At the time of the French Revolution, the English government was in the hands of the landed aristocracy, the fledgling industrial bourgeoisie, and colonial interests. For all the high-mindedness of Wilberforce or Clarkson, for all the indignation and oratory of Burke or Sheridan, the highest men in government were already learning to think in continents. William Pitt and his government treated the first half-decade and more of the French Revolution as little but an opportunity to snatch up colonial prizes: the Great Game was to be played, new event in European history or no. Pitt and Dundas dutifully sent out their forces to scour the West Indies and with a bit of English derring-do, have the richest of France’s colonies shipping sugar home to London before those rebels in Paris could sort themselves.
In September 1793, the British landed unopposed in the southern town of Jeremie, an auspicious start to their effort to snap up this unguarded, wealthy territory. The following summer, a wholly unexpected barricade was thrown in their path: in the last gasp of the revolutionary masses of Paris, the sans-culottes in the street impressed on the National Assembly to abolish slavery in the colonies. This world-shaking salute to the slave laborers across the Atlantic was enacted in June 1794. By this generous, angry act, France secured herself the loyalty of Toussaint L’Ouverture and his army of freed blacks and, unwittingly, denied the English their prize.
In the summer of 1794, the British were already spread across the island, attempting to pacify and consolidate their hold on the colony. At the announcement of abolition, Toussaint L'Ouverture returned from Spanish San Domingo to rally to the French cause, instantly changing the dynamics of the conflict. Rather than sporadic slave revolts and French resistance, the English would have to contend with revolutionary troops being led by brave, gifted ex-slave officers. The English troops and their local allies lacked the revolutionary morale engendered by newfound liberty, and as the years of conflict dragged on this meant that an embittered and weakening army had to fend off an ever-renewed and energized foe. Their colonial adventure was mired in the midst of the greatest slave revolt in history.
From the time abolition was proclaimed, the British possibilities had narrowed to a dilemma, though the horns swung into place slowly. They faced either defying their own slave-owning classes to uphold freedmen against the French, or fighting a catastrophic war to re-enslave some half-million men and women. With their own rich (slave) colony of Jamaica less than a hundred miles away, and their forces exhausted, neither could have seemed like a favorable choice. In early 1798, General Maitland defied his directives from London and met with Toussaint to establish a treaty. His forces would abandon their last strongholds on the coast, and cease interception of French shipping; Toussaint would let them leave, and refrain from provoking Jamaica. This was all the British had earned by their years of occupation.
Thus, for the fateful first six years of the Revolutionary Wars in France, the British were ensnared by their attempt to take San Domingo. This prolonged and financially crippling enterprise paralyzed them on the Continent. Their gambit was ultimately defeated, not by French military prowess but by ex-slaves’ revolutionary zeal. While the political works of men are fragile, abolition is not a thing easily undone, once the freed are in arms and organizing themselves. The masses of Paris granted the blacks of San Domingo their salvation, and the freedmen responded in kind by consuming France’s most powerful enemy for over half a decade.
Fortescue, a Victorian military historian writing the official history of the British Army, gives us a final epitaph:
“I have come to the conclusion that the West Indian campaigns, the essence of Pitt’s military policy, cost England in Army and Navy little fewer than one hundred thousand men, about one-half of them dead, the remainder permanently unfitted for service… Her soldier sacrificed, her treasure squandered, her influence in Europe weakened, her arm for six fateful years fettered and paralyzed. The secret of England’s impotence in the first six years of the war may be said to lie in two fatal words: San Domingo.”
Bonus: When I was double-checking my dates for this post I had this gem of algorithmic assistance: