Since ancient times, epidemics have shaped the history of the world: ours is a fragile species, which has repeatedly seen millions of people disappear, due to viruses, bacteria, or simply from hunger. Today we try to contain Covid-19, which killed more than one hundred and twenty thousand in the United States and more than 35,000 in Italy, but in 1665 the plague exterminated a third of the population of London, the Spanish flu epidemic made over 50 million died between 1918 and 1919, while malaria remains endemic: according to the World Health Organization, in 2018 there were 228 million cases worldwide, 93% of which in Africa but is also present in Italy, with about 4,000 cases in recent years.
From a political point of view, perhaps the most important epidemic in history was that of Santo Domingo, present day Haiti, in 1802. He killed about 55,000 of the 65,000 soldiers and sailors sent by Napoleon with the aim of regaining the island and restore slavery, erased by a slave revolt that began in 1791 and led by charismatic leaders such as Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines. It was an outbreak of yellow fever in the Caribbean that changed the fate of America as a whole.
Santo Domingo, acquired by France in 1697, was the heart of the French colonial system. The climate and soil, especially on the well-watered northern coastal plain, were perfectly suited to the creation of sugar cane plantations. Its hills proved ideal for the cultivation of coffee, which boomed after 1750. When the French revolution broke out, in 1789, Santo Domingo produced half of the world’s coffee production and 40% of the sugar production, more than Jamaica, Cuba and Brazil put together. Tobacco, cocoa and the precious indigo, used for dyeing clothes, were also exported. The island, called the Queen of the Caribbean for its 8,000 plantations, was spoken everywhere with admiration. All this was in the hands of 31,000 white settlers, who exploited the work of about half a million slaves.
Santo Domingo, however, was also a natural breeding of mosquitoes, the carrier of yellow fever and malaria. In the wet season there was no escape for city dwellers, especially harbors: the mosquito Aedes Aegypty, originally from Africa, feasted on human blood, transmitting viruses.
Yellow fever was called the disease of sailors at the time because the Europeans who arrived were affected much more than the inhabitants of the island. A French doctor who lived in Santo Domingo from 1732 to 1746 discovered that yellow fever “constantly erupted in these cities when new arrivals arrived from France, and among them, only among those who had not previously experienced that climate”.
The European military feared service in the Caribbean and sometimes mutinied when informed of their destination. In 1755 two British sailors preferred to suffer 1,000 lashes rather than risk their lives in the West Indies, where officers habitually refused to serve. Between 1793 and 1798, the death rate among British troops in the Caribbean, including Santo Domingo which Britain was trying to wrest from France, reached 70%.
The British feared that the example of this island’s slave revolution would incite plantations in neighboring Jamaica and Cuba, as well as African Americans in the United States, to revolt. Haiti had shown that “black Jacobins” ready to die for their freedom were able to successfully fight against European troops, being essentially immune to the effects of yellow fever.
By the end of 1796, three years after the invasion of Santo Domingo, the British had lost 80,000 troops, a number that surpassed the total losses of the Wellington army in years of war against the French in Spain. In Santo Domingo the cost for London exceeded 5 million pounds and in early 1797 the British government decided to withdraw from the island and keep only control of Môle St. Nicholas and the island of Tortuga: the price in men and money was simply too high.
Meanwhile, the Santo Domingo delegates in Paris convinced the Convention that human rights should apply to all, black and white, and were so persuasive that in February 1794 the revolutionary government decreed the abolition of slavery not only on the island but in the whole French colonial empire. Citizenship rights were extended to all, laying the foundations for the first multiracial democracy in the New World.
The dream of freedom and equality, however, where it did not last long: in 1801 Napoleon, with a coup d’état, made himself appointed first consul, in practice the absolute master of France. Immediately he conceived the plan to bring slavery back to Santo Domingo and with it get his hands on the wealth that flowed into the coffers of Paris before the revolution.
At the end of 1801, Napoleon brought together a gigantic fleet of 35 ships, 26 frigates, 22,000 soldiers and 20,000 sailors in Belgian and Dutch ports. The departure of the expedition, entrusted to General Leclerc, Napoleon’s brother-in-law, was however delayed by a month and the first contingents arrived in Santo Domingo only at the end of January 1802. Subsequently reinforcements arrived, for a total of about 65,000 soldiers and sailors . Excellent troops, veterans of many victorious battles in Europe. Among them were also a large number of Poles, Swiss, Germans, Italians and other nationalities. Together with them a few hundred former owners of sugar cane plantations who fled due to the slave rebellion but who now hoped to return in triumph.
A secret letter from Napoleon to the Minister of the Navy revealed an extremely ambitious plan: not only to regain control of Santo Domingo but above all to make it a base to expand the possessions in the Mississipi valley, whose mouth was controlled by the thriving French port of New Orleans. “My intention, citizen minister, is to take possession of Louisiana as soon as possible, so this expedition must be organized in the utmost secrecy, and must have the appearance of being directed to Santo Domingo.”
As a Spanish diplomat had predicted a few years earlier, however, the climate was an ally of the rebels: “the enemy will encounter such a dangerous climate that it will weaken his forces, ruin his men and his food supplies”. Not only did the nationalists led by Toussaint Louverture fight fiercely, and successfully, but in the summer yellow fever began to claim victims: a French doctor observed that “a week of rain was enough to destroy a division of our army.” I symptoms, continued the doctor, were “prostration; acute headache, severe pain in the loins, joints and extremities; nausea and vomiting of bilious black matter, similar to coffee grounds”.
Within weeks, the expedition had lost thousands of soldiers and hundreds of officers.
This was the voice of General Leclerc who, writing to the Minister of the Navy, listed the losses of senior officers due to the epidemic. To try to reverse the situation, Leclerc began a terrorist policy, writing to Napoleon that it was necessary to exterminate all blacks on the island above the age of 12 if they wanted to regain it. Atrocities against former slaves were not counted: the French generals ordered that prisoners (both military and civilian) be burned alive, drowned with bags hanging from their necks, crucified or locked in the holds of ships and then asphyxiated by sulfur fumes. Leclerc died in November but his successor, General Rochambeau, became famous for an even greater brutality, throwing prisoners as a meal to hungry dogs as a show for white settlers. The terror was counterproductive, strengthening the determination of the revolutionary army in Santo Domingo to fight for freedom and justice.
Eventually, the French lost about 60,000 soldiers and sailors out of the 80,000 sent to the island and decided to abandon Santo Domingo. The victory of the former slaves in 1803, helped by the yellow fever, had unforeseen but historical consequences: Napoleon decided to renounce completely the colonial dream in America and to give up not only New Orleans but the whole of the Mississippi valley, largely unexplored, to the United States. Suddenly, the 13 colonies along the Atlantic coast saw the vast prairies beyond the Appalachians open in front of them and took possession of a communication route necessary for expansion towards the West. It was an era when any long-distance trade could only take place by water and without the Mississippi and its tributaries that we see on this map there would have been no conquest of the West, no continental expansion, perhaps nothing like the States United as we know them today.
Instead, the heroism of the former slaves and the yellow fever forced Napoleon to offer these immense territories to the United States for the modest sum of 15 million dollars then. President Thomas Jefferson rushed to accept, Congress agreed and, in 1804, the rebels of Santo Domingo proclaimed the independence of their island by renaming it with a new name: Haiti. The yellow fever epidemic had changed the history not only of the island but of the entire continent.