How Napoleon’s Racism lost France an Empire

Sometimes the history you don’t know is the most informative; for instance, how Napoleon’s racism lost France an empire.

To be more precise, Napoleon’s racism cost France its most valuable colony; Haiti.  To explain, Napoleon could have kept the then-valuable Caribbean nation of Haiti as a French colony.

However, the supposed military and political genius let racism and greed guide national policy. Consequently, France lost Saint-Domingue  or Haiti.

The Empire of Sugar

In the 18th Century, Saint-Domingue was one of the world’s richest colonies because of sugar. In fact, sugar was the “oil of the 18th Century,” a valuable resource that financed empires and the British industrial revolution.

Saint-Domingue was one of the biggest sources of sugar, exporting 123 tons of the white gold a year in the late 18th Century, historian C.L.R. James estimates. Incredibly, Saint-Domingue sugar made up one third of France’s national revenue.

Unfortunately, the plantations that grew the sugar were among the most brutal workplaces in history. The sugar plantation conditions were so harsh only slaves and prisoners would work on them.

However, Saint’-Domingue’s plantations were so profitable that by 1791, the colony was receiving one third of the barbaric Atlantic slave trade, James estimates. Moreover, by the 1790s historians estimate there were over 790,000 black Slaves in San Dominque.

The French Revolution in the Caribbean

Everything in Saint-Domingue fell apart with the French Revolution. In particular, a clumsy republican governor Léger-Félicité Sonthonax began freeing and arming blacks as a counterforce to royalist colonists in the islands.

By October 1793, Sonthonax had made a slave revolt that began in 1791 official, by freeing all slaves in Saint-Domingue. This led to several years of chaos, including a catastrophic British invasion in which black ex-slaves and French troops fought side-by-side against the Redcoats.

By 1799, the revolution was complete and a black general; Toussaint L’Ouverture, was ruling Saint-Domingue for France. L’Ouverture the son of slaves was a loyal Frenchman whose troops marched under the French flag. Toussaint’s armies even overran the Spanish colony of San Domingo and freed its slaves. However, France’s new dictator; First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte, had other ideas.

Napoleon the White Supremacist

Napoleon was both a racist and a white supremacist and then married to Josephine de Beauharnais. Importantly, the possibly mixed-race Josephine came from a family of wealthy sugar plantation owners in the French colony of Martinique.

Instead of following the cheap and easy course of recognizing Toussaint’s regime, Napoleon listened to Josephine and former plantation owners who wanted their sugar and slaves back. Notably, Josephine’s mother owned a plantation in Saint Domingue, James claims.

Consequently, instead of rewarding one of France’s most successful generals, Napoleon dispatched an army to Hispaniola to restore slavery. In fact, restoring white rule was so important to Bonaparte he sent one of his top generals; Charles Le Clerc, to the island with 60,000 men in 1802.

Le Clerc successfully landed in Santo Domingo by making the lie, the French were not returning to restore slavery. Toussaint even laid down his arms and retired to his plantation. However, Le Clerc abducted the general and sent him back to France. Le Clerc then forced blacks back into the cane fields.

In France, Napoleon had the hero imprisoned in a dungeon in a remote fortress because of his skin color. Moreover, Napoleon refused medical care to Toussaint, leading to his death. Toussaint, the loyal French general died in a French dungeon because he had the wrong skin color.  

How Napoleon’s Racism lost France’s most valuable colony

Predictably, Saint Domingue’s black population did not want to go back to the plantations. Instead of a profitable restoration of slavery, France had a bloody colonial war on its hands.

Britain’s Royal Navy made things worse for the French by blockading the island keeping supplies out. American merchants added to France’s pain by selling the rebels all the guns and ammunition they wanted. Predictably, British warships did not stop American ships from delivering arms to rebels who were killing Frenchmen.

Even deadlier was the Yellow Fever; which killed thousands of French soldiers, including Le Clerc himself. By the time it withdrew from Haiti in November 1803, the French army of 60,000 troops had just 7,000 men left. Sadly, the Royal Navy captured most of the French survivors and sent them to British prison camps.

The History you don’t know will Hurt You

“What is history but a fable agreed upon?” – Napoleon Bonaparte

Sadly, modern American histories typically ignore the roles Napoleon’s racism and black soldiers played in the Haitian revolution.

