Boyer: Expansion and Decline


Jean-Pierre Boyer

Jean-Pierre Boyer was one of the leaders of the Haitian Revolution. While president he reunited the north and south, invaded Santo Domingo bringing all of Hispaniola under one government.

Jean-Pierre Boyer shared Pétion’s conciliatory approach to governance, but he lacked his stature as a leader. The length of Boyer’s rule (1818-43) reflected his political acumen, but he accomplished little. Boyer took advantage of internecine conflict in Santo Domingo by invading and securing the Spanish part of Hispaniola in 1822. He succeeded where Toussaint and Dessalines had failed. Occupation of the territory, however, proved unproductive for the Haitians, and ultimately it sparked a Dominican rebellion.

Boyer faced drastically diminished productivity as a result of Pétion’s economic policies. Most Haitians had fallen into comfortable isolation on their small plots of land, content to eke out a quiet living after years of turmoil and duress. Boyer enacted a Rural Code (Code Rural), designed to force yeomen into large-scale production of export crops. The nation, however, lacked the wherewithal, the enthusiasm, and the discipline to enforce the code.

Boyer perceived that France’s continued refusal to settle claims remaining from the revolution and to recognize its former colony’s independence constituted the gravest threat to Haitian integrity. His solution to the problem–payment in return for recognition–secured Haiti from French aggression, but it emptied the treasury and mortgaged the country’s future to French banks, which eagerly provided the balance of the hefty first installment. The indemnity was later reduced in 1838 from 150 million francs to 60 million francs. By that time, however, the damage to Haiti had been done.

As the Haitian economy stagnated under Boyer, Haitian society ossified. The lines separating mulattoes and blacks sharpened, despite Boyer’s efforts to appoint blacks to responsible positions in government. The overwhelming rate of illiteracy among even well-to-do blacks foiled Boyer’s intentions. Still, his government effected no substantial improvements in the limited educational system that Pétion had established. The exclusivity of the social structure thus perpetuated itself. Many blacks found no avenues in the bureaucracy for social mobility, and they turned to careers in the military, where literacy was not a requirement.

As Pétion’s successor, Boyer held the title of president-for- life. The length and relative placidity of his rule represented a period of respite for most Haitians after the violence and disorder that had characterized the emergence of their nation. Pressures gradually built up, however, as various groups, especially young mulattoes, began to chafe at the seemingly deliberate maintenance of the political and social status quo.

In the late 1830s, legislative opposition to Boyer clustered around Hérard Dumesle, a mulatto poet and liberal political thinker. Dumesle and his followers decried the anemic state of the nation’s economy and its concomitant dependence on imported goods. They also disdained the continued elite adherence to French culture and urged Haitians to forge their own national identity. Their grievances against Boyer’s government included corruption, nepotism, suppression of free expression, and rule by executive fiat. Banding together in a fraternity, they christened their organization the Society for the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The group of young mulattoes called for an end to Boyer’s rule and for the establishment of a provisional government.

The government expelled Dumesle and his followers from the legislature and made no effort to address their grievances. The perceived intransigence of the Boyer government triggered violent clashes in the south near Les Cayes. Forces under the command of Charles Rivière-Hérard, a cousin of Dumesle, swept through the southern peninsula toward the capital. Boyer received word on February 11, 1843, that most of his army units had joined the rebels. A victim of what was later known as the Revolution of 1843, Boyer sailed to Jamaica. Rivière-Hérard replaced him in the established tradition of military rule.

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