Site update – more to come…

I haven’t been keeping up with the site much lately, as the pace of my research has slowed down a bit. Next month, though, I’ll be at the Haitian history conference in Providence, Rhode Island, and I intend to blog from the conference, assuming there’s power in easy reach and my typing doesn’t disturb anyone. Should be a very interesting conference; see “here for details”:

After that, I’ll be heading to Washington, DC for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. I hope to have lots of good stuff to post on that leg of the trip as well.

American Slave Narratives

This isn’t strictly on topic, but I chanced recently to rent a documentary that consisted mostly of black actors reading from interviews conducted in 1936 to 1938 with former slaves. Today, I came across a website that has some of the interviews posted, along with pictures and sound files.

What struck me in listening to these stories was how similar the experience was of the American slaves at the time of the Civil War to their counterparts in Haiti from the late 18th Century. In some ways, slave life in America was better, in some ways worse, but in both cases it was brutal business and cruelly inhumane. Reading these may be even more powerful than the performances were.

American Slave Narratives

This Gilded African to page 111

It is beginning to emerge that there were two factions fighting for independence in St. Domingue – Toussaint in the north and Rigaud in the south. While Toussaint instilled discipline in his troops and demanded equality and fair treatment, the efforts of Rigaud and the mulattos were marked by distrust and petty jealousies. (Parkinson p. 99) In the mulatto-dominated south, “Whites and blacks were equally badly treated, jailed for no reason and held without trial for the slightest offense. The mulattoes were so confident of their authority that they were openly corrupt and too arrogant to care who knew it.” (p. 103) Toussaint had no choice but to tolerate Rigaud’s excesses as his army was responsible for holding off the British in the south. For their part, the mulattos resented the influence that Toussaint held over Laveaux, and, as they needed Toussaint and his army, they plotted amongst themselves to remove Laveaux and install a mulatto governor. (pp. 99-101)

The mulattos were sorely disappointed, however. With Toussaint’s backing, a force of local cultivators was raised and Laveaux was released; then, in a ceremony in Le Cap on the first of April, 1796, with 10,000 troops standing at attention, Laveaux declared Toussaint Lieutenant Governor.

At Laveaux’ request, France sent another set of Commissioners. Sonthonax, having been found innocent of charges of treason returned, as did Roume, who was given charge of the Spanish sector. The mulatto Raimond completed the set. “The Commissioners landed bearing with them [as gifts to Toussaint] an ornamental sword and a brace of pistols of superb workmanship. They also carried an invitation for him to send his two sons to France where they could receive the finest education and would be the responsibility of the Republic.” (p. 103)

Sonthonax deported Villatte and launched an ill-fated attempt to investigate Laveaux’ arrest. Sonthonax’ clumsiness and Laveaux’ ill-health and yearning to return to France prompted Toussaint to nudge these two Frenchmen out of the colony. When France asked for “representatives to the new French Chamber of Deputies and to the Senate, Toussaint “volunteered” Sonthonax and Laveux. Laveaux did in fact leave, but Sonthonax refused the appointment and stayed put. (pp. 105-106)

“In the spring of 1797 [Toussaint] made a sudden attack upon several British outposts, taking them with ease and capturing valuable cannon, arms and prisoners. A grateful Sonthonax appointed him Commander in Chief in a ceremony in the Place d’Armes.” (p. 107)

Sonthonax had come to despise the whites, feelings which were equally returned in light of his efforts to emancipate and arm the slaves. He tried several times to enlist Toussaint’s help in massacring or banishing the whites and establishing an independent state. Firmly rebuked, Sonthonax pleaded with Toussaint to forget the matter, but the general knew that Sonthonax was out of control and had to be removed. (pp. 106-107)

Toussaint “wrote a long report to the Directory of all Sonthonax’ unbalanced plans.” The Directory was also hearing from planters who wanted the Commissioner recalled. Sonthonax, though, became even more determined to see his dream of an independent black state to fruition, and began to sow dissent among Toussaint’s army. After putting down a mutiny, Toussaint could no longer tolerate the Commissioner’s presence. Diplomatically, firmly, and with the force of threat behind him, he accompanied a blustering Sonthonax to the frigate L’Indien. After due consideration, Toussaint also sent his two children, Placide and Isaac, to France to be educated, finally taking up the offer that the Commissioners had brought with them the previous year. (pp. 108-111)

This Gilded African to page 98

Sonthonax was recalled to France to face trail for treason, leaving Laveaux in charge of the colony. (p. 83) Toussaint gained a reputation for being an inexhaustable and unpredictable foe. Indeed, the quotes Parkinson includes on page 84 invoke a certain awe of the man.

