Sylvain Salnave

Sylvain Salnave was a popular general who become president of the Republic of Haiti in1867 when he was elected to succeed President Fabre Nicholas Geffrard who rendered his resignation and left Haiti to live in Jamaica. He never returned to his native country. Salnave later was also overthrown by Nissage Saget who become his successor.

A civil war between factions of the society was going on during his presidency of Salnave. He finally was overthrown in a coup, arrested while leaving the country to go to Santo Domingo and delivered to the Haitian Military. He was later tried for treason and sentenced eventually to be executed on the ruins of the presidential palace, still burning.

Little is known about his young years, but he was the grand-son of Seraphin Salnave, a well-known French colon, who enjoyed a closed friendship with General Toussaint Louverture. In 1802, riots in Cap Haiti destroyed their business and Seraphin Salnave was the first to be targeted and executed by General Henry Christophe who wanted to impose more terror among French descents still living in the country. He has a son and two daughters. His son, Seraphin Jean-Baptiste (Coco Seraphin), godson of Toussaint Louverture was studying in France at the Juilly College and returned to the country of Haiti after sojourning for a short period in Baltimore Maryland, where an aunty was living. Once the country became less hostile and more secure, he was allowed to return to Cap Haiti.

Sylvain Salnave was born in Cap Haiti on the 6th of February 1827 to Jean Baptiste Salnave (Coco Seraphin) son of Seraphin Salnave and Fillette Ragonse. At the age of 23, he enlisted in the military and was already a Captain in the cavalry when General Fabre Nicholas Geffrard overthrew Emperor Faustin Soulouque in January 1859. He married Wilmina Delacouse and had one child.  He did not appreciate Geffrard’s politics and accused him for not intervening during the occupation of Santo Domingo by Spain. Meanwhile, Geffrard was losing in popularity and was unable to punish Salnave who fermented many revolts and insurrections against him, in the North of the country. In July 1866, an insurrection in Gonaives forced Geffrard to resign from the presidency. On March 13, 1867, Fabre Nicholas Geffrard left Haiti for Jamaica where he spent the remaining of his life.

The Council of Secretaries became the supreme authority of the land and Sylvain Salnave marched on Port-au-Prince where he was given a hearty welcome. He became with Nissage Saget and Victorin Chevallier, one of the members of the provisional government. Under pressure, he assumed the title of “Protector of the Republic”. Sylvain Salnave gained in popularity and the National Assembly met and adopted a new Constitution which abolished the Presidency for life, but set up a four years term, for the presidency, on June 13, 1867. Gaining the sympathy of the people for his courage, Sylvain Salnave was elected President of the Republic.

Sylvain Salnave was a liberal, contradicting the legislative body which wanted to impose a parliamentary system. This precipitate a complete rupture within the congress especially after General Leon Montas was thrown in jail. on the 11th of October 1867. During that time, a revolution was fermented against Salnave and the peasants at Vallieres took up arms while General Montas was charged as the principal instigator. Parallelly, members of the Cabinet accused openly the House of Representatives for supporting the rebels. Days later (October 14, 1867), the mob invaded the House and drove out all the congressmen under the pretext that they were in connivance with the rebels. Such insurgents took the name of “Cacos” and Salnave left to face them at Vallieres.

Once the constitution suspended, the members of the House of Representative were expulsed while the officers and non-commissioned officers of the army stationed at Trou-du-Nord were trying to impose their petition, abolishing the constitution. They wanted to have a dictatorship at the head of the executive power. Salnave re-established the Presidency for life allowing him to have an unlimited power.

Nissage Saget, who was then, commandant of the arrondissement of St Marc did not recognize the authority of Salnave to do so and soon, took up arms against Salnave. Other generals joined the cause. General Petion Faubert took up arms at Leogane, General Normil at Anse-a-Veau, General Michel Domingue at Aquin, General Pierre Theoma Boirond-Canal at Petion-Ville and Croix-des-Bouquets, all rose up against the dictatorship of Salnave. Sylvain Salnave tried to come to terms with the insurectors but failed in his attempts.

Nissage Saget authority was fully acknowledged and all the insurgents were compelled to raise the siege of Port-au-Prince on July 17, 1868.He was later proclaimed provisional President in the south, sieging at Cayes. At Saint-Marc, Michel Domingue was acknowledged as President of the Meridional Republic, with also headquarters at Cayes. The city of Jacmel was also part of his territory. Nissage Saget founded the Septentrional Republic as far as south of Arcahaie. They also use a powerful gunboat’ “La Terreur” on the 17 December 1869, which gave them the upper end.

Salnave was brave and tried to fight the insurgents in the South. He purchased a steamer-boat and named it the name of “Alexandre Petion” then he sailed to Petit Goave harbor where he sunk the “22 December”. Another boat, “Le Geffrard” was blown up by his commandant to deprive Salnave of the satisfaction of capturing it. The insurgents get compelled to evacuate.

Salnave conquered the whole south department with the exception of Jeremie and Cayes. He established his headquarters at Camp-Boudet ready to take over Cayes but unfortunately his principal lieutenant Victorin Chevallier had to evacuate Gonaives to let Nissage Saget troops occupy it. The rebels were walking on Port au Prince while their troops have already bombarded the national palace.

Salnave had to rush back to the capital leaving Cayes in a hurry, on September 1, 1869. The catholic clergy also became hostile to his government but he found time to dismiss Martial Gillaume-Marie Testard du Cosquer, the Archbishop of Port-au-Prince and finally Alexis Jean-Marie Guilloux, the Vicar General on October 15, 1869..[5]

Salnave’s position started to become desperate when General Victorin Chevallier, his secretary at war, who was in command of the army surrounding Jacmel deserted his position in November1869 and joined the insurrection. Seeing then no opening in the fight, Salnave appointed a special Legislative council to re-establish the Presidency for Life, as reenacted in the 1846 constitution. It was already too late.

The department of the Northwest joined also the insurrection. The fight was considered over for Salnave when.1200 soldiers under the orders of Generals Boirond-Canal and George Brice showed up in Port-au-Prince on December 16, 1869. They were also supplemented by more fresh troops arriving with “La Terreur” which started bombarding the Executive mansion. The palace exploded after Salnave decided to abandon it. He succeeded to reach Santo Domingo territory but General Jose Maria Cabral, on the 10th of January 1870, sympathetic to Salnave’s opponents, betrayed his thrust, arrested him and returned him to his opponents in Port-au-Prince.

Salnave appeared, the same day, in front of a martial court which trialed him and sentenced him to death. To the one encouraging him to be firm while the sentence was carried out, Salnave answered that he never stopped being courageous but would like something to write on. While Salnave was writing on, an assistant told him that time was running out. He looked at him calmy and answered that a man should never be rushed or interrupted in his last will. Salnave calmly finished writing.

He was tied to a pole on the ground of the executive mansion, freshly fuming.  On the 15th of January 1870, he was executed by his peers. General Nissage Saget succeeded him to the Presidency.
Maxime Coles MD




1-    “Salnave, Sylvain” Encyclopedia of Latin American History and culture (Macmillan 1998. p 916.

2-    Rogozinski Jan (1999): A Brief History of the Caribbean.

3-    Leger, Jacques Nicholas (1907) Haiti History and his Dictators: Neale Publishing Cie pp 211-216.


Return to homepage