The Samaná Affair

I recently visited the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture for the first time. I could try to describe the elation I felt, sitting in the reading room under the auspices of Aaron Douglass’ Aspects of Negro Life murals, but listening to poet and activist Sonia Sanchez tell the story of her first visit to the library will give a better sense of what the Center has long represented for black culture and history.  I will turn instead to what the Schomburg Center holds that might be of interest more specifically to scholars of the Haitian Revolution.

The Schomburg Center is home to extensive archival collections related to Haiti. Lately I have been working on King Henry I, and I have to say that the Kurt Fischer Archive–the exploration of which I devoted this first visit–has very little in connection to the Kingdom of Haiti. However, it has much to offer regarding the Southern Republic. Perusing through those documents, I found out about the  Samaná affair, a peculiar episode regarding Jean-Pierre Boyer’s annexation of Santo Domingo in 1822.

Samaná is a little piece of earth advancing into the Atlantic Ocean on the Northeastern coast of Hispaniola. It is what the French call a presqu’île, almost an island; so close to being an island, in fact, that Europeans visiting the area –starting with Christopher Columbus–have tended to mistake Samaná for one. Although Juan Lopez corrected the mistake on his 1784 map of the island, Samaná was routinely portrayed as an island into the nineteenth century. Misleading appearances for a territory that enters Western history for a moment of misunderstanding, leading, inevitably, to violence: it was in Samaná Bay that Columbus and his crew, repairing on their way back from their first transatlantic voyage, met a group of natives displaying what the Spaniards judged to be hostile behavior. Feeling threatened, the Europeans attacked, making Samaná the location of the first violent encounter between Europeans and native Americans in the Caribbean.

John Thomson, “Haiti, Hispaniola or St. Domingo,” available on David Rumsey’s Historical Map Collection. 1822

Like much of the island, the Samaná peninsula was more or less ignored by the Spaniards, and it fell to French buccaneers to settle it in earnest in the late 17th century, until they were dislodged by force by Spain at the turn of the 18th century.  In the mid-18th century, Spain tried repopulating the area with ‘isleños’ from the Canary Islands. They built villages that never prospered. The peninsula nevertheless remained a point of interest for the French, who tried unsuccessfully to obtain the entire Northern Coast of Hispaniola from Spain in the 1770s.

What diplomacy could not achieve, war almost managed: with the onset of the Haitian Revolution in 1791, French planters fleeing Saint Domingue settled on the peninsula with their slaves and built productive plantations. The area eventually passed on to France with the rest of Santo Domingo in 1795 under the Peace of Basel, although it was not officially occupied until Toussaint Louverture marched into Santo Domingo in 1800. Samaná Bay was the chosen gathering point for Leclerc’s fleet in 1801; watching the ships rolling in from the clifs overlooking the bay, Louverture allegedly declared: “we must perish. all France is come to Saint Domingue. It has been deceived; it comes to take revenge and enslave the blacks.” When they finally disembarked, Leclerc’s troops fortified the village of Samaná. The French occupied it until allied English and Spanish forces expelled them from Santo Domingo in 1809. More French planters settled in the area after Haiti gained independence, their property–material and human, protected by Spanish law even after 1809.

Following the death of Henry I in 1820 and the collapse of his kingdom, Jean-Pierre Boyer reunited the two parts of Haiti. The following year, the inhabitants of Santo Domingo declared independence from Spain as the Republic of Spanish Haiti with José Núñez de Cáceres at its head. His failure to abolish slavery angered the colored and enslaved population who had hoped for more civil rights. Núñez de Cáceres turned to Bolivar’s Gran Colombia–the fruit of a creole revolution backed by Pétion–rather than the too black Haiti for support against potential Spanish retaliation. Opponents to Núñez de Cáceres soon challenged his choice; they raised the Haitian flag over some of the major cities of the newly independent country and held secret talks with the Haitian authorities. The prospect of becoming part of Haiti did not sit well with slave-owning planters, and even less with those French planters in Samaná. In 1822, Boyer marched into Santo Domingo at the head of his troops and annexed Spanish Haiti without firing a shot.

What happened next varies depending on the account and its author, but it appears that local French and Spanish slaveowners, worried at the prospect of losing their property, begged the French to invade the peninsula. The French frigate La Duchesse de Berry, which routinely cruised Haitian waters to protect French ships against pirates, happened to be anchored in the Bay of Samaná and received their query. Captain Douault did not have the authority to make this decision, and suggested the planters send their query to Martinique’s military governor François-Xavier Donzelot. In the meantime, La Duchesse remained in the Bay, even when Núñez de Cáceres asked Douault to leave, so as not to let Boyer believe that they were in cahoots. Boyer’s troops moved into the peninsula as Douault was waiting for a response. Toussaint, the officer commanding those troops, ordered Douault to leave the Bay. Douault followed suit, only to meet Admiral Louis-Léon Jacob’s flotilla, 10 ship strong, transporting some 1,200 foot soldiers, coming the other way. Governor Donzelot and admiral Jacob, seeing an opportunity to encroach on the island, had decided to take it. The diplomatic logic of the action was especially vexed: as Haitian historian Beaubrun Ardouin points out,

“[Donzelot and Jacob] could not reasonably take the peninsula ‘in the name of France,’ since it was supposed to still be a section of the Spanish colony in rebellion against the metropole. France being an ally of Spain, the governor and admiral would have liked to act in Spain’s stead. Therefore, the Spanish flag should have been reestablished on the peninsula… But in order to reestablish the Spanish flag, they would have to fight the Haitians and take up an immense responsibility: France would have to act against the former colony of its ally, something it had not wanted to do against its own former colony” (Etudes sur l’Histoire d’Haïti vol.9 (1860), 137).

Léon-Louis Jacob par Antoine Maurin, in Biographie maritime ou notices historiques sur la vie et les campagnes des marins célèbres français et étrangers (vol. 3), Joseph François Gabriel Hennequin, Regnault éditeur, Paris, 1835.

In a letter to officer Toussaint, Jacob claimed he had showed up out of concern for the safety of the French colonists of the peninsula. Unable to engage Toussaint’s position at Samana, Jacob turned to the village of Savana del Mar where with the help of local planters he forced the small, 15-men strong Haitian garrison to withdraw after firing broadsides at their encampment.  The French disembarked hundreds of troops and fortified their positions. Following this action, Boyer sent troops to retake Savana del Mar; he put an embargo on all French ships and persons in Haitian harbors, intimating in no uncertain terms to Jacob that these French citizens would likely suffer the consequences of rash actions on his part. Realizing that there was little he could do to change the situation, Jacob sent a letter to Toussaint asking to be allowed to embark the French colonists. Toussaint accepted and made clear they would not be allowed to take slaves. After a forty-day standoff, the French flotilla finally left, carrying 170 French planters and crews wracked by yellow fever.

The episode was discussed in international news for the better part of 1822. Though the French press did see the Haitian takeover as a threat to French planters still living on the Spanish side of the island, they mostly presented it as a economic threat. President Boyer was a known Francophile, who had allowed French traders, trade ships and even the French navy back in the island’s harbors. But his steady opposition to slavery was a serious issue for France. This did not stop French journalists from criticizing harshly the failure of Donzelot and Jacob’s adventure. They skewered in particular the potential it had to threaten French lives. French journalists also routinely commended Boyer for his magnanimity in dealing with the French , and for helping defuse what could have been a diplomatic disaster.

Details of the events are unclear enough for writers to allow themselves plenty of elbow room in later assessments of the expedition. Romuald Lepelletier de Saint Rémy’s fanciful, pro-French account Saint Domingue: Etude et Solution Nouvelle de la Question Haïtienne (1846) thus claims that  “a sort of camaraderie was established” between the local population and the French. Where Haitian news of the time notes that the French pillaged the area, stealing all the cattle they could, Lepelletier de Saint Rémy says that French troops  “improvised a daily market on the beach, where ship victuals were exchanged against live animals and local vegetables.” Further yet, he pretends that “Captain Villemain of the corps of engineers led incredible excursions in the woods of the peninsula, along with the Negro officers he had come to fight.” Although no other account reaches this level of self-delusion, it is rather interesting to note that the great majority present the affair as bloodless. Beaubrun Ardouin himself, though he provides perhaps the most detailed account of the affair, makes no mention of fighting.

Yet documents held at the Schomburg Center (Kurt Fisher Haitian Collection–Micro R2228, Reel 1) suggest that the military engagement was more serious than was let out in either French or Haitian newspapers. Two letters written by a young officer in the expedition–[Joseph Henri Gabriel] de Saint-Laurent–to his father, [Jean de Thomas] de Saint Laurent, the first written a few days before his ship would depart from Samaná Bay, give a few more details as to what happened during the expedition:

Samana (St Domingue) 4 mars 1822

My dear papa, 

Lalande tells me that La Junon is departing and I do not want to let it leave without sending you news of me and telling you about the events that led us to this country. Boyer proclaimed the freedom of Negroes throughout the island. The Spaniards have lost most of the part of the island they were holding until this day; you know that Boyer could not have performed such a conquest without frightening, scaring or massacring the poor inhabitants who initially wanted to march against him, but later showed no more bravery than Neapolitans. This ephemeral resistance only manifested itself in the East of Saint Domingue and was very harmful to the inhabitants of Samana. They now crowd our ships and, in tears, come running in our arms to escape the Aitian [sic] sword, which certainly would not have spared them. Yesterday evening l’Aigrette received more than 170 refugees. It is said that the Spaniards in the [unreadable] have begged the French for help. We arrived here but the revolution was almost over, and the island of Samana which admiral Jacob wanted to take and keep for us was occupied by the insurgents. As the general does not want the responsibility of declaring war on the Republic of Aiti [sic], I believe there will be no invasion, and that we shall immediately renounce all the great hopes the general had conceived in his apolitical genius. Indeed, what use would this miserable island of Samana be for France? What means did we have to conserve it? Unless we would yearly expose a numerous flotilla to come and die under the burning fires of this ugly country.We arrived here, we intercepted all communications, we disembarked voltigeurs (scouts) who killed Negroes and then said we were coming with peaceful intentions. But the insurgents are not fooled, and we lose all the work performed by Mr, Duperre, who had managed to make French commerce flourish, and give hope to an island that seemed unlikely to ever return to us. I do not know how much longer we shall stay here, I do not know when we shall escape this feeling of uncertainty and embarrassment that bothers us and makes our lives dreary. La Junon is leaving, however, and I believe its departure announces a quick decision. We all envy the happiness of this frigate that will go back to France and disarm in Toulon. We do not yet know what will become of us. The admiral never says anything… La Duchesse de Berry has long had an order to go back to France, but Mr Drouot [sic] who cares nothing about it is employed dragging on.

The rest of his letter discusses personal matters.

His second letter was written in Brest, on his return from the West Indies.

On board L’Aigrette, April 14, 1822. 

 We were expected in Brest, and so it seems likely, my dear papa, that our return in France was known, in which case it will have caused less surprise to you than to us. You know that admiral Jacob never speaks; therefore it was not difficult for him to hide our destination. He did this with so much ease as we all expected to remain 18 months in the colonies. Thankfully, fate had different orders. In my letter before last dated from Martinique I gave you a few details about our campaign and mentioned a secret expedition were were about to set on. In my sixth letter, which Lalande will bring you, I announced that our expedition in Samana had failed. We embarked all the troops from Martinique and brought the, with us to Samana (Saint Domingue). The ships in the division were the Jean Bart, Junon, Africaine, Duchesse [de Berry], Aigrette, Cairn [?], Sylene and two small goelettes. We supposedly only wanted to protect the unhappy Spaniards now exposed to the cruelty and barbarism of the Negroes, but we also wanted to capture Samana and keep it for France. Generals Donzelot and Jacob likely presumed that Samana would still be in the hands of the Spaniards and that it would be easy to occupy, but we arrived too late: the insurgents already had the island. Yet we tarried, even engaging in hostilities. The voltigeurs (scouts) were soon ordered back onto our ships and we gave up on a conquest that would have been as impolitical as fruitless. We were in Samana asking ourselves where things were when we received the order to sail. We were then far from thinking that we were headed for France, and we only found out for sure when we dropped anchor in Brest harbor. You certainly know the terrible damage that yellow fever wrought among the ships stationed in the West Indies. L’Egerie, La Diligente, L’Hirondelle and L’Africaine were hit the worst. le Jean Bart lost a few men, and still has a few sick men, and this circumstance more than contributed to lengthen our quarantine, which was just set at thirty days. In spite of this, we can communicate with the ship. Sanitary laws have become very rigid everywhere. L’Aigrette has remained felicitous […].

Saint-Laurent’s account bluntly evokes what official French and Haitian accounts strove to play down: French troops did attack and kill Haitian troops at Samaná  in what could have been considered an act of war, at a time when both governments were attempting to resume negotiations. According the Lepelletier de Saint Rémy’s 1846 account, the episode was roundly mocked by French journalists, whom the Martinique planter considers to be supportive of Boyer. While this support seems a figment of his imagination, he may be right in judging that the general disapproval with which the affair was met in the French public opinion meant to placate the rightful anger of the Haitian government.  Since the beginning of the Restauration, agents of King Louis XVIII had tried everything to convince Haitians to return to the French crown, or at least pay a tribute to France. Lacking the support of England for a potential new intervention, France had given up on recovering Haiti by the time Charles X sat on the throne. Charles X infamously sent his agent Baron Mackau to Haiti along with a flotilla of twelve warships to offer President Boyer the outrageous terms of the Ordonnance that would “grant” Haiti an independence it had enjoyed for over twenty years. It is one of the ironies of Haitian history that the same Boyer who in 1822 had proved ready to fight back a French invasion in the confines of the Samaná peninsula surrendered in 1825 to a flotilla meant not so much to strike the city as to strike the imagination.

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