Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Latin American History. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 28 November 2022

The Leclerc Expedition to Saint-Domingue and the Independence of Haiti, 1802–1804free

The Leclerc Expedition to Saint-Domingue and the Independence of Haiti, 1802–1804free

  • Philippe GirardPhilippe GirardDepartment of History, McNeese State University


In December 1801, First Consul Napoléon Bonaparte sent a massive expedition to the French colony of Saint-Domingue (today: Haiti). His goal was to restore direct French rule and overthrow Toussaint Louverture, a former slave who, as governor general of Saint-Domingue, had been suspected of plotting independence. Bonaparte’s secondary goal may have been to reinstate slavery, which France had abolished in 1793–1794.

Bonaparte’s brother-in-law, General Victoire Leclerc, headed the expedition. After landing in Saint-Domingue in February 1802 with 20,000 troops, he managed, with great difficulty, to defeat Louverture’s army. He then deported Louverture to France, where he died in exile. In August 1802, however, resistance intensified as plantation laborers became convinced that the French intended to restore slavery. Leclerc, who lost much of his army to yellow fever, embraced increasingly murderous tactics against the black population until he died in November 1802.

For one year, Leclerc’s successor, General Donatien de Rochambeau, battled Louverture’s successor, General Jean-Jacques Dessalines, in a brutal conflict with genocidal overtones. The bravery of Dessalines’s troops, lack of support from France, epidemic disease, and the renewal of Britain’s war with France eventually doomed the French effort. After the departure of the last remnants of the Leclerc expedition, Dessalines declared the independence of Saint-Domingue, now known as Haiti, on January 1, 1804, and then put to death most of the remaining French planters.


  • History of the Caribbean
  • History of Latin America and the Oceanic World
  • 1492–1824
  • Military History
  • Slavery and Abolition

Saint-Domingue (Haiti) was the most prosperous of France’s colonies at the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, producing sugar, coffee, and other tropical crops for the European market. But its wealth stemmed from a brutal plantation system predicated on the exploitation of African slave labor: the colony’s half-million slaves represented 90 percent of the colonial population (free whites and free people of color, some of them slave-owning, composed the rest of the population). In 1791, the influence of Enlightenment ideals, political unrest connected to the French Revolution, and home-grown opposition to labor abuse led to a massive slave revolt that eventually engulfed the totality of Saint-Domingue’s slaves, or about half a million people. The most notable of these rebels was Toussaint Louverture, who had grown up as a slave on a sugar plantation near Cap-Français (today: Cap-Haïtien).1

France initially tried to contain the slave revolt but struggled due to the revolt’s unprecedented size, divisions within the ruling class, the dedication of the rebels, and epidemic outbreaks among reinforcements sent from France. When Britain and Spain declared war on France and invaded Saint-Domingue in 1793, France’s commissioner, Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, concluded that he could not contain the slave revolt while fighting foreign enemies: better to bring the black majority on his side and accept the principles of abolition, which he privately favored anyway. In August 1793, he abolished slavery in Saint-Domingue and invited black rebels to join the French army. The French parliament ratified his decree and extended it to other French colonies in February 1794.2 Louverture joined the French Republican army after France abolished slavery. With his assistance, France repulsed the Spanish invasion by 1795 and the British invasion by 1798. France promoted Louverture to general in chief of the colonial army, with the rank of division general, in recognition of his exploits.

When Napoléon Bonaparte seized power in the coup d’état of November 1799 and established the Consulate, he initially maintained the liberal colonial policies of the previous regime, the Directory. He reaffirmed his trust in Louverture and his commitment to emancipation, hoping to use black freedmen from Saint-Domingue for offensive operations against Britain and the United States. He was also pleased that Louverture had revived plantation agriculture by relying on the cultivator system, a semi-free labor system: cultivators were legally free, could not be whipped, and received a portion of the crop as salary, but they were required to work on plantations.

As years went on, however, Louverture’s actions became increasingly controversial in Paris. He expelled France’s civilian representatives, including Sonthonax, Gabriel de Hédouville, and Philippe Roume de Saint-Laurent. He signed secret treaties with Britain and the United States, both of which were engaged in a naval war with France in the Caribbean, promising not to export the slave revolt to their shores if they agreed to a resumption of commercial relations. He betrayed a French invasion of Jamaica scheduled for December 1799. In January 1801, he invaded Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic), which Spain had officially ceded to France under the 1795 Peace of Basel but which France wanted to keep outside of Louverture’s orbit. In July 1801, without consulting France, he and a colonial assembly promulgated a constitution that made him governor general for life of Saint-Domingue with the authority to appoint his successor. Though Louverture insisted on his continued loyalty to France, his various policies, particularly his constitution, were widely interpreted as the final steps before a formal declaration of independence.

