Soldiers of Misfortune


Soldiers of Misfortune: Napoleon’s Polish Deserters in the West Indies

A new republic was born on 1 January 1804.The French colony of Saint Domingue had thrown off a hundred years of French rule and proclaimed its independence as Haiti. That fight for independence had lasted a decade, but had culminated in the defeat of an army Napoleon had sent to subdue the colony. The new state was created by the rebels who had fought Napoleon and who, for the most part, started their lives as slaves on France’s sugar plantations. It had been a heroic fight but independence was marred by massacres as the new authorities set about settling scores with what remained of the French colonial settlers. Nevertheless a particular group of Europeans was to be spared and even welcomed in the new state.  In 1805, Haiti was issued with a new constitution which abolished slavery for ever and declared that Haiti was a free state subject to none other in the universe. But some thirteen articles after these high phrases there was an unusual addition. Article 13 specifically granted rights and privileges and protection to Poles and Germans.

The presence of Poles and Germans in the Caribbean in the early 19th Century is in itself rather unusual. But what is even more surprising is that these particular men singled out for protection had only recently formed part of Napoleon’s army of reconquest which had wrought so much damage to the region.

This is a short talk so I cannot go into the wider history in much detail. Haiti’s path to independence had begun with the French Revolution of 1789, the most significant trigger being the republic’s abolition of slavery four years later. This sparked a civil war in the largest French colony. Britain, to her shame, intervened on behalf of the former slave owners whilst the former slaves, ranged themselves under Toussaint Louverture. By 1798, he and his men had driven out the British and their auxiliaries and he nominated himself governor general. For now, at least, he kept the colony nominally loyal to France and France, beset by continental wars, was happy to leave things stand.

Then came Napoleon. He seized control of France in November 1799 and cleared Europe of enemies. Having done that it was perhaps natural that he eyed securing the colonies in the West Indies as his next step, especially as it would boost a treasury exhausted by war. With peace with Britain under discussion he arranged for an enormous expedition to be sent to Haiti to subdue Louverture and reimpose direct rule from Paris. He placed his brother-in-law, General Leclerc in command, and the first wave set sail in December 1801. Their task seemed relatively easy. They were to land, disarm Louverture’s supporters, have the administration demonstrate loyalty to Napoleon and then seize Louverture and send him to Paris.

But the expedition was a disaster. The French landed and secured the ports but Louverture’s men, suspecting that the invaders had come to restore slavery, took to the hills and organised a lasting insurgency. For the Europeans, fighting the rebels proved exhausting. Fighting the climate also proved demanding. And combatting disease proved impossible. Yellow Fever destroyed Leclerc’s army in the summer of 1802. Louverture was finally seized and sent to die in France but the insurgency would continue even after General Leclerc himself succumbed to Yellow Fever in November 1802 and was replaced by the even more brutal General Donatien Rochambeau.

The vast majority of the army Napoleon sent to the West Indies in late 1801 consisted of French nationals. They, and their officers, did not flinch when ordered across the Atlantic, indeed many of the officers viewed the expedition as a sure way of enriching themselves through monopolising the transatlantic supply of coffee and sugar. But Louverture’s resistance, and news that many of the troops were dying from local fevers, meant that reinforcements were suddenly needed in large numbers. And given the apparent nature of the war, and likelihood of severe casualties, Napoleon, who had just brought peace to France, was content to send foreign auxiliaries. The great majority of these reinforcements would be Poles. Indeed, some 5,000 of them would eventually be sent to the West Indies in two supplementary expeditions (one in May 1802 and one in January 1803).

That is a large number of Poles, perhaps two thirds of all the Polish soldiers in French service. Why send them to the West Indies when they were unsuited to warfare in the tropics. A number of theories have been advanced. That Napoleon was sending the politically suspect to their deaths, primarily units composed of Jacobins. However this is not the case with the Poles. Most of the officers were from the petty nobility and had joined with the French in the hope that defeating Austria and Russia would restore Polish independence. Few among them were ardent revolutionaries. The more persuasive argument, touched upon above, is that Napoleon preferred to send various foreign regiments now that France was at peace.

There is, however, another significant factor. Peace with Austria meant that the  legions of Poles in French service were something of an embarrassment. They were formed from men who were now primarily Austrian citizens and, having sworn to free Poland from Austrian rule, they were a potential source of conflict. Sending them to the West Indies allowed Napoleon to solve this particular diplomatic quandary, however cynical such a solution might sound.

The first Polish unit, the 113th Demi-brigade, was sent to Italian ports and placed on transport ships in May 1802. Major Bolesta informed General Dąbrowski, “the West Indies is evidently our destination, it suits everyone to talk of it as though it were a secret.” A second unit, the 114th Demi-brigade, followed in early 1803.

