The Haitian Revolution: Slave Revolts, Civil War, and Revolution in Haiti, 1791-1804

Of the many celebrated, little known, or completely forgotten conflicts of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Haitian Revolution fought from 1791-1804 is one of the most culturally relevant conflicts. Currently the Haitian Revolution has garnered more attention from military and popular historians, which as a study as a revolt, rebellion and colonialist war nevertheless deserves more attention from historians.

Luckily a resurgence in the study and historical interpretation of this period has occurred, with more many books written or currently being written on Napoleon’s ‘West Indian Policy’ and campaign within the context of the greater Haitian Revolution period from the Haitian/Caribbean perspective.

Soldier & Haitian patriot, François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture

As a French colony, Saint Domingue what is today the nation of Haiti, and the greater island of Hispaniola in general, split in half by the Spanish and French in the early colonial period-had been under the threat of a massive slave rebellion and middle class revolution for five years before the events of the French Revolution. Saint Domingue had come under the implied but specific control of the French plantation owners who relied on slave labor to make a hefty profit through the lucrative growing of sugar which was in high demand in Europe and America in the 1700 and 1800’s.

Slave rebellions and Mulatto revolts, 1790-17

It was the French Revolution indeed and its great turmoil which lead to the rise of the Haitian independence movement which began most certainly as a rebellion of slaves, which eventually mobilized all castes of Haiti at this time including free men of color (mulattos), some of whom were very rich and well connected sons of White planters. Other patriots included outlaw slaves living in the mountains known as maroons. These two groups played a major part in the early rebellions of 1790-1792, leading up to a 1792 decree which made free men of color (many of whom were mixed heritage Haitians) legal citizens.

'Pantheon of Haitian revolutionary heroes 1790-1804' Rebels, Generals, Emperors, Kings & Presidents of Haiti

The Haitian Revolution was fought sporadically often in isolated conflicts as well as in several important inter-connected wars and battles. There was significant infighting especially between the predominantly slave and former slave militias, and the private armies & regiments' of the mulatto generals, most notably André Rigaud. Rigaud was a well known noble, a veteran of the French mission to America during the American Revolution he controlled close to 7,000 soldiers in south of Haiti before emancipation as a dictator-general.

Rigaud was an influential mulatto supported by the French whose personal rivalry with General Toussaint Louverture led Haiti into the first rebellion as an united but not technically a sovereign nation during the War of Knives, 1799-1800. In the aftermath of this war future president and emperor of an independent Haiti, General Jean-Jacques Dessalines was ordered to the rebellious territory, where his forces slaughtered, burned, and pillaged the mulatto villages and settlements, killing perhaps 10,000 people or more.

André Rigaud, influential French educated general who fought Toussaint in 1799-1800 & in 1802

Haiti as first a semi-independent unincorporated territory and later as a young nation, became an important secondary theatre in the growing Napoleonic conflicts of 1798-1815. Led by the historically under appreciated leadership of Toussaint Louverture (b.1742-1803), one of the greatest for lack of a better term, New World African leaders of the 18th-19th centuries. He was an able commander of soldiers, charismatic and cunning on campaign and on the battlefield. Toussaint was  a nation builder, a Haitian patriot and later martyr and revolutionary hero then as well as now in Haitian and Latin American culture.

As leader of a nominally independent Haiti at this time, Louverture courted trade and diplomatic treaties with the United States of America and with the British Empire both at war with France at varying times before and after Napoleon's rise. Yet he also maintained a pact with France and at least the appearance of loyalty which few truly believed.  Louverture set the stage for a French invasion when he gained the personal attention of Napoleon I (b.1769-1821), who referred to his later adversary as “This gilded African” following his rise to power and the ouster of the French.

Napoleon's Invasion, The bloody War for Independence & the rise of Jean-Jacques Dessalines

As apart of the ‘West Indian Policy’ which Napoleon inherited following the coup of November 1799 and following the Treaty of Amiens in Europe 1802, an invasion force led by Victor-Emmanuel Leclerc was sent to invade Haiti and take back control from the rebels. Arriving in the port of Cap-Français (Cap-Haïtien) the capital of Saint Domingue at the time, Haitian patriot and future president & King Henri Christophe burned the city rather than let the French take it by arms.