By 1801, numerous colonial officials who had fled Saint-Domingue during Louverture’s rise to power had found refuge in Paris and were petitioning Bonaparte for an expedition to Saint-Domingue. Among them were André Rigaud, a mixed-race general from southern Saint-Domingue whom Louverture had defeated in a 1799–1800 civil war that generally pitted anciens libres (more elite figures, often of mixed racial background, who had been free prior to the Haitian Revolution) against nouveaux libres (newly emancipated slaves, most of them black). Other exiled critics included Jean-Baptiste Belley (the first black deputy to the French parliament), Martial Besse (a mixed-race general who had been charged with the aborted invasion of Jamaica), and François de Kerversau (a white general who had served as a French agent in Santo Domingo). They recommended the use of force against Louverture, not to restore slavery but to reinstate French authority.

A more conservative party was also active in French policy circles. Composed of old colonial hands from the French bureaucracy and exiled white planters, that group argued that Louverture, as well as blacks in general, were not fit for leadership positions or even individual freedom. Abolition, they argued, had led to the ruin of colonial plantations, the French merchant navy, and Atlantic ports like Bordeaux. They published critical accounts of the early years of the Haitian Revolution, sent memoirs to Bonaparte, and lobbied the first consul behind the scenes. Their goal was not simply to remove Louverture from office but to revoke the 1794 law of abolition. They were convinced that restoring slavery would be relatively easy because former slaves would be pleased to put themselves back under the paternalistic guidance of their former masters. But more realistic observers predicted that no one would agree to be re-enslaved and that any attempt to do so would likely result in a brutal racial war.3

After initially hoping that he could make a pragmatic alliance with Louverture, Bonaparte changed his mind upon learning of Louverture’s increasingly autonomous policies, particularly his 1801 constitution, which he first read in October 1801. Around the same time, the London Peace Protocols brought a temporary end to the war with Britain, which reopened the seas to the French Navy and made a large expedition practicable. Bonaparte sent urgent requests to his minister of the navy, Denis Decrès, that a small expeditionary force in the port of Brest, which Decrès had assembled piecemeal over the previous years, be enlarged and readied at once. Bonaparte sent similar orders to the ports of Flessingues (Vlessingen), Le Havre, Lorient, Rochefort, Cádiz, and Toulon.

To lead the expedition, Bonaparte selected General Victoire (or Victor) Leclerc, a twenty-nine-year-old veteran of the wars of Italy with no colonial experience. Leclerc was the husband of Bonaparte’s favorite sister Pauline, who also traveled with the expedition, as did Bonaparte’s brother Jérôme, an officer in training in the navy. Due to the peace with Britain, which became official with the Treaty of Amiens (March 1802), many unemployed French officers asked to join the expedition, expecting it to be short and lucrative. The quality of the troops and the officers sent with the first wave of the Leclerc expedition was accordingly high. Several of Louverture’s exiled critics, including Rigaud, Besse, Belley, and Kerversau, also accompanied the expedition.

Bonaparte was confident of victory until he met Charles de Vincent, Louverture’s director of fortifications, who warned him that Louverture’s army was large (about 20,000 men) and experienced, and that epidemics and logistical shortcomings were likely to doom the expedition. The first consul did not give up his plans but he assigned more units until the expedition ballooned to a seven-fleet behemoth comprising 43,000 men, including 19,500 soldiers. He also devised an elaborate strategy designed to limit the fighting. According to Bonaparte’s secret instructions, Leclerc would land in full force to overawe France’s enemies while promising to maintain emancipation to gain the support of the black population. He would also bring along Louverture’s sons Isaac and Placide, who were studying in Paris, as a gesture of goodwill so as to convince Louverture to step down voluntarily. Once his hold on Saint-Domingue was secure, Leclerc would deport Louverture and his main black officers to France and restore direct French control over the colony. Bonaparte hoped that the transfer of power would involve minimal fighting, though he authorized Leclerc to use force if Louverture did not comply. If caught arms in hands, Louverture would be shot.4

It is generally assumed that Bonaparte intended to restore slavery after reestablishing French control of Saint-Domingue, but his public and private musings on the matter were conflicting. He planned to maintain slavery in Santo Domingo and in colonies where the 1794 law of abolition had never taken effect, such as Réunion and Martinique. But he officially remained attached to emancipation in colonies where it had taken effect, such as Guadeloupe and French Guiana (Guyane), at least for now. As for Saint-Domingue, the semi-free cultivator system that Louverture had employed appeared to be an economic success and Bonaparte feared that restoring slavery would be difficult in a colony where the black population was unusually large and well-armed. He thus instructed Leclerc to maintain the cultivator system. Bonaparte’s policies were formalized in a May 20, 1802 law that maintained slavery in Martinique and Réunion while calling for future (as yet unspecified) decrees on the labor status of Guadeloupe, Guiana, and Saint-Domingue.5

The Saint-Domingue Expedition under Leclerc and Louverture, February–November 1802

The main squadrons from Brest, Lorient, and Rochefort set sail in December 1801; others followed suit in January 1802. Victoire Leclerc and the bulk of his forces sailed on the Brest squadron, which was commanded by Admiral Louis-Thomas Villaret de Joyeuse. After losing contact with each other while crossing the Atlantic, most of the ships rendezvoused in Samaná Bay, at the eastern tip of the island of Hispaniola (split between Saint-Domingue and Santo Domingo), in January 1802 (see Figure 1). According to some accounts, Toussaint Louverture, who was touring Santo Domingo at the time, witnessed the fleet’s arrival in person.6

From Samaná, Leclerc and Villaret made their way to Cap-Français, the colony’s most prominent town. They tried to convince the city’s black commander, General Henry Christophe, to surrender the town voluntarily, but he refused, apparently at the urging of Louverture, who had rushed from Samaná to Cap-Français by land to oppose the French landing. After a few days of fruitless negotiations, Leclerc landed his troops west of Cap-Français on February 4, 1802 and marched on the town. He forced Christophe and Louverture to retreat but only after they torched it.

