Battle of Cap-Français (1793)

The Battle of Cap-Français took place from 20 to 22 June 1793 during the Haitian Revolution.

Battle of Cap-Français
Part of the Haitian Revolution
Prise du Cap Français par Général Le Clerc 15 et 20 Pluviose, An 10 (Nuevo).jpg
Invasion of Cape Haitian by the French army.
Date20–22 June 1793
Result Commissioner victory
Mulattoes and free people of color Republicans
Republican whites loyal to commissioners
Black slaves insurgents and royalists
Opponents to the commissioners:
French Grands Blancs Royalist settlers
French Petits Blancs Republican settlers
Slaves of armed settlers
Commanders and leaders
Léger-Félicité Sonthonax
Étienne Polverel
Jean-Baptiste Belley
François Thomas Galbaud-Dufort
César Galbaud du Fort
2,000 to 3,500 men 10,000 men
Casualties and losses
500 deaths


Arrival of Commissioners in Saint-DomingueEdit

On 17 September 1792, the commissars Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, Étienne Polverel and Jean-Antoine Ailhaud landed in Cap-français with 6,000 men from the French Republican army. Their mission was to pacify Saint-Domingue and enforce the law of April 4, which proclaimed the right to vote for free people, including blacks and mulattoes, and imposed the dissolution of the white-only colonial assembly.[1][2]

Sonthonax remained in post at the French Cape while Polverel left for inspection in Port-au-Prince in October. Allhaud went south of the colony but quickly returned to France after becoming ill.[3]

Military operations against the revoltEdit

The 6,000 French soldiers, half composed of troops of line and the other half of volunteers, were ordered to repress the insurrections of the black slaves revolting in the north-west of the island and commanded by Jean-François Papillon and Georges Biassou. But these troops, unaccustomed to the climate, were rapidly decimated by yellow fever. Two months after their landing, writes General Lacroix, "3,000 were harvested" of the 6,000 men.[1]

All of the French republican forces were under the command of General Étienne Maynaud de Bizefranc de Laveaux, who entered the campaign against the revolted slaves in January 1793. At the battles of Morne Pelé and Tannerie Laveaux defeated the revolutionaries and quickly reconquered the northern plains. However, the insurgents had allied with the Spaniards, and Spanish troops were embedded as an auxiliary in their army. In the months following, the French begin to lose the ground gained.[4]

Commissioners' positions on slaveryEdit

Sonthonax and Polverel were close to Brissot, a notorious abolitionist and a member of the Society of Black Friends. The commissioners themselves were members of the Jacobin Club, which promoted the creation of revolutionary clubs in Saint-Domingue that attracted many poor whites or called "Petits Blancs". Conversely, wealthy slave owners or "Grands Blancs" were usually royalists and thus hostile to Jacobin activities.[5]

Although abolitionists themselves, Sonthonax and Polverel had no authority to abolish slavery, nor did the French government have the intention to do so. Sonthonax did not believe in immediate abolition himself, writing that such action "would inevitably lead to the massacre of all whites".[3]

Deportation of Governors and dissolution of colonial AssemblyEdit

According to the law of August 10, anyone who objected to the commissioners was declared a "traitor to the fatherland". The commissioners had every power to deport their opponents. Sonthonax arrested Governor Philippe François Rouxel de Blanchelande on September 20, suspected of conspiracy, who was then deported to France where he was guillotined on April 11, 1793. He was replaced by General d'Esparbes, a royalist, who attempted to provoke an insurrection when he learned of the fall of the monarchy on the Insurrection of 10 August 1792. He was then arrested and deported.[6]

On October 12, the white-only colonial assembly was dissolved and replaced by a commission composed of whites and free people of color. This measure brings together the free people of color to the commissioners. Sonthonax sought to integrate Mulatto officers in the Cape Regiment, then entirely composed of whites, who were resistant towards integration. During a parade in town, mulattoes and whites of the Cape regiment clashed in a shootout. The authority of the commissioners could be re-established only with the help of General Laveaux.[7][3]

Rise of dissatisfaction of settlers against commissionersEdit

These measures, favorable to the mulattoes and the free of color, provoked the irritation of the "Grands Blancs" who fear the abolition of slavery.

Although this message is generally false, the settlers were increasingly hostile to the commissioners. The "little whites," republicans, were at first favorable to them, but they are as hostile as the "great whites" to mulattoes and to men free of colors, whom they hate even more than the first. Also the "big whites" and the "little whites", formerly enemies, allied themselves against the commissioners, the mulattoes and the free people of colors.[8]

First revoltsEdit

On January 25, 1793, in Port-au-Prince, the colonists, led by Borel, armed their slaves, joined forces with the soldiers of the Artois regiment and made themselves masters of the city. The colonists then sent a courier to London and declare themselves ready to pass under the suzerainty of the Kingdom of Great Britain in exchange for the conservation of their laws. The troops loyal to the commissioners commanded by generals Lassale and Beauvais then put the siege to Port-au-Prince which is resumed on April 14, 1793.[9][10]

The colonists of Jérémie in the south of the island revolt in their turn, they form a government which takes the name of "Federation of Grande Anse", arm their slaves and make massacre the free of color, whose heads are brought on spades and exposed at Fort Lapointe. The board of directors forms an army composed of whites commanded by La Chaise and blacks commanded by Noël Bras. In order to suppress this rebellion, the commissioners also organize an army commanded by the mulatto André Rigaud. The mulattoes and the free of color also arm their slaves and led by Rigaud, take possession of Jacmel but they fail to take Jeremiah.[10][11]

The insurrection of whites in CapeEdit

On May 7, 1793, while the commissioners were busy fighting the rebellion in the south, Brigadier Général François Thomas Galbaud-Dufort, of the Republican army, landed in Cap-Français to hold the post of governor. This nomination arouses the hopes of the colonists because Galbaud does not show any favor for mulattoes and free people. The colonists show more and more openly their opposition to the commissioners, and Sonthonax and Polverel must hastily return to Cape Town on June 10. Whites and mulattos are then on the brink of confrontation.[12]

The commissioners begin by ousting Galbaud, he is Creole; however, according to the April law, creoles can not perform public functions in the colonies. Galbaud submits and on June 13, he embarks on the Normandy shipwho must leave for France. This departure despairs the settlers, but discontent also wins the sailors and soldiers of the Republican Navy. A dispute had arisen between a naval officer and a mulatto, the sailors complain to the commissioners but they refuse to intervene in the case which causes the anger of the sailors. Their resentment against the commissioners increases all the more because they do not support the prohibition that was made to them to stay on the ground at night. Shortly afterwards a ship entered the harbor carrying 25 to 30 colonists and about 40 soldiers of the Artois regiment taken prisoner during the insurrection of Port-au-Princes and who were to be deported to France "to learn how to lose their color prejudice. According to one observer.[13][14]

Exasperated, settlers and sailors sent a delegation to Galbaud on June 19 asking him to take the lead in the insurgency that was being prepared against the commissioners and mulattoes. Galbaud accepted, and in the night of June 19 to 20, he arrived at Cap-Français with the sailors joined by the colonists. Soon Galbaud was leading 2,000 to 3,500 men.

Alerted, the mulatto soldiers take up arms, determined to defend the commissioners. Fierce street battles are taking place, but ill, General Lavaux can not come to ensure the command which is then entrusted by the commissioners to Colonel Mulatto Antoine Chanlatte, assisted by the black officer Jean-Baptiste Belley, known as "Mars Belley".[15]

Slave offensiveEdit

After two days of fighting, the commissioners evacuated Cape Town and retreated to Upper Cape. There they established their headquarters at the Breda plantation. Out of strength, the two commissioners decided to call for help from the rebellious slaves against whom they had formerly fought, offering emancipation in return for aid. Sonthonax wrote the following proclamation:

We declare that the will of the French Republic and its delegates is to give freedom to all the Negro warriors who will fight for the Republic under the orders of the civil commissars, against Spain or other enemies, whether they are interior or exterior... All declared slaves free by the Republic shall be equal to all free men, they have the rights of french citizens.[16]

The proclamation was entrusted to the Mulatto officer Antoine Chanlatte who, accompanied by two white adventurers, Ginioux and Galineux Degusy, gave it to the rebel slaves who camped on the heights of Morne du Cap.[17]

