Boisrond-Tonnerre (l’adjudant général). Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire d’Hayti. Dessalines : Imprimerie du Gouvernement, 1804, pp. 3-13; translated by Asselin Charles
Freedom or death
Memoir for Writing the History of Haiti
Year One of Independence
Before I depict the horrific deeds committed in Saint-Domingue by that filthy horde made up of French captain-generals, préfets, sous-préfets, unit officers, and vice-admirals, I must emphasize that there is not a single fact, not a single crime, not a single act mentioned in this book that does not bear the most unassailable stamp of authenticity. I merely evoke the brief, and yet too long, presence of those monsters in Saint-Domingue, and already my pen recoils in fright before the number of crimes that I must recount. For who would not tremble at the thought that it took less than two years for some Corsican’s agents to reenact the barbarity of the Spaniards against the Indians, the atrocities of Robespierre’s reign, the cruel execution methods invented by Carrier and by those who carried out those horrible expeditions, although the very character of the ferocious tyrant in whose name those crimes were committed should have forewarned all sensitive souls about the impending fate of the entire population of the unfortunate island of Saint-Domingue, the target of all the tyrants, conspirators, and vile rejects of France?
I asked myself a thousand times as I contemplated writing this book, this inventory of French crimes, who would ever believe the truths I was about to record? What sensible person, even one who had lived through the tempest of the Revolution, would think that the French were capable of committing still greater crimes in the most beautiful and yet most unfortunate of their overseas possessions?
How am I to persuade those nations that have not yet succumbed to the French contagion that a tyrant, who has usurped his master’s throne and now invokes liberty and equality as the sole foundation of his power and claims to be the restorer of traditional morals and religion, did decree in cold blood the massacre of a million people who only wanted liberty and equality and indeed were ready to defend them against the entire universe?
How am I to write about a nation that has been the unrelenting enemy of the Spaniards since time immemorial and yet, like them, went so far as to have their dogs devour the unfortunate victims of their treachery? How am I to explain that the enemies of the Inquisition were the first to introduce the republican auto-da-fé in the unfortunate country from which they had sworn to expel the Spaniards?
No, I shall be believed only by that assemblage of vile assassins who have unleashed their fury against my countrymen. Only they shall be aware that there exist cannibals of a species as monstrous as they are. Only they shall know that I have told the truth, and that if my account lacks color it is because the reality I describe is much too overpowering for my feeble pen.
I wield a pen that can never be labeled venal or accused of being guided by partiality. All the facts contained in this memoir are part of the history that we shall transmit to posterity.
May our descendants be happier than we are and know of the French only their name, and may they read the history of our dissensions and our faults as they would the account of a bad dream erased by their happiness!
I will quickly review the events that preceded the arrival of the French in Saint-Domingue in order to gather, if possible, all the facts that will ultimately reveal their perfidy to the nations bent under their iron yoke.
For a period of about fifteen months, the former governor, Toussaint L’Ouverture, had been enjoying the peace and quiet that he brought to the island thanks to his pacification of the South and the conquest of Santo Domingo, which President Don Joaquín García had refused at first to hand over in accordance with the terms of the Treaty of Basel. He had just published his Constitution that provided the country with a regime of laws, while waiting for the impending peace that would allow France to turn her attention to her colonies and to decide once and for all the fate of their inhabitants.
News of the peace was soon confirmed by the English papers and by the celebrations that took place among our Jamaican neighbors. We followed their example and, without the least inkling that this peace was the harbinger of our own destruction, we lit up our cities with great pomp, a sure portent of the fires that would soon consume them.
The Europeans and other Whites around Toussaint L’Ouverture at that time, each calculating and following his own interest, brought up all sorts of issues to him. Some wanted to get him to think about means of defense against France; others (and those were the most opulent ones) dangled before his eyes the honors and rewards that he would reap if he handed over to the French agents a flourishing colony like Saint-Domingue. Always imperturbable in the pursuit his projects, impenetrable to the most enlightened of his advisors, Toussaint nonetheless was giving secret instructions to his generals to be on their guard, to plan a vigorous defense against the disembarking French, and to burn down the towns in case it was not possible to resist them.
