Wrestling against the Fate.
Polish Legions at Saint Dominique

Caribbean, Napoleon and Poles
A strange connection in history

By Tadeusz M. Klupczyński, FINS

The blind fate sometimes play tricks and men who lost their homeland and independence went far away from their enslaved country to enslave others in the name of liberty, equality and fraternity.

After the forfeit of independence and the loss of  Kościuszko’s Uprising as the last chance for rebuilding Polish State in 1795, many Insurgents emigrated to Italy to attempt fighting against Austria, Prussia and Russia. Those that partitioned Poland and practically wiped it out of maps.

In January 1797 a process of forming Polish Units in Italy began. Polish Legions  known as Polish Supporting Legions of Lombardy Republic commanded by general Dąbrowski were fighting (for four years) hand by hand with Napoleon to bring his glory and power.

The situation of Polish units in Italy, after  signing the Luneville Treaty (9 II 1801), became exasperating for Austria and inconvenient or perhaps useless in their shape for Napoleon. That is why, they were reformed and large  part of them became the core of two French half-brigades. They were sent far away from France to Saint Dominique.  By a strange twist of fate, Napoleon, Polish ally and protector, entangled them in colonial fighting, that had  nothing in common with the noble ideas of  revolution or Enlightenment. Moreover it was in contradiction to the ideas of  creation of Polish Legions in Italy. As it was said, they were built “for yours and our freedom”. In such circumstances Saint Dominique became the tomb of nearly 5,000 Poles who were heroically fighting for the independence of their homeland.

Caribbean then was one of the military theatre where France, Great Britain and Spain were struggling for domination and political-economy power that could bring the winner a free  control over the whole area of Atlantic Ocean.

The mountainous, full of flowering plants islands of the Greater Antilles, surrounded by the azure Caribbean Sea, might seem  the paradise, until you did not see the shocking misery of African slaves, who consisted the vast majority of the inhabitants of these islands.

The area of ​​Polish legionnaires operations became the three largest islands in the Greater Antilles. First of all, Haiti, called Saint Dominique then, that since 1697, had been divided between France (the western part of 26 500 square kilometers, with its capital Cap Francais) and Spain (50,000 square kilometers with the capital Santo Domingo). This island in its full area became French in 1795.

Another two islands neighboring Saint Dominique, were: belonging to Spain Cuba with its 1600 islets and reefs (107 800 square kilometers with the capital in  Havana) and Jamaica (11 425 square kilometers with the capital in Kingston), which was a British naval base then.

     The first French settlers appeared in Saint Dominique in1553 led by Francois Le Clerk but they were not the first European there. It was a typical rough tough area, mainly inhabited by corsairs, pirates, hunters and prostitutes where problems were solved with fists and weapons. Entrepreneurship of French settlers that settled in the western part of San Domingo led to establishing a French colony there in 1697,confirmed by Aranjuz Treaty in 1777,  changing it in following years into the flourishing state. However it happened not only by exploitation of fertile land and favorable climatic conditions but also and mainly because of a large extent the effort of hundreds of thousands of black complexion slaves purchased for almost nothing from Africa and exploited so intensely that only a few in their number were able to survive  the age of 30. If the value of land and equipment  the colonists assessed their properties to 2 billion of francs, the value of slaves increased the  wealth of their properties further to 1 more billion.1

Saint Dominique did not know the distinction of people into social classes in its European sense. Here pirates, criminals, prostitutes were the pioneers and only a  skin color decided about privileges. 40 thousand of white settlers owned three quarters of all arable land, being the determining power of the fate of the island. They ignored the rights of 28 thousand colored freedmen that owned – thanks to the land purchase right almost a quarter of plantations. But for both of these groups the black men in number of 462 thousand were  only working tools.2 In addition, the planters  sadistic cruelty to slaves was unprecedented in the history of slavery. Even established by Luis XIV, in 1687, so called “Le Code Noir”3 ( the Black Code) was not able to change the hard life of Africans. The white French did not respect the king regulation and the only criterion for the treatment of slaves was the fast and highest profit.4

A large number of sugarcane plantations were supported by 431 sugar refineries, 362 sugar molasses factories. Beside of that there were 3117 Coffee plantations, 3150 indigo farms, 789 cotton plantations and  54 cocoa possessions providing 112 thousand tons of cargo per year and involving 670 vessels in the transport of raw materials and semi-finished products to metropolitan France and supporting islanders with all sorts of goods needed Saint Dominique also produced readymade products as for example rum.5 This island was a real gold mine for white settlers bringing them not less than 15% of pure benefit annually but it was even more important for French economy and merchants supplying European industry with imported goods.

