Saint-Domingue expedition

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Saint-Domingue expedition
Part of the Haitian Revolution
Leclerc Expedition.png
The route of the expedition upon reaching Haiti.
DateDecember 1801 – December 1803
Result French defeat
Independence of Haiti

Flag of France.svg France

Flag of Haiti (1803-1804).svg Rebel Haitians
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg United Kingdom
Commanders and leaders
Charles Leclerc  
Vicomte de
  White flag icon.svg
Jean Boudet
Louis de Joyeuse
Louis René de Tréville
Federico Gravina
Toussaint Louverture   White flag icon.svg
Henri Christophe
Jean-Jacques Dessalines
John Duckworth
Casualties and losses
80,000 dead [1]

The Saint-Domingue expedition was a French military expedition sent by Napoleon Bonaparte, then First Consul, under his brother-in-law Charles Victor Emmanuel Leclerc in an attempt to regain French control of the Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue on the island of Hispaniola, and curtail the measures of independence taken by the former slave Toussaint Louverture. It landed in December 1801 and, after initial success, ended in a French defeat at the battle of Vertières and the departure of French troops in December 1803.

French Consulate former government of France

The Consulate was the top level Government of France from the fall of the Directory in the coup of Brumaire on 10 November 1799 until the start of the Napoleonic Empire on 18 May 1804. By extension, the term The Consulate also refers to this period of French history.

Charles Leclerc (general) French general

Charles Victoire Emmanuel Leclerc was a French Army general who served under Napoleon Bonaparte during the French Revolution. He was husband to Pauline Bonaparte, sister to Napoleon. In 1801, he was sent to Saint-Domingue (Haiti), where an expeditionary force under his command captured and deported the former slave Toussaint L'Ouverture, as part of an unsuccessful attempt to reassert imperial control over the Saint-Domingue government. Leclerc died of yellow fever during the failed expedition.

Saint-Domingue French colony on the isle of Hispaniola

Saint-Domingue was a French colony on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola from 1659 to 1804, in what is now Haiti.



The French Revolution led to serious social upheavals on Saint-Domingue, of which the most important was the slave revolt that led to the abolition of slavery in 1793 by the civil commissioners Sonthonax and Polverel, in a decision endorsed and spread to all the French colonies by the National Convention 6 months later. Toussaint Louverture, a black former slave who had been made Governor by France, re-established peace, fought off Spanish and British attempts to capture the island, and reestablished prosperity by daring measures. However, he went too far in hunting down governor Don Joaquín García y Moreno (27 January 1801), who had remained in what had been the Spanish part of the island following the 1795 Peace of Basel. Toussaint had also challenged French imperial interests by promulgating a self-rule constitution on 12 July 1801, which declared himself governor for life.

French Revolution social and political revolution in France and its colonies occurring from 1789 to 1798

The French Revolution was a period of far-reaching social and political upheaval in France and its colonies beginning in 1789. The Revolution overthrew the monarchy, established a republic, catalyzed violent periods of political turmoil, and finally culminated in a dictatorship under Napoleon who brought many of its principles to areas he conquered in Western Europe and beyond. Inspired by liberal and radical ideas, the Revolution profoundly altered the course of modern history, triggering the global decline of absolute monarchies while replacing them with republics and liberal democracies. Through the Revolutionary Wars, it unleashed a wave of global conflicts that extended from the Caribbean to the Middle East. Historians widely regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in human history.

Léger-Félicité Sonthonax French abolitionist

Léger-Félicité Sonthonax was a French abolitionist and Jacobin before joining the Girondist party, which emerged in 1791. During the French Revolution, he controlled 7,000 French troops in Saint-Domingue during part of the Haitian Revolution. His official title was Civil Commissioner. From September 1792 to December 1795, he was the de facto ruler of Saint-Domingue's non-slave populace. Within a year of his appointment, his powers were considerably expanded by the Committee of Public Safety. He was recalled in 1795 largely due to the resurgence of conservative politics in France. Sonthonax believed that Saint-Domingue's whites were royalists or separatists, so he attacked the military power of the white settlers and by doing so alienated the colonial settlers from their government. Many gens de couleur asserted that they could form the military backbone of Saint-Domingue if they were given rights, but Sonthonax rejected this view as outdated in the wake of the August 1791 slave uprising. He believed that Saint-Domingue would need ex-slave soldiers among the ranks of the colonial army if it was to survive. On August 1793, he proclaimed freedom for all slaves in the north province. His critics allege that he was forced into ending slavery in order to maintain his own power.

