The Story of 1804 Part One: Winter

On January 1st 1804 on the island previously known by its French colonial name of Saint-Domingue, Jean-Jacques Dessalines proclaimed the birth of a new nation in the Americas: Haiti.

Napoleon Bonaparte’s assault on the revolution in Saint-Domingue having been defeated (Bonaparte himself being otherwise engaged in Europe), French forces abandoned the island in November 1803, ending the long Haitian revolutionary war. Europe’s most profitable colony had become an independent republic ruled by free people of African descent.

The independence declaration, written in French by Louis Boisrond-Tonnere and signed by General-in-Chief Dessalines, founded a new state called by its native name, dedicated to the abolition of slavery, ‘anathama to the French’, and a ‘radical understanding of race and citizenship.1

Revolutionary France, under pressure from Saint-Domingue’s ‘black jacobins’, had abolished slavery in 1794, emancipating all their colonially enslaved people as French citizens with full rights of the new constitution. Taking place as it does a lifetime before the abolition of slavery in the USA, it’s an extraordinary achievement – perhaps the finest achievement of the French Revolution – driven by events in Haiti. Toussaint L’Ouverture led the revolution for this aim, and for self-government but not full independence from France. We can in this light perceive the French and Haitian Revolutions as one integral event. By 1800 L’Ouverture had taken control of the colony. But all this was later rescinded by Bonaparte as First Consul, who tricked L’Ouverture into imprisonment and death, and attempted to re-impose slavery, and the will of the centre, on the colony. In the words of the declaration, France had offered a mere “specter of liberty”.

In contrast to the French ‘specter of liberty’, the declaration seeks to “assure the empire of liberty”, a phrase which appears to have been lifted from the then President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, who had been using it since 1780. Perhaps Boisrond-Tonnere seeks subtly to suggest Haiti takes its place as a revolution of the Americas, while emphasising the irrevocable split from France. Chelsea Stieber sees the Haitian declaration’s usage of the phrase as an “iteration and adaptation” of Jefferson’s, bringing with it the ironic, “productive tension” of joining two normally opposing ideas, liberty and empire.2

The Declaration’s language thus clarifies this Haitian act within the flow of contemporary revolutionary current, alongside the American and French experience. Indeed, viewing the Haitian and French revolutions as one intertwined event, more or less coterminous in time as they are, seems to me to pull our focus on and deepen the significance of the split from France as a major, and dramatic event in world history. It adds to and reinforces the split from the old, European world of the new world established by the American revolutionaries in the decades before.

David Geggus argues of all the ‘Atlantic revolutions’ of the time, Haiti produced the greatest social and economic change, and “most fully embodied the contemporary pursuit of freedom, equality, and independence”. It certainly retained symbolic power a long lifetime later when in 1893 in Chicago, Fredrick Douglas called it “the original pioneer emancipator of the nineteenth century” to audience applause. Politically, ideologically, materially and symbolically the Haitian revolution represented, as Robin Blackburn puts it, the first “major blow to the slave systems…a defeat for all the slave powers of the New World”.3

For ongoing resistance by enslaved people the example of Haiti shone as a powerful beacon, propaganda for the possible. The following slides outline some recorded examples of that symbolic pulse in the subsequent history of resistance by enslaved people up until the American Civil War.

Under torture arrested slaves stated an uprising was planned. See also Women of the Christmas Rebellion. .6

According to Ada Ferrer, one informant claimed ‘the conspirators had been collecting money and arms for two years under the direction of Haitian agents’.7

World War 2 pillbox near West Moorhouses Farm

1811: German Coast uprising

Migration from Haiti to the new US territory of Orleans included free blacks, whose Orleans population tripled by 1811. Descendants of escaped slaves formed colonies of their own in the area, while thousands of new slaves were imported, against the protestations of Governor William Claiborne, who in July 1804 had written to Madison to say “at some future period, this quarter of the Union will (I fear) experience in some degree, the misfortunes of St. Domingo, and that period will be hastened, if the people should be indulged by Congress with a continuance of the African-trade”. Claibourn’s prohecy proved true, since in 1811 groups of up to 500 slaves carried the largest slave rebellion in US history, principally organised by Charles Deslondes. Legend records Deslondes may have been of Haitian extraction himself. Although no evidence for this has been found, the power of the myth illustrates a recognition that this event only makes sense in a post-Haitian revolutionary context. No mere insurrection, this rebellion had a revolutionary aims, challenging the status quo and inspired by the example of Haiti.9

1812: Aponte’s rebellion

The removal of Haiti from the slave labour system encouraged expansion of slavery and sugar production in Cuba, planters seeking to ’emulate Saint-Domingue but to contain Haiti’. But this was not easy: ‘passage between the two islands was short and well traveled’. Ada Ferrer argues the ‘awareness of the Haitian revolution shaped the transformation of slavery in Cuba’, and points to Eugene Genovese’s claim that the Revolution ‘propelled a revolution in black consciousness’. Free black carpenter Jose Antonio Aponte organised resistance in which Haitians were rumoured to be involved. Aponte inspired recruits with icons of the Haitian revolution and the then king of Haiti, Henry Christophe.10

The “late slave rebellions”

Bussa’s rebellion (14–16 April 1816) was the largest slave revolt in Barbadian history. Participant James Bowland talked of a place where the enslaved had fought and won freedom that he called ‘Mingo’. Another organiser, Nanny Grigg, had expected emancipation, and when it failed to arise said “the only way to get it was to fight for it…as that was the way they did in Saint Domingo’

Followed by the Demerara rebellion of 1823 in what is now Guyana, and the Jamaican Slave Revolt (sometimes called the Baptist War) of 1831–32, collectively these three rebellions influenced the British state’s decision to abolish colonial slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833.11

1831: The work of death in Southampton, Virginia

Nat Turner, born enslaved in 1800, grew into an intelligent, well read and religious child given to visions, and an enslaved preacher. After a series of visionary experiences Turner used his position in Southampton, Virginia in August 1831 to plan and a lead a violent action by over 70 slaves. The group killed almost the same number of whites, beginning with Turner’s owner and family.

