The Tragedy of the Lost Polish Brigades (1802-2002)
Written and researched by Margaret Odrowaz Sypniewska


Left: Old Danube Division Uniform.1
They became the 3rd Demi-Brigade in 1802.
Right: Haitian coat of arms
Motto: Strength Through Unity


2007 marked the 205th anniversary of Napoleon's mission to restore slavery in Saint Domingue (Haiti). The first Polish Demi--Brigades arrived, for this mission, in 1802, and the second mission in 1803. Both the 2nd and 3rd Demi-Brigades were brought aboard French transports at gunpoint. None of them wanted this job. France had already freed the people of Saint Domingue (Haiti) in 1793 and had published their "Declarations of the Rights of Man" in 1774 which freed ALL slaves in the French colonies. The French governor had even allowed Toussaint L'Ouverture to rule their new free state of Saint Domingue, in April 1796. Toussaint had led the slave's revolt in 1791. Slaves were the majority in Saint Domingue. In 1788, the count was 500,000 slaves to 62,500 colonists. The colony was glad for their freedoms and they said they would rather die than go back to their previous enslavement.

Under General Dombrowski's leadership, the Polish Legion had already proven themselves at Lombardy, Reggio, and Civita Castellana. Napoleon had offered them Lombardy citizenship and the same pay as French troops. They hoped Napoleon's troops would also help them free Poland, in payment for their services to the French. When Napoleon I came into power in France, he examined the wealth of the colony in Saint Domingue (Haiti) and decided his regime could benefit from this wealth. Napoleon's brother-in-law, General LeClerc, headed this undertaking.

As it turns out their mission in Saint Domingue was a virtual nightmare for the Polish. Out of the 5,280 Poles that were forced to serve the French "king," 4,000 were dead in 1803. Of the survivors, only 15 officers and 150 men returned to Europe. The others were killed in action, died of yellow fever, or were sent to English prison hulks. Those who could not afford to pay for passage off the island stayed in a village high in the mountains in Canton de Plateau (now called Casales).

It is generally thought that the Poles sympathized with the plight of the citizens of Saint Domingue (Haiti). Dessalines took over the leadership after 1802 when Francois Domingue Toussaint L'Ouverture was captured and imprisoned in France. Toussaint died, in France, in 1803. Jean Jacques Dessalines (1758-1806), Alexandre Petion, and King Henri Christophe ruled after his death.

Dessalines had been Toussaint's right-hand-man in the original revolt. He ordered the killing of all French, but Dessalines spared Poles, Germans, Swiss, and foreign women married to Haitians, Dessalines honored the Poles because they were sympathetic to Saint Domingue's plight. It is thought that those Poles were established at Casales because of its cooler climate and remoteness.

Vicomte Thouvenet, commander of the Napoleanic Contigent in the West Indies, wrote to the commissioner for naval and colonial affairs on March 10, 1803:

General Brunet and the platoon commanders complain incessantly about the Poles' lack of courage. These lumpish and apathetic men, whose ways and language are completely different to our own, having been transported a vast distance from their homeland, seem, to have lost all their energy; and they are terrified at the idea of having to fight a war of the kind about which they know nothing. It is therefore impossible to deploy them except as sentinels and it would be extremely dangerous to rely upon them in the future" (Orizio. Lost Tribes, 134)

Of course, we know that the Poles were utilized, after this situation, by the French. The Poles served with distinction in Spain, in 1808; in Russia in 1813; in Reichenbach; in Paris, in 1815; at Dresden, in 1813; at Elba; at Waterloo; at Samocierra, in 1809; in Madrid, and in France, in 1814. These same battles were led by General Baron Dezdery, Chef Vincent Dobieski, Chef2 Jankowski, Lt. Baron Paul Jermanowski, Lt. Col. Kozietulski, General Count Vincent Corvin, and General Count Jozef Zaluski (to name a few).

"Papa Doc" Duvalier's Palace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
This view shows an eminent storm passing overhead,
an omen of things to come.
© Raymond Sypniewski


Casales is located near Cabaret (formerly Duvalierville in the time of "Papa and Baby Doc" Duvalier). In 1986, Duvalierville was sacked by an angry mob after "Baby Doc" and his family fled to France for political asylum. After the Duvaliers left, the town was restored to its original name of "Cabaret." From Carberet you can find your way to Casales via a steep dirt road passing farms and small sugarcane plantations. Streams cross the road at regular invervals and there are huge potholes. Most Haitians navigate this route on foot with their donkeys or goats.

As with all mountainous area, the farther above sea level, the cleaner the air. However, the first thing you notice is the lack of trees. For years Haitians have made their half of the island (Hispaniola) an environmental disaster. Never mind the sign saying:

"Do not cut for firewood
Haiti needs these trees."

