Haiti: Her History and Her Detractors/Part I: Chapter VI

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Arrival of the new Civil Commissioners, Sonthonax, Polvérel and Ailaud—Application of the Decree of April 4, 1792—The Intermediary Committee—Resistance of the colonists—Fighting at Port-au-Prince and Cap-Français—The English land in Saint-Domingue—The Spaniards conquer a portion of the French territory—General freedom is granted to the slaves—The colored men are in power.

Sonthonax, Polvérel, and Ailaud, the new Civil Commissioners appointed by France, arrived at Cap-Français on September 18, 1792. They were accompanied by 6,000 soldiers and by General d'Esparbès, the new Governor-General of the island.

The "affranchis," who had already gathered imposing forces, were well prepared to protect and defend by force of arms the rights granted to them by the Decree of April 4, 1792. Their cause was henceforth inseparable from that of the French Revolution. Their assistance was therefore pledged beforehand to the new agents of the mother country.

The condition of the island at this time was not reassuring. In the North the colonists were inflicting punishments of the severest kind on the slaves taken prisoners, without succeeding in quelling the rebellion. In the West and in the South the whites and the "affranchis" were carefully watching each other: symptoms of unrest were rampant. Owing to the want of security resulting, agriculture was neglected and many colonists had left the country.

The Civil Commissioners had hardly become settled when news of the momentous events of August 10 reached Saint-Domingue. The arrest and deposing of Louis XVI furnished the colonists with a pretext for renewing the struggle. The Colonial Assembly tried to stir up the people with a view of getting rid of Sonthonax, Polvérel, and Ailaud. These latter frustrated the plan by taking energetic steps: by an order on October 12 they dissolved the Assembly of Cap-Français and all the other popular assemblies. In place of the Colonial Assembly they organized what was called the "Commission intermédiaire" (Intermediary Committee), consisting of twelve members: six whites and six colored men. Thus for the first time the representatives of the black race sat, in a political body, by the side of the arrogant colonists who formerly had had naught but contempt for them. Pinchinat, Jacques Borno, Louis Boisrond, François Raymond, Castaing, and Latortue were the first "affranchis" officially admitted to the honor of participating in the administration of the colony. The colored men did not content themselves with belonging simply to the Intermediary Committee, they took a large part in the organization of the municipalities; they even held public offices. Civil and political equality was henceforth an accomplished fact. But much blood was still to be shed; and the black race was to struggle heroically and successfully to preserve forever an advantage for the winning of which so many lives had been sacrificed.

The pride of the colonists suffered greatly; it seemed impossible for them to accept such a situation. At Cap-Français they plotted a conspiracy, in which even the new Governor-General, d'Esparbès, took part. The Civil Commissioners were able to prevent disturbances only by resorting to extraordinary measures. Assured of the devotedness of the colored men, they proceeded without hesitation to arrest General d'Esparbès and forty white officers, all of whom were taken on board and kept as prisoners in the harbor of Cap-Français. General Rochambeau became acting Governor-General. For a while the firm attitude of the Civil Commissioners preserved peace. They thought that they could now safely look after the welfare of the various provinces. Polvérel left for the West and Ailaud for the South. Sonthonax remained at Cap-Français with the Intermediary Committee. Instead of going to Aux Caves, Ailaud, alarmed by the existing state of things, abandoned his post and returned to France. Sonthonax therefore went South in his place. In January, 1793, he had barely finished expelling from Platons the rebellious slaves of the plain of Cayes, when grave events compelled him to leave the South. Fighting had already taken place in the streets of Cap-Français (December 2, 1792): a body of white soldiers had refused to acknowledge the authority of a colored officer appointed to command them; they mutinied. A few colonists and the sailors of the men-of-war hastened to side with the white soldiers. They attacked the battalion of colored men, who, after a fierce defense, were compelled to yield to the superior forces of their opponents; they withdrew to Haut-du-Cap, where they took possession of the artillery. On his arrival at Cap-Français, Sonthonax arrested and embarked the most important factionists. The colored soldiers agreed then to return to Cap-Français; they were welcomed with great honor: the Civil Commissioner, the acting Governor, the Intermediary Committee, and the municipality all went to meet them. This reception irritated the colonists of Cap-Français, and more especially those of Port-au-Prince. The latter, in order to avenge what they considered as a humiliation put upon the white race, plotted the expulsion of the Civil Commissioners and the extermination of the colored men when the agents of France would be no longer in the island to protect them.