What did the Poles make of their new mission? Not all were dismayed. Lieutenant Józef Rogaliński of the 113th quipped:

“No one knows our destination, we have three months’ provisions onboard. It seems that we are sailing to America to see many marvels on the island discovered by Columbus; to travel over the sea, to eat pineapples which are as abundant as potatoes in Europe …”

More common was a feeling of resentment that the Poles were now being used as pawns to conquer colonies for France not least because it diverted the Poles from their declared aim of Polish independence. Many reflected that they were little more than mercenaries. And that they were mercenaries being sent to the tropics, a notorious posting for European troops on account of the climate and fevers.

Some of the more thoughtful officers reflected on the paradox that they, soldiers supposedly waging war for liberty and equality, were now being sent to return former slaves to, at best, indentured labour and, at worst, a return to slavery as it had existed before the revolution. Michał Sokolnicki writing from Genoa in May 1802, was outspoken in his anger and expressed his consternation that “those who had fought for liberty and could tolerate no oppressor, shall now go and place free men in chains and make a trade of them”.

As they sailed west, morale was understandably low. Indeed when the first Poles landed in September 1802 General Leclerc warned his subordinates to prevent the Poles from, as he expressed it, hitting the bottle. The 113th was quickly destroyed and reduced to isolated detachments. A fate shared by the 114th when it sailed in in March 1803.

In the spring of 1803 Captain Kobylański reported that his unit had been destroyed because “the soldiers here fight every day, they are besieged, left without pay, without clothes, without relief, are on duty for three months, in short, utter disorder”.  Then there were the notorious fevers. Chazotte, a French planter serving in the National Guard, saw what became of the Poles:

“Two battalions of Polish troops in the service of France were landed at Cap Tiburon from the French fleet. Two days after the landing of these two beautiful units more than half their number were carried off by Yellow Fever; they fell down as they walked, the blood running out through their nostrils, mouths, eyes; their bodies turned yellow, they could not move, they were dead.”

Morale crumbled. Józef Zadora of the 114th, wrote home in panic:

“I am probably writing for the last time before I die, for just 300 men of the Demi-brigade remain along with a few officers. All the rest are dead, including your brother who died just a few months after arriving here. I write to you as hope disappears, reproaching myself for my foolishness at having wanted to see the Americas. I would not wish them on my worst enemy and it would be better to remain a beggar in one’s own country than to go to make one’s fortune in America where there are a thousand diseases and even if you survive them they will not permit you to take any leave, all they do is order you to serve and fight and the blacks, should they catch you, treat you most cruelly.”

The attitude of their French superiors compounded this sense of hopelessness. They were most disparaging about their Polish auxiliaries. General Pierre Thouvenot was just one to express a negative view. He had written shortly after the Poles had landed, declaring that they were “abominably bad for the kind of war we are fighting” and that March he repeated his doubts to General Brunet: “it is impossible to use them apart from placing them in garrisons and it is also risky to do thus unless they are supported by other troops. Desertion to the rebels is not unusual amongst them.” His opinion was that “These bulky and apathetic men, strangers to our way of thinking and our language, transported so very far from their homeland, have lost all their will to continue.”

The French therefore determined that these apathetic warriors would be better off protecting ports and plantations than in risking defeat in pitched battle. Such a slight was an additional blow to sensitive Polish pride. The nature of the war further added to the sense of alienation. The war was a series of atrocities punctuated by the burning of towns and villages. The Poles saw how rebels were hanged, drowned or shot without trial, and how the French used hunting dogs to pursue the defeated blacks. They saw how French prisoners falling into rebels hands were massacred or burnt. They also saw that they were expected to fully participate in this brutal bloodletting. And sometimes they did. At Saint Marc on 17 October 1802, a battalion of the 12th Colonial Demi-brigade, nominally in French service, was suspected of getting ready to go over to the rebels, so its men were massacred on a parade ground. A Polish source recalled how “When they were standing on the square, the battalion under Major Bolesta, surrounded them unexpectedly and killed them with bayonets.”

Evidently they showed some reluctance, or, after the event, expressed some disgust at being involved. Beaubrun Ardouin, an early historian of Haiti, goes even further and implies that the Saint Marc massacre might well have been the defining moment for Polish-Haitian relations. He states that the Poles “had shown considerable repugnance at the barbarity of General Quantin.” And that, from that point on, the rebels began to differentiate between the reluctant Poles and the exasperated French. Piotr Bazyli Wierzbicki recalled how

“Later, when the blacks learned how we were sent to Saint Domingue, they changed their conduct towards us and henceforth began to treat our prisoners with greater humanity. Paul Louverture, commander of the local blacks, once had those Poles who had been taken prisoner brought before him, and he offered that they remain in Saint Domingue as free men enjoying all civil rights.”