Disgustingly, most modern American accounts of the story blame the French defeat on mosquitoes. In an act of pure jingoism and racism, modern American historians suppress the roles played by the Royal Navy, the Haitian rebels, and Napoleon’s racism in the ugly drama.

To explain, the modern American fairy story is that mosquitoes spreading Yellow Fever was the only reason the French withdrew from Saint-Domingue and sold Louisiana to America. There is a lot of truth to the American fable; Yellow Fever killed 100 French soldiers a day. However, the story ignores the ferocious fight put up by Haiti’s blacks and the Royal Navy’s part in the story.

No Mosquitoes are not responsible for the Louisiana Purchase

Notably, such accounts also spread the even more questionable claim that Napoleon sold the Louisiana Purchase to President Thomas Jefferson (R-Virginia) because of Yellow Fever. In reality, Napoleon agreed to the Louisiana Purchase in mid-April 1803, six months before the French evacuation of Haiti in November 1803.

Moreover, James notes the evacuation was the decision of LeClerc’s successor; the Vicomte de Rochambeau, not Napoleon himself. Notably, Napoleon did not bring the troops home from Hispaniola after the Purchase.

Hence, it appears Napoleon wanted to keep Santo Domingo; modern Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and its sugar, but sell Louisiana. Indeed, Napoleon did not try to occupy Louisiana; which remained under Spanish administration until US troops marched in.

The Strange Way American Exceptionalism distorts our history

Thus, both racism and American exceptionalism distorts our history. Disturbingly, modern American historians would rather credit mosquitoes than black rebels to the French defeat.

Moreover, the notion that fear of the Royal Navy and Lord Nelson scared Napoleon away from the New World is something American historians will not even consider. Notably, it was Nelson who wrecked the only overseas expedition Bonaparte commanded – the invasion of Egypt. To explain, Nelson ended Napoleon’s Egyptian adventure by sinking a French fleet at the Battle of the Nile.

Finally, it appears some educated Americans would rather blame historical events on insects than examine the way racism distorted Napoleon’s thinking and led him to defeat. Interestingly, Napoleon was capable of brilliant stratagems and clear analysis when dealing with white foes, but incapable of analyzing black enemies correctly.

For instance, Napoleon correctly concluded British naval power made any serious French military efforts overseas impossible. In addition, Napoleon also realized that a large French presence in the New World would drive the two English-speaking powers; the United States and the British Empire, into an alliance against him.

Consequently, Bonaparte made the brilliant strategic move of selling Louisiana (most of central North America) to the United States. To explain, the Louisiana Purchase transformed the Americans and British from near allies to strategic rivals. Tellingly, Britain and the United States were at war within 10 years of the Purchase.

The Strange End of Napoleon’s New World Empire

There are many mysteries about Napoleon’s misadventure in Haiti. For instance, did Bonaparte set LeClerc; his own brother-in-law, up to fail?

In his excellent history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, C. L. R. James notes that Napoleon understood the danger of Yellow Fever. Specifically, Napoleon blamed Britain’s failure to conquer Santo Domingo on Yellow Fever.

Did Bonaparte deliberately ship 60,000 men to the Caribbean to fail and die? Perhaps Napoleon used the San Domingo expedition to get rid of Republican soldiers and officers that could have opposed his restoration of absolute monarchy. Or maybe Napoleon just wanted to get rid of his brother-in-law, LeClerc. We will probably never know.

However, the Napoleonic disaster in Hispaniola offers modern America some serious lessons. In particular, Napoleon and his advisers let racism and greed for resources warp their judgment. Like the American neoconservatives in Iraq, the French imperialists paid dearly in their efforts to control a strategic resource (sugar).

What America can learn from Napoleon’s Racism

In the final analysis, France could have kept control of all of Hispaniola well into the 20th Century had Napoleon been willing to accept blacks as equals.

Strangely, Bonaparte himself later admitted he could have kept the island by recognizing Toussaint’s authority, James claims. On the other hand, Napoleon did not make that observation until his exile on Saint Helena after his final defeat.

The French; however, learned nothing from Haiti. Instead, they followed Napoleon and his delusions of cultural supremacy to a series of bloody defeats, at Trafalgar, in Spain, in Russia, at the Battle of the Nations, and finally Waterloo.

France ended the Napoleonic adventure as a second-rate power that would never recover its place as Europe’s leader. Hopefully, America can learn from France’s stupidity and overcome its national delusions of racial, cultural, and political supremacy.