The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The Battle of Vertieres and the Victory of the Haitian Revolution

Jan 18, 2021

Translated from Combat Ouvrière, the newspaper of the revolutionary workers’ group active on the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique in the West Indies.

On November 18th, 1803, an army of black Haitian ex-slaves defeated an army sent by Napoleon at Vertieres, on the northern coast of Haiti. Napoleon’s army was the most powerful army of that time. Haiti had been the richest colony in the world, producing sugar off of the labor of slaves. The army had been sent to reestablish slavery on Haiti, to regain that production for France. The ex-slaves’ victory opened the way to independence. On January 1st, 1804, the former colony became the independent Republic of Haiti.

Slavery was abolished in August of 1793, at the peak of the French Revolution. But abolition only passed because the English were about to invade Haiti, to take the island for itself. Throughout Haiti, slaves rose against the plantation owners, under the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture.

In 1802, Bonaparte sent 86 ships carrying 22,000 soldiers to Haiti to reestablish slavery. The troops took Toussaint L’Ouverture prisoner. He died in a French prison.

But a new insurrection soon rose up in the north of Haiti. The French General, Leclerc, wrote to Napoleon: “It wasn’t enough to imprison Toussaint, now there are 2,000 leaders to imprison.”

New black leaders rose to command the army of the insurrection. Jean-Jacques Dessalines was named supreme commander in May of 1803, under the slogan: “Liberty or Death.”

Bloody battles raged between Napoleon’s army and the insurgents, from May to November of 1803.

The Battle of Vertieres of November 18th was the last major fight—the ex-slaves put a definitive end to French domination and slavery.

Dessalines ordered the capture of the fort at Vertieres, which stood on a hill near French Cape (now called Cape Haitian). Francois Capois, called Death-Capois by his troops, commanded a half brigade. Many were mowed down by cannon fire from the fort. Death-Capois launched four assaults on the fort, without success. His troops did not lay down their arms—they awaited reinforcements from Dessalines. Once these arrived, they renewed their attack. By nightfall, two thirds of the French soldiers lay dead or wounded.

Negotiations between Dessalines and the French officers took up all of the next day. They signed an accord at nightfall. The French had ten days to evacuate the fort, gather what remained of their army—and leave Haiti!

At Vertieres, on November 18th 1803, under-equipped, undernourished black soldiers defeated Europe’s most powerful army, which had invaded to reestablish their slavery. They had taken the same path of the Roman slaves, who, massed in an army led by Spartacus, had shaken the Roman empire before going down in glorious defeat. The Haitians, however, had gloriously triumphed!

During the war, the poor, exploited Haitian masses showed themselves able to find the resources and weapons they needed to fight the oppressor. Haitian slaves, at the bottom of that world’s social scale—“the wretched of the earth”—won their own liberty.

Such a victory feeds our own revolutionary optimism. It is an example for all the exploited on the earth. It can only reinforce our faith in the future for the slaves of today—wage-slaves, the workers of the entire world. They also will find the way to free themselves from the yoke of their exploiter: the bourgeoisie.