Poles taken at Jérémie when General Fressinet loaded his French troops onto merchant ships and abandoned his Polish detachment in the citadel were also spared with most settling on plantations in the area. The rebel general Geffrard had allowed the surrender of Polish troops at Anse-à-Veau and sent them to Dessalines, who kept them at Michel. Some of these men took up the offer of service with the rebel armies. The rebel commander Ferrou coaxed some Poles into his service and it was rumoured he was commanding a unit of Poles and Germans by the spring of 1803. Dessalines also had a Polish unit in his rebel army, one drawn from prisoners and deserters too, something borne out by Polish accounts. According to Darewski, writing back to Poland on 16 August 1803, some “30 fusiliers from our Demi-brigade had gone over to the rebel side and they now form Dessalines’ personal guard”. WhenDessalines crowned himself emperor of Haiti in late 1804, his throne was protected by a unit of Polish and German guards. In another instance, General Pamphile Lacroix states that the rebel Clervaux had managed to persuade a hundred or so Poles to desert and that he had even them mounted on horses to form a kind of rebel cavalry. We cannot be sure of the exact number of such deserters, perhaps there were 200 or so, but, as a proportion of the Poles who survived the disaster, this was a sizable minority.

A number of Polish officers, echoed by conservative historians later in the century, suggested that the French were slandering their countrymen by exaggerating the number of deserters in order to use the Poles as scapegoats to excuse the loss of the colony. But the evidence remains. A few hundred deserted to the rebels and a few hundred more decided to remain in Haiti following the French defeat.These were the men who were afforded special privileges following independence. Whatever their provenance, some 500 Poles were left in the colony when the French troops were evacuated and 400 of them signed the act of naturalisation in which  they “manifested  their wish to be inscribed in the permanent register of those constituting the residents of the island of Haiti.”  The act of naturalisation then ended with a rather unique form of words for the time, namely that “ we declare with the present act that we count Citizen X as being one of the children of this island and, recognising him as such, desire and command that all the other inhabitants recognise him as such and that therefore Citizen X, regardless of the different colour of his skin, shall enjoy the same rights as those of the natural inhabitants of this place.” The new constitution made special reference to the naturalised Poles and Germans. Their rights to live and own property were, in contrast to those of other Europeans, particularly the French, specifically protected by Article 13. The majority of these naturalised citizens seem to have settled in to life in their new nation. A minority tried to escape. A dozen were picked up by Captain Perkins of the Royal Navy in early 1804 and, along with a few hundred more captured by the British and kept in Jamaica, chose to join the British 60th Foot (as an aside many of those would find themselves sent to South Africa and would settle there, so these Poles were well travelled). And in the spring of 1804, 160 Poles asked Dessalines for permission to be returned to Europe. There they were placed on the Ontario, an American merchantman, and were eventually shipped to New York and on to Copenhagen in late 1805. Although a further 15 would quit the colony in 1807 the rest, perhaps some 300 to 350 individuals, remained and, for better or worse, attempted to make Haiti their home.

Some served in Dessalines’ army, but most seem to have worked the land, although evidence is lacking and we see only glimpses of what became of the Poles who remained before a revival of interest in Poland itself, and the development of anthropology, led to some Polish scholars taking an interest in studying their descendants. By the 1960s studies on the light-skinned and grey-eyed inhabitants of the village of Cazales in the west and the town of Port Salut in the south west were appearing. The survival of surnames such as Lipinsky, Adelsky and Voycyk or the more generic Polak showed the degree to which the Polish legacy had endured. And it is still present today.

Aside from that legacy, what, then, is the significance of this rather obscure episode in European and Caribbean history? It is probably true that the Poles surrendered or changed side as a survival tactic. But we should also acknowledge that troops sent to fight in horrible conditions for a cause they do not believe in and for superiors who did not value them are unlikely to remain loyal.

There is also a symbolic significance. For the Haitians the presence of Poles affirms the righteousness of their cause during the revolution. For the Poles the loss of nearly 5,000 men in the legions in the West Indies represented another example of the cynical exploitation of Polish valour by a foreign power. Those deaths were certainly tragic, but there is a complication when it comes to looking specifically at the Poles who chose to remain in Haiti.

Those Poles are in an uncomfortable position historically. On the one hand they affirm a tendency amongst nationalist historians to insist that Poles, wherever they fought, and whomever they fought against, tended to align themselves on the side of liberty. On the other hand they contradict that other tendency, articulated by the same set of historians, to suggest that the Polish legions were loyal to the last. The 400 who chose to remain challenge such generalisations. And for that reason, as well as some of the real difficulties involved in researching this bizarre episode, the Polish deserters on Haiti have largely disappeared from the historical record.

This talk is a condensed version of the introduction to my recent book, co-authored with Marek Lalowski and entitled “ War of Lost Hope: Polish Accounts of the Napoleonic Expedition to Saint Domingue”.

Thank you.