Research Subjects: Miscellaneous

Toussaint, Napoleon, and Slavery

By Tom Holmberg

Under the Jacobins, civil commissioners Léger-Félicité Sonthonax and Etienne Polverel abolished slavery in Saint-Domingue and the Convention extended emancipation to all French colonies still under its control in February 1794. At the time of Sonthonax and Polverel's emancipation proclamation Louverture was fighting for the slave-owning Spanish Santo Domingo against the French. When Georges Biassou and Jean-Francois wrote a letter proposing the end of slavery in the Spanish colony, Louverture didn't sign it. According to David Patrick Geggus, "There is no documentary proof that connects [Toussaint] to the idea of ending slavery before civil commissioner Sonthonax adopted the policy. (Geggus, 126) In fact, while fighting for the Spanish, Toussaint remained committed to "maintaining the plantation regime." (Geggus, 127)

When Louverture led his army in an invasion of Spanish Santo Domingo he made no effort to emancipate the slaves in that part of the island. (Girard 2009, 591) While the Black generals enriched themselves, Louverture complained that Santo Domingo's slaves should not be emancipated in "the bad way in which general liberty was applied to the French portion of the colony…We must change nothing in the system that currently exists." (Dubois, 237-238)  In negotiations in Dec. 1791 and during the summer of 1792 Toussaint supported proposals that would have traded a restoration of slavery in return for the emancipation of the rebellion's Black leaders. Geggus notes that "there is no evidence of Toussaint supporting general emancipation… at any time during the first two years of the slave insurrection." (Geggus, 125)

French Planters who returned to the areas occupied by the Spanish urged them to force the Blacks back onto the plantations. Toussaint protested not at the Blacks being forced back into slavery, but that such a move was premature and would cause unrest among the Black troops fighting for the Spanish under Toussaint and the other Black generals. (Geggus, 133) There is no evidence that Louverture supported emancipation in 1793. Santo Domingo had become a refuge for émigrés who wanted to overthrow the revolutionary regime in Saint-Domingue and return the freed slaves to their previous status, one way or another. (Dubois, 177-178)  When trying to unravel the question of Toussaint's actions surrounding the French regime's emancipation proclamation historian David Patrick Geggus speculates that Toussaint's throwing his lot in with the French, and abandoning his Spanish allies, occurred while Toussaint "was still unaware that France had abolished slavery." (Geggus, 124)

It soon became clear that emancipation resulted in a dramatic drop in the agricultural economy as former slaves fell back on subsistence farming and plantations fell fallow. As a result French authorities attempted to force freed slaves back onto plantations as cultivators (cultivateurs). "In regions evacuated by the British… Louverture immediately ordered the newly freed [Blacks] back to 'their old plantations,' and had his troops gather together 'the dispersed cultivators' to make sure they returned… In Louverture's order, the only real alternative to military service available to former slaves was plantation labor." (Dubois, 220) 

In theory the Black cultivators, who were prohibited from moving to town or practice subsistence farming, were to be paid, well-treated and allowed to change plantations at the end of their contracts. Under Louverture, many plantation owners fell back on their brutal ways and their contracts were cast aside. In fact under Louverture many of the Black generals had become plantation owners; Louverture personally owned eight to ten plantations. Louverture rewarded his supporters with land. (Girard 2005, 146) Therefore the efficient running of the plantation system was in the financial interests of the new Black elite, but the coming of the French expeditionary force was "a severe blow to the Black generals' financial well-being." (Girard 2005, 147).

