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Birth of a Nation
Has the bloody 200-year history of Haiti doomed it to more violence?
Sunday, May 30, 2004 (San Francisco Chronicle)
Today, most Americans think of Haiti as a wasteland of repeated coups and dire poverty, which hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees are willing to risk their lives in small boats to escape. But just over 200 years ago, people thought of it as something entirely different: the most lucrative European colony in the world.
The key to its wealth, and what drove the geopolitics of the 18th century, was sugar. Sugar was as prized as oil is today, and the West Indies were the Middle East, so to speak, of the time. Europeans had learned to use sugar in pastries, puddings, biscuits, candy, in making many kinds of liquor, and to sweeten naturally bitter tea, coffee and chocolate. It was a preservative in making candied fruits, jams and marmalade, and a 1760 cookbook had recipes for sugar sculptures. One enthusiastic British physician, Dr. Frederick Slare, even urged the use of sugar for cleaning teeth.
Of all the sugar-producing territories of the Caribbean, the undisputed crown jewel was the French colony of St. Domingue, as Haiti was then known. The soil was so rich that it produced more than 30 percent of the world's sugar and more than half its coffee. British Prime Minister William Pitt enviously called St. Domingue "the Eden of the Western world." Such was the territory's mystique that merchants in the French port of Nantes sent their shirts across the Atlantic to be washed in its mountain brooks, which were said to whiten linen better than European rivers. Fifteen hundred ocean-going ships called each year at St. Domingue's 13 international ports and by the 1780s its foreign trade equaled that of the newly born United States. No colony anywhere made so large a profit for its mother country. But it was the very wealth of colonial St. Domingue that would make it the battleground for more than a dozen years of almost unbelievably ferocious warfare, which, in a sense, the country has never recovered from. Today's Haiti -- this year marks the 200th anniversary of its birth -- would not be so poor if 18th century St. Domingue had not been so rich.
Profits from St. Domingue's roaring sugar economy allowed the more than 30,000 French men and women in the territory to live in luxury. Planters and merchants in their splendid imported carriages could visit two resident orchestras, gambling houses, military parades, public fountains, horse shows, a Royal Society of Arts and Sciences, a traveling wax museum with figures of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and, in 1784, the launch of the first large balloon in the Americas, its canopy painted with the coats of arms of prominent colonists. Six towns had repertory theaters. The one in the north coast's Cap François -- the violent, bedraggled city of Cap Haitien today -- held 1,500 spectators. The star of the resident company, named Chevalier, died on stage. "Close the curtain," he said, "The farce is played out."
"Dueling," wrote one resident, "... was ... an everyday sport among the young and dissipated." There was also much sport in the bedroom – too much, in the opinion of a prostitute just off the boat from France, who wrote to a St. Domingue newspaper in 1786 to complain angrily about all the competition she faced, both amateur and professional. The life of a colonial Frenchwoman, a visiting American reported, "was divided between the bath, the table, the toilette and the lover. ... A married lady ... who has only one lover, and retains him long in her chains, is considered as a model of constancy and discretion." In Cap François, a city the size of Boston, whitewashed stone homes had wrought-iron balconies and garden trellises with vines of Muscat grapes. Despite the veneer of elegance, however, there was still something of the frontier town about the
place, reflected in names like Devil's Fart Street. Emigrating to St. Domingue was a way to escape gambling debts, the Paris police or a pregnant girlfriend demanding marriage. Most French people in the colony wanted to make their money and leave. As one observer put it: "All wish to be gone. Everyone is in a hurry; these people have the air of merchants at a fair."
To Europeans, it was unthinkable to work from dawn to dusk in intense, humid heat, digging holes to plant sugar cane in swampy ground, carrying cattle manure as fertilizer to the fields in dripping, 80-pound baskets, and finally bending over at the waist all day to slash at the base of stalks to harvest the cane when it was grown. And so the colonizers had quickly started importing African slaves. Sugar depended entirely on their labor and West Indian slavery was, by every measure, far more deadly than slavery in the American South. Cultivating sugar cane by hand was – and still is -- one of the hardest ways of life on earth. In the lush tropics where land was either being fertilized, planted, weeded or harvested for most of the year, there was little winter respite from fieldwork. Almost everywhere in the Americas where slaves were doing something other than working sugar, they lived longer.