Figure 1. “Saint-Domingue (Haiti).”

Map by the author.

Louverture, who had been busy drafting men and purchasing large quantities of weapons from US merchants ever since he had been informed of the likelihood of an expedition in December 1801, sent orders to his subordinates to oppose the French landings in each port of the colony. If unsuccessful, his generals would conduct a fighting retreat, burning everything as they went so as to deny the French crucial supplies. Once inland, they would hold out by relying on the guerilla methods that had proved successful against previous Spanish and British invaders. Louverture hoped that tropical fevers, which reached their peak during the summer rainy season when mosquitoes were most numerous, would decimate the French army, allowing for a counter-attack in late 1802. Louverture also gave his subordinates “carte blanche” to do as they wished with white colonists, an indirect way to call for their physical elimination.7

Louverture’s orders were only obeyed in part. In Port-de-Paix, General Jacques Maurepas inflicted several losses on the French before retreating inland; the city of Léogane was also burned. But the French were able to seize Fort-Liberté and Port-Républicain (Port-au-Prince) intact, while Louverture’s brother Paul handed over the capital of Santo Domingo (also named Santo Domingo) without a fight. The black population was hesitant. Many feared that the French had come to restore slavery, but others, angered by Louverture’s stern labor policies as governor general, were neutral or even pro-French (Leclerc distributed proclamations in French and Haitian Kreyòl in which he and Napoléon Bonaparte promised not to restore slavery). Won over by French promises, some black generals switched sides, including Maurepas, Paul Louverture, and Jean Laplume, the commander of Cayes.

After seizing what remained of Cap-Français, Leclerc, who was still awaiting the arrival of several squadrons from Europe, decided to open negotiations with Louverture. He announced a temporary ceasefire and sent Placide and Isaac Louverture to meet their father. Though Louverture was overjoyed to meet his sons, whom he had not seen since 1796, he denounced Leclerc for his brutal show of force, accused him of plotting to restore slavery, and refused to step down. On February 17, 1802, Leclerc declared Louverture an outlaw and began offensive operations, while Louverture also declared his opponent an outlaw and prepared to resist.

Leclerc’s plan called for five columns to depart from various points in the north and west of Saint-Domingue and march inland. Proceeding as fast as they could, they would force Louverture and his generals to converge in a central location, where they would have to fight, and lose, a pitched battle. The goal was to bring the campaign to a quick and successful end, thus avoiding the kind of drawn-out guerilla war that had plagued the previous Spanish and British efforts. Leclerc also invited US and French merchants to the ports he controlled: though the French army could theoretically have lived off tropical crops like bananas, the French soldiers’ reluctance to forsake bread and wine, as well as the sudden influx of dozens of thousands of soldiers and sailors, made it necessary to secure ample supplies. His logistical strategy was only partly successful, because the devastated local economy never provided enough taxes, so Leclerc grew increasingly reliant on promissory notes that Bonaparte refused to pay because he had hoped that the expedition would pay for itself. This eventually drove merchants away from French ports.

The initial fighting went as Leclerc had planned. After being forced to evacuate Cap-Français, Louverture was bested again at the battle of Ravine-à-Couleuvres, where he tried, and failed, to stop a French column under the command of General Donatien de Rochambeau. The French soldiers, who often lacked such essentials as shoes, found that fighting constant ambushes in Saint-Domingue’s mountainous terrain was much harder than expected, but they made rapid progress. Forced on the defensive, Louverture retreated to the fort of Crête-à-Pierrot in the interior of the western province, where he instructed Jean-Jacques Dessalines to make a final stand (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Karl Girardet, “St. Domingue, prise de la ravine aux couleuvres.”

Source: Private collection of the author. Also available at the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The bulk of the French army eventually surrounded the fort of Crête-à-Pierrot, but several costly assaults failed to breach the defenses. Leclerc himself was wounded, as were several of his generals (altogether, disease and combat caused the death of twenty-seven general officers during the expedition, the highest death toll of any campaign of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars). Dessalines managed to hold out for a month with a mere 1,200 men while inflicting 2,000 casualties on the French; half the fort’s garrison then managed to slip through French lines and evade capture. Though the French army eventually secured the fort, the battle of Crête-à-Pierrot was viewed by contemporary observers as a major setback for the French.8 Meanwhile, Louverture and Christophe moved back to northern Saint-Domingue and ambushed various French columns, even threatening to retake Cap-Français.