The planters, looking for untaxed profits, willingly traded with American, Spanish, or even English merchants. Convocation of the General-States and further the revolutionary events heralded far-reaching changes not only in France. Colonies such as Saint Dominique with anxiety and hope waited for further developments. Growers, what was not surprising, were mainly interested in greater economic independence of colonies, but it could impair the foundations of the system based on slavery. In larger cities revolution supporters committed thoughts about the abolition of slavery. Mulattos called freedmen hoped to grant civil rights. Finally slaves  counted only for freedom. However, The Council of Colony assembled in August 1791 did not fulfill the hopes for racial equality. It was significant that the arrogance of white growers could not lead the area to positive changes. General Louis-Jacques baron de Beauvais (1759-1799), the leader of white planters, in indiscriminate manner described mulattos, colored freedmen and black skinned slaves  as monkeys. News about events spread fast among the colored, who, seeing that anything without a fight would not  be gained, provoked the first major uprising in 1791. Bloody fight (about 2 thousand white killed), completed the agreement and amnesty. But it did not finish the social problems. Many of the insurgents had not disarmed and hiding in mountains  attacked the plantations, often just for ordinary robbery. Uprising brought the decisions to terminate the old Council of Colony in March 1792 granting with full citizenship rights of  inhabitants of the French part of the island. Unfortunately the latest changes covered only freedmen leaving the slave insurgents out of rights. 6



Guillotined of Louis XVI became the reason not only of wavering situation on the island, but also brought the military intervention of Great Britain, the Netherlands and Spain. The Spanish, entering the island, received  a large support  done by some slave insurgents and the royalists  surrendered themselves to the care of the Spanish crown. To save the situation, Santhonax - the leader of the Republicans and revolutionary commissioner sent to the island from Paris - trying to come to conclusion with insurgents allowed them to enter into Cap Francais, while not without  victims among white population. And finally, on the 29th of  August 1793 he announced  the abolition of slavery. Then, thanks to the support of black skinned insurgents he  got back the areas occupied by the Spaniards (who eventually withdrew from the struggle against France in 1795). In such circumstances Great Britain became, for growers, the last chance to keep the political-business status quo.

British expedition to the island started. 7

As soon as new war  between France and Great Britain was declared in February 1793 local British forces succeeded in seizing the island of Tobago, occupied by the French since 1781 and landed on Saint-Domingue  on the 18th of August 1793. British attempts to exploit the royalist-republican split among French colonists on Martinique failed. But in general, Great Britain began to achieve the success in the Caribbean war theatre. But still it was far from the final result. This meant that if the traditional strategy of colonial campaigning was to be followed, an expeditionary force would have to be dispatched from England, ideally to arrive in the Caribbean in November, before the onset of the “sickly season”. Henry Dundas, as British Secretary of State for Home and Colonies, was responsible for organizing such a force. but he was overworked and the relevant orders were delayed. In addition, it proved difficult to put the force together quickly, partly because of a shortage of troops in Britain and partly because of the demand for units to fight in Flanders, at Toulon  and on board the fleet as marines. As a result, when the force commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Charles Grey, finally set sail on the  26th of November it was eight weeks behind schedule and comprised only 7000 men, about half the number originally envisaged. The transports carrying the troops did not arrive in Barbados until early January 1794, leaving little time in which to mount a campaign.

In the event, Grey did achieve results. By 25 March he had seized Martinique at a cost of  fewer than 100 men killed: on the 4th of April he accepted the surrender of St. Lucia and on the 22nd of the same month he defeated a French garrison on Guadeloupe, the capitulation of which also included the smaller islands of Marie-Galante and Desiderada. Operating on Saint Dominique, Gen. Whyte conquered Port au Prince, and a large part of the island in June 1794. But the joy of the winners was premature and he was incapable of going further. No more reinforcements were available from Britain and the troops he already had were suffering badly from yellow fever. Thus, when the French attacked Grande Terre (the eastern half of Guadeloupe) in June 1794, the British garrison was down to 13 officers and 174 men fit for service, incapable of doing a great deal to prevent defeat. Even when Grey managed to reinforce his remaining foothold on Basse Terre (the western half of the island) mounting a counter-attack on Grande Terre on the 1st of  July, it was obvious that his soldiers had lost their edge. Repulsed by the French the British suffered 543 casualties for no appreciable gain: the men were, in Grey's own words “quite exhausted by the unparalleled services of fatigue and fire they had gone through for such a length of time, in the worst climate”. 8

As the sickly season progressed the combination of torrential rain and oppressive heat took its toll. By l September, for example, the garrison at Basse Terre had only 470 men fit for duty out of a nominal roll of 2249, while by the end of the year, of the 4000 men who had landed on Saint-Dominque, fewer than 1800 were still alive. Nor were reinforcements easy to find, for although Henry Dundas (by now Secretary of State for War) did gather about 4400 extra troops in England, chiefly by robbing York in Flanders, they did not set sail for the West Indies until 22 October 1794. By then, the remnants of the British garrison on Guadeloupe were close to surrender, and Saint-Domingue was under threat. To make matters worse the troop reinforcements were delayed by gales. Lieutenant-General Sir John Vaughan. who replaced Grey when the latter returned to England in late 1794, had no choice but to assume the defensive.

The campaign, therefore, had gone from success to stalemate in a very short time, chiefly because the Army was being asked to do too much, not merely in the Caribbean but world-wide. Nor did the pressures decline for in early 1795 a number of British possessions in the West Indies, taken from the French during the Seven Years War and still containing substantial French speaking populations rose in revolt. By March Vaughan was having to deal with insurrections in Grenada and St. Vincent: in June the island of St. Lucia had to be abandoned and two months later a separate revolt. This time involving freed slaves known as “Maroons”, broke out in Jamaica. Each required an extra commitment of troops. making any renewed Caribbean offensive unthinkable, particularly as reinforcements from England were being delayed and disease was still rampant.

Dundas' response was to organize the largest expedition mounted to date from the shores of Britain - a total of more than 30.000 men under the command of Major-General Sir Ralph Abercromby - with the aim of recovering St. Lucia and Guadeloupe and seizing the whole of Saint-Domingue.  His main problem was one of manpower but with the Flanders expedition over and a poor harvest in 1794 producing distress throughout the country, recruits were being raised. In addition German and Swiss mercenaries could be hired to make up the numbers. By September 1795, 23 battalions of British infantry had been assembled at Southampton and Cork, but difficulties in providing the necessary shipping caused delays; although some of the transports set sail in October. others were still being prepared in January 1796. Even so it was an impressive achievement and one that promised success.

This was not to be realized easily. Severe gales disrupted the first troop convoys in November 1795 and again in January/February 1796. with some of the ships returning to port and others battling through to the Caribbean: Abercromby himself did not reach Barbados until 21 April. By then. the garrisons on St. Vincent and Grenada urgently needed reinforcement and the Dutch possessions of Demerara and Essequibo were demanding protection now that the French were occupying Holland. Abercromby had therefore to divert part of his force, although this did not prevent him from mounting an attack on St. Lucia, taken after heavy fighting on the  26th of  May. St. Vincent and Grenada were secured in June: in Jamaica the Maroon revolt was gradually countered and although the operations were not carried out particularly efficiently most of Saint-Domingue  was in British hands by the end of the year. But the costs were high, with sickness taking a dreadful toll: m 1796 nearby 14.000 men died. The vast majority of yellow fever, malaria and other tropical diseases.