Some half-million slaves, most of them born in Africa, worked the booming plantations of St. Domingue. "The cracking of whips, the smothered cries, and the indistinct groans of the Negroes ... is what takes [the] place of the crowing of the early cock," wrote a European visitor. One plantation owner wrote down detailed instructions for his overseers: "Slow punishments make a greater impression than quick ... ones. Twenty-five lashes of the whip administered in a quarter of an hour, interrupted at intervals to hear the cause which the unfortunates always plead in their defense, and resumed again, continuing in this fashion two or three times, are far more likely to make an impression than fifty lashes administered in five minutes." A wealthy Frenchman named Jean-Baptiste de Caradeux used to entertain his visitors by placing an orange on a slave's head; male guests would compete with each other to see who could knock it off with a pistol shot at 30 paces.
The French statesman Count Mirabeau once said that the whites of St. Domingue slept "at the foot of Vesuvius." As the 18th century drew to an end, slaves in French colonies like St. Domingue had a further incentive to rebel: news of the French Revolution. As slaves at the wharves wrestled barrels of sugar or sacks of coffee beans onto ships bound for France, they heard from French sailors about the storming of the Bastille and later upheavals. "The blacks are all in agreement," a high St. Domingue colonial official wrote, "... that the white slaves have killed their masters ... and have come into possession of all the goods of the earth." It seemed only a matter of time before the territory's slaves would seek the same for themselves.
In August 1791, the volcano erupted. On St. Domingue's rich northern plain, the heartland of its agricultural wealth, a large group of slaves representing many plantations met under the night sky in a remote spot called Alligator Woods, slaughtered a pig, ceremonially drank its blood, and swore an oath to rise up at the appointed time. At 10 p.m. on Aug. 22, drumbeats gave the signal. Slaves attacked planters and their families with pruning hooks and machetes. They set fire to everything connected with the hated work of sugar cultivation: cane fields, mills and warehouses. Machinery that would not burn they smashed with sledgehammers. They murdered white men in their beds and raped the women atop their husbands' corpses. They nailed one member of the slave-catching militia alive to the gate of his plantation and chopped off his arms and legs. They tied a carpenter between two planks and sawed him in half. Planters had been meting out similar violence to their slaves for generations, but their world had now been turned upside down.
Terrified white refugees, some in nightclothes, filled the road to Cap François. "Imagine all the space that the eye can see," wrote one, "... from which continually arose thick coils of smoke whose hugeness and blackness could only be likened to frightful clouds laden with thunderstorms. They parted only to give way to equally huge flames, alive and flashing to the very sky. ... For three weeks we couldn't tell day from night. ...The most striking thing about this terrible spectacle was a rain of fire composed of burning bits of cane-straw which whirled like thick snow."
At the Bréda plantation, near Cap François, a slight, wiry, taciturn black man in his late 40s named Toussaint held the privileged position of livestock steward and coachman, a job that had taken him throughout the region. Born a slave, he had been freed some years earlier and was now literate and a slave owner himself. He managed to deflect the rebels for some days until the plantation manager who had freed him could safely leave with his family. Then Toussaint, too, joined the revolt.
On both sides, it was a war of unsurpassed brutality. The bodies of rebel slaves swung from tree branches where they had been hanged, while fortifications the slaves built were lined with French skulls. French soldiers were confident they could put down the uprising, as they had suppressed various small revolts in the past. One group of officers calmly continued their dinner, even when an alarm signaled that the rebels were approaching. "We were eating heartily until the moment a cannon ball passed through the window and carried away, right under our beards, the table and all the plates. The general, infuriated by this mishap, mounted his horse with food still in his mouth, and left camp with 600 men and four pieces of artillery. Two hours later one could not find a living Negro within a circle of two and a half miles, and the roads were strewn with their bloody remains."
Besides its vast scale, the upheaval in St. Domingue differed from
previous West Indian slave uprisings in other ways. For one thing, the colony's nearly 30,000 "free people of color" -- most of them mulatto -- were also in rebellion. And what also made the turmoil unprecedented was that the colony's whites were deeply and violently divided. Many workers, seamen and soldiers of fortune identified with the French Revolution; the wealthy planters tended to be loyal to King Louis XVI, now only precariously still on his throne. Before long there were white, slave and mulatto armies in the field, and at times several of each. In eerie similarity to the early months of 2004, much of the territory was, in effect, under the control of rival warlords and their heavily armed followers.