The action, according to Turner’s astonishing ‘Confessions’ aimed to ‘carry terror and devastation’…’the work of death’. Turner’s actions, while spiritually inspired, had a reasoned logic. Turner seems to have envisioned terrorist actions as the only meaningful response to the terrors of the slave system: an extreme act of desperate, conditioned, violent communication that sought to write history.13

The influence of Haiti on these events is clarified by a contemporary account:


John Brown, the radical American abolitionist, “studied the Haitian Revolution carefully”15 before his attempt to initiate a slave revolt in Southern states.

Haiti served as inspiration for blacks fighting in the American Civil War: “the company nickname of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, one of the first official units of African-Americans, about a quarter of whom had been formerly enslaved, was the Toussaint Guards’.16

Inspiring a generation of slave revolts comprises a major history in itself, yet remains only part of the story, just one thread we can tease out from the impact of Haiti and its revolution. We also see a profound and immediate impact on regional migration and on wider geopolitical considerations. The United States of America, under John Adams’ administration, had covertly aided the Haitian rebels, countering French interests in the Americas as well as reflecting an anti-slavery element in the Federalist faction. Adams’ successor Jefferson, long-time leader of the Republican faction, made acquiring the Franco-Spanish American city of New Orleans a policy objective. And it has become commonplace to point to Bonaparte’s inability to recapture Haiti as one of the reasons France chose to sell not just New Orleans but it’s entire, vast North American territories to the USA.17

It seems fair to say that without the Haitian revolution there would have been no land deal now known as the Louisiana purchase, and less chance of the USA becoming the major continental power in the time that it did. Moreover, migrants from the overthrow of the slave society in Haiti – slaveholders, free blacks and slaves – reinforced and assimilated into existing francophone cultures in Jamaica, Trinidad, Cuba, and various cities in the eastern US. New Orleans grew the most from such migrants after 1804 and the US takeover of the city, reinforcing its population with living memories of the Haitian revolution. As with the history of slave revolts, the Haitian upheaval impacted the cultural and political lives of people very directly until the American Civil War, these cultures thriving in the area until the 1860s.18

Detail from James Madison by Gilbert Stuart, 1804

The geopolitical impact was immediately obvious to those in authority. US Secretary of State James Madison wrote to Robert R. Livingston, U.S. minister to France, on January 31st, appraising him of the Haitian Declaration of Independence, which put the question of US/Haitian trade “under some delicate considerations”. Madison outlines what he believes to be French ‘rights’ in the matter, but argues it would not be in French interests to blockade and starve Haiti into submission, since either the British would be able to break such a blockade, or Haiti would be forced into a position of self-sufficiency that would make it both ungovernable and unprofitable. Madison proposes France “should see her interest in its true light”: “free trade with St Domingo will be profitable in itself”, while sanctioning it would be “unfriendly to the harmony between the two nations”.19

Detail from Robert R Livingstone by John Vanderlyn, 1804

Madison had not yet received Livingston’s letter of the 1st January, reporting on negotiations with the French over the Louisiana deal.

(Livingston also reports the recent capture of the USS Philadelphia and her crew by Tripoli in the US conflict with the North African state, and that he’s inquired if Bonaparte might be able to help: “the Minister promises me every possible aid, but as the Consul is absent, days will elapse before I can know his determination”).20

With regard to the Louisiana purchase, Madison alludes to delays in Congress around determining the new territory’s governance, and the opposition to the purchase then being polemicised by Federalist leader Alexander Hamilton – “the peculiarities and difficulties of the case give rise to more than the ordinary differences of opinion”. Madison thus envisages a gradual transition towards “the organization of power as dictated by the Republican Theory” as best for New Orleans and for the federal Government. In the meantime, Madison seeks to assure the French that US Government in the Territory will be administered in a “mild spirit” of “parental interest”, and a “scrupulous regard to the spirit and tenor of the Treaty of Cession”. In the event, the Organic Act of 1804 would pass in March, and come into effect in October, beginning the process of organising the vast area into Territories and later, states.

Another letter of January 1st 1804, to President Jefferson from David Campbell, the twice-impeached justice of the Superior Court of Tennessee, also foresees a transition towards “the organization of power as dictated by the Republican Theory” for people finding themselves under the territorial organisation of the USA’s rapidly expanding margins: the Cherokee.

The circumstances of Campbell’s first impeachment provide some context for his interest: the Treaty of Holston between the United States and the Cherokee (1791/2) had established a border between US and Cherokee land, and Campbell found himself, along with other settlers, living on the Cherokee side. Duly evicted by federal troops, the “furious” Campbell “lashed back” at Tennessee’s governor John Sevier, and refused to submit to court adjudication on the matter. Sevier convinced the Tenneseee House to impeach Campbell; he survived by one vote. Impeached again in 1803, for bribery, he again survived, this time by nine votes to three, apparently with the support of Andrew Jackson, or rather of the Jackson faction in Tennessee political circles. Jackson, former representative and senator, now himself a judge of Tennessee’s Superior Court, had in his time in the US Congress argued for “the right of Tennesseans to militarily oppose Native American interests”. So it is perhaps unsurprising he supported Campbell, who wrote:

the Cherokee Nation of Indians will not, in my opinion, exchange the Country they now occupy for any other, directly, but time, and perhaps not very remote will accomplish every object necessary for the good of the Citizens of the U. States and of the Cherokee Nation…[who will] willingly relinquish all the lands North of the Tennessee for an equivalent on the Waters of the Mississipi for hunting grounds. This relinquishment will make the State of Tennessee compact, and a respectable territory…Indians are fast progressing towards civilization. They have invited many Mechanics to reside among them. They also begin to teach their Children to read

To Thomas Jefferson from David Campbell, 1 January 1804

Indeed, the Cherokee had begun to practice settled agrarianism, and were soon to develop a constitutional government of their own. In other words, they would do everything people like Jefferson, who in some ways thought native Americans superior to whites, asked of them. The distinction between Jefferson’s attitude of paternalistic admiration and the militant approach of Jackson may be deep but narrow. Jackson and the political base he is building will one day cross that chasm towards the forced removal of Native Americans from east of the Mississippi. As Campbell is dating his letter to the President on New Years Day, Jefferson was according to Christopher Hitchens “deep in conversation” with Native American leaders at the White House, much to the disgust of the visiting Anthony Merry, the British envoy to Washington. Merry read this, possibly correctly, as the latest snub from Jefferson, and stormed out. Relations between Jefferson’s USA and Britain were distinctly frosty, and later in the year, in the summer, Merry will receive an intriguing proposal to rain on Jefferson’s parade.21

