The Haitian Revolution is known as the only successful slave revolution in history. In 1791, the slaves in the French colony of St Domingue rose and fought French Royalists, a British expeditionary force and finally Napoleon’s troops to gain their freedom. This is not the space to recount the dramatic events that led to the proclamation of independence and the renaming of the state to ‘Haiti’ in 1804. I rather want to shed some light on a lesser-known aspect of the revolution, namely the role of women as combatants.
There are a number of accounts mentioning women fighting in the insurgent’s ranks. Armed women could be found among the bands of maroons, escaped slaves that often operated independently. Women also assisted in defending towns besieged by the British. One Marie-Jeanne Lamartiniére joined the heroic defence of a redoubt near Crête-à-Pierrot in 1802, where the French lost nearly 1.500 men until they managed to capture the position. In a rebel attack against another fortification, women were found in the first wave, carrying fascines to cover the trenches.
Women were also often at the centre of local revolts. In the 1791 insurrection, a ‘girl of colour’ called Princess Améthyste is said to have organised a company of Amazons. This was probably linked to a religious cult, voodoo playing an important role as a means of communication and community building among the slaves. In 1802, we hear of a woman called Lazare who was a ringleader of an insurrection against the napoleonic expedition.
Perhaps the most famous of all Haitian warrior women is Sanité Belair. She served as a lieutenant in Toussaint L’Ouverture’s army and was known for her hatred of the Whites. When the French expeditionary force captured her, she was to be beheaded but demanded to be shot like a soldier, a wish that was granted.
Why did those women fight? One explanation harks back to their African roots. Most of the St Domingue slaves had been born in Africa and had brought their culture with them. In several African societies, women combatants were nothing special – the most famous example being the Kingdom of Dahomey, from which many slaves came. Another explanation is the situation of slavery and the fight for freedom itself, which directly concerned every single individual. For women, slavery was perhaps even worse because of sexual exploitation, so it is only understandable that they fought with all available means – including weapons – to free themselves.
What do we know about their equipment and tactics? At the start of the insurrection, the slaves were ill equipped and, apart from some stolen muskets and pistols, mainly fought with farm implements. The Spanish and later the United States sold them weapons and ammunition, while leaders like Toussaint L’Ouverture trained their troops to perform complex manoeuvres. Many sources stress the discipline and bravery of the Black soldiers. But even when they had acquired uniforms and were organised according to French regulations into demi-brigades, they shunned open field battles and preferred guerilla warfare, shooting from behind cover and retreating as soon as the enemy engaged them in numbers. However, there were a couple of field battles, the most famous being the Battle of Vertières in 1803, where the rebels beat the French expeditionary force.
Woman warriors played an essential role in the slave’s struggle for freedom and even their enemies acknowledged their courage. General Leclerc, the commander of the French expeditionary force who was sent by Napoleon to reestablish slavery in the colony, wrote exasperated: “[T]hese men die with an incredible fanaticism; they laugh at death; it is the same with the women.”
The Haitian Revolution offers exciting opportunities for wargaming, especially for small-scale actions. Unfortunately, the choice of female miniatures for the period is very limited.
In 28mm, Trent Miniatures has a very nice range dedicated to the period, but no women. Redoubt have Spanish Guerrilla women which might work. On a pinch, one of the Brigade Games Buccaneer Ladies could also be used.
In 15mm, the female pirate officers from Peter Pig work rather well – those are the ones I myself use.
Dubois, Laurent: Avengers of the New World. The Story of the Haitian Revolution, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 2004.
Girard, Philippe: “Rebelles with a Cause: Women in the Haitian War of Independence, 1802–04,” Gender & History 21 (2009), 60–85.
Maurouard, Elvire: Des femmes dans l’émancipation des peuples noirs de Saint-Domingue au Dahomey, Paris: Éditions du Cygne 2013.