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The Horrors of Saint Domingo: The French Connection?

Gary Oswald

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Thanks as ever to @AndyC for adding pictures and editing this.

Poor @Redolegna has routinely had to put up with me taking any conversation about the first French republic and making it instead about Haiti but I do think Haiti is that Republic at both its worst and it’s best.

I talk more about the atrocities committed by the Leclerc expedition in the next article but it’s worth noting that the ‘kill all adults and repopulate the Island with new slaves’ plan was seriously discussed and advocated among various soldiers and officials, not just Leclerc.

But well also the reason it was taken seriously is because, to some extent that’s how all the slave societies under the old Monarchies of Spain, Portugal, France and Great Britain already worked. It was only the USA that really had a self-sustaining slave population. In Haiti, Brazil, Cuba and Jamaica, most of the slaves died and were replaced by new slaves. The Leclerc plan was a continuation and only slight escalation of the pre republic status quo and upon the restoration, a number of monarchists loudly championed it.

Which is why the emancipation and offer of citizenship is such a big moment, because the Leclerc expedition is merely more of what the Monarchy had already offered whereas Sonthonax's actions are a huge break from what came before. And you can see why Louverture and the like put such hope in that before being let down by Leclerc, which is probably why there was such a concerted attempt to keep the plantations running and so France happy even when it was driving the country to further civil strife and oppression.

It’s possible I’m too quick to write off Loverture's hopes of becoming a free part of the French Empire as a pipe dream, because Napoleon himself said that the economic motives, which I argue are deal breakers, were secondary to a motive of ego, i.e to show an uppity slave who was boss and so discourage too much free action from other officers in distant provinces.

But I’m a cynic, the idea of France ever accepting the huge loss of money of the end of the plantation system and having to invest in infrastructure in Haiti rather than rake in the sugar sales feels like a fairy tale. It’s the kind of empire apologetica AH people write where you get the empire without the oppression and nah, one came with the other.

I can't help but think that as soon as France is at peace and can look at Haiti, any attempt at ending the plantation system, which needs to happen to keep the Haitians on board, will be met by something like the Leclerc expedition even if Napoleon doesn't rise to the top. Either the Republic loses in which case the Monarchy is bound to do it or it doesn't, in which case someone is going to look at the way Haiti has gone from a goldmine to a money drain and attempt to reverse that, as happened in OTL.
 

Redolegna

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Absolutely no question.

An interesting thing, however, would be if the Leclerc expedition never got around to be sent before the Peace of Amiens broke down. That then means a few more years of Haiti of potential settling down, no genocide perpetrated against the former slaves and the only possible attacks coming from the UK maybe trying to take Hispaniola for itself and unlikely to succeed if they even happen. By the times thing calmed down in Europe and a stable regime governing France and being able to look at its former colony, Haitian independence or autonomy would be much more rooted in minds and the initial massacres somewhat more distant making revenge against a group perceived as uppity less urgent. A bonus might be the planters being much less influential with the death of Joséphine (not the most responsible person for Napoléon's policies, but a useful conduit for the planters to have access) if the Empire endures beyond 1814-5 and sugar beets becoming more widespread. Nowhere near enough to make France self-sufficient, but enough to point at the costs of slavery not being worth it, especially if the ban on the slave trade goes on as OTL.
 

Gary Oswald

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Absolutely no question.

An interesting thing, however, would be if the Leclerc expedition never got around to be sent before the Peace of Amiens broke down. That then means a few more years of Haiti of potential settling down, no genocide perpetrated against the former slaves and the only possible attacks coming from the UK maybe trying to take Hispaniola for itself and unlikely to succeed if they even happen. By the times thing calmed down in Europe and a stable regime governing France and being able to look at its former colony, Haitian independence or autonomy would be much more rooted in minds and the initial massacres somewhat more distant making revenge against a group perceived as uppity less urgent. A bonus might be the planters being much less influential with the death of Joséphine (not the most responsible person for Napoléon's policies, but a useful conduit for the planters to have access) if the Empire endures beyond 1814-5 and sugar beets becoming more widespread. Nowhere near enough to make France self-sufficient, but enough to point at the costs of slavery not being worth it, especially if the ban on the slave trade goes on as OTL.
But again Sonthonax's promises to the Assembly was that Haiti with emancipation would be able to fund it's own defence because the ex-slaves would never willingly side with another power and would also produce more goods as free workers would work harder. The promise was that Haiti would make more money for France.

The destruction caused by the constant fighting between 1791 to 1802 reduced that profit massively because the plantations and the roads weren't running at full capacity. In 1802 there simply wasn't enough goods being produced for France to get a share of the profits. Which could be fine, because time for France to recover is also time for Haiti to recover, and the situation might be better by 1815. Except for the additional problem that Louverture's military law in 1802 which produced as much export goods as it did by maintain a plantation economy isn't sustainable.

Whenever the Slaves freed themselves, they broke up the plantations and set up farms instead. Louverture was fighting constant rebellions from the plantation workers in attempting to enforce the serfdom he needed in order to keep the plantations operating and get those men off their farms and back into the sugar fields. At some point he's going to have to bend or be overthrown. Pétion gave up on the plantations because every single leader prior to him hadn't and they were all constantly fighting the workers in a way that made stability impossible.

I think the two goals of needing the plantations to please France and needing to abolish the plantations to keep the workers quiet are at cross purposes. Which is why I view independence as largely inevitable post 1796.

Especially because the drive from France was for integration rather than autonomy and that inevitably means Haitian interests being lesser to French interests.

I think it's possible to avoid a lot of the bad blood of OTL, the massacre, the debt etc, but I don't think Louverture's dream of Haiti as a province in the French Republic was realistic long term.
 

SenatorChickpea

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I think the only way that Haiti remains 'French' is if both parties decide that nominal Metropolitan control is a worthwhile legal fiction.

Perhaps a victorious or semi-victorious Republic/Napoleonic Empire wants to preserve the fiction that is a global power, even after the British have seized the rest of their overseas posessions?

For their part, the Haitians might think that paying lip service to French rule might be a cheap guarantee against American/British/Spanish invasion.

Louverture is fascinating though- both would despise the comparison, but he reminds me a little of Jefferson in that they were both brilliant, radical thinkers who in some ways were never able to understand the fundamental conservatism of their political visions. It's a type you see quite often in revolutions, I think.
 
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