Lesec, from Brave Mulato into Blackness?: Defection to France and Spanish Racial Regression

This post is a part of our “Race and Revolution” series.

By Charlton W. Yingling

In May 1794, Governor Joaquín García of Spanish Santo Domingo (present-day Dominican Republic) praised the “brave spirit” of “Carlos Gabriel Lesec, mulato,” a term denoting European and African heritage. As an officer in Spain’s Black Auxiliaries, Lesec had just repulsed troops of the French Republic in a resounding victory at Santa Susana on the border with Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti).  As the third anniversary of the Haitian Revolution approached, thousands of ex-slaves had expanded their liberatory war under Spanish flags and occupied nearly half of Saint-Domingue.[1] These “Black Auxiliaries” of Spain enjoyed limited manumissions and material support in their war against the French, their former exploiters. Their leaders, Jean-François and Georges Biassou, represented some of the earliest participants in the initial slave revolts of 1791.  Those who ascended later, such as Toussaint Louverture and his officer Charles Lesec, seized a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at upward mobility by punishing their former French oppressors. Despite these victories, García was dismayed by the “disunion that reigns between the black chiefs Biassou and Toussaint,” who along with Jean-François were Lesec’s superiors.[2] Six months earlier French commissioner Léger-Félicité Sonthonax had begun tactical, practical emancipations, in part to attract black supporters due to desperation over his opponents’ successes.    

The Black Auxiliaries performed Catholic piety, which appealed to the supernatural idiom of their Spanish allies in Santo Domingo.  Spanish officials accepted their faith professions with cautious optimism, as their allies’ battlefield victories seemed to be blessings of divine providence.  The Black Auxiliaries’ social practice of belief melded sincerity and partisanship. It gained them material benefits of weapons and cash, and a mask for their spiritual flexibility, including blends of African cosmologies.  However, they inflated Spanish expectations of Eurocentric civility and virtue by people of color on the island, and also reinforced Spanish conflations of pro-French black troops with republicanism and African culture.  While Spain universally discriminated against blackness, their constructions of socio-racial status relied on other cultural qualities. Such racial formation was evident in their vitriolic rhetoric of regression used to describe those who later defected to the French Republic, juxtaposed by their affirming language toward the Black Auxiliaries (who reinforced these projections).[3]

Unfortunately for Spain, the rivalry and idiosyncrasies of Jean-François and Biassou fostered factionalism among their ranks.  This aggravation, coupled with French offers of promotions, attracted the ambition of the pivotal figure Toussaint Louverture, who had defected to the French Republic by the summer of 1794 and became the most important leader of the entire Haitian Revolution .  Not only did Toussaint’s and thousands of his troops’ switch to the Republic represent strategic and personnel catastrophes for Spain, it called into question the trustworthiness of remaining Black Auxiliaries.[4]  Amid these dissensions, defections, and disorders, the “valiant commander” Charles Lesec earned commendations for the disarray he inflicted against the French.[5]  Lesec, identified widely as a mulatto officer,[6] earned this Spanish praise for his valor in April 1794, only weeks before Toussaint’s defection. 

Before daybreak his force had been attacked by four columns of “our enemies, the citizens,” republican soldiers who tried to overrun and burn their encampment.  Within minutes Lesec’s troops drove out the French, who threw aside their weapons and hats to flee, allowing the Black Auxiliaries to capture sixty guns and marching drums.  French dead totaled fifty whites, mulattoes, and blacks, compared to only five dead from Lesec’s forces.  During the battle Lesec himself received numerous lacerations to his face from splintered wood launched by a bullet ricochet.[7]  To brace his troops’ resolve, Lesec punished a Captain Mamba for not more hastily entering the fight.  His leadership garnered him greater Spanish praise and “complete satisfaction.”[8]  Underscoring their achievement an informant, identified as a local black woman, told Lesec that General Villatte, one of the top French commanders on the island, had been wounded in the battle.[9]  In the wake of Toussaint’s defection and French advances, Spain exalted Lesec as an exemplar of loyalty and accomplishment who might reverse their military setbacks.[10] Lesec’s heroics even attracted praise from King Carlos IV.[11] 

In early 1795, Lesec commanded about 1,000 of the remaining few thousand Black Auxiliaries, assuming roles vacated by Toussaint who had busied himself routing Jean-François and Biassou.[12]  In April 1795, exactly a year after Lesec had earned glowing praise, Jean-François accused him of treason and violating his “love” for Spain.  Jean-François went to Santa Susana to investigate, yet was stopped from entering the camp by Benjamin Dubison.  Apparently, Lesec ordered that when Jean-François and his retinue arrived his troops should fire at them, and then set an ambush on their retreat route to assassinate Jean-François.  Dubison, who had warned Jean-François, instead created an ambush to entrap Lesec.  When Lesec realized that his plot was thwarted he tried to escape on horseback.  Dubison’s detachment fired at Lesec, killing him immediately.  Details that emerged only after his death showed that Lesec had planned to deliver forts under his watch to the French commander around Cap-Français, General Villatte, the same officer that Lesec had nearly killed one year before. Lesec had paid with his life for his dalliances with French republicans, and his posthumous fall from Spanish favor was precipitous.