The surviviors of Dombrowski's 2nd and 3rd Half-Brigade came to Casales two hundred years ago. At this time, this area was covered with woods as dense as those in Poland's own forests. Through the years the poor people have cut down all the trees for use as firewood and charcoal for cooking. Today environmentalists are trying to teach Haitians to preserve and restore forests, to no avail.

When you reach the mountain peak you see a village, like all other villages on the way. There are mud-dried and plaited straw huts with banana leaf roofs. Some old structures of brick can be noted, but it is reported that most have crumbled into ruin. St. Michael's Church just fell apart one day and now they use a corrugated iron hut to house their Madonna and Child and their "bass instrument." Casales has no electricity, no phones, no running water, no nurse, no cars, no school, and now no church! There is a thirty foot wide river straddling the way to this village, and there is no bridge to get across, so this must be done by wading through to the other side.

Riccardo Orizio, the Italian writer of Lost Tribes, originally published in the year 2000, was quite possibly the last European to visit this remote village. His purpose was to research for his book and discover if any of the various "myths" were based on fact.

Previous authors such as Jan Pachionski and Rueul K. Wilson wrote a book called Poland's Caribbean Tragedy: A Study of Polish Legions in the Haitian War of Independence 1802-1803 published in the U.S.A. in 1986. Pachonski and Wilson's book was based on another source: The memoirs of Lux and Wierzbicki, which seemed to have errors. As I read the passages from Pachonski and Wilson's book, I also noted errors.

Riccardo Orizio, and his wife, Pia, were most likely the only authors who actually visited this village in recent times. They visited in August 1996 (7 years ago). Orizio used old archived letters for most of his information, as well as his own journals, which recorded events of his visit. Orizio's guide was Reverand Joseph Luc, a Baptist pastor, whom he met in the El Rancho Hotel in Petionville, formerly a fashionable area of Haiti.

Other Europeans have visited Casales, as reported in both Pachonski's and Orizio's books. In 1980, Jerzy Detopski came looking for descendants of Dombrowski's Legions. Deptoski had planned to look for surviving relatives and to reunite them with their families in Poland. However, by 1980, the trail was very cold since the original soldiers left no books, memoirs, or heirlooms behind. The only proof is the old cemetary with its Polish inscriptions and names carved into headstones. Most recent graves are basically unmarked except for a cross made with two twigs tied together. The only thing the village remembers of their heritage is the polka.

One resident of Casales, Amon Fremon, was taken back to Poland by Jerzy Detopski. Amon was a Voodoo priest. Voodoo is the religion brought to Haiti by the slaves from Dahomey. Experts describe Voodoo as a folk religion related to Catholism. Both Christian and African saints are placed on their altars. (Mair, 234). Detopski took Amon to Paris, France; and Poland and paid all expenses for a little over a year. The reason Amon was chosen was because of his Voodoo and popularity in the village.

When Amon came back to Casales, he had little to recount about his journey to his friends and neighbors. Perhaps he did not want to tell them of the drastic changes in the world? It seems that Amon headed Voodoo ceremonies all over Poland, in their forests, to put the "gris gris" on the U.S.S.R., at Detopski's request. Amon spoke Creole, not Polish, but he did pick up a bit of the language on his total immersion there. Amon's oral history was that his own Polish soldier came to Haiti with Napoleon's army and were allowed to stay because of Dessalines and Touissant.

Casales hasn't even had a Catholic priest since their stone church collapsed, so it would be natural for Voodoo to creep into their culture, especially since the Polish soldiers married Haitians. They have to walk down to Cabaret for church, which can be treacherous in the rainy season.

In 1986, Pope John Paul II visited Haiti and the villagers of Casales thought that perhaps he would be their salvation. The Pope listened to their story and promised aid, but none came. Perhaps this money did not reach them because someone else received it, no one knows.

The first soldier to arrive in Casales was nicknamed "Zal" (from Zaleski?). There was a Zaleski in General Louis Marie Noilles [1756-1804] Division lisited as missing and presumed dead. General Noilles was the last to surrender his division. Many Poles were taken by brigands and held for ransom (a ransom they could not pay). So some Poles decided to join the pirates, who occassionally sailed to Europe, giving them a possibility of eventually getting home. Others reached Cuba but were stopped by French General Sarrasin Fressinet who refused to help them get home to Poland. A similar fate was recorded when they reached Jamaica. The British offered to help them ONLY if they signed up for a term in their military. The Poles refused, and were returned to Haiti. The most common surname, in Casales, is Belno (shortened from Belnowski). One resident says her ancestor was Gamisto Vasily, a Lithuanian (?)