General Leclerc (b.1772-1802), Napoleon's brother-in-law 
and the first French Commander of the Haiti expedition

The Haitians retreated quickly with both Toussaint and Christophe surrendering to General Leclerc’s forces, with eventually Christophe and Jean-Jacques Dessalines working with the French as officers in their army. Though the event remains clouded historically to this day, Touissaint Louverture was offered clemency perhaps but then arrested in an act of treachery later, promptly shipped to a French prison, the Fort-de-Joux near Switzerland, General Touissaint Louverture died a sickly, cold death, alone in the dungeon of his enemy in 1803, thousands of miles from the homeland he fought so hard to control and protect in the decade before.

Battle of Snake Gully, victory for Leclerc's 5th Light Infantry Regiment, Toussaint's last battle

Leclerc as did most of his force died of fever in 1802 and shortly after many of the Haitian generals including Dessalines & Christophe changed sides yet again, openly plotting for a total overthrow of French power in Haiti forever. A popular folk story has it that Dessalines tore the out the white color bar of the French flag in defiance, vowing to drive out & kill the white man to win independence for Haiti, and thus was created the nation Haiti and its flag.

Battle of Vertieres

Eventually the Haitians won total victory over Napoleon & General Rochambeau, winning independence in 1804 through decisive victories in the field, a successful guerrilla campaign, and the eventual French withdrawal following Napoleon’s renewed war with Britain, and his other enemies on the continent in 1805.

 Jean-Jacques Dessalines leads the first independent Haiti as emperor and autocrat before his assassination in 1806, succeeded by Henri Christophe who later became King of Haiti from 1811 until his death in 1820.

Jean-Jacques Dessalines (b.1758-1806), as Emperor, Jacques I, 1804-1806

There are many reasons why the conflicts of the Haitian Revolution are important, the socio-cultural impact being felt most certainly in Haiti today. The greater colonial impact of the revolutionary period on the island of Hispaniola are a unique and critical example of Napoleonic warfare in the dawn of the the modern age, and this is why the Haitian Revolution is a Conflict You Should Know.

Conflicts and Rebellions of the Haitian Revolution 1791-1804

Rebellion of Vincent Ogé & Jean-Baptiste Chavannes 1790-Rebellion of two rich mulatto leaders, inspired by Ogé who been in Paris when the Revolution began. They set up camp with a small contingent of rebels in Grand Riviere where they hoped to rally white & mulatto support to their cause. Eventually defeated in battle, both ringleaders escaped to Spanish Santo Domingo where they were eventually captured and handed over to the French. They were subsequently publicly tortured and executed in March of 1791.

Northern Voodoo Slave Rebellion of August 1791-Inspired by followers of a Haitian voodoo cult the Cape Francois region went into rebellion with hundreds of plantation owners tortured, raped, and murdered with their homes and plantations burned and sacked. An uprising known for the particular brutality inflicted on the white landowners by slaves before French General Assembly forces gained control again.

War with Spain, Britain, and France 1793-1798- Initially led by Frenchman Léger-Félicité Sonthonax (b.1763-1813) after Revolutionary France declares war on Britain. Many white plantation owners and Frenchman (already culturally & politically from metropolitan France) sided with England and it was Sonthonax’s emancipation of August 1793 that set the stage for the rise of Louverture. As author Bob Corbett notes during the years 1794-1798 “he [helped to drive] the British out of Saint- Domingue, overseen the retreat of the Spanish, ousted all genuine French authority and become commander in chief and governor general of the [former coloney/dependent protectorate] Saint-Domingue.”

War of Knives or War of the knife, 1799-1800-Led by General André Rigaud, who had his own mulatto led army in south, where he was known to be a dictator and authoritarian. He allied with two future presidents of Haiti, Jean-Pierre Boyer & Alexandre Pétion, challenging General Toussaint's authority. The rebellion is defeated following the battle for the port of Jacmel, with Rigaud escaping to France where he later has an as audience with Napoleon.

Quasi War, 1799-1800-Franco-American maritime war which General Riguard became apart of on January 1, 1800, engaging in an indecisive naval skirmish with an American merchant convoy with his small convoy of war sloops.

Toussaint’s invasion of Santo Domingo 1801-Haitian army invades Spanish Santo Domingo, technically a French possession but never occupied or turned over officially to the French. General Toussaint becomes the governor-general & de facto leader of the island of Hispaniola, drawing Napoleon’s France back into conflict with what they viewed as a rogue regime in their former rightful colonial possession, Saint Domingue.

Napoleon’s Invasion of Saint Domingue, War for Independence 1802-1804-General Leclerc invades Saint Domingue with 12,000 French soldiers sending the Haitians into the jungles and mountains of the interior. Many Haitian generals turn coat and Touissant Louverture is arrested and imprisoned in France. Eventually the Haitians under Jean-Jacques Dessalines rebel against the French again following the brutal practices of Leclerc’s successor, General Donatien-Marie-Joseph Rochambeau, who was to be killed at the Battle of Nations, LeipzigSaxony, October of 1813. Atrocities mount throughout 1802-1803, perpetrated by both sides trying to frantically end the war. France loses the will and need to fight in Haiti following the renewed war with Britain. The war was all but won by the Haitians at the Battle of Vertieres in 1803 in which Dessalines defeated General Rochambeau’s forces, with Independence Day coming January 1, 1804.

Rebel Haitians and Dominicans fight the Polish Legion  

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Odd Fighting Units: Italian Frogmen and the Human Torpedoes, 1940-1943

The Decima Flottiglia MAS (Decima Flottiglia Mezzi d'Assalto) known as La Decima or Xª MAS, Italian 10th Assault Vehicle Flotilla, was an elite naval unit active in World War from 1940-1945. This elite brigade of frogmen, sailors, and naval commandos most renowned service came between 1941-1943 when they undertook an ultimately failed but rather costly campaign against Allied military vessels and commerce shipping in the Mediterranean.

Artist Depiction of Italian Regia Marina Frogmen, c.1941

When examining the impact that the Italian 10th MAS had during its years of service for Benito Mussolini’s (b.1883-1945) government from 1940-1943, one must understand the diverse composition of the brigade itself. Essentially four different branches comprised the unit during its fight against the British Royal Navy and Allied shipping, the Gamma frogmen, manned torpedo craft, midget submarines, and assault motorboat craft.

Early Development of the Italian Assault Flotillas, 1917-1940

Pioneering Italian frogmen and naval officers (Regia Marina) Raffaele Rossetti (1881-1951) made history in early November 1918 when he and another Italian diver snuck into Pula Harbor (modern day Croatia) guiding a crude early manned torpedo nicknamed the mignatta, the leech, into the bow of the Austro-Hungarian battleship the SMS Viribus Unitis, sinking the vessel as well as another merchant ship.

The Italians respected and pursued (slowly) alternative means to building a great battleship fleet because they knew the British and the French could outclass them many times over in main battleships and destroyers. Mussolini and the Italian Naval command from 1935-1941 realized that they could inflict losses on this larger navies using small maneuverable crafts. Though there were numerous types of craft built they were all known colloquially as barchino, the little boats.

These assault motorboats were designed to be one to two man assault craft, some were weapons motor torpedo boats whilst other were explosive laden weapons systems. A renewed interest in manned torpedoes and naval assault craft began in 1935. Italian naval officers Teseo Tesei and Elios Toschi spearheaded these early efforts to perfect the two man self-propelled torpedo. Their efforts from 1935-1936 weilded several prototypes but the basic slow speed torpedo (SLC) design used during World War 2 came to be known as the maiale, or the hog (pig).

Italian Navy Captain Teseo Tesei (b.1909-1941)

Weighing nearly 1.5 tons the maiale craft were heavy, ungainly and unreliable beasts which were very hard to steer and prone to mechanical mishaps. Theoretically the SLC manned torpedoes could to 2-3 knots at a depth of 50-75 feet. The warhead placed at the end of the manned torpedo detached allowing the two man crew to attach the 550+ pound explosive to the hull of an enemy ship. The Frogmen school attached to the 10th Assault MAS and to the Naval Infantry was arguably the most elite section in all of the Italian navy during the war.

Only about 50 Gamma group (frogmen) assault swimmers saw action from 1940-1943. The selection course for these swimming saboteurs was brutally challenging and we can assume that the men who passed selection were most certainly elite swimmers. They wore the advanced Belloni dive suits, designed by Lt. Angelo Belloni of the Xª MAS Flotilla, and were equipped with the Pirelli ARO rebreathers. Gamma frogmen had the use two tanks of pure oxygen for about 6 hours of underwater breathing, plus a dive knife, and most wore a wrist compass and dive watch as well.

