The Destruction of Cap Français in June 1793
The Destruction of Cap Français in June 1793
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter presents excerpts from several first-person accounts of the attack of French sailors on the city of Cap Francais on June 20, 1793, led by military governor Francois-Thomas Galbaud, and the eventual destruction of the city. These include the accounts of colonial journalist H. D. de Saint-Maurice, white resident of Cap Francais who joined Galbaud's forces, and Francois Lapierre. It also discusses the contents of the pamphlet Extrait D'une Lettre, Sur les Malheurs de Saint-Domingue dated October 1793.
No other episode of the Haitian Revolution inspired as many testimonies as the attack on the city of Cap Français on 20 June 1793 by sailors of the French fleet, led by the military governor, François-Thomas Galbaud, and the events that followed from it. These included not only the first official decree emancipating slaves on French territory but also the virtual destruction of the colony's largest city and the flight of most of its white population. These refugees spread the news of their city's disaster throughout the Americas and in France. The French government conducted an extensive inquiry into these events and eventually published an official account of them that inspired several pamphlets contesting its interpretation of their causes.1 No one who lived through these dramatic days could forget them, and subsequent memoirists, such as the author of “Mon Odyssée” and François Carteaux in his Histoire des désastres de Saint-Domingue, continued to record their experiences in the years that followed.2
Although the events leading up to the destruction of Cap Français began with a power struggle between rival white officials—the military governor François-Thomas Galbaud and the civil commissioners Léger-Félicité Sonthonax and Etienne Polverel—they had a dramatic impact on race relations. Galbaud had been sent to Saint-Domingue by French officials determined to enforce the law of 4 April 1792, which granted rights to free people of mixed race, and his appointment initially had the support even of France's leading spokesman for that group, Julien Raimond.3 When Galbaud arrived in Cap Français, however, he took the side of the diehard white “patriots,” who accused the commissioners sent from France six months earlier of favoring the free people of color. Although slave unrest in the city had been rigorously repressed, tensions were running high, and several sources mention fights between the white sailors from the ships in the harbor and the free-colored (p.181) “citizens of 4 April 1792” who supported the commissioners in the days before the final confrontation. Polverel and Sonthonax attempted to assert their authority over Galbaud and finally ordered his arrest. Galbaud allowed himself to be put on board one of the ships anchored in the harbor, many of which were already filled with whites condemned to deportation by the two commissioners, including the general's own brother, César. The fleet became a floating hothouse of conspiracies aimed at rallying the sailors for an assault on the commissioners and their supporters.4 On 20 June 1793, as described in the following document, the warships prepared to bombard the town, and at least a thousand sailors rowed ashore to launch an attack.
Outnumbered by Galbaud's forces, which seem to have been almost entirely white, the commissioners had to rely on a few loyal white troops and on members of the mixed-race population. Up to this point, the commissioners had still been pursuing the fight against the black slaves, whose insurrection had begun in August 1791, but Galbaud's attack led them to seek support from some of the black insurgent leaders in the region. The price for this was a promise of freedom for exslaves who agreed to fight on behalf of the commissioners and the French republican regime they represented. The proclamation to this effect issued by Sonthonax and Polverel on 20 June 1793, whose text is incorporated into the first of the three narratives included here, was the first official act of emancipation in the French colonies. It was followed in the next few months by a series of other decrees granting freedom to other categories of former slaves, culminating in Sonthonax's general emancipation proclamation for the North Province on 29 August 1793 and similar measures by Polverel in the West and South provinces in the following months. By the end of 1793, French Saint-Domingue had officially become an egalitarian society in which men and women of all races were free. The commissioners' aim was a multiracial community, but few whites remained in the territories they controlled, and they were essentially dependent on black and mixed-race forces to fight the British and Spanish invasions that had taken place in the meantime. Galbaud's attack on Cap Français thus precipitated a decisive shift in the balance of power between whites and the other racial groups in the colony.
At the time, however, the start of this process was overshadowed by the news of the burning of the city. The fighting set off by Galbaud's attack on the commissioners was accompanied first by widespread looting and disorder and then by fires that rapidly consumed most of the town. Cap Français, the largest city in Saint-Domingue, with its modern European-style buildings, including a theater, had been a symbol of the implantation of Enlightenment culture in the New World. Its destruction was the most striking act of violence committed on French territory since the start of the revolution (fig. 6). Most of the city's white population took refuge on the ships crowded into its harbor, which had been waiting for the (p.182)
In early February 1794, three deputies—one white, one black, and one of mixed race—who had been elected under Sonthonax's supervision to represent Saint-Domingue in the National Convention finally reached Paris, despite efforts by the proslavery lobby in France to have them arrested. The documents they brought with them about the events of June 1793 and a speech by the white member of the group, Louis Dufay, persuaded the Convention to pass its momentous decree of 16 pluviôse An II (4 February 1794) abolishing slavery in the French colonies and, thus, endorsing the measures that Sonthonax and Polverel had already taken in Saint-Domingue. Although the Convention made the commissioners' version of events in Cap Français the official story, supporters of Galbaud managed to publish rival accounts to justify themselves in the eyes of the French government and public. The burning of the city remained a controversial issue for years afterward. Nevertheless, the events there clearly drove revolutionary France to become the first European country to outlaw slavery and the first to seat men of African descent in its own legislature. Even though the French embrace of abolition and racial equality was short-lived—Napoléon reauthorized slavery and imposed discriminatory laws against blacks in France in 1802, and slavery was not finally eliminated in the French colonies until 1848—the emancipation acts of 1793 and 1794 were of fundamental importance for the continuing struggles over abolition and race in the Western world.
A Journalist's Account of the Destruction of Cap Français
The colonial journalist H. D. de Saint-Maurice's “Récit historique du malheureux événement qui a réduit en cendres la ville du Cap français, capitale de la province du Nord, colonie de St. Domingue” (Historic narrative of the unhappy event that reduced to ashes the city of Cap Français, capital of the North Province, colony of Saint-Domingue), differs from most accounts of these events because its (p.185) author was identified with neither Galbaud, the French general who took the side of the colony's diehard whites, nor the commissioners, who had come by this time to be seen as the allies of the free-colored population. Saint-Maurice, the author of the Récit historique, had been the editor of the principal Cap Français newspaper in the last year before the disaster, the Moniteur générale de la partie française du Saint-Domingue. Strictly speaking, his twenty-six-page manuscript narrative, bound at the end of several surviving copies of the Moniteur générale, is not a personal account. Aside from a few interjections, the author writes as a journalist, using the third person. Although he describes the events leading up to the burning of the city as if he had witnessed them, he cannot have been on the scene of all the incidents he recounts, some of which took place in different locations at the same time. For most of the narrative, he writes as a spokesman for the white residents of Cap Français, whom he depicts as victims of a conflict they had not initiated and could not control. Nevertheless, the emotional intensity of his story brings it close to the category of a personal document. We do not need to have reached the paragraph in which the author describes the tears rolling down his face as the fleet bearing most of the white population vanished from sight to realize how thoroughly immersed he was in the events he was describing.
This narrative is unusual among the witness literature from Saint-Domingue because it testifies to the author's rethinking of his assumptions about racial hierarchy. Almost alone among the recorders of these events, the editor of the Moniteur générale, one of the few whites to remain in Cap Français after its destruction, came to accept the necessity of slave emancipation and racial equality. The closing pages of his account are an appeal to the white refugees who had fled Saint-Domingue to imitate his example and return to the colony to create a racially egalitarian society. His words had no practical effect—so far as is known, his work was not published at the time—but they do demonstrate that it was possible for a white resident of the colony to make his peace with the new order of things resulting from the black insurrection and the commissioners' decision to declare slavery abolished.