For a while they forgot their own differences and united firmly against their common enemy. In their turn they succeeded in stirring up against the colored men the slaves of "Fond-Parisien" and of the Cul-de-Sac plain. The revolt broke out on January 23, 1793. Thirty-three plantations belonging to colored men were reduced to ashes. Emboldened by their success the wealthy planters of Port-au-Prince, headed by Auguste Borel, arrested General Lasalle, then acting Governor. Rochambeau had been sent to Martinique. General Lasalle succeeded in making his escape; he went to Saint-Marc, where Sonthonax had already arrived; Polvérel soon joined them. The colored men hastened to render to the Civil Commissioners all the assistance in their power. A strong army marched against Port-au-Prince. After a hard and desperate straggle the town surrendered. Beauvais was appointed commander-in-chief of the militia of the West; and a body of regular troops, "the Legion of Equality," was organized, with the mulatto Antoine Chanlatte as its colonel.

Their authority once more established in Port-au-Prince, Polvérel and Sonthonax tried to subdue La Grand'Anse. For this purpose they despatched a delegation accompanied by 1200 soldiers under the command of André Rigaud. The colonists of that portion of Saint-Domingue had gradually rid themselves of the control of the agents appointed by France; they had elected an Administrative Council at Jérémie, which voted even taxes. They had armed their slaves and placed at their head a black man by the name of Jean Kina. Aided by them they had succeeded in expelling from their "département" all the "affranchis," blacks and mulattoes. The army of the colonists was intrenched at Desrivaux. André Rigaud attacked it on June 19, 1793. He was completely defeated. After their victory the whites of La Grand'Anse transformed their Administrative Council into a Council of Safety and Execution (Conseil de Sûreté et d'Exécution), which they vested with extraordinary powers.

In the mean time, the greatest excitement was prevailing once more at Cap-Français. The Governor of the island, General Galbaud, had espoused the interests of the colonists. Upon the arrival of Polvérel and Sonthonax in that town, all the inhabitants were plotting against them. But having with them a battalion of colored men with Antoine Chanlatte in command, they felt that they were sufficiently powerful to order Galbaud to immediately leave the island and sail for France (June 13). The Governor raised a rebellion among the crew of the men-of-war; and on June 20 he landed at Cap-Français at the head of 3,000 men. Antoine Chanlatte, gallantly supported by Jean-Baptiste Belley,[1] a free black, lost no time in going to the help of the Commissioners. A bloody struggle occurred in the streets of Cap-Français. In the end, however, Polvérel and Sonthonax were compelled to abandon the town, which was left to the mercy of Galbaud's sailors. On the 21st of June they retreated to Camp-Bréda. Their situation seemed hopeless. That very day they issued a decree promising full freedom to all the slaves who would take up arms for the cause of the French Republic, promising also that they would be considered the equals of the whites and would enjoy all the rights belonging to the French citizens. As soon as this decree became known to them, the followers of Pierrot, Macaya, and Goa, who were fighting on their own behalf, hastened to place themselves at the disposal of the representatives of the French Republic. With a firm determination to earn their freedom, these slaves fiercely attacked the forces of Galbaud; owing to their assistance Cap-Français was stormed on June 23. The sailors had sacked and partly destroyed the unfortunate town by fire. The ill-fated island of Saint-Domingue continued thus to be devastated by fire and sword.

