War of Knives

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War of Knives
Part of the Haitian Revolution
Toussaint L'Ouverture.jpg
Unofficial political leader of the nation during the revolution, Toussaint Louverture is considered the father of Haiti.
Date June 1799 - July 1800
Location Saint-Domingue

Decisive pro-Toussaint victory

  • Toussaint assumes control of the entirety of Saint-Domingue
  • Rigaud & mixed-race officers flee into exile
  • Reprisals & massacres against Rigaud supporters

Pro-Toussaint Forces

Naval support

United States
Pro-Rigaud Forces
Commanders and leaders
Toussaint Louverture
Henri Christophe
Jean-Jacques Dessalines
John Adams
André Rigaud
Alexandre Pétion
45,000 15,000
André Rigaud

The War of Knives (French: Guerre des couteaux), also known as the War of the South, was a civil war from June 1799 to July 1800 between the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture, a black ex-slave who controlled the north of Saint-Domingue (modern-day Haiti), and his adversary André Rigaud, a free colored person of mixed race who controlled the south.[1] Louverture and Rigaud fought over de facto control of the French colony of Saint-Domingue during the war, which took place after the two men had successfully expelled foreign forces from the colony as part of the Haitian Revolution. The war resulted in Toussaint taking control of the entirety of Saint-Domingue, and Rigaud fleeing into exile.


Early revolution[edit]

The Haitian Revolution had begun in 1791, when black slaves on the Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue rose up against their French owners amidst the French Revolution. Toussaint came to prominence as a leader of rebel slaves in the north of Saint-Domingue, operating in territories surrounding the port of Le Cap. Simultaneously, Rigaud emerged as a rebel leader among the mixed-race gens de couleur, or free people of color, in the south of Saint-Domingue, where they had a significant presence around the port of Les Cayes.[2]

In May 1792, Saint-Domingue's French Republican commissioners formed an alliance with Rigaud, allowing him to march his forces into the capital of Port-au-Prince and dissolve the city's restive government of white planters. In August 1793, the new commissioner Sonthonax proclaimed freedom for all slaves in Saint-Domingue, in an effort to counteract a counterrevolutionary white planters' revolt in Le Cap, a British invasion, and a Spanish invasion from neighboring Santo Domingo, as part of the War of the First Coalition. After they abolished slavery, Sonthonax and his fellow commissioner Polverel successfully convinced Toussaint to join the French Republican side of the conflict. Toussaint and Rigaud had become allies by 1794.[3] In early 1795, the French National Convention promoted both men to the rank of brigadier general.[4]

Toussaint consolidates power[edit]

By 1798, Toussaint and Rigaud had jointly contained both the external and internal threats to the colony. In April 1798, the British commander Thomas Maitland approached Toussaint to negotiate a British withdrawal, which was concluded in August.[5] In early 1799, Toussaint also independently negotiated "Toussaint's Clause" with the U.S., allowing American merchants to trade with Saint-Domingue despite the ongoing Quasi War between the U.S. and France.[6][7] These developments significantly augmented Toussaint's power and demonstrated his emergence as a de facto independent ruler.[8] Going forward, Toussaint and Rigaud effectively controlled all of the troops and territory within Saint-Domingue, despite the fact that the colony was still nominally under French oversight.[9] Toussaint ruled the colony's northern region around Le Cap and the western region around the capital of Port-au-Prince. Meanwhile, Rigaud independently ruled the southern region around Les Cayes, although Toussaint was technically his superior.[10]

Hedouville sows tension[edit]

In July 1798, Toussaint and Rigaud traveled in a carriage together from Port-au-Prince to Le Cap to meet the recently arrived representative Théodore-Joseph d'Hédouville, sent by France's new Directory regime. Oral tradition asserts that during this carriage ride, Toussaint and Rigaud made a pact to collaborate against Hedouville's meddling. However, those efforts soon came undone, as Hedouville intentionally treated Rigaud with more favor than Toussaint, in an effort to sow tension between the two leaders. In a letter to Rigaud, Hedouville criticized "the perfidy of General Toussaint Louverture" and absolved Rigaud of Toussaint's authority as general-in-chief, instead inviting Rigaud to "take command of the Department of the South."[9] Hedouville eventually fled Saint-Domingue, sailing from Le Cap in October 1798 due to threats by Toussaint.

The War[edit]


The conflict took place mainly within Rigaud's domains in the southern part of Saint-Domingue. On June 18, 1799, Rigaud sent 4,000 troops to seize the southern border towns of Petit-Goâve and Grand-Goâve, routing the smaller forces of Louverture's officer Laplume. Following this decisive strike, the free-colored officer (and future Haitian president) Alexandre Pétion defected to Rigaud's side, bringing with him a large contingent of veteran troops.[11]

Outside of the south, Rigaud also instigated smaller revolts in the northern regions around Le Cap, Port-de-Paix, and Môle-Saint-Nicolas, as well as the west-central Artibonite plain.[11] Many of these regions had repeatedly revolted against Toussaint in the past, in response to his strict labor policies and accommodative attitude towards white planters.[12]


Toussaint responded rapidly to crush the uprisings in the north. Under the leadership of his officers Henri Christophe and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Toussaint's troops orchestrated widespread executions of suspected conspirators. Meanwhile, in August 1799, Toussaint wrote to U.S. president John Adams, convincing the U.S. navy to blockade ports controlled by Rigaud.[13]

After consolidating his rule in the north, Toussaint then proceeded to invade Rigaud's strongholds in the south. For this invasion, Toussaint possessed a stark numerical advantage; he had 45,000 troops in his army, compared with Rigaud's 15,000.[3] As the invasion proceeded, Rigaud's support eventually slipped away, despite heavy fighting and use of scorched-earth tactics.

