Dessalines’ 1805 Invasion of the East by Johnhenry Gonzalez, Ph.D.,

Gonzalez recently completed his doctorate in history at the University of Chicago, and is now a post-doctoral fellow at Duke University. His dissertation is titled, "The War on Sugar: Forced Labor, Commodity Production and the Origins of the Haitian Peasantry, 1791-1843."

Following the defeat of the Leclerc Expedition and the declaration of Haitian independence in 1804, French forces under General Ferrand retained military control of the former Spanish colony of Santo Domingo.  Intent on finally chasing the remaining French forces from Hispaniola and uniting the island under his rule, the Emperor Dessalines assembled his troops and invaded the east in the spring of 1805. 

The Haitian army laid siege to the French troops at Santo Domingo for over three weeks.  Under slightly different circumstances, Dessalines might have successfully taken Santo Domingo and established control of the whole island. Ferrand’s forces were on their last legs when the arrival of French ships convinced Dessalines to lift the siege in preparation for what he feared might be a renewed French invasion. 

As they retreated from the East, Dessalines ordered his troops to burn down the towns of Cotui, La Vega and Santiago.  They also brought with them over a thousand captive men, women, and children who were rounded up by the military and forcibly relocated to Haiti.  The Haitian military referred to the captives from the east as "espagnols."  They were taken from their homes and forced to march as much as one hundred miles.  When they reached Haitian territory, Christophe, Dessalines and other leading Haitian generals distributed the captive espagnols among the state-administered plantations of northern Haiti.

The events of this invasion highlight the contradictory legacy of the founding Haitian generals.  Their campaign to drive the French colonial authorities from the island was undertaken to defend the fledgling nation from invasion and re-enslavement at the hands of the French.  On the other hand, the capture and forced relocation of hundreds of people demonstrates the draconian means that Dessalines and Christophe employed in their efforts to rebuild the island’s plantation economy.