Haiti and the Colonial Predicament of Language in Zamoyski’s Napoleon, A Life

By Nathan H. Dize

Book cover of Napoleon: a Life by Adam Zamoyski.

Napoleon Bonaparte has fascinated historians, biographers, writers of fiction, and readers for centuries. Indeed, the “great man” tradition of history would have it no other way. In his recent biography of Napoleon, Napoleon, A Life (Basic Books, 2018), Adam Zamoyski argues that the vast historiography of France’s first emperor is skewed. Historians and biographers have either produced a mythological depiction of a military genius or an “alien monster” responsible for botched colonial endeavors, the re-institution of slavery in the vieilles colonies (Guadeloupe, Guyana, Martinique, La Réunion, and Saint-Domingue), and the erosion of the promises of the Enlightenment. Put simply, Zamoyski claims that since Stendhal, Napoleonic historiography has failed “to place [Napoleon] in context,” and that through the “jettisoning of received opinion and nationalist prejudice and dispassionate examination of what the seismic conditions of his times threatened and offered” we can finally see the First Emperor of France as an ordinary man and “a product of his times.”[1]

According to Zamoyski, historians often judge Napoleon for his colonial endeavors, which presumably blurs our understanding and the conditions of his epoch. In the introduction to his nearly 800-page biography, Zamoyski argues that Napoleon “is regularly blamed for re-establishing slavery in Martinique, while Britain applied it in its colonies for a further thirty years, and every other colonial power for several decades after that.”[2] Despite the fact that Zamoyski abandons the question of slavery in Martinique in the body of the text, the most significant source of historical tension in the book is whether or not Napoleon meant to restore slavery in Saint-Domingue through the Leclerc expedition. The reason for this tension is not incidental. It is, as I argue, part and parcel of Zamoyski’s choice to rely on one secondary source for all of his information on colonial Haiti, namely, Pierre Branda and Thierry Lentz’s 2006 volume, Napoléon, l’esclavage et les colonies (Napoleon, Slavery and the Colonies).

On February 3, 1802, General Victor-Emmanuel Leclerc arrived in the harbor of Cap Français with 5,000 troops, a quarter of the total expeditionary force, to wrest Saint-Domingue from Toussaint Louverture’s control.[3] Zamoyski claims, like Branda and Lentz, that the point of the expedition was not to re-institute slavery, and takes a literal reading of Napoleon’s instructions to Leclerc:

His instructions to Leclerc were to support Toussaint and gradually get into a position in which he could decapitate the black liberation movement. There was nothing in them about slavery […] As far as [Napoleon] was concerned, the only issue was to regain control of the colonies.[4]

Seven months earlier, Louverture promulgated a Constitution abolishing slavery and establishing himself as the colony’s Governor-for-life. This made any question of toppling Louverture’s government also come with questions of the future of universal emancipation.[5] Before Leclerc’s troops landed the question of freedom or enslavement was not as cut and dry as Zamoyski argues.

Zamoyski ignores not only the colonial predicament of language in Saint-Domingue at the onset of the expedition, he also insists too heavily on Napoleon’s instructions to General Leclerc, as read through the lens of Branda and Lentz. In Napoléon, l’esclavage et les colonies, Branda and Lentz aver that Leclerc’s mission was to be carried out in three distinct phases: 1) to occupy and rally allied troops, 2) to track down and ferret out the rebel forces, and 3) to eliminate Toussaint Louverture, Moïse Louverture, and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, as well as the insurgent forces under their command.[6] While the two co-authors avoid, like Zamoyski, citing the Haitian historiographical tradition in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries on the subject of slavery, they do mention that Haitian Revolutionary historian Carolyn Fick argues that Napoleon intended to re-install slavery on the island, even though they dismiss her claims.[7] Branda and Lentz continue by citing from Leclerc’s instructions to respect the freedom of the Blacks in Guadeloupe and Saint-Domingue. With regard to Fick’s assertion, they ask that if Napoleon wished for Leclerc to re-enslave the Haitian revolutionaries, “why then order [him] the contrary instead of remaining silent on the subject?”[8]

Haitian historian Beaubrun Ardouin argues that although Napoleon’s instructions to Leclerc may have been vague or “subtle,” as Branda and Lentz put it, the signal that Napoleon intended to re-impose slavery in Saint-Domingue was clear months before in the First Consul’s proclamation “to the Inhabitants of Saint-Domingue.”[9] In his declaration, Napoleon immediately acknowledged “Whatever your origin and your color, you are all French, you are all free and equal before God and before men,”[10] which Zamoyski reads as an affirmation of universal emancipation in the Caribbean colonies circa 1794. Ardouin is careful to point out in a footnote that “in colonial terms, we understand inhabitants to mean the [plantation] owners,” explaining that “since it is to the proprietors alone that the proclamation addressed, the enemies from whom they would be protected were the blacks, destined to be re-enslaved, to the owners’ benefit.”[11] Freedom and equality for the formerly enslaved was at risk under Napoleon. As Michel-Rolph Trouillot points out that only Louverture’s government, despite all of its weaknesses, made “all enslaved workers equal before the law next to anyone else in Saint-Domingue.”[12]

Although Branda and Lentz offer more extensive coverage of English-language scholarship on the Haitian Revolution in their bibliography, they are cited sparingly in the body of Napoléon, l’esclavage et les colonies. Since they are Zamoyski’s sole source on slavery in colonial Haiti, he keeps anglophone scholarship regarding the Leclerc Expedition at arm’s length, leading to straight-forward—and decontextualized—interpretations of sources emanating from the French Empire.