Toussaint was betrayed by the mulattos at St. Marc, an event which would deeply damage his trust in members of that race. He suffered more mulatto defections at Petite Rivi�re and Verrettes; at these towns and in Mirebelais he succeeded in taking the victory, only to suffer a reversal of fortune. He fought for five months to retake Mirebelais, finally succeeding in June 1795. (pp. 84-5)

Parkinson describes a poignant scene between Toussaint and the Marquis d’Espinville, commander of the French emigrees which underscores Toussaint’s honor. Toussaint, in ill-fitting and horse-sweat stained uniform versus the marquis’ elegant refinement. Toussaint swore to treat d’Espinville’s forces honorably, and was true to his word, to the point of defending them against the bringing of a court martial. (p. 85)

Another incident illustrates an essential point. Toussaint’s soldiers surrounded a group of planters attempting to leave Mirebelais with their gold and possessions. For all the planters knew, the rumors of Toussaint’s vicious murderousness were true, but Toussaint immediately allayed their fears and offered them an escort to Port au Prince. As the author says, “there were always two motivations to his actions, the heart and the head, and he was looking to the future – he needed the whites.”

After the fighting in Mirebelais, Toussaint took the time to enjoy the comforts of the Administrator’s quarters in that city. He invited the nobles of the town to the grand house for parties. “So, for the first time in St Domingue, white, mulatto, and black met together for the purposes of pleasure.” Indeed, pleasure was apparently the right word. According to Parkinson, Toussaint’s sexual conquests were legion, though he was “puritanical” in public. (p. 88)

Two Catholic priests, Father Martini and Father Lanthenure were constant companions and great influences.

Independence meant different things to Toussaint and to his people. To the slaves (now ‘cultivators’), independence meant freedom from work. To Toussaint, independence meant the beginning of work – work to ensure continued exports and therefore the economic strength of the republic. The cultivators chafed at the idea of going back to work on the plantations, and Toussaint was shot in the leg in one such uprising. (Parkinson, p. 89) The challenge of transitioning from a slave economy to a new independent state was ahead of him.

“Toussaint fought on; he issued a proclamation: ‘O You Africans, my brothers, you who have cost me so many battles, so much labour and so much concern, you whose liberty was created with your own blood. How long will I have the shame of seeing my deluded children turn from the advice of a father who loves them.’ He told them ‘work is a virtue, it is a necessity. It is the general dignity of the State. All vagrant and idle men will be arrested and punished under the law.'” (p. 89)

He was also faced with the threat of British officers “infiltrating his army dressed in rebel uniforms and trying to persuade his men to join their forces.” (p. 91) This underscores the precarious nature of the loyalties at the time. White, black and mulatto were joining which ever force they felt furthered their interest, yet an unstable situation created enough question marks to make for unstable alliances. Perhaps this is why Toussaint could see his way to forgive officers who betrayed him.

In 1795, the Treaty of Basle with Spain ceded the eastern two-thirds of the island to France, which ended French/Spanish hostilities on the island and sent Toussaint’s former partners cum rivals Jean Fran�ois and Biassou to their respective retirements. (p. 92)

Parkinson reminds us that there were “factions in the Chamber in Paris who were pressing for the return of slavery.” (p. 93) Having now had a taste of independence, having spent blood in its pursuit, Toussaint must have seen that a return to slavery would have been disastrous. He was steeling himself for the task of securing Saint Domingue’s independence. To begin, Toussaint, Rigaud, and Beauvais launched simultaneous attacks against the British from Jeremie to M�le St. Nicholas.

The British were surprised by Toussaint’s skill on the battlefield. They expected to go to war against “a band of black bandits.” Instead, they met a highly trained army – disciplined, dignified, and devastating. Toussaint’s army managed seven victories in seven days with very little loss of men. General Maitland, on the other hand, saw his forces decimated, down to 2500 from 20,000. He had no choice but to plead for a truce. Though yellow fever certainly helped the natives’ cause, “Maitland himself conceded that Toussaint would have won even without the ravages of this terrible disease.” (p. 96)

“The military historian Fortescue writes that ‘the British Campaign in the West Indies .. cost England in army and navy little fewer than 100,000 men, half of them dead and half permanently unfit for service.’ He added: ‘the secret of England’s impotence for the six years of the war may be said to be in the two fatal words St Domingue.’ The cost in money in St Domingue alone had been �300,000 in 1794, �800,000 in 1795 and �600,000 in 1796, and all for nothing.” (p. 96)

After negotiating the British surrender, Toussaint marched his troops into Port au Prince where, despite the fears of the inhabitants, the men’s behavior was impeccable. In contrast, two British commanders scorched the earth as they left. “Toussaint had not only gained the day on the battlefield; the victory won, he now showed the enemy not only the calibre of himself but of his people.” (p. 98)