In March 1800, Rigaud's forces made an unsuccessful final stand at Jacmel, which subsequently fell to Toussaint. In June, an emissary of France sent by the newly empowered First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte (who had recently overthrown the Directory) reaffirmed Toussaint's position as general-in-chief, undermining Rigaud's claims that Hedouville had voided Toussaint's authority.[14] By late July, Rigaud had fled the colony with his family to France, and Toussaint entered Rigaud's former base of Les Cayes shortly afterwards.



Following his victory over Rigaud, Toussaint declared a general amnesty in July 1800. Nevertheless, Toussaint's general Jean-Jacques Dessalines became infamous during this period for carrying out brutal reprisals and massacres against Rigaud's supporters. Some historians have asserted that Toussaint himself ordered massacres, but delegated the actual act of killing to his generals to avoid culpability.[14] The number of victims in these massacres remains disputed: the contemporary French general François Joseph Pamphile de Lacroix suggested 10,000 deaths, while the 20th-century Trinidadian historian C.L.R. James later claimed only a few hundred deaths in contravention of the amnesty.[15]

Invasion of Santo Domingo[edit]

Five months after the war, in December 1800, Toussaint ordered an invasion of the neighboring colony of Santo Domingo, which occupied the eastern half of the island of Hispanola. Although Spain had technically ceded Santo Domingo to France in the 1795 Peace of Basel, the colony was still controlled by a Spanish administration at the time. The invasion was virtually unopposed, and the Spanish governor capitulated a month later.

Toussaint's reasons for invading Santo Domingo remain multifaceted and murky. Throughout the war, the Spanish authorities in Santo Domingo had generally supported Rigaud, fearing Toussaint's own designs on the eastern position of Hispaniola. Toussaint suspected that the Spanish had also been offering direct military aid to Rigaud; for instance, the gens de colour officer Antoine Chanlatte had traveled to Santo Domingo in 1800 to acquire munitions for Rigaud's cause.[16] The American consul Edward Stevens claimed that Toussaint had launched the invasion in response to a rumor that France was sending 15,000 troops to Santo Domingo in support of Riguad. Toussaint also claimed that black "French citizens" were being kidnapped and sold as slaves in Santo Domingo. Additionally, Toussaint may have wished to emancipate Santo Domingo's remaining enslaved population, although he made no mention of slavery in his declaration of war.[17]

Toussaint's fall from power[edit]

With his victory over Rigaud and conquest of Santo Domingo, Toussaint controlled the entire island of Hispaniola by 1801. However, Rigaud would return less than two years later, when he and his fellow exile Pétion joined Charles Leclerc's unsuccessful 1802 campaign to reassert French control over the colony. During the campaign, Leclerc would deport both Rigaud and Toussaint from Saint Domingue; Toussaint died in a French prison in 1803.

Ethnicity and the conflict[edit]

In presenting the war, historians often point to the ethnic divide between Saint-Domingue's black and mulatto populations. Rigaud, a free mulatto, is seen as being favored by the whites and other mulattos, who were part of the gens de couleur. In contrast, Toussaint was held in high regard by the colony's black population. Under Rigaud's regime, gens de colour had filled many officer posts in his army and acquired many abandoned plantation properties in the south. Meanwhile, most of the officers in Toussaint's army were of African ancestry.[1]

That said, there was still substantial diversity on both sides. Many ex-slaves supported Rigaud's faction, such as the former maroon Lamour Desrances, due to the impression that Toussaint was excessively conciliatory to white planters and the British.[1] Both sides claimed that the other intended to betray the Rights of Man propagated by the French Revolution and reinstate slavery.[18]

As a result, historians such as Laurent Dubois argue that the conflict "was not driven by differences in racial identity... it was a conflict over territorial and political power."[18] Both Toussaint and Rigaud had an economic interest in maintaining the colony's plantation system and cultivating economic ties with British and American merchants. The question that remained was whether it would be Toussaint or Rigaud who controlled this renewed system.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Dubois 2004, p. 232.
  2. ^ Dubois 2004, p. 28.
  3. ^ a b Dubois 2004, p. 234.
  4. ^ Dubois 2004, p. 196.
  5. ^ Dubois 2004, p. 218.
  6. ^ Nessler 2016, pp. 99-100.
  7. ^ Dubois 2004, pp. 223-234.
  8. ^ Nessler 2016, pp. 95-96.
  9. ^ a b Dubois 2004, p. 231.
  10. ^ Dubois 2004, p. 218, 231.
  11. ^ a b Dubois 2004, pp. 233-234.
  12. ^ Dubois 2004, pp. 189-192.
  13. ^ Dubois 2004, p. 235.
  14. ^ a b Dubois 2004, p. 236.
  15. ^ James 1963, pp. 236-237.
  16. ^ Nessler 2016, p. 98.
  17. ^ Dubois 2004, pp. 236-238.
  18. ^ a b Dubois 2004, p. 233.