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Review of The Haitian Journal of Lieutenant Howard, York Hussairs, 1796-1798, edited by Roger Normal Buckley

By Bob Corbett, 26 February 1991

The Haitian Revolution broke out in 1791 and threw the political and social relations of the island into turmoil. The slaves revolted in the North. Men of color and whites were constantly at odds. There were factions for independence, factions of French Republicans and even royalists wishing for the return of the good old days.

When Britain and France went to war Pitt decided that Saint-Domingue, as well as the rest of the French West Indies would be easy pickings. He ordered the British armed forces to take Saint-Domingue.

At first things moved smoothly. The British took Jeremie, Mole St. Nicholas, St. Marc and even Port-au-Prince. But things bogged down in the coastal towns. The British hadn't anticipated the return to the French side of Toussaint Louverture with his black army, nor with the difficulties of fighting not a European style war, but a guerrilla war with people who knew how to use forests and mountains to their advantage. Nor had they recokned with yellow fever.

There is an ancient historical quarrel in accounting for the victory of Toussaint over the Spanish, British and French. Was it the brilliance of Toussaint's leadership or the yellow fever which really won the battle? The question is ill posed. Neither existed without the other and neither, alone, is a satisfactory answer. Yellow fever took a devastating toll among the armies of the Europeans. On the other hand, Toussaint's well-disciplined guirrela troups did their job too. The two factors worked hand in glove. Toussaint even consciously used the fever to his advantage, laying off the attacks in the rainy season to let the fever do its job, while he recruited and trained. Then, when the fever was abating yet the enemy was still weak and understaffed, he would attack and gain the military advantage that the fever alone could not give.

Lieutenant Thomas Phipps Howard kept a careful journal of his two years in Saint-Domingue. There is internal evidence that he intended the journal for publication, and it is a careful record of the effects of both the yellow fever and the daring and relentless tactics of the brigands, as the British chose to view the revolutionaries.

The account he gives of his own regiment is typical of what he records for the whole of the British expeditionary force:

On a Muster made of our Regt: [on] the 20th of March 1797, not one Year & a month since we left England, we could not produce [a] 200 Men Corp;...the Regt: was 700 strong when we left Portsmouth, & we had lost but 7 Men in Action, the remainder having all fell a Sacrifice to the Climate.

Ironically Howard sensed some of the cause of the fever, yet seemed helpless to avoid it. When his troop was first sent to St. Marc they were quartered outside the town up in the hills. Howard tells how the troops in town were dying like flies of the fever, and how his troop was suffering no ill effects at all. He recounts that this was because of good air, ventilation, sanitation and general cleanliness. Yet some months later when they are moved to the town, he seems to have taken no step to provide any of the above, and he watched his troop die of the fever. Perhaps Howard had no power to alter his environment, but it is strange to read his rather accurate perscription of how to avoid the fever, then a few pages later listen to him detail the ravages of the disease among the soldiers for whom he had responsibility.

Howard's journal is short on reflection and long on details of daily life and battle. He recounts how the brigands did battle with them and won many squirmishes, even driving the British out of various posts. Yet he never senses that their form of war is different from the British's, and he counts it as victory that the Haitians would not stay and face an open fight in the European style, but would retreat, only to reappear the next day in a guerilla raid or an ambush. By any calculus of war, the British were being soundly beaten, yet Howard, who can only measure the war's progess in terms of his concept of war, misses the whole thing.

However, he recognizes that ultimately the British will lose, caught between the devastating yellow fever and a war they cannot win. In a poinent passage he reflects that either the British leaders in London don't know about their plight, or are heartless in a way he can't comprehend.

Howard never saw the larger picture except in a few passages. Mainly he describes the day to day routine of a soldier who mainly loved his work. The journal is quite useful. It gives one an emotive sense of what it was like to be in on this terrible war. Any romance one might feel toward revolution will dissipate in the face of the human tragedy that this war brought to the people involved. Howard couldn't bring himself to directly ask if the British government were behaving with ...the most unheard of cruelty & Inhumanity..., though this certainly occurred to him. His journal emphasizes how much cruelty and inhumanity government routinely impose upon the common soldier so that the government's designs can be fulfilled.

In sum one learns relatively little about the Haitian Revolution from Howard's journal, at least not in the conventional sense of learning. After finishing the journal the reader will not be able to give a decent overall account of the British expedition. On the other hand, one will have a felt sense of the war, the helplessness and hopelessness of the British soldier which standard accounts could never produce.