The History and Present Condition of St. Domingo (1837)
The History and Present Condition of St. Domingo
from chapter II, p. 44ff By J. Brown, M.D.
Upon the occasion of Toussaint’s elevation to the government for life many promotions were made by his order of those who had been his favorite officers or his warmest partisans. The chief of brigade, Henry Christophe, whose advancement from the ranks had been the consequence of merit alone, and whose modesty at this time was such that he suffered himself to be solicited by his friends to accept the grade of a general officer, was made commander of the North, and sent to take the command at Cape Francois.
The pure blacks were those most favored with promotion in the army, and after them came the class of mulattoes, while the place of acting as secretaries and business agents to the different black chiefs was an object within the attainment of the whites.
The seat of government was alternately at Port au prince and cape Francois, according as either of those towns happened to afford a temporary sojourn to Toussaint, whose palaces in these places were fitted up in a style of the utmost sumptuousness.
The army was divided into three divisions. The first was called that of the North, and placed under the command of Gen. Moyse, who held his head quarters at cape Francois: the second was commanded by Dessalines, and was in occupation of the South; and the third was stationed in the eastern or Spanish part of the island, and was commanded by the mulatto general Clervaux, who had served in the war against Rigaud, and whom Toussaint treated with an outward appearance of confidence, but inwardly distrusted.
Toussaint’s two favorite officers were Moyse and Dessalines, whom he had appointed inspectors general of agriculture within the respective districts under their command. These two chiefs, of an ardent and hasty temperament by nature, were in their intercourse and conduct tyrannical and cruel in the extreme..
Dessalines in particular possessed the temper of a sullen and ferocious savage, and he did by physical violence what Toussaint effected by moral influence alone. He was severe and inexorable to his soldiers, and in his rounds of duty upon the plantations he was lavish of chastisements, which he inflicted by the blows of a cane upon the heads of the Negroes. If the chief laborer among a gang of Negroes excused himself to Dessalines for the neglected condition of the field which had been placed under his care, by ascribing it to the general idleness of those under his control, he was immediately ordered to designate one of the Negroes, to be hung as an example to the rest.
But if any one was particularized as mutinous, or habitually idle, he was condemned by this unfeeling chieftain to be buried alive, and all his fellow laborers were commanded to be present, in order to witness the sufferings of the victim. “One can easily conceive,” says Lacroix, “that by means like these ten of the new citizens who were nominally free, but subjected to such inexorable authority as that of Gen. Dessalines, might be made to do more work, and add more to agriculture than twenty of the same individuals when slaves, as in former times.”
Toussaint, whose minutest measures were directed to his own aggrandizement, and who knew how to make even the violence and ferocity of those under his command to contribute to the success of his administration, made a grant to Dessalines of thirty-two sugar plantations, to be held on a yearly rent; and in the hands of this tyrannical chief they were forced forward so as to produce a yearly income of a hundred thousands francs each. Notwithstanding their immense expenditures in building for themselves residences, and in purchasing appointments and equipage on a scale of the utmost sumptuousness, these black chiefs, who were engaged as farmers general, needed but two or three years to become the richest private individuals in the world.
Moyse Defies Toussaint
Whether Gen. Moyse was less cruel than Dessalines, or the blacks of the north were less submissive to labor than those of the other parts of the island, the produce of that region was much less under his authority than that of the South under the stern rule of his associate chief. Toussaint saw this unproductiveness in the most fertile territory of his government, and he reproached his nephew Gen Moyse, for his negligence in agriculture.
The reply of Gen. Moyse manifests his character and wishes: “Whatever my aged uncle may do, I cannot yet resolve to become the executioner of my race. It is always in the name of France that your reprimands are given, but to labor for France is to labor the interests of whites, and I shall never love them until they give me back the eye I have lost in battle.”
A company of merchants at this time offered Moyse twenty thousand dollars a month as a rent for the plantation which he had at his disposal. Toussaint, dissatisfied to see these speculators about to deprive his nephew of such an immense source of wealth, threatened him with his displeasure if he persevered. Moyse, grown presumptuous from long prosperity, and feeling himself safe, from his alliance in blood and color with the general-in-chief, did not suspend his negotiations for this menace of his uncle, and he drew upon himself a feeling of indignant suspicion in consequence.