Whether the eloquent author of this striking narrative was able to put his new principles into practice we do not know. As is the case with most of these documents, we also do not know under what circumstances or on what date he wrote. The manuscript's inclusion in what was probably the author's own collection of the newspaper makes it appear that he had managed to salvage his work from the flames; the tone of his appeal to the whites who had fled suggests that he wrote at least several months after the disaster, at a point where conditions had become more settled and the prospect of whites returning to help rebuild the colony no longer seemed totally chimerical. The Moniteur générale de la partie (p.186) Française de Saint-Domingue ceased to appear as a result of the burning of the city, with the result that the author of this account was apparently unable to share his work with readers at the time. He nevertheless rose to the occasion, producing a superb piece of journalism. Vivid, passionate, the Récit historique convincingly portrays the end of the colonial era and outlines a possible future that, sadly, was not to be.5
Cap Français has ceased to exist; its inhabitants have been massacred or obliged to flee! My newspaper ended at the time of this disaster. I owe my readers an account of the awful days of 20, 21, 22, 23, and 24 June . As a faithful historian, I owe them the story of the conspiracies that destroyed this capital—I almost said the colony—and that have cost France a source of wealth that seemed inexhaustible. Horrible crimes have been committed: thinking of them reopens my wounds, but I will smother my grief. Alas! My eye, dried of its tears, will wander from ruin to ruin, from cadaver to cadaver! Here I will find the body of a relative, there, that of a friend, further on, I will hear the plaintive cry of someone dying, or I will be struck by the traumatic spectacle of an unfortunate covered with wounds, still struggling against the dagger and the flames. Everywhere, I will have to write of the effects of the worst of evils, civil war. I will describe, without disguise and without fear, the faults of the two parties. Crimes, and only crimes, to retell, that is my duty! … I will render homage to the truth. Sacred truth, be my guide! My pen should be dipped in tears and blood, but not in vitriol or hatred. Far from me any partisan spirit.
Galbaud, governor-general of the French part of Saint-Domingue, unhappy at being under the control of the civil commissioners, had offered them his resignation, by asking them to enforce, with regard to him, article 15 of the law of 4 April , which made him ineligible for his post, since he owned property in Saint-Domingue. The commissioners, instead of accepting his resignation, dismissed him and ordered him to go on board the vessel La Normande and submit himself to arrest, and go to the bar of the National Convention to give an account of his conduct. Galbaud submitted to this order by boarding the ship that very evening. His brother, adjudant general of the army, having shown his intention of resisting the commissioners since their return, had been put on board several days earlier.6 On the one hand, the so-called patriots were sorry to see the disappearance of these two men whom they hoped to use for their purposes; on the other hand, the plantation owners, the merchants, and the whole nobility of the tropics, despite their love for the ancien régime, admitted openly that they preferred commissioners who carried out deportations to a republican general who (p.187) had started out by harassing them.7 It was talked about for two days, after which the indescribable inhabitants of Le Cap had almost forgotten these two men, who had put in only a passing appearance.
The adjutant Galbaud, a man of a character much firmer than his brother, had been sent on board under the escort of a platoon of twenty-five dragoons from the Sixteenth Regiment and in the company of their commander, who was at his side, no doubt out of respect for his rank. He could not swallow the offense to his amour propre, not to say his pride, and from the depth of his prison, he meditated, with his brother, how to avenge himself in a striking manner. The two of them worked on the crews of the navy ships, and, when they thought they had succeeded in turning them against the authority of the civil commissioners, they planned a landing to seize them and take over their functions.
At 11 A.M. on Thursday, 20 June , those in the city saw that the navy ships were preparing their guns and that the commercial vessels had moved to the back of the harbor. At 2 P.M. the warships were aiming at the city and their batteries were completely open and uncovered. The citizens, astonished and shocked by such a maneuver, asked each other what it could mean, but so few were in on the secret, that everyone seemed to be in ignorance. When the report was transmitted to the civil commissioners, they tried to calm the citizens' fears by assuring them that it was simply not possible that the ships of the Republic could open fire on its representatives and bring about, through the destruction of the city of Le Cap, the ruin of the richest province in the French colonies. Nevertheless the command flag was hoisted on the mast of the admiral's vessel, and all the ships followed the order. The commissioners, keeping the sangfroid necessary in such circumstances, asked the harbormaster what was happening. Despite the alarming report they received, they nevertheless remained in the old Government House, the place they had chosen for their residence since their return from Saint-Marc, and maintained an imprudent and dangerous sense of security. They limited themselves to sending a squad of two hundred colored men to guard and defend the arsenal, situated on the seafront. Unfortunate city! Without knowing it, you were on the edge of the abyss that was to swallow you up. These striking developments heralded striking projects. It was just punishment in the eyes of the revived aristocrats, and an unheard-of crime, in those of the moderates and true patriots, whose numbers were much fewer. The unfortunates! If they had been able to foresee the result of this enterprise, would they have stuck to differing opinions instead of saving themselves from the incalculable misfortunes that they are now victims of by a reunion that had so often been called for?
(p.188) Around four o̓clock the two Galbauds came ashore at the head of a large number of sailors and about 150 soldiers who formed the unit stationed on the navy ships. Blinded by the desire for vengeance, these two leaders didn't even take any of the precautions that prudence counsels and that even the most intrepid courage usually arms itself with. Having landed, this troop made a disorderly advance on the arsenal. To reach it, they had to cross a narrow bridge defended by a four-pounder, which made access difficult. While some of them deliberated on what to do, the poorly armed sailors set off toward the Government House, in the greatest confusion, with a few naval officers at their head and the two Galbauds. The general marched gaily, singing the hymn of the Marseillais, and his sense of himself was deliciously fed by the compliments that the enemies of the commissioners paid him as he passed. How could he, with so little experience and so little courage, sing “The day of glory has arrived”? The commander of the volunteers had just left the civil commissioners, who had ordered him to range his troops in battle formation on the place Montarcher to defend the entrance to the Government House.8 He did so, along with the mounted National Guards of Le Cap, but their weapons were only useful to Galbaud. The regular troops from the barracks of the Cap Regiment, a few white citizens and a number of citizens of color were on the grounds and paths of the Government House. They were its only defenders and prepared themselves to protect those who had braved so much to enforce the law of 4 April 1792 from the greatest dangers. Gratitude and interest spoke powerfully to the hearts of this last group [the free men of color]. There was nothing to consider for them: they had no other choice than victory or death.
This was the situation when the sailors arrived in several columns coming from the streets that end at the rue St. Louis and reaching the corner of the place Montarcher. There they saw the volunteers and the mounted National Guards. A place so close to the Government House seemed suspicious to them; they fired on those whom they took for their enemies, killing two and wounding three. Orders were so badly given that the men of color also fired on a patrol of volunteers, without knowing if they were of their party, and both the sailors and the other party fired on the inhabitants of the city, without asking which side they supported. But the volunteers and the mounted National Guards managed to communicate with the sailors and went over to their side. Lively fire began between Galbaud's party and that of the civil commissioners, and lasted without a break for more than twenty minutes. Galbaud had brought only about eighty regular soldiers, divided (p.189) and placed at the head of the different columns, and had left the rest at the arsenal. The soldiers on both sides fought with their normal discipline, the volunteers and the National Guards with their customary valor. The sailors, on the other hand, were without any order, or rather in the greatest confusion. The citizens of 4 April had to defend their rights, their wives, their children, their lives and those of their protectors. Inspired by these common motives, their union made them strong, and after a half hour of fighting, they remained in possession of the field of battle. Forced to retreat, General Galbaud left among the prisoners his brother, who had remained with eight volunteers to guard a mortar on the place du Champ de Mars, and several naval officers and National Guards.