Étienne Polverel (1740–1795) was a French lawyer, aristocrat, and revolutionary. He was a member of the Jacobin club. In 1792, he and Leger Felicite Sonthonax were sent to Saint-Domingue to suppress a slave revolt. Polverel was an abolitionist and after a few years he had emancipated the slaves of the colony and given them political equality.

The isle of Hispaniola Hispaniola lrg.jpg
The isle of Hispaniola

On 9 February 1801, after their defeat at Marengo, the Austrians split off from the Second Coalition and signed the Treaty of Lunéville with France. Naples then signed a peace treaty with the French at Florence and Russia under Paul I distanced itself from the coalition, with his successor Alexander I finally concluded a secret peace with Bonaparte on 10 October 1801. Britain was thus isolated and, after the first ministry of William Pitt the Younger fell on 13 March 1801, the new government began to consider making peace.

Battle of Marengo battle

The Battle of Marengo was fought on 14 June 1800 between French forces under Napoleon Bonaparte and Austrian forces near the city of Alessandria, in Piedmont, Italy. Near the end of the day, the French overcame Gen. Michael von Melas's surprise attack, driving the Austrians out of Italy and consolidating Napoleon's political position in Paris as First Consul of France in the wake of his coup d’état the previous November.

Treaty of Lunéville

The Treaty of Lunéville was signed in the Treaty House of Lunéville on 9 February 1801. The signatory parties were the French Republic and Holy Roman Emperor Francis II. The latter was negotiating both on his own behalf as ruler of the hereditary domains of the Habsburg Monarchy and on behalf of other rulers who controlled territories in the Holy Roman Empire. The signatories were Joseph Bonaparte and Count Ludwig von Cobenzl, the Austrian foreign minister.

Paul I of Russia Emperor of Russia

Paul I reigned as Emperor of Russia between 1796 and 1801. Officially, he was the only son of Peter III and Catherine the Great, though Catherine hinted that he was fathered by her lover Sergei Saltykov, who also had Romanov blood, being a descendant of the first Romanov tsar's sister, Tatiana Feodorovna Romanova.

Bonaparte (now First Consul) could thus concentrate on internal problems within France and its empire. His troops were idle and his officers eager for a chance for glory. In early 1801, Bonaparte decided to appoint his sister Pauline's husband, general Charles Leclerc, as head of a military expedition to reassert French authority over Saint-Domingue. [2] [3] Initially, Bonaparte planned to confirm the military ranks and lands acquired by Toussaint's officers, offer Toussaint the rôle of lieutenant of France, and guarantee freedom to the former slaves, while re-establishing Paris's authority over the island in the person of its capitaine général. [4] Toussaint's two sons were then being educated in France and as proof to Toussaint the French government's goodwill Bonaparte sent them back to their father with their tutor. By October, however, Bonaparte's opinion had shifted, as he interpreted Toussaint's July constitution as an unacceptable offense to French imperial authority. Henceforth, Bonaparte secretly directed Leclerc to disarm Toussaint's black-controlled government and deport his military officers to France. [5]

Pauline Bonaparte French politician

Pauline Bonaparte was an Italian noblewoman, the first sovereign Duchess of Guastalla in Italy, an imperial French Princess and the Princess consort of Sulmona and Rossano. She was the sixth child of Letizia Ramolino and Carlo Buonaparte, Corsica's representative to the court of King Louis XVI of France. Her elder brother, Napoleon, was the first Emperor of the French. She married Charles Leclerc, a French general, a union ended by his death in 1802. Later, she married Camillo Borghese, 6th Prince of Sulmona. Her only child, Dermide Leclerc, born from her first marriage, died in childhood. She was the only Bonaparte sibling to visit Napoleon in exile on his principality, Elba.