Instead of improving, the situation of the Civil Commissioners daily grew worse. In February France was again at war with Great Britain; hostilities soon followed with Spain. The representatives of France and Spain at Saint-Domingue were both instructed by their respective governments to spare no pains, to resort even to the revolted slaves, in order to conquer the territory of the other party. The Governor of the Spanish portion of the island was already carrying out these instructions. He had won over Jean-Francois, Biassou, and Toussaint Louverture, whom he loaded with favors and honors. Jean-François was appointed lieutenant-general of the forces of the King of Spain; Toussaint Louverture became major-general (maréchal-de-camp). "For the first time black slaves were to be seen bedecked with ribbons, crosses and other insignia of nobility."[2]

Encouraged by the rewards granted to them, pleased with the equality of treatment existing between the white Spaniards and themselves, the blacks fought valiantly. By their victories the French portion of Saint-Domingue was in jeopardy. After Galbaud's defeat, many of the white officers, indignant at the ever-increasing influence of the colored men, had begun to betray the cause of France. One after the other, Ouanaminthe, the important camp of La Tannerie, and the Lesec camp were turned over to the Spaniards. The victorious followers of Jean-Francois, Baissou, and Toussaint Louverture had taken possession of almost the whole northern province.

In the South, the colonists of the "Grand'Anse," availing themselves of the defeat of André Rigaud, had again sought the protection of the English. As soon as peace with France was at an end, the representatives of these proud and haughty planters had hastened to submit to the English Government plans for the occupation of Saint-Domingue (February 25, 1793). On September 3, 1793, Venault de Charmilly, acting on behalf of the colonists, and Adam Williamson, representing Great Britain, signed at St. Iago de la Vega[3] the agreement which was destined to put the country into the hands of France's enemies. And on September 19 the English soldiers, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Whitelocke, landed at Jérémie; cries of "Long live King George!" "Long live the English!" were heard on all sides. There were thus Frenchmen who, blinded by their hatred of the colored men, preferred to betray their country and to give up to its foes a portion of its territory, rather than submit to the necessity of admitting equality of political rights granted to the free blacks and mulattoes.

On September 22 the English, without striking a blow, occupied also Môle Saint-Nicolas. They were soon in possession of L'Arcahaie, Leogane, Saint-Marc, and of the whole province of La Grand'Anse.

It looked as if France was about to lose possession of Saint-Domingue. In the North the only important places where the French authority was still acknowledged were Fort-Dauphin, Cap-Français, and Port-de-Paix, where General Laveaux, the acting Governor, resided. Yet the Civil Commissioners had not remained inactive whilst these events were taking place. In June they had tried without success to alienate Jean-François,[4] Biassou, and Toussaint Louverture from the Spanish cause. In July Polvérel left for the West, where hostile manifestations against France were threatened. Won over by the Spaniards, two brothers named Guyambois, blacks who had gained their freedom, were planning, first to place three chiefs at the head of the colony—Jean Guyambois, Jean-Francois, and Biassou; secondly, to proclaim the freedom of all the slaves; and third, to share the land among the former slaves.[5] A Frenchman, the Marquis d'Espinville, in connivance with the Spanish Governor, encouraged these schemes. Polvérel frustrated the plot by arresting the two Guyambois and the principal accomplices. However, great excitement prevailed among the slaves when news of this project became known. It was feared that they would be completely won over to the Spanish cause through the promise of freedom and of the partition of the land. Thus the concession made by the Decree of June 21, which granted freedom alone to those slaves who would fight for the French Republic, lost a great deal of its importance. Therefore it became necessary to take more liberal measures. On August 21 Polvérel ordered that all persons found guilty of specified crimes would forfeit their movable and landed property. And on August 27 he issued a decree stating first that the Africans or their descendants who would remain on or return to the plantations considered vacant would become free and would enjoy all the rights exercised by the French citizens, provided they agreed to work on the said plantations; secondly, that all the vacant plantations of the West would belong in common to those inhabitants of the province who had borne arms for the French and to the cultivators of those plantations; thirdly, that (first) all the rebellious blacks who would reinstate or help to reinstate the Republic in the possession of the territory occupied by its enemies, all those who would swear allegiance to the Republic and fight for it, (secondly) all the Spaniards, all the revolted Africans, either maroons or independent, who would facilitate the conquest of the Spanish portion of the island—all these would benefit by the partition that would be made of the vacant plantations; and, fourthly, that all real estate belonging to the Spanish Government, to the nobles, to the friars and priests would be distributed among the warriors and cultivators.

