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The image above shows a painting by January Suchodolski. The title of the work is Legioniści na San Domingo and it depicts Polish Legionnaires in Saint-Domingue. The painting is from the National Museum in Warsaw.

About this article

This article is about the Polish soldiers in Haiti who were sent to what was then Saint-Domingue, in the French West Indies.

The soldiers were sent to the island to reinforce French troops that were trying to quell a Black slave revolution.

Note: Polish troop formations that fought for Napoleon are known as Polish Legions of the Napoleonic period.

The associated illustration is from the book “Mundury Wojska Polskiego 1700-1937” (Uniforms of the Polish Army 1700-1937). The illustration is by Stanisław Haykowski.

Permalink at FBC Poland. Page 110.

A Polish legionary in Saint-Domingue
A Polish legionary in Saint-Domingue

Please note that this article uses descriptions of Black people that were of their time.

Why were Polish soldiers fighting for Napoleon?

During the last quarter of the 18th century, there were three partitions (1772, 1793 and 1795) of Poland by Austria, Russia and Prussia. The first and second partitions divided up Poland between those conquering powers, while leaving a small part of Poland still nominally independent. The final partition of 1795 by the same powers resulted in the disappearance of Poland as an independent nation.

Following the French Revolution of 1789, the libertarian state abolished slavery in its colonies in 1794. In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte overthrow the French State in a coup d’état.

After coming to power, Napoleon reversed the earlier decision to abolish slavery.

During the Napoleonic period, many Polish soldiers and Émigrés volunteered to fight for France in its overseas campaigns because Napoleon was fighting (amongst others) the very powers that had conquered Poland during the partitions. The Polish soldiers believed that through Napoleon’s future conquest of their enemies, Poland would regain its freedom.

Napoleon, however, never explicitly made such a promise. Instead, he alluded to the fact that Poland’s independence could be restored. For example in 1795, following Frances acceptance of Polish military help, Napoleon said the following to his Polish adjutant Captain Józef Sułkowski:

I love the Poles and attach great importance to them. The partition of Poland was an unfair act that does not have the right to become a permanent state of affairs. After the conclusion of the hostilities in Italy, I will go myself at the head of the French to defeat Russia and restore Poland. But the Poles must not count on foreign help alone, they must arm themselves…with pretty words alone nothing can be accomplished. A nation destroyed by its neighbours must take up arms herself.” [1]

The Austrians had been defeated by France in 1800 and a peace treaty concluded in 1801 made no mention of Poland’s restoration. Because of this peace treaty, Napoleon did not see it fit to antagonise Austria by re-establishing Poland as a sovereign state.

The Polish soldiers were angry that the dream of Polish sovereignty was slipping from them. Napoleon regarded these soldiers as expendable in Europe yet their help could be very useful in putting down the Black slave revolution in the French colony of Saint-Domingue.

Misgivings of some Polish officers prior to their departure for Saint-Domingue

General Michał Sokolnicki, writing from Genoa in 1802 before his departure for Saint-Domingue, wrote in anger: “Those who battled for freedom and refused to tolerate oppression will now go and put free men in chains and sell them.” [2]

In 1803 a Polish officer embarking on a mission to Saint-Domingue expressed his dismay by writing that he was being sent to “fight with the Negroes for their own sugar.” [3]

The arrival of Polish soldiers to Saint-Domingue

In 1802 and 1803 Napoleon sent Polish Legions to Saint-Domingue. The Poles were not to know the tragedy that was to await most of the 5,280 Polish soldiers sent to the colony. The vast majority of them died of yellow fever and during battle.

One account typical of what befell the Polish soldiers

Two regiments of Polish troops arrived in Tiburon, Saint-Domingue in mid-1803. Ten days later, more than half of them had died of fever.

The blood rushed out of their nostrils, throats and eyes as they walked.”