The anglophone tradition, from James Stephen to CLR James and beyond, provide ample and critical assessment of the question of slavery brought on by the Leclerc expedition. In The Black Jacobins, James weighs in on Napoleon’s instructions to Leclerc, writing that “Bonaparte in these instructions repudiated the idea of restoring slavery. He was lying. But he was still posing as the heir of the revolution…”[13] In case James seems flippant with regard to Napoleon, remember that Jean-Louis le Baron de Vastey wrote that “Bonaparte was the first to put in place the system of duplicity and lies against [Haitians].”[14] In The Making of Haiti, Fick argues similarly that Napoleon wanted nothing short of the return of colonial slavery and the Code Noir.[15] In The Avengers of the New World, Laurent Dubois agrees that at the outset the Leclerc expedition did not coincide with an overt declaration re-enslavement, but by 1802 it was clear that Napoleon intended to bring slavery back to the French colonies in the Caribbean.[16]

By the end of the expedition, which coincided with the “Civil War” period of the Haitian Revolution, Leclerc had died of yellow fever, Toussaint Louverture was put to death in a French prison, and General Donatien Rochambeau was embroiled in a campaign against the Armée Indigène that brought to bear the full thrust of French “genocidal imaginings” in Saint-Domingue.[17] As the Haitian and anglophone scholarship on the Leclerc expedition show, Zamoyski’s claims that Napoleon did not intend to restore slavery are under-examined at best. What is also clear is that Napoleon’s biographers, and Napoleonic scholars, must engage meaningfully with scholarship from the Caribbean and across language traditions––English, French, Haitian Creole, etc.––if we are to have a full, clear view of the era’s historical context and its implications.

Nathan H. Dize is a PhD Candidate in the Department of French and Italian at Vanderbilt University where he specializes in Haitian literature and history. He is content curator, translator, and editor of the digital history project “A Colony in Crisis: The Saint-Domingue Grain Shortage of 1789”. He also co-edits the “Haiti in Translation” interview series for H-Haiti. His translation of Makenzy Orcel’s The Immortals (Les Immortelles, Zulma 2011) is under contract and forthcoming with SUNY Press, and his translation of Louis Joseph Janvier’s Haiti for the Haitians (eds. Brandon R. Byrd, Nathan H. Dize, and Chelsea Stieber) is forthcoming with Liverpool University Press. He has published articles in the Journal of Haitian Studies, Francoshpères, sx archipelagos, and the Journal of Haitian History. He tweets @NathanHDize.

Title image: Toussaint au Fort de Joux,” Manuel d’histoire d’Haïti, (Port-au-Prince, 1934), 143. 


[1] Adam Zamoyski, Napoleon, A Life. (New York: Basic Books, 2018), xiii-xv.

[2] Ibid., xiv.

[3] Carolyn Fick, The Making of Haiti: The Saint-Domingue Revolution from Below (Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 1990), 210. Fick draws on Claude B. Auguste and Marcel B. Auguste, L’Expédition Leclerc, 1801-1803 (Port-au-Prince: Deschamps, 1985).

[4] Zamoyski, 341.

[5] It should be acknowledged that Zamoyski reads Louverture as the “master” of Saint-Domingue and no more well-intentioned than Napoleon. When referring to Louverture’s arrest and deportation to France, Zamoyski qualifies Louverture as a “traitor” without providing an assessment of the Haitian perspective. See Zamoyski, 339 and 342.

[6] Napoléon, l’esclavage et les colonies, 91-92.

[7] Ardouin and Madiou, as well as Jean Fouchard, Lélia Lhérisson, and other Haitian historians, are listed in Branda and Lentz’s bibliography under the section “Histoire de Saint-Domingue/Haïti,” Ibid., 275-283.

[8] Ibid., 94. ” pourquoi alors [lui] ordonner le contraire au lieu de rester muet sur le sujet?”

[9] Pierre Branda and Pierre Lentz, Napoléon, l’esclavage et les colonies (Paris: Fayard, 2006), 90.

[10] Cited in Beaubrun Ardouin. Études sur l’histoire d’Haïti suivies de la vie du Général J.-M. Borgella, tome cinquième (Paris: Dezobry et E. Magdeleine, 1854), 16. “quelle que soient votre origine et votre couleur, vous êtes tous libres et égaux devant Dieu et les hommes.” Emphasis in Ardouin.

[11] Ibid., 18. “dans le langage colonial, on entend par habitan[t]s, ––les propriétaires […] comme c’est à eux seuls que la proclamation s’adressait, les ennemis contre lesquels on voulait les protéger étaient les noirs, destinés à être remplacés dans l’esclavage, à leur profit.” Emphasis in Ardouin.

[12] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Ti difé boulé sou istoua Ayiti (Brooklyn: Koleksion Lakansiel, 1977), 209. “tout travayè-latè […] égal égo dévan laloua ak kikonk lòt nan Sindoming.”

[13] CLR James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1989), 294.

[14] “Bonaparte fut le premier qui mit en usage ce système de duplicité et de mensonge contre [les Haïtiens]” Vastey, Jean-Louis le Baron de, Essai sur les causes de la révolution et des guerres civiles en Hayti. (Sans-Souci: Imprimerie Royale, 1819), 248.

[15] Fick, 206.

[16] Laurent Dubois, The Avengers of the New World. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belkap Press, 2004), 259-260.

[17] Another aspect of Zamoyski, as well as Branda and Lentz’s work which deserves greater assessment, is the French reaction to Claude Ribbe’s 2005 book Le Crime de Napoléon, which compares military tactics in Saint-Domingue to the Holocaust.

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