Underlying almost all the fighting, however, was the struggle between the great mass of black rebels and the whites who wanted them to remain slaves. As slaves continued their fight, fast emerging as their major leader was Toussaint, the former coachman of the Bréda plantation. He soon would be also using the name Louverture -- the opening. This may have come from the way his troops forced a breach when they attacked, or from his desire for opportunity open to all, or perhaps from the gap in his mouth where a spent cannon ball had knocked out some teeth.
News of the revolt spread panic among slaveholders everywhere. British Caribbean planters had long known that they, too, were at the foot of a volcano. Authorities on Jamaica declared martial law. In Virginia, the state legislature tightened restrictions on slave gatherings and passed an "Act against divulgers of false news."
Britain shipped arms and ammunition to St. Domingue's beleaguered whites. From the United States came a thousand muskets, other military supplies, and eventually some $400,000. Thomas Jefferson, the slave-owning secretary of state, was appalled by the revolt and declared, "Never was so deep a tragedy presented to the feelings of man." This was the first, though not the last, U. S. military intervention
in the embattled territory.
Britain and revolutionary France went to war in early 1793, and at that point London set out to capture France's Caribbean colonies, particularly the prized St. Domingue, which would gain Britain an immense treasure house of sugar and coffee plantations. Then as now, however, stated war aims had to be lofty, and actors in the drama sounded like American presidents of a later day. The conquest of St. Domingue, said British Secretary for War Henry Dundas, was "not a war for riches or local aggrandizement, but a war for security."
Filled with martial fervor, British forces sailed for France's West Indian colonies. In September 1793, the first British soldiers came ashore in St. Domingue. Soon town after town was falling into their hands as troops closed in on Port-au-Prince, the capital. When news reached London that they had captured the city in time to celebrate the birthday of King George III, church bells pealed all morning. The British assumed that seizing t
he remainder of the colony would now be easy. But unknown to them, Toussaint Louverture was rapidly turning illiterate rebel slaves into a formidable force.
Roughly 47 years old when the fighting began, he was described as "small, frail, very ugly." Nonetheless, he had a powerfully commanding presence. He lived frugally and ate little. Everyone noticed his ever-moving eyes that missed nothing. Some of the greatest tributes to Toussaint come from the European generals who fought against him. One, Pamphile de Lacroix of France, later wrote: "He slept only two hours a night. ...You never knew what he was doing, if he was leaving, if he was staying, where he was going, where he was coming from. Often it was announced that he was at Cap François, and he was at Port- au-Prince. When you thought he was at Port-au-Prince, he was at Cayes, at Môle, or at Saint-Marc. ... While racing across the colony on horseback at lightning speed, while seeing everything for himself, he prepared his plans and thought things out while he galloped."
Toussaint hired French deserters to train his troops. He rapidly grasped how to use the ambushes and booby traps that are the essence of guerrilla warfare. As one exasperated opponent wrote, "Each tree, each hole, each piece of rock hid from our unseeing eyes a cowardly assassin." As they stormed one British stronghold, 1,500 of Toussaint's men found their assault ladders too short and stood on each other's shoulders while the dead dropped beside them. When their ammunition ran out, they fought with stones or fashioned bows and arrows. His soldiers often went into battle, in his words, "naked as earthworms."
Meanwhile, the British love of pomp triumphed over common sense, and successive waves of fresh troops disembarked in their famous red coats: the tight-fitting uniforms of heavy wool made for fighting on the snowy plains of northern Europe. Regulation flannel underwear made things worse. In the intense, humid heat, the layers of flannel and wool became drenched in sweat, creating a covering as thick and clammy as a modern surfer's wetsuit and bringing on heatstroke.
Even more deadly enemies were malaria and yellow fever. Doctors, of course, did not know that both diseases were carried by mosquitoes, which breed in stagnant water. The main British military hospital in Port-au-Prince was next door to a swamp. The effects of the yellow fever virus, which multiplies within the body to attack various internal organs, were particularly horrendous: incontinence, delirium, pus oozing from the gums, bleeding from the nose and eyes, and then the dreaded "black vomit" of digested blood that often preceded death. Equally appalling was the medical treatment the ill soldiers received: doses of mercury, of diluted vinegar, of tartar to induce vomiting; copious quantities of alcohol (usually rum for the men, claret for officers, and Madeira for difficult cases); and, above all, the favorite cure for everything, bleeding -- typically the draining of 20 to 30 ounces of blood at a time.