While this distrust and irritation were rankling in the bosom of Toussaint, the Negroes of the North, whom long license had given a hatred of labor, began to manifest an appearance of insubordination. They collected in numbers at Limbé, and took possession of the country, cutting the throats of the overseers who had been appointed to superintend their labors, and of other whites who were so unfortunate as to fall into their power.
The insurrection soon spread to Cape Francois, and was followed by the murder of three hundred whites who were inhabitants of that town: but as the revolt was not extensive, and had arisen rather from mere lawlessness and dislike to labor than from causes that were more general in their agency, it was readily checked by the presence of Toussaint, at whose approach the rebels fled in terror to their different employments.
They excused themselves for their crime, by declaring that they had taken arms to save themselves from slavery to the whites, to whom their chiefs, Christophe and Dessalines, had delivered them against the wishes of Gen. Moyse, who had cooperated with them in their enterprise. Toussaint was easy to believe in the existence among his race at this time of a spirit of distrust directed toward the whites, when rumors were spreading from Europe that the peace then existing in that quarter was about to be expended in an attempt to subdue the blacks of St. Domingo.
But he had already become estranged from the nephew, and he was not averse to listen to complaints against him; particularly when he was charged with a design to disturb the tranquility of the island by putting himself at the head of a movement thought to have an ambitious tendency, though it was but an effort to escape from labor and engage in scenes of disorder and pillage. Gen. Moyse was delivered over to a court martial, and he was almost immediately condemned to be shot for negligence of his duty.
Toussaint thought by sacrifice of his relative to prove to France the inflexibility of his mind, and his solicitude to protect its interests in the island from all disorders incident to its new condition. For this end, as well as to make a display of his power over the blacks, he went from place to place to hold solemn trials of those accused of participation in the late disorder. All these were conducted in such a way as to give publicity to his justice, and make terrible examples of punishment, to overawe the survivors.
At the towns of Cape Francois, Fort Dauphin, and Limbé he assembled the whole population, and the troops in garrison were ordered under arms. Those who had been agents or accomplices in the late transaction were already known to him, and he ordered out one by one those who had been selected as objects of his justice, and commanded that they should be shot in his presence.
The victims he had designated did not hazard a murmur. After bowing submissively to their dreaded chief, they joined hands and marched out with contrition and sadness to meet the death that was prepared for them. Those very Negroes who had so lately dared every resistance from their enemies, and whose fierceness was so incontrollable when aroused in their work of insurrection, now submitted themselves to be decimated and delivered over to summary death by a single man who stood there before them unarmed.
A being of this tremendous moral energy was not to be subjected to the interests of France by the mere employment of a succession of commissioners and government agents, designed to hold his usurpations in salutary control. He knew better than others how far his real authority extended, and he was not to be driven from the absolute and despotic command of two hundred thousand blacks by labored proclamations, and the machinery of a policy the greatest weapon of which was the pen.
Bonaparte’s Humiliation of Toussaint
Bonaparte had never condescended to answer any of Toussaint’s letters to him, one of which bore for its superscription, “the first of black to the first of whites.” This stubborn silence of the First Consul affected him deeply. He was humiliated at the neglect, as well as fearful that this prolonged silence was ominous of evil consequences to himself.
He has even been known to shed tears when discoursing upon a subject so near his heart. “Bonaparte is wrong,” he would exclaim, “not to write to me. He must have listened to my enemies, for unless he had he would not thus refuse me his consideration—me who have rendered more service to France than any other general. The Spanish and English governments treat with more respect those generals who have distinguished themselves by services of the first order.”
The self-estimation of Toussaint had increased with his greatness, and this circumstance augmented his vexation whenever he was treated without due consideration by those whose official standing he valued. He was now less attentive to the mere drudgery of cabinet labor, and he often passed to his secretaries documents of a public character which he had received, saying to them, “it is not worth my trouble—read it yourselves.”