Bonaparte foresaw that Toussaint would probably put up resistance and so took all necessary measures to defeat him should that occur – Toussaint had over 16,000 men available, [6] so Leclerc was put in command of 30,000 men drawn from nearly all the French Revolutionary Armies as well as the disciplinary corps. [7]


Admiral Louis de Joyeuse. Villaret-Joyeuse.jpg
Admiral Louis de Joyeuse.

Peace had not yet been conclusively signed with Britain (the Peace of Amiens would finally be signed on 25 March 1802) when on 14 December 1801 a French fleet of 21 frigates and 35 ships of the line (with one 120 gun ship) left Brest under Villaret de Joyeuse carrying 7,000–8,000 troops. [8] This fleet was followed by the squadron under contre-amiral Ganteaume which left Toulon on 14 February with 4,200 troops then by that under contre-amiral Linois which left Cadiz on 17 February with 2,400 troops. In the following months even more ships left France with fresh troops, including over 4,000 men from the artillerie de marine, a Dutch division and the Polish Danube Legion. Also included were a Spanish fleet of seven ships under Admiral Federico Gravina as well as large financial and material aid coming from Spanish Cuba. In total 31,131 troops were landed on Saint-Domingue, including some black figures such as André Rigaud and future Haitian president Alexandre Pétion, both of whom Toussaint had expelled from the colony two years earlier in the War of Knives (after the Saint-Domingue expedition's failure, Rigaud would be imprisoned at fort de Joux by Napoleon, a few cells away from Toussaint himself).

Brest, France Subprefecture and commune in Brittany, France

Brest is a city in the Finistère département in Brittany. Located in a sheltered position not far from the western tip of the peninsula, and the western extremity of metropolitan France, Brest is an important harbour and the second French military port after Toulon. The city is located on the western edge of continental Europe. With 142,722 inhabitants in a 2007 census, Brest is at the centre of Western Brittany's largest metropolitan area, ranking third behind only Nantes and Rennes in the whole of historic Brittany, and the 19th most populous city in France; moreover, Brest provides services to the one million inhabitants of Western Brittany. Although Brest is by far the largest city in Finistère, the préfecture of the department is the much smaller Quimper.

Louis Thomas Villaret de Joyeuse French admiral

Louis-Thomas Villaret de Joyeuse was a French admiral.

Honoré Joseph Antoine Ganteaume French admiral

Count Honoré Joseph Antoine Ganteaume was a French Navy officer and Vice-admiral.

Admiral Louis-Rene Levassor de Latouche-Treville. Latouche.jpg
Admiral Louis-René Levassor de Latouche-Tréville.

The ships were due to join up in the Bay of Samaná, which Villaret de Joyeuse reached on 29 January, closely followed by Latouche-Tréville. Without waiting for Ganteaume and Linois, these two admirals divided up their combined fleets to arrive at different ports in order to surprise Toussaint. General Kerverseau was to land at Santo Domingo in the Spanish part of the island, General Jean Boudet was sent to take Port-au-Prince in ships under Latouche-Tréville and Leclerc; Villaret de Joyeuse and Gravina sailed towards to Cap-Haïtien. When Toussaint discovered the French ships in the bay of Samaná he ordered Henri Christophe (head of the island's northern département), Jean-Jacques Dessalines (head of the western département) and Laplume (head of the southern département) to obey the squadrons' summons to a parley, to insist on a parley if none was offered, and (if a landing should occur) to threaten to destroy the towns and massacre the white inhabitants before retreating into the mountains.


Villaret arrived before Cap-Haïtien on 3 February and an attack by land and sea began on 5 February. Christophe carried out his orders, setting light to the town and slitting the throats of part of the white population. On 6 February Rochambeau landed in the bay of Mancenille and captured Fort-Dauphin. Putting out the fires and putting up defensive works, Leclerc set up his main headquarters at Cap-Haïtien before sending ships towards North America to resupply. During this time Latouche-Tréville and Boudet took Port-au-Prince and Léogâne and obtained Laplume's surrender. Landing at Santo Domingo with 2,000 men, general Kerverseau took possession of a large part of the Spanish area of the island, then headed by Toussaint's brother Paul Louverture.

