ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



  On November 22 Dessalines, Christophe and Clervaux signed a proclamation

 promising justice to all men of good will, including former white property-owners

— a reversal of the policy announced to Walker and Cathcart only a few weeks before.



Christophe, Rochambeau, Dessalines

Defeat of French, the Birth of Haiti

The Human Cruelties of Repression & Revolution


The unsuccessful attacks on Le Cap and Christophe’s defeat by Lacroix had shown the Black leaders that, as in Toussaint’s time, they were still unable to meet French troops in pitched battles. Dessalines decided to concentrate most of his attacks in the West and South, where Rochambeau’s persecutions of the mulattos had brought many allies, and to reorganize and train his troops and build up his supplies, leaving the brigand chieftains to carry on guerilla warfare in the North.

Rochambeauu, unable to bring his enemy to battle yet also prevented from establishing strong points in the interior because of the constant raids and ambushes, decided to copy the Jamaican planters who had used 100 Cuban man-hunting bloodhounds in putting down the Maroon rising of 1795. He imported several couples from Havana, where dogs were bred specially to track down runaway slaves, intending to use them to smell out ambushes, but they prove to be unsatisfactory.

They were difficult to control (the British had engaged expert handlers, as well as dogs) and their operational range was less than that of a trained infantrymen. Rochambeau, whose mind was ingenious in evil, decided to use them instead as a new form of punishment, a new instrument of torture. The dogs should be used not to track the rebels down, but to tear them to pieces after they were captured.

The training of the animals was offered as a spectacle for privileged guests and first tried out in an arena constructed on the Charrier plantation near Le Haut-du-Cap. Four couple of dogs were to be set upon a Negro who was stripped naked and whose hands were tied behind his back.

After being excited, the animals were loosed and flung themselves ferociously on their prey [one eye witness wrote]. His flesh torn in shreds, the Negro fell to the ground. . . . Suddenly the dogs halted, formed a circle round the victim, stiffened their forelegs, and began to bay. The exercise had failed — for this is the way these animals behave when they are overcome by fear.

One might have expected this lack of success to discourage the executioners, but that would be to misjudge the characters of the monsters who presided over these ceremonies. they picked up the Negro, now covered with bites, untied his hands and gave him a hunting crop. With a bayonet in his back, he was forced to advance on the dogs to get himself devoured by them. . . . The dogs, more humane than the humans, fell back and then ran yelping away. . . .  The victim was carried off to hospital . . . and reprieved.

Despite the failure of this experiment, there were others held in the presence of distinguished audiences, which included women as well as men. At one staged in an arena built in front of Government House at Le Cap, Rochambeau’s chief-of-staff offered one of his young Negro servants as a victim. As at the Charier plantation, the dogs were so intimidated by their prey, despite the fact that he was naked and tied to a post, that they did no more than gather in a circle, snarling at him.

The chief-of-staff, blushing with annoyance and embarrassment, jumped into the arena, drew his sword, and ripped up his servant’s belly, whereupon the dogs gathered sufficient courage to leap upon the Black and tear him to pieces.

The monstrous inhumanities practiced by Black and white alike were as futile as they were horrible. Hatred beyond normal human limits bred a superhuman contempt for the most atrocious pain. The eye witness of the blooding of the dogs at the Charrier plantation — himself no Negrophile but a planter and confirmed partisan of slavery — described “a new punishment which they said would succeed in intimidating the Blacks.”

Three Black deserters [he continued] were recaptured in the act of setting fire to a house; they had, in addition, disemboweled a pregnant woman and torn out the eyes of one of our soldiers with a bullet extractor. they were condemned to be burned alive.

On the Place Saint-Louis, at Le Cap, at the right hand corner of the well, a pyre was built and covered with bagasse (the fibrous residue of sugarcane); three stakes set in the triangle, with a sliding collar on each, held the three Negroes back to back facing the onlookers.

The centre of the pyre was lighted and the flames quickly reached the two men who were down wind. in less than two minutes their bodies swelled up, the skin slit, the fat dripping from their flesh, gave fresh life to the flames that devoured them. their arms and legs contracted, and, after some terrible screams, a white froth came from their mouths, cavernous sounds from their chests — and all was ended. the silence of death reigned over the crowd, which was witnessing this sort of torment for the first time.

The third Negro, however, an eighteen-year-old, had been shielded from the flames. he could not see his comrades, but he heard their cries. These, far from intimidating him, stimulated him, and he shouted in Créole: Zautes, pas connait mouri; guettez comment yo mouri! (You don’t know how to die — watch how I die!) By a superhuman effort, turning his neck in the collar, he faced the stake, sat down, placed his legs in the fire and allowed himself to be burned, motionless, without betraying any anguish, without allowing the slightest groan to be heard, without uttering the faintest cry. . . .