By the end of April 1802, the strategic situation was evenly matched. Leclerc had managed to secure all the main towns of the colony as well as Crête-à-Pierrot, but he had suffered significant casualties and he only partially controlled the countryside. Louverture, for his part, saw many of his subordinates defect to the French side, including Christophe, and he was increasingly relying on armed cultivators rather than professional soldiers. On May 6, he met Leclerc in Cap-Français and agreed to a ceasefire, hoping to resume the fighting later in 1802. Under the terms of the ceasefire, Louverture stepped down as governor, but his generals, including Dessalines, regained their rank in the French army.

Louverture then withdrew to one of his plantations near Gonaïves. Leclerc, who was under strict orders from Bonaparte to arrest Louverture at the earliest opportunity, quickly concluded that Louverture’s submission was insincere. In June, he had Louverture arrested and brought to Cap-Français. From there, Louverture and his immediate family were sent to the French port of Brest. Their exile was part of a larger pattern of deportations that took thousands of black captives from Saint-Domingue, Guadeloupe, and other French colonies to Spanish colonies and the United States (where some were sold as slaves) as well as French jails.9 Louverture’s family spent the next few years under house arrest in Agen while Louverture headed to the fort of Joux near the Swiss border. Imprisoned without trial, Louverture wrote a lengthy memoir to Bonaparte to defend his conduct and ask for a court-martial. The document, the lengthiest he ever wrote and a rare account of the Leclerc expedition by a black author, remains fascinating, but it did not sway the first consul. Louverture remained a captive in the fort of Joux, where he died of pneumonia on April 7, 1803.10

Following Louverture’s downfall, Leclerc set out to govern Saint-Domingue. He enriched himself and his officers by seizing vacant estates and issued a new labor code, which was closely modeled on Louverture’s and maintained his semi-free cultivator system. However, Bonaparte’s ambiguous law of May 20, 1802, convinced many black laborers that his long-term intention was to restore slavery outright. Such doubts intensified when Bonaparte sent other expeditions to retake Guadeloupe and Guiana, where France restored slavery incrementally in 1802–1803. One group of black deportees from Guadeloupe stopped over in Saint-Domingue in August 1802, bringing news of the events unfolding in the rest of the French Caribbean.

As a result, a major popular revolt broke out all over Saint-Domingue. It was led by plantation cultivators concerned about possible re-enslavement. For Leclerc, the crisis was compounded by the outbreak of a yellow fever epidemic that ravaged his army. Yellow fever is an epidemic disease spread by mosquitoes that was poorly understood at the time (most doctors were convinced that it was caused by noxious swamp vapors known as miasmas). The fever was singularly deadly for people who had never been exposed to it, such as soldiers from Europe, especially if they lived in low-lying, mosquito-infested ports. Despite the arrival of 9,600 reinforcements over the summer and fall of 1802, at the height of the rainy season, Leclerc only maintained control of Saint-Domingue by relying on Louverture’s former generals, such as Dessalines. Many of them owned plantations and wanted cultivators to continue working, which explains their willingness to help Leclerc restore social order. But they would only do so as long as France remained committed to the abolition of slavery and racial prejudice.

In September 1802, as more rumors spread about possible re-enslavement, black colonial troops became increasingly suspicious of Bonaparte’s promises regarding emancipation. They began to defect in greater numbers and join rebellious cultivators. Abandoned by his colonial troops, an emotionally unstable Leclerc, who was also facing marital problems with Pauline and was terrified of succumbing to yellow fever, concluded that French control could never be secured as long there remained black people in Saint-Domingue. He wrote to Bonaparte calling for a war of extermination in which the bulk of the black adult population of Saint-Domingue would be put to the sword, leaving only children below the age of twelve.11 Leclerc also arranged for the mass drowning of several thousand black troops suspected of defecting (see figure 3).

Figure 3. John Barlow, “The Mode of Exterminating the Black Army, as Practised by the French,” in An Historical Account of the Black Empire of Hayti, by Marcus Rainsford (London: Albion Press, 1805), 327. Also available at The New York Public Library.

Leclerc’s policy of extermination proved a tipping point for most of the colonial units still in French employ. In October 1802, most of the black generals still serving on the French side, including Christophe and Dessalines, joined the rebellion. Their defection came at a low point in French fortunes, as yellow fever had consumed most of the French soldiers who had landed in February 1802 or had come as part of the second wave during the rainy season. After sending out more orders for mass executions, Leclerc died of yellow fever on November 2, 1802.

Pauline Bonaparte survived the epidemic and traveled back to France with her husband’s remains. After making two voyages to Saint-Domingue with the French Navy, Jérôme Bonaparte eloped in the United States.