Xª MAS diver wearing a Belloni dive suit with a rebreather

Gamma frogmen were to swim undetected underneath enemy vessels after being dropped discreetly in enemy waters by submarines or motor torpedo boat. They would then attach 10-25 pound explosive charges or magnetic limpet mines to the hull of the enemies ship. The rest of Italian Frogmen crews were trained in basic reconnaissance, saboteur training, and in the piloting of manned torpedo craft and assault boats. The La Decima unit’s service in the Mediterranean began with a dreadful string of failed operation after failed operation.

In February of 1940 the Decima Flottiglia MAS was formally created by melding all of the previous Adriatic/Mediterranean flotillas and the ‘Special Weapons Section’ of the Regia Marina into one cohesive unit. The very first SLC manned torpedo operations in August and September 1940 were complete and total failures. In one operation led by the godfather and creator of the manned torpedo program, Captain Tesei's SLC experienced malfunctioning equipment which forced him and his crew to cruise to the Spanish coast where one of the craft was confiscated by Francoist authorities.

SLC Manned Torpedo c.1942

The largest and most costly early operative failures came on 26-27 July attack against Valletta the capital of Malta by two SLC manned torpedoes and nine MAS assault motorboats. The task force quickly penetrated the harbor but were spotted and exposed to savage artillery and small arms crossfire. British Hawker Hurricanes bombed them from the air and the raid turned into a calamitous death trap for those who had been spotted on the surface of the harbor waters. Capt. Tesei sacrificed himself by blowing up his manned torpedo and destroying the St. Elmo’s Bridge in a last act of suicidal bravery. The Italians lost all their craft save for one of the barchino, fifteen were killed including the Decima Flottiglia’s commanding officer, the founder of the Italian manned torpedo program Capt. Tesei, and eighteen more were taken prisoner.

Italian SLC Manned Torpedo

Battle Record, 1941-1943

In March 1941, La Decima assault motorboats carried out a minor successful raid against the British at Souda Bay off the coast of Crete. In this action the HMS York was severely damaged and another merchant ship was sunk. The next success of the brigade came in September of ‘41 when three manned torpedoes made a successful attack on three merchant ships near Gibraltar, sinking one of the vessels. The crowning achievement of the Italian's SLC manned torpedo program came on 18-19 December 1941 when three SLC cruised into Alexandria Harbor after being dropped by the submarine Sciré commanded by Junio Valerio Borghese (b.1906-1974).

Three crews of six Gamma frogmen found targets, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, the HMS Valiant, and the merchant tanker Sagona, damaging all severely with explosive charges. Both British battleships were severely damaged and another destroyer was also damaged at a loss of eight British sailors though all six frogmen were captured in the action. Lt. Luigi Durand de la Penne (b.1914-1992) was the frogman who wrecked the Queen Elizabeth although he was captured after attaching a magnetic mine to the bottom of the ship. This action left the British with only a skeleton force of light cruisers and destroyers in the Mediterranean.

Italian SLC c.1942

Lt. de la Penne served as an assault swimmer for the Allies after his capture and was awarded the Gold Medal of Military Valour in a 1944 ceremony attended by Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, the commanding officer whose ship he had crippled three years earlier. In the modern Italian Navy (Marina Militare) Durand de la Penne has a class of destroyers named after him and is still celebrated as a hero of the modern Italian navy.

From June 1942 to August 1943, the 10th Assault Flotilla was involved in numerous sinkings and the severe damaging of Allied ships from Sevastopol in the Crimea to Algiers in North Africa. During this period the 10th Flotilla sank or damaged ships from the United States, Britain, Greece, the Soviet Union, and from Norway amongst many other nations. Italian assault motorboats and midget submarines operated in the Black Sea with little notable results during 1942-43 as well in an attempt to aid their German allies on the Eastern Front.