The same insane hatred marked the actions of the leaders on each side. Rochambeau, having made five hundred prisoners in one battle against Dessalines, ordered them to be put to death

Dessalines had his men erect five hundred gallows during the night and, in full sight of the French lines, hanged five hundred Frenchmen at dawn. Rochambeau again economised his ammunition by sending Black prisoners out to sea to be drowned instead of shot. The skipper of the barge that took them out, pinioned ready to be thrown overboard, fancied himself as a wit and, when challenged by the sentries at For Picolet, would invariably reply, “I’m just off to soak some cod.” They had sandbags tied around their necks as sinkers; when the bags or the ropes rotted, the corpses rose to the surface and floated ashore.

Rochambeau (1755-1813)

Senseless evil was matched by insensate heroism

I have seen them marching against a redoubt [wrote one Frenchmen] in a tight column, raked by grapeshot from four cannon, and never taking a step backwards. The more of them fell, the more it seemed to stimulate the courage of the others; and they came on singing, for Negroes sing everywhere and make songs about everything. This was the hero’s song: Grenadiers, à l’assault! Ça qui mouri zaffaire à yo Qu’y a point papa, Qu’y a point mamam! Grenadiers, à l’assault! Ça qui mouri zaffaire  à yo!

Three times these brave men, their weapons at the shoulder, advanced without firing a shot; and thrown back each time, they did not retire until three-quarters of their number were strewn upon the glacis. You could form no idea of this cold courage without having seen it. . . . That black rectangular mass, marching to death, singing, under a magnificent sun, stayed long in my memory; and even today, more than forty years later, the impressive, grandiose picture returns as vividly to my imagination as in those first moments.

But blind courage was not enough against military skill. Bonaparte, at last awakened to the necessity of repairing the blunders he had made, decided to provide substantial reinforcements. the survivors of Leclerc’s men would be immune to fever for at least five years. By husbanding his resources, gradually building up his strength, Rochambeau might in time achieve Leclerc’s dream of destroying most of the Black population.

Unluckily for him, the uneasy peace in Europe did not last. on May 16, 1803, war between France and Britain began again, and with it came the end of all French hopes of holding Saint-Domingue. The realisation may have provided some bitter consolation for Toussaint, held prisoner at the fortress of Jouy, shivering in a damp cell at the beginning of another insipid alpine summer, and now within a few weeks of death from consumption and pneumonia.

Rochambeau, who took twelve thousand men down to port-au-Prince in March to deal with the troubles in the West and South (and, it was said, to renew acquaintance with the ladies of his harem), received orders from Bonaparte to return at once to Le Cap. From July onwards the British blockade was reestablished and the rebels, scenting the kill, pressed back the French troops now devoid of all hope of reinforcement. Their triumphant, menacing fires lit the hills and plains around the French-occupied towns, whose inhabitants cowered in fear of bestial torture and rape to come.

As soon as the news of war reached Dessalines he wrote to Lieutenant-General Nugent, Governor of Jamaica, offering preferential terms to British merchants if Nugent would give him military supplies and support against the French. This was a matter on which Nugent had not yet had instructions from Whitehall and, as Admiral Duckworth pointed out to the Admiralty, “the Lieut.-Governor, like me, felt the greater embarrassment in promoting the views of the Blacks against the Whites.”

They agreed between them to offer Dessalines enough arms and ammunition to drive the French army out of Saint-Domingue, on condition that he gave the British two ports to be used as trading posts, allowed them to occupy the fortified bases of Môle Saint-Nicolas and Tiburon, and promised protection of white civilians and restitution of property to white owners.

Captain James Walker of the Vanguard and Hugh Cathcart, the Jamaican trader who had formerly been British agent at Port-au-Prince, presented these proposals to Dessalines and Christophe — whom Dessalines had promoted to lieutenant-general — at Les Gonaïves, on Monday, August 28. Dessalines gave assurances that he would protect white inhabitants, though he said that he could not answer for the consequences if towns had to be taken by assault (a traditional and not outrageous reservation, within a decade of Badajos). 

The reinstatement of white planters in their estates he rejected as “too strong a dose,” since many of the whites who had been helping the French — with a view of reducing the Blacks to slavery again — were the same men to whom Toussaint had given their plantations back after they had deserted once before and fought for the British.

He said he would never trust them, recalling the meetings of Leclerc’s advisory council, at which some colonists had suggested “extirpating the Negroes in toto should they find it impracticable to reduce them to slavery . . . Himself and his generals had come to the determination . . . that in future the whites should be confined to the different towns in the colony — that the soil should e exclusively possessed by the natives (Blacks and mulattos).”

This was the first open statement of the rebels’ new resolution: to make the colony not only independent but also exclusively coloured, barring all whites from office and from the ownership of land. For this reason Dessalines flatly refused even to consider the proposal that the British navy should be given the use of Môle Saint-Nicolas and Tiburon.

