Transatlantic Counterinsurgency: Environment, Energy, and Revolutionary War in Saint-Domingue and the Vendée

Friday, January 6, 2017: 9:10 AM
Room 402 (Colorado Convention Center)
Joseph Horan, Colorado School of Mines
During the revolutionary and Napoleonic era, French armies waged extensive counterinsurgency campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic.  This paper uses archival evidence to examine the role of energy and the environment in two such campaigns, the suppression of the counter-revolutionary Vendée rebellion in western France during 1793 and 1794, and the Leclerc expedition in the Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue during 1802 and 1803.  The tangled hedgerows of the Vendée and the tropical diseases of Saint-Domingue are often described as barriers to the success of counterinsurgency campaigns, favoring local resistance against the efforts of the authorities in Paris to assert their control.  This perspective fits with a broader tendency to attribute the success or failure of insurgencies to “environmental determinism,” a perspective which suggests that certain environments are inherently conductive to successful resistance against centralized authority.  Yet in the final analysis these campaigns present sharply contrasting outcomes, with French armies brutally suppressing the Vendée rebellion while failing to prevent the rebels in Saint-Domingue from breaking away and forming independent Haiti.  A closer look suggests that explanation based on “environmental determinism” can be replaced by a more flexible “energy determinism.”  According to this model, the outcome of the counterinsurgency campaigns is shaped not simply by the natural environment, but by the ways in which military forces employed different energy sources in the form of provisions, transportation, and weaponry.  In this analysis, the natural environment was not a uniform obstacle to the success of France’s transatlantic counterinsurgencies at the turn of the 19th century.  Rather, nature shaped the outcome of these campaigns through its impact on human decisions about the capture and use of energy.
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