Polvérel boldly asserted the principle of the dispossession of the colonists in behalf of the slaves; yet he abstained from saying the words so eagerly desired by them—general freedom. However, circumstances had made such a step unavoidable. In the North important events were occurring daily. On August 25 a white man, Gr. H. Vergniaud, seneschal at Cap-Français, had presented a petition to Sonthonax in which the full measure of justice was requested. The situation was very critical; the assistance of the blacks was indispensable in order to check the progress of the Spaniards. Sonthonax hesitated no longer; he proclaimed general freedom. His decree of August 29 restored at last to human dignity thousands of men who for centuries had bent beneath the shameful yoke of slavery. Article 12 of this decree ordered that a third of the products of every plantation be divided among the cultivators.

Surprised by the radical measures taken by Sonthonax, Polvérel was at first uncertain as to what course he should pursue. But the impatience of the slaves, the growing dangers which threatened the colony, soon decided him to adopt his colleague's views.

Thinking that an imposing ceremony should accompany such a step he ordered a general gathering at the Place d'Armes[6] in Port-au-Prince of all the citizens, white and colored; and on September 21, 1793, the anniversary of the establishment of the French Republic, he publicly declared, at the "autel de la Patrie," that slavery was abolished in all the communes of the West. In their enthusiasm many slave-owners signed their adherence to this great act of social reparation, on registers previously prepared for that purpose. Two days after, the name of Port-au-Prince was changed to Port-Républicain,[7] "in order that the inhabitants be kept continually in mind of the obligations which the French revolution imposed on them."

On October 6, 1793, Polvérel, then at Cayes, freed the slaves of the South. Thus the coalition of the wealthy planters of Saint-Domingue with the English and the Spaniards had the effect of hastening the abolition of the very institution of slavery which it was their intention to preserve and maintain in the colony had their efforts been crowned with success.

After two long years of struggle and of suffering the blacks eventually were delivered forever from this barbarous and inhuman system. In Saint-Domingue men would no longer be the property of men. The revolution was complete. It remained but for the logic of events to accomplish the rest.

In the mean time, the Civil Commissioners were bestowing the highest offices on colored men, the white officers having proved untrustworthy; after the execution of Louis XVI they had not scrupled to give up their forces to the Spaniards. In Polvérel’s absence, Pinchinat was invested with all the civil powers in the West. Montbrun was Commander-in-chief of the province; Antoine Chanlatte had the military posts under his authority; Beauvais was in command at Mirebalais and La Croix-des-Bouquets; Greffin at Léogane; Brunache at Petit-Goave; Faubert at Baynet; Doyon at L 'Anse-à-Veau, etc. André Rigaud was commander-in-chief of the South. At the end of 1793 the taking of possession of power by the colored men was an accomplished fact. And they were about to justify the trust which France had placed in them by bravely defending her territory against foreign invaders.

  1. Jean-Baptiste Belley was later on elected member of the French National Convention.
  2. Life of Toussaint-Louverture by Dubroca, p. 9.
  3. Formerly the capital of Jamaica, and now called Spanish Town.
  4. Jean-Francois remained true to Spain. In 1802 he was living at Cadiz with the rank and salary of a lieutenant-general in the army of the King of Spain. "He had a large retinue," says Dubroca; "ten black "officers acted as his aides-de-camp." (Life of Toussaint Louverture, note 2.)
  5. These men, devoid of any intellectual culture, were laying down the principles of the future independence of Haiti.
  6. Known at the present day as Place Pétion.
  7. In 1804 the town regained the name of Port-au-Prince, but became once again Port-Républicain from 1843 to 1845, since which year the capital of the Republic has retained the name of Port-au-Prince.