Saint-Domingue Lost: Imperial French Narratives of the Haitian Revolution

Histoire de Toussaint Louverture, Chef des noirs insurgés de Saint-Domingue

The following translation is an excerpt from Histoire de Toussaint Louverture, Chef des noirs insurgés de Saint-Domingue by Charles-Yves Cousin D’Avallon.[1] From the title, it is clear that this is a biography of Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the first slave revolt to result in a successfully independent nation. Toussaint Louverture is highly regarded as a leader of the Haitian Revolution alongside notable revolutionaries such as Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Léger-Félicité Sonthonax. This work is a history of the leader of the Haitian Revolution, but the specific excerpt focuses on the role of Étienne Mentor, providing a brief history of his life during the revolution.

While the Haitian Revolution is an event of great consequence and historical importance, much less is known or taught about it in modern Western society. Many high school and college students can list most major people involved in the French and American Revolutions, yet even Toussaint Louverture, the most popular name from the Haitian Revolution, means little to most students—even those studying French or French History in college or university. Personally, as a student of French for over ten years, I only first encountered the names of Haitian Revolutionaries as a brief aside in a class about the French Revolutionary period. As Michel-Rolph Trouillot puts it, the Haitian Revolution has been historically and systematically silenced. A “revolution that was thought impossible by its contemporaries has also been silenced by historians,” and it is showing in our understanding and study of Haiti and its revolution in schools.[2] 
It is for this reason that I took interest in Étienne Mentor and his role in the Haitian Revolution. When I came across the name in the original document, I did a brief search of his name in a few databases. While one or two brief biographical accounts came up, I found no primary source documents easily accessible to potential future students hoping to learn more about the revolution. Étienne Mentor was actually one of the major players in helping Toussaint Louverture rise to power and he worked tirelessly to achieve the goals of the revolution, yet he is not often discussed.[3] 
This excerpt of the text offers a very brief but packed history of the affairs and movements of Étienne Mentor, a somewhat unsung hero behind the Haitian Revolution. The rest of the book Histoire de Toussaint Louverture, Chef des noirs insurgés de Saint-Domingue is filled with similar short vignettes of revolutionaries and major aspects of the revolution. Also valuable in this excerpt is the letter from Toussaint Louverture to Sonthonax in his call for information about the revolution to be disseminated in France. He closes his letter with “Tell France what you have seen, the miracles you have witnessed, and every day be the defender of the sacred cause that you have embraced, and that we are the eternal soldiers” further highlighting the needs expressed in Trouillot’s piece for French citizens at the time to comprehend and appreciate the extent and power of the events in Saint-Domingue. As important as it was for citizens of France to appreciate and respect what was happening in Haiti, it is equally as important for students today to study and appreciate the undertaking of thousands of slaves, free people of color, and European soldiers to achieve the goal of a free and independent Haiti.

Translated and introduced by Elisabeth Zak


Étienne Mentor[4], of the class of free blacks and owner at Saint-Pierre[5] of Martinique—where he was born in 1771, had received all the gifts who could incite the loyalty and bravery in the great tribulations of life, and of the education, all of the principles that could embellish some peaceful moments. He was plunged into the revolution, like all the other blacks, in the alternative of his defense or of slavery. When the freedom of blacks was proclaimed, he became a friend of France, and he vowed forever his commitment and loyalty to France. Elevated to the rank of Captain of the Infantry of Guadaloupe[6], he fought bravely against the English, to whom he did not yield the battery with which he was charged, while he saw all his men killed or fallen next to him. Taken prisoner and deported to England, he thought up and carried out the project, on the shores of Ushant[7], to capture a ship that leads to England and goes on to Brest. This audacious undertaking gave back to freedom and to France. Enlisted in a battalion upon his arrival, he did a campaign in the Vendée[8] under General Westermann[9]. He was then called to Paris to provide intelligence on the seige of Guadeloupe, and namely, the third year, second in command to the Adjutant Generals[10] of Saint-Domingue. He arrived on this island after the event of the 30th of Ventôse[11], that had compromised freedom and the life of general Laveau. He became the defender of French government agents, and the supporter of oppressed Europeans. Similar to Toussaint Louverture, he was awarded for his military talents and for the respect that he had obtained among the blacks, to be accepted in the intimate trust of the general, and to be elevated to the rank of Adjutant General of the army of Saint-Domingue. It is in these interactions that he had then with Toussaint Louverture that he infiltrated the secret of his ambition. His courage in unveiling his ambitions made him worthy of prison, but the people of Saint-Domingue were not slow to compensate this outrage, they named him deputy to the Council of Five Hundred[12].  It is there where alone, or almost alone against the numerous supporters of Toussaint Louverture, he still had strength, in the year 6, to denounce the project of independence of the general of Saint-Domingue, and to signal his betrayal. The suspicions of subjectivity and of vengeance that the friends of Toussaint Louverture raised in his mind did not discourage him. He wrote to the executive board: several newspapers became the repositories of his alarm-sounding, and he did not stop publishing them as soon as he saw the preventions so strongly armed against him, that there was not any more danger for his person without any utility for the common good, insisted on the denunciations. This black officer was excluded from the legislative body on the 18 Brumaire [13]. Among the traits that characterize his good and human heart, we do not quote what the newspapers wrote in Nivôse year 9[14]. He was at Brest, on the frigate la Créole[15], as soon as a seaman fell in the sea and was dragged away by the waves. Whereas the many spectators wailed for their curse, Mentor was undeterred by the dangers set out for the sea and went, risking his life, to tear the unlucky seaman from a certain death.
His adventurous and just as honorable move reached Toussaint Louverture. Immediately, he got him in his sight and an order, signed by his hand was given to stop it. Christophe, one of the agents of his tyrannical acts, was charged to execute him. Mentor was therefore stopped during the night and sent to prison.
After this act of violence, Toussaint assembled once again all the officers of his government who he knew were attached to France, and those who he was not entirely assured of their dedication: all declined their agreement for the project of dismissing Santhonax. In the heat of the discussion, they all wanted to stop it. While they deliberated over the project, the city council of le Cap[16], the built authorities, and the people shattered their discontentment. One pinpointed just when a general insurrection—as soon as Toussaint Louverture, informed of what had happened and afraid of danger, retreated hastily to la Petite-Anse.
Here is the address that he sent, allegedly, to “citoyen” Santhonax to accelerate his departure, the 3rd Fructidor, year 5[17].