In the midst of one of his drawing room circles at port au prince, when he recognized upon a letter which was brought to him the seal of the minister of marine, he cast it aside without reading it, saying in a sarcastic tone to those with whom he was engaged in conversation, “go on—that is nothing—minister—valet!”
While his pretensions were thus exalted he watched with a feverish anxiety the political horizon of Europe, and he found little in the aspect of things calculated to soothe him into peace. His fears had been awakened for the permanence of his power by the occurrence of the [P]eace of Amiens, which had given tranquility to France, and allowed leisure to the powerful genius who then guided her destiny to turn his thoughts to the possessions of France in the West Indies.
Public discussions upon colonial interests came next to disquiet him; and among the rest the report of the counselor of state, Thibaudeau, which recommended the maintenance of slavery in Martinique and Guadeloupe, and asserted, to the terror of Toussaint, that the adoption of strong measures would subdue every thing to France in St. Domingo.
Toussaint had sufficient forecast to perceive the approach of that storm which was slowly and secretly gathering to overwhelm him, and he was not idle in commencing his preparations to save himself from its fury. On the 18th of December, 1800, a proclamation was issued, apparently to calm the public mind and to recommend submission in all things to whatever might be the will of France; bit it contained a closing paragraph which seemed to breather another spirit, in an appeal to the soldiers under his command, which manifested that if war should be decided on by the mother country to subdue the colony, the indomitable soul of Toussaint would do everything to make it perpetual.
“A well taught child,” argues this subtle casuist,” will always preserve submission and obedience toward his parent; but in case that parent becomes so unnatural as to meditate the destruction of the child, the latter should place its vengeance in the dispensations of heaven. If I am to die I will die as a brave soldier as a man of honor. I fear nobody.”
In order to sustain his conscious usurpations against the attempts of France, whose government he had so often insulted and even braved in defiance, Toussaint had for some time been engaged in seeking the support of some other power to sustain him in those exigencies which his political sagacity taught him were threatening in the future. He had already signed a treaty with Gen. Nugent, the governor of Jamaica, which was an alliance offensive and defensive, for the support of Toussaint’s government against all attacks made against it, either by foreign or domestic enemies; and these stipulations were compensated to the English governor by the grant of superior privileges to the commerce of Great Britain over all other nations.
But just as these negotiations were about to be closed, and a powerful neighbor about to be secured as an ally of the black chief, the tidings of the [P]eace of Amiens came to annihilate all the hopes of the latter, so far as regarded the support of the English. The English governor requested Toussaint’s emissaries, who had been residing in Jamaica for two months, to quit that island as soon as possible, and on his part he was equally expeditious in recalling his agent who had been at cape Francois.
Toussaint was enraged at this sudden change of humor on the part of his late ally, and he accused the English governor of violating his word, and perfidiously betraying him to his enemies in France. Besides this, his regret was as great as his indignation at the unsuccessful termination of an overture which had still farther compromised his fidelity to the French republic.
An Interview with Toussaint
A distinguished Creole, who had an interview with him at this time to procure a passport to France, has given an account of the manner in which his request was received by Toussaint. He ran immediately to all the doors of the apartment, to make sure that no listener could be within reach of his voice, and then returning and fixing his eyes in a long and anxious gaze upon the Frenchman he at length addressed him, and drew forth the following colloquy: “Wherefore do you wish to depart? I love and respect you.
“Because,” was the reply, “I am a white man, and I witnessed last night the inauspicious irritability of a black chief, who has all power in his hands, and because for some time past you have been no longer the protector of whites, as you have already ordered the transportation of many of them solely for rejoicing at the expected arrival of European forces at St. Domingo.”
Toussaint answered quickly—“Yes, but they were imprudent—they were foolish to rejoice at such a prospect, when it is every where known that this expedition is intended to destroy me—to destroy the whites of the island—to destroy the colony itself. They accuse me in France of seeking to become independent, and they are taking arms against me—against me, who rejected the propositions of Gen. Maitland, the officer who promised to secure my independence by the powerful protection of Great Britain; and besides this, I ever refused to listen to those suggestions which Sonthonax continued without ceasing to make to me.