In 1797, one more Caribbean expedition was mounted. In February Abercromby took the Spanish colony of Trinidad but three months later he was forced to abandon an attack on Puerto Rico. By then, disease and enemy action had added another 6000 to the death list and Britain had no more soldiers to give. Despite the relative success in consolidating Britain's strategic position in the West Indies denying her enemies the wealth and trade of  the region, the campaign as a whole had been poorly managed and exceptionally costly. More to the point, it had done nothing to prevent French advances in Europe. That was true that, for although small incursions had been made onto the continent notably at Quiberon in September/October 1795, they had achieved little, leaving the British Prime Minister William  Pitt to face the fact that however effective colonial campaigns might be, it was in Europe that the fight against Revolutionary France had to be conducted. If the Army was ever to contribute to that fight, it would have to be virtually rebuilt and made significantly more efficient. Moreover, considering the Caribbean campaign in merchant point of view in categories  profit and lost, the whole expedition was not unduly paid off. When British forces had to fight against the combined forces of black skinned, mulattos and the French, eventually asked for an armistice on the 30th of  April 1798. Throughout the period of the battles and skirmishes, Britain  lost 54 thousand people (due to yellow fever to 12,000) and 10 million  pounds. 9

Presenting the  forces that contributed to the victory, the most important of the black skinned leaders was already Francis, Toussaint – Louverture a grandson of the  king of Arrad ‘s tribe of Congo. Initially, he fought on the side of the Spaniards, but when France confirmed abolition, he  slammed the Spanish crew of  Marmelade  on the 4th of February 1794  and  with the rank of Brigadier-General went onto French side. The second force were mulattoes led by Gen. Rigaud. That was an open conflict between these two generals and France after  defeating the English forces tried to win one  of them against the other. But such an unfair competition made Toussaint – Louverture the  strongest in region.  Moreover when further in 1800, he  won the Spanish part of the island, abolishing slavery there, he started handing out his own cards. On the 5th of  February 1801 he ordered to choose 7 white and 3 mulattos to so called Central Council treated as a government. But it was well known and obvious to all  that he made decisions on his own. In July, without waiting for the opinion of Paris, he  announced the constitution of the island, giving himself a life  function of the governor-general, with a power and privileges as the I Consul  Napoleon Bonaparte had. France  recognizing it as a hostile act , deleted him from the list of generals .


The island suffered huge losses, one third of the population of Saint Dominique became extinct, most of the plantations were destroyed. Although the Toussaint Louverture cared for economic development, but for example, coffee production was only 56% of the pre-revolutionary, and number of other goods produced was even worse. And it became more and more clear that the consequence of that situation would be an armed intervention.10

The expedition of General Leclerc

Bonaparte set general Victor Emmanuel Leclerc, his own brother-in-law, Pauline’s  husband for commander-in-chief of the expedition and signed his nomination on the 24th of October 1801. The commander developed a plan of action. Brest became the main base of  preparations for the expedition. It was planned to provide the operation with 21 883 soldiers, but when the forces left Brest in late November  there were only 14 283 on board  of ships. There was no doubt that the selection of officers for this trip depended on first Consul. Firstly the  officers with clearly Republican views were sent. The Leclerc’s headquarters  consisted 5 Division- Generals and 9 Brigadier-Generals. There were also two mulattoes generals, Rigaud and Petion  earlier expelled from the island. Fleet composed of 32 line ships, 22 frigates and corvettes, commanded by Admiral Louis Villaret – Joyese.

The expedition  set sails on the 14th  of December 1801 reached the aim in January next year. Here Leclerc tried to convince the black skinned leaders to submit to. When he saw that nothing effected anything, he  gave the order to land taking Fort Dauphin. Then  Leclerc  took Cap Francais  on the 6th of February. During February the French troops occupied the most of important cities , but still it  was unable to break the army of insurgents. Toussaint Louverture - refused to  give up  in exchange for the restoration of his  general privileges in service. That is why  the black general together with Gen. Christophe was outlawed  on the 17th of February.

It was an attack on their positions in the mountains, but no progress was achieved. Despite past successes, Leclerc was  really afraid of  because the losses had already reached 5 000 soldiers. Additionally guerrilla activities of small groups of former slaves  not recognizing anyone's sovereignty  began.

