Napoleon and Haiti

1801-1805: Napoleon makes an attempt to retake the Caribbean, and blacks make history

In Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte came to power and ended the French Revolution. However, in the Caribbean, Hispaniola in particular, the residents had their own ideas of who should lead.

Reconquering the West

Napoleon's goal was to re-establish the former French empire and bring France back to glory. The 1801 Peace of Amiens ended the fighting with Britain, and Britain returned all the French territories in the Caribbean except Trinidad. Meanwhile, Spain returned Louisiana to the French in the same year.

Napoleon hoped to annex Florida and French Guiana in this group as well, but he needed French Hispaniola to continue his plans, and he sent his brother-in-law, General Charles Leclerc, to secure the island.

Attacks on the Island

Leclerc met with the same defeat the British had faced earlier, despite the regiment of 20,000 soldiers as well as conscripts from other nations. In 1802 and 1803, Napoleon lost 40,000 men and turned the war on Hispaniola to a racial war.

Leclerc began by dominating the coastal strongholds and shortly began an attack on the interior, but all of his victories were costly. Still, tropical diseases had yet to take their toll, and nearly half the soldiers came down with or died of yellow fever.

Toussaint L'Overture was abducted in 1803 from a dinner invitation with Leclerc after his surrender, and he died in France that year. Leclerc's victory was short-lived, as yellow fever decimated nearly all of his solders. Leclerc was forced to defer to Toussaint's right-hand men, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe.

Breaking Trust

During these years, slavery had been re-established on Guadeloupe and Martinique, and Leclerc moved to reinstate slavery on Hispaniola. He lost the trust of mulattoes and blacks, and many rebelled, but the men who had deserted Toussaint for Leclerc turned against Leclerc.

Dessalines and Christophe quickly took back lands from Leclerc, and Dessalines became the leader of the resistance at the end of 1802. Leclerc himself died of yellow fever at this time, leaving General Rochambeau as his replacement. Another 25,000 troops arrived as reinforcements, and he continued brutal attacks.

War Again

In 1803, Britain again fought France, and forces reclaimed St. Lucia, Martinique, and Guadeloupe before blockading Hispaniola. By the end of 1803, the remaining French left with 18,000 refugees as the British bombarded the coast.

The end to this devastation came in January of 1804, when Dessalines and his generals declared the independent state of Haiti. They chose the Arawak word for the island, which meant "the land of the mountains." Dessalines spent the rest of his life as governor-general, even being crowned emperor in 1805 in imitation of Napoleon, but he died in an uprising the following year.

The Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, though most believe that Spain, not France, suffered the biggest losses during the wars. France occupied Spain from 1808-1812, allowing the Creole leaders to take control in the Caribbean and the Americas. It was at the end of this war, however, that France finally recognized the colony of Haiti as its own country.

Haiti's precarious history has continued to this day. The blacks on Hispaniola had gotten a taste of a free world, and they fought to keep it that way, but the European interest was continuously troublesome.


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