This was observed by Chazotte, a French planter serving in the National Guard. [4]. Pierre Etienne Chazotte fled to America, being one of the very few French planters to have survived the massacres of French whites during the revolution, and been able to tell the story. [5]

Polish soldiers who fought with the rebels

Some Polish soldiers switched sides and fought alongside the rebels. Others were taken prisoner and given the choice of being executed or joining the revolt. There is debate among historians as to how many Polish soldiers joined the revolution and accredited historians put the number of soldiers who switched sides to less than 200. [6]

It is possible that some of the Polish soldiers recognised that the slaves were fighting for the cause of freedom, just as they themselves had previously fought, in the hope of a Poland once again free.

Note: There are numerous internet sources, erroneously claiming that Polish soldiers defected to the rebel side en masse. Accredited historians have picked through the historical sources and some of these facts are presented here:

In mid-1803, separatists totally surrounded a regiment of Polish soldiers. “Seeing myself encircled by over 3,000 Negroes,” the unit’s desperate commander said, “I see no possibility of holding out with such a small force, and rather than fall into the hands of this savage race fighting for their own independence, I am sacrificing my own life.” Some Polish soldiers took a similar risk and switched sides, joining the insurgents. [7]

According to one Polish officer, Dessalines had “won over 30 fusiliers” from his unit and made those Poles into his honour guard. [8]

General Dessalines had noted in October 1802 that he had been joined in his defection by “many European soldiers who are interested, loyal, and tormented because they are men who, like me, have taken up arms for their own liberty, and they are called my comrades.”

He was apparently referring to Polish soldiers with whom he had formed bonds while serving in the colonial army. [9]

Dessalines explained that a “handful of whites” who had “professed” the appropriate “religion” – the rejection of slavery – were under his personal protection in the aftermath of the atrocities.

He issued them naturalisation papers, declaring them to be “among Haiti’s children.” Whites had to recite an oath renouncing France and embracing the laws of their new home in order to acquire the papers.

Their special status was formalised in the constitution of 1805. Dessalines ruled in it that “no white, regardless of his nation,” might come to Haiti as a “master or property owner,” although he exempted naturalised citizens.

He also singled out two exceptions to the ban: Poles who had defected or remained in the colony after the (French) evacuation and a group of Germans who had been established in the colony before the revolution.

The constitution went on to say that, in order to eliminate all distinctions of “colour” in the country, all Haitians would be referred to as “Black” from now on. Haiti was a Black nation, but anyone who adopted its doctrine of rejecting France and the slavery it had spread was welcome to change their official identities and join it, and therefore the Black race. [10]

Jean-Jacques Dessalines

General Jean-Jacques Dessalines had previously served with the French colonial army. After his defection to the rebel side, he became one of the leaders of the Haitian Revolution and the first ruler of independent Haiti.

The capitulation of French forces and declaration of Haitian Independence

In 1803, French forces were defeated at The Battle of Vertierès and subsequently retreated by sea from Saint-Domingue.

The revolution was thus victorious and resulted in the declaration of Haitian independence on 1 January 1804.

The Polish Legacy in Haiti

What happened to the Poles after the revolution was won?

After the evacuation of French forces in 1803, approximately 500 Poles remained in Saint-Domingue. About 400 of them were naturalised as citizens and protected by Article 13 of the constitution of independent Haiti. 160 Poles requested permission to return to Europe shortly after and departed for New York and Copenhagen in 1805. A further 15 left the colony in 1807. The rest stayed and attempted, for better or worse, to make Haiti their home. [11]

Interview with former Haitian Senator Steven Benoît

Steven Benoît is of Polish descent and in the accompanying video, he gives an insight into the Polish legacy in the village of Cazale. At the time of the interview in 2016, Benoît was a senator in the Haitian Parliament.

Interview with former Senator Steven Benoît


Photographs from Cazale

Flickr screenshot hyperlinked to Flickr photo gallery
Screenshot of 200 years away from home: Polish in Haiti

This is a Flickr screenshot of photographs taken in Cazale by Światosław Wojtkowiak. The photo album is entitled “200 years away from home: Polish in Haiti”. The photographs are protected by copyright so please click on the accompanying screenshot to view them on Flickr.