A vivid microcosm of the British military experience in St. Domingue can be found in a detailed journal kept by Lt. Thomas Phipps Howard of the York Hussars. He was a bluff career cavalry officer, filled with thoroughly conventional ideas about the splendor of his regiment, the rightness of slavery, the generosity of masters, and the character of slaves ("extremely sulky," "obstrepolous"[sic], and full of "obstinacy").
After Howard and his hussars disembarked from their ship, the officers unwisely waited until well into the morning before marching the men off to an attack. "The Sun being so extremely hot & not a drop of Water to be meet with on the Road, none but those who have been obliged to March in this Country can have an Idea of the extremities to which the Army was reduced. ...No less than between 50 & 60 Men had absolutely perished with thirst & were lying dead along the Road. ... At every three or four hundred yards you met Men lying on their backs, their tongues lolling out of their Mouths & in the agonies of Death for want of Water. Many were absolutely by way of moistening their Mouths obliged to drink their own Urine. ...We were ... infinitely obliged to the Humanity of Dr. Baillie, our Surgeon, who though' ill himself & suffering every Deprivation with the rest of the Army, exerted himself in the relief of the Unfortunate Men by bleeding."
Then the two dread diseases struck. "The Dead Carts were constantly employed, & scarcely was one empty, though' they held from 8 to 12 each, but another was full. Men were taken ill at dinner, who had been in their most apparent Health during the Morn, & were carried to their long Homes at Night. ... Hundreds, almost, were absolutely drowned in their own Blood, bursting from them at every Pore. Some died raving Mad, others forming Plans for attacking, the others desponding."
Although the horrors that loomed largest for Lt. Howard were those of heat and illness, between the lines of his journal we catch repeated glimpses of Toussaint's army of unexpectedly disciplined ex-slaves. Howard never dignifies them with any name other than "Brigands," and talks contemptuously of how "they for the most part go naked except perhaps a piece of Cloth tied round their middles," but it is clear that they ran circles around the gloriously plumed and red-coated York Hussars. All Howard's training in sword- waving cavalry charges was for nought. "Their Method of making War consists chiefly in Ambuscades, for which the face of the Country is particularly calculated, & surprises. As to meeting you openly on the Plains or having any regular System of Tactics, they are totally unacquainted with it, & seldom or ever have been able to be brought up in a regular manner against our Troops . . . . .Five hundred European Cavalry would destroy five thousand of them in [the] Plain, but the Case is much altered when they fight in their own woods & Mountains." In Howard's voice is the same bewilderment that conventionally trained army officers have felt over the centuries when faced with guerrillas: in Algeria, Vietnam, Iraq.
After suffering additional defeats at the hands of a mulatto army in southern St. Domingue, the British decided to reinforce their battered forces in the Caribbean with a vast fleet of troop ships in late 1795, the largest such expedition that had ever left England. The army repeated all its earlier mistakes on a huge scale. "Blockheads at the heads of Regiments. . . . The most indolent, ignorant and negligent men," one frustrated general called them. Nor were the enlisted men any better: "The very scum of the Earth," a West Indian governor exclaimed. "The Streets of London must have been swept of their refuse, the Gaols emptied. . . . I should say the very Gibbets had been robbed to furnish such Recruits."
Those who straggled off their ships in St. Domingue found that the British were steadily losing territory and thousands of men -- to disease, to roving autonomous black guerrilla bands known as congos, to Toussaint's troops, and to those of his rival in the south, the skillful mulatto general André Rigaud.
Toussaint had been wounded in combat many times, but never seriously, and the legends around him grew. From a local black corps fighting for the British, 300 men deserted en masse to Toussaint's side. Then he closed in on the major British stronghold of Port-au-Prince. The few hundred followers he had started with some five years earlier were now an experienced army of some 14,000. "Do not disappoint me," he said in a proclamation to his soldiers. "... Do not permit the desire for booty to turn you aside. ...It will be time enough to think of material things when we have driven the enemy from our shores. We are fighting [so] that liberty -- the most precious of all earthly possessions - - may not perish." Before long, he captured Morne l'Hôpital, a hill overlooking Port-au-Prince, and redcoats below could hear the ex-slaves singing.
The British had had enough, and in 1798 agreed to withdraw. Britain promised to leave Toussaint alone: There would be a trading relationship instead. In return, Toussaint agreed not to invade Jamaica or to spread "dangerous principles," as a later, more formal treaty put it, to Jamaican slaves. "Thank God I have at length got Great Britain rid of the whole of the encumbrance in this Island," wrote Thomas Maitland, the British commander. Writing to his brother, he was even more direct, sounding like a disillusioned Vietnam veteran: "We have no business on that Island." Of the more than 20,000 British soldiers sent to St. Domingue during five years of fighting, over 60 percent lay buried there. In October 1798, the Union Jack was lowered and Toussaint rode as liberator into Port-au-Prince and Cap François -- on whose streets he had once driven as a liveried coachman.
British myth making has long skillfully turned military withdrawals or defeats into noble moments of heroism: consider, in later times, the char
ge of the Light Brigade or Dunkirk. But the five-year campaign in St. Domingue was an exception. The colony's name has never appeared on a single British regimental banner. For the British, their failed attempt to take St. Domingue was a startling lesson in the difficulties of trying to impose one's will in a hot, violent, distant and ill-understood part of the world, not unlike the lessons the United States would learn in later times. But for the citizens of St. Domingue, nominally victorious, their troubles had only just begun.
The well-armed mulatto general Rigaud still controlled the southern portion of the territory, and there was no love lost between his supporters, many of whom had been slave owners, and Toussaint's. In the two years after the British withdrawal, Toussaint and Rigaud fought a civil war, known as the War of Knives, as brutal and bereft of mercy as all that had gone before. Captured mulatto leaders were blown from the mouths of cannons; at Port-au- Prince some 600 Rigaud sympathizers were tied back-to-back, towed out to sea on barges, bayoneted, and tossed to the sharks. Blood stained the beaches red. Rallying his troops and urging on his generals, Toussaint sometimes rode 65 or 70 miles a day. The defeated Rigaud fled to France. But what did not disappear was the conflict between the desperately poor Creole-speaking blacks and the more middle class, largely French-speaking mulattos, which would run like a bloody thread through the territory's politics for the next two centuries.
Now Toussaint faced another threat. In Paris, Napoleon, dreaming of expanding France's shrunken empire, had seized full political power. And he was no abolitionist, nor was his wife, Josephine, who had grown up on her father's slave plantation in Martinique. In 1802, Napoleon set out to regain France's most lucrative colony and make further conquests in the Americas.
St. Domingue was vulnerable. The ex-slaves controlled the territory, but they were now mostly scraping out a hand-to-mouth living on small plots of land carved from the old plantations, producing little that could be sold abroad for arms and ammunition. Food was scarce. In the cities, people were living in makeshift shelters in the ruins of what had once been the Caribbean's grandest buildings. In a shattered country desperately arming to protect itself, democracy would have been difficult, even if its iron-willed strongman, Toussaint, had been any sort of democrat, which he definitely was not. Forcibly returning land to sugar and coffee production, he confiscated the old plantations and leased them out to his generals, other trusted officials and the few French planters he could persuade to return. The government took a share of the profits. Black farm workers were offered slightly better living conditions, at least in theory. But they were attached to particular plantations like serfs, under strict military discipline. People were conscripted to build roads. To those living under it, the new regime seemed not so diffe
rent from slavery.
Not surprisingly, revolts broke out, which Toussaint ruthlessly suppressed. Firing squads or cannons loaded with grapeshot executed some 2,000 people. Toussaint issued a constitution abolishing slavery, giving himself power for life and establishing, in effect, a military dictatorship -- a striking parallel to what Napoleon was doing in France. Fatefully, it established a model of government that his country was to follow for some 200 years to come. Sleeping only a few hours a night, he rose at dawn, attended Mass, dictated scores of letters and orders, then headed into the countryside on his favorite horse, Bel-Argent. He dressed like an emperor, which was what he clearly wanted to be, and is perhaps what his subjects, so many of whom had been born in African chiefdoms or monarchies, expected of him. In his letters, he never used the informal French tu. Ascetic and puritanical, he drank no alcohol and ordered that women's dresses show no cleavage. He was said to never forget a face. Fearful of assassins, he accepted food only from trusted aides or, when in the field, on a banana leaf he had cut himself. He never appeared at a window, and he never said where he was going. "He never pardoned," said his secretary. "His unknown, resolute, terrible will was the supreme law without appeal. His spies . . . were everywhere, around his generals, on the estates, in the huts of the blacks. . . . He succeeded, so to speak, in making himself invisible wherever he was and visible where he wasn't; he seemed to have stolen the spontaneity of his movements from a tiger. . . .Thus there was neither thought of betrayal nor time for treason. Impenetrable in his designs . . . he confided to no one."
