The Battle of Vertieres marks the end of legal slavery in Haiti and the beginning of the end of that era for the world. After 300 years of the barbaric rule of governments that deprived Africans and their descendants of their most basic rights, the victims of the Trans-Atlantic Trade coalesced their forces and coordinated an attack on the last remaining French stronghold, the Cape. Under Dessalines' leadership, this united force was called the Indigenous Army. The name suggests that the Revolutionaries were also avenging the eradication of the native population whose land we would eventually inherit.
The French forces were fighting for a racist objective, namely the domination of people of African descent by those of European ancestry. This clouded their vision and led their leaders to assume that all people of Ginen (West Africa) ancestry formed a monolithic block. To prevent the Revolutionaries from gaining support within the city, the French began to slaughter the black population of the Cape.
The Revolutionaries had a moral objective. Overall, they were fighting a noble battle that divided people into two camps: supporters versus opponents of slavery. The number of soldiers who fought at Vertieres is disputed. Whereas some say it was 8000, others report that 27,000 Revolutionary soldiers converged on Vertieres to help bring legal slavery to an end. At the Battle of Vertieres, approximately 1,000 Revolutionaries perished and 150 French soldiers lost their lives.
Among the leaders who prepared the final assault against the French were: Jean Jacques Dessalines, Francois Capois, Henry Christophe, Augustin Clervaux, Andre Vernet, Paul Gapart, Pierre Cange, Jacques Romain, Jean-Philippe Daut, Paul Prompt, Philippe Guerrier. The battle plans included attacking the Cape from different areas, including at Vertieres, to divide the French forces who were led by Rochambeau, the French general who replaced Leclerc.
The Battle of Vertieres occurred in one day, but it took 12 years of war for the Revolutionaries to get to the point where it would be possible for them to evict their tormentors from the island. The French forces had resorted to a war of extermination of Africans above the age of 7, 10 or 12, depending on which French officer made the pronouncement. The idea was that children, below a certain age, could be terrified enough, humiliated enough, pacified enough to become docile slaves. Fortunately, with adult courage, the Revolutionaries did not allow the colonists to once again dominate, rape, and torture their children at will.
As the French brigands organized their macabre plan, the Haitian Revolutionaries who had been driven to the brink, were now fearless. They redoubled their efforts to evict the Napoleonic forces from the island. Instead of deterring opposition, French threats of slaughtering the adult population galvanized wide support. The adults had lived under French government when it was acceptable to cut off their tongues, arms, legs, and other body parts. For them, life under French rule had been a mine field. No threat from Rochambeau would deter these brave men and women who had seen enough and had suffered too much. None of Rochambeau's murderous tactics would deter the great warrior Dessalines whose bravery and leadership earned him the name of Patron Spirit of War, Ogou Dessalines.
Profoundly disdainful of the African population, Rochambeau set out to annihilate the Revolutionaries. But his situation was precarious. His well armed forces were being dwindled and weakened by ongoing war, by yellow fever, and by a famine caused by lack of provisions from the provinces which were controlled by Revolutionary forces, and from a British sea blockade which prevented the French from receiving supplies from overseas. Rochambeau responded by adapting the policy of fortifying the plantations introduced by the British when they occupied parts of the island from 1794 to 1798. He fortified the plantations at the entrance to the Cape, including that of Vertieres, and hoped to eventually expand this project throughout the territory. The fortified plantations were called blockhaus. In letters written by colonists, the Vertieres “blockhaus” was variably written as Verrières, Verdière, Verthiere, De Vertière, Devetière.
By this time, the island was essentially under the control of the Revolutionary forces. By June of 1803, Dessalines had already informed Spain, England, and the U.S. of his intention to declare independence.
As the fortifications took place, the Revolutionaries began a counter offensive that would be based on uniting their forces for a multiple front attack on the Cape.
General Francois Capois joined this offensive and brought with him two divisions of the army. These two divisions comprised the 9th semi-brigade. While taking fire from the French forces camped at Vertieres, Capois' bravery became legendary. Haitian historian, Thomas Madiou, either helped to create the legend or he simply retold it. In describing the Battle of Vertieres, Madiou wrote that Capois' hat was lost to a flurry of gunfire and his horse was killed by cannon fire. Although many of his men perished, Capois would not be deterred. He emerged from his fallen horse, urging the troops forward. Madiou went on to describe how Rochambeau, the general in charge of the French forces, called for a cease fire so that he could send an emissary to compliment Capois in person.
During the Revolutionary war, Capois earned the name Lamort, from the French word for death. This nickname highlights his bravery in the face of the perilous situations that he encountered during the War of Independence. In one letter that has survived, Capois signed his name as Lamort. That name helps us to remember that freedom was not a colonial gift, but rather the result of the courage, the will, and the intelligence of our fore-parents.
