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 to Catherine the Great, he added fulsomely, “I am not a murderer, but I think I could become one to serve you.” Arnold Beichman, who brought this quotation to my attention, comments, “Somehow Russia, whether Czarist or Soviet, brings out the worst in otherwise respectable Western intellectuals.”
It was after the second and third partitions in 1790 that revolutionary France emerged in the eyes of most Polish patriots as the Avenging Angel that would lead them to the Promised Land of their lost nationhood. Only Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who had almost succeeded in preventing the third partition by defeating the armies of Prussia and Russia in battle, stood aloof. He distrusted General Bonaparte’s motives. The other Polish legionnaires found out how right he was—in Saint Domingue. Of the five-thousand-odd Poles who sailed there from Brest with Captain-General Leclerc, Bonaparte’s brother-in-law, or joined him there later when the (hidden) purpose of reenslaving the blacks began to be manifest—only small groups of officers made it back to Europe to relate the horrors of what had happened. The others died in battle, succumbed to yellow fever, were drowned in bags, or sawed between planks. Perhaps a hundred of the rank and file joined the ex-slaves, who accepted them as innocent dupes of the imperial holocaust. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the Negro emperor of Haiti between 1804 and 1806, conferred on them his highest praise: he called them White Negroes. They were grateful for the privilege of melting into the population. In 1946 my (then) wife, Maia Wojciechowska, and I went looking for traces of them. In an almost inaccessible village called Fond des Blancs we found a few Slavic names and what seemed to us Slavic features.
There are two books here, two in one. There is the tragedy of the Polish legion—how and why it enlisted in the “liberating” expeditionary force only to find that it was being used to further the contrary ambitions by denying to the transplanted Africans their own hardwon liberty. This first “book” is meticulously documented, filled with romantic anecdotes about courageous soldiers sometimes triumphing over adversity but more often succumbing pitifully to forces of nature and inhumanity beyond their control. These pages are often suffocated by detail, and—except perhaps to a few Poles—boring. One example should suffice:
We know that the I and III Battalions’ heavy losses led to the transfer of several officers to the II Battalion and the incorporation of the remaining men of the I Battalion into the 1st Battalion of the French 74th Demibrigade of the Line. On the other hand, Kobylanski (a member of the Administrative Council), writing to Dabrowski from Port-au-Prince (February 3, 1803) reported that only 7 legionnaires had joined the 74th, while 48 Poles (at the most) from the III Battalion had entered the French 31st Demibrigade. He asserted that the III Polish Battalion still comprised some 20–25 officers and 400 men. Kobylanski’s statistics clash with those prepared by Daure, who on November 3, 1802, found no more than 150 Poles in the North and 200 in the South. Whether they numbered 350 or 420, they could no longer form a separate demibrigade.
It would be unfair to deny that the authors provide much of interest along the way. We learn, for example, the real reason why Bonaparte shipped the Poles out in the first place: they were beginning to ask embarrassing questions about his failure to liberate the various European ethnic groups promised their freedom for fighting France’s battles. The expedition to Saint Domingue would dispose of the most vociferous of his critics once and for all. Then there was the question of Polish complicity in the daylight mass bayoneting by the French of their black mercenaries (Captain Desiré’s Twelfth Colonial Demibrigade) in the square of Saint Marc. Apparently the Poles stood by but did not take part in the butchery. The incident is “explained” by reference to Bonaparte’s common practice, i.e., his massacre of eight thousand Turkish prisoners in Syria during the Egyptian campaign because he didn’t want to risk their joining the enemy. It is also interesting to know that the Poles fought ineffectually because they were unprepared for guerrilla warfare by their previous combat experience on the Rhine and the Danube. And it is more interesting still to learn that the hypocrisy of American foreign policy toward South Africa today originated as far back as the Jefferson administration, when the White House smiled on the black “freedom fighters” while American trading ships went right on doing a lucrative business with their French murderers.
