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Date: Sun, 25 Jun 1995 23:19:20 -0400 (EDT)
From: Stewart R. King <stumo@jhunix.hcf.jhu.edu>
To: Bob Corbett <bcorbett@crl.com>
Subject: The Haitian Revolution: Heresy

Comments on Corbett, Haitian Revolution

By Stewart King

Hi Bob,

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 had been 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 forthcoming dissertation, insh'allah).

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 treated their slaves better. This is the nature of the system and not necessarily a reflection on superior moral qualities, etc.

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 jure 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 rent. It 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 years.

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 back pressure that finally, when released, was much more devastating that a number of small rebellions, brutally supressed.

(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 Congo 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 tough.

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 good sorts.

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 slaves. 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 negre de 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 negres 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 slavery. The 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 mistreated him?

I know from living in various developing countries that many deaths from natural causes are attributed to poison and witchcraft. It provides a family, and a community, catharsis to hunt down the poisoners and witches 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 poisoning cases.

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 forget this other side of the coin when we think about the fanaticism of the combats that were to come later.