The Saint-Domingue Expedition under Rochambeau and Dessalines, November 1802–November 1803

After Victoire Leclerc’s death, Donatien de Rochambeau became captain general of the French expeditionary army. He had served under his father during the American Revolution as well as in the Caribbean during the Haitian Revolution. Contrary to Leclerc, who was conflicted about a possible restoration of slavery and only embraced extremist policies as a result of the strain of command, Rochambeau held racist views against black and mixed-race residents of Saint-Domingue and privately welcomed a restoration of slavery. Corrupt, depraved, and cruel, he concluded, as Leclerc had done before him, that the extermination of the bulk of Saint-Domingue’s adult population would be a prerequisite to long-term French control of the colony. Rochambeau did not control the interior of Saint-Domingue, however, so he was not able to put his genocidal plans into effect. Instead, he resorted to well-publicized executions of black prisoners, some of whom were burned at the stake or devoured by dogs in a failed attempt to cow the rebels into submission.12

Strategically, Rochambeau decided to withdraw what remained of his forces to the main towns along the coast, which were easier to supply and defend but also disease prone. Rebel troops tended to be more effective when fighting in the mountainous countryside, where they knew the terrain well and could stage ambushes, than when attacking fortified towns, so Rochambeau was able to stabilize a military situation that seemed hopeless at the time of Leclerc’s death. He also asked Napoléon Bonaparte to send a third wave of forces from France, which consisted of 10,300 men and arrived in late 1802 and early 1803. The quality of these troops tended to be inferior to the crack units sent with Leclerc. Many were convalescent troops and deserters recruited in military depots in France; others were reluctant foreigners, including two demi-brigades of Polish troops and German and Swiss battalions that Bonaparte saw as disposable.13

Rochambeau’s temporary reprieve was facilitated by internal dissent within the rebel camp. After defecting from the French colonial army, Jean-Jacques Dessalines spent months imposing himself as general in chief of the rebel army. His main foes were the runaway cultivators known as maroons. Many were African born and clashed with officers from Toussaint Louverture’s old army, who tended to be Creoles (Caribbean born). The maroons were viscerally opposed to any form of compulsory work on plantations, preferring to live off subsistence agriculture on smaller farms; by contrast, Dessalines and his generals had acquired large estates during the Haitian Revolution and insisted on producing export crops like sugarcane and coffee, even if that meant relying on some form of forced labor. Dessalines and Henry Christophe initially collaborated with the maroon leaders Sans Souci and Lamour Derance to gain the support of their followers, before arranging for their arrest and execution.14 After the elimination of Dessalines’s most prominent rivals, the main rebel leaders recognized him as their general in chief in May 1803 in a gathering known as the Arcahaye conference.

After receiving more troops from France, Rochambeau launched a number of offensives in early 1803. One of them, intended to wipe clean the southern peninsula of rebel activities, was poorly organized and quickly collapsed. Efforts to employ slave-hunting dogs purchased in Cuba also proved ineffective. Rochambeau had hoped that the dogs could help locate rebels hiding in the countryside, terrify his enemy, and reinforce an army depleted by yellow fever. Instead, the dogs proved useless in combat and further damaged France’s reputation among Saint-Domingue’s population of color. Many anciens libres (who were already free prior to the Haitian Revolution and were not directly at risk of being re-enslaved) had been reluctant to follow Dessalines, who had killed many anciens libres during the 1799–1800 civil war between André Rigaud and Toussaint Louverture. But they became so horrified by Rochambeau’s cruel tactics that many defected in 1803.

Even the loyalty of the white population of Saint-Domingue was not assured. Liberal members of the French army, especially those who had served in the Army of the Rhine under General Jean Moreau, grew uncomfortable as Bonaparte’s new policies on slavery came into sharper focus; some defected to rebel ranks while a few French officers plotted an unsuccessful coup against Rochambeau. White colonists also resented the insatiability of Rochambeau and his clique, who seized their plantations, seduced their wives, and executed a prominent white colonist, Jean-Baptiste Fédon, for not paying a bribe promptly enough.

Events in Europe hastened the demise of the Saint-Domingue expedition. In May 1803, Great Britain renewed its war with France, and Bonaparte concluded that his ambitious plan to restore the French empire in the Americas was doomed. He sold Louisiana to the United States, stopped sending reinforcements to Saint-Domingue and other colonies, and abandoned colonial authorities to their own devices. In Saint-Domingue, British warships from the Jamaica station quickly established naval supremacy and prevented French troops and US supplies from reaching French ports. Though the British did not directly coordinate their actions with Dessalines, they effectively engaged in a dual war aimed at blockading the French by sea with British warships while the rebel army besieged them by land.

From July to October 1803, Dessalines seized the remaining towns still in French hands one by one. Each siege followed a similar pattern. He first established a close land blockade of the town to prevent the French from obtaining any resources from the immediate countryside. French commanders held as long as they could to prove that they had defended themselves honorably. But, as disease and hunger took their toll while internal dissent pitted commanders against their soldiers and white colonists, resistance became untenable and commanders evacuated the town. Some managed to slip through the British naval blockade and make it to Cuba or Santo Domingo; others were captured and imprisoned on pontoons (prison ships) in Jamaica.

