In 1803 Napoleon Bonaparte had barely begun his quest to be the New Alexander and to create a French Empire that would rival that of the Romans. He had become a national hero in 1796 at the tender age of 26 when he led his troops in the French Revolutionary Army to victory against the Austrian-Russian-Italian forces, conquered the Italian Peninsula for France. Two years later he took his Armée d’Orient into the Ottoman territories of the Middle East, were he won most of the battles but lost the war. Nevertheless, his initial victories enabled him to accrue the political power he needed to stage coup in November 1799 to become First Consul of the Republic by age 30.
Not bad for a young Corsican man of no particular lineage, but he wanted to go farther. He wanted to be the first Emperor of the French. He’d meet that goal in 1804, but in 1803 it must have seemed frustratingly out of reach. His plans for Empire building in North America had been stymied by, of all things, the rebellious slaves of modern day Haiti.
Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the slave rebellion in Hispaniola and it’s French colony, Saint-Domingue, had been given additional arms by anti-slavery French revolutionary Léger-Félicité Sonthonax and had managed to fight off British invasion and free the enslaved peoples on the island despite the fact the gens de couleur (mixed-race people of color who were free) fought with the white slave-owners at first. Why? Because the free people of color quite liked being rich and owning their darker brethern as slaves, inasmuch as many people are bastard coated bastards with bastard filling regardless of ethnicity. Nevertheless, L’Ouverture won and the people were free and he wasn’t retaliating against the white/colored populace in spite of their former atrocities against the slaves, which were so bad they would have made a sadistic serial killer shudder with revulsion.
So all was good in St. Domingue, right? They were allied to France, not declaring political independence, and the ideals of liberty and fraternity were thriving there now. L’Ouverture was applauded in France, right?
Ha! Ha! Of course not! He was black, smart and had successfully fought for the freedom of his people … he was doomed.
Napoleon saw the colony’s independence as a threat to his personal dreams of world domination. Thus, in 1802 Napoleon sent his brother-in-law Charles Leclerc to the island to quell those uppity people of color and former slaves. Meanwhile, he passed laws back at home making sure freedom and equality just meant “white people” or if they HAD to be black, “black people actually living in France.” On 20 May 1802, a French law was passed maintaining slavery on Martinique, Tobago, and Saint Lucia … but they made sure Leclerc heard about it first so that the colored people wouldn’t have a prior warning when Leclerc brought the hammer down.
Naturally enough, the former slaves didn’t want to be slaves again and the free people of color didn’t want to give up any of their civil rights, so they fought back when Leclerc told them, “Sucks to be you.” Leclerc then tried to squash them with his French mightiness. He even won some of the early battles, because L’Ouverture didn’t expect the French Republic to be such major asshats and wasn’t totally prepared for their hard-core betrayal of their ideals. Before L’Ouverture could get his equilibrium back he was betrayed by his chief officers and kidnapped by Leclerc when he trusted Leclerc’s flag of truce. L’Ouverture didn’t know that “honor” only counted when white dudes were fighting white dudes … and not even frequently then, to be honest. Leclerc shipped the L’Ouverture to France where the hero of the Haitian people died of pneumonia in a filthy prison a year later, on 6 April 1803.
Now, all Leclerc had to do is convince the people of St. Domingue to do what he told them to do. That worked out a treat for him, as you can imagine. In the end, though, it wasn’t the rebels who ended him; Bronze John (yellow fever) killed him in November of of 1802.
The next man Napoleon sent to the island to subjugate the population was Donatien-Marie-Joseph de Vimeur, vicomte de Rochambeau. Rochambeau was one of the skankiest twatwaffles to ever draw breath. Faced with an indigenous army who would not accept domination ever again, he decided to ‘break’ the rebels by using systemic human rights abuses that would have gagged Jeffery Dahmer’s love child with Adolf Hitler:
the French burned alive, hanged, drowned, and tortured black prisoners, reviving such practices as burying blacks in piles of insects and boiling them in cauldrons of molasses. One night, at Port-Républican, he held a ball to which he invited the most prominent mulatto ladies and, at midnight, announced the death of their husbands … After one battle, Rochambeau buried 500 prisoners alive
This certainly had an effect on the rebels; it pissed them off but good and made them fight even harder.
The fierce Haitian resistance, plus a new war with allied European powers, made it apparent to Napoleon that he couldn’t fight off England and crush the people of Haiti and found a French colonial empire in North America at the same time. Since North America was, from a French prospective, a back water hellhole good for making money but filled with provincial nobodies or (even worse) Americans, Napoleon decided to sell it to the rubes who would be happy to have it. This had the added benefit of irking the English, who might have fought harder to keep the colonies if they had know the infant USA would one day get that much land and resources.
In April of 1803 Napoleon sold New Orleans and 828,000 square miles of French territory (never mind the pesky natives who had been on it for thousands of years) to the USA, which Americans know fondly as the Louisiana Purchase.
Now he could concentrate on subsuming Europe and getting the rich sugar plantations of St. Domingue back under control. Sadly for Napoleon, the people of St. Domingue were not in the mood to be under control ever again. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who had turned on L’Ouverture, redeemed himself as commander of the rebel forces and crushed Rochembeau and the French army at the Battle of Vertières on 18 November 1803. Dessalines declared independence on New Year’s Day of 1804 and renamed St. Domingue to the indigenous Taíno name of Haiti, which meant land of mountains. Most of the French colonists had fled to Louisiana or Cuba by then, determined to continue as slave-owing elites as if they hadn’t had their butts kicked. Unlike Toussaint, Dessalines had no plans to be merciful to the former slave owners (white or colored), and unleashed a slaughter upon the former masters and their families. This retribution terrified slave owners in America and led to increased crackdowns on slaves and attacks on abolitionist sympathizers in the southern states.
To make things clear, it wasn’t white skin that earned Dessalines hatred .. it was slave owning. Colored slave owners were murdered, but the whiter-than-sour-cream Poles from the Polish Legions that had turned on the French army and join the Haitian slaves in rebellion were given Haitian citizenship and many settled down permanently in their new homeland.
For the crime of wresting their freedom form European hands, Haiti has been punished economically by European and North American powers via occupation and puppet dictators ever since.
Meanwhile, the people of New Orleans threw a fit when they found out they had been sold to America, and there was nothing they could do about the influx of Americans, the American dollar, the English language, and Protestantism. Let us all bask in the irony of slave-owners squalling about how horrible it was to be treated like chattel with no control over their fate by powerful strangers who didn’t care about them. Seriously, they would RAGE in papers about the indignity of being sold while owning and selling fellow human beings without seeing any, you know, CONNECTION between the two issues.
On 20 December 1803 France officially handed over New Orleans and the Louisiana Territory to the USA. The Americans spent the next 50 years trying to get the French/Spanish colonial families of New Orleans to think of themselves as ‘Americans’ as well, with little success. One of the best mystery series I have ever read, written by Barbara Hambly, takes place against these historical frictions in New Orleans and the Louisiana Territory. Her hero, Benjamin January, is a free man of color and the rock solid historical research that lets you step back into New Orleans during the years between the War of 1812 and the Civil War is second to none.