Treatment of prisoners of war in Revolutionary times

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote a couple of weeks ago about the abuse of prisoners of war by American soldiers and CIA agents. Of interest to readers of this blog was Friedman’s reference to the book “Washington’s Crossing,” by David Hackett Fischer. Friedman writes:

bq. What is particularly moving is one of Mr. Fischer’s concluding sections, “An American Way of War,” in which he contrasts how Washington dealt with prisoners of war with how the British and Hessian forces did: “According to the ‘the laws’ of European war, quarter was the privilege of being allowed to surrender and to become a prisoner. By custom and tradition, soldiers in Europe believed that they had a right to extend quarter or deny it. … In these ‘laws of war,’ no captive had an inalienable right to be taken prisoner, or even to life itself.”

bq. American attitudes were very different. “With some exceptions, American leaders believed that quarter should be extended to all combatants as a matter of right. … Americans were outraged when quarter was denied to their soldiers.” In one egregious incident, at the battle at Drake’s Farm, British troops murdered all seven of Washington’s soldiers who had surrendered, crushing their brains with muskets.

bq. “The Americans recovered the mutilated corpses and were shocked,” wrote Mr. Fischer. The British commander simply denied responsibility. “The words of the British commander, as much as the acts of his men,” wrote Mr. Fischer, “reinforced the American resolve to run their own war in a different spirit. … Washington ordered that Hessian captives would be treated as human beings with the same rights of humanity for which Americans were striving. The Hessians … were amazed to be treated with decency and even kindness. At first they could not understand it.” The same policy was extended to British prisoners.

The insight I get from this has to do with Toussaint Louverture’s treatment of prisoners during the Haitian Revolution. Louverture was roundly praised for his humanity to captured soldiers, and it seems this is all the more remarkable considering that he would have been well within the norms of the day to mistreat them in the extreme.

Reflecting on the previous post about Haitians in the American Revolution, I wonder if there was an opportunity for Christophe and others to bring back any of Washington’s values. Could the father of Haiti have been influenced by the father of America?

This is purely idle speculation, mind you, but it would be interesting if there were any evidence either way on the subject.

The Black Liberator

I’ve been skipping around to different books in my collection lately. Recently, I spent some time with _Black Liberator, The Life of Toussaint Louverture_, by Stephen Alexis (translated and abridged by William Stirling from Alexis’ _Toussaint Louverture, Lib�rataur d’Haiti_)

The book lists Alexis as “Formerly Haitian Minister at the Court of St. James.” The jacket bio also says he was permanent Haitian delegate to the United Nations, and that he organized the First National Museum in Haiti.

It seems quite plausible that Mr. Alexis knows what he’s talking about, and much of what he writes jibes with what I already understand about Toussaint’s history. Unfortunately, though, the book lists no sources except occasionally within the text itself. I have not been able to turn up any biographical information for Alexis yet online, either. I am forced to exclude this as a credible source for the moment; I hope to find the original French text to see if there is a bibliography or footnotes which would let me verify this version of the facts.

Nevertheless, there is some interesting material to be read herein concerning the period leading up to Toussaint’s capture.

bq. “Another reason which led Toussaint to favour negotiations was the fact that Leclerc and other French Generals were achieving no small measure of success in undermining the loyalty of some of Toussaint’s lieutenants.” (pp. 196-7)

This is a compelling argument for Toussaint’s eventual capture – he may have believed himself out of options and was betting that Brunet would be honorable. His own generals were committing acts of perfidy, betrayal, and desertion at every turn. He must not have felt in control. (I wonder, is there any evidence that he was sick or depressed? Is there any evidence that he was _ever_ depressed? Was he exhausted? As I read in Parkinson, he had been in a similar position of imminent defeat very early in the revolution, and had attempted to negotiate a respite by promising to return the blacks under his command to slavery. Was he trying to repeat that gambit?)

On Toussaint leaving his army:

bq. “It was a bright May morning when Toussaint took leave of his comrades in arms in the little town of La Marmelade. Summoning his troops to the Place D’Armes, he announced that he had just made his peace with Leclerc. With controlled emotion, he extolled his men’s valour and their loyalty to himself; ‘Never forget that you are the guardians of the honour of your race.” (p. 203)

Alexis describes Toussaint keeping a stiff upper lip, while his “five thousand soldiers wept unrestrainedly.”

On page 204, Alexis paints the picture of a defeated Toussaint, a man who retires to Desachaux no longer to wear the military uniform, but rather the “costume of a landowner – long white tunic and white trousers and a broad-brimmed straw hat.”

Alexis maintains that Toussaint’s nephew, Bernard Chancy, followed him into a church one day:

bq. “Chancy saw his uncle walk slowly up to the altar where there stood a beautiful marble crucifix, which he himself had presented to the church. With an angry countenance Toussaint stared at the image, and then, in the bitterness of his defeat, he proceeded to apostrophize it: ‘You! You are the God of the white men, not the God of the Negroes! You have betrayed men, and deserted me! You have no pity for my race!’ And with a violent movement of his hand, this man, who feared only God, hurled the crucifix to the ground, where it lay shattered in a thousand pieces.”

On pages 206-207, Alexis points to evidence that Toussaint was directing the resistance from behind the scenes, though I can’t quite understand how that jibes with his description of Toussaint as defeated and in despair. Not that it doesn’t add up, but I would really love to find a more detailed description of Toussaint’s behavior and actions at this time. (Another reason I want to find Alexis’ sources.)

Starting on page 208, Alexis describes Toussaint’s betrayal by Leclerc and Brunet. Brunet lured Toussaint to his residence with a promise of friendship and hospitality. It took him a matter of minutes to turn traitor. Good dialog here:

bq. “Drawing his sword, Tousssaint leaped to his feet, his eyes flashing angrily. ‘Useless, General,’ said Ferrari, the officer in charge, and one of Leclerc’s personal aides. ‘Your men are already in chains, our troops command the entire countryside, and you are surrounded. The Captain-General has ordered me to arrest you. You no longer count for anything in Saint Domingue: surrender your sword.”

bq. Later, “He was then taken on board the _Creole_, which had been lying off Gonaives for more than a week, and was greeted with a crude remark from the master of the ship: ‘Ha! So we’ve got you at last, eh, Toussaint?’ The Negro leader, who had not uttered a word since his arrest, retorted with cold fury: ‘Yes, you have my head, but not my tail.’

bq. “[On board the _Heros_] he was received by General Savary, who told him, to add to his humiliation: ‘You won’t be able to play the Negro Napoleon any more now, will you?’ Toussaint gave the French officer a scornful glance, and then said, speaking slowly, as though he were reading the future: ‘By overthrowing me, you have merely succeeded in cutting the trunk of Saint Domingue’s Tree of Liberty: but it will grow again, for the roots are deep, and many.'”

bq. “Tears filled his eyes when his fourteen-year-old son, Saint Jean, ran to him weeping, and clasped his legs. Gently he stroked the boy’s head, and then pushed him away, saying, as he looked steadily into his eyes: ‘My son must not cry. He must learn to be brave in misfortune, and dream of the future.'” (pp. 209 – 210)

This Sonthonax fellow sounds like an intriguing character. There is a recent biography of him which is on my list to acquire. It sounds like he was an abolitionist ahead of his time.

“The Negroes had never forgotten how Leger Felicite Sonthonax had told them that if the white men sought to take away the guns he had given them, then the white men meant to enslave them.” (p. 211)

On page 212, Alexis describes Leclerc’s spiral downward into desperation He is constantly writing letters asking for more troops and more money.

bq. “At the landing of the splendid troops of the French expeditionary force Toussaint had cried out: ‘What criminal folly to expose this army on the brink of a volcano!’ And Leclerc was now learing the bitter truth of this.”

bq. Leclerc died “‘groaning about the folly of man.’ He was thirty years old.”

The Black Jacobins to page 20

I’m reading today from “The Black Jacobins”: by “C.L.R. James”:, Vintage edition. James was a Trinidadian professor who wrote this book in 1938 and updated it slightly in 1962. The version I’m reading was printed in 1989, the year of James’ death. It is a well-regarded history of the revolution, and considered James’s masterpiece.

Although I’m only a short way into the book as of this writing, the tone has put me off as a bit strident and overly political. “Bob Corbett”: writes that James “was a strong Marxist scholar,” an assertion borne out in Benjamin Graves’ “essay on the book”: Still, the research is reputed to be solid and I hope to find good information here.

Politics aside, James’s descriptions of the brutal realities of the slave trade are eye-opening, as is the report on page 5 that the French brought white _engag�es_ to Haiti along with black slaves. These _engag�es_ – indentured servants “who would be freed after a period of years” – apparently couldn’t take the heat and hard work, and so blacks became the predominant import. On page 10, James quotes Girod-Chantrans, a Swiss, who in 1785 described the harsh conditions of slave life and the “pitiless” attitudes of the plantation managers.

On page 19, he describes the backgrounds of Toussaint and Christophe. “Christophe, afterwards Emperor of Haiti, was a slave – a waiter in a public hotel at Cap Fran�ois, where he made use of his opportunities to gain a knowledge of men and of the world.” James also tells of Toussaint’s father being an African king, a biographical anecdote which is probably apocryphal, according to Korngold. (Toussaint himself claimed Pierre Baptiste Simon as his father, not his godfather as James asserts.)

Also on page 19 is this: “The leaders of a revolution are usually those who have been able to profit by the cultural advantages of the system they are attacking…”

Something to keep in mind as I read the news of Haiti today…

Toussaint in context of the bicentennial

The “news out of Haiti” these days is distressing. Anti-government rebels have taken several cities and are calling for President Aristide’s resignation. In this context, the research about Toussaint takes on an especially poignant quality. Is Haiti doomed to be a poor, divided country for the rest of its days? Would it have been different had Toussaint survived to see Haiti’s independence?

I find myself mystified – almost angry – at Toussaint’s capture. It seems so senseless. Korngold writes that Toussaint essentially walked into a trap; James is no more enlightening on the circumstances. I have trouble, though, reconciling this with the image of someone who was so politically and militarily astute. Why was he so trusting? Why was he not more on guard?

If anyone has more information or knows a better source of details of Toussaint’s capture, please leave a comment or click on the link in the sidebar to send me an email.

More from Korngold

p 61 “[Toussaint} knew that the Negroes were oppressed not becase they were Negroes, but because they were weak. Epictetus and millions of other white men had been slaves. The chieftains who sold war prisoners and even their own subjects into slavery were of the same race as their victims. White planters were often cruel, but mulatto planters were said to be even worse.”

This quote is exactly what I’ve been looking for. For too long we have confused slavery as being a cruelty that only white people do to only black people. Slavery is a human embarrassment. It has nothing to do with race.

I’ve been thinking about presenting the Toussaint story much in the manner of a Shakespearean play that has been updated. What if his story could be told in today’s terms, placing him in today’s context, so that readers could relate to how respected he was and how important he was to his time? Do I have Clue One about how to pull this off? No really, but I really like the idea. Dispensing with the race issue might jar people’s understanding just enough to relate.

“Patience bat la force” = Patience overcomes strength.
“Doucement alle’ loin” = Gentleness goes far.