On June 21, 10,000 rebel slaves commanded by Macaya and Pierrot founded on Cap-français, where the insurgent whites were completely overwhelmed. They fled and boarded the ships in great confusion in the retirement of the sailors get drunk and plundered several houses and shops they occupied.[18]

The fighting on June 21 is the bloodiest, there are 500 corpses, several fall or are thrown into the sea where they are devoured by sharks. The commissioners decide to send Polverel's son to negotiate with the insurgents. But Galbaud refuses any discussion and holds the emissary prisoner, shortly after Galbaud's brother is taken by the men loyal to the commissioners. Sonthonax is ready to accept an exchange of prisoners but Polverel refuses, according to witnesses, tears in his eyes he says: "No, my son can not be exchanged for a culprit".[18][14]

In the confusion, a group of blacks attempts to burn a prison to deliver many of their prisoners, but the flames are gaining other homes and homes of what was considered the most beautiful cities in the West Indies are destroyed.[18][14]

Pillage of Cap-FrançaisEdit

The city was subjected to several days of pillage. The pillage and subsequent burning has been described in numerous memoirs and diaries and other contemporary works, notably by H. D. de Saint-Maurice, editor of the Moniteur général de la partie française de Saint-Domingue. Several scenes from the pillage became known, such as when the rebels put on the clothes from private homes as well as the costume from the Comédie du Cap.[19]

During the pillage and fire of the city, many civilians lost their lives and were "massacred", according to some eyewitnesses.[20] Most of the white civilian population (as well as some of the rich gens de couleur libres) took refuge on the ships which had crowded in the city harbor awaiting the commissioner's permission to depart, and left the island with them.[20]

Many of the most famous buildings were lost during the fire of Cap‑Français of 1793 on June 21–26, among them the Comédie du Cap and the Communauté des Religieuses Filles de Notre-Dame du Cap-Français.[20]


On 24 June, Galbaud and survivors, numbering several thousand, embarked on the ships the Aeolus and Jupiter and several frigates in the harbor of Cape Town. From there they fled to the United States where they found refuge.[21]

The Commissioners took possession of the Cap-Français, but the city nicknamed "the Jewel of the West Indies" was five-sixths destroyed. Nevertheless, they hoped to win the rallying of rebel slaves, but they were quickly disappointed. Some accept but the majority of them have returned to the mountains with their booty. Couriers are sent to Jean-François Papillon and Georges Biassou but they refuse to recognize the Republic, they declare themselves royalists and subject of the King of Spain since the King of France had been executed. Contacted, Toussaint Louverture refused to rally "republican traitors" and wrote that "the blacks wanted to serve under a king and the King of Spain offered him his protection".[22]


  1. ^ a b Schœlcher 1982, pp. 69–70.
  2. ^ Bell 2007, p. 68.
  3. ^ a b c Bell 2007, p. 69.
  4. ^ Bell 2007, pp. 69–70.
  5. ^ Bell 2007, pp. 68–69.
  6. ^ Schœlcher 1982, p. 70.
  7. ^ Schœlcher 1982, pp. 70–71.
  8. ^ Bell 2007, p. 72.
  9. ^ Schœlcher 1982, p. 71.
  10. ^ a b Bell 2007, p. 73.
  11. ^ Schœlcher 1982, p. 72.
  12. ^ Bell 2007, pp. 74–75.
  13. ^ Schœlcher 1982, p. 75.
  14. ^ a b c Bell 2007, p. 75.
  15. ^ Madiou 1847, p. 136.
  16. ^ Bell 2007, pp. 75–76.
  17. ^ Bell 2007, p. 76.
  18. ^ a b c Schœlcher 1982, p. 74.
  19. ^ Flaugh, Christian; Taub Robles, Lena (2018). Marie Vieux Chauvet's Theatres: Thought, Form, and Performance of Revolt. Caribbean Series. BRILL. ISBN 978-9004388086.
  20. ^ a b c Popkin, Jeremy D. (2007). "The Destruction of Cap-Français in June 1793". Facing Racial Revolution: Eyewitness Accounts of the Haitian Insurrection. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0226675824.
  21. ^ Schœlcher 1982, p. 76.
  22. ^ Bell 2007, p. 77.