This series has five easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Terror and Hate as the Slaves Revolt.
The sad history of Haiti (the poorest nation in the hemisphere and maybe the world, too) colors the way we think of the Revolution of 1791 which established independence. The sad post-revolution history was not inevitable. The revolution’s leader Toussaint Louveture – well, form your own opinion from Elliott’s account.
Haiti, the Spanish Santo Domingo, earlier called Española, is the largest of the West Indian islands except Cuba. In 1697 France, by treaty, acquired the western part of the island, the eastern portion remaining in the possession of Spain, which had held it ever since its discovery by Columbus. The French found their Haitian lands very profitable in cotton and sugar, and the western region prospered, while the Spanish community was stagnant. At the outbreak of the French Revolution (1789) the whole island was thrown into a ferment, out of which came the changes that Elliott relates.
This selection is from Santo Domingo: Its Revolution and Its Hero by Charles Wyllys Elliott published in 1855. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Charles Wyllys Elliott (1817-1833) wrote histories of New England and Santo Domingo.
On August 25, 1791, was the feast of St. Louis. For the week preceding, the planters gathered at Cap François * to concert measures against the mulattoes; against the National Assembly; and — to dine. The great men, and the rich, and the brave, were there. It was not a time to drive the slaves; and during that week they “danced” more than before. On the evening of August 23d, the best dishes of the cook Henri, a born prince, whose future no one could suspect, tempted the palates of the born whites. In brave counsels, in denunciations of the mulattoes, in songs for Governor Blanchelande and “Liberty,” the time passed, the wine flowed, and hearts swelled. So the shadows of the night stole on. Light! More light! was called for; they threw open the jalousies; curious black faces swarmed about the piazzas — but what meant that dull glare which reached the sultry sky? The party was broken up: they rushed to the windows; they could smell the heavy smoke, they could hear the distant tramp of feet. The band, unbidden, struck up the Marsellaise; it was caught up in the streets; and from mouth to mouth, toward the rich Plain du Nord, passed along the song:
“Le jour de gloire est arrivé! Aux armes! aux armes! pour Liberté!”
[* Now, in English, Cape Haitien. The place is a seaport of northern Haiti.–ED.]
Consternation followed the feast. Each man grasped his arms: into the midst of the company rushed a negro covered with dust; panting with heat. He sought his master. Pale with fear and excited with wine, he received him on the point of his sword. As the life and blood flowed he gasped, “O master! O master!” Murmurs of disapprobation filled the room, but it was too late: the hour had come! The slaves had risen. This poor creature had wished to save the man that owned him.
The rebellion broke out on the plantation of Noe, nine miles from Cap François. At midnight the slaves sought the refiner and his apprentice and hewed them in pieces. The overseer they shot. They then proceeded to the house of Mr. Clement: he was killed by his postilion. They proceeded from plantation to plantation murdering the whites; their ranks swelled by crowds of scarred and desperate men who had nothing to lose but life; and life with slavery was not so sweet as revenge. Everywhere they applied the torch to the sugar-mills — those bastilles, consecrated to the rites of the lash and to forced labor, dumb with fear — and to the cane fields, watered with sweat and blood.
Toward morning crowds of whites came pouring into Cap François, pale, terror-stricken, blood-stained. Men, women, and children found the day of judgment was come: none knew what to do; all was confusion. The signal-gun boomed through the darkness warning of danger, and every man stood to his arms. The inhabitants of the city were paralyzed with fear. They barred their doors and locked up their house-slaves. The only living objects in the streets were a few soldiers marching to their posts. Panic ruled the hour. The Assembly sat through the night. Touzard was sent out to attack the negroes, but was driven back. Guns were mounted, and the streets barricaded.
The morning dawned, and with the rising sun came rising courage. “It is nothing,” said some; “burn and hang a few negroes and all will go on as before.” The exasperation against the mulattoes, who were charged with having fomented the rising, resulted in hatred, insult, bloodshed and murder in and around Cap François; and a butchery was only stayed by the vigorous opposition of the Governor. Whatever negroes were seized were tortured and massacred. “Frequently,” says Lacroix, “did the faithful slave perish by the hands of an irritated master whose confidence he sought.”
The maddened negroes had tasted blood. They seized Mr. Blen, an officer of police, nailed him alive to one of the gates of his plantation, and chopped off his limbs with an axe.
M. Cardineau had two sons by a black woman. He had freed them and shown them much kindness; but they belonged to the hated race, and they joined the revolt. The father remonstrated, and offered them money. They took his money and stabbed him to the heart. If they were bastards, who had made them so? “One’s pleasant vices often come home to roost.” Horrors were piled on horrors: white women were ravished and murdered; black were broken on the wheel: whites were crucified; blacks were burned alive: long pent-up hatreds were having their riot and revenge. M. Odeluc was wrong, then! The slaves did not seem to love their masters. What could it mean?
Pork and bananas: slavery and ignorance; with some, dancing and the free use of the whip seemed to be producing surprising results. The whites could not understand it. Much sugar was raised, and yet the negroes were not satisfied, and now seemed to have gone mad. Destruction hung over the whites, and they concluded to try hanging and burning in their extremity — having no faith in justice and honesty for the blacks. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, owed their safety to the kindness of their house-slaves.
Monsieur and Madame Baillou with their daughter, her husband, and two white servants lived about thirty miles from Cap François, among the mountains. A slave gave them notice of the rising: he hid them in the forest and joined the revolt. At night he brought them food and led them to another place of safety. He did this again and again: led them through every danger and difficulty till they escaped to the sea. For nineteen nights they were in the woods, and the negro risked his life to save theirs. Why repeat instances? This was one of hundreds.
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