Date: Sun, 25 Jun 1995 23:19:20 -0400 (EDT)
From: Stewart R. King <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: Bob Corbett <email@example.com>
Subject: The Haitian Revolution: Heresy
A few comments on your essay:
THE FREE PERSONS OF COLOR There were approximately 30,000 free persons of color in 1789. About half of them were mulattoes, children of white Frenchmen and slave women.
I believe this is too much of an over-simplification. As Julien Raimond pointed out at the time, and Moreau de St. Mery conceeded, most people of mixed race were children of other people of mixed race. While there were always children being born of white and black parents, many of the people of mixed race by the period under discussion (1760-1791) were part of families that had existed for some time. Moreover, in about half of those cases where one parent was white and the other colored, both parties were free either de jure or de facto. Your statement suggests images from Roots which debatably presents the reality of slavery in the south of the U.S. and has very little to do with slavery in St.-Domingue.
White propaganda at the time (Club
Massiac and the like) suggested that
the mulattos were the children of
white fathers almost exclusively and
lifted from slavery by
their white fathers and thus owed the
white system something. Their
oversimplification was tendentious
and contributed to a serious
misinterpretation of the situation by
the National Assembly.
These mulattoes were often freed by their father-masters in some sort of paternal guilt or concern.
The gens de couleur children of the master were rarely raised as slaves, even if they were de jure. They were second-class members of the master's family and (white) society generally considered them deserving of freedom and a living at the father's expense. Even though there were increasingly draconian laws implemented during the period under study to keep the population of free persons of mixed race down, society was unanimous in condemning fathers who left their children in slavery and I have seen many cases of (white) community leaders acting after the death of a penniless petit blanc to purchase and free his children if his heirs couldn't or wouldn't.
The other half of the free persons of color were black slaves who had purchased their own freedom or been given freedom by their masters for various reasons.
Including many of the leaders of the
slave insurrection of 1791 -- Toussaint
L'Ouverture for sure,
probably Christophe, and, my research
suggests, Dessalines. Toussaint
owned an indigo plantation and 16
slaves in the north of Haiti as early
as 1776. At least one of his slaves
was Moise, a family member who became
a revolutionary general. Dessalines'
mother, or a woman with the same
name, was free and a property owner
in l'Embarquadaire de Limonade in the
1780's, although I have never fournd
any mention of him. The free blacks
were socially separate from the
people of mixed race, both by
governmental fiat and most likely by
self-selection (separate milita
companies, for example). This
separation may have a lot to do with
the division in the Haitian elite
throughout the independence period
and up to this day (see my
Many of the free blacks were also children of other free blacks. My preliminary data shows, in 227 cases (1776-91) for which I can be certain of the status of the parents at the time of the child's birth, free blacks were born free in 115. I will be expanding my numbers considerably when I visit the Utah geneological archives which contain the parish registers for all St. Domingue for the 18th century.
The free people of color were often even more wealthy than the planters.
Many, such as the family of Julien Raimond, were planters. I discovered one family in Limonade who were almost never referred to in sales documents, etc., as people of mixed race (as they should have been under the discriminatory laws of the time). I stumbled across a few references to their racial category and had to go back and review ten whole registers as I was only collecting information on free people of color, and I had assumed that they were white!
The free persons of color could own plantations and owned a large portion of the slaves. They often treated their slaves poorly and almost always wanted to draw distinct lines between themselves and the slaves. Free people of color were usually strongly pro-slavery.
I think I can show from preliminary evidence that a higher proportion of slaves were freed by masters of mixed race than by white masters. I have yet to figure out a way to account statistically for the cases of people of mixed race who buy or are given family member slaves by white masters and then free them, where the freeing would have to be attributed to both parties, but I have a distinct feeling that in this specialized category of treatment, the people of color were more humane to their slaves than the whites.
The issue of cruel treatment of
slaves cannot be addressed by the
documents I am studying. The people
I am looking at are those who
successfully escaped from slavery one
way or another. I get the
impression, though, that if one had
to be a slave in Haiti in the 18th
century, it would be much better to
be the slave of a smaller proprietor
than of a larger, and much better to
work in coffee or indigo than in
sugar. Since the people of color who
owned plantations tended to be
smaller operators and
disproportionately present in the
coffee and indigo market I would say
that they would have
slaves better. This is the nature
of the system and not necessarily a
reflection on superior moral
There were special laws which limited the behavior of the free people of color and they did not have rights as citizens of France. Like the planters, they tended to lean toward independence and to wish for a free Saint-Domingue which would be a slave nation in which they could be free and independent citizens. As a class they certainly regarded the slaves as much more their enemies than they did the whites.