During colonial times there were many interracial relationships between French masters and their slaves.

If these women had children with their masters, it was expected that the master would marry them and many such marriages did take place. [12]

It may follow then, that the Polish settlers in Cazale could have been marrying into an already established African and French gene pool. This needs to be remembered when looking at any photographs or descriptions of people in areas of Polish settlement.

Do any Haitians of Polish descent speak Polish?

The overriding task of the Polish settlers would have been to quickly learn Haitian Creole so that they could communicate with their wives, extended families and neighbours, in order to build lives in their new homeland. Traditionally, the upbringing of children fell to the wives, who did not speak Polish. [13]

The Poles that settled in Haiti married local women, had families and worked the land.

Through assimilation, the Polish language would have most likely died a natural death fairly quickly. In the immediate period after settlement, it is likely that the first generation of Poles would have become bilingual in Haitian Creole and Polish.

The only people in Haiti who speak Polish as a first language are occasionally visiting journalists, documentary film-makers from Poland and more rarely, Polish tourists. [13]

Phrases of Polish origin in Haitian Creole, still used in Cazale

Haitian Creole / English

Mouin chaje kou Lapologne
I’m always loaded like Poland

Chaje kou lapoloy
to charge like a Pole

M-ap Fe Krakow
I do like in Krakow

Meaning in English

I’m always ready

to attack in great numbers

to do something very well [14]

Polish soldiers in Haiti – Settlement areas

The main areas of Polish settlement were in the villages of Cazale (also known as La Pologne, Poland in English), Fond Blanc, Fond des Blancs, Port Salut and Gri Gri. [15]

The village of Cazale had the largest number of Polish settlers.

Map showing settlement areas of Polish soldiers in Haiti

Click or touch the map to see a full sized image

Map showing settlement areas of Polish soldiers in Haiti
Map showing settlement areas of Polish soldiers in Haiti

Attribution. Derivative work. Original: Rémi Kaupp, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Recollections of a visitor to the village of Cazale

In approximately 2000, Jacqualine Labrom accompanied a journalist from Condé Nast Traveller Magazine to Haiti. The purpose of the visit was to write a feature about the descendants of Polish soldiers in Haiti. This is what Labrom had to say about the visit:

Labrom managed to locate the local judge in Cazale, who was charming and very sympathetic. In his office, the judge spoke about residents who might be able to help with research and then accompanied the researchers to meet them. These were old men, mostly in their 70’s.

Labrom recalls that they had “wonderful hazel coloured or green eyes”. The men were very charming and thrilled that Labrom was able to converse in Creol. The Journalist asked if they were able to recall any stories of their ancestors and unfortunately they were unable to do so. While driving through Cazale, Labrom observed that many people in the village had very light skin while many older women had very thick white hair. [16]

I am unable to ascertain if the Condé Nast featured was subsequently published.

The Cazale Massacre

On 5 April 1969, 500 soldiers, including members of the notoriously brutal Tonton Macoute (the militia formed by president François Duvalier), arrived in Cazale. The forces were looking for several Haitian light-skinned communists who had taken refuge in the village several weeks previously. The communists had hoped that their light skin would help them blend in with the residents of Cazale.

The forces started a massacre and by the end of the day, 25 bodies were found. An additional 80 people had disappeared, never to be found. Several families were entirely wiped out and 82 houses had been looted and set ablaze. [17]

Visiting Haiti Today

Since the devastating earthquake of 2010 and the subsequent painfully slow rebuilding of the Haitian economy, access conditions for overseas visitors are to this day very difficult. Combined with the current pandemic, it may be that visits to Cazale from people overseas are now much rarer.

According to the latest data from the World Bank Group, “Haiti remains the poorest country in the Latin America and Caribbean region and among the poorest countries in the world.” [18]

Possible future Haitian/Polish projects

22 April 2021. A virtual meeting between the Lorquet Foundation for a New Haiti and other interested parties. In French. In English using Google Translate. Subject of discussion: Possible development projects in Cazale. The Lorquet Foundation and representatives from Cazale met with Polish Polonia Minister Jan Dziedziczak.