Death, on this unhappy day, carried off many on both sides, and especially many sailors. After this setback, Galbaud withdrew to the state warehouse, opposite the arsenal, to give his troops a rest; the men he had left around the port, when he marched on the Government House, had occupied this warehouse. A unit of forty dragoons from the Sixteenth Regiment had already been at the arsenal and had left without being challenged. The citizens who sided with Galbaud, presuming that they had come looking for munitions for the men of color, blamed themselves for having let them go so easily and promised not to be so easygoing in the future. About a half hour later, the same unit came back and went by thirty citizens who were on guard in the rue du Conseil, at the corner of the street of the marché aux Blancs, and who, being such a small number, gave them free passage, but they alerted the troops at the state warehouse, who amounted to three or four hundred men. They stopped the unit of dragoons, which was also confronted by the fusiliers [illegible phrase] is disarmed, forced to abandon its mounts, and sent on board the Jupiter. The son of the commissioner Polverel, carrying a proclamation and accompanied by eight dragoons from the same regiment, suffers the same fate a moment later; he and his whole escort are taken prisoner, and Leblanc, the commander of that regiment, is badly wounded. Here is the text of the proclamation just mentioned:
We, Etienne Polverel and Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, civil commissioners of the Republic, posted to the French Leeward Islands of the Americas to reestablish order and public tranquility there, To the Citizen Sailors, Artillerymen and Soldiers of the Republican Navy: The Civil commissioners of the Republic know that you have been misled by the Generals Galbaud, Cambis, and Sercey, that they have forced you to forswear the Republic.9 Turn them over to the representatives of the National Convention, and you will be pardoned. Good citizens, (p.190) all of you, rally to us; leave the factious ones isolated. Let them depart, let them go receive in France the punishment of their crimes! Issued at Le Cap, 20 June, Year II of the Republic. Signed, Polverel, Sonthonax.
Nevertheless, the arsenal was still controlled by the men of color, and General Galbaud didn't think to gain control of this point, the most important for his enterprise. One citizen justly reproached him and showed him clearly how easy it would be to take it, since he had a superiority of three or four times in numbers. Who could have imagined this general's answer! “I presented myself there two or three times,” he said, “but they wouldn't surrender.” “General, if you would put yourself at the head of fifty willing men, I swear that you will get control of it easily.” The general did not dare refuse, he marches, the doors open, and he takes possession of this important position without firing a shot. Proud, no doubt, of this conquest, Galbaud walks around in the arsenal without thinking of making sure of the citizens of color who had been guarding it and who, taking advantage of his blindness, escape one by one. A citizen points this out to him and shows him the necessity of arresting these men, whose escape is going to increase the number of enemies. “I can't be everywhere,” Galbaud replies, “nevertheless, you are right: go give the order to the sentinels not to let any man of color leave.” “But,” the citizen says to him, “I don't have any authority to give orders to the sentinels….” “Ah, you're right,” says Galbaud, and finally he gives the order to someone who could carry it out. Of the two hundred men who were guarding the arsenal, thirty are taken prisoner and sent on board the Jupiter. At the same instant, a naval officer arrives, coming for the third time to ask the general whether he was still determined to carry out the terrible order he had given to open fire on the town. “I have thought of everything,” Galbaud replies, “and when I've gone as far as giving an order, it must be executed.” This officer allowed himself to point out the awful consequences of such an order. “Obey,” was the only answer he was given. He leaves to go see that this bloody command is carried out: the fuses are lit, a hundred mouths of bronze are ready to pour death and destruction on the unhappy city of Le Cap, but the officers of the merchant marine and some of the naval officers oppose it, humanity carries the day, and the order is left unexecuted.
Galbaud, after having posted enough guards at the arsenal, spends the night there, firmly decided to try another assault on the Government House the next day. It is said that during the disorder of the day, the admirals Cambis and Sercey were put under arrest by their own crews. Were these arrest orders real, or just simulated? I don't know, but what is certain is that they (p.191) never came ashore. (The commissioners didn't know this, as one can see from their proclamation.)
Terror was general among the inhabitants of Le Cap, who, while this was happening, remained neutral and shut themselves up in their homes. Detesting the commissioners and the general equally, and thinking only of themselves and their treasures, they would nevertheless have preferred to see Galbaud have the advantage and would have profited from his victory, without running the risks that it cost. They feared for themselves and rushed to get on board a ship, without considering that their absence gave their slaves the opportunity to revolt and the chance to arm themselves; this is what happened during that night.
Toward evening, the men of color, proud of their victory, and fearing a better-planned attack the next day, sought to increase their numbers and took advantage of the absence of the masters to win over the slaves who had long been disposed that way. They joined them, marched around the town in numerous patrols, and established many guard posts in the streets. The night was troubled: from every direction one heard gunshots and cries. No white dared show himself; each one, frozen with fear, kept himself carefully, not to say shamefully, hidden. The slaves, under cover of the darkness, the disorder, and the paralysis of their masters, fell on the town along with the citizens of color, pillaged a part of it, and committed several massacres. The stores on the place Clugny and some of the richest ones on the place d̓Armes were completely emptied and devastated during this horrible night whose excesses were only the prelude to the catastrophe of Le Cap and the sufferings that were going to hit this unfortunate town in the following days.
Experience, which teaches men, taught Galbaud nothing. Although, during the course of the night, the sounds of artillery and musketfire in various parts of the town were continually audible, which should have made him fear great problems for the next day, he nevertheless didn't give any order concerning anything outside the narrow bounds of the arsenal. No patrols were ordered or sent out; no aide de camp was sent to see what was happening even in the streets nearby. O, town of Le Cap! Your inhabitants slept the sleep of the dead! Those for whom this night was the last were perhaps the best off.
Day dawned, and a blind optimism entered into Galbaud's heart: he ordered the beating of the general alarm, but in vain. Barely fifty civilians rallied to his side. Forced to rely only on the troops he had brought with him and on a part of the volunteers and National Guards, he expected to defeat enemies who, more numerous, more determined, and inspired by their first triumph, were ready to put up a tough defense. Galbaud made his preparations in the (p.192) artillery park. He put his force in battle formation, and at about seven A.M. he got under way with three columns and several pieces of field artillery, plus a twenty-four-pounder. This gun, owing to its weight, was more or less useless and held up his operation for more than an hour because of an accident that happened along the way: the two wheels broke, and the time needed to change them destroyed the minimal cohesion of his army. The column he was commanding went through the marché aux Blancs; when it reached the intersection of the rue Conflans and the rue Notre Dame, it began to be harassed by a few balls fired from windows, and several people were wounded and taken to the arsenal. The sight of them, which intimidated the less determined among those at that post, began to discourage the bolder ones. It was not hard for an objective observer to see that the outcome of a day beginning under such unfavorable auspices was likely to be bad. As the column advanced, the danger grew more and more and became very serious at the place d̓Armes: a hail of shots came from all the windows and all the surrounding streets, the number of wounded became uncountable, and the guard post there was soon full of them. Unfortunately there was no surgeon to aid them, no bandages, no instruments to perform operations. The brave men who had been misguided enough to trust in the experience and intelligence of Galbaud suffered from the pain of their wounds and the pain of seeing themselves sacrificed because of the general's incompetence and self-regard.
The column in the rue Conflans was still in good shape; the one that had gone up the rue des Religieuses distinguished itself equally. Both advanced in good order, being composed partly of sailors, with regular troops at their head, as on the previous day. It was not the same with the middle column, which was supposed to make a frontal attack on the Government House, coming from the rue de la Comédie. It was composed entirely of sailors, and the confusion in its ranks was the result of the bad organization that, by some kind of fatality, seemed to dog this extravagant operation. This column had the hardest task to carry out, the most obstacles to overcome, and was the one, because of its importance and because of the dangers it had to face, that needed the most precautions, the greatest skill, the best organization, above all the presence of a leader. The twenty-four-pounder, if it was not well protected and well managed, became a danger for it, rather than a source of strength. This column, the most dangerous for the defenders, was the center of the army: there was therefore every reason to believe that they would direct most of their attacks on it. In addition, it had the job of seizing the Government House, while the side columns just had the supporting roles of aiding it and preventing it from being attacked from the flank. Who could have believed it? It was the one that was mostly left without the means and (p.193) the resources that a soldier should never neglect. It was a major error to have entrusted it to the sailors. These inept and untrained men, who were perhaps unhappy about fighting against the official representatives of their country, remained nailed to the spot on the place d̓Armes, claiming that their job was just to guard their beloved cannon, in whose shelter they insisted on remaining. This gun began firing on the Government House at eight o̓clock in the morning. The civil commissioners were only defended by an eighteen-pounder that was located in front of the main gate. Several balls had already hit the facade, and the citizens surrounding the delegates of the Republic continually pointed out to them the danger they were running and urged them to take advantage of Galbaud's mistake in not taking control of the passage of la Fossette, by which they could reach Haut du Cap. They responded impassively that they would not give up their post as long as it was defensible. However, the facade of the Government House was hit everywhere by balls, and the twenty-four-pounder kept firing; the defenders' eighteen-pounder was rendered useless when its axle broke. At that point, the commissioners decided to leave for Haut du Cap. Polverel took the main road and was assaulted by several rounds of cannonfire, which did not hurt anyone in his group; Sonthonax went via Fort Belair, which the men of color had occupied, and both reached Camp Bréda at Haut du Cap during the morning, along with a number of men of color and about forty whites. Forced to flee their residence, seeing how few whites had joined their party, and fearing that the courage of the citizens of color would be obliged to yield to the valor and military talents that they attributed to Galbaud and his followers, they considered themselves authorized to call the insurgent black slaves to their aid, and promised freedom to all those who took up arms in defense of the Republic and its delegates. As a consequence, they had the following proclamation published:
We, Etienne Polverel and Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, civil commissioners of the Republic, posted to the French Leeward Islands of the Americas to reestablish order and public tranquility there,
Declare that the will of the French Republic and of its delegates is to grant freedom to all the black warriors who will fight for the Republic, under the civil commissioners' orders, both against the Spanish and against other enemies, whether interior or exterior.
The Republic and the civil commissioners also want to improve the condition of other slaves, by preventing them from being mistreated as in the past, by assuring (p.194) them better food, better sanitary facilities, more changes of clothing every year, more free time in the week to look after their own affairs, more kindness and respect for pregnant and nursing mothers, more certain ways of buying their freedom, with set prices, and finally by gradually extending freedom to those blacks who will have given the strongest evidence of their good conduct and their devotion to work, while at the same time giving them enough landed property to ensure an honest subsistence for them and their families.
All the slaves declared free by the delegates of the Republic will be the equal of all other free men, white or of any other color.
They will enjoy all the rights of French citizens.
This is the mission the National Convention and the Executive Council of the Republic have given the civil commissioners.
Issued at Haut du Cap, 21 June 1793, the second year of the French Republic. Signed Polverel, Sonthonax.
Delegates of the Republic, should you have abandoned the richest city to the furor of sailors and black slaves? Had the time come to abandon the inhabitants and their wealth to a horde of new men who, foaming with rage and vengeance against all their old masters, used their liberty only to spread disorder, carnage, and death? Shouldn't you have had the general alarm sounded and made every effort to rally around you a large part of the inhabitants of this unfortunate town, who were waiting, in the cruelest situation, for someone to show them what to do? Many would have taken sides against you, I know, but at least not all of them would have become victims, and the number who would have joined your party would have perhaps enabled you to avoid calling the slaves to your aid and turning over to them the source of the Republic's prosperity. Should you have abandoned the town of Le Cap so suddenly? Wouldn't your presence have given courage to your defenders and resulted in a more effective and happier victory? By doing everything for one part of humanity, you sacrificed the other.
The citizens of color, emboldened by their enemies' lack of success, were sure of victory; they were wonderfully aided by the blacks they had armed and whose activities kept Galbaud's party from getting as close to the Government House as they had the day before. These new men, proud to be called citizens, showed a dedication that one would not have expected from men without leaders, fighting without organization, without discipline. (p.195) These were no longer men bent beneath the yoke of contempt and servitude; inspired by hatred and vengeance, these men had thrown off their masks. No more truce between the master and the slave in revolt! Those whose glance had made them tremble, those whom they had always believed to be a race superior to theirs, were nothing more in their eyes except tyrants: the spell was broken. The whites, one must confess, were at a great disadvantage in the fighting: they had to face enemies hidden in their houses, whose blows were hard behind their walls. Finally, after two hours of stubborn fighting in which one side had fought for its freedom, the other for their goods and their lives, Galbaud, attacked by a small group of blacks, took flight, crying Sauve qui peut [Every man for himself]. This sudden and cowardly flight threw the two other columns into disorder. The central one, above all, seized by fear, left behind the twenty-four-pounder, which had become useless as protection.
Returning to the arsenal, Galbaud brought the spirit of discouragement with him. In this setback, of which his ignorance was the cause, but for which he was not the only one responsible, he did not even have the feeble consolation of being able to blame anyone else for the defeat. His face was full of indignation, but it could not have been genuine since he alone had made all the mistakes. The misfortunes were not yet at their height. The victors did not pursue the vanquished, and subsequent reflection might perhaps have dissipated these first alarms, if a sailor, disoriented by fear, seeing from a distance the last column that was retreating, and thinking it was the men of color coming after him, had not cried out: “Here come the mulattoes.” At the word mulattoes, a panic terror took hold of all spirits; the falsity, indeed the absurdity of this report wasn't considered, fear spread, and the disorder soon reached a peak. Galbaud sputtered and was hardly the least frightened. A man seized him with a strong arm and helped him jump over the wall and dragged him to the edge of the water, opposite a boat that was some distance away, calling loudly to the rowers. Several people, either to save him, or to save themselves, surrounded Galbaud, who, in water up to his neck, finally managed to get himself into the rowboat that came up to him. The general's flight was a thunderbolt; there are no colors to paint this scene, the final one of a so wealthy city. Everyone, their eyes unfocused, their mouths open, and terror painted on their faces, thought they already saw an army of mulattoes, furious and covered with blood, about to fall on them with sabers in their hands. They all threw themselves in the water without thinking, without knowing whether the nearest ships would be swamped by the crowd. All threw away rifles, knapsacks, uniforms, hats, anything that might hamper them. The seashore, witness to a dishonorable flight, was covered (p.196) with things left behind by cowards who threw themselves into the water trying to reach some distant boats.
Galbaud, you whose valor, on the frontiers of the Republic, shone under the gaze of a traitorous general!10 By what inconceivable transformation did you let yourself, without courage and without experience, two thousand miles from your homeland, be dragged into the water to get on board a ship? The fortune of arms is unfaithful, I know: Turenne himself could not always count on victory,11 but didn't you know that the wisest commander can be beaten without shame, but never, without dishonoring himself, is he allowed to flee? Were you unaware that a clever retreat honors the general who cedes to sustained pressure as much as a battle won, and that the leader of a risky enterprise, if reduced to the fatal necessity of dying or dishonoring himself, has no choice between these two options? Although beaten, your place was at the arsenal. There, if your courage and that of your troops, if a last effort offered no prospect other than an honorable death, your duty at least was to save the victims your imprudence had created. You should have ordered the retreat, made it in order, still been daring, and you should have been the last to offer your breast to the enemy: one has to know how to die. Despair is the last resource of an abandoned general. You certainly proved that the blood of d̓Assas and Desilles never ran in your veins … “They pulled me along in spite of myself; in spite of myself I was thrown in the water.” Vain excuse, I say: if, using the tone of a brave soldier, always listened to when honor speaks through his mouth, you had cried, in freeing yourself from the hands of those stronger than you, and who, enemies of your glory, made you share their shame, “Cowardly or perfidious men, let me go, I refuse to flee”; if, sword in hand and pointing to the arsenal, you had told them, “That's where I should, that's where I want to die!” do you think that, deaf to the charms of valor in misfortune, they would not have respected such a spirit of sacrifice in you? Believe me, they would not have been able to hold your blazing gaze. Reinvigorated by the fire of your courage, they would have used their bodies to make a rampart around you. “I spoke that language, that's how I expressed myself” … no, you fool yourself, or you want to fool us. If your voice was heard, it was not the male voice of a hero. You were not disobeyed. Your cowardly heart was visible, you fled, you wanted to flee, and if you didn't have the firm determination to flee, you would not have taken the childish precaution of putting your two watches between your teeth to keep them out of the water into which your fear had made you plunge.
On his arrival on board the Jupiter, Galbaud, soaked to the skin, sat down next to his wife in the stateroom, while waiting for someone to take some (p.197) dry clothes out of his chest. His wife rubbed his hands and squeezed them while caressing him in a tender fashion. Ah, my dear one, she said, in a trembling voice, he is so useful to the Republic that we must take good care of him. An instant later, Galbaud, touched by his wife's tenderness, went into his cabin to change. Someone thought they heard him crying. “You are crying, general,” someone said to him. “Oh, no,” he replied, sobbing. “In any case, it would be from rage.” After this touching scene, a frugal meal was served, to which Galbaud did the greatest honor. “It is really too bad,” he said, “that I was pushed back. Thinking that I had won, I was already preparing to seize the mornes [the mountainous heights around Le Cap] in order to put a quick end to this war.” [Rear Admiral] Cambis listened to him from below and concealed a smile at the thought of a setback whose responsibility he didn't need to share. After the meal, Galbaud, wearing a small white vest and yellow slippers, wanted to show himself to the sailors to reassure them about his condition.12 What a costume for a leader! “Tell me, am I all right like this?” he asked the rear admiral, putting his leg forward. “Can I show myself this way to your crew?” “Perfectly,” the latter replied, “you must be worn out, you should take things easy.” Mme Galbaud devoured her dear husband with her eyes, she couldn't contain her joy, and the poor man had no idea how pitiful he appeared to everyone. Pardon me this digression; it is completely true and really shows the character of the man who many hailed as the savior of Le Cap.
The inhabitants of the town who hadn't left their homes had no choice except to get on a ship, go to the barracks, or to Haut du Cap. It was no longer a question of thinking about one's possessions; everyone thought only of his existence. Those in the lower town could not hope to reach the commissioners at Haut du Cap. The men of color no longer trusted them, and they controlled the upper town. Without exposing themselves to certain death, the whites could not reach the barracks. Those who lived in the upper town had no chance of reaching the ships because they would have been afraid that the citizens of color would take them for fugitives or supporters of Galbaud. But everyone saw flight as their only hope, everyone begged the men of color and even the slaves to escort them, everyone escaped however he could, and already almost all the houses of Le Cap were left to the slaves.
The civil commissioners were at Haut du Cap, without money, without food for the unfortunates who arrived there in crowds. One continually saw detachments coming from the town, some carrying flags they had captured from Galbaud's party, others leading prisoners. That evening, the commissioner Polverel received a letter from Galbaud in which, after some lamentations (p.198) about the misfortunes of the city of Le Cap, he offered to release [Polverel's] son, on condition that the commissioners would send him his brother. Polverel, indignant at the content of this letter, replied by telling him that he alone was responsible for the disasters of Le Cap, and, with respect to the exchange Galbaud proposed, here is more or less how he responded: “It is hard, of course, to stifle the voice of nature and of blood, but my son was taken by your party at a moment when he was devoting himself to the service of the Republic by carrying a proclamation from its delegates. Your brother, on the other hand, was captured in flagrant revolt, commanding a mortar directed against us. You tell me if the exchange could even be considered. I trust my son to your sense of honor, if a rebel like you still has one.” Galbaud received this answer, read it aloud to those around him, and expressed his indignation, but no one cared any more about his unhappiness. He was surrounded by the unfortunates he had created; every sentiment of trust and pity in their hearts had been smothered.
His forces still controlled the state warehouse and the arsenal. The inhabitants who had found refuge in the barracks had no food, not even a morsel of bread. They resolved to send a deputation to Galbaud to ask him to deliver some bread or sea biscuit to the citizens. The deputation goes and reaches the ship; it is received badly by the general. He finds it strange that men who left him to his fate dare ask him for bread. He even reproaches them for having been the cause, through their apathy, of all the misfortunes of which they are the principal and sole victims. The deputation responds that the inhabitants of Le Cap, having no idea of his plans, had been unable to take a stand, that they had been reduced to the hard necessity of staying to protect their homes, from which they had then been driven by the two parties, always in the name of the Republic, and finally that they had risked a thousand deaths while crossing the town to come ask him for bread. Mme Galbaud, witness to this conversation, communicated to her husband the emotion she felt on hearing the deputation's story. She urges, she begs, she employs caresses, tears, and all the means that work so well for beauty. Galbaud feels moved and promises that he will provide some bread. At that moment Rear Admiral Cambis, whom Galbaud had summoned, arrives. The general greets him in an agitated manner and says to him: all my orders up to now have not been carried out, I have only one more to give to you, which is for you to take me to Môle or to any other part of the colony, so that I can take charge of my government post.13 Rear Admiral Cambis replied that he would respond to this order when he received it in writing. But the deputation was still waiting for bread. Galbaud sent them to the state warehouse and told them that he would follow them. The group returned to shore and (p.199) went to wait for the general at the warehouse. Night comes: no general, no bread. They decide to go back and return, through the gunfire, to those who had sent them. They realize with sadness that they will have nothing to eat that evening.
Oh, you who, in the lap of luxury, enjoy peaceful days free from problems, cast your gaze for a moment on two or three thousand individuals, most of whom enjoyed, only two days ago, a brilliant fortune, lavish and comfortable homes, and everything that makes life enjoyable. See these unfortunates now, without bread and without assistance, some in the hospitals, where care comes very slowly because of the number of the injured and the lack of surgeons, others lying pell-mell in the rooms and the corridors of the barracks, along the roads, or anywhere that charity has given them a shelter. See here a mother who bemoans the fate of her lost children, a father mourning a son who is dead or dangerously wounded, and there a beautiful young woman, trembling, seated next to a hedge or to a house occupied by one who used to be her slave. Alone and friendless, she doesn't know what happened to her family and fears suffering at any moment the final outrage and being given over to the brutality of a slave whose hands will be covered with the blood of her mother, her brother, perhaps even her lover! See all these unfortunates exposed night and day to the insults of their ferocious conquerors and the rigors of the climate. And they are spurned by those in power, and a few loyal slaves are the only ones who bring them any succor, the only ones who appease their devouring hunger.
The pillaging continues in the city of Le Cap: the sailors on one side, the men of color and the slaves on the other, devastate all the houses. Wine and money flow in the streets. The blacks, drunk with liquor and carnage, kill each other; they fill the main roads and spread terror in the hearts of the unfortunates who have taken refuge there. Fire has already consumed many of the houses in the town. Gunshots and cries are heard everywhere, and the disorder continually increases.
Dawn came at last, and the sun seems to have had trouble deciding to shine on so many crimes. The civil commissioners received, in accordance with their orders, a number of barrels of flour and biscuit that came from Le Cap, escorted by men of color. Rations were distributed to the unfortunates; a sort of administration starts to be organized at Haut du Cap. The aid that this administration was able to give would have spread a welcome balm on the wounds of the unfortunates obliged to request it, except for the cruel arrogance of the civil comptroller, Masse, who took pleasure in humiliating and even insulting those who had to turn to him [fig. 7].
O Night, the last one for the capital of the French colonies, your veils were not thick enough to cover the horrors committed under your cover, and the flames of the city of Le Cap, after having illuminated your darkness, blocked the light of the day that followed you. My pen refuses to trace all the details of these two horrible days: fire in all the streets, all the houses. One heard nothing but gunshots, screams. The roads were full of drunken looters carrying weapons. The most awful scenes that imagination can paint are nothing compared to the last moments of the town of Le Cap. On the 24th, Galbaud had all the guns of the forts and the arsenal spiked, and the arsenal was completely abandoned the same day. The night was as horrible as the one before it.
(p.202) In the midst of this profound darkness, everyone, silent and frozen with horror, had contemplated from the decks of the ships in the harbor the torrents of flame that devoured this once opulent and peaceful city, become in an instant the prey of pillage and fire. Daylight, in dissipating the darkness, offered the hideous image of civil war and ruins; only then was the impossibility of going back on land evident. Rear Admiral Sercey, seeing the immense crowd of people who had taken refuge on the ships, and realizing, no doubt, the impossibility of saving any more, ordered preparations for departure; he is obeyed, the signal is given and repeated, it resounds like a thunderclap in the hearts of these innumerable victims. It is the cry of despair, the last, the eternal farewell to the homeland. Everyone wants to stop the vessel that flees with too much speed, everyone wants to touch for one last time, to at least moisten with his tears, the soil on which he was born, the soil that made him rich, this beloved and sacred soil that he tears himself away from so painfully. The man weeps for his missing wife, the wife cries out for the husband from whom she is separated, fathers and mothers seek their children who, far from them, invoke in vain the protection of their parents. Some stretch out empty arms to their friends, to beloved mistresses whom they may never see again; their voices, their farewells are lost in the immensity of the atmosphere. Others try to console the unfortunates around them when they themselves need consolation. All of them lament their vanished fortunes and their former pleasures. The tones of suffering, of pity, of tenderness mingle with the terrible accents of despair. The whistling of the wind, the prolonged and lugubrious calls through the megaphones, the sailors' cries, the sharp creaking of the masts, the hastiness of the departure add to the horror of this tableau. Ye Gods! What a spectacle: thousands of unfortunates, naked, almost all without resources, fleeing across the waves from a land that, for the last few days, seemed to want to vomit them out with violent spasms, and that, for two years, seemed to chase them with the terror of daggers and bloody torches!
Colonists, unhappy colonists! How painful your thoughts must have been when, torn from your native land, you saw Le Cap vanishing from your sight. In the midst of this town in ashes, overwhelmed by your miseries and forgetting my own, I myself, alas, I felt my heart constrict with anguish and the sight of such a cruel separation, I felt tears that were not without some charms flowing down my cheeks. It is sometimes good to mix one's tears with those of one's fellows. I followed the ships bearing you away with my eyes for a long time, and when my tired eyes had lost the trace of their wakes, I continued to follow you in my thoughts. I prayed for you, I mixed my groans with yours, and my heart has not ceased to accompany you on this painful voyage.
(p.203) When you reached that foreign land, the generous hospitality of the Americans softened the rigor of your fate, if anything can console a man for the absence of his homeland, but the philanthropy of this people cannot last indefinitely. You allowed yourself to be lulled by the sound of untrustworthy lies. Dare I say it? You fooled yourself, you let yourself be fooled about France, about Saint-Domingue, about yourselves. Your friend, your honest friend, but rigidly honest, I am going to tear off the blindfold that covers your eyes. With a bold hand I will probe these ulcerated wounds with a cruel but salutary steel. I have never known anything but the truth, I will tell it to you without disguise, I will go back to the origin of your misfortunes, even at the risk of displeasing you. Time, avenger of calumnies, will convince you of the purity of my sentiments. May my reflections not be too late.
As soon as the new revolution had reached Saint-Domingue, your love for the mother country was reawakened by the sublimity of its efforts. Like her, you hastened to restrain the despotism of an arbitrary government, the depredations of a tortuous administration, the shameful trafficking in justice of the courts. Finally, you took down the insolence of the commoner nobility. Like her, jealous of your freedoms, and in order to ensure their conquest, you erected local governments, committees, provincial assemblies, and a general assembly. Like the mother country, you were full of confidence in your cause, and lulled by the security of your virtue, you had no suspicion of the hidden plots the hordes of enemies were spinning out in the darkness of crime. They joined together to destroy you, and soon the blacks' revolt, the fruit of their counterrevolutionary vengeance, like a fire that had built up under the ashes, erupted with the rapidity of a volcano. Oh, source of your sufferings, abyss that was to swallow up Saint-Domingue! However, the blacks were not your only enemies; the most dangerous one was in your midst, it was the executive power that coldly calculated its vengeance in these expeditions of blood where the losses of the slaves were balanced by those of your defenders, whom exhaustion claimed in large numbers. It was this guilty administration that gave you unhealthy and poisoned food and drink. It was the magistrates, those vampires attached to the corpse of the colony, either by enriching themselves from the estates of those who died defending the country, or by crushing with fees those who, occupied with frequent and exhausting military service, could barely manage their expenses in the short intervals when they were on leave. That isn't all, and you know it. The Spanish, operating behind your backs for a long time, protected the slaves and furnished them the means of continuing the war against you.
Despite all these difficulties, unshakably devoted to the revolution in your country, you wore down your murderous enemies with your constancy. (p.204) The mother country, in preparing its future happiness, also prepared that of its children. In its wisdom, it passed the decree of 15 May 1791, it sent you conciliatory commissioners. Their presence did no good; envoys sent by Capet [Louis XVI] could not be real patriots. The same with the decree of 4 April 1792.15 This decree, which might, which should have saved you, was your Pandora's box. You were indignant at the gift of political rights given to the men of color. Oh, fragility of the human species! What, patriots were opposed to equality among all free men! What, fathers were jealous of the happiness of their children! Blinded by old prejudices, you wanted your children to share with you the dangers, the exhaustion of the war, and in the midst of the towns, you rebuffed them with denatured hands, and you condemned them to the most humiliating condition. Caught between your sufferings and your blindness, I could not help crying out: What is man, to torment his fellows so? Fragile atom that the wind disperses at its will, he wears himself out during the short span of his existence, he thinks nature cares about him and his futile pretentions. Madman! The world turns, and does it change its path for him?
Soon fallen from the glory you had acquired through your patriotism, you lost in an instant the fruit of all the sacrifices made for the country. France sent you new commissioners; received initially with enthusiasm, they encountered a thousand obstacles as soon as they wanted to let your new brothers enjoy their political rights. From then on there arose an interminable struggle between the delegates of France and you, and few of you were sufficiently farsighted to realize that it would end by being fatal for you. The colony, which had relaxed for a moment when the latest civil commissioners arrived, was soon prey to new outbreaks of fury. In vain reason made its voice heard, in vain this voice cried out to you: “The climate claims large numbers of your defenders; the number of your enemies keeps growing, grant in good faith what you cannot refuse, unite yourselves sincerely and honestly to these men of mixed race of whom you are the fathers. They are accustomed to difficulties and to the climate; they are the only ones who can defeat your enemies, they are the only ones who can sustain a war that is not made for you, or for your brothers from Europe, this war that, without them, will end only with the last white.” Vain efforts! Neither humanity, nor justice, nor political wisdom, nor your interests, nor fatherly affection could stop you on the edge of the abyss. Nevertheless, the colony, powerful because of its resources, maintained itself for a while, but everything comes to an end, and in the middle of the clash of a thousand ardent passions that had been held back, Galbaud appeared. Hated by the republicans, treated with indifference by the impassive patriots, held in horror by (p.205) the aristocrats, he came, as part of an infernal conspiracy, to destroy the wealthiest city in all the colonies, and to topple Saint-Domingue into an abyss whose depths even the most clairvoyant mind cannot calculate.
Le Cap has lost almost all the white men enclosed in its boundaries, and Saint-Domingue is shaken to its foundations. But should the most flourishing of the colonies be left in the exclusive possession of the blacks? Are the blacks privileged children of a republic whose basis is equality? Are the whites, just because they are whites, excluded forever from their country? Will the adopted child be given preference over the legitimate one? No, it cannot be. French republicans, you will reoccupy your homes, which are waiting for you. Colonists who are true patriots, you will return to the places where you were born. Above all, listen to the language of austere frankness, learn truths that may be cruel for you. Weak spirits don't have the courage to tell them to you; deceptive men have an interest in hiding them from you.