This is a C.L.R. James-ian analysis.
I think it is very tricky to consider
the people of color a
class in any
meaningful way. The law as you state
did try to treat them as a unit, and
for example census data rolls them
all together. But I think for any
sort of realistic class analysis you
have to treat the Raimonds of Aquin
as part of the ruling class while the
Dessalines of Limonade are not and
the Toussaint Breda's of Haut du Cap
are on the borderline. Moreover,
families contain members of different
social classes -- I have identified
many mixed-race families with
illegitimate children of a lower
racial status where the poor
relations fit a socio-economic
definition of lower class but clearly
share ruling class loyalties.
In fact, the whole situation in St. Domingue was so intercut with family loyalties, class loyalties, and racial caste identity, as well as localisms, personal client-patron relationships, religious loyalties (Protestant planters, slaves loyal to different groups of African gods), that a Marxist analysis based in large part on social class identification is pretty much useless. Or, let us say charitably, that the class consciousness of the various opressed groups in St. Domingue was not highly developed at the time of the Revolution and thus that struggle could only at best have a bourgeois character -- and in the event turned into a pretty much personalist or pre-bourgeois power struggle with overtones of ethnic conflict.
Culturally the free people of color strove to be more white than the whites. They denied everything about their African and black roots. They dressed as French and European as the law would allow, they were well educated in the French manner, spoke French and denigrated the Creole language of the slaves. They were scrupulous Catholics and denounced the Voodoo religion of Africa. While the whites treated them badly and scorned their color, they nonetheless strove to imitate every thing white, seeing this a way of separating themselves from the status of the slaves whom they despised.
I think it's best to remember that
this was the Enlightenment and
educated people everywhere were
striving to be like...Voltaire.
Black is beautiful is a slogan that
wasn't invented until the 20th
century. Among the slaves, those who
spoke French and were acculturated
were valued by their masters and
their peers higher than those who
kept to African customs (although
Curtin in Africa Remembered cites a
contrary case of a Muslim cleric who
managed to keep his religion and
culture intact in Jamaica and even
gain the respect of his -- white -- master
as an educated man). People
of color were no more immune than
their white neighbors to the
prevailing cultural breezes.
Despite French philosophical positions which admitted the human status of slaves (something which the Spanish, United States and British systems did NOT do at this time),
Frank Tannenbaum (Slave and Citizen) holds the position that the Iberian slave regime was more humane than the northern European precisely because the Catholic Church recognized the human character of the slave from the spiritual point of view while the state had recognized the existance of slaves (Muslims captured during the Reconquista and Slavs imported during the Middle Ages) for centuries and granted them (limited) legal rights. Read Klein's Slavery in the Americas for a good picture of the Spanish slave system (specifically in Cuba).
the French slave owners found it much easier to replace slaves by purchasing new ones than in worrying much to preserve the lives of existing slaves.This has often been said (by me, in fact). Let's look at the numbers. A new slave
Piece d'Inde(male, 15-25 years old, healthy) in 1785, peacetime, cost about 2400# (livres, colonial, about 80% of a livre tournois). Curtin, in The African Slave Trade suggests that about 25% of slaves died in the first year. If the slave was going to sicken and die within a year the owner certainly couldn't expect to get much work out of him first, so let's increase that initial cost by 25% to 3000#. Rentals of slaves 1784-89 seem to be running about 350# per year (N=32). If the master was able to rent that slave out full-time he'd get his money back in about 8.6 years. Put another way, he's making about 11.7% on his investment. That's not a whole lot given the precarious nature of the investment -- the slave might run away, die, rebel, injure himself, get sick... And, let's remember, the value of the slave will tend to decrease with age, although the longer he spends in the colony the more skills he's likely to learn and the more valuable he'll become on that basis.
THE MAROONS It is hard to estimate their numbers, but most scholars believe there were tens of thousands of them prior to the Revolution of 1791. Actually two of the leading generals of the early slave revolution were maroons.
I would accept hundreds in the
organized communities to which you
refer further on in the paragraph.
There were tens of thousands of
people who were
neither slave nor
free, that is, slaves de jure who
for one reason or another were not
participating in the slave system.