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. On January 5th, the state of Ohio, demonstrating another brand of militant racism alive in the country even in a a ‘free’ state’, passed it’s first laws restricting the liberties of free blacks, fearful, perhaps, of Haiti’s influence and example of black government – the Haitian Revolution had after all been led by free blacks such as L’Ouverture. The state of New Jersey meanwhile abolished slavery on February 15th, extending the contiguous bloc of free northern states, and also establishing the balance of free vs slave states, which later became a key issue in the run up to the civil war

Meanwhile, in Eurasia

The Russian Empire under Alexander I was also in an expansionist mood, seeking control over the khanates of the Caucasus. These were formally independent but under the suzerainty of the Persian Empire, ruled by the Qajar dynasty. Under Agha Mohammad Shah the Qajars had retaken eastern Georgia from Russia in the 1790s only for it to be re-annexed by Russia in 1801.

In mid-January 1804 the Russians under general Pavel Tsitsianov, after making demands based on nominal Georgian claims over strategically important territory, annexed the town of Ganja in the South Caucuses, massacring and expelling thousands of its inhabitants, seizing its fortress and thus taking control of the Ganja Kahnate. So began the Russo-Persian War of 1804–1813, since Persia under the Qajar dynasty could not allow “the cession of Transcaucasia and Dagestan, which had formed part of the concept of Iran for centuries”.22

In some ways, the conflict simply reran unresolved 18th century territorial conflicts between the two powers, from the days of Peter the Great and Nader Shah. But this time, matters were complicated by the European context, and the machinations of Bonaparte – the Qajar riler Ali Sha appealed to Britain for help, but ultimately forming an alliance with Bonaparte. Nevertheless, the war concluded favourably for Russia. By 1813, with Bonaparte’s luck beginning to run out, Russia was acknowledged as the dominant power in control of the South Caucasus.

In the Korean Great Joseon State, the last dynastic kingdom of Korea, the final act of a power struggle is playing out: Queen Jeongsun, who has ruled as regent for her step-grandson since 1800. As well as defeating the Catholic Church, ending a previous policy of toleration towards Catholicism, she purged conflicting sects from the court and hired a large number of officials from a favourable sect. But in 1804, after her grandson’s consort was chosen, her influence is waning, and on February 9th the father of the King’s consort purged her appointees, beginning the era of domination of Korean politics by his family.

Change in West Africa

In large parts of Africa, the decline of the old empires by this period, and the expansion of Islam into the continent, had changed the cultural and political landscape. In West Africa this led to an era of semi-autonomous states – a transition had occurred from an age of empires to an age of kingdoms.

Alongside the remnant of the old Kanem–Bornu Empire between the Niger River and Lake Chad, mainly in present-day Nigeria, the Hausa Kingdoms dominated, populated by an assimilation of two major ethnic groups, the Hausa and Fulbe, (usually referred to as the Fulani, but this was the Hausa name for them) into a common Hausa–Fulani identity.

According to Hausa tradition, they derived their identity and origin from seven states, the bakwai. These states seem to have emerged by a “coalescence of strangers with local folk”, and developed as capital cities and “centers of power…cosmopolitan, fortified, and each the seat of a king…recognised as the superior power throughout the surrounding area”.23

As Issac Samuel has written, this new urban culture based on city-states became integrated into wider west African political and intellectual networks by the sixteenth century. Islam was widespread, but local traditions and beliefs persisted. These kingdoms thus divided between a formally Muslim but cosmopolitan urban elite, and the animistic rural communities.24

By 1804, a sort of religious revivalist movement, preaching a return to Islamic traditions, urging leaders to adhere more strongly to the religion, had grown in strength. One of the seven city states, Gobir, was ruled by Yunfa who had been educated by the Fulani Islamic reformer Usman dan Fodio. Dan Fodio had by now broken with the court and set up a religious community, with an armed following of slaves, peasants, and pastorals. He publicly condemned the Hausa elite, for greed, taxation, slavery, idolatry, sacrifice, and arbitrary rule.25

In response Yunfa revoked the community’s autonomy and attempted to kill dan Fodio. In exile dan Fodio’s followers including Fulani and Toureg nomads and Hausa peasants, declared him Commander of the Believers, and Head of Muslims. So began the Sokoto Caliphate on February 4th. On February 21st, Sultan Yunfa declared war on dan Fodio and his followers. The war lasted four years, with dan Fodio and the Sokoto Caliphate victorious. Frank A Salamone puts it thus:

before 1804, Habe kings ruled over Hausaland; following 1804, the Fulani took over, and by mid-century the Hausa were stratified into three tiers: the hereditary ruling Fulani, the appointive ruling class dominated by Fulani, and the Habe commoners.


Christopher Ehret in his invaluable The Civilizations of Africa : A History to 1800 argues that out of dan Fodio’s jihad

arose the major nineteenth-century empire of the central Sudan region known as the Caliphate of Sokoto. His example led to other jihads in the western Sudan, as a new age of empires, based on Muslim beliefs, took form in the first half of the nineteenth century.


Indeed, a successor body, the Sultanate of Sokoto, still exists to this day in the Sokoto State of modern Nigeria, recognised as in the tradition established by dan Fodio, and playing an influential role. A significant shift in power had occurred in this small but strategic part of Africa.28

Two Deaths and an Eclipse of the Sun: a New Era

Shortly after dan Fodio declared his jihad, back in the USA the English dissenter and scientist Joseph Priestley died, on February 6th 1804. In 1774, he had discovered oxygen, a finding which contributed greatly to the separation of modern chemistry from its classically Greek and alchemically medieval inheritance. Phenomena such as combustion and oxidation (rusting) were explained by a supposed elemental substance or principle called phlogiston, analogous to the classical element of fire. Priestley favoured this theory, considering oxygen to be ‘dephlogisticated air’. But others, notably French scientist Antoine Lavoisier, built on what Priestley’s discovery indicated, that air was not an indivisible element, but composed of mixed gases, to construct a new and much more rigorous theory of combustion grounded in more controlled experiments, observations and data. His oxygen theory of combustion inaugurates the modern chemical revolution, applying the law of conservation of mass to chemical reactions. This chemical revolution occurred slightly later than the revolution of the previous 150 years or so in other natural sciences. In that sense the Enlightenment, the turn to Reason, seems to have affected chemistry last, as the new theory slowly replaced the old. Priestley opposed the ideas of this chemical revolution all his life, preferring the phlogiston theory. He was also a religious Dissenter, a founder of Unitarianism, abolitionist, member of the Lunar Society and a leading theorist of liberal political ideas. As a defender of the French Revolution, he naturally came into Edmund Burke’s sights. In Burke’s famous broadside Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke associates the new science with the French revolutionary forces.29