The liberty of cultivators was severely limited, the ex-slaves were tied to a plantation for life, their pay was reduced, and Louverture ordered Jean-Jacques Dessalines "to severely punish recalcitrant workers." (Girard 2009, 590) The cultivator system remained in effect until the 1820s. Laurent Dubois points out that Louverture's "administration marked the beginning of a longer story of how emancipation ultimately failed to bring true equality and independence to former slaves." (Dubois, 173-4) Before the Revolution, Louverture had been a slave owner and plantation owner. As governor, Louverture and his fellow Black generals obtained large plantations, worked by former slaves under his harsh labor code.  Louverture's exile by Leclerc did not, in Girard's words, "spark a general uprising, a possible consequence of his oppressive labour laws." The former slaves "found the theoretical difference between cultivateurs and esclaves negligible." (Girard 2005, 153) In fact, throughout the nineteenth century Louverture's reputation in Haiti, as compared to the English-speaking world, was long deprecated.  Even in France Louverture's reputation was higher than in his home country. While Louverture's family was granted a pension by the French government until 1871, Haiti refused to grant the family a pension or even turn over the Louverture family's inheritance. (Girard 2011, 280) 

When Philippe Roume, a French Republican commissioner in Saint-Domingue, planned to bring about a slave revolt in Jamaica, Louverture secretly warned the British in exchange for British support against André Rigaud, a rival for power. (Girard 2009, 591) Toussaint had made secret treaties with Britain and the United States, who France was at war with, and expelled French privateers from the island's ports. During his career Louverture had fought for and against the Spanish; fought against Britain, but had made common cause with the British; had fought against the French and with the French. 

As governor Louverture had many white planters as close advisers and supported the planters over the cultivators when the cultivators rose against the harsh labor regime, violently putting down an uprising in November 1801. Toussaint enriched the Black generals while his troops went unpaid. The army was used to support enforced labor, corporal punishment was sanctioned, when Toussaint invaded Santo Domingo he didn't abolish slavery in the former Spanish colony, and Toussaint even supported the reintroduction of the slave trade. (Geggus, 23) Louverture's decree of Nov. 1801, after crushing the uprising against his rule, laid out a "policy of coercion and violence. The imposition of virtual thought control, identification cards and stringent vagrancy laws, his efforts to regulate family life and sexual mores, [and] harsh punishments for offenders…" (Tyson, 58-59)

As Philippe R. Girard says, "the Consulate, particularly when it came to colonial policy, was a pragmatic, postideological regime that strove to leave behind the conjectural disputes associated with the earlier phases of the French Revolution and to focus on what was politically and militarily feasible….A consummate pragmatist, Bonaparte simultaneously embraced different labor codes in different colonies…" (Girard 2009, 589-590) Girard contends that, "If there ever was a planter lobby intent on forcing former slaves back to their plantations, its influence seemed stronger in Cap Français than Paris." Louverture's opponents in France attacked him "not because of a latent desire to see slavery restored, but because they disagreed with his closeness to the British enemy." (Girard 2009, 592 and 596-597)

Napoleon's agents in Santo Domingo, the mulatto Antoine Chanlatte and François-Marie Perichou de Kerversau argued for exiling Toussaint on the grounds that the Black leader was a traitor to France in working towards independence for Saint-Domingue. (Girard, 2011, 37) Kerversau believed Toussaint's ultimate goal was independence backed by France's enemies, Britain and the United States. When Kerversau confronted Toussaint with this charge in a letter, Kerversau was forced to flee from the island. (Girard, 2011, 38)

Napoleon's original inclination had been to leave Toussaint in charge in Saint-Domingue.  The Black army could be used against France's enemies.  The Blacks "will produce less sugar, maybe, than they did as slaves; but they will produce it for us, and serve us, if we need them as soldiers. We will have one less sugar mill; but we will have one more citadel filled with friendly soldiers," Napoleon mused. "With an army of twenty-five to thirty thousand blacks, what might I not undertake against Jamaica, the Antilles, Canada, the United States itself, or the Spanish colonies?" (Girard, 2011, 39-40) While Toussaint continued to publically declare loyalty to France, no one, not the British, the United States and especially France, believed him. (Corbett, 73) However, Toussaint's annexation of Santo Domingo, in opposition of the policy of metropolitan France, convinced Napoleon that couldn't leave Toussaint in charge. Louverture's 1801 constitution was seen in France as a declaration of independence, which would inevitably lead to Saint-Domingue falling under the influence of Britain.  In the end it was most likely "fear that Louverture might declare independence…[as] the most convincing explanation for Bonaparte's decision to remove him from office." (Girard 2009, 603)  