Given that Capois had already earned the distinction for being able to capture French forts, Dessalines placed him in command of the soldiers on the field at Vertieres. Despite great losses, there was no going back. Here, the call to give me liberty or give me death was for real. There was but one way forward for Haiti and for humanity. Capois Lamort lighted the path, shouting ann avan, ann avan. The path forward was through Vertieres. There was no going back to a society where families could be fragmented and sold across the Atlantic. The Revolutionaries were formerly enslaved people fighting for their most fundamental rights: the right to control their own lives, the right to pursue their own thoughts. For too long, they had seen their loved ones sold and scattered all over the island and all over the Americas. They captured their sorrow, their isolation, and their unconquerable will in a short rallying war song that said it all: Grenadye alaso, sa ki mouri zafè a yo, nanpwen manman, nanpwen papa, sa ki mouri zafè a yo. Troopers to battle, those who die so be it, we have no mothers, no fathers, those who die so be it. There are many versions of this song. One version published in Le Nouveliste in 1953 states: Grenadye alaso, nanpwen manman, nanpwen papa, pitit mouri, zafè yo. Troopers to battle, those who die, so be it, we have no mothers, no fathers, children die, so be it.
Armed with an invincible will, anchored in good strategic planning, and guided by a greater moral vision, the Haitian forces emerged victorious. The French forces capitulated giving the Napoleonic forces its worst defeat ever as France lost its most profitable colony which accounted for 40% of its oversees economic intake. Ashamed of their defeat, the French took their revenge against the word Vertieres and suppressed it from their literature, dictionaries, and school books. They tarnished the image of Dessalines, presenting him as a savage and a brutal agent of the British who could not lead a war on his own. The Haitian victory was attributed to anything but to the courage and vision of the combatants. In French books, Haitian independence was attributed to British manipulation and to yellow fever. In silencing the Haitian victory, Napoleon hoped that a day would come when France would once again be master of the island and resume tormenting the heirs of Ginen with impunity.
In Haiti, the Battle of Vertieres has become a source of national pride. The site of the battle was first commemorated by President Borno in 1929. Later, during Magloire's administration, a bust of Capois was placed at the site where he was assassinated in October of 1806, just days before Dessalines succumbed to the same fate. In another memorial commisioned by Magloire and erected at the Cape, the two generals, Capois and Dessalines stand side by side, living on in the nation's memory as great heroes who fought alongside each other in the last battle for liberty and independence. Other combatants, including Paul Prompt, a heroic general who died in the battle, are also represented in the Vertieres Memorial.
At approximately 5 pm on November 18, 1803, the French forces capitulated, and Vertieres fell into the hands of the Revolutionaries who on the following day, at Fort Picolet, on the northern side of the Cape, gave Rochambeau's forces 10 days to vacate the island. Fort Picolet was also the first fort to fire against the arriving French forces under Leclerc in 1802. On November 19, 1803, at this same site, Rochambeau signed the departure agreement for the French forces. Fort Picolet marked the arrival and the departure of Napoleon's forces from the island.
The Revolutionary force that won Vèrtieres was composed of 15 demi-brigades and 3 escadrons. Capois was the leader of the 9th demi-brigade. Capois' victory at Vertieres made it possible for Dessalines to evict the French forces on November 29, 1803. On that day, the Revolutionary forces marched triumphantly and entered the city of the Cape and reversed the French status quo. The formerly enslaved became the rulers of the society. Perhaps it is this change that gave Francois Capois his name as the reverse of the name of the city, Cape Francois or Cape Francais. Although Capois is believed to have been born in the region of Port-de-Paix, the name Capois forever links him with the city he helped to liberate. Today, all residents of the Cape call themselves Capois.
On November 29 of 1803, Dessalines, who knew the ravages of slavery and of war, had the privilege to announce freedom for the entire population. The taking of the Cape at Vertieres paved the way for a Constitution that would recognize all Haitians, regardless of ancestry, as equally human and deserving of the same protections under the law. This was a major step forward, making Haiti the first modern nation to declare that all are created equal. This pronouncement helped all of humanity to recognize that slavery is a barbaric and immoral crime against humanity. This moral lesson was aided by the courage of leaders like Capois Lamort, Jean Jacques Dessalines, andby numerous other combatants who sacrificed their lives so that we could all inherit a more moral world.
Reference and notes
1. Jean-Pierre Le Glaunec. L'armée indigène: La defaite de Napoléon en Haiti. Lux Editeur. Quebec Canada, 2014
2. We are thankful to Claude Bernard who indicated to us a potential connection between Francois Capois' name and the name of the city Cape Francois.