Attacks on and suspicion of the new respect afforded to science reflects a crisis in the Enlightenment project. A turn to Reason was bound to upset ideas based on irrational traditions, whose defenders might well turn on anyone associated with the new rationality, whether in affairs of state or natural philosophy. In 1791 this all came to a head in the English Midlands city of Birmingham. Here Priestley had his base. Birmingham also had a history of so-called ‘Church and KIng’ mob violence against Dissenters. Priestley made a reputation agitating for Dissenter’s civil rights, and attempted to form a society in favour of universal suffrage and short parliaments. So Priestley the middle-class radical found himself an enemy of the established Anglican elites. But as the author of a 1787 pamphlet, An Account of a Society for Encouraging the Industrious Poor, which proposed a compulsory savings fund for the poor, for the provision of ‘occasional relief to those industrious and deserving persons’ among them, as well as legislative suppression of alehouses, to remove from the path of the poor “temptations to idleness, extravagance and vice”, he may not have gained friends or influence amongst the poor either, industrious or otherwise.

On July 11th 1791, a Birmingham newspaper announced a dinner, to be held on the 14th at Birmingham’s Royal Hotel on Temple Row, celebrating the French revolution. The same day an “ultra-revolutionary” handbill was circulated in the city, local authorities offering rewards for information about its author. By the time of the dinner, the atmosphere was very tense, and Priestley was encouraged by friends not to attend, fearing for his safety. They were right. A collection of pro-Church and King rioters threw stones at the leaving guests, sacked the hotel, and after burning a couple of dissenting chapels where Priestley ministered proceeded to his home in Sparkbrook which they looted and razed to the ground, destroying most of Priestley’s library and laboratory.

Priestley moved to the USA three years later. As he dies in 1804, Lavoisier’s approach had begun to find acceptance, and John Dalton is beginning to outline his atomic theory.The phlogiston theory died with Priestley, and so his death perhaps marks the point at which Chemistry had finally become a modern Enlightenment science.

Five days after Priestley’s death, on February 11th, a comparatively rare hybrid total/annular solar eclipse occurred in Aquarius. Also on this day, in Japan, the new era name of Bunka ( meaning “Culture” or “Civilization”) was created, marking the beginning of the Bunka-Bunsei period, also known as the Ōgosho Period, in Japanese history. The following day, in Königsberg, East Prussia, the philosopher Immanuel Kant uttered the words “Es ist gut” (It is good), and died. The German poet Heinrich Heine compared Kant to Robespierre as examples of “the highest the type of provincial bourgeois. Nature had destined them to weigh coffee and sugar, but Fate determined that they should weigh other things and placed on the scales of the one a king, on the scales of the other a god.” According to Michael Rohlf, Immanuel Kant stands as “the central figure in modern philosophy…a significant influence today”.30

Rohlf emphasises that Kant wrote the Critique of Pure Reason toward the end of the Enlightenment, in part as a response to the crisis in Enlightenment thought illuminated in the attacks on Priestley’s science and politics. The new spirit of reason led to, according to Kant, an “age of criticism, to which everything must submit”: “the sovereignty of reason” as Rohlf puts it. But some questioned if this would not lead to a mechanistic, materialist, and nihilist world – indeed the German Enlightenment thinkers created the term nihilism to cover just this possibility. The German Enlightenment, or Aufklärung, developed as Robert Solomon puts it, in a vacuum, without access to political power elsewhere in Europe and the Americas. It was also, as I touched on four years ago, a little “late to the party”, just as the chemical revolution had lagged behind the general scientific revolution. According to Robert Solomon, “science had won a long and hard-fought battle against the authority of religion”: good for science and reason but “a disaster from the point of view of morality and religion”.31

Rohlf points out most Enlightenment thinkers wanted to preserve belief in certain moral and religious traditions, but supported by individual human reason not by authority. Yet the Enlightenment did threaten those moral and religious traditions. Kant is attempting to resolve this tension by using metaphysics – a critique of reason by reason – to establish “a secure and consistent basis for both Newtonian science and traditional morality and religion”.

Solomon argues that Kant, “usually considered the most important defender of the Enlightenment in Germany…set the stage for the most dramatic romantic themes, including the elevation of the self…to an Absolute Self of transcendental proportions”.32

Just as Priestley’s death on the 6th can mark the end of an era in the natural sciences, the death of Kant on February 12th can be taken as one possible marker for the end of the Enlightenment.

The Serbian Uprising

The spirit of liberty next leads us, in this global revolutionary age, to Serbia, once a significant regional power in the fourteenth century, now occupied by the Ottoman Empire since 1459. The Austrian branch of the powerful Hapsburg family dynasty had seized Hungary from the Ottomans in 1687. They added half of Serbia (and part of Bosnia) in 1718, Emperor Joseph secretly agreeing to a joint partition of the Ottoman empire with Russia, on the assumption it was on its last legs. The attempt to realise this plan led to a temporary seizure of Belgrade in 1789, but Austria soon ceded the territory back to the Ottomans under diplomatic pressure from the Ottoman ally, the British.33

The Ottoman empire though was beginning to disintegrate. The so-called Sublime Porte, or central government in Istanbul, was losing authority and centralised control. The Janissaries, elite corp of infantry originally recruited from forced converts to Islam in the empire, gained power and influence, using it in increasingly brutal and tyrannical ways towards the colonised. The sultan Selim III though was attempting to modernise his army, creating a new infantry corps called ‘the new order’, with new European standards. But this was seen by the Janissaries as a challenge to their power and autonomy. An attempt by the Ottoman governor of Serbia, Mustapha Pasha, to bring the Janissaries to account for their crimes led to his murder in retaliation, in 1801. The renegade Janissairies, known as the Dahije or Dahijas now took control of eastern and then central Serbia, and rescinded the autonomy Serbians had enjoyed under Ottoman rule, as well as increasing taxes, seizing land and people for forced labour. This error of judgement and good administration mirrors the error Yunfa had made towards dan Fodio and his followers in Hausaland, insofar as it led to a successful uprising. Different classes of Serbs petitioned the Sublime Porte, seat of Selim III, for relief. One petition,

drawn up by Alexa Nenadovitch and other district and village headmen, described the situation in dignified but passionate words : ” We have been plundered by the Dahis . . . threatened in our homes, in our religion, in our honour. No husband is sure of being able to protect his wife; no father his daughter; no brother his sister. Monasteries, churches, monks, priests, nothing is safe from their outrages. , . . Art thou still our Tzar ? Then come and free us from these evildoers. Or if thou wilt not save us, at least tell us so that we may decide whether to flee to the mountains and forests, or to seek in the rivers an end of our miserable existence.”

This was in 1803. It was the first muttering of the storm that was to bring independence to Serbia.

Serbia by LF Waring, pp85

The Slaughter of the Knezes

Learning of these appeals to Istanbul, the Dahije decided to preempt any challenge by ordering the execution of Serbian knezes (an historic Slavic title usually translated as prince or duke – the local noble bigwigs in other words).

Between the 23rd and 29thJanuary, between 72 and 150 such people, including Alexa Nenadovitch, were killed, heads put on display in Valjevo town square, and by February 4th in Belgrade itself. The action against the knezes spread to other districts, these events having the opposite of their intended effects. Serbians fled to the woods and organised resistance units.

On Valentine’s Day 1804 the First Serbian uprising formally began with a meeting that called for a general uprising against the Dahije. They elected an experienced former soldier known as Karađorđe (sometime anglicised as Kara George, born Đorđe Petrović in 1762) as their leader.

Temperly sees what would become the Serbian Revolution as an epic and remarkable tale of a small Balkan country achieving freedom and independence without, unlike sister struggles of Greece, Romania and Bulgaria, much aid from any great power.

The Serbian liberation from the Ottoman empire owed its success to their traditions of independence, their geography, assistance from Serbs on the other side of the Danube, and to the weakening, increasingly fractious state of the Ottoman empire making it “the ideal moment at which to strike for freedom”. Temperley desribes it as a “true peasant uprising, a people in arms for liberty”. Karađorđ was well-placed to lead the uprising, being able to relate to the civilian knezes, and to the “wild heydukes of the mountains” (the hajduk were armed cattle-drivers), and to unite them in co-ordinated action when necessary. Indeed, the uprising swiftly won territory, leaving the Dahije with only Belgrade, under the control of a mercenary commander called Gushancz Ali. The intervention of the Pasha of Bosnia forced the Dahije to flee as Ali wavered in his support for the Dahije. But the Dahije were hunted, killed, their heads placed at the feet of Karađorđ in the Serbian camp outside Belgrade. The Pasha ordered the Serbs to stand down, but they could not accept his terms, and having tasted battle and found success, were in no mood to return to Ottoman rule, however enlightened. The uprising had become a revolution, and it was decided to appeal to Russia, not Austria, for support. The reply would not come till the following year. In the meantime, the Serbs bided their time, having won a significant moral and practical victory over the now somewhat discredited Dahije, improving conditions and ending any immediate threat. They had demonstrated their mistreatment would be answered with fierce, brave and skilled resistance, as well as an immense capacity for independent action.34

Ottoman rule of Serbia, and by its extension its presence in Europe, had suddenly become open to question.

Elsewhere, Egypt, also under Ottoman governance, but locally under the Mamluk ruling class, had been invaded and occupied by Bonaparte, who left after he got bored. The French occupation he left behind was then evicted by Anglo-Ottoman forces. From a European perspective, the question was whether the resultant power vacuum would be filled by a pro-French or pro-British figure. According to Ian Rutledge in his recent book Sea of Troubles: the European Conquest of the Islamic Mediterranean and the Origins of the First World War relates how Mathieu de Lesseps, Bonaparte’s military liaison to Egypt, “was patronising the Albanian commander Mehmed Ali as a more promising pro-French ruler than any Mamluk bey” (Rutledge 2024 pp161). The British consul in Alexandria, Major Edward Misset meanwhile, thought the opposite and cultivated Mamluk leader Muhammad Bey al-Alfi, arranging for him to visit Britain.

Having been expensively primed as as Egypt’s new pro-British ruler, he was then returned to the country on 10 February 1804, with his baggage containing a copious supply of a brandy-laced alcoholic beverage with the innocuous name of ‘milk punch’. According to the military historian Sir John Fortescue, the beverage in question appeared to be ‘the most solid result of his visit to the West’.35

In effect this split the Mamluks into two parties, one supporting al-Alfi and the other supporting local Mamluk leader al-Bardisi. Egypt remained in a state of chaos, uncertainty, and civil war between the Ottomans, Albanian mercenaries in their service, and the Mamluk. Out of this chaos Mehmed Ali, today regarded as the founder of modern Egypt, violently ended Mamluk rule the following year, assuming authority until 1848.

Two Naval Engagements

The Battle of Pulo Aura

Also occurring on February 14th, this event may seem a “minor naval engagement” in the history of the Napoleonic Wars, but its interruption of the fragile peace, and its consequences were significant.

A squadron of four French warships under orders from Bonaparte to attack British trade, with some success, was cruising in the South China Sea, based on intelligence they had received that a large annual convoy of the British East India Company’s merchant shipping, , joined by other British merchant shipping, was due to pass by from China, en route to Britain via India. The intelligence was basically correct although it included false intelligence planted by the British about the size of the merchant fleet’s defences.

The convoy, known as the China Fleet, contained cargo to the value of some £8 million then – estimated at £700 million today. It’s loss would have been catastrophic for Britain’s economy. Intercontinental trade within the British Empire, especially with India, was vital to keep Britain economically viable during the conflict with Bonaparte’s Europe. To this end, the East India Company, the governors of India, ran their fleet sufficiently armed to protect crews and cargoes against privateers, piracy and small warships, but not against more serious enemy warships. The French squadron was much better armed and more agile: a real threat.