The second, and far more interesting, of the books-within-a-book is the account of the revolution in Saint Domingue, beginning with the slave insurrection of 1791 and ending with the Battle of Vertières in 1804 when the French were finally expelled and their once rich but now devastated colony became Haiti. The Pachonski-Wilson account of how the only successful slave revolt in history came to pass, and how the French spent twelve years trying to thwart it by means theretofore inconceivable, now supercedes all others. It should be extracted from the heavy-handed, most un-Chopin-like polonaise and published separately. It has flaws, which I’ll deal with briefly at the end of this review, but they are minor.
It begins with a straightforward account of racial imbalance in France’s overseas possession on the eve of 1791: there were 40,000 white colonists, 28,000 mulatto freedmen who already owned a quarter of all the plantations, and 462,000 black slaves, most of them imported from Africa fairly recently (since the turnover from disease and abuse was huge). Perhaps another 50,000 were marrons, slaves who had escaped and survived in the high mountains of this territory no larger than Vermont by preying on the outlying plantations. Mackandal, a legendary marron leader, was crucified and burned at the stake as early as 1756, allegedly for attempting to poison the reservoirs. Perceptive visitors during the 1780s like Moreau de Saint-Méry and Baron de Wimpffen had warned in their travel books of the disaster that was imminent, and the former had even pointed out the widespread African religion of vaudou, which the colonists tolerated, as a potential source of subversion—as indeed it turned out to be. But the group that set off the uprising, and a prime source of Haiti’s problems in the two centuries to come, was the mulatto caste.
When the Etats Généraux was convened in Paris to save Louis XVI’s government from financial ruin in 1789, it promised the mulatto freedmen the vote. Their cause was championed by the powerful Amis des Noirs, a society corresponding roughly to the Abolitionists in England and the United States. The planters in Saint Domingue—who hated both the French (for curtailing and taxing their profits) and the mulattoes far more than they feared their black slaves—vetoed this suggestion. Outraged mulattoes, led by Ogé and Chavannes who had been educated in France, took part in an uprising against Cap Français, and were defeated. The two mulatto leaders were broken on the wheel in a public ceremony, and this atrocity gave the black slaves an excuse to strike for freedom on their own. Led by a priest of vaudou, they put the torch to the plantations all over the rich Plain du Nord, and invested the capital.
Pachonski and Wilson are particularly good at explaining why the Amis des Noirs made the crucial mistake of not coming out for abolition when it might have saved the colony—they hesitated to antagonize the large centers of the bourgeoisie (Bordeaux, Toulon, Marseilles, Le Havre, Nantes) that had reaped such huge profits from the slave trade, and on whom even the Jacobins before the Terror depended for support.
The authors emphasize the ambivalent status of the freedmen between the white colonists and the blacks. Though they comprised a middle class and had slaves of their own, the gens de couleur, as they were called, were treated with withering contempt by the whites—especially by the mercantile petits blancs and the urban hoi polloi who envied their social mobility. Though a mulatto was, strictly speaking, the offspring of a white father and a black mother, 128 varieties of miscegenation were so ingeniously devised that even a person with one one-hundredth Negro blood could be excluded from “polite society,” barred from assuming the name of a white father, denied public office, and not permitted to sit with whites in theaters or even churches.
It is small wonder that the mulattoes failed to support the whites when they were being plundered, raped, and butchered in 1791. But the tragic corollary to this was that the mulattoes spurned even more virulently the blacks. Their fears of being kicked into the bottom caste were so obsessive that when it came to a show-down they would make common cause with the arrogant planters and even die for them. As for the planters, their attitude is well summed up in a speech delivered by Baron de Beauvais during the week of the insurrection. Neither “the bastard-degenerate mulattoes,” he said, nor the blacks, “a species of orangutan,” merited serious consideration. Millions of francs, he added, had not been spent on slaves “in order that they should now call themselves citizens and become loafers.”