Napoleon's position on emancipation was that the policy would be tailored to each colony. In colonies where the revolutionary emancipation had never been in effect, either because the colony was lost to Britain during the revolutionary war or because the colony's official never put it into effect, slavery would remain in force.  In the case of Saint-Domingue, Girard's reading of the archival record was that Napoleon did not order Leclerc to reinstate slavery. He found no evidence that Napoleon ever announced an intention to restore slavery in Saint-Domingue. "Bonaparte's secret instructions to Leclerc thus specified that the republic would never force people 'back in irons' and that the end goal was to get 'free cultivators' back to work…" (Girard 2009, 605)

Prior to the French Revolution Saint-Domingue had been the jewel in France's colonial empire, producing half of Europe's sugar and coffee. (Girard 2005, 143) The exports of Saint-Domingue were greater than the exports of the British West Indies colonies and in the 1780s exceeded the total exports of the United States. It was in Napoleon's interest while the peace lasted to restore large scale agriculture. The restoration of the plantation system was also the dream of both Louverture and Dessalines.  Two decades after the ousting of the French, Haiti's plantations had been broken up into small subsistence plots worked by the island's former slaves. Napoleon's final summary of the French effort to retain Saint-Domingue for their empire was emphatic, "Damn sugar, damn coffee, damn colonies!" (Girard, 2011, 272)   

In a conversation with Barbé de Marbois Napoleon stated, "my policy is to govern men the way most of them want to be governed.  I finished the war in Vendée by making myself a Catholic; I established myself in Egypt by converting to Islam; I won minds in Italy by becoming a reactionary. If I governed the Jews, I would rebuild the Temple of Solomon. So I will speak of freedom in Saint-Domingue; I will keep slavery in Réunion, as well as Santo Domingo." (Girard 2009, 605) Napoleon added, "I will reserve the right to soften and limit slavery where I maintain it, and to reestablish order and discipline, where I maintain liberty…they may make less sugar than when they were slaves, but they provide us, and serve us as we need them, as soldiers. If we have one less sugar mill, we will have one more citadel occupied by friendly soldiers." (Dubois, 259)  Rochambeau, Leclerc's successor, wrote "the government's goal was to restore order and cultivation among the Blacks, but also to preserve the liberty that had been granted to them…" Even Louverture in his memoir, written while imprisoned in France, never accused Napoleon of "harboring ulterior motives (though he possibly refrained from overt criticism given his precarious situation at the time)." (Girard 2009, 617)

Ultimately Leclerc's labor code was in fact indistinguishable from Louverture's. As Leclerc wrote to Decrés, the French minister of the navy, his labor code was "more or less, that of Louverture, which is very good…. It is so strong, in fact, that I would never have dared proposing one like this."

Tom Holmberg

Corbett, Bob. “Napoleon's West Indian Policy and the Haitian ‘Gift’ to the United States.” Journal of Haitian Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1 (1996). p. 71-83.

Dubois, Laurent. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2004.

Geggus, David Patrick.  Haitian Revolutionary Studies. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 2002.

Girard, Philippe R. "Caribbean Genocide: Racial War in Haiti, 1802-4." Patterns of Prejudice, Vol. 39, No. 2 (2005), p. 138-161.

Girard, Philippe R. "Napoléon Bonaparte and the Emancipation Issue in Saint-Domingue, 1799-1803." French Historical Studies, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Fall 2009), p. 587-618.

Girard, Philippe R. The Slaves Who Defeated Napoleon. Tuscaloosa: Univ. of Alabama, 2011.

Tyson, George F., ed. Toussaint L'Ouverture. Prentice Hall, 1973.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: July 2014


Miscellaneous Index ]

© Copyright 1995-2015, The Napoleon Series, All Rights Reserved.