Commodore Nathaniel Dance, in command of the East India Company fleet, arranged for some of the larger merchant ships to line up as if they were warships. In the light of the false intelligence in the mind of the French commander, Contre-Admiral Charles-Alexandre Durand Linois, this signalled caution. Lanois’ caution allowed Dance to further organise the fleet in a defensive posture. The event highlights the use of signalling and deception in sea warfare at the time. Larger merchant ships were often painted, and dummy cannon added, to appear fiercer than they were. Dance raised blue ensigns on the four lead ships, and red on the rest of the fleet, hoping to “persuade Linois that his ships included some fully armed warships”. After a brief exchange of fire, neither side sustaining serious damage, Lanios withdrew. Dance, hoping again to bluff the French into thinking the fleet was well-defended, ordered the ships flying naval ensigns to pursue, despite the French fleet’s superior speed.. After two hours of this Dance reassembled the scattered fleet and resumed the journey to Britain.

Dance and his fellow captains were highly praised in the aftermath of the battle: in saving the convoy they had prevented both the HEIC and Lloyd’s of London from likely financial ruin, the repercussions of which would have had profound effects across the British Empire.

Wikipedia, citing Maffeo, Steven E. (2000). Most Secret and Confidential: Intelligence in the Age of Nelson.

Lanois defended his caution, but for his failure to defeat a weaker but extremely valuable foe, Lanois was castigated by his fellow officers and by Bonaparte himself.

The most bold and daring act of the Age: the Raid on the USS Philadelphia

You’ll recall Robert Livingstone, US minister to France, had reported in January to Secretary of State James Madison on the capture of the USS Philadelphia by Tripoli.

The so-called Barbary states – Tripolitania (in modern Libya), the Regencies of Algiers (in modern Algeria), Tunis (in modern Tunisa), and the Sharifan Empire (in modern Morocco), ‘estates’ of the Ottomans, but like Serbia governed locally – were mainly known internationally for the Barbary corsairs. These pirates and privateers had raided Europe for slaves since medieval times, but under Ottoman suzerainty, they had become a more serious threat. They had attacked American merchant shipping during the US war of independence, although Moroccan Sultan Mohammed III pursued a pro-American policy, guaranteeing merchant shipping, and was one of the first heads of state to recognise the US as an independent nation. But this seemed to be an exception amongst the collection of North African states. In 1786 the Sultan in Morocco, in favour of international trade not piracy, signed a treaty of friendship with the USA, a treaty which stands today. Algiers however demanded ransom for Americans they captured and enslaved, towards which the US government had authorised down-payments totalling around $80,000. But the new country was in war debt, and could ill afford the expense. That same year John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had met with the ambassador from Tripoli in London, who demanded a sum estimated at around $120,000 plus 10% commission for agreeing a ‘perpetual peace’ with the US.

In 1800 the USS George Washington carried tribute to Algiers; by sending a warship, the US was attempting to signal America might attempt to enforce both its security, if pushed. The ship though was effectively hijacked through the thoughtlessness of its captain, William Bainbridge, who allowed it to be berthed within range of Algerian fortress guns. The ruler of Algiers demanded Bainbridge ferry him to Istanbul, where he was himself due to pay tribute. With little choice, Bainbridge acceded and the episode came to be regarded as a national humiliation for the US.

Jefferson became President the following year and decided to make good on the implied threat by sending a fleet of four warships, including the Philadelphia, to the Barbary Coast, despite a shrinking navy and without authority from Congress. This is the first item on the agenda at Jefferson’s first Cabinet meeting, in which the scope of executive authority in this matter is debated. Sec. of the Treasury Gallatin argued the Executive could not initiate “a state of war”, but had authority to command and direct the use of force once war begun, whether authorised by Congress or initiated by another power. Unbeknown to the Cabinet, the ruler of Tripoli Bashaw Yusuf that very week declared war on the United States, and the Senate approved the use of force to defend American shipping in early 1802.

By 1803 with a new commander, Edward Preble, Jefferson’s fleet made a show of force at Morocco, convincing the new sultan to honour the treaty of friendship his father had made 18 years before. But the Philadelphia, captained by the unfortunate Bainbridge who had suffered the humiliating if temporary loss of the USS George Washington three years earlier, got stuck on uncharted rocks and was captured, along with its crew, by the especially belligerent Tripoli. This was the loss Livingstone reported to Madison at the beginning of 1804.

Needless to say, Bonaparte did not, as Livingstone had suggested, intervene to help the beneficiaries of his lost American empire, the United States. In January 1804, Preble met with the Tripolitan ambassador in Malta, who demanded $100,000 for the release of the Philadelphia crew. But Bainbridge had written to Preble from captivity suggesting a covert mission to destroy the captured warship. Preble decided to put just such a plan in place, charging Lieutenant Stephen Decateur to board the Philadelphia, “burn her and make your retreat”.

In an audacious raid on the 16th February, Decateur and his crew did exactly that.

The following morning, the Philadelphia crew, still captive under house arrest, saw the smoking remains of their old ship. As Brian Kilmeade puts it, the destruction of the ship was a “victory for the Americans but a blow for the captives…goodwill evaporated”.

Nevertheless, and despite the Executive in Washington not even having learned yet of the grounding and capture of the ship (Livingstone’s letter of the 1st January not having yet reached Madison), the burning demonstrated a step forward in the growing power and reach of the new United States, with their first military action overseas successful. According to Madison’s consul on the ground, the act forced the Barbary coast rulers to view “the American character with proper respect”. Forty years later, a biographer of Nelson attributed to him the description of this act as “the most bold and daring act of the age”. Something had changed.