“Since you wish to go to France you have my consent, but let your voyage be made useful to the colony. I will send letters by you to the First Consul. And pray him to listen to your advice. Let him understand Toussaint; tell him of the prosperous condition of the colony, and of my labors in its restoration; by which I wished to be judged. Twenty times have I written to Bonaparte to request him to send civil commissioners to investigate the condition of the colony, and concert with me measures to secure its future prosperity.
“I have besought him to send out the ancient planters and all the whites of the island who are now abroad, in order that the ancient order of things may be fully restored and a new administration constructed. All this is I have written, and he has never deigned to answer me. All at once he profits by a moment of peace—of the occurrence of which he has not condescended to inform me, but for the tidings of which I am indebted to the English channels—to direct against me a formidable expedition, the ranks of which are crowded with my personal enemies—those dangerous men of whom I have purged the colony.
“More than this—he refuses me my children, and seems desirous to make them hostages, as if I had not already given instances enough of my fidelity to France.
“Prepare yourself to set out immediately, for time presses. Return to me within twenty-four hours, and my dispatches will be prepared; you shall read them in my presence, and they will serve you instead of instructions. I fervently hope that both you and these dispatches may arrive in time to change the determinations of the First Consul, and make him comprehend that in losing me he will lose the obedience of all the blacks—that he will not only lose St. Domingo but all the West India colonies: for if Bonaparte is the first man in France, Toussaint Louverture is the first man in the Archipelago of the Antilles.”
After a moment’s pause he continued, in a tone of firmness, “I am about entering into an arrangement with the American and English merchants to procure for myself a force of twenty thousand blacks from Africa; but I have no other end in the measure than to make them soldiers of France. I know the perfidy of the English, and I feel no gratitude toward them for the information they have sent me of the intended expedition against St. Domingo. I never believe them—never will I arm myself in league with them.
“I keep myself armed for the single purpose of preserving the liberty of my race—a liberty which France has already recognized and she has no longer the right to make us slaves again. Our liberty no longer rests with her—it is our—sand we will defend it or perish.” Having received his dispatches the Frenchman hastened to depart; but he was shipwrecked and all his papers lost, and his mission availed nothing in allaying the storm of war that was now gathering thick and menacing, to overwhelm the exorbitant power of Toussaint.
From the moment when the [T]reaty of Amiens had given peace to France, and thrown upon the hands of the First Consul all the armies of the republic, so unfitted by a long course of conquest and military disorder for the restraints of civil society, the ports and dockyards of France became filled with bustle and activity, in making preparations for an armament, the destination of which was far from being doubtful.
Bonaparte Makes Preparations
Not to mention the distrustful estimation in which Bonaparte held the troops of Moreau, whose removal out of the way of his ambition he deemed so necessary to the safety of his power, the First Consul, every where successful in his operations for the aggrandizement of France among her neighbors of Europe, looked upon the rich colony of St. Domingo, under the supreme rule of a revolted slave, as a blemish upon the fair picture of his greatness which was to be removed at every cost.
That he felt jealous of Toussaint is contradicted by every proud quality of his nature, as well as by every evidence of his own power and greatness found in such abundance around him. He regarded St. Domingo as a valuable heritage of France, wrestled for a time from her possession by a successful rebellion, but an appendage of her dominions which it was his duty as well as glory to restore to its ancient condition.
So far from dreading the utmost efforts which Toussaint could put forth against him, he committed the error in policy of undervaluing the genius and resources of this Negro chieftain. He calculated his arrangements from assumptions which he derived from the stores of his own energy and adapted them rather to the resources of his own genius than to the more mediocre talents of those to whose conduct he was about to entrust the expedition.
He superintended the details of every preparation; and working in his cabinet with the former functionaries of St. Domingo, he arranged every thing that was deemed necessary to give success to the enterprise. He prescribed the minutest movements of the expedition with the bold confidence of a general accustomed to command the elements and master fortune. The experienced admiral who was then minister of marine was not even consulted to give directions upon the nautical details of the expedition—and it was only required of him to copy the instructions which had already received the signature of the First Consul.