This defense plan was fully consistent with the views of Major General Jean-Jacques Dessalines, commander-in-chief of the two departments of the West and the South.
This leading officer, the very soul of Toussaint’s troops, his constant support, advisor, and right arm from the very early stages of the revolution, had saved him on several occasions on the northern plains at a time when he was considered nothing but a leader of the Black insurgents.
Having risen since then to the rank of general, to which he had been promoted by the Directoire in the year IV, he reestablished discipline among the troops, warred constantly against the English, took back from them several places, had the town of Mirebalais evacuated, and finally contributed the most to the evacuation of the cities by the English troops.
Toussaint was indebted only to this general for his successes and for the surrender of the South, which was becoming the graveyard of his troops until Dessalines imposed discipline among them and set an example for them by jumping into the fray, joining their ranks and leading them into combat.
Ambitionless, modest, and blindly obedient to his superior’s orders, he felt he was born for war; he waged war as a happy soldier and ended it as a hero (1).
Toussaint knew of his hatred of Whites, his distrust of the French since the expulsion of the civilian and military agent General Hédouville, and his deep aversion for everything that favored metropolitan tyranny.
It was therefore on this general that he relied the most to second him in the measures he had resolved to take to oppose the landing of the French.
A few secret communications from Europe had already informed him in detail about the fate awaiting his compatriots. I dare assume that if, ignoring the clever insinuations of the priests and colonial emigrés around him, Toussaint had consulted only his generals, the French would have been compelled to renounce the conquest of the country or to remain on the ships that had brought them. But it was decided that we had to go through the most cruel experience and purchase our independence with the loss of 20,000 men.
In the first days of the month of Pluviôse in the year X, Toussaint L’Ouverture was in Santo-Domingo where he was organizing the troops which he had entrusted to General Paul L’Ouverture, his brother, commander-in-chief of the former Spanish region. It was then that he learned of the arrival of the French fleet under the command of Admiral Villaret-Joyeuse. General H. Christophe, commander of Cap, sent him a message on the 14th to inform him that part of the squadron was lying at anchor within range of Fort Picolet; that he was awaiting his orders, without which he would simply welcome it with cannon fire; that he had ordered firing cannon shots at a small ship already anchored in the harbor; and that he had sent a port officer to deliver a warning to the French general in command of the land troops that he had resolved to burn everything down if the general insisted on entering the city before he, Christophe, received the orders he was expecting.
Toussaint left and, traveling at his customary speed, reached the outskirts of Cap. He started the fires going again and instigated uprisings among the workshop workers. He then got ready to apply the same measures in the West, where Vice-Admiral Latouche-Treville had appeared and where Major General Boudet’s soldiers had landed on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. But before approaching the place, these troops had to capture the fort of Bizoton located one league from the city. The outpost was of special importance as it was in control of the port and could sink the ships in an instant. When the squadron appeared, the fort’s garrison was composed of only some thirty men. It was reinforced with six-hundred men from the 13th half-brigade under battalion commander Bardet, a young man of color who was held in high esteem in Port-au-Prince since the defeat of the South, where he had served in Rigaud’s party. It was easy for this officer to quickly gain the confidence of troops he had commanded in a war of parties, disgruntled troops that still harbored old resentments against Toussaint Louverture’s government.
The French troops appeared, uttering loud shouts of “Long live the republic! Long live liberty and equality!” Bardet wanted to go meet them personally, but he was advised otherwise. He sent in his stead a young Black captain named Séraphin, a former officer of the West legion, with whom he had plotted his betrayal. Séraphin was welcomed with all the outward forms of French brotherhood. He then gave a prearranged signal to Bardet and, before the garrison could realize what was happening, the French were inside the fort.
