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Haiti : The Louisiana purchase : The Lewis and Clark journey

Posted: Wed Jul 07, 2004 1:18 pm
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Haitian revolt led indirectly to Lewis and Clark journey

Associated Press

CAP HAITIEN, Haiti - When Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific Ocean in 1805, they concluded a mission they might never have tried but for a slave revolt in faraway Haiti and a deadly mosquito-borne disease.

On the surface there seems little to link sweltering, impoverished Haiti with the cool sea breezes of the Pacific Northwest.

But without it, President Thomas Jefferson might not have been able to finesse the Louisiana Purchase, which extended the new nation from the Mississippi River to the Rockies, doubling its size.

The purchase gave Jefferson a legitimate reason to send the expedition to see, among other things, just what it was he had bought.

It was Meriwether Lewis and William Clark who put the American footprint on the Northwest, a region that held the interests of Britain, Russia and, to a much lesser degree, Spain.

France got Louisiana back from the Spanish under an 1801 treaty that was supposed to be secret. Napoleon hoped to use it to support the Caribbean empire he dreamed of owning, with Haiti at its hub. When those dreams collapsed, he sold it to the United States, concluding dealings that were dubious, maybe dirty.

Haiti, France's richest colony, produced $140 million a year in coffee, sugar, indigo and other goods in its peak years - more, at the time, than the newly minted United States.

But it was worked by slaves. They outnumbered the French by at least 12 to 1, and were held in check only by brutal oppression and torture.

At the Gallifet plantation, for example, brine with pepper sauce was poured into the gaping whip-wounds of flogged slaves. At La Grande Riviere, the ears of a troublesome slave were nailed to the wall then sliced off with a razor. They were then roasted and he was made to eat them.

With diplomacy such as this, and worse, the slaves didn't much like the French.

Reforms that came in with the French Revolution were largely ignored in Haiti. Haitians of mixed blood were given expanded rights, but when two of them complained that it wasn't happening, they were broken on the rack, or wheel, in public.

In 1791 the slaves revolted, slaughtering thousands of planters.

By 1801 liberator Toussaint Louverture was in charge of the western part of the island of Hispaniola, which Haiti shares today with the Dominican Republic. Napoleon sent brother-in-law Charles LeClerc and 20,000 troops to crush the rebellion and reimpose slavery.

But the rains of 1802 brought withering outbreaks of yellow fever that cut through the French like a scythe, leaving the Haitians virtually untouched.

In May alone 3,000 French died. One regiment of 1,395 had only 190 left, and 107 of them were in the hospital. Another of 1,000 soon numbered 150, with 133 in the hospital. The fatalities included LeClerc.

With his hopes of an empire crushed, Napoleon didn't need Louisiana. But he did need men and money for a planned war with England.

By now Jefferson, who had had designs on the West for years, had Napoleon over something of a barrel.

Napoleon knew he couldn't defend Louisiana against an American land grab. And if France didn't give Americans certain rights at New Orleans, the United States could side with Britain, something Jefferson didn't want but which Napoleon wanted even less.

So he sold it to the United States for $11.25 million and the assumption of about $3.75 million in French debt.

But was it even his to sell?

The Spanish had transferred it to the French for a promised piece of northern Italy, which was never delivered.

France promised in the Treaty of Idelfonso not to transfer the Louisiana territory, then quickly did so, to the United States. Spain protested but was powerless to do anything.

At home there were grumblings that the purchase was unconstitutional (it may well have been) and that the United States couldn't afford it (Jefferson borrowed the money from a British bank).

But it cleared away the problem of getting permission to explore the area from countries who knew of the American interest and were reluctant to grant it.

As James Madison scholar Lee Langston-Harrison noted, "The purchase of Louisiana gave President Jefferson a legitimate opportunity to send American explorers out from St. Louis ?"

"He also needed an expedition to set up a claim to this newly acquired territory."

And five years after Lewis and Clark left for home, an American settlement was established at what is now Astoria, Ore. Britain and the United States occupied it jointly for a time before it became American territory.


nBut without harsh French planters, a slave revolt and those lethal mosquitoes, it might not have happened.

Copyright © 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved.