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(en) France, UCL AL #318 - August 1791-July 1792, Dossier Haitian Revolution: The breaking of chains, fire in the plain (ca, de, it, fr, pt)[machine translation]
Sun, 19 Sep 2021 09:12:45 +0300
In August 1791, the colony of Saint-Domingue - present-day Haiti -, the goose
that laid the golden eggs of the kingdom of France, was swept away by the
insurrection of slaves. The social and racial order, which held only by terror,
is collapsing. But the insurgent leaders hesitate on the consequences: to settle
in the marronnage? Negotiating better working conditions ? An alternative will
emerge: the abolition of slavery or "general freedom". ---- Was their sleep that
night stirred with heavy forebodings? It is quite possible, so much the planters
of Santo Domingo, surrounded by the mass of Africans and enslaved Africans ,
were used to living with fear in their stomachs. Fear of poison, fear of revolt,
fear of chestnuts - those groups of fugitives living hidden in the mountains. To
ward off this fear, any defiance of a slave to the established order was
ruthlessly punished: whipping, torture, mutilation, killing.
Dutty Boukman (circa 1767-1791)
This Senegalese houngan (voodoo priest) would have animated the ceremony of
Bois-Caïman, before being a very popular leader of the insurrection. Killed after
three months, his head was exhibited in Cape Town to prove that he was not immortal.
Formerly, in the Northern Province, which concentrated the highest density of
slaves and was to be the epicenter of any black revolt, a maroon named Makandal
had wanted to form a sprawling secret society to liberate Santo Domingo by
exterminating the Whites by the poison. Makandal had been captured and burned
alive in 1758, but his legend continued, on the eve of the Revolution, to fuel
the paranoia of the colonists and to fascinate the slaves.
Makandal's spirit therefore undoubtedly hovered over the secret ceremony held on
that night of August 14 to 15, 1791, at a place called Bois-Caïman, (Bwa Kayiman)
on the edge of the Lenormand dwelling in Mézy. The 200 or so slaves present did
not come from the neighborhood for a calenda , one of those nocturnal feasts to
forget the daily hell. This time, it is about a conspiracy, at the instigation of
a voodoo priest, Dutty Boukman. There are several coachmen and foremen
("commanders") who, because of their skills - riding a horse, driving a team,
providing medical care, speaking French, or even reading it - have been able to
move between the estates, forge links and exchange information on the turmoil
that is shaking the society of masters.
During the Bois-Caïman voodoo ceremony, 200 enslaved Africans stir up revolt.
Painting by André Normil (1990).
Indeed, for almost two years, the racial segregation of Domingo has been
destabilized by the echoes of the revolution in France. There is certainly a
quarrel between whites: autonomists inspired by American independence against
loyalists attached to the metropolis. But, more importantly, there is the
rebellion of the mulatto bourgeoisie, which demands civic equality with the white
bourgeoisie. Some Mulattoes even took up arms at the end of October 1790 and were
executed. A second mulatto rebellion broke out in July 1791, much more serious,
led by competent leaders like André Rigaud, voluntary veteran in the American War
of Independence, and who would become a major figure in the Haitian Revolution.
To confront each other, Whites and Mulattoes armed "their negroes". Big mistake.
Among the latter, the idea quickly hatched to take advantage of it. A rumor, in
particular, electrifies the first half of 1791: in Paris, the good King Louis XVI
would have granted three days of rest per month to the slaves, but the greed of
the colonists opposed it.
Cafeterias and sweets go up in smoke
In Bois-Caïman, we take an oath to revolt, by torch and iron. When a week later,
on the night of August 22 to 23, 1791, the insurrection broke out, it was no
surprise in a bloodthirsty outburst. Everything that terrorized slaves on a daily
basis - torture, mutilation, rape, death - the masters and their families suffer
in return, to the vengeful cry of "Bout à Blancs" . There will be around a
thousand deaths. The insurgents are particularly keen to destroy the hated
theater of their suffering: 1,200 cafeterias and 160 sweets go up in smoke .
Unsurprisingly, the insurrection of August 1791 began with a bloodthirsty
outburst, which left nearly 1,000 dead.
From the blazing North, the insurgency reaches the West, then the South.
Terrified, the planters took refuge in the towns, under the protection of the
army. For three weeks, from the ramparts of Cap-Français, they will scan the
horizon illuminated at night by fires, and blocked by day by thick columns of
smoke. The authorities lost control of the countryside and shut themselves up in
the coastal towns, linked by boat.
The number of insurgents is estimated at 100,000, mostly black, sometimes
mulatto. Including a significant number of women. Significantly, the majority are
not Creoles , born in irons in the West Indies. They are bossales , that is to
say Africans who once knew freedom. They tend to group together by nations -
Kongos, Alladas, Ibos, Mozambiques... - even if the Kreyòl language allows their
mutual understanding . Far from being unified, the insurgency is fragmented
into multiple maroonings and armed bands grouping 3,000 to 10,000 combatants
summarily equipped with pikes and clubs - more rarely guns - around charismatic
Some of these, especially in the West and the South, are of the mystical style,
voodoo and amulets, such as Halaou, Hyacinthe, Jeannot, Makaya, Lamour Dérance or
Romaine-la-prophétesse. Those of the North, like Jean-François, Biassou or
Toussaint Bréda - the future Louverture -, take more the European style with
epaulettes, shining titles (admiral, generalissimo ...) and readily call
themselves "people of the king" , out of sympathy for a fantasized Louis XVI.
This multiplicity of autonomous actors, who will permanently negotiate their
alliances and their allegiances, will be a constant throughout the Haitian
Revolution, and beyond.
From the ramparts of Cap-Français, in the summer of 1791, we could observe the
burning of the plantations in the northern plain for forty days.
Engraving by Jean-Baptiste Chapuis / Carnavalet museum
Negotiations with the masters fail
After three months, however, the black insurrection stalled. It could not seize
the big cities, and the countryside is devastated. Famine threatens, while rumors
of an arrival of French military reinforcements. In December 1791, Jean-François,
Biassou and his lieutenant Toussaint Bréda, cornered, therefore resolved to
negotiate with the colonial authorities. Their demands are very moderate: they do
not ask for the abolition of slavery, only the prohibition of the whip, as well
as the three days of monthly rest of which the rumor speaks, and the liberation
of nearly 400 chiefs and deputies. rebel leaders. In return for what, the latter
will undertake to put the slaves back to work and to hunt down the recalcitrant.
Georges Biassou (1741-1801)
This enslaved coachman was one of the leaders of the insurrection who rallied to
the King of Spain in 1793. Toussaint Bréda was his aide-de-camp. Beaten, he took
refuge in Spanish Florida in 1795.
Could the rebel leaders have convinced their troops, after three months of
murderous insurgency, to accept such a deal? One can doubt it but, in any case,
it is the colonists who fail the negotiations. Incapable of understanding that
their world belongs irremediably to the past, blinded by their thirst for
revenge, they summon the insurgents to surrender unconditionally.
Dismayed by this intransigence, the leaders of the North will therefore continue
the war. A war of skirmishes, with no way out, neither side having the means to
prevail over the other.
The failure of this negotiated surrender will however lead to a qualitative leap.
Six months later, in July 1792, in a declaration co-signed by Jean-François,
Biassou and Gabriel Belair, but probably conceived by Toussaint Bréda , the
rebel leaders of the North will announce a new objective, on a completely
different scale: the "General freedom". That is to say the struggle not for the
liberation of a minority, not for a reform of the system, but the fight to the
death for the abolition of slavery.
Guillaume Davranche (UCL Montreuil)
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