The Haitian Debacle: Yellow Fever and the Fate of the French
The establishment of the Haitian Republic is usually attributed to the brilliant leadership of Toussaint L'Ouverture (Parkinson 1978). With L'Ouverture's guiding force, former slaves were successful in their struggle against French oppression. L'Ouverture was a strong leader, but as we will see, yellow fever was at least as important as L'Ouverture in defeating the French army in Haiti.
The colonial history of Haiti is complex. The French founded a colony on the western side of the island (originally called Saint Domingue) in 1697. The Spanish claimed the eastern side of the island. By the eighteenth century, France's colony was the most profitable sugar producer in the New World, thanks to the use of slaves. In 1791, the slaves revolted and the rebels fought the French, the Spanish, and each other for control of the island. After another slave revolt in 1794, the British ostensibly took over the island with the purpose of clearing it of pirates. By 1798, the British had withdrawn primarily because of the devastating effects of yellow fever. France then gained control of the entire island, although the former slaves were given some autonomy.
Francois Dominique Toussaint L'Ouverture was born in Haiti to African slave parents in 1743. He participated in the island's slave uprising of the 1790s, and, as was common in Haiti, he switched alliances between Spain and France. French authorities promoted him to the rank of general. Through impressive strategy, he prevented a Spanish-English invasion and defended the French interests. He was rewarded by being given the titles of lieutenant governor and commander-in-chief of the Haitian forces.
By 1801, L'Ouverture was the de facto ruler of Haiti. He declared himself governor general for life, showing little respect for Haiti's ostensible owner, Napoleon Bonaparte. L'Ouverture and his actions did not pass Napoleon unnoticed. Napoleon needed to reassert French control of Haiti; he had designs for the small island. Indeed, he had rather ambitious plans for the New World. He wanted to build an empire of the Mississippi Valley in North America to interfere with British interests in the region.
Late in 1801, Napoleon sent his brother-in-law, General Victor-Emmanuel LeClerc and 20,000 troops to seize the entire island and put an end to the pretender, L'Ouverture. LeClerc and his troops landed at Cap Francais on 29 January 1802. The French forces under LeClerc were the most capable the rebels had yet faced. After a few short, bloody battles, the French essentially controlled the island. LeClerc was certain that total victory was his, as soon as reinforcements arrived (Parkinson 1978).
But LeClerc was troubled because many of his soldiers were becoming sick with a high fever. He expressed his concern to Napoleon, writing, "I have 600 men on my sick list." A week later, he noted, "I have already 1,200 in hospital." (Parkinson 1978). It would only get worse. In late March, LeClerc was still fighting rebel forces. And in April the rains came, and with the rains came yellow fever.
Yellow fever is caused by a virus and is spread by the yellowfever mosquito, Aedes aegypti (L.). The disease, which originated in Africa and spread to the New World during the slave trade in the 1500s, affects humans as well as monkeys. Typically, yellow fever is expressed within one week of infection. If the French soldier was lucky, mild symptoms lasting less than one week would be experienced. These symptoms included headaches, fever, muscular pains, and nausea. However, most of the soldiers suffered severe manifestations of the disease. These symptoms included dangerously high fevers, severe headaches, muscular pains, jaundice, and vomiting (characterized by black material and fluid). If the soldier survived, a long period of convalescence was required. In the Haitian expedition, yellow fever typically led to delirium, coma, and death.
Yellow fever ravaged Europeans in the New World well before it struck Napoleon's forces in 1802. Buckley (1985) stated, "The West Indies was, quite simply, a deathtrap for whites without immunity to yellow fever." The British were repeatedly stung by the disease in the Caribbean and South America. In 1741, during an expedition to capture Peru and Mexico, British forces were reduced from 27,000 to 7,000 by the dreaded disease they called "black vomit." Coastal towns and hamlets in the United States were particularly vulnerable to the disease in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Even as late as 1878, a yellow fever epidemic struck more than 100 United States towns, killing at least 20,000 people.
By the end of April, the disease was ravaging the French. LeClerc had lost one-third of his original force to yellow fever, one of the deadliest epidemics the colony had ever known. He wrote to Napoleon:
"A man cannot work hard here without risking his life and it is quite impossible for me to remain here for more than six months...my health is so wretched that I would consider myself lucky if I could last for that time!...the mortality continues and makes fearful ravages." (Parkinson 1978).
By June, the French were dying at a rate of 30 to 50 per day. LeClerc was desperate for some measure of success. The rebel menace failed to attenuate and his forces were in wretched shape. L'Ouverture saw an opportunity to negotiate with the French. In May, LeClerc proposed that L'Ouverture retain his title and staff and retire to a place of his choosing. L'Ouverture accepted, but the settlement was short-lived. The French general Brunet, after inviting L'Ouverture to a dinner meeting, had him arrested and placed on a French ship. LeClerc sent L'Ouverture to France where he later died in the confines of a desolate prison in 1803.
With L'Ouverture gone, an uneasy truce existed between the French and the former slaves. The rebels, now led by Dessalines, resumed hostilities against the French. Without a doubt, they were encouraged by the effects of yellow fever on the Europeans. Yellow fever was killing four-fifths of LeClerc's soldiers. Additionally, France had reopened the slave trade, which gave the entire black populace a clear reason to unite and drive out the French (Fick 1990).
LeClerc's fate mirrored that of so many of his comrades; he succumbed to yellow fever on 22 October 1802. He was replaced by the General Rochambeau, who also could not prevent yellow fever from taking its toll. The disease consumed 20,000 additional reinforcements and Rochambeau capitulated in November, 1803.
The effect of yellow fever on the French was staggering. Only approximately 3,000 men returned to France. Although estimates vary considerably, as many as 50,000 soldiers, officers, doctors, and sailors may have died from yellow fever. Before reinforcements arrived, LeClerc's original force of 20,000 was reduced to only a few thousand.
Napoleon's largest expeditionary force was thoroughly destroyed. Bonaparte's failure to control Haiti led to his decision to sell his empire of the Mississippi Valley to the young United States for $15 million. With the gain of this territory, the United States was able to remain neutral during the costly war between France and England. Haiti declared its independence in 1804, becoming the first independent nation in Latin America.
Causes of the Epidemic
Why did yellow fever decimate the French so thoroughly? First, the biological environment was ideal for a yellow fever epidemic. French had never been exposed to yellow fever. Therefore, they represented a virgin population for the disease and were predisposed to acquiring the disease. The indigenous people represented the reservoir for the disease, but were somewhat resistant to its effects because of repeated exposure. Finally, the yellow fever mosquito was plentiful in 1802 and 1803.
Second, the physical environment also was favorable for an epidemic. Spring rains provided ample mosquito breeding sites. Quagmires and swamps surrounded many of the port towns (such as Port-au-Prince). Further, the hot, humid conditions stressed the French from the moment they disembarked from the ships.
Third, as is common in war, the social environment was favorable for the outbreak of disease. As the insurgency progressed, most of the principal cities were burned. The French were unable to use the valuable resources that these towns could have provided: medical supplies, clothing, and shoes (Fick 1990). Napoleon prevented LeClerc from outposting in the mountains after his initial successes in controlling the port towns. Instead, the bulk of the army was stationed in the low lying regions of Haiti, where the mosquitoes were more onerous. It was long known that mortality from yellow fever and malaria in the Caribbean could be substantially reduced by moving troops to mountain camps (Buckley 1985). For strategic reasons, however, the troops needed to remain in the low lying port towns.