Hobsbawm’s dual revolution thesis characterises this period as an ‘age of revolution’, transforming the world via both the political and industrial revolutions centred in Europe. So far we have looked at what a Eurocentric history might consider the periphery, except that Europe has yet to ascend towards the global hegemony it later achieved. The Qing dynasty meanwhile had “assembled the territorial base for modern China…the largest imperial dynasty in the history of China and…the fourth-largest empire in world history in terms of territorial size”. The Sultanate of Oman, a significant significant centre of power in the Gulf and East Africa, dominates the Indian Ocean, preventing European expansion here, and the Ottomans remain powerful despite challenges to their dominion in Europe and Africa. Indeed with the loss of American colonies, Europe’s global ambitions were in rather low waters, although Britain has a significant foothold in India and in what we now call Australia. As recent discussion and debate over the link between colonialism, slavery, and Britain’s pioneering and prime position in the new industrialism illuminates, Britain’s industrial revolution passed some important milestones around this time, laying the foundations for British hegemony to come. Hobsbawm argues

Britain possessed an industry admirably suited to pioneering industrial revolution under capitalist conditions, and an economic conjuncture which allowed it to: the cotton industry, and colonial expansion…colonial trade had created the cotton industry, and continued to nourish it. In the eighteenth century it developed in the hinterland of the major colonial ports, Bristol, Glasgow but especially Liverpool, the great centre of the slave trades.36

In 1803 cotton had become Britain’s biggest export, overtaking wool.37

In Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales, on February 21st, the first steam-powered locomotive railway journey in history occurred. Richard Trevithick’s invention successfully hauled a train along a 9-mile tramway from the ironworks at Penydarren to the Merthyr–Cardiff Canal.

yesterday we proceeded on our journey with the engine, and we carried ten tons of iron in five wagons, and seventy men riding on them the whole of the journey… the engine, while working, went nearly five miles an hour; there was no water put into the boiler from the time we started until our journey’s end

Trevithick, quoted here

The significance of this event for the industrial revolution can perhaps only be appreciated in retrospect, but the steam railway was to play a significant role in the transformation of the world, geographically and politically.

The Castle Hill Convict Rebellion

There had been repeated proposals for European colonisation of what we now call the Australian continent, then New Holland, including the Scottish plagarist John Callender’s 1766 proposal to establish a penal colony there. This idea became reality when the loss of British colonies in the Americas seems to have prompted the Colony of New South Wales, which included over half of the mainland, established in 1788.

In early 1804, news arrived at the Castle Hill prison farm of the 1803 rebellion in Dublin, the first instance of Irish rebellion against British imperial rule since 1798. Many convicts working at Castle Hill being Irish prisoners, they planned an uprising of their own. On 4th March, several hundred convicts escaped, under the leadership of Phillip Cunningham, himself a veteran of the 1798 uprising, planning to commandeer a ship and sail to Ireland.

Colonial authorities declared martial law, divided Cunningham’s forces and, after a short pursuit, faced the now 233-strong force of mainly Irish escapees at Rouse Hill. After a demand to surrender was met with the revolutionary slogan of the age from Cunningham, ‘liberty or death’, the battle lasted several days, but ended after at least 15 convict casualties and the remainder either captured or surrendered after an amnesty was declared.

Nine of the rebels were executed, some lashed, some placed in irons and some sent to the coal mines, the latter presumably those who had handed themselves in before the amnesty deadline. According to LR Silver, cited on Wikipedia, ” Irish plots continued to develop, keeping the Government and its informers vigilant, with military call-out rehearsals continuing over the next three years.”38

The Ceremony of Three Flags

Back in Louisiana, on March 9th and 10th, Spain officially completed turning its remaining territorial claims to France, who then turned them over to the USA. Wikipedia summarises the events thus:

Amos Stoddard, the new U.S. lieutenant governor for District of Louisiana, and Meriwether Lewis arrived in St. Louis by boat and were met by the Spanish lieutenant for Upper Louisiana, Carlos de Hault de Lassus. Hault de Lassus said:

People of Upper Louisiana, by order of the king I am now about to surrender this post and its dependencies. The flag which has protected you during nearly 36 years will no longer be seen. The oath you took now ceases to bind. Your faithfulness and courage in upholding it will be remembered forever. From the bottom of my heart I wish you all prosperity.””

The Spanish flag was lowered on March 9, and the French flag was hoisted to fly over the city of St. Louis for 24 hours. The French flag, initially supposed to have been lowered at sunset, remained under guard all night.The next morning, March 10, 1804, the American flag was hoisted.

The air is full of daggers

Europe has been enjoying a few short years of peace, an interlude in the Napoleonic Wars known as the Peace of Amiens with only Britain having re-declared war on France the previous year.

In his recent book Napoleon at Peace, William Doyle argues while the French Revolution facilitated the rise of Bonaparte, after gaining power he knew that his first task was to end it. Nevertheless, he faced royalist counter-revolutionary plots keen to restore the House of Bourbon to the French:

George Cadoudal, returned from England with promises of financial backing for new assassination attempts. Early in 1804 a grand plan was uncovered to kidnap the first consul [Bonaparte] and import an unnamed Bourbon prince. Orchestrated by Cadoudal…the details of the conspiracy were soon known to the police


While the ringleaders were arrested, the identity of the Bourbon prince remained a mystery. Suspicion fell on Louis Antoine, the Duc d’Enghien, living “just across the Rhine”, who as E.M. Rummage, author of the Age of Napoleon podcast, puts it was really the only member of the royal family anyone liked.

The evidence was thin; the supposition strong…enough to impel the first consul to order a snatch squad to kidnap the duke and bring him on to French territory.


The duke was tried by a military court, and executed on the 20th March 1804. His last words were “I must die then at the hands of Frenchmen!”. The execution of Enghien shocked the aristocrats of Europe, who still remembered the bloodletting of the Revolution and thus lost whatever conditional respect they may have entertained for Bonaparte. The Swedish government broke diplomatic ties with France as a result, and elected to join Britain, forming the initial basis of the next multilateral coalition against Bonaparte. The kidnap and execution of the duke can thus be seen as perhaps Bonaparte’s first serious error, threatening as it did the peace of Amiens.

If so, his first serious error was followed by the publication of what he himself regarded as his greatest achievement. The Napoleonic Code, the highly influential civil code, was published on the 21st March, inaugurating a springtime for Bonaparte.

The Age of Napoleon podcast covers these events in the episodes embedded below:

Podcast: The Age of Napoleon Episode 73: The Blood of a King
In 1803, Britain sent a team of assassins against Napoleon. They failed, but the plot led to one of the most controversial episodes of Napoleon’s career.
Episode 66: Master of France
Bonaparte finally takes the last legal step towards dictatorship, and we begin a discussion of his most important legacy: the Napoleonic Code.

The first three months of 1804 thus proved eventful to say the least. Next time, we will chronicle the spring, following up on events in Europe, as Bonaparte moves further to consolidate his power, in India as Britain moves to consolidate it’s power there, and elucidate the significance of the presence of Meriweather Lewis at the ceremony of the the three flags in the newly-expanded USA.


