Léger Félicité Sonthonax

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Portrait of Léger Félicité Sonthonax
Title page of a 1794 publication of Sonthonax's proclamation abolishing slavery
Léger Félicité Sonthonax (also Santhonax; Kreyòl: Santonaks) (March 17, 1763 Oyonnax, Ain, France - July 28, 1818 Oyonnax, Ain) - French Commissioner who arrived in Saint-Domingue in late 1792 1 and served as the French colony's Commissioner (at the time replacing the title Governor-General as the highest office) from January 2, 1793 - June 19, 1793 and from May 11, 1796 to Aug 24, 1797.

Sonthonax was affiliated with the Société des Amis des Noirs, a Paris based anti-slavery society.

Sonthonax - A French Commissioner in Saint-Domingue

"A former deputy of the national convention, a briefless barrister who came from a rich bourgeois family and had an inborn hatred of aristocrats and what is nowadays called in the West Indies the 'Plantocracy'. He was a dedicated, if rather over-emotional man and a great follower of the new thought." (Parkinson, p. 66) Though he had promised the Assembly he would not free the slaves, after Galbaud's defeat he had no choice. 2 "On 29 August 1793 he declared the emancipation of the slaves of St. Domingue. He cried out to the crowd that gathered to hear the proclamation that he had 'a white skin but the soul of a black man'. The crowds knelt with joy in front of him and Sonthonax was reduced to tears, but he was a man much given to tears and wept both in victory and in defeat." (Parkinson, p. 70) Despite putting up a brave bluff, Sonthonax and Polverel were forced to flee Port au Prince. He was recalled to France on June 15, 1794 to face trial for treason. (Parkinson, p. 83)

Sonthonax wrote in 1795: "We were perfectly forgotten by the government; we were the lost sentinels of the Republic in the colonies." (Stein p. 64)

Having been "completely vindicated," Sonthonax returned to Saint-Domingue as Commissioner in 1796, deporting Jean Baptiste Villatte for his part in Comte de Laveaux' arrest and beginning an investigation of Pinchinat and Rigaud. The investigation went badly, due in part to Laveaux' failure to take Toussaint's advice on how to proceed. Toussaint attempted to remove Sonthonax from the country by appointing him to be, with Laveaux, the island's representative to France, but Sonthonax refused to leave. (Parkinson, pp. 103-106)

Sonthonax, having overcome his enemies in France, returned to Hayti, at the head of a commission of which Roume was the other important member. The Commissioners found the colony in a condition approaching to prosperity. Instead of profiting by the favorable dispositions that prevailed, and the special good feeling with which he was received, Sonthonax preferred stirring men's passions afresh. He had formed the project of bringing the men of color under subjection by the power of the law. In order to effect his purpose, he, ostensibly to reward Toussaint L'Ouverture for the conduct he had pursued in the recent troubles, appointed that distinguished man general of division. These measures irritated Rigaud, the champion of the mulattoes, who saw, with extreme jealousy, the black chief elevated to a rank superior to his own. Obeyed over almost all the South, Rigaud was deaf to overtures made to him on the part of the Commissioners, and in discontent withdrew to Tiburon. (Beard p. 83)

Sonthonax "married his mistress, a mulattress - a Madame Villevaleix, a rich widow with several children." (Parkinson, p. 106)

Sonthonax is expelled from Saint-Domingue by Toussaint Louverture

Signature of L. F. Sonthonax
"Since his first visit he had become obsessed and his hatred of the whites grew fanatical." (Parkinson, p. 106) Neither was he loved by the whites for his noble efforts in emancipating and arming the slaves. Overly sentimental and idealistic, Sonthonax fought Toussaint's efforts to encourage the cultivators back to work and the émigrés back to their property. "All his affection, all his effort was directed towards the black masses, not towards the black leaders who he thought used their status in order to accrue both money and women. At least he was true to his Republican principles, but he was impractical and unrealistic; in his eyes the blacks could do no wrong and he saw himself as their redeemer, not Toussaint, who lived for nothing else but to be considered their hero, and he would stop at nothing to gain the love and respect of the black people." (Parkinson, p. 106)

Indeed, in December of 1796, Sonthonax suggested to Toussaint that the whites should be massacred. In spring of 1797, he suggested they should be banished. At that point in the meeting, Toussaint "turned on his heel. Sonthonax, nearly hysterical and with tears streaming down his face, cried out, 'It is finished, I thought we should agree - Oh, promise me you will tell no one what has passed.'" (Parkinson, p. 107)

Sonthonax, though, became obsessed with his dream of an independent state. After fomenting a mutiny in Toussaint's army in an attempt to gain control over them himself, Sonthonax was forced out of the colony by his Commander in Chief. Sonthonax protested ("How can you treat me like this? I am the founder of liberty."), negotiated, and dragged his heels, but it was no use. Toussaint was resolute. On August 27, 1797, Sonthonax and his family were met at the quay by Toussaint, where the frigate L'Indien waited to take them to France for once and for all. "He had gone, and Toussaint's decision had been right if ruthless. Sonthonax' hysteria, blind idealism and capacity for intrigue could only have produced another holocaust, if he had been allowed to remain." (Parkinson, pp. 108-109)

"He was a practiced and unrepentant liar, living in a world of fantasy in which he could conjure up plots and counterplots and eventually deceive even himself. He only lied when it was unnecessary, which is always foolish." (Parkinson, p. 110)

Note 1: Léger Félicité Sonthonax, arrives in the Le Cap together with Commissioners Polverel and Ailhaud on board of the ship America on September 17, 1792.

Note 2: See also: François Galbaud du Fort - Contains a paragraph on Sontonax's clash with Galbaud.

See also


  • Beard, J. R. (John Relly) (1863). Toussaint L'Ouverture: A Biography and Autobiography. Chapel Hill, NC: Academic Affairs Library, UNC-CH. Online Publication
  • Toussaint-Louverture. (2006). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved August 28, 2006, from Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service [1]
  • Parkinson, Wenda (1978). This Gilded African. London: Quartet Books. ISBN 0-7043-2187-4
  • Stein, Robert (1985). Léger Félicité Sonthonax : the lost sentinel of the republic. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. ISBN 0838632181

External links

Further reading

  • Marcel Dorigny, (2000) Léger-Félicité Sonthonax. La première abolition de l'esclavage: la Révolution française et la Révolution de Saint-Domingue, Saint-Denis, Société française d’histoire d’outre-mer. ISBN 285970020X (French text)