Slave leader Toussaint L’Ouverture helped defeat Napoleon in Santo Domingo which denied France a North American empire and led to American control of the continent.
Towards the end of the 18th century America had gained its independence from Great Britain and was busy forming itself into a functioning republic. Across the ocean in France, Napoleon Bonaparte was amassing power and eventually seized the reins of government in 1799.
Napoleon’s Plans For Empire
Napoleon had visions of expanding France’s empire to the North American continent where its vast wealth and resources could be used to supply France’s colonies in the French Caribbean. He saw a power vacuum on the continent, what with England recently ending the war against the Americans, and Spain, the other European power with settlements there, too weak to pose any real threat to France.
Napoleon felt there was little to fear from the United States who was in no position to challenge France militarily after expending so much in the Revolutionary War.
Napoleon’s Deal With Spain
Napoleon made a secret deal with Spain, which had been a declining power since the defeat of the Spanish Armada in the 16th century. France gained control of the Louisiana Territory in exchange for several duchies in northern Italy.
Napoleon’s plan was to send a force of 25,000 soldiers and 63 ships to New Orleans where they would occupy the city and present their control as a fait accompli to the young United States government. He entrusted the mission to one of his best military officers, Charles Leclerc, who was also his brother-in-law.
The Slave Revolt In Santo Domingo
Before carrying out the mission in New Orleans, Napoleon wanted to end an ongoing slave revolt which had been taking place in Santo Domingo in the French Caribbean. It was there that a former slave who came to be know as the “Black Spartacus”, Toussaint L’Ouverture, had raised an army of 20,000 slaves and established control over the French possession in 1800.
In May, 1801, Toussaint had composed a constitution and proclaimed himself “governor for life” with the authority to name a successor. Napoleon estimated suppressing the revolt would take no more than six weeks after which Leclerc and his soldiers could continue on to New Orleans to establish his empire there.
Napoleon’s War On The Rebels
Napoleon had made public pronouncements sympathetic toward Toussaint and his followers as a way to gain their trust. Leclerc landed in Santo Domingo on January 20, 1802, and continued the ruse of supporting the rebels while plotting to smash the revolt and re-establishing slavery on the island along with the infamous Code Noir. At his first chance Leclerc threw Toussaint into chains and had him sent back to Europe where he was imprisoned on the border with Switzerland. Toussaint died there within a year.
Word quickly spread through Santo Domingo about Toussaint’s imprisonment and Napoleon’s true plans for the rebels. Leclerc began a systematic campaign of terror designed to break the revolt and send a message to any who would challenge French authority in the future. Hunting dogs were brought in from Jamaica to track down rebels who were then either hanged, decapitated, drowned, burned alive, or exploded after having gunpowder crammed into their body cavities.
What Napoleon and Leclerc hadn’t counted on was the fierce opposition they would face from former slaves who had experienced freedom and would do anything to avoid re-enslavement. Accounts tell of former slaves captured by Leclerc’s troops who strangled themselves rather than return to slavery while captured women and children were said to have laughed and sang while being burned alive.
Leclerc soon found his 25,000 troops stretched thin trying to subdue the over 500,000 former slaves who were ready to fight his soldiers to the death. In addition to this numerical disadvantage Napoleon’s soldiers were falling victim to tropical diseases like malaria and yellow fever.
Napoleon Admits Defeat
The effort to break the revolt in Santo Domingo dragged on for months. All the while Napoleon continued to pour more and more troops into the breech, ultimately tallying over 60,000 casualties. Before his death on November 2, 1802, from yellow fever, Charles Leclerc sent a message to Napoleon saying, “this colony is lost and you will never regain it.”
With the disaster in Santo Domingo Napoleon’s plans to send a military force to New Orleans and claim control over the Louisiana Territory was ended. Six months later, in April 1803, Napoleon cut his losses and agreed to sell the Territory to the United States for $15 million dollars (equivalent to $260 million in 2007), less than four cents an acre.
- Ellis, Joseph J., “American Creation”, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2007