A clear success of the campaign was the passage of General Henri Christophe onto the French side in April 1802.  On the 1st of May, after confirmation of amnesty and freedom of black skinned insurgents Toussaint Louverture  did the same thing. Leclerc accepted his rights to general rank and sent him to the plantation Ennery. However the popularity of black general caused  that the French commander-in-chief  arrested him on the 7th of June 1802 and sent him to France where kept in the citadel Joux, where he died on 7th of April 1803.

The island was devastated again. Leclerc, to save production,  issued on the 30th of June, a decree about compulsion of work and many other economic regulations, such as concerning a trade with American merchants were given. Subjugation of situation pushed numerous white growers  to return to the island. From the other side, agrarian problems and the fear against bringing back a new version of slavery became the reason for the resumption of the uprising in late August 1802. 

Cruelty rose with a new power on both sides. Additional problem for the French were losses that came from diseases such as yellow fever and dysentery. Leclerc reported I Consul about  the dramatic situation on Saint Dominique. In October, he wrote that the only solution of the situation was  the killing of all Negro men over 12 years old of age. The problem was also demoralization of depleted French troops. Another regiments from France became necessary.11

Poles sent to San Domingo

The first Pole sent to Saint Dominique was brigadier general Wladyslaw Jablonowski.  He was sent there at his own request in May 1802, supporting General Leclerc staff. In August, he was entrusted with the liquidation of  uprising in the North Department.  Carrying out the tasks Jabłonowski got  ill with yellow fever and on the 29th of September 1802 he died. It is worth mentioning that his adjutant, Captain Constantine Przebendowski a highly qualified officer was attached to the French staff, and  on the 6th of November 1803, in rank of a squadron commander in chief appointed adjutant of General Rochambeau.12

The summer of 1802  Bonaparte planned to send another troops to Saint Dominique, Leclerc’s letters did not bring optimistic news and it was clear that without quick support the expedition could fail. The number of supporting forces described to be 5 generals (including  Jabłonowski ) and 9008 soldiers and officers. In that number that was  3rd half-brigade of Danubian Legion (Polish) that stationed in Livorno in Italy.  Many  legion officers, including commander Stanisław Fiszer, being conscious of the real aims of Caribbean expedition  wrote the letters of resignation.  At the head of the unit, renamed on the 22nd of December 1801 into 113th  French half-brigade stood Fortunat Bertrand. Initially the half-brigade consisted of 96 officers and 3138 soldiers but the number melted and in consequence only 2810 officers and soldiers were found themselves, equipped with food, the pay and additional colonial uniforms, on the boards of 12 transport ships that left Europe between 23rd and 25th of July 1802. They reached the place on September 2. 13

The second Polish  unit sent to Saint Dominique was the second half-brigade  of Danubian Legion also renamed into the 114th French half-brigade commanded by Colonel  Aksamitowski.  About 2,5 thousand of officers and soldiers or even more  were sent to Genoa  where embarked onto boards of ships of the squadron of vice-admiral Jaques  Bedout in January 1803.  The ships reached Antilles separately in March 1803.14

The greatest problem that happened to Polish units then was the fact of desertion. Many dissenting voices were heard among Polish migrants in Italy and France. A lot of  authorities were  against sending Poles to fight against Caribbean insurgents proving that their place of fighting was in Europe to demonstrate their presence here. Poles just did not want to fight far away from their homeland and for the incomprehensible for them purpose. But this point of view did not suit to I Consul actual plans. Bonaparte as the head of all military forces could do what he wanted, so he sent Poles out of Europe, especially that most of them represented revolutionary elements, undesirable then so much. 

The first Consul recognizing the importance of  Antilles colony and tender useless of Polish units, wanted to send there almost all Polish soldiers in number of about 9 thousand in additional supporting forces consisting of 12,5 thousand men. But finally it could be said that about 5,5 thousand of Poles were sent to Caribbean.  (Figures are not complete, in addition the various sources differ numbers, and besides, there were some losses on the way. But  it could  be assumed that the island reached not less than  a total of 5270  Poles.)