The French suspected, and frequently openly alleged, that the British government betrayed the Treaty of Amiens by supplying the rebels with arms and ammunition. It seems clear from Cathcart’s confidential reports to Duckworth that there was no truth in this, though weapons may well have been sold to them by British and American merchants. Earlier, when a member of Leclerc’s staff had complained to a British officer that there were Briton had replied:

Good heavens, don’t you know we’re a nation of merchants? Those muskets probably left Kingston, Jamaica, in an armed convoy guarded by our fleet and carrying our troops to fight against Toussaint. Our traders could sell only muskets from our own factories; it was a good opportunity; and I understand that Toussaint bought fifteen or twenty thousand of them — to use against us. We always combine business with politics.

On this occasion, however, since the truce was over and Dessalines had impressed both Cathcart and Walker with his willingness to cooperate with the British, Walker agreed to let him have ten barrels of gunpowder and forty muskets — which he had taken from a French prize — so that Christophe could attack a group of a thousand “Congos” in the mountains, who were sending supplies to Rochambeau at Le Cap. “Congo,” still a term of disparagement, was now used by the rebels who had formerly been in the French army to describe those who had from the earliest days been members of irregular bands.

Shortly afterwards Dessalines sent a message to “the Admiral commanding His Britannic Majesty’s forces cruising off the Cape,” telling him that Clervaux was attacking the Congos, Christophe was marching on le Cap, and that Dessalines himself would begin the siege of Port-au-Prince with in a few days.” If it should please you to order one of the vessels under your command to cruise off that town, Your excellency would be rendering my army a signal service for which I should be particularly grateful.”

The Royal Navy cooperated closely, the British ships blockading the ports to prevent supplies getting in and gleaning where the rebels reaped, waiting for the fall of each town to seize the escaping vessels and troops and escort them to Jamaica. Captain Walker took off the French garrison from Saint-Marc in September. On October 12 Brunet and the Negro general Laplume surrendered Les Cayes, capital of the South Province, to Captain Cumberland of the Pique. On November 11, with 20,000 men against Rochambeau’s 5,000, Christophe established himself on the heights commanding the Plaine du Cap while Dessalines advanced via Le Limbé.

Rochambeau went to meet them at the head of his men. As always in pitched battles, the Blacks suffered very heavy casualties and had little in the way of artillery to reply to the fire from the French fortified positions. The fighting continued all day and was halted only by a tempest of rain that fell in such torrents that it was impossible to see. The storm continued almost without abatement for three weeks, battering and soaking the flagging morale of the French troops who had been reduced to eating their horses, mules, donkeys, even Rochambeau’s imported Negro-hunting dogs.

The civilian population of Le Cap, sullen under Rochambeau’s brutalities and exactions (one of them had recently been shot out of hand for not producing a large sum of money that the general demanded from him and that he did not possess) had lost all heart for the fight.

On November 19 Rochambeau capitulated to Dessalines, agreeing to hand over the forts and artillery undamaged within ten days provided he and his troops were allowed to embark on the ships in the harbour with all their baggage and the honours of war. On November 22 Dessalines, Christophe and Clervaux signed a proclamation promising justice to all men of good will, including former white property-owners — a reversal of the policy announced to Walker and Cathcart only a few weeks before.

Rochambeau sent his chief-of-staff to open negotiations with Captain Loring, commanding the British squadron patrolling off the Cape. He secretly hoped that the weather, continuing bad, would drive the British away for long enough for his own ships to get clear, but Loring was tenacious. Negotiations dragged on until November 30, when Loring was surprised to see the blue and red flag of the rebels hoisted on Fort Picolet. Captain Bligh, whom Loring sent into the harbour to speak with Dessalines and discover what was going on, was intercepted by a French naval attaché and taken aboard the frigate La Surveillante, where he found Rochambeau at last ready to come to terms.

He had embarked his troops five days before, hoping to slip out of the harbour during a squall, but a head-on wind had prevented them for moving. Dessalines, tired of waiting, had entered the town that morning and threatened t sink the French ships with a red-hot shot if they did not leave the harbour at once.

Bligh went ashore to inform Dessalines that the French were now British prisoners, and shortly afterwards the wind changed sufficiently for the vessels to leave: three frigates and seventeen smaller ships carrying 8,000 men, firing a token broadside and lowering their colours as they went. At Jamaica the ships were sold as prizes and the men interned in prison hulks.

Rochambeau’s infamous conduct was well enough know for Duckworth to refuse to meet him. As Christmas approached the Governor of Jamaica grew apprehensive that the high spirits of the season and an excess of drink might prompt some of the Negroes to lynch the Frenchman. He was sent to England in the Révolutionnaire and remained a prisoner there until he was exchanged in 1811. Two years later he was killed at the battle of Leipzig.

Source: Hubert Cole. Christophe: King of Haiti. New York: The Viking Press, 1967.

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update 7 January 2012




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