The French part of the island Haiti map.png
The French part of the island

In the first ten days the French occupied the island's ports, towns and a large part of the cultivated land. Taking refuge in the Arbonite massif, Toussaint was only left with a few brigades under generals Maurepas, Christophe and Dessalines. However, he also had a large number of white hostages. To dislodge him the French would have to overcome narrow gorges, impenetrable with thick tropical vegetation and ideal for ambushes. The squadrons under Ganteaume and Linois had arrived, however, with reinforcements and Leclerc still held his joker in the form of his own hostages, Toussaint's sons, both of whom carried a letter from Napoleon promising their father the role of Leclerc's deputy in command of the island if he surrendered.

On 17 February Leclerc launched a simultaneous assault with the divisions he had formed. Rochambeau on the left set out from Fort-Dauphin towards Saint-Michel, whilst Hardy marched on Marmelade and Desfourneaux on Plaisance. At the same time general Humbert was to land at Port-de-Paix to climb up the Trois-Rivières gorge, and Boudet move up from south to north. The aim was to surprise the enemy, force him to retreat to Les Gonaïves and there encircle him. Despite the difficulties of the terrain and Maurepas's resistance, the plan worked well.

On 23 February Desfourneaux's division entered Les Gonaïves, then on fire. General Boudet occupied Saint-Marc, also on fire and filled with the blood of the throats cut on the orders of Dessalines, who managed to escape the trap. Maurepas and his 2,000 troops continued to resist but finally had to surrender to Humbert. The French forces besieging fort de la Crête-à-Pierrot were attacked in the rear by Dessalines then by Toussaint as they attempted to bring relief to the besieged, but the fort was finally forced to surrender and inside it were found large amounts of arms and munitions as well as many assassinated white residents. At Les Verrettes the French forces found a horrible spectacle. No longer able to follow the rebel forces' march, 800 men, women, children and old people had been killed, [9] and the rebels there had also killed any prisoners they took.

Running out of resources, the area controlled by the rebel forces became more and more restricted and the rebels more and more disheartened. Christophe offered to lay down his arms in exchange for being given the same lenient treatment as had been given Laplume and Maurepas and his surrender led to that of Dessalines and finally of Toussaint. Under house arrest, Toussaint was restored to his rank and properties by Leclerc. At the end of April and start of May order was re-established little by little on the island, trade resumed at the ports and the rebels (seemingly reconciled to their situation) held onto their lands and ranks.

French Defeat

In retirement under house arrest at Ennery, Toussaint considered his revenge and saw the French forces (especially those who had only just arrived on the island) ravaged by his best ally, yellow fever, with around 15,000 dead in only two months. [ citation needed ]. Toussaint continued corresponding with his leaders, encouraging them to be ever ready, although some of them did not want to restart the war and warned Leclerc. Sensing danger, in June Leclerc called Toussaint to an interview, arrested him, put him on a ship and sent him to Europe, where he was held at the Fort de Joux. Martinique was returned to France by the Treaty of Amiens and the Law of 20 May 1802 confirmed that slavery would be continued there. News of the reestablishment of slavery on Guadeloupe reached Saint-Domingue and revolt threatened again. Leclerc judged it wisest to disarm the blacks, but this just made them more angry. At Basse-Terre on Guadeloupe yellow fever had also broken out and on 3 September Richepanse died of it, to be replaced by Boudet. Rochambeau, who hated mulattoes more than blacks, succeeded to Boudet's post on Saint-Domingue. Toussaint's old enemy and rival Rigaud was ordered to embark for the United States of America. In the south of the island, where mulattoes were most numerous, they were equally offended and allied themselves with the blacks. The wind of revolt, blowing especially through the north, was also spreading in the south.

Henri I, king of Haiti HenriChristopheRoi.jpg
Henri I, king of Haiti

By August 1802, Leclerc's forces had begun to suffer from mass defections of black and mulatto troops. In October, the former rebel leaders Alexander Petion, Henri Christophe, Jean-Jacques Dessalines all deserted the French forces as well. [10] The French forces, now only 8,000 to 10,000 men and only just able to serve, were overwhelmed. After the recently defected Christophe massacred several hundred Polish soldiers at Port-de-Paix, Leclerc ordered the arrest of all remaining black colonial troops in Cap-Haïtien, and executed 1000 of them by tying sacks of flour to their neck and pushing them off the side of ships. The French subsequently sent orders to arrest and imprison all the black troops in the colony still serving within the French forces. This included continually loyal officers such as Maurepas, who was drowned with his family in the harbor of Cap Haitien on Leclerc's orders in early November. [10]

Taking refuge on Tortuga, in an attempt to avoid yellow fever, Leclerc died of it on 1 November 1802. His wife Pauline Bonaparte had accompanied her husband to the island and, though she had not previously been a model of fidelity, his death threw her into despair – she cut off her hair, put it in her husband's coffin, put his heart in an urn and had the rest of his remains repatriated to France.

