Monday, June 17, 2013

The Birth of a Nation: Haiti

Flag of Saint-Domingue
The birth of a nation rarely comes easily or painlessly. Certainly our Founding Fathers understood that only through extreme sacrifice, sorrow and suffering could America hope to gain its independence from Great Britain. But at least to them the central issues of the conflict were clearly defined. But that was hardly the case in Haiti, or Saint-Domingue as it was originally called. Rarely in the course of human events has there been such a complexity of overlapping personal and national interests conspiring against each other and competing with each other.

In chapter seven of The Power and the Glory, Lt. Richard Cutler is aboard the newly minted frigate USS Constellation as she sails south from Baltimore to the West Indies. The sailing orders of her commander, Capt. Thomas Truxtun, are to engage the French Navy and harass French military bases in the Indies in cooperation with the Royal Navy. He also has secret orders to gather intelligence about a civil war that has erupted on Saint-Domingue. Truxtun brings into his confidence Lieutenant Cutler and Lt. James Carter, captain of Marines. He starts off the conversation by asking the two lieutenants what they know about Saint-Domingue. Richard knows a little, since his family owns a sugar cane plantation on Barbados. He says to his captain:
Captain Thomas Truxton
“As I understand it, sir, Saint-Domingue is a French colony on the western half of the island of Hispaniola, a hodge-podge of British, French and Spanish interests. Columbus was first to plant a flag there and thus claimed the entire island for Spain. That claim notwithstanding, French buccaneers soon settled on the western third of the island, since the Spanish preferred the eastern parts where the soil is richer. Over the years the French built up quite an imposing presence on Saint-Domingue. The British were late-comers, motivated, I suspect, by the quality of the coffee and cane fields. Until a few years ago they had no legal standing on Hispaniola. That changed when local slaves rose up and began slaughtering their white masters, French and Spanish alike. The Spanish invited the British in to help restore order on the island and at the same time drive out the French. I heard rumors that there was an agreement between the British and Spanish to divide the colony between them once the French were ousted.”
Toussaint L’Ouverture
Truxtun then informs the lieutenants that the two opposing armies in the civil war are let by Toussaint L’Ouverture and a man named André Rigaud. L’Ouverture was a former African slave whose benevolent master allowed him to learn several languages on his own. He also learned, on his own, military arts and history, his favorite book being Caesar’s Gallic Wars—in Latin. At first Toussaint had sided with the Spanish, but that loyalty proved to be ephemeral. As Truxtun explains:
André Rigaud