Many people wonder why European officers from a sophisticated culture had not formed a more advanced rural society. The only answer can be that they kept to themselves for fear of repercussions from the French government. However, the people of Casales still remember their "Mother Country." They feel that they have been forgotten by their people. For two hundred years they have waited to be taken home. An old Haitian saying comes to mind:

A rich black is a Mulatto
A poor Mulatto is a black.

Photo © Margaret Odrowaz-Sypniewska

This saying implies that only the rich Mulattos had the power there, and that poor Mulattos have great difficulty rising from their low position. Today, the survivors of the old Polish Half-Brigades wonder if their blue-eyed, blond-haired, racially-mixed children will ever have a good education or the conviences that most of the world takes for granted.

I am currently researching how this community might be helped. Unfortunately, one does not know if the money reaches these people, especially when the medium income of the Haitian people is less than $200.00 a year. Some cabbies will try to get this amount ($200) for the trip to Casales, according to author Riccardo Orizio. Not too many tourists stop in Haiti anymore, there are no more hotels and exclusive resorts there today. The entire country had been lost to many dictators and unscrupulous leaders who seem to have their own agendas. France claimed 1/3 of the island, of Hispaniola, in 1687, and named it "Saint Domingue." For a time this was a buccaneer's paradise. This activity made it unsafe for merchants. The island of Hispaniola was a colonial settlement, on the south, while the rest of the island was open to buccaneers and non-Spanish settlers. From 1804-1826, no foreign nation recognized Haiti's existence. This was because Haiti's Consitution did NOT allow whites to own property there. No nation would sponsor their recovery. Without the capital and trade with other nations, Haiti slumped into poverty.

As a side note, my husband and I visited both Port-au-Prince, Haiti; and Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; on the island of Hispaniola, in the early days of our marriage. The atmosphere was that of a pot about to boil. People carry on, but they harbor the seeds of revolution. Who could blame them? There is no doubt that Haiti is the poorest of the Third World nations. What a shame that Haiti went from the richest colony to the poorest in 200 years. I remember well the mud-slides in Port-Au-Prince, the richer Petionville, the intense heat, and the poverty. Had we known, at the time, we might have tried to pay our respects to the people of Casales. However, then this story was a well-kept secret that most books neglected to tell.

I found Lost Tribes: The End of Privilage and the Last Colonists in Sri Lanka, Jamaica, Brazil, Haiti, Namibia, and Guadaloupe very interesting reading! Haiti's only real landmarks today are San Souci Palace and its accompanying fortress high in the mountains near Cap-Haitian, built by Henri Christophe.

In contrast, the Dominican Republic re-built much of their old Spanish town and historical buildings, such as the Alcazar which once belonged to Diego Columbus, Christopher's son, who was governor there. This old Spanish city was re-energized right after the revolt in the late 1960's, when we visited. I still have slides of these places. Haiti used to be one of the ports of call for many cruises. I have an exquisite mahogany carving from one of Haiti's galleries, an oil painting, and a poignant photograph of "Papa Doc" Duvalier's home with evil storm clouds overhead (see page 3 of this article).

In Casales, Haiti, a small group of forgotten people, of Polish-Creole descent, still wait for a brighter new millenium.


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1 The Polish Danube Legion uniform in 1799. They were Polish volunteers, who fought for the French in Italy from 1798-1800. This uniform is a mixture of Polish and French styling. The Old Danube Legion became the 3rd Demi-Brigade when they served in Saint Domingue.

2 chef means "chief" or "major." Chef Jankowski was awarded the Star of the Legion for the capture of Colonel Blücher of the Prussian Hussars at Dresden in 1813.



Banaszek, Dariuz, Thomas Bibu, et al. An Illustrated History of Poland. Poznan, Poland: Podsiedlik-Raniowski & Co., Ltd., 1998.

Kannik, Preben. Military Uniforms in Color. New York: MacMillian Company, 1968, #182.

"Haiti: Papa Doc's Poles," by Riccardo Orizio in Chapter 4 of Lost White Tribes: The End of Privilege and the Last Colonials in Sri Lanka, Jamaica, Brazil, Haiti, Namibia, and Guadaloupe. New York: The Free Press, 2000, 124-179.

Kohn, George C. The Woodsworth Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence. New Yrok: Wordworth Editions, Ltd., 1995, 131-132.

Pivka, Otto von. Napoleon's Polish Troops. London: Osprey Publishing Limited, 1974, 7-8.

Rogozinski, Jan. A Brief History of the Caribbean: From the Arawak and the Carib to the Present. New York: A Meridian Book, 1994.

Ryan, Edward. Napoleon's Elite Cavalry: Cavalry of the Imperial Guard, 1804-1815. Penn.: Stackpoole Books, 1999.

***This article also appeared in the Fall/Winter 2002 edition of the White Eagle newsletter of the Polish Nobility Association Foundation, 3-5.

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