All those who were interested in the colony were filled with exultation at the measure; their enthusiasm being founded upon a misguided knowledge of the difficulties in the way of final success. All thought the black such at that moment as they had been when a horde of insurgent slaves, without reflecting that ten years of revolution had been to them ten centuries of civil existence. It was not in vain that the chief who now ruled their destiny had been engaged for years in the labors of public policy—that he had matured his natural cunning by long study in the school of worldly experience; for he fully understood his peculiar situation, and knew that he had more to dread the consequences of peace than the chances of war.
In calculating upon an easy conquest of the island the French calculated aright, for the resources of Toussaint were not sufficient to withstand so formidable an armament; but when they thought their conquest would be durable, and that Negroes who had roamed so long in wildness and unchecked license could be made to return in easy subjection to their former labors, they committed an error that was fatal.
The negotiations carried on between the cabinet of St. Cloud and the other powers of Europe had already noised abroad the object of the expedition, the preparations for which were filling so many ports of France with bustle and activity; and this intelligence produced a lively sensation in the ranks of the amis des noirs, whose opinions, though less active than formerly, were still in existence and controlling the conduct of many; and this had its agency in animating the hopes of Toussaint, who still hoped to avert by some unknown means the disasters that were now threatening his government.
Leclerc’s Fleet Sails for St. Domingo
When every thing was in readiness the fleets, proceeding from the ports of Brest, L’Orient, and Rochefort made their rendezvous in the Gulf of Gascony, and the vessels of the expedition were found to consist of twenty-six ships of war and more than the same number of transports. The land forces amounted to twenty-five thousand men, all well furnished for the service upon which they were about to embark, and terrible for their numbers alone, but still more terrible in the eyes of their enemies from their being the same legions who had returned in triumph from the Rhine, the Alps, and the Nile.
Gen Leclerc, the brother-in-law of the First Consul, had been appointed commander-in-chief, and he was assisted in the duties of his command by a host of generals whose bravery, military science or experiences within the tropics were expected to give effectiveness to the expedition. One division of the army was under the orders of Gen. Rochambeau, a wealthy proprietor of St. Domingo, whose acquaintance with the country and long military service in the West Indies it was deemed would furnish an immensity of resources in the military operations of the armament.Villaret Joyeuse, who had served in the armies of the king before the epoch of the revolution. In order to participate in the triumphs which were to follow, Madame Leclerc was urged aboard the vessel of her husband, and dispatched with the forces.
This formidable armament sailed from France on the 14th of December, 1801, and arrived at the Bay of Samana, in the eastern extremity of St. Domingo on the 28th of the following month. Toussaint was soon informed by his lookouts of its arrival, and he came at full speed to reconnoiter it from the heights around the shore.
He had never before seen so vast a fleet, and he was overwhelmed with anxiety and consternation at the tremendous preparations which France had made to avenge herself for his daring assumptions of power against her will. In his momentary discouragement he abandoned himself to despair, and exclaimed to those around him, “We must perish—all France has come to St. Domingo. They have been deceived, and they come here for vengeance, and to reduce us to servitude.”
He did not, however, abandon all hope in his terror and calmly await the blow which was to crush him at once; but such a vast disproportion as that which he saw between his own feeble resources and the immense armament and veteran troops of his enemies, depressed his energies and threw into his movements an uncertainty and irresolution which was evident to all. He temporized and held himself in long suspense before his usual decisiveness of character returned to him.
His forces during this time, instead of being concentrated on those points which were most exposed, were left scattered over the island in their various posts, and his generals received no instructions from their chief to prepare themselves for an open and simultaneous resistance. The expedition of Leclerc had been fitted out with such a profusion of means of warfare that nothing which Toussaint could array against it seemed capable of resisting it for a moment.
The black army of St. Domingo consisted of twenty thousand men, among whom there was a feeble remnant of two hundred and fifty whites—the sole survivors of numerous armies of their countrymen—and Toussaint had kept them organized in his ranks as if the climate upon European troops.
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- Brown, John, M.D. (1837). The History and Present Condition of St. Domingo. Philadelphia: William Marshall and Co., (p. 44ff)