YouTube videos and websites related to Haiti and the Haitian Revolution

Videos and websites are listed alphabetically by name, with the exception of the first two listings, which are charitable organisations.

Cazale99

Cazale99 (In Polish) is a private YouTube TV channel run by Polish philanthropists Krzysztof Szybiński and his wife Elżbieta. To the best of my knowledge, this organisation receives no funding from any governments or bodies.

Cazale99 offers educational help for children in the towns of Cazale and Fond Blanc, where descendants of the Polish soldiers in Haiti live. The charitable work is self-funded by the Szybiński’s and by donations through a Polish crowdfunding organisation called Rzutka.

Visit their website – English version. Polish version.

Cazale Community and Cultural Center website

A non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of young people living in Haiti.

Akala – YouTube channel

British rap musician Akala’s address to the Oxford Union about the most notable slave revolt in the world

Akala puts his own unique insightful stamp in this address about the Haitian Revolution.

Akala’s Great Reads – A Haitian Revolution Special

An excellent introduction to books about the Haitian Revolution. Quickly discern which books will be best for you, depending on your current knowledge of the subject. Find books from beginner to advanced; this video presentation has it all.

Being Poloné in Haiti

Sebastian Rypson (2007). Origins, Survivals, Development, and Narrative Production of the Polish Presence in Haiti. Accessed 12 June 2021.

This is a carefully researched publication relating to the Polish diaspora in Haiti. Highly recommended.

Dr. Doug Campbell – YouTube channel

Was The Haitian Revolution B.S.?

Dr. Doug Campbell, Professor of History at Northern Virginia Community College, breaks down this subject into easy to understand segments.

References

1. Elena I. Fedosova at Moscow State University. Polish Projects of Napoleon Bonaparte. Accessed 04 June 2021.

2. Marek Tadeusz Łałowski and Jonathan North. (2018) War of Lost Hope: Polish Accounts of the Napoleonic Expedition to Saint Domingue, 1801 to 1804. Page 24

3. Laurent Dubois. (2004). Avengers of the New World: The story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Page 256

4. Laurent Dubois. (2004). Avengers of the New World: The story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Page 281

5. #1164 Comparative Brutality: The case of Pierre Chazotte by Robert Corbett. Webster University. Accessed 04 June 2021

6. Poland’s Caribbean Tragedy: A Study of Polish Legions in The Haitian War of Independence 1802-1803. Robert Corbett. Webster University. Accessed 12 June 2021.

7. Laurent Dubois. (2004). Avengers of the New World: The story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Page 294

8. Laurent Dubois. (2004). Avengers of the New World: The story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Page 295

9. Laurent Dubois, L. (2004). Avengers of the New World: The story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Page 294

10. Laurent Dubois. (2004). Avengers of the New World: The story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Page 300

11. Marek Tadeusz Łałowski and Jonathan North. (2018) War of Lost Hope: Polish Accounts of the Napoleonic Expedition to Saint Domingue, 1801 to 1804. Pages 27-28

12. Laurent Dubois. (2004). Avengers of the New World: The story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Page 62

13. Cazale99 YouTube channel video. In Polish. No subtitles available. Accessed 04 June 2021

14. Polskość czarnych Polaków na Haiti. In Polish. Polishness of Black Poles in Haiti. In English using Google Translate. On the Onet Travels website. Accessed 05 June 2021

14. Polonia na Haiti. (Polish diaspora in Haiti). In Polish.  In English using Google Translate. Accessed 05 June 2021

16. #2814: Re Polish presence in Haiti 12th March 2000. Robert Corbett. Webster University. Accessed 04 June 2021

17. Massacres perpetrated in the 20th Century in Haiti. Sciences Po (Paris Institute of Political Studies). Accessed 08 June 2021.

18. World Bank Group. Accessed 06 June 2021


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