Anyway, beside of the opposition to the aims of the expedition those who came to saint Dominique were lucky and happy to feel the ground under their feet. The difficulties of the sea voyage were significant. Just leaving Livorno one of the ship with 180 soldiers on the board crashed on the reef nearby the lighthouse San Vincenzo where only 60 men saved their life. The French ships were not adapted to transport of larger number of soldiers that is why soldiers did not have hammocks even. They slept on the floors in unvented decks when supply of drinking water was a great problem. Pervasive stench, lack of food, illnesses and inability to provide them in basic hygiene and narrowness accompanied Legionnaires within all more than 100 days lasting trip. In addition some of soldiers were the victims of sharks. During the calm sea in August some soldiers being dirty and hot and to forget about travel ados jumped into the sea where sharks attacked them. Those who left on the board opened the fire to unknown sea creatures but still some of the swimmers lost their lives. Just only from the 113th half-brigade, when landing on Saint Dominique 10 officers and 432 soldiers were sent immediately to the hospital. But it But it did not change the fact that the nightmarish, long and hungry journey was only a prelude to the horrors that took them to meet on Saint Dominique.15

Polish fights on the island.

When Poles landed on Saint Dominique, general Rochambeau the new commander-in-chief (Leclerc had already died on the 2nd of November 1802 because of the yellow fever.) was waiting with longing for any support from Europe. The influx of tasks in conjunction with many loses caused that the new units, without any time for adaptation, were sent to fight.

The French commanders had a very good opinion about Poles highly evaluated their achievements in Italian and German theatres of war. Unfortunately their experience in European fighting was absolutely useless on the island where the enemy had total different tactics. Especially it was seen while fighting against irregular, small, partisan units. Poles did not fight as the whole brigade. Polish battalions and companies were sent to different French and local troops. At the beginning, Poles did not understand the situation of the island at all. Slavery was a quite new term for them. They could not follow the racial problems and accompanying them economic and social differences. Step by step, becoming more familiar with the real aims of the Antilles campaign and the meaning of slavery, many of former legionaries had more and more moral conflicts between loyalty to Napoleon and compassion they felt to black skinned slaves who fought for their personal freedom. The Caribbean war was much cruel than they could ever expect. All the time that was a danger and the lack of safety everywhere. Poles did not know, who they could trust or not. In addition to above mentioned, the communication – different language, climate and illnesses problems had to be considered together and influenced the losses.

The first battalion commanded by captain Wodziński began its fighting in number of 984 men. After two months of operation there were only 150 soldiers left. Next year the whole battalion consisted of 20 men.

The greatest losses happened to Wodziński’s battalion while it was sent to support 2,5 thousand men mulattoes units commanded by Petion and Clarvaux. Those two colonial officers got a task to annihilate insurgents hidden in the surrounding area. When they met partisans on the 31st of October 1802, they came to conclusion, changed the front and started to fight against Poles. Many Poles were simply murdered with no mercy being totally surprised with the action of allies. The companies that were able to retreat in order and barricade themselves in the near farmhouse died in fire of burning buildings.

A very similar situation happened to soldiers from the second battalion, commanded by captain Bolesta. They landed in Mole Saint Nicolas in power of 701 men. Their task was to operate in Western and then South Departments supporting Dessalines’ expedition. But Jean Jaques Dessalines (1758-1806) who fanatically hated whites on the 17th of October joined the slave insurgents becoming their leader. After that he changed into one of the most cruel French enemy. His motto was “beheaded and burn houses”. He applied a scorched land tactics cutting off French from supply lines. After many military successes,  Dessalines started building Saint Dominique independence. On the 7th of April 1803, he figuratively cleaned the nation from the white oppressors cutting off the white color from  the “three-color” French flag. Having a new two color flag he declared independence of the island as The Republic of Haiti on the 1st of January 1804.16

The third battalion in power of 634 men landed in Borgne west of Cap Francais and immediately was sent to action together with division of general Brunet. They were sent to the North to protect communication routes. Taking part in many skirmishes and small battles as for example siege and defense of Limbe, the battalion in number of 98 able to fight men was evacuated to Cap Francais and on the  1st of  December 1802.

A new wave of uprising that happened in the South Department pushed French commander Rochambeau to another offensive in March 1803.

