A Long Way from Poland

Poland’s Caribbean Tragedy: A Study of Polish Legions in the Haitian War of Independence, 1802–1803 Press

by Jan Pachonski, by Reuel K. Wilson
East European Monographs (Boulder), distributed by Columbia University, 378 pp., $35.00

I have just returned from a brief visit to Haiti, under commission to write a second report on the revolution of February 7, 1986, that overthrew the thirty-year Duvalier dictatorship. And so my first reaction (on sight) to a book about the Polish component of the Napoleonic invasion of Haiti in 1802 was that it must be academic and irrelevant. After all, our interest in the Western Hemisphere’s most underdeveloped nation had to be primarily that Haiti was free at last and apparently headed for at least some degree of political democracy; and secondly that Haiti’s world-renowned arts were still flourishing.

I was wrong. There is, of course, no mention here of the current upsurge of libertarian feeling or of the arts. But the book gives many insights into the origins of Haiti’s perennial problems—economic, political, racial—and by inference into the identical problems that have plagued Poland’s quest for independence in the same time span.

The subject of Poland’s Caribbean Tragedy, as one of the authors puts it,

is one of the most remarkable colonial wars fought in modern history. Precipitated by the emancipating forces of the French Revolution, the struggle took place at the turn of the eighteenth century on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. The colony, Saint-Domingue, occupied the territory corresponding to present-day Haiti; the chief participants were French, African, Creole, Spanish, English, American and Polish. We shall follow the tragic involvement of Polish units in a revolution which had nothing to do with their own national interests or aspirations. Unwitting pawns of Napoleon in his futile attempt to subjugate rebellious former slaves, some five thousand Polish soldiers became involved in a “no-win” fight to the death from which only a handful would ever return to see European shores. Their story has never been told in English.

How the book came to be written is a saga almost as enthralling as the history it so ingeniously untangles—especially when one considers that the archives in Poland were almost totally destroyed by the Nazi and communist invaders during World War II, and that the archives in Haiti after almost two centuries of misrule and neglect are virtually nonexistent. Undeterred by these formidable lacunae, Professor Jan Pachonski went to work tracing memoirs of the ill-fated Polish Legion, deciphering letters and secondary accounts of the disillusioned survivors, poring over the yellowing files of the imperial ministries of war and naval affairs in Paris that would reveal the ruthless duplicity of the first “totalitarian” dictatorship. (Not until he arrived in Saint Helena did Napoleon admit that his refusal to deal with the revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture was the mistake that led to his final undoing.) How fortunate that when Professor Pachonski died in 1985 his great work could be completed by a coauthor with the expertise and intelligence of Reuel Wilson.

I learned the other day that Voltaire approved the original partition of Poland by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. In a letter of 1772 …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.