The spell is broken, the time of error is passed, it has disappeared forever. Man cannot sell himself or be sold: in its justice, the first power of the universe has so spoken. Slavery will soon disappear from the surface of the earth: thus has nature spoken for all time in its decrees, which, although they may have remained ignored until now, are nonetheless immutable. The flame of liberty has begun to glow in the minds of the blacks; philosophy has brought its torch to their souls, which are still new. From one end of the colony to the other, they have dared to be free, and they have become so or they will become so by the irrevocable decree of destiny. Look back; see the blacks revolting at first for the return of the king to his throne, for the liberation of the king from his shackles; see them massacring you for this king and asking you in his name for, at first, one day, then three [free] days per week. From that point, survey two hundred leagues of coastline bordered by mountains and peopled with 400,000 blacks who, originally risen up for the altar and the throne, now fight only to conquer freedom. Finally, without mentioning the Dutch, the Americans, consider the handful of slaves who revolted in Jamaica: they defeated and tired out the experienced British troops and forced those islanders to make a treaty with them. Bow to the experience of all times, of all ages, bow to its powerful voice which has been telling you for two years that no people has ever fought for its liberty in vain. What has happened to the 14,000 soldiers sent by the mother country? They have disappeared; their useless and sudden appearance only increased the daring and the number of your enemies. What has become of the thousands of courageous young men who, born in the colony or settled here for a long time, should have been able to stand up better to exhaustion and the rigors of the climate? Death has cut them down, and your enemies have only become (p.206) more determined. It is thus that civilized troops have disappeared against the men of nature. Our heavy armies will always melt away in the face of men who go barefoot on the sharpest rocks, bareheaded in the most intense sun, who need no clothes, who live for a whole day on a banana or a piece of wild fruit that they can find anywhere, who make do with a little water that their efforts find in vines and plants, since springs are rare. They will melt away in the face of men who flee as fast as lightning, who don't need a fixed place to live, for whom all places are equally secure refuges, who, finally, suffer pain without emotion and death without fear. An enemy who regards the things that are most necessary to our soft way of living as embarrassing superfluities is invincible. To bring the blacks back to their original condition of slavery is impossible: the writings of the philosophes have spread enlightenment over the surface of the globe that neither superstition nor despotism cannot extinguish. Everything is headed toward general freedom, everything tells you that man will no longer be the slave of man. No, the posterity of Rousseau and of Raynal will not groan in servitude any more. Tear off the fatal blindfold: the colony of Saint-Domingue will no long be cultivated by the hands of slaves. But, you will object, the blacks won't work any more once they are free. White hands will never suffice to work the land under a burning sun; in short, the colony cannot survive without slavery. I understand you, cold egoists, men without feeling! You need slaves, that is, men you can treat like beasts of burden, you need slaves, that is, victims. What law forces a man to give another man the entire fruit of his labor? And if no such law exists, admit that it is the right of the stronger. How can you complain if he over whom you have usurped authority, takes it from you with violence? This black individual is free, because neither the nation nor the Supreme Being created slaves. He is your equal, because he is a man. He is a citizen, because he serves the country, because he contributes to its splendor as much as you do, and the country loves all its children equally. In exchange for his labor, the black will receive a salary proportional to his effort. These enormous revenues of 600,000 for sugar, 200,000 for coffee from a single plantation cost humanity too much. Can those who made such immense harvests never be satisfied? In France, where a soil that is often mediocre enriches its owner, the day laborers are paid. Why won't the inestimable soil of Saint-Domingue permit salaries for the blacks, if they become day laborers? Why should a modest payment deducted from a large income keep you from achieving fortunes as you used to? Why struggle against destiny? The laws are immutable; the wise man submits himself to them without resistance, and they don't seem too harsh to him. The madman who wants to violate them soon feels himself gripped by an arm of iron.
(p.207) Ambition, the lure of riches and egoism revolt against such discourse, and already objections are being made against me: one could never discipline the blacks, one could never get them to work, and if any of them did agree to do it, they would demand an exaggerated price. The rest, in large numbers, will go ravaging the fields and will become the terror of the farmer. Vain excuses, liberticidal excuses that are rejected by political wisdom and reasonable philosophy. The wisest reforms have always encountered obstacles; the most useful institutions have never been established without some difficulties. This new order of things, which flies in the face of received wisdom, is the only one that can raise Saint-Domingue from its ashes, by reestablishing agriculture. Seriously, what income has the colony, and above all the North Province, produced since 1791? For two years the blacks have been fighting for their freedom. For two years their forces have been growing, and yours have been annihilated. For two years they have been free in spite of you. If there is no hope of controlling them, what remedy is there for this obvious evil? I know none other than civilizing them. [They are] still giddy from their freedom; have faith that they will recover from this initial intoxication, which goes along with misbehavior, and when calm will have succeeded the tempest, when this effervescence of men recently emerged from the hands of nature has been appeased, peaceful days will be born from the storm, justice will reappear, good laws will impose themselves on miscreants. On the one hand the prosperity of those who, having spontaneously set to work, will have procured the comforts of life, on the other hand need and misery will be a powerful stimulant for the hardworking blacks. Their dislike for work will give way to their wants, to the need they will have to support their families and please their wives. Time will bring this great and sublime reform by itself, and it depends only on you to bring this time nearer. Come back to Saint-Domingue; don't be shy about setting an example of good conduct, of respect for the laws, of conjugal affection, of filial piety. Practice the love of equality: instead of shunning the blacks, open your soul to them, embrace them, show them that you no longer act like masters, like tyrants. Let your disinterested openness chase from their mind undesirable memories and troubling suspicions. Sure of your friendship, they will hasten to attach themselves to you, seeing you as benefactors; you will win their trust, they will be willing to follow your instruction, and you will have some sway over them, that of persuasion on beings without disguise. This plan of conduct, shocking for pride, is the only one suitable for those who want to inhabit this happy land whose face has been changed. It is so beautiful to do good for other men! Cultivated by free hands, the soil of Saint-Domingue will compensate its generous inhabitants; the first fruit that they will harvest (p.208) will be to live without fear among beings who were only led astray by an excess of misfortune.
Colonists, at peace with your workers, at peace with your conscience, you will have prosperous days; you will look forward, in the midst of abundance and in the calm of virtue, to an old age that will be untroubled by remorse.
A Combatant's Description of the Struggle for Cap Français
The author of “Mon Odyssée,” a white resident of Cap Français, was among the volunteers who joined General Galbaud's ill-fated effort to defeat the forces loyal to the civil commissioners on 20 June 1793. His account, incorporated in his longer narrative of his experiences during the insurrection, gives the same general picture of events as the journalist's story, but from the perspective of a rank-and-file participant who witnessed the death of several close friends and whose family was directly at risk. He is more hostile to the commissioners than the journalist was but equally contemptuous of the bumbling and cowardly Galbaud. Participants on the other side of the racial barrier feature in the story only as the enemy, with the exception of a passage mentioning a woman of mixed race who sheltered the author after the debacle of Galbaud's forces. Unlike the journalist, the author of “Mon Odyssée” fled the city after the fighting. His narrative describes his voyage to Norfolk, Virginia, and his reunion with his family, who had left Cap Français on a different vessel. The humor and irony that characterize much of “Mon Odyssée” are absent in these pages; the events described were too tragic to lend themselves to a lighthearted tone. The passages in verse convey the heightened emotions generated by the contrast between the author's and his family's tranquil existence before the catastrophe and their subsequent fate.
Most of this selection is taken from My Odyssey, the 1959 English edition of “Mon Odyssée” edited by Althéa de Puech Parham (see n. 5 of the foreword). De Puech Parham omitted several pages of the author's manuscript describing the street fighting on 20 and 21 June, material that I have translated from the French manuscript of “Mon Odyssée” and inserted in the proper place in the narrative.
A new Governor arrived from France to replace the Count d̓E.16 But the Commissioners had become too well accustomed to the taste of supreme authority to consent to letting themselves be removed; they had too well succeeded once before in dislodging an importunate superior to fear undertaking to do it again. Without bothering about orders from France, they had the newcomer unceremoniously arrested and placed on board one of (p.209) the waiting vessels. Those amongst whom the Governor found himself there became interested in his behalf, and the squadron presently laid itself broadside, bringing the city into the range of its cannon; and on Thursday, the twentieth of June, they vomited on our shores a hoard of undisciplined sailors, under the orders of a chief who was far from having the talents and energy which were demanded for such an enterprise.
Like two evils of which we must choose the lesser, the youth of the Cape lined up on the General's side and the regular troops followed their example. The Commissioners reunited under their flag the free men of color and the petits blancs.17 They had no shame, and in consequence embraced in their ranks these same slaves in revolt which the Mother Country had ordered them to subdue. So Discord, with a dagger in one hand and a torch in the other, gave, at last, the signal for civil war.
- It was the hour when, every day,
- Beginning the pleasant course of her easy duties,
- The prudent family mother,
- Seated across from her husband,
- Next to her son, her hope, next to an attractive daughter,
- Lovingly serves up the first meal of the day.
- O misfortune! The drums beat the signal of alarm;
- On all sides sounds the call to arms;
- Concern and trouble spread; the houses are closed up;
- The echoes of fearful cries resound;
- Brave combatants fill the streets;
- The pavement trembles under the cannons' weight;
- Security, pleasures, the arts, full of anxiety,
- Hurry to flee from us, shedding tears;
- And already the whistling ball
- Announces the bloody approach
- Of war and its companions!18
Still weak from an illness which was hardly terminated, I was, besides, on that day, overburdened from the effects of a very strong medicine. However, I got up and took my weapons. My family tried in vain to dissuade me; deaf to their prayers, insensible to their tears, I tore myself from the arms of those who were most dear to me in this world and I went to join the brave volunteers, already fighting in the Montarcher Square. We did not yet well know for whom, or against whom, we must fight. A column of mulattoes soon ended our uncertainty. They had come secretly from the barracks, and (p.210) when they believed they had us in range, they began giving us a rain of heavy musketfire; we charged upon them, without hesitation in using our bayonets. This troop was half destroyed and the rest, being afraid, took refuge in the Government Garden.
Alas! That combat was for me the cruelest of these disastrous days. We lost the young Chevalier de B., the kindest of men, and my most intimate friend. Hardly twenty-two years of age, he had already risen by merit alone to become a captain of artillery in the regiment of Metz. Conditions years before had caused his family, like ours, to come to Saint Domingue, where he was born and like me, that day he joined the volunteers at the Cape. Inspired by his fiery courage, he followed the mulattoes into the garden, where they were hiding. Cannon fire, shot from the peristyle, broke his leg.19 He fell at the moment when new troops came out of the arsenal and attacked us from the rear. In the momentary disorder, occasioned by this unexpected attack, the absence of the Chevalier de B. was not observed, and he remained at the mercy of the mulattoes, who let him perish without help or consolation.
- My poor friend! Just the eve before
- Had we two, in a moment of leisure,
- Planned beneath a flowering tree
- Our future studies and delights.
- “Our close friendship began in our dawning years,”
- He said, smiling in tender memory.
- “May we never part and may
- That sacred knot, which honored our youth,
- Unite us ever until we die.”
- Ah! if the fate which separated us
- Permits me to see once more my unhappy country,
- I swear by your shade, my dearest friend,
- To go in search amongst the debris,
- For the spot that holds your ashes.
- A tomb there will tell of my loss and of your sacrifice,
- And each day, there I will come
- To adorn it with greenery and water it with tears.
This troop, whose maneuver had stopped us from pursuing the mulattoes, turned out to be nothing other than the army of sailors. They greeted us with a volley of balls and oaths, and it was only after having charged them and broken their line that we made them understand that we were fighting on the same side. These sailors were the cause of almost all of our defeats, (p.211) because of their excesses and their lack of discipline. Their superior officers had stayed on shipboard, or else the general had put them under arrest, as a result, I assume, of an agreement with them.
As soon as all our forces had been assembled at the Place d̓Armes, the first measures made it clear to us that our leader lacked the talent and the resolution needed in such circumstances. He did not know how to make himself obeyed, or how to profit from the enthusiasm of the moment. A million projects were put forward and none of them were carried out. The army, acting on its own, divided into several columns, each of which acted according to the whims of its own leader. The one I found myself in marched along the rue du Conseil in order to attack the barracks. As we advanced toward the upper town, every building became the setting for an ambush, every window a hostile gunport. At every step we lost a comrade; we didn't dare fire into the houses which, although held by the enemy, still held the women, the children and the sick of our party. As we passed under the windows of my own house, I raised my eyes, hoping to get a last glance of my mother and my sisters. Our merchant's clerk, who was marching ahead of me, fell back, leaning on my chest. I thought that a moment of panic had made him jump back, and I gave him a gentle shove: he fell to the pavement.
- The unfortunate one! He was dead;
- Cruel lead ripped his chest.
- Alas! In lamenting his fate,
- In cursing the shot that killed him,
- I trembled. I said, through my tears,
- “Close your eyes, o my tender mother!
- It may also be that a bloody hand
- Prepares my last instant.
- In spite of your useless prayer
- The ball, blindly following its course,
- May, alas, come to end my days
- On the steps of your shelter.”
We finally came into sight of the barracks. There, vilely betrayed by the dragoons from Orleans, whose leader had no doubt been bought off, we are beaten, our commander is captured, half of our soldiers are killed, the rest flee in disorder and disperse. I hid in the home of a colored girl, who took pity on my youth and my condition. She served me some food, which I devoured, because I hadn't eaten since the previous day, and the activities of the day had whetted my appetite. In the evening, she disguised me as a woman, and (p.212) with her help I found a way to get to the arsenal, where our party had regrouped. What a night followed this unfortunate day! There were killings in the streets, and, often, two friends only recognized each other as they were expiring from each other's blows.
The next day was even more disastrous, and showed us that the fate of a country, the winning or loss of a battle, depend on the genius of a single man. The next day—
- But should I afflict your loving soul
- With the sad story of this awful epoch,
- Should I depict for you, alas, our travails, our setbacks,
- Death appearing everywhere in a thousand guises,
- These civilized inhabitants, today full of fury,
- These sailors awash in drink and pillage,
- These soldiers without valor, and these leaders without talent,
- This disorder, this roar, these prolonged groans,
- This blood flowing into the streets from all sides;
- The aged, the young, the desperate women,
- Surrounded by assassins in their sad houses,
- And their defeated friends, desperately fleeing!20
You cannot form an idea of the excesses, the wrongs, the crimes, of that deplorable day. I saw artillerymen, against every remonstrance, aim a thirty-six pound cannon against a single man, fire, miss their target, but blow up a house. I saw marines fire in the air, because they complained of not having enough powder. I saw musket-men always insisting on being preceded by militia-men. I saw a general, frightened by a false alarm, throw himself into the sea to rejoin his barque, crying, “Every man for himself.” I saw dragoons proudly leading us and haranguing us into excitement, who, when they had accompanied us as far as the batteries of the enemy, turned upon us a murderous fire and retired amidst the ranks of our adversaries, laughing at our credulity.
After many consultations, it was decided to attack, in order, the quarters of the commissioners. The army started off in three columns. The one in which I served, composed of creoles, was sent into the mountains, and succeeded by force of arms in placing a cannon on an isolated hill which dominated the stronghold. This advantageous position helped us so much that, upon the twelfth discharge, we saw the enemy in disorder abandon their retreat and take the road to the plain. Emboldened by our success, we decided to pursue them. Our march was often interrupted by insurgent Negroes. We (p.213) advanced despite their attacks and their numerous ambuscades, and, towards nightfall, we entered Cap Français.
Upon our entry into the city, we were stupefied with astonishment. The streets were deserted, the houses closed. No noise, no movement, nothing to announce the proximity of an army victorious or defeated. Arriving without difficulty at the arsenal, we found only those who had been stationed there to guard it; they informed us that the General, overcome by a panic which no event could explain, had re-embarked in haste, followed by the soldiers and sailors!
Left to ourselves, without a superior officer, without supplies, without ammunition, and overcome by fatigue and hunger, we decided to spend the night resting upon our guns, near the shore, leaving to the morrow the making of any decision. That night was, for us, a long and sad one.
The creeping hours were hardly half run out when, all at once, horrible shrieks resounded in our ears; a great brightness lit the black skies. From the summit of the mountains down the roads to the plain, came immense hordes of Africans. They arrived with torches and knives and plunged into the city. From all sides flames were lifted as in a whirlwind and spread everywhere. What a spectacle of cruelty! I can still hear the whistling of bullets, the explosions of powder, the crumbling of houