Paul Youngquist and Grégory Pierrot
On October 24, 1797, an aging captain of the Third West India Regiment
stepped ashore from hms Hannibal at Mole St. Nicholas, the “Gibraltar of the
Antilles” and bastion of the British occupation of St. Domingo.1 A sojourn of
several months would change his life and inspire An Historical Account of the
Black Empire of Hayti (1805), the first complete account in English of the Hai-
tian Revolution. Captain Marcus Rainsford had been in St. Domingo before,
in 1796. Then he was mustering black troops for the British army, there to
prop up and grab the colony. Rainsford returned at a difficult time. The occu-
pation had proven a magnificent waste of soldiers’ lives and British pounds
Sterling, and life at the Mole was turning precarious. The “brigands,” as the
British called revolutionary blacks, were pounding at the door. “So closely
were we surrounded by the Brigands, at all points,” wrote Rainsford, “that it
was not possible to move half a mile from the town, without extreme dan-
ger while all within was wretchedness of every description!”2 A hard destiny
came calling. In 1798 those black freedom fighters would evict the British and
with them slavery from the French colony of St. Domingo. Five years later
they would proclaim to the world the free and independent nation of Haiti.
Occupational Hazards
Rainsford’s account of the Haitian Revolution is the creature of a convulsive
period of Atlantic history.3 As the eighteenth century drew to a close Britain
was waging war with Republican France to defend its vaunted liberties and to
buttress its sagging empire. The loss of its thirteen North American colonies
in 1783 had delivered England an economic and moral blow. With the erup-
tion in 1789 of revolution in France, which scattered sparks of insurrection
throughout the Atlantic world, the 1790s would become a time of opportu-
nity for both the empire and its enemies. The West Indies would witness a
struggle between the forces of slavery and freedom. Europe’s great colonial
powers—England, Spain, and France—jockeyed for advantage and superi-
ority. The focus of their rivalry: the sumptuous French colony of St. Domingo
on the island of Hispaniola. The insurrection that blazed up there in August
Previous Page Next Page