the revolution. Thus, they demonstrated that the Spaniards had collaborated with them voluntarily from the beginning of the slave insurrection, and not under threat, in order to avoid a black invasion of Santo Domingo unless they helped the former slaves, as the Spanish secretary of State, Manuel de Godoy, argued.

After pronouncing the cited oath of loyalty to the Spanish Crown, Jean-François' and Bissau’s soldiers became Carlos 4th's 'black auxiliary troops'. The colour of their skin prevented them from being fully integrated in the Dominican army as regular troops; that was why they were regarded as auxiliaries.

Service to the Spanish Crown

Jean-François Papillon became General of Spain's black auxiliaries at the same time that the French commissioner Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, the main French authority in Saint-Domingue, promised universal emancipation to all the slaves that embraced the French cause from that moment on (August 1793). Sonthonax extended his offer to Jean-François, who turned it down and proved his loyalty to the Spanish King in several victorious battles against the troops of the Convention. In fact, the Dominican authorities that had mistrusted the former slaves at first, terrified by the chance that the latter turned against them, ended up acknowledging them for their assistance in the war that had followed the revolutionary outbreak in Saint-Domingue. For example, Joaquín García met some black officers in the city of Santo Domingo and admitted that he was surprised by their noble sentiments towards Spain, 'despite the stain that covered their skin'. For his part, the Dominican Archbishop criticised the passivity of the colonial white army, which was so inactive that the main triumphs of the Spanish Crown against the French Republic had happened thanks to the intervention of Jean-François' troops. Fernando Portillo even stated that, had it not been for the help of the former slaves, the Spaniards would have already been thrown out of the island by the French army. For that reason, he told the Dominican government to reward the black auxiliaries for their loyalty; otherwise, the auxiliaries would desert the Spanish side and would cause Spain's strategy in Hispaniola to fail.

The Crown listened to the Dominican Archbishop's advice and decreed the concession of several golden and silver medals to the main black generals, as well as the promotion of many officers under Jean-François' and Bissau’s command. The imposition of those medals took place in Bayajá in March 1794 and was carried out by Joaquín García himself, who wished to honour the black troops personally. That event signalled the highest glory of the former slaves fighting for Spain, as well as the beginning of their decay, motivated by their abuses and the confrontation between Jean-François and Biassou.

The downfall of the black auxiliaries

Rivalry between Jean-François and Biassou

Both black generals had confronted each other from the early days of the slave revolution. First, after Boukman Duty’s death, they disagreed on the military ranks they wanted to attribute to themselves, though Jean-François ended up letting Biassou call himself 'Viceroy of the conquered territories', whereas he became commander-in-chief of the insurgents, Grand Admiral and Knight of the Order of Saint Louis. Second, some weeks later Biassou was so alarmed by Jean-François' evident wish to become the sole commander of the black insurgent army that he asked for Joaquín García’s help to stop General Papillion’s ascent to power. But after those first confrontations, both officers decided to set their rivalry aside momentarily to fight for their own cause and, later on, for Spain's cause. Actually, when Jean-François pronounced his oath of loyalty to the Spanish King in early May 1793, he did so in his name and in the name of Biassou.

But in the late summer of 1793 problems reappeared within the black troops. By mid-September 1793, Jean-François' troops led by the officers Banby and Macaya conquered the Tannerie fort, a crucial strategic French possession. Immediately Marshall Michaud, at the service of Biassou, complained to Banby and Macaya because they had not asked for his permission to attack Tannerie; both officers answered back that they had not needed his allowance because they were obeying orders from Jean-François, commander-in-chief of the black auxiliaries. For a response, Michaud attacked them and stole some weapons from their camp. When Jean-François knew about those events, he hurried to punish Michaud but the latter fired against him, too.

Initially the Dominican officers saw that confrontation with hope: they preferred that Jean-François and Biassou were at odds, because they feared that if both black generals joined their forces, they would attack the Dominican army, whom they outnumbered, and take possession of Santo Domingo. However, they changed their mind when the French, taking advantage of the confrontation within the black auxiliary troops, attacked and re-conquered Tannerie. Aware that the rivalry between Jean-François and Biassou could be catastrophic for Spain's strategic interests in Hispaniola, the Dominican government made both generals come to an agreement. Thanks to the mediation of the commander of Dondon, Matías Armona, they met in Dondon in late November and they decided to unite their forces to serve Spain well. Instead of punishing Biassou, whose collaboration he needed to carry out Spain's plan in the island, Jean-François reprised Marshal Biassou, whom he accused of betraying Spain. In addition, Jean-François knew that some personal advisors, especially Toussaint Bréda, had instigated Biassou against him. For that reason, he tried to have the latter imprisoned, but he failed.


The other reason for the decay of the prestige of the black auxiliaries fighting for Spain was the massacre of Bayajá. Bayajá had been a French possession, Fort Dauphin, set in a natural bay in the North Province of Saint-Domingue, on the way to Le Cap François. The Spaniards had taken it in January 1794, after a long siege. The French garrison agreed to surrender to the Dominican troops, as long as the latter promised that Jean-François' auxiliaries would never be allowed to enter the place in the future. There are two main reasons for that demand: first, the author of the capitulation agreement was Candy, Jean-François' former collaborator that had deserted the Spanish army attracted by the French proclamation of universal emancipation; so he was afraid of his former General's vengeance against him. Second, many French inhabitants that stayed in Bayajá after the arrival of the Spaniards had been slave owners, and most Jean-François' men had been their slaves; therefore, they were also terrified by the chance that those troops massacred them.

Initially the Spaniards kept their promise. Every now and then the black auxiliaries arrived in front of the city wall to ask for food and war items, but they never entered the place. Nevertheless, that situation changed in the early days of July 1794: the cited black troops arrived at the entrance of Bayajá, they celebrated a vodou ceremony led by a woman called la Vierge and they crossed the city gates on 7 July 1794. Jean-François told his men to stay in the courtyard and went to the house of the governor of the place, Gaspar de Casasola. The black General told Casasola to throw the French inhabitants out of Bayajá at once, arguing that the latter were secretly planning to hand the place over to the French army. If Casasola did not agree to his demand, he would massacre all the French people of Bayajá himself. Instead of stopping him at once, Casasola answered that he needed to consult the Crown before making any decision on that issue. Disappointed by such an unsatisfactory response, Jean-François went back to his troops and encouraged them to kill all the French neighbours of the place. Unfortunately, so many French and Spanish people were killed that the streets were soon covered by piled-up corpses.

The French, the British and the North American government blamed the Dominican authorities for that massacre, since the garrison and the governor of Bayajá had done nothing to stop it. They also took advantage of the episode to remind the Spanish government that dealing with the former slaves was very risky, as they were very difficult to control and could easily turn against Spain, provoking such shameful events as the killing of Bayajá. Joaquín García was so shocked by what had happened that he ordered the Dominican officers to not use the black auxiliaries in any other important campaign in the island. Jean-François tried to declare himself innocent, though the surviving witnesses of the massacre signalled him as the only one to hold responsible for it.

The peace Treaty of Basel and the diaspora of the black auxiliaries

In late July 1795, France and Spain put an end to their war in Europe (1793-1795) and signed the peace Treaty of Basel. During the confrontation, the French troops had occupied Catalonia, the Basque Country and Navarra. In exchange for the French evacuation of those territories, France asked for another Spanish possession in America and Spain decided to give Santo Domingo to the French Republic. News of the Treaty of Basel reached Santo Domingo in October 1795 and the Dominican government ordered the army to stop the hostilities against the French at once, since Spain and France were now allies. Some days later Jean-François and Biassou entered Bayajá together with his troops to put themselves at the orders of the Dominican governor and to wait for being sent to other destinations. But Spain had only asked for the former slaves' assistance to defeat France in Hispaniola. Since the Spanish strategy had already failed, the black auxiliaries were not needed any more and Spain looked forward to getting rid of them as soon as possible.

First, Joaquín García sent them to Havana, though the Cuban governor, Luis de lass Casas, had tried to prevent him from doing so. After that, a short stay in the city, Biassou decided to leave for Florida together with his main collaborators. For his part, Jean-François, his family and his men were taken to Cádiz, where they arrived in March 1796. The black General asked for the compensation that corresponded to his military grade, in order to have enough resources to pay for his living as well as for the living of his men. But Spanish Crown warned him that he had been downgraded from the very moment that he had disembarked in Cádiz. Not only did the Spanish Crown erase the former grades of the black generals, but it also denied any contact with them, because it did not want to be linked to those people, to blame for such shameful events as the killing in Bayajá. Jean-François then tried to defend his rights and asked to meet the King in Madrid, but the Spanish government did not meet his demand.

After several years living in Cádiz in absolute misery, Jean-François Papillon died in the early 19th Century, around 1805. He did not see the resolution of the situation of his troops, which were taken back to America and spread among different Spanish possessions in 1813, thanks to a decree by the Spanish Cortes de Cádiz.

See Also


  • Beard, John Relly (1853). The Life of Toussaint L'Ouverture, The Negro Patriot of Hayti: Comprising an Account of the Struggle for Liberty in the Island, and a Sketch of Its History to the Present Period. Chapel Hill, NC: Academic Affairs Library, UNC-CH. Online Publication
  • Général Nemours, (1945) Toussaint Louverture fonde à Saint-Domingue la liberté et l'égalité, Port-au-Prince
  • Parkinson, Wenda (1978). This Gilded African. London: Quartet Books. ISBN 0-7043-2187-4