As the oldest on the expedition Rochambeau took over from Leclerc as supreme commander and tried in vain to suppress the new revolt. Rochambeau ordered 600 pit bulls from Cuba, and forbade anyone to feed them. Pit Bulls were to live by eating only "negro meat" (viande des negres). That led to better revolts against the French, as a submissive slave diligently working in the fields would suddenly be devoured by dozens of hungry Pit bulls. Today, the saying "manger la viandre des negres" still resounds deeply in Haiti and the World.[ citation needed ]

Cap-Haïtien seemed to be the last bastion of the anti-rebel forces and, when the rebels reached it, Christophe had already relieved one of the forts. Rochambeau recaptured it but at the height of the battle some 1,200 blacks being held prisoner on a ship in the bay threw its crew overboard. On 18 November 1803, near the Cap, the French were defeated at the battle of Vertières by the rebel general Jean-Jacques Dessalines and at the end of December the last French soldiers left the island. On their voyage back to France Rochambeau was captured at the Blockade of Saint-Domingue by the British and then interned in Britain for nearly nine years as a parole prisoner.


Little more than 7,000 to 8,000 of the 31,000 soldiers sent to Saint-Domingue survived and over 20 French generals died. On 1 January 1804 Dessalines proclaimed the colony of Saint-Domingue to be the second independent state in the Americas, under the name of Haiti, and was first made governor general for life before (on 6 October 1804) being crowned emperor as Jacques I. He massacred the last French colonists left on Haiti at the 1804 Haiti Massacre and followed a "caporalisme agraire" or serfdom system that did not include slavery per se but was still aimed at maintaining sugar industry profits by force. Dessalines was assassinated on 17 October 1806 and the country split into a kingdom in the north under Christophe as Henri I and a republic in the south under Alexandre Pétion. In 1826 Charles X of France claimed a 150 million gold-francs indemnity from the young republic in return for France recognising its independence. This debt to France was reduced to 90 million in 1838 and was finally paid off by the mid-20th century.

See also

Notes and references

  1. Warfare and Armed Conflicts: A Statistical Encyclopedia of Casualty and Other Figures, 1492-2015. p. 141.
  2. Philippe R. Girard, "Liberte, Egalite, Esclavage : French Revolutionary Ideals and the Failure of the Leclerc Expedition to Saint-Domingue," French Colonial History, Volume 6, 2005, pp. 55-77 doi : 10.1353/fch.2005.0007
  3. DUBOIS, Laurent; Dubois, Laurent (2009-06-30). Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Harvard University Press. pp. 253–254. ISBN   9780674034365.
  4. (in French)Histoire du consulat et de l'empire, faisant suite à l'Histoire de la révolution française Page 185
  5. DUBOIS, Laurent; Dubois, Laurent (2009-06-30). Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Harvard University Press. pp. 256–260. ISBN   9780674034365.
  6. 5 000 in the north of the island, 4,000 in the west, 4,000 in the south and 3,000 in the Spanish province – (in French)Histoire de l'expédition des Français à Saint-Domingue sous le consulat de Napoléon Bonaparte, page 33.
  7. Histoire du Consulat et du Premier Empire Archived 31 March 2008 at the Wayback Machine .
  8. Histoire de l'expédition des Français à Saint-Domingue sous le consulat de Napoléon Bonaparte, page 30.
  9. (in French)Histoire du consulat et de l'empire, faisant suite à l'Histoire de la révolution française page 206
  10. 1 2 DUBOIS, Laurent; Dubois, Laurent (2009-06-30). Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Harvard University Press. pp. 287–289. ISBN   9780674034365.


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