 “Early in ’94 Toussaint switched sides and declared himself for France. Exactly why, no one knows for certain. But since France abolished slavery in the Indies, it’s a fair guess he felt he owed allegiance to France. The Spanish also had promised freedom to their slaves but were slow to act on that promise. Great Britain -- Spain’s ally at the time as Mr. Cutler correctly informs us – has in fact reinstated slavery in the areas of Hispaniola it controls. The British fear, quite legitimately in my view, that emancipation on one island will encourage slave rebellions on other islands.” 
He allowed a moment for that information to sink in. “What you said a moment ago, Mr. Cutler, is accurate. Hispaniola is indeed a hodge-podge of foreign interests, and those interests have little regard for local citizenry. On Saint-Domingue there are – I should say, were -- approximately thirty thousand whites: government administrators, artisans, shop-keepers, and the like. Most of these people supported the French Republic. Others, the wealthier ones – the planters, the so-called grand blancs -- remained loyal to the Bourbon king, the exiled Louis XVII. When rebellion broke out, these royalists sided with the Spanish and British, hoping, I suppose, to somehow come out of all of this with the status quo intact. When that effort failed and the slaughter began anew, the grand blancs fled the colony right behind the petit blancs. Many of these refugees escaped to Cuba, taking with them what slaves they could and their experience in sugar production. 
“There’s more, I’m afraid. Also on Saint-Domingue are thirty thousand so-called gens de couleur, a rather elegant term for those citizens of mixed European and African descent. They are the offspring of white planters and their Negro mistresses who lived together in an odd form of common-law marriage that allows their offspring to inherit property. These people – mulattoes, you and I would call them -- are recognized as citizens of France. They form an elite group on the island. So elite in fact, that they consider themselves superior to both blacks and whites.  
“The third group on the island -- by far the largest at more than 400,000 strong – consists of former black slaves. Most of these slaves came to Saint-Domingue in chains from the west coast of Africa. I need not describe to you the misery of their lives. So it should be easy to understand why they call Toussaint ‘Father Toussaint’ and look upon him as a saint or savior-- which to them, of course, he is. Thousands have flocked to his banner.” 
“Against whom? The French?” 
“Nor at all, Mr. Carter. Have you not been listening?” Truxtun’s tone conveyed more humor than reprimand. “As I told you, almost all whites in the colony have fled the island. Those who remain are connected in some way to the government or military. No, L’Ouverture is fighting the gens de couleur, the mulatto army led by André Rigaud, the militant extremist I mentioned earlier. Rigaud also knows a thing or two about military affairs--enough to conquer and control what amounts to a semi-autonomous state on the southern regions of Saint-Domingue. His objectives go far beyond that, however. He seeks what L’Ouverture seeks, to conquer the entire island of Hispaniola. L’Ouverture, it would seem, has a better chance of succeeding, since his army is considerably larger than Rigaud’s. That’s the point to remember. Two years ago L’Ouverture thwarted Rigaud’s attempt to assassinate the French governor of the colony, a general named Laveaux. As a reward for saving his life, Laveaux appointed L’Ouverture lieutenant-governor of Saint-Domingue and commander-in-chief of French forces on the island. Have I confused you yet?” 
Richard scratched the nape of his neck. 
“You’ve done a thorough job of confusing me, sir. This is all quite interesting, but if I may, what does it have to do with Lieutenant Carter and me?” 
“A great deal, Mr. Cutler, as I am about to tell you. Before I do, however, you should also know that agents acting on behalf of Toussaint L’Ouverture has been in secret contact with Mr. Adams, our president.”  
That information caused both lieutenants to blink. Then Truxtun delivered a thunder blow. 
“Toussaint has formally requested our government to lift our embargo on shipments to Saint-Domingue. He has also requested military supplies and food for his army. In exchange for our support, he has pledged to Mr. Adams that he will deny France the use of Saint-Domingue as a naval base in the West Indies.” 
Richard cast James Carter a stupefied look. Carter returned it with equal incredulity. Both men struggled to make sense of a labyrinth of double-dealing that seemed to expand in size and complexity with each sentence Truxtun uttered. 
“Captain,” Richard managed, “how can that be? Did you not say a moment ago that Toussaint L’Ouverture now commands French forces on Saint Domingue?” 
“I said exactly that. 
“Forgive me, sir, but how can the commander of French forces deny France the use of a naval base he is pledged to maintain and defend? 
Truxtun’s mouth twisted 
“I appreciate the difficulty you are having with this, Mr. Cutler. If it’s any consolation, I asked my superiors the same questions you and Mr. Carter are asking me. What you need to understand is that L’Ouverture’s true loyalty lies not with France, but with the former black slaves. He trusts no one: you, me, or anyone, foreigner or mulatto. But he will treat with you and me and with anyone else he believes can help him realize his ultimate objective.” 
“Which is?” 
“An independent nation ruled by freed black slaves.”
As it turns out, Truxtun was just getting warmed up. And considerably more mind-boggling revelations await the Americans during a meeting with Adm. Sir Hyde Parker at the British naval base at Port Royal, Jamaica. Ultimately, Toussaint L’Ouverture would realize his dream of an independent Haiti, in large part due to substantial American aid transported to Saint-Domingue through yet another strange twist in the interpretation of international law. But he would not live to see his dream fulfilled. Toussaint was captured by the French and sent to languish in a French prison, there to die on April 17, 1803. Later that year his most trusted lieutenant, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, finally defeated the last French army on the island, having earlier defeated the army of André Rigaud with help from the U.S. Navy.

Photo Credits [public domain]: Coat of arms of Haiti; Thomas Truxtun, painted in 1817 by Bass Otis; General Toussaint Louverture, pictured here on a Haitian banknote; André Rigaud.