Léger-Félicité Sonthonax

Léger-Félicité Sonthonax

Léger-Félicité Sonthonax (1763 – 1813) was a French Jacobin and abolitionist during the French Revolution who controlled the 7,000 French troops sent to Saint-Domingue during the Haitian Revolution. He believed that Saint-Domingue's whites were royalists or separatists and therefore he attacked the military power of the white settlers and by doing so alienated the colonial settlers. Although he did not originally intend to free the slaves, by October 1793 he was forced into ending slavery in order to maintain his power. [cite book
year= 1999
title= A Brief History of the Caribbean
edition= Revised
publisher=Facts on File, Inc.
location=New York
pages= p. 167 - 168
id= ISBN 0-8160-3811-2

Early life

Born in Oyonnax, France as the son of a prosperous merchant, Sonthonax was a lawyer in the Parlement in Paris who rose in the ranks during the French Revolution. 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 1792, Sonthonax was 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 people of color by the National Convention.

In August 1791, the year before, a slave rebellion (the Haïtian Revolution) had broken 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 reestablishment of the Ancien Régime — or failing that for Saint-Domingue's independence.

On April 4, 1792, the France's Legislative Assembly had voted to give full citizenship to all free people of color. The legislators charged Sonthonax and his fellow commissioners with enforcing this controversial law, re-establishing French control of Saint-Domingue, and inducing the slaves to return to the plantations.

Sonthonax found on his arrival 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.

Conflict with Britain and abolition

In February 1793 France 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. On August 29, 1793, Sonthonax took the radical step of proclaiming the freedom of the slaves in the north province (with severe limits on their freedom). In September and October, emancipation was extended throughout the colony. On February 4, 1794 the French National Convention, to the eternal honour of the French Republic, ratified this act, applying it to all French colonies, most notably Guadeloupe. Emancipation was one of the most momentous events in the history of the Americas.

The slaves did not immediately join to 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 spring, 1796, 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. Comte d'Hédouville was sent by France to be governor of the island but was eventually forced to flee. [cite web
title=The Haitian Revolution, Part III

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 August 24. He died in his home town 16 years later.

Léger-Félicité Sonthonax is a controversial figure of the Haïtian Revolution. His critics (including historians sympathetic to 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, reported that old people in his day spoke very well of Sonthonax.


External links

* The Louverture Project: [http://thelouvertureproject.org/index.php?title=Léger_Félicité_Sonthonax Léger Félicité Sonthonax]

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