Bardet’s conduct led me naturally to make an observation that is not off topic and that will show the potential impact of civil war and its consequences. If the French had better planned their atrocities, which they decorously labelled politics, they would have landed a few hundred men at one of the southern ports. These men would have without fail won over the forces of this department, then a hotbed of dissent still seething with resentment over their recent forced surrender. Almost the entire population had, or thought they had, the death of some relatives to avenge, and attributed to Toussaint Louverture all the misfortunes that occurred in a war instigated in the South by the ambition of a leader and the sophisticated politics of the Whites. The French would have been welcomed and feted as liberators, and some unhappy people, who only thirsted for revenge, would have delivered to the daggers of the French people whose heads had been spared thanks to Toussaint Louverture’s clemency. Fortunately, it was decided to let this department breathe and benefit from the policies the government would adopt regarding the others.
After having seized control of Bizoton, Boudet sent one of his aides-de-camp to the city’s commanding officer to deliver words of peace, with the warning that should he refuse to open the gates, he was prepared to storm his way in.
Bardet’s betrayal, far from being imitated by the garrison’s troops, filled with indignation the brave and unfortunate Lamartinière, commander of the 3rd battalion of the 3rd half-brigade, who ordered his troops to fire on the squadron as well as on the soldiers who had already landed (2). This officer endowed with a great sense of honor had been obliged to take over command from General Agé, a European who held the position of chief staff, a weak man so addicted to wine that it was not possible to rely on him in a serious situation. Besides, Lamartinière had enough common sense to realize that at such a conjuncture, Agé’s gratitude for the favors he had received from Toussaint Louverture would matter much less than the loyalty he owed his compatriots (3). He therefore defended himself with great courage, but he concluded that after the capture of Bizoton and the defection of the 13th battalion his defense was futile and that being stronger, the French would eventually seize the place. He evacuated and headed for Croix-des-Bouquets, a town located three leagues from Port-au-Prince. He was followed by a battalion of Toussaint Louverture’s guard of honor, a squadron of his scouts, and a few disbanded troops and soldiers who had not taken part in the betrayal of the 13th. The French entered, with Bardet’s battalion leading, and completely looted a city that they would have found burnt to ashes had Major General Dessalines arrived there in time. But then the general was at Saint-Raphael, in the Spanish region, when the squadron arrived. Warned about it too late, it took him only twenty-four hours to reach the Cul-de-Sac plains where he received news of the capture of Port-au-Prince.
Seeing that his orders had not been followed, he went to Croix-des-Bouquets, rallied the troops he found there, and gave orders to keep the French from entering the plains. He took with him only one-hundred-fifty grenadiers, and penetrated the backcountry of Port-au-Prince at Riviere Froide, located six leagues from the city. He razed the fortifications that still stood there blocking the way to Léogane. When he arrived in that town, where the chef de brigade Pierre Louis Diane had carried out his orders, he set the city on fire after killing all the Whites. He then left Léogane with his detachment, went to Jacmel, a town under the command of Dieudonné Jambon, a Black officer who was a partisan of France (4). He tried in vain convince the town’s inhabitants that the French wanted only to take away their freedom and that it would cost them too much to regain it if they did not take advantage of this opportunity to conserve it. Blacks, Yellows, Whites, they all were deaf to his exhortations.
1. Witness the moderation with which he treated the population of the South after that department’s pacification. He shed blood only on his superiors’ orders, but he also saved countless young men by integrating them into the half-brigade he commanded as a colonel. Almost all would end up betraying and abandoning him when the French troops arrived (Note 1 on page 7 of the original text).
2. The unfortunate man was assassinated by his own people (Note 1 on page 11 of the original text).
3. Thanks to the revolution, the French character is now so well known that it would be unreasonable to think that he could betray his compatriots, unless he was paid to do so. Gold was his god, his fatherland, his friend (Note 1 on page 12 of the original text).
4. That officer evacuated Jacmel with Pageot and undoubtedly drowned like all the Black and Yellow partisans of the French. He had money and was leaving for France under Pageot’s protection (Note 1 on page 13 of the original text).
If you have any comments or suggestions, do not hesitate to write to us. In advance, thank you very much.