The price paid for this original policy of apartheid has still to be entirely collected. The planters’ fate was assured when their Napoleonic “savior,” Leclerc, and his successor, General Rochambeau, driven to desperation by the inroads of yellow fever and black-mercenary defections, resorted to such now all-too-familiar punitive methods as slow burnings, mass drownings, flaying and burying alive, and gassing by sulphur fumes in the holds of ships; and when these failed, they imported from Jamaica thousands of bloodhounds trained to disembowel black prisoners. It was hardly surprising that when Jean-Jacques Dessalines took over as the leader of the former slaves in 1802 he had already refined his methods while serving the two French commanders. Ripping the white stripe out of the tricolor, he would boast that he wrote his new constitution using a white man’s skin as parchment, his skull as inkwell, and blood for ink. And after the final battle at Vertières he hung every French survivor in the country he now renamed Haiti.
The fateful confrontation between blacks and mulattoes could have been avoided. A short time before, in 1799, Toussaint L’Ouverture, the most gifted of black military and political leaders, finally brought order out of the chaotic eight-year civil war. He had expelled a British army. He had conquered the Spanish part of Saint Domingue called Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic). He got along well with the Jacobins in France, and their governor in Cap Français. He had invited back those planters who had fled the island to repair and manage the plantations for him. He had even revived the shattered economy of Saint Domingue to the level of preinsurrection days. He was employing, with a complete lack of prejudice, mulattoes as well as whites, and, of course, his fellow blacks.
But he unnecessarily antagonized the new administration (the Consulate) in Thermidorean France by sending in 1801 its governor and his good friend, General Laveaux, back to France in order to proclaim himself governor for life. Infuriated by the presumption of “this gilded African,” the First Consul (Bonaparte) dispatched his brother-in-law, Leclerc, with sealed orders to have his armies reimpose slavery in Saint Domingue. Even then, Toussaint might have withstood this naval-military onslaught had he not become so bemused by success as to estrange both his mulatto allies and his black commanders. Deciding to forestall the possibility of mulatto defection later on, he sent (of all people) the ferocious Dessalines to “pacify” the south. The result was predictable. Dessalines not only defeated them in battle, but had his soldiers rape the women and put the leaders to torture. Toussaint shook his head when he heard what had happened, saying, “I told him to prune the branches, not uproot the tree.” One hundred and sixty-three years later, in 1966, after dozens of alternating mulatto elite and Dessalinean governments in Port-au-Prince, François (Papa Doc) Duvalier gave his Tonton Macoutes orders to exterminate his mulatto enemies in the south.
Toussaint, once he had lost the coastal cities to Leclerc’s invaders, had no friends on whom he could count. The remaining mulattoes were already in Leclerc’s camp. His top commanders, Dessalines and Henry Christophe, had defected to the French. A truce was signed. Toussaint was betrayed and put aboard a frigate; he perished a year later in a cell in the French Alps. Will Haiti’s first democratic government—if and when one is installed following the free elections scheduled a year from now—be able to reverse this pattern of racial division that has made Haiti ungovernable since 1800?
Apart from its separation into two parts of unequal interest, the Pachonski-Wilson account suffers from unfamiliarity with Haiti: the physical presence, the enduring racism, the religious cults, the contending languages and their orthographies. They never seriously describe vaudou, the ubiquitous religion of the peasants, and they underestimate its role in the events of 1791–1803. They do not mention the independence of the Dominican Republic, which owed so much to the sufferings imposed during successive Haitian occupations by Toussaint, Dessalines, and later dictators. They do not cite the only eyewitness account by an anonymous Creole combatant of the revolution and its aftermath, My Odyssey,* and they ignore Chavannes, who led the mulatto uprising with Ogé and was broken with him on the wheel. Henry Christophe’s first name is consistently misspelled. The important city of Les Cayes is not pronounced “Kay” (as here), but “K-eye.” The source of Heinrich von Kleist’s remarkable tale of the period, “Betrothal in Santo Domingo,” could have been revealed but isn’t. But these omissions and errors are trivial ones in view of the book’s original research and its insights into the Haitian revolution.
December 18, 1986