Most of them, though, lived on or
near the plantations of their de
owners or in the towns. They
were what Gabriel Debien refers to as
libres de savanne. As taxes
increased on manumissions, many
masters simply told their slaves that
they wanted to free to go, without
executing the formalities. They
would equip the slaves with a pass
permitting them to circulate freely,
sometimes in return for a substantial
payment or a regular
would be the slave's responsibility
to raise the cash for the liberty
tax, at which point the master would
go to the authorities and file the
appropriate papers. The militia
recruited many of these people by
offering liberties free of tax for
those who served a certain number of
Real runaways who left without the master's permission generally made their way to the towns if they didn't just settle into the slave quarters of the adjoining plantation, with a suitable payoff to the manager or boss slave. In fact, most slave runaways in colonial St. Domingue (over 50% even by the conservative estimates of Jean Fouchard) were for short periods of time for specific purposes and the runaway returned on his own.
The organized maroon communities were a big problem for the St. Domingue colonial authories in the first half of the 18th century. But, by 1760, the creation of the (mostly) free black and mulatto marechausee, and agreements with the Spanish in Santo Domingo on the elimination of border refuges, had pretty much eliminated the problem. The overwhelming maroon problem as a precursor to the revolution is a feature of Haitian hagiography, most strongly expressed by Jean Fouchard, but the evidence doesn't bear out this belief.
SLAVE REBELLIONS Simultaneously there were constant slave rebellions.
St. Domingue was noted for the
surprising lack of large slave
rebellions before 1791. Read Geggus
on this question. He suggests that
perhaps the supression of the maroon
settlements and the remarkable
efficiency of the policing methods
built up a sort of
that finally, when released, was
much more devastating that a number
of small rebellions, brutally
(the slaves outnumbered the free people 10-1) required exceptional control. This, in part, accounts for the special harshness and cruelty of slavery in Saint-Domingue. The owners tried to keep slaves of the same tribes apart;
Most of the large plantations were
staffed almost exclusively by
slaves. The overwhelming majority of
imports during the big period of the
sugar boom came from what is now Angola
and Zaire. Of course, the ethnic
daffynitions imposed by the slaveowners
bear little resemblance to where the
slaves really came from. See Miller's
Way of Death or Curtin's The African
Slave Trade for an attempt to get at
real ethnic origins of the slaves that
entered the African slave trade. It's
they forbade any meetings of slaves at all; they tied slaves rigorously to their own plantations,
Slave meetings for religious purposes
(like the famous Bois Caiman ceremony)
were pretty regular and more or less
tolerated as long as no trouble ensued.
The masters and the local authorities
realized that the slaves needed an
opiate of the people and tried to
compromise. Higher authority from
France often objected and the legal
codes contain many of the provisions to
which you are no doubt referring in
this paragraph. However enforcement
was lax and often used against
troublemakers and overlooked for
brutally punished the slightest manifestation of non-cooperation and employed huge teams of harsh overseers.
Law enforcement in the slave quarters was the responsibility of the marechausee, an organization raised by the colonial authorities and staffed by free blacks and people of color. Many marechausee soldiers were actually de jure slaves working off their liberty taxes with an enrollment in the armed forces. Masters were supposed by law to maintain a group of armed whites on the premises proportional to the number of slaves, 1:10 for a while, then 1:20. However, they rarely followed this law and the fines for non-compliance came to be an important part of the colonial government's budget. They counted on the fines as sort of a supplementary tax. So much for the huge teams of overseers.
Generally, plantation administration
was in the hands of a couple of white
employees, called economes or
procureurs who exerted authority over
the mass of black workers through boss
Negres de talent, as they
were called, were given better housing,
food, authority over their fellows, a
better chance at liberty for themselves
or their family members, and frequently
responded with great loyalty.
Toussaint L'Ouverture was a
talent on the habitation Breda at Haut
du Cap in the 1750's-60's before he was
freed. He was the econome's driver.
When the Revolution came, he made it a
special point to rescue his former
owner and family before joining the
rebels. It is an important point about
the Revolution of 1791 that the
de talent were the leaders. Read
Carolyn Fick's The Making of Haiti
for a good social-historical analysis
(although tainted with class analysis)
of the Revolution in the North Province
(around Cap Haitien/Francais)
One of the few weapons the masters could not control were poisons, which grew wild In Saint-Domingue, the knowledge of which the slaves brought with them from Africa.
it seems unlikely that the same species would grow in St. Domingue and in Africa. If they do, this would be an interesting and little-known chapter in the history of the Columbian exchange.
One of the most famous and successful revolutions prior to 1791 was the Mackandal rebellion of 1759. The slave Mackandal, a houngan knowledgeable of poisons, organized a widespread plot to poison the masters, their water supplies and animals. The movement spread great terror among the slave owners and killed hundreds before the secret of Mackandal was tortured from a slave. The rebellion was crushed and Mackandal brutally put to death. But, it reflects the constant fear in which the slave owners lived, and explains the brutality of their system of control.
It's always been my understanding that
Macandal killed (maybe) one or two
people, all in his own household. He
was accused of an enormous plot which
suited the propaganda purposes of the
white system at the time, to make sure
white people's loyalty to the system
overcame their patron-client loyalties
to their black
negre de talent
clients. It suits Haitian
hagiographers' purposes now to believe
the accusation because it makes
Macandal a famous early resister to
evidence introduced at
his trial was obtained by torture, as
you state, and thus of dubious
validity. I wonder if he wasn't a poor
scapegoat or a guy who simply had a
good reason to do in a master who had
I know from living in various
developing countries that many deaths
from natural causes are attributed to
witchcraft. It provides
a family, and a community, catharsis to
hunt down the
and also makes people feel safer if
they can think that their
friends/relatives might have been the
victims of an enemy or of supernatural
forces rather than some disease
organism. I know in the recent Ebola
outbreak in Zaire many Zairois felt
that the disease was caused by
witchcraft and were at first unwilling
to cooperate with the foreign health
workers. I suspect that many of the
same motivations were at work among the
Haitian whites in the 18th century
The slave rebellions were without allies among either the whites or free people of color. They were not even fully united among themselves, and the domestic slaves especially tended to be more loyal to their masters.Let's not forget Toussaint, Christophe, Petion, and possibly Dessalines and Rigaud who were all free people of color before the revolution began. And Sonthonax, the white commissioner of the Convention, who singlehandedly turned the Republican government towards an anti-slavery position and identified France with freedom for the blacks.
The maroons, in the meantime, were in contact with rebellious slaves, but they had few firm alliances. Nonetheless, their hatred of slavery, their fear of being re-enslaved and their desire to be free and safe in their own country, made them ready allies were a serious slave revolution to begin.
Jean Kina has been cited as a maroon leader who took an active role in the Revolution. Geggus has claimed, though, that he was a slave who was freed on condition that he fight for the English. Kina, of course, supported the English who were trying to re-impose slavery against Toussaint and the French Republican forces.
Before the Revolution, the largest maroon group still in existance, in the mountains between the Cul de Sac and Cayes-Jacmel, had made an agreement with the colonial government under which their liberty would be respected as long as they returned escaped slaves they picked up. There is no evidence that the deal was not respected. A large maroon settlement in Brazil kept slaves and raided neighboring plantations for more slaves. Their slaves were, however, treated like slaves in Africa and not nearly as harshly as plantation workers and I'm sure people were not too unhappy to be captured by them.
citizenship for free persons of color who were property owners -- which was most of them.
An exaggeration. I would say that while many free people of color were property owners on a very small scale, that is to say peasant farmers, the proportion of the group who were large proprietors was rather small. They were the most vocal and influential part of the group, of course, and discussion of the free people of color tends to take the positions of the Vincent Oge's and the Julien Raimond's as the position of the whole group. As I say, it is dangerous to over- generalize in this manner.
[the effects of the execution of Louis XVI and the declaration of war on England on the Revolution]
There were many Royalists among the newly-freed slaves and the old freedmen as well. An almost spiritual belief in the power of the King to make things right combined with disgust with the flipflopping of the Republic's various governments led to this. Remember that Jean-Francois, Biassou, and Toussaint all led troops at one time or another for the King of Spain in the name of the House of Bourbon. Jean Kina in the south fought throughout the Revolution as a Royalist, first with the Royalist whites and then as a British officer.
[the Leclerc expedition arrives]
Examples of early resistance there
were, but his landing was surprisingly
simple. It seems to me that there was
a lot more the Haitian army could have
done to resist Napoleon's troops. In
fact, when Christophe was facing the
possibility of a French return after
the end of the Napoleonic wars, he
built fortresses in the interior (the
most notable being Citadelle
Laferriere) to serve as difficult-to-blockade
centers for a guerrilla
resistance. Toussaint had somewhat the
same plan but his generals surrendered
so quickly he couldn't put it into
execution. The heroes of Vertieres and
the signatories of the Declaration of
Independence in 1804 had all rallied to
Leclerc's forces by 1800. Let's not
other side of the coin
when we think about the fanaticism of
the combats that were to come later.