Aside from the port of Môle Saint-Nicolas, the last town of Saint-Domingue still in French hands by November 1803 was Cap-Français, where Rochambeau had established his headquarters. The town had been heavily fortified with a ring of blockhouses erected on former plantations in the outskirts of the town. It was on one of those plantations, Vertières, that a major battle opposed the unified rebel army led by Dessalines against Rochambeau’s French forces on November 18, 1803. The rebels managed to breach some of the defensive positions. Concluding that his long-term situation was hopeless and that he had done enough to defend his name, Rochambeau negotiated a ten-day ceasefire with Dessalines and prepared to evacuate. He and most of his men were intercepted by the British navy as they tried to escape and were taken to captivity in Jamaica (Rochambeau was later paroled and died at the battle of Leipzig in 1813). The garrison of Môle Saint-Nicolas evacuated soon after, bringing an end to the French military presence in Saint-Domingue (the French retained control of Santo Domingo in eastern Hispaniola).

Altogether, the Leclerc expedition probably cost the lives of fifty thousand French soldiers, sailors, and colonists, as well as one hundred thousand people of color from Saint-Domingue, out of a pre-revolutionary colonial population of about five hundred thousand people. The exact death toll of the expedition is hard to estimate due to poor record-keeping and the complexity of a conflict in which members of the colonial army switched from French ranks to rebel ranks twice in 1802.15

Aftermath of the Saint-Domingue Expedition in Haiti and Santo Domingo, 1804–1809

Following the capture of Cap-Français, Jean-Jacques Dessalines’s rebel army issued a preliminary declaration of independence. A more formal and more famous declaration of independence took place in Gonaïves on January 1, 1804, which is now celebrated as Haiti’s official beginning as an independent nation. Dessalines’s independence-day speech angrily denounced French imperialism and the atrocities committed during the Leclerc expedition. He insisted, however, that he had no intention of exporting the Haitian Revolution to other colonies because he hoped to secure treaties of amity and commerce with Jamaica and the United States, as Toussaint Louverture had done in 1799.16 He was only partly successful: US and British merchants traded with Haiti (with the exception of a US embargo in 1806–1810), but they refused to formally recognize Haiti’s independence until France did so.17

In his independence-day speech, Dessalines also declared his intention to kill every Frenchman present in Haiti. He made good on his threats over the following months as he personally led a campaign to kill most French whites still residing in Haiti. A few women were spared, as were non-French whites like Anglo-Saxon merchants and Polish members of the Leclerc expedition, many of whom had defected to the rebel army in 1803.

Dessalines further refined his racial policies after being crowned as Emperor Jacques I. Under the terms of a constitution issued in 1805, he specified that all “authentic” Haitians would henceforth be known as “blacks,” a political term that applied to people of African descent as well as mixed-race people and even a few whites like Polish soldiers. He also renamed Saint-Domingue as Haiti, a term borrowed from the Amerindian Taínos who had once peopled the island, in order to symbolically erase three hundred years of European colonialism.18

For two decades, French governments refused to recognize the country’s independence and continued to refer to Haiti as Saint-Domingue. Due to continued French hostility, Dessalines and his successors were concerned that France would send a new expedition to recolonize Haiti and reinstate slavery. Drawing from the lessons learned during the Leclerc expedition, Dessalines planned to abandon coastal towns if a large expedition returned. Instead, his army would conduct a scorched-earth policy and retreat to fortifications in the interior, the most famous of which were erected near Marchand in the western province and Milot in the northern province. The latter fort, now known as the citadelle La Ferrière, remains one of the Caribbean’s most impressive defensive posts to this day. Dessalines also instituted a military dictatorship dominated by veterans of the independence war, in which semi-free plantation labor financed a large standing army on a permanent war footing. Dessalines’s successors Henry Christophe (known as Henry I after his coronation in 1811) and Alexandre Pétion, both of whom had served under and then against Leclerc in 1802, continued Dessalines’s policies after his death in 1806. So did their successor Jean-Pierre Boyer, another veteran of the Leclerc expedition who served as president of Haiti in 1818–1843.

Despite Haitians’ fears, Napoléon Bonaparte (known as Emperor Napoléon I after 1804) was too preoccupied by the European war and never sent another expedition to Haiti. French military opposition to Haiti, as a result, mostly originated in Cuba, where veterans of the Leclerc expedition armed privateers and harassed Haitian commerce, and Santo Domingo, where General Jean Ferrand had assumed command.19

Ferrand embraced an aggressive stance against the new state of Haiti. He armed privateers and attacked British and neutral ships trading with Haiti. He also encouraged cross-border raids into Haiti to capture Haitian nationals and sell them as slaves. His activities, along with fears that France could use Santo Domingo as a base from which to reconquer Haiti, prompted Dessalines to invade Santo Domingo in February 1805. His army made rapid progress but could not immediately capture the city of Santo Domingo, which was fortified. Dessalines spent a month bringing in artillery and organizing a formal siege; he was about to launch a final assault when a French naval squadron miraculously appeared on March 27. Dessalines had to lift the siege and return to Haiti, thus preventing a complete Haitian takeover of Hispaniola.

For five years, French forces under Ferrand retained a foothold in Santo-Domingo. Ferrand only had a few thousand French soldiers and Spanish militiamen at his disposal and could not mount extensive offensive operations, especially after another French naval squadron was routed by British Admiral Thomas Duckworth at the Battle of Santo Domingo in February 1806. But he maintained a French presence on Hispaniola with the collaboration of the Spanish elite, which harbored deep fears of their Haitian neighbors on racial grounds.