  1. see Charles Forsdick & Christian Høgsbjerg (2017) Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions pp127. While exterminating the remaining French (blanc/white) presence, excepting females on condition of sexual rights, the new state extended citizenship, defined as noir/black; ‘to all, including Poles and Germans who had defected from the French army’ – see Robin Blackburn (2011) The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights. ↩︎
  2. see Chelsea Stieber (2020) Haiti’s Paper War: Post-Independence Writing, Civil War, and the Making of the Republic, 1804–1954 pp30 ↩︎
  3. see the Preface in David P. Geggus (ed.) (2001)The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World and Blackburn, R, ‘The Force of Example’ in the same volume, pp16-17 ↩︎
  4. opinion being divided on whether to open it up to large slave plantations, or encourage free labour – the complexities of British policy towards Caribbean colonies at this time are detailed by Brigid Bereton in her history of modern Trinidad, – see Bereton, B (1981) A history of modern Trinidad, 1783-1962 pp41-47 ↩︎
  5. ibid. p48. ↩︎
  6. referencing EL Joseph’s History of Trinidad, VS Naipaul’s The Loss of El Dorado, Gertrude Carmichael’s History of Trinidad, and Fr Anthony De Verteuil’s History of Diego Martin ↩︎
  7. Ferrer, ‘Speaking of Haiti’ in David Geggus & Norman Fiering (ed.) (2009) The World of the Haitian Revolution pp236 ↩︎
  8. Bereton, B (1981) pp49. ↩︎
  9. Eugene D. Genovese argues for Haiti as inspiration, according to Rhae Lynn Barnes, while Daniel Rasmussen argues “Charles knew that the uniforms would lend the revolt authority, wedding their struggle with the imagery of the Haitian Revolution, whose leaders had famously adopted European military garb” ↩︎
  10. Ferrer p. 235, 237 ↩︎
  11. Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions pp130 ↩︎
  12. ibid. ↩︎
  13. see William L Andrews, The Confessions of Nat Turner, in  Vincent L. Wimbush (2008) Theorising Scriptures pp79-87 ↩︎
  14. Samuel Warner (1831) Authentic narrative of the tragical scene which was witnessed in Southampton Country, Virginia, on Monday the 22d of August last, when fifty-five of its inhabitants were massacred by the Blacks, etc. ↩︎
  15. Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions pp130 ↩︎
  16. ibid. ↩︎
  17. see for example Eric Hobsbawm (1962) The Age of Revolution pp69. Christopher Hitchens also points to the debt owed by the new, fragile, post-revolutionary USA to its sister revolution in Haiti on account of the purchase, in his short 2005 biography Thomas Jefferson: Author of America. The e-book copy I have doesn’t have page numbers so I can’t refer you to a page, but its in there. He also used to mention this point when speaking on Jefferson while promoting the book. A more recent exploration of the Haiti/Louisiana connection is in Clint Smith’s 2021 book How the Word Is Passed: a reckoning with the history of slavery across America pp52-54. ↩︎
  18. In The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World Susan Branson and Leslie Patrick provide a fascinating account of Haitian immigration to Philadelphia, including an account of how free blacks celebrated July 4th (pp193) while Paul Lachance in the same volume provides an account of the Haitan influx to New Orleans ↩︎
  19. “Latin America generally came to depend virtually entirely on British imports during the Napoleonic Wars, and after it broke with Spain and Portugal…became an almost total economic dependency of Britain, being cut off from any political interference by Britain’s potential European competitors” – Hobsbawm, E. (1962) The Age of Revolution pp35. ↩︎
  20. In the event Bonaparte did not intervene, but we will soon return to the subject of the USS Philadelphia and Jefferson’s war with the so-called Barbary states of North Africa. ↩︎
  21. Christopher Hitchens (2005) Thomas Jefferson: Author of America. Again, no page numbers in my copy so I can’t tell you where in the book this story comes up. Hitchens himself does not appear to cite a source for it however. ↩︎
  22. See ↩︎
  23. Encyclopedia Of World Cultures, Volume 9 Africa and the Middle East pp112 ↩︎
  24. See ↩︎
  25. See ↩︎
  26. Encyclopedia Of World Cultures, Volume 9 Africa And The Middle East pp112 ↩︎
  27. C. Ehret’s The Civilisations of Africa: A History to 1800 pp406 ↩︎
  28. Also in West Africa in 1804, likely sometime in October or November according to IA Akinjogbin (1967) Dahomey and its neighbours, 1708-1818 pp187, the end of the regency period in the Kingdom of Dahomey, a key regional power in West Africa. King Adandozan takes power, and attempts to revive the slave trade, sending diplomats to negotiate with the British and Portugese. In the Kingdom of Benin, Obanosa succeeded as Oba in 1804 after a civil war which
    followed his father’s death22 23. According to some sources, Osei Tutu Kwame, known as Osei Bonsu began his reign as King of the Ashanti Empire in the year 1804 24 So there seems to have been significant shifts of power over quite a wide area of West Africa.
  29. It’s true that various cutting edges of science and technological innovation could be found in the new France, and that British leadership of the Industrial Revolution, while enabled by new technology, did not depend on a technological advantage but on a social one in terms of the organisation of labour in the factory system ↩︎
  30. Rohlf, Michael. “Immanuel Kant”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2023 Edition), Edward N. Zalta & Uri Nodelman (eds.), URL = <>. ↩︎
  31. Soloman, Robert C (1988) Continental Philosophy since 1750 pp26. ↩︎
  32. ibid.pp7. ↩︎
  33. See LF Waring’s Serbia pp79-83, and Harold Temperley’s History of Serbia pp173 ↩︎
  34. Temperley, History of Serbia pp175-186 ↩︎
  35. Ian Rutledge(2024) Sea of Troubles: The European Conquest of the Islamic Mediterranean and the Origins of the First World War, 1750–1918 pp161 ↩︎
  36. Hobsbawm, E. (1962) The Age of Revolution pp33-34 ↩︎
  37. see ↩︎
  38. Silver, Lynette Ramsay (1989). The Battle of Vinegar Hill: Australia’s Irish Rebellion, 1804. Sydney, New South Wales: Doubleday. ↩︎
  39. William Doyle (2022) Napoleon at Peace: How to end a revolution pp141 ↩︎
  40. ibid. pp143 ↩︎

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