In 1769, in Gdańsk, Poland, an English aristocrat, Mary Delaire, had an affair with an African servant that resulted in a child. Delaire’s husband, Polish nobleman and Colonel Konstanty Jabłonowski, decided to accept the child as his own. The child — a boy — was named Władysław Jabłonowski and nicknamed “Murzynek”, which is a Polish term for a Black person.
Władysław would be raised as a Polish patriot. In 1783, he was sent to the French military academy in Paris, where he became a schoolmate of Napoleon Bonaparte and Louis Nicolas D’avout. At the academy, Władysław was constantly bullied and his mates hurled racial slurs at him. But that did not stop him from eventually becoming a Polish war hero.
History says that when he graduated from the French military academy, he joined the Régiment de Royal-Allemand, where he attained the rank of lieutenant. By 1794, he had become one of the leaders of the Polish Kościuszko Insurrection against Tsarist Russia’s occupation of Poland. He served Poland in battles of Szczekociny, Warsaw, Maciejowice, and Praga.
In 1799, Władysław was made General of Brigade of the Polish legions, the first known Polish general of African descent. Becoming one of the greatest military tacticians, Władysław in 1802 requested to be sent to Haiti to help French forces quell the Haitian Revolution that had begun.
Haiti is the result of the first successful slave uprising that resulted in an independent state in 1804. Prior to the revolt, the island that is modern Haiti was known as Saint-Domingue. Then a sugar island, the French largely depended on it for economic growth. But on the night of August 22 and 23, 1791, enslaved people rose against their French enslavers and they began the biggest and bloodiest slave revolt in history.
Led by former slave Toussaint L’Ouverture, the slaves killed their slaveowners, torched the sugar houses and fields and by 1792, they controlled a third of the island. France sent reinforcements but the area of the colony held by the rebels grew. At the end of the fight, thousands of Blacks and Whites were killed.
Władysław fought against the Haitians, before dying of Yellow Fever in Haiti in 1802. The disease killed many French and Polish forces. Curiously, some of the Polish legions who were sent to Haiti to put down the uprising joined the enslaved Africans seeking freedom. Having been oppressed under the Prussian empire, these Polish legions started identifying more with the Haitians in their quest for freedom. Thus, they fought alongside the enslaved Africans for independence.
Hundreds of the Polish soldiers settled in Haiti following the uprising and were granted full citizenship by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, one of L’Ouverture’s generals and also a former slave who led the country. Today, their descendants are known as Polish Haitians. Cazale, a Polish town set up by the Polish soldiers in Haiti, can still be found on the island.
Władysław is also honored in Mickiewicz’s epic poem, “Pan Tadeusz” and in the Wacław Gąsiorowski novel “The Black General”.