Sub Lt. Luigi Durand de la Penne, Gamma saboteur c.1941

The Gamma frogmen enjoyed a string successes disproportionate to their size and length of service record. Their first operation was launched in July of 1942 when twelve swimming saboteurs damaged three merchant ships moored near Gibraltar. During the later launched Operation Stella just one Gamma diver sank three British cargo ships in neutral Turkish waters between June-July 1943. Italian frogmen sunk or damaged numerous cargo ships off North Africa and in the Mediterranean until August 1943 when the last Gamma attack was launched on Gibraltar, sinking three merchant vessels.


By the summer and fall of 1943 the war in North Africa and the Mediterranean theatre had taken a very bad turn for Mussolini and his fascists militarily, diplomatically, and politically. The 10th MAS enjoyed several minor scattered successes in the summer of 1943 before the September Armistice of Cassibile which ended the war between Italy, now led by Marshal Pietro Badoglio following a coup (b.1871-1956) and the Allies. The 10th MAS unit was reformed as an anti-partisan and naval commando battalion following the creation of the Italian Social Republic (the RSI or Republic of Salo), the Nazi puppet state in northern Italy. Now led by Commander Junio Valerio Borghese, the Decima became a near independent axis allied battalion, combating Italian partisans and Yugoslav guerillas in the north and later the Allies on land and sea before the end of the war in April 1945.

Decima Flottiglia MAS, La Decima or Xª MAS

According to authors Piero Crociani and Dr. Pier Paolo Battistelli of the University Of Padua, from June 1940 to September 1943 the 10th Assault Vehicle Flotilla sank over 60,000 pounds of gross tonnage. These numbers do not reflect the thousands of tonnage lost and ships sunk due to the actions of a handful of Gamma swimming saboteurs who fought for both the Axis and Allies from 1940-1945. Even though the 10th MAS had no great effect on the outcome of the war in the Mediterranean from 1940-43 the maiale, barchino, and Gamma swimmers are still remembered as one of the most unique and one of the 'elite' formations of the Italian armed forces during the reign of Mussolini.

Suggested Further Reading
Italian Navy & Air force Elite Units & Special Forces 1940-45. By: P. Crociani & P.P. Battistelli, Illustrated by M. Stacey (Osprey Publishing, 2013)

The Black Prince and the Sea Devils: The Story of Valerio Borghese and the Elite Units of the Decima Mas. (Da Capo Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2004)

The Royal Navy and the Mediterranean Volume II, November 1940-December 1941. Edited by David Brown, (2002).

Frogmen First Battles. By: William Schofield and P. J. Carisella
(Branden Publishing Company, Boston, 1987).

Sea Devils-Suicide Squad By J. Valerio Borghese, Translated James Cleugh.


Game Review: Warfare 1917

Warfare 1917, Con Artist Games, Chris “Con” Condon, Play for Free at Armor Games.Com

Warfare 1917 is a free-to-play World War I game inspired by the brutal and seemingly wasteful loss of human life in the trenches and in no-man’s-land of Western Europe c.1917-1918. Behind this game’s gritty and simple exterior and basic controls is an addicting and challenging game play experience. This game is surprisingly historically accurate as well as fun and simple to play.

For such a small game the creators and producers over at Con Artist Games did a wonderful job balancing each sides units. Warfare 1917 offers two standard campaign modes, the British or German Empire. A third mode allows the player to create a custom game keeping the replayability factor moderately high. In this mode the player can set their own parameters making their or their enemies armiy as strong or as weak as they like.

Tommies (British Infantry) in the trenches from Warfare 1917

In any mode the basic game map is dotted with trenches and barbed wire which the player must direct his soldiers across. Artillery and mortar shells will decimate your troops so best get them to semi-secure trenches in a hurry before they are all killed. The player uses a combination of basic infantry and assault troops, sniper support, machine gun teams, artillery, mortars, and later tanks, to defeat their enemy by either taking the field or by killing enough or the enemies soldiers that their moral sinks to critical and they then surrender.

Game screen from the later in the campaign

In the campaign mode of Warfare 1917 strategically allocating your command points in between battles in relation to your individual play style may mean the difference between life and death for your mini cyber units. It may also mean the difference between victory and defeat. Each nation fields the same type of units; basic infantry, assault, machine-gun, sniper, officer, and tanks (available in the campaigns later stages). 3 out of 5.

German Stormtroopers (Sturmtruppen), 1917-1918

Other Suggested Titles
Warfare 1944, Con Artist Games

Warlords, Con Artist Games