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A Brief History

of the French Colony of Saint-Domingue

The focus of this website is the French colony of Saint-Domingue, which was located on the western third of the island of Hispaniola. Columbus discovered the island in 1492, and immediately began to colonize it in the name of Spain. In 1605, the Spanish inhabitants of the sparsely-settled western part of the island were ordered to relocate to the eastern end, closer to the capital city of Santo Domingo.

In 1639 a rather motley crew of Frenchmen took over the small island of Tortuga, off the northwest coast of Hispaniola. From this stronghold, they eventually moved to the adjacent northwest coast of Hispaniola itself. In 1641, France appointed the first governor to the area, a Monsieur Le Vasseur. The French continued to maintain an unofficial presence in the area until 1664, when Louis XIV's minister, Colbert, included these settlements under the jurisdiction of the officially-sponsored Compagnie des Indes Occidentales. He immediately sent out a new, "company" governor.

The Treaty of Ryswick (1697) formalized the French occupation which had existed for the past 60 years, and by it, Spain acknowledged France's title to the western third of Hispaniola. The official name of the colony was côte et isles de Saint Domingue en l'Amérique sous le vent; it was also known as la partie Française de l'ile de Saint-Domingue, or simply Saint-Domingue. Three provinces were marked out: the partie du Nord (the North), partie de l'Ouest (the West), and partie du Sud (the South). Cap François, on the northwest coast, became the capital of the colony.

The next hundred years in Saint-Domingue would witness continuous growth and increased prosperity. The early colonists sent by the Company raised tobacco, indigo, and cocoa, but eventually, coffee, cotton, and sugar proved more profitable and prevailed. It is estimated that about 800,000 Africans were imported into Saint-Domingue alone during the 18th century. There were, during this time, isolated slave revolts and poisoning conspiracies, as well as many incidents of maronage, that is, slaves who ran away and lived in the "maroon" colonies up in the mountains.

In 1749, the town of Port-au-Prince (in the West) was founded and became the new capital of the colony.

The 1788 census of Saint-Domingue tallied 27,717 whites (a mere 5.5% of the population), 21,808 free coloreds (4.3%), and 455,089 slaves (90.2%). It was atop this powder keg that the brilliant colony, the gem of the French islands precariously sat.

And on the night of 22 August 1791, it exploded, as the slave revolts, which would consume the colony for the next 13 years, broke out in the North. The revolution spread and eventually swallowed the entire colony. Many of the colonists (whites, free people of color and slaves) fled wherever the next ship would take them - Cuba, Jamaica, or other Caribbean islands, and the Atlantic seaport cities of the United States.

In 1793, the British (based in Jamaica), with the encouragement of many wealthy Saint-Domingue planters, moved in and captured key coastal towns in the colony. These occupation forces set up an administration and actually ran the colony (that is the parts they could hold) for five years - In 1795, Spain, by the Treaty of Basel, ceded its colony of Santo Domingo (on the eastern part of Hispaniola) to France (in spite of the British occupation of the western part). At that point some of the inhabitants in the war-torn western part migrated eastward to what is sometimes called "Spanish Saint-Domingue".

Toussaint-Louverture, through negotiations with France, was declared Governor General of the colony in 1797. He consolidated his power and position in the areas remaining under French control. The British, who were still in Saint-Domingue, continued to lose large numbers of troops to yellow fever and the guerrilla fighting tactics of the insurgents and in 1798, they retreated to Jamaica.

Toussaint-Louverture invited the expatriate plantation owners to return to Saint-Domingue, and, although he did not reinstitute slavery, he forced the former slaves to go back to work on the plantations for pay or shares in the production. His intention was to return enough economic prosperity to the colony to finance his armies.

However, Napoleon, in his desire to recapture Saint-Domingue, sent an expedition headed by his brother-in-law, General Charles Victor Emmanuel Leclerc, to the colony in 1802. The troops were plagued by the same miseries that drove the British out, and by the end of 1803, Napoleon's expedition had failed, and cost an estimated 40,000 lives. On 1 January 1804, Saint-Domingue became the independent nation of Haïti.

At the end of the colony, the planters fled in great numbers, mostly to Cuba. The remaining French troops, commanded by General Rochambeau (who had succeded General Leclerc, who had died of the yellow fever in November 1802), capitulated to the British at Cap Français in November 1803. But the troops under General Marie-Louise Ferrand continued to hold "Spanish Saint-Domingue" on the eastern part of the island, and remained there until events in Europe conspired to completely expel the last remnants of the French from the island.

In 1808, Napoleon invaded Spain and placed his brother upon the throne. This outrage prompted the Spanish inhabitants of Spanish Saint-Domingue to rise up against General Ferrand. His troops were completely decimated in the bloody battle of Palo Hincado in 1808, and the French civilians were driven from the island. They fled to the other French colonies in the West Indies. The same expulsion was repeated in 1809 on the island of Cuba. Most of these 9,000 refugees went to New Orleans.

And Saint-Domingue was no more.

 

See my Saint-Domingue Chronology, or pick a century (suggestions for additional entries welcomed)
1400 | 1500 | 1600 | 1700 | 1800

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