The Louisiana Purchase was officially completed on 20 December 1803, when Napoleon Bonaparte handed over 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. The Americans had paid only sixty-eight million francs (about $250 million) to double their country. Why did Napoleon Bonaparte give so much to the new country for so little?
Up until his failure to take Saint-Domingue, Napoleon had been successful in 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. But now his plans for Empire building in North America were being stymied by, of all things, rebellious slaves on a small island in the Caribbean!
The leader of the insurrectionists, Toussaint L’Ouverture, had been a ally of the French at first. He had been given arms by anti-slavery French revolutionary Léger-Félicité Sonthonax to fight off British invasion and free the enslaved peoples on the island, which he managed to do in spite of the fact the gens de couleur (mixed-race ‘people of colour’ who were free) on the island fought with the white slave-owners at first. Why? Because the free people of colour quite liked being rich and owning their darker-skinned brethren as slaves, that’s why. Alas, many people are bastard coated bastards with bastard filling who put money ahead of humanity, regardless of their ethnicity. Nevertheless, L’Ouverture won the war and freed his people. He even prevented retaliation against the white/coloured populace for 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 former slaves. Meanwhile, he passed laws back at home making sure freedom and equality just meant “white people” or at least black people actually living in France. Not black islanders that were needed for sugar cultivation, for Pete’s sake! A French law was passed maintaining (in fact, re-instituting) slavery on Martinique, Tobago, and Saint Lucia on 20 May 1802 … but they made sure Leclerc heard about it first so that black and coloured 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 colour 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 “honour” only counted when white dudes were fighting white dudes … and not even then most of the time, 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:
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.
With his land in North America sold off, Napoleon could concentrate on subsuming Europe and getting the rich sugar plantations of St. Domingue back under control. He would quickly discover that the people of St. Domingue were not in the mood to be under control ever again. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who had betrayed L’Ouverture to the French, 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 living as slave-owing elites. Unlike Toussaint, Dessalines was not merciful to the former slave owners (white or coloured) of the new Haiti, 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 sympathisers 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.
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 colour and her rock solid historical research lets you step back into New Orleans during the years between the War of 1812 and the Civil War is second to none.