The strategic situation only changed when Napoléon I invaded Spain and Spanish colonists throughout the Americas turned against France. In Cuba, authorities deported the soldiers and colonists from Saint-Domingue who had found refuge near Santiago; 9,000 of them (including some black Haitians still held as slaves) migrated to New Orleans in 1809.20 In Santo Domingo, Spaniards revolted and defeated Ferrand’s forces at the battle of Seybo in 1808, after which Ferrand killed himself. His successor evacuated Santo Domingo the following year, at which point the last remnants of the Leclerc expedition were intercepted by the British navy and brought to Jamaica.

Though Haiti was independent in practice, it was not recognized as such by the international community for decades. Under the Treaties of Paris signed in 1814–1815, France recovered most of the colonies it had lost during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, including, on paper at least, Haiti. Formal recognition did not come until 1825, when King Charles X of France and President Boyer of Haiti negotiated an agreement by which France finally abandoned all claims to its formal colony against the payment of an indemnity of 150 million francs (later reduced to 90 million francs).21 This indemnity, which reimbursed exiled French planters for part of their property losses in Haiti, has remained a point of contention to this day: Haitian presidents like Jean-Bertrand Aristide have cited the indemnity, as well as slavery and the destruction inflicted during the war of independence, as the reasons for Haiti’s continued underdevelopment.22

Discussion of the Literature

Like the French soldiers sent to Saint-Domingue in 1802–1803, works on the Leclerc expedition came in three distinct waves. The first, published immediately after the expedition’s demise, were either written by French veterans of the expedition or by Haitian patriots. Though useful because they relied on personal recollections and primary sources no longer available to modern-day historians, they tended to be partisan. The second wave appeared in the late 19th and early 20th century and was also political: the major writers were black Caribbean authors or sympathetic French authors who wished to keep the memory of the Haitian Revolution alive at a time when European imperialism and “scientific” racism were dominant. The third and most recent wave began in the 1990s and 2000s as US scholars rediscovered the importance of the Haitian Revolution, while French scholars re-examined the French colonial legacy in the context of the bicentennial of the French Revolution.

Works by Haitian veterans of the expedition include Auguste Bouvet de Cressé’s Histoire de la catastrophe de Saint-Domingue; Antoine Métral’s Histoire de l’expédition des Français à Saint-Domingue; and Joseph Saint-Rémy’s Mémoires du Général Toussaint l’Ouverture. The two best early Haitian histories of the revolution, which drew from oral histories, are Thomas Madiou’s Histoire d’Haïti; and Beaubrun Ardouin’s Études sur l’histoire d’Haïti.23

Works by French veterans of the expedition include Alfred de Laujon’s Précis historique de la dernière expédition de Saint-Domingue; Michel-Etienne Descourtilz’s Voyage d’un naturaliste; Pamphile de Lacroix’s Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de la révolution de Saint-Domingue; Jean-Baptiste Lemonnier-Delafosse’s Seconde campagne de Saint-Domingue; Jacques de Norvins’s Souvenirs d’un historien de Napoléon; and Christophe Paulin de la Poix’s Mémoires du Chevalier de Fréminville. A more unusual work, Mary Hassal’s Secret History, written by a female civilian who witnessed Donatien de Rochambeau’s rule, straddled the genres of fiction and personal memoir.24

The main late-19th-century abolitionist works in France are Thomas Gragnon-Lacoste’s Toussaint Louverture; and Victor Schoelcher’s Vie de Toussaint Louverture. Haitian works from the turn of the century were often celebratory and patriotic, but they remain the most scholarly available for the period. They included Horace Pauléus Sannon’s Histoire de Toussaint Louverture; and Auguste Nemours’s Histoire militaire de la guerre d’indépendance de Saint-Domingue. Also of note was Cyril Lionel Robert James’s The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. Influenced by black nationalism and Marxism, James’s work was based on extensive research and remains a point of reference in English-language scholarship to this day.25

Due to financial problems in Haiti, comparatively few scholarly works have been published there recently; one exception is Claude Auguste and Marcel Auguste’s L’expédition Leclerc. Most of the recent scholarship originated in the United States and France. It is more academic in tone than previous works but also less diverse: authors tend to be left-leaning academics who are uniformly critical of Napoléon Bonaparte’s policies in the Caribbean. The most extreme work was Claude Ribbe’s Le crime de Napoléon, which reached a large popular audience in France by making some sweeping comparisons between Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler. Aside from James’s Black Jacobins, the most widely cited overview of the Haitian Revolution in the United States today is Laurent Dubois’s Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution, which celebrated the Haitian Revolution as a culmination of the ideals of the Enlightenment. Philippe Girard’s The Slaves Who Defeated Napoléon: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian War of Independence embraced a more nuanced approach as it underlined some of the progressive penchants of Bonaparte and Victoire Leclerc as well as Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines’s more conservative stances. So did Graham Nessler’s An Islandwide Struggle for Freedom, which focused more particularly on Santo Domingo. Scholarship on the Haitian Revolution is rapidly growing as more academics join the fray, so more scholarly works are likely to appear in the years to come.26

Primary Sources

Archival sources on the Leclerc expedition (as well as the Haitian Revolution in general) are numerous but also disparate and poorly organized. Few documents remain in Haiti, in part because the Leclerc expedition took place while Haiti was a French colony but also because of political upheavals in Haiti after independence (some documents remain in private hands). Collections in France are far richer, but they tend to be poorly catalogued because the Leclerc expedition ended in disaster and papers were never properly organized. Because Saint-Domingue was connected by commercial and political links to many neighboring territories in the Americas, interesting collections also ended up in Britain, Spain, the United States, and the Caribbean.

