Léger-Félicité Sonthonax (1763–1813) was a French abolitionist and Jacobin before joining the Girondist party, which emerged in 1791. During the French Revolution, he controlled 7,000 French troops in Saint-Domingue during part of the Haitian Revolution. His official title was Civil Commissioner. From September 1792 to December 1795, he was the de facto ruler of Saint-Domingue's non-slave populace. Within a year of his appointment, his powers were considerably expanded by the Committee of Public Safety. He was recalled in 1795 largely due to the resurgence of conservative politics in France. Sonthonax believed that Saint-Domingue's whites were royalists or separatists, so he attacked the military power of the white settlers and by doing so alienated the colonial settlers from their government. Many gens de couleur (mixed-race residents of the colony) asserted that they could form the military backbone of Saint-Domingue if they were given rights, but Sonthonax rejected this view as outdated in the wake of the August 1791 slave uprising. He believed that Saint-Domingue would need ex-slave soldiers among the ranks of the colonial army if it was to survive. On August 1793, he proclaimed freedom for all slaves in the north province. His critics allege that he was forced into ending slavery in order to maintain his own power.
Born in Oyonnax, France on March 7, 1763, the son of a prosperous merchant, Sonthonax was a lawyer in the Parlement of Paris who rose in the ranks during the French Revolution. Sonthonax's wealth was due to his father's trade market, which had many employees from his village. Sonthonax finished his studies at the University of Dijon, becoming a well-known lawyer with the help of his wealthy father. A member of the Society of the Friends of the Blacks, he became connected with Jacques Pierre Brissot and subsequently aligned himself with the Girondists.
In August 1791, a slave rebellion (the Haitian Revolution) broke out in the northern part of Saint-Domingue, the heart of the island's sugar plantation economy. Saint-Domingue was also wracked by conflict between the white colonists and free people of colour (many of whom were of mixed race), and also between those supportive of the French Revolution and those for a re-establishment of the Ancien Régime — or failing that, for Saint-Domingue's independence.
In 1792, Sonthonax and Etienne Polverel were sent to the colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haïti) as part of the Revolutionary Commission. His main goal was to maintain French control of Saint-Domingue and enforce the social equality recently granted to free gens de couleur by the French National Convention as part of the decree of 4 April 1792. The legislation re-established French control of Saint-Domingue, granted full citizenship and political equality to free blacks and free mulattoes, but did not emancipate the slaves, and induced the slaves to return to the plantations. Sonthonax's mission was not to free the slaves of Saint-Domingue, but rather to enforce the decree and to defeat slave rebellions. Sonthonax had initially decried the abolition of slavery to gain the support of the whites on the island. Upon his arrival, he found that some whites and free people of color were already cooperating against the slave rebels. He did exile many radical whites who would not accept free coloreds as equals and managed to contain the slave insurgency outside of the North.
When Sonthonax and French Colonial Commissioner, Etienne Polveral, were sent to Saint-Domingue, a Proclamation was made by the two. This proclamation started off granting specific freedoms to the slaves, but ultimately, slaves in the north and west of Saint-Domingue were granted freedom. Following the proclamation, Sonthonax wrote a reply to those that were opposed to his and Polveral's decision in 1793 to grant these select slaves this new freedom. He declares his never ending belief that civil rights should be granted to these Africans and defends his decision to free the slaves was not erroneous to do. Sonthonax's Proclamation Au nom de la République explained his role in the Revolution. He was committed to make drastic decisions to prevent Britain and Spain from trying to take control of Saint-Domingue.
Conflict with Britain and abolition
In February 1793 France declared war on the Kingdom of Great Britain, which presented a new problem for Sonthonax. All those he had alienated in trying to uphold the French Revolution in Saint-Domingue could now flock to the banner of Britain, which held the nearby island of Jamaica and was giving shelter to French counter-revolutionary émigrés. The white population declined significantly until only 6,000 remained after June 1793.
On 20 June 1793 a failed attempt to take control of the capital by a new military governor sympathetic to whites, Francois-Thomas Galbaud, led to the bombardment and burning of Cap-Français (now Cap-Haïtien). On June 24, 1793, 60% of the white population left Saint-Domingue with Galbaud, most never to return. Responsibility for the burning is uncertain, though it was likely done by the roughly 1,000 non-native sailors among Galbaud's forces. Up to this point the commissioners had still been pursuing the fight against the black slaves, whose insurrection had begun in August 1791, but Galbaud's attack led them to seek support from some of the black insurgent leaders in the region. The price for this was a promise of freedom for ex-slaves who agreed to fight on behalf of the commissioners and the French republican regime they represented. This emancipation was a momentous victory for all slave forces, and oral histories suggest a boost in their morale.
On August 29,1793, with rumors of emancipation rampant, Sonthonax took the radical step of proclaiming the freedom of the slaves in the north province (with severe limits on their freedom). It was during this time, and due to the new trend of conceding rights to blacks, that Toussaint Louverture began reforming his political philosophy to embrace France rather than Spain; however, he was cautious and awaited French ratification of emancipation before officially changing sides. In September and October, emancipation was extended throughout the colony. On February 4, 1794, the French National Convention ratified this act, applying it to all French colonies, including Guadeloupe. Emancipation was one of the most momentous events in the history of the Americas.
The slaves did not immediately join Sonthonax's side, however. White colonists continued to fight Sonthonax, with assistance from the British. They were joined by many of the free men of color who opposed the abolition of slavery. It was not until word of France's ratification of emancipation arrived back in the colony that Toussaint Louverture and his corps of well-disciplined, battle-hardened former slaves came over to the French Republican side in early May 1794.
A change in the political winds back home caused Sonthonax to be recalled to France to defend his actions. When he returned in the summer of 1794, he argued that the free people of colour, whom he had been originally sent to defend, were no longer loyal to France, and that the Republic should place its faith in the freed slaves. Vindicated, Sonthonax returned to Saint-Domingue a second time. The Comte d'Hédouville was sent by France to be governor of the island, but was eventually forced to flee.
Death and legacy
Toussaint, in the meantime, was consolidating his own position. The black general arranged for Sonthonax to leave Saint-Domingue as one of its elected representatives in 1797, and when Sonthonax showed himself to be hesitant, Toussaint placed him under armed escort onto a ship bound for France on 24 August. He died in his home town 16 years later.
Léger-Félicité Sonthonax is a controversial figure of the Haitian Revolution. His critics (Toussaint, Jean-Jacques Dessalines or André Rigaud) have denounced him as being vain, power-hungry and duplicitous. Thomas Madiou, one of Haïti's most famous historians, writing in the middle of the 19th century deduced that his ultimate goal was to become Governor General of the island, autonomous from France and Napoleon Bonaparte, this was thus the reason why General Toussaint exiled him back to France. Toussaint felt that Sonthonax was using their plight to further his own agenda (power grab). Sonthonax is considered a controversial figure in Haitian history because of his alleged duplicitous nature. His intentions were never clear and he was not trusted by the black population. Sonthonax is seldom spoken of in Haiti today.
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