All the while, Toussaint's wary eyes were on Napoleon, to whom, legend has it, he sent a letter addressed "From the first of the blacks to the first of the whites." Napoleon's reply was an invasion force, the largest that had ever set sail from France and designed, in his words, "to annihilate the government of the blacks in St. Domingue." In command was his 29-year-old brother-in-law, Victor-Emmanuel Leclerc, who cheerfully boasted that the sight of French bayonets would put the blacks to rout. "Rid us of these gilded Africans," Napoleon wrote Leclerc, "and we shall have nothing more to wish."
"We are lost," Toussaint, said when he saw the great invasion flotilla of French ships arrive. "All France has come to St. Domingue." The French had sent some 35,000 men, over half again as many as were in Toussaint's experienced but ill-equipped ranks. But, as Leclerc ominously reported to France, "Toussaint and his generals appear to me to have decided to burn down the colony and entomb themselves under the ruins before surrendering." Toussaint sent a message to one of his officers: "The only resources we have are destruction and fire. Annihilate everything and burn everything. Block the roads, pollute the wells with corpses and dead horses."
Toussaint's desperate troops rolled rocks down mountainsides into the path of the invaders. French commanders, like the British before them, were nonplussed by guerrilla tactics. Nonetheless, French firepower took its toll, and after some months of fighting, several of Toussaint's generals came over to the French side, lured by promises that they could maintain their ranks. Finally, in May 1802, Toussaint began negotiating. Afraid of turning him into a martyr, the French promised him the position of lieutenant general if he would agree to retire to one of the several plantations he now owned. Slavery, Leclerc solemnly swore, would never be restored. When Leclerc offered him dinner, Toussaint took nothing except water from a carafe whose contents had already been tasted, and a chunk cut from the middle of a piece of cheese. A month later, under Leclerc's orders, another French general asked Toussaint to meet with him. In a rare lapse of judgment, Toussaint fell into the trap. Seized and bound on the spot, he was rushed to the coast and on board a s
hip for France.
It seemed as if the French had won. General Leclerc's wife, Napoleon's beautiful and pleasure-loving sister Pauline, settled in great comfort in a mountainside villa, sleeping in a canopied bed with carved cupids and white satin curtains trimmed with gold. When an American visitor found her at home, "She reclined . . . on the sofa and amused general Boyer, who sat at her feet, by letting her slipper fall continually, which he respectfully put on as often as it fell. . . . She has a voluptuous mouth, and . . . an air of languor. . . . Madame Leclerc is very kind to general Boyer, and . . . her husband is not content." While Pauline dallied with her husband's subordinate, the French, like the British before them, soon began succumbing to yellow fever and malaria, burying their dead in mass graves at night, so no one would see their losses. Meanwhile, a series of decrees from Napoleon, held secret for the time being, stripped mulattos of equal rights and restored slavery.
The news leaked out and the blacks rose again. To Napoleon, the desperate Leclerc wrote, "Send 12,000 replacements immediately, and 10 million francs in cash, or St. Domingue is lost forever." It was Leclerc's last letter. Three weeks later, he was dead of yellow fever. Pauline, more affectionate in death than in life, cut off her long hair and put it in his coffin.
The rebels fought on and the French were ruthless: The general who took over from Leclerc ordered one rebel leader's epaulets nailed to his shoulders in front of his wife and children, who were then drowned before his eyes; he staked naked prisoners to the ground in front of dogs who had been deliberately deprived of their food. By packing black and mulatto prisoners into a ship's hold and then burning sulphur through the night, he created what may have been history's first gas chamber. In the morning, the bodies were dumped overboard to make room for more. By such atrocities, the French succeeded in temporarily uniting St. Domingues blacks and mulattos against them. Meanwhile, in France, Toussaint was being held incommunicado in the massive ninth century Fort de Joux in the Jura mountains near the Swiss order. He died there on April 7, 1803, only seven months after being imprisoned.