A few revolutionary-era documents have survived at the Bibliothèque haïtienne des frères de l’instruction chrétienne, the Archives nationales d’Haïti, and the Panthéon National, all of them located in Port-au-Prince. Some are available through the web portal of the Digital Library of the Caribbean. Haitian papers of various provenances are also available at the University of Florida in Gainesville (Rochambeau papers and BN08268 series), the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras (Nemours Collection), the Archives départementales de la Gironde in Bordeaux (61J), and the Schomburg Center of the New York Public Library (Kurt Fischer Haitian Collection and West Indian Collection).

In France, the richest resources are housed by the Archives Nationales d’Outremer in Aix-en-Provence, which contain the bulk of the administrative and political records pertaining to the Haitian Revolution, including its final years (CC9 series). The personal papers of various figures connected to the Leclerc expedition can be found at the Bibliothèque François Villon in Rouen (MS619), the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris (NAF 6864, NAF 12409), and the Archives Nationales in Paris and Pierrefitte-sur-Seine (AFIV/1213, 135AP, 416AP), which also house a large collection on the early years of the Haitian Revolution (DXXV series). Extensive army and naval records on the Leclerc expedition are available at the Service Historique de la Défense in Vincennes (B7 and BB4 series, notably).

The correspondence of the US consuls in Cap-Français, available at the US National Archives in College Park (Record Group 59), is useful. So is the correspondence of the governor of Jamaica and the admiral of the Jamaica station that is accessible at the British National Archives in Kew (CO 137, ADM 1, and WO 1); many duplicates of the same documents can also be accessed through the National Library of Jamaica in Kingston.

Further Reading

  • Auguste, Claude, and Marcel Auguste. L’expédition Leclerc, 1801–1803. Port-au-Prince: Henri Deschamps, 1985.
  • Bénot, Yves, and Marcel Dorigny. Rétablissement de l’esclavage dans les colonies françaises 1802: Ruptures et continuités de la politique coloniale française (1800–1830); Aux origines d’Haïti. Paris: Maisonneuve-Larose, 2003.
  • Gaffield, Julia. Haitian Connections in the Atlantic World: Recognition after Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015.
  • Geggus, David. “The Louisiana Purchase and the Haitian Revolution.” In The Haitian Revolution and the Early United States: Histories, Textuality, Geographies. Edited by Elizabeth Maddock Dillon and Michael Drexler, 117–130. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.
  • Girard, Philippe. “Napoléon Bonaparte and the Emancipation Issue in Saint-Domingue, 1799–1803.” French Historical Studies 32, no. 4 (Fall 2009): 587–618.
  • Girard, Philippe. The Slaves Who Defeated Napoléon: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian War of Independence. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2011.
  • Girard, Philippe. “War Unleashed: The Use of War Dogs during the Haitian War of Independence.” Napoleonica la Revue 15, no. 3 (Fall 2012): 80–105.
  • James, Cyril Lionel Robert. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
  • Lacroix, Pamphile de. Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de la révolution de Saint-Domingue. Paris: Pillet, 1819.
  • Lemonnier-Delafosse, Jean-Baptiste. Seconde campagne de Saint-Domingue du 1 décembre 1803 au 15 juillet 1809, précédée de souvenirs historiques et succints de la première campagne. Le Havre, France: Brindeau, 1846.
  • Métral, Antoine. Histoire de l’expédition des Français à Saint-Domingue sous le consulat de Napoléon Bonaparte (1802–1803), suivie des mémoires et notes d’Isaac l’Ouverture. Paris: Karthala, 1985.
  • Nemours, Auguste, Histoire militaire de la guerre d’indépendance de Saint-Domingue. 2 vols. Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1925.
  • Nessler, Graham. An Islandwide Struggle for Freedom: Revolution, Emancipation, and Reenslavement in Hispaniola, 1789–1809. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016.
  • Niort, Jean-François, and Jérémy Richard. “À propos de l’arrêté consulaire du 16 juillet 1802 et du rétablissement de l’ancien ordre colonial (spécialement de l’esclavage) à la Guadeloupe.” Bulletin de la Société d’Histoire de la Guadeloupe 152 (January–April 2009): 31–59.
  • Pachonski, Jan, and Reuel K. Wilson. Poland’s Caribbean Tragedy: A Study of Polish Legions in the Haitian War of Independence, 1802–1803. Boulder, CO: East European Monographs, 1986.
  • Ribbe, Claude. Le crime de Napoléon. Paris: Privé, 2005.