Things were quiet for a while -- that is, just slaves being whipped to death, runaway slaves burning down isolated settlements, small stuff.
Then came the French Revolution. Kaboom! All Hell breaks loose, not just in Europe but everywhere the French had colonized. The radicals in Paris order that any mulatto who owns land can vote and be a citizen. The Haiti colonists say no way.
So this time it's the mulattos who revolt, in 1790. And the funny part is that this time, the black slaves get payback on their light-skinned ex-friends by joining the French to stomp the rebel mulattoes. See what I mean? A three-sided fight is a LOT more complicated than a simple two-man bout, and all the Haitian wars were three-sided or more.
In 1791, just one year after they helped the French crush the mulatto rebellion, the blacks started their own. It was the big one, with a half-dozen brilliant guerrilla commanders, some of them smart and decent like Toussaint l'Ouverture, and others just plain scary, like Jeannot, the guy whose armies marched with a white baby on a pike as their flag.They had a simple policy: kill every white you find, and burn everything. They torched the whole island. Ships at sea said the place was smoking literally for months.
Then the vultures dropped in: the Spanish and British landed to take advantage of the chaos and divide the island between them. By this time everybody was killing everybody. There were even black slaves fighting to restore the French king. Toussaint, the smartest leader of the rebellion, decided Haiti would be better off making a deal with the radicals in Paris than the Spanish and British, who'd reestablished slavery everywhere they went. He joined the French forces, kicked the Spanish and British out and beat the mulatto army. He was in charge until Napoleon came into power.
Napoleon had plans for the island. And he had a surplus brother-in-law, LeClerc, who he was sick of seeing around the home office in Paris. So it was the old story: the boss sends his useless brother-in-law on a long business trip to get him out of sight. LeClerc landed in Haiti in 1802 with 20,000 men. Toussaint, who was definitely the noblest man in the whole mess, surrendered to avoid more slaughter. The French made him a lot of promises, broke them in about five seconds and sent Toussaint to France in chains, where he died in a freezing dungeon a couple of years later.
And that was the last good guy in the story. From here on, it's just bad guys vs. worse guys, vs. even worse guys, vs. guys who would scare Charles Manson.
But there was one last twist before the next cycle of killing. Haiti got its independence after all, in 1803, only a year after Toussaint was tricked and captured. LeClerc's army was melting like popsicles, dying from every tropical disease. LeClerc died of yellow fever, taking the easy way out. Meanwhile, Napoleon was getting ready to kick some major ass in Europe and he lost interest in America. It was right then, if you recall, that he sold Louisiana to Jefferson for 3 cents an acre (a good buy except for Mississippi, which I personally wouldn't pay even 1 cent per square mile for).
With Louisiana sold off and his army dead or dying, Napoleon cut his losses. LeClerc's replacement took what was left of his troops to Jamaica. He figured he was safer surrendering to the British than the Haitians.
Haiti was -- ta-da! -- a free country.
Oh, but the fun was just starting. I'll tell you all about it in my next column.