Remains of his units supported by the soldiers of 114 th half-brigade and the Home Guard under the command of  loyal to France, black skinned general Laplume tried to reach some military success in April 1803. But their attempts did not bring them any success. Poles fought against insurgent units commanded by general Ferru. As the most important fighting that should be mentioned in this moment of campaign were a  lasting two weeks (between 11th and 27th of April 1803)  bloody struggle on the Torbeck flat or defense of Cayes that began on the 28th of April and lasted up to May/June 1803 or defense of fortress Jacmel and Jeremie.

It must be pointed here that yellow fever brought French and Poles more losses than bullets of insurgents. Illnesses, fighting, harsh living conditions and above all the lack of hope strengthened by growing consciousness that Caribbean campaign is not Polish war and Poles fought in wrong case, made them depressed and full of inside conflicts. Some of them, to be loyal and to break the word given to Napoleon, preferred to commit a suicide instead of continuing fighting. It happened, for example, to the chief of battalion, Ignacy Jasiński, on the 22nd of June 1803.

The situation became even worse when Great Britain joined  the war in May 1803. Since then the contact between France and  its units in Saint Dominique had been practically broken. Rochambeau became alone with no hope for another military support. French units hid in towns that gave them a seemingly relative safety. Sea ports besieged from the land side by insurgents were blocked by British fleet and bombed  with use of mortar frigates what made the bombarding more severe. Famine and scarcity began. On the 1st of August 1803 a commander of, located in western part of the island, Jeremie fortress general Fressinet decided to abandon the positions leaving  140 Poles in citadel with order to continue fighting.17 Escaping French came to British captivity and Poles after five days capitulated. Fortunately mulattoes leader general Ferru, met Poles before and he knew that their attitude to fighting was different. Having some evidence of their sympathy to former slaves and their moral opposition against slavery he did not kill them and allowed them to sail to Cuba. The last French battle against combined forces mulattoes and black skinned insurgents took place at Veriteres on the 18th of November 1803. ( t was said that one of units recruited among Poles supported Dessalines there. 30 – 150 men as his personal guard) In October most of the seacoast areas of the island were under British control. At the beginning of the month they conquered Port au Prince and 12th of October Cayes was taken.18 Cap Francais was in French hands two weeks more when, on the 30th of November 1803, their commander-in-chief, capitulated giving the town back to insurgents. General Rochambeau, as a military prisoner was arrested on the board of the third-rate ship of line HMS “Bellerophon”. The same one that Napoleon was kept.

The fate of Poles on the “Hell Island” as they said, seemed to be tragic but those who survived faced a thorny equally nightmarish way back, often finished with death. A great majority of Poles found themselves in British captivity as military prisoners kept in inhuman conditions on the decks of pontoons. Some of them who were in better health condition were drafted into British army – mainly into 60th regiment.  British foot regiments often called the “marching concentration camp” were the salvation comparing  living in pontoons. Some officers kept in Spanishtown and Kingstown. 36 of them were able to come back to France.

About 200 legionnaires were sent to Cuba. 40 from Jeremie, 50 from Port au Prince and about 80 that served under command of general Noailles in Mole Saint Nicolas in western part of Saint Dominique and evacuated in December 1803.

All of them were kept in Baracoa camp in military order under the command of captain Berensdorff. It was significant that Poles tried to fight against Great Britain then taking part in some actions. The most spectacular one was when captain Beredorff together with 20 men made to board a British corvette bringing it to Havana port.

Those Poles who fought in the east part of Saint Dominique stayed there much longer than others. Santo Domingo, the capital of the island was captured by French on the 21st of February 1802. General Perichon, strengthened defensive position around the city and when he was supported by units commanded by general Ferrand in December 1803. They stayed there successfully fighting for six more years. 800 men including 75 Poles organized a land defense but not only. They also created corsair squadron fighting and supplying town in needed goods. In the number of corsair’s names it could be found chief of the battalion Kobylański, chief of the battalion Blumer (later general) and lieutenant Lux.


Regular siege of Santo Domingo began  on the 6th of March 1805 and lasted to the 8th of July 1809 when the defenders capitulated to Spaniards. From the number of 75 Poles that fought there 40 of them survived. Some of them got permission for coming back to Europe (Lux and Wierzbicki) to start their service in regiments of Warsaw Duchy.

And the last group of Poles taking part in Caribbean expedition. About 600 former legionnaires sent by Napoleon to Saint Dominique decided not to come back to Europe. It was said that in that number about 400 of them started a new life in Saint Dominique and about 200 were dispersed in Cuba and Jamaica. Poles because of their deep understanding to abolition matters were treated by insurgents much  better than other white nations.

Polish soldiers took part in all battles and operations run by Leclerc and after his death by general Rochambeau including that aimed to annihilation of  African slaves. It made that Polish soldiers had a great dilemma between loyalty to commander and their sense of humanity. For most of them it was the first time to face a slavery problem and deep in their souls they felt sympathy to dark complexion insurgents. Especially that  Polish legions were fighting in Europe under the colors and standards where main inscription  embroidered said “For yours and our freedom”. So in this matter, many of former Polish insurgents soaked with revolutionary and democratic ideas said that being in French service in Saint Dominique they were “ slaves of duty and pressure”. This attitude and dilemmas made that Poles treated slaves and colored insurgents differently. This was also noticed  and appreciated  by  winning forces of Caribbean inhabitants. Those  Poles (about 240 men from a number of 400) who survived and wanted to stay  in Saint Dominique beginning a new life got a constitutional privilege (article 13th of Haitian Constitution) of citizenship and right to own land done by Dessalines (emperor Jacob I)  on the 16th of June 1805.

In consequence, after almost four years of fighting in Saint Dominique, Jamaica and Cuba, France lost nearly all of its troops sent. From about of 5,5 thousand Poles only 4 hundred returned to Europe.

To sum up. Obviously Caribbean expedition was not Polish war. Saint Dominique has become a tomb for two Polish well trained half-brigades that could be used in European war theatre. Hundreds of patriots who joined Napoleon in hope to fight for freedom sacrificed their lives in unfair matters that were opposite to reasons they wanted to fight for.

For many years, since Napoleon entered Poland in 1806, Saint Dominique expedition problem had been shamefully hidden. Especially then when history was treated as a tool for actual political purpose. But history did the justice to Poles who wanted to find a new home in Caribbean.  

Poles settled in Saint Dominique lived in four areas: in village Casale 70 kilometers west of Port au Prince, Fond-des-Blancs in South Department and in Port de Sault as well as in St. Jean du Sud. Up to the half of the XX century it was possible to find there  people having Polish names. Now it is much more difficult because many inhabitants died in 1969 during brutal racial riots. But still while looking for carefully it is possible to find some  dark complexion beauties with blue eyes or light fairy hair.


Selected bibliography

  1. Askenazy S., Napoleon a sprawa polska., Warsaw – Cracow 1918 , Vol I-III
  2. Bielecki R., Tyszka A., Dał nam  przykład Bonaparte. Wspomnienia i relacje żołnierzy polskich. Cracow 1984.
  3. chnm.edu/revolution/d/335/, Edit du Roi, Touchant la police des Isles de l’Amerique Francaise ( Paris, 1687), 28-58.
  4. Hauke M. , Description of San Domingo Island done by adjutant of general Dąbrowski . Manuscript. Jagiellonian Library, III/1033.
  5. Kirkor S. Polacy w niewoli angielskiej w latach 1803-1814, Cracow 1981.
  6. Korzon T. , dzieje wojen i wojskowości w Polsce. Cracow 1912. Vol. 3.
  7. Krzyżanowski A., Rzecz o wyspie San Domingo. Manuscript. Warsaw University Library, IV/3,7,42
  8. Łepkowski T., Haiti początki państwa i narodu. Warsaw 1964.
  9. Łepkowski T., Archipelagu dzieje niełatwe, Warsaw 1964.
  10. Pachoński J., Legiony Polskie prawda i legenda 1794-1807. Warsaw 1979.
  11. Pachoński J. , Polacy na Antylach I Morzu Karaibskim, Cracow 1979.
  12. Pimlot J., The Guinness History of the British Army. London 1993.
  13. Reiss T., The Black Count. Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo.  (Polish edition) Cracow 2014.
  14.  Rudnicki B., Dominikana i Haiti. Warsaw 2006.