Toussaint Louverture, general in chief of Saint-Domingue, to citoyen Santhonax, representative of the people and commissioner delegate of the Leeward Islands[18].
“Private for a long time from the news of the government of France, this long silence affects the true friends of the republic. The enemies of order and freedom search to profit from ignorance where we are, to circulate news, whose goal is to throw out troubles in the colony. In these circumstances, it is necessary that a man is educated in the goings-on, and he who was the witness of the changes that produce his restoration and his tranquility, want to go near the executive director to have him know the truth. Named deputy of the legislative body of the colony, the urgent circumstances you make a duty to be left sometime again in the middle of us, therefore your influence is necessary. The troubles we have stirred up, he fails to ease. Today in order for peace, zeal for reestablishing cultures, our success over our outside enemies and their helplessness, you are allowed to return to your jobs. Tell France what you have seen, the miracles that you have witnessed, and every day be the defender of the sacred cause that you have embraced, and that we are the eternal soldiers.

Honor and respect,

Signed, Toussaint Louverture



            Etienne Mentor, de la classe des noirs libres, et propriétaire à Saint-Pierre de la Martinique, où il était né, en 1771, avait reçu de la nature tous les dons qui peuvent disposer à la constance et au courage dans les grandes vicissitudes de la vie, et de l’éducation, tous les principes qui peuvent en embellir les instants paisibles. La révolution vint le plonger, comme tous les autres noirs , dans l’alternative de sa défense ou de l'esclavage. Quand la liberté des noirs fut proclamée, il devint l'ami de la France, et il lui voua pour jamais attachement et fidélité. Elevé au grade de capitaine des chasseurs de la Guadeloupe, il combattit vaillamment contre les Anglais, auxquels il ne céda la batterie dont il avait été chargé, que lorsqu'il vit tous les siens tués ou renversés à côté de lui. Fait prisonnier et déporté en Angleterre, il conçut et exécuta le projet, à la vue des côtes d'Ouessant, de s'emparer du bâtiment qui le conduisait en Angleterre, et de le mener à Brest. Cette audacieuse entreprise le rendit à la liberté et à la France. Incorporé à son arrivée, dans un bataillon, il fit une campagne dans la Vendée sous le général Westermann; il fut ensuite appelé à Paris pour donner des renseignements sur la prise de la Guadeloupe , et nommé, en l’an 3, adjoint aux adjudants-généraux pour Saint-Domingue. Il arriva dans cette île après l’événement du 30 ventôse, qui avait compromis la liberté et la vie du général Laveau; il devint le défenseur des agents du gouvernement français, et l'appui des Européens opprimés. Appelé auprès de Toussaint Louverture, il mérita par ses talents militaires et par la considération qu'il avait obtenue parmi les noirs, d'être admis dans la confiance intime de ce général, et d'être élevé au grade d'adjudant-général de l’armée de Saint-Domingue. C'est dans les relations qu’il eut alors avec Toussaint Louverture, qu'il pénétra le secret de son ambition. Son courage à la dévoiler lui valut des fers, mais le peuple de Saint-Domingue ne tarda pas à le dédommager de cet outrage, en le nommant député au conseil des cinq-cents. C’est là que seul, ou presque seul contre les partisans nombreux de Toussaint Louverture il eut encore la force, en l’an 6, de dénoncer le projet d'indépendance du général de Saint-Domingue, et de signaler sa perfidie. Les soupçons de partialité et de vengeance que les amis de Toussaint Louverture firent planer sur sa tête, ne le découragèrent pas. Il en écrivit au directoire exécutif: plusieurs journaux devinrent les dépositaires de ses vives alarmes, et il ne cessa de les publier que lorsqu'il vit lés préventions si fort armées contre lui, qu'il n'y avait plus que du danger pour sa personne, sans aucune utilité pour la chose publique, à insister sur ses dénonciations. Cet officier noir fut exclu du corps législatif au 18 brumaire. Parmi les traits qui caractérisent son cœur bon et humain, nous ne citerons que celui dont les journaux ont rendu compte en nivôse an 9. II était à Brest, sur la frégate la Créole, lorsqu'un matelot tomba à la mer et fut entraîné par les flots. Tandis que des spectateurs nombreux gémissaient sur son sort. Mentor n'écoutant que son courage, s'élança à la mer, et alla, au péril de sa vie, arracher le malheureux matelot à une perte certaine.
Sa démarche hardie autant qu’honorable, parvint à Toussaint Louverture; sur-le-champ
il le fit garder à vue, et un ordre signé de sa main fut donné pour l’arrêter. Christophe, un des agents de ses actes tyranniques, fut chargé de l’exécuter. Mentor fut donc arrêté pendant la nuit et conduit en prison.
Après cet acte de violence, Toussaint rassembla de nouveau dans son gouvernement tous les officiers qu'il savait attachés à la France, et ceux dont il n’était pas assuré de l’entier dévouement: tous lui refusèrent leur assentiment pour le projet de renvoi de Santhonax. Dans la chaleur de la discussion , ils voulurent même l’arrêter. Tandis qu'ils délibéraient sur ce projet, la municipalité du Cap, les autorités constituées et le peuple firent éclater leur mécontentement. On touchait au moment d'une insurrection général, lorsque Toussaint Louverture, informé de ce qui se passait et effrayé du danger, se retira précipitamment à la Petite-Anse.
Voici l’adresse qu’il envoya, à ce qu’on prétend, au citoyen Santhonax, pour accélérer son départ, le 3 fructidor an 5.

Toussaint Louverture, général en chef de Saint-Domingue, au citoyen Santhonax, représentant du peuple et commissaire délégué aux Iles sous le vent.
“Privés depuis long-temps des nouvelles du gouvernement français, ce long silence affecte les vrais amis de la république. Les ennemis de l’ordre et de la  liberté cherchent à profiter de l’ignorance où nous sommes, pour faire circuler des nouvelles, dont le but est de jeter le trouble dans la colonie.
Dans ces circonstances, il est nécessaire qu’un homme instruit des événements, et qui a été le témoin des changements qui ont produit sa restauration et sa tranquillité, veuille bien se rendre auprès du directoire exécutif pour lui faire connaître la vérité.
Nommé député de la colonie au corps législatif, des circonstances impérieuses vous firent un devoir de rester quelque temps encore au milieu de nous: alors votre influence était nécessaire; des troubles nous avoient agités, il fallait les calmer. Aujourd’hui que l’ordre, la paix, le zèle pour le rétablissement des cultures, nos succès sur nos ennemis extérieurs et leur impuissance, vous permettent de vous rendre à vos fonctions, allez dire à la France ce que vous avez vu, les prodiges dont vous avez été témoin; et soyez toujours le défenseur de la cause sacrée que vous avez embrassée, et dont nous sommes les éternels soldats.

Salut et respect,

Signé, Toussaint Louverture

[1] D’Avallon, Cousin. Histoire De Toussaint-Louverture, Chef Des Noirs Insurgés De Saint-Domingue. Paris: Pillot Frères, 1802.
[2]  Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995) 96.
[3]  "Mentor, Etienne Victor." In Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro–Latin American Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. 
[4] For biographical information on Mentor, see introduction as well as the following source: "Mentor, Etienne Victor." In Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro–Latin American Biography. : Oxford University Press, 2016. 
[5] “The Paris of the Caribbean” and the cultural capital of Martinique.
[6]  An overseas region of France consisting of two main islands of Basse-Terre and Grande-Terre.
[7] French: Ouessant. French Island commune in the Finistère department located in the English Channel.
[8] Department on the western border of France along the Atlantic. Site of the 1793 peasant revolt against the Revolutionary government.
[9] General François Joseph Westermann defeated the Vendéens in 1793. See Anecdotes of Westermann from Walker’s Hibernian Magazine
[10] A senior staff officer of revolutionary France, similar to an assistant to a general officer.
[12] The Lower house of the Legislature of France under le Constitution de lan III
[13] November 9, 1799
[14] Likely in December-January 1800
[15] 40-gun frigate of the French Navy. Involved in French acquisition of Saint Domingue.
[16] Commune on northern coast of Haiti that served as the capital of the French colony of Saint-Domingue.
[17] August 20, 1797
[18] A group of islands that lie between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, including Dominica, Antigua, and Martinique.

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