Ironically, the remnants of Napoleon's army were just then going down to defeat in St. Domingue. Demoralized, half-starving French soldiers, desperate for fruit and vegetables, sold bags of gunpowder to black women in the market, who smuggled these beneath their dresses to rebel forces. By the year's end, the last surviving French troops had been forced to sail home. In its 22-month attempt to retake the colony, France had lost more than 50,000 soldiers, including 18 generals -- the vast majority of the army it sent there. Napoleon lost more men in St. Domingue than he would lose at Waterloo. The long-suffering citizens of St. Domingue had won a great victory, but it was also another link in the chain of violence and destruction that weighs so heavily on their descendants today.
On Jan. 1, 1804, St. Domingue's leaders proclaimed it the Republic of Haiti -- the name for the island in the language of its earliest inhabitants, the vanished Arawak Indians. Less than two decades younger than the United States, it was the second independent nation in the Western Hemisphere. Today we usually refer to the preceding dozen years of fighting as the Haitian Revolution. The Haitian people had accomplished the only fully victorious slave revolt in the history of the Americas. Beyond this, they were the first people anywhere not of European descent to have thrown off European colonial rule. And they had defeated invasions by the two greatest military powers of the era. If there were any justice in history, Haiti would have been rewarded by decades of peace and prosperity.
But this was not to be. Haiti's almost unparalleled legacy of violence has crippled the land to this day. And neither colonialism, nor slavery, nor the African monarchies many of its citizens had been born in provided much fertile soil for the democratic ideas circulating elsewhere in the North Atlantic world at the time of Haiti's birth.
Furthermore, as Haiti became independent, it was a country in ruins. Plantations and sugar works were burned and large tracts of the cities were little more than blackened rubble. In the many years of scorched-earth warfare, the country had lost more than half its population, and it was the half that included, principally among whites and mulattos, just the sort of experienced artisans, farmers, teachers and professionals needed to rebuild a devastated country and to teach their skills to others.
Proportionally, the killing or exile of the skilled and literate population was far more extensive than happened in the Russian Revolution and civil war, in China, in Cambodia under Pol Pot, or in almost any other revolution one can think of. In one final spasm, for example, just after independence, Toussaint's successors ordered the more than 3,000 French people remaining in the territory slaughtered. To write Haiti's declaration of independence, said one of its early officials, "we need the skin of a white to serve as a parchment, his skull as an inkwell, his blood for ink, and a bayonet for a pen."
Not surprisingly, with all this as a starting point, Haiti's next 200 years have not been easy. Of the long string of corrupt, authoritarian rulers, one took the title of king, one emperor; almost all were installed or overthrown by coups. They preferred building palaces to schools. Haiti may be a failed state today, but in most of its lifetime there was never very much of a state to fail. Furthermore, Haiti's extreme poverty and weakness has left it vulnerable to powerful and uncharitable outsiders. For decades, Britain, France and the United States all remained wary of a nation born of a slave revolt. The United States did not officially even recognize Haiti until nearly 60 years after independence. France arrogantly demanded, and got, restitution payments for the confiscated slave plantations. And the U. S. Marines occupied the country from 1915 to 1934, protecting American investments and ushering in a new constitution that allowed foreigners to own land. American involvement since then has, with rare exceptions, usually meant supporting the dictator of the day -- no help to a country that already had enough problems of its own. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whom the United States helped push from power earlier this year, was the only democratically elected leader in Haiti's history.
A further irony, given its hostility to the great slave revolt, is that the American government ended up benefiting from the Haitian Revolution more than anyone. The slave rebels' defeat of the French had vast consequences for the very shape of the United States today. Planning to use a reconquered St. Domingue as a springboard for his further empire building on the mainland, Napoleon had earlier acquired from Spain a huge tract of land. If he had not lost an army and depleted his treasury in the vain effort to subdue St. Domingue's ex-slaves, he would never have hastily sold this mainland territory to the United States for a much-needed $15 million, in the transaction known as the Louisiana Purchase.
San Francisco-based Adam Hochschild is the author of "King Leopold's Ghost" and other books. This article is excerpted from his forthcoming "Bury the Chains," which will be published by Houghton Mifflin in January 2005.
Copyright 2004 SF Chronicle