After Lesec was gunned down, a republican official from the nearby town of Trou appeared at the scene.  Surmising that he was there to conspire with Lesec, Jean-François’ troops killed him immediately.  Two additional republicans were later apprehended with letters for Lesec.  These citoyens also brought tricolore cockades for Lesec to manifest “his patriotism, and the union of his soul with his brothers the French,” an outward appearance that intersected with Spanish assumptions of internal immorality.  After reviewing correspondence between Lesec and French officials Governor García was shocked by the premeditated betrayal of a man who, “in another time” was known “for his loyalty and his brave spirit.”  The French typically offered better pay, promotion, and more egalitarian politics to potential defectors. To curtail more losses and reward allegiance, García commended Jean-François for his decisive, vigilant actions in the face of French infiltration and awarded medals to some officers of the remaining Black Auxiliaries. With mounting defections Spanish officials also began to wonder if the Black Auxiliaries were a threat to be contained as much as they were allies.[13]  

When Toussaint defected to France his once impeccable Catholic credentials became tarnished.  Spain saw his betrayal and “most bastard offenses” as manifestations of his innate blackness, intersectionally defined by his republicanism.[14]  The late Lesec met a similar rhetorical fate with a posthumous demotion on the Spanish social hierarchy.  In the official Spanish documents that describe Lesec’s betrayal he was identified by officials as a “gefe negro,” or black leader.[15]  Did this represent a racial regression from his bravery and leadership qualities that had gained him Spanish praise?  If so, was this depiction conscious or reflexive?  While it is difficult to measure intent, Spanish partisans seemed to relegate Lesec from mulato to negro, a step own their racial hierarchy due to his conspiracy with the radical French.  In an era defined by rapid change, alliances, social status, and racial attributes could also shift quickly, particularly as these categories informed one another in Spanish colonial society.

Charlton W. Yingling is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Louisville. His articles appear in History Workshop Journal and Early American Studies. In 2018 Routledge will publish Free Communities of Color and the Revolutionary Caribbean, which he co-edited with Robert D. Taber.  He is finishing his first monograph, tentatively titled ‘Siblings of the Same Soil’: Dominicans and Haiti in the Age of Revolutions

Title image“El ciudadano Hedouville habla al mentor de los negros…,” Jean-Louis Dubroca, Vida de J. J. Dessalines, gefe de los Negros de Santo Domingo (Mexico, 1806), University of Virginia Slavery Images Database, JCB_67-270-3.  This well-known image is cropped to draw attention away from the figures’ faces and to their façades.


[1] David Geggus, Haitian Revolutionary Studies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002): 132 and 179-180.

[2] Joaquín García to Eugenio Llaguno, Fort Dauphin, 23 May 1794, Archivo General de Indias-Santo Domingo, leg. 1031, no.69.

[3] Ann Twinam, Purchasing Whiteness: Pardos, Mulattos, and the Quest for Social Mobility in the Spanish Indies (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015): 42-43; Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (New York: Methuen, 1987): 205; Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Outside in the Teaching Machine (New York: Routledge, 1993): 2-5.

[4] Geggus, Haitian, 119-136.

[5] Carlos Lesec to Joaquín García, 9 April 1794, Archivo General de Simancas (AGS)- Secretaría del Despacho de Guerra (SGU), leg. 7159, exp.33, fol.152-153; Joaquín García to Eugenio Llaguno Amirola, Bayajá, 12 April 1794, AGS-SGU, leg.7159, exp.33, fol. 150-151.

[6] Antoine Dalmas, Histoire de la révolution de Saint-Domingue, depuis le commencement des troubles : suivie d’un mémoire sur le rétablissement de cette colonie, Tome II (Paris: Mame, 1814): 222.

[7] Carlos Lesec to Joaquín García, 9 April 1794, AGS-SGU, leg. 7159, exp. 33, fol. 152.

[8] General Headquarters of Fort Dauphin, April 12, 1794, AGS-SGU, leg. 7159, exp. 33, fol. 150-151.

[9] General Headquarters of Fort Dauphin, September 22, 1794, AGS-SGU, leg.7159, exp.60, fol.301-302.

[10] Geggus, Haitian Revolutionary Studies, 119-135.

[11] Manuel Godoy to Joaquín García, San Ildefonso, 23 September 1794, AGS-SGU, leg.7159, exp.60, fol.305.

[12] J.C.  Dorsainvil, Manuel d’histoire d’Haïti (Port-au-Prince: Henri Deschamps, 1924): 84.

[13] Joaquín García to Conde del Campo de Alange, 23 April 1795, AGS-SGU, leg.7151, exp.97, no. 619.

[14] Geggus, Haitian, 122-136; Carolyn Fick, The Making of Haiti: The Saint-Domingue Revolution from Below (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990): 183-185; Dubois, Avengers, 171-176.

[15] Joaquín García to Conde del Campo de Alange, 23 April 1795, AGS-SGU, leg.7151, exp.97, no. 619.

Further Reading:

Childs, Matt D. The 1812 Aponte Rebellion in Cuba and the Struggle against Atlantic Slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006, Chapter Five.

Geggus, David. Haitian Revolutionary Studies. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002, Chapters One, Eight, and Twelve.

Landers, Jane. Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010, Chapter Two.

Twinam, Ann. Purchasing Whiteness: Pardos, Mulattos, and the Quest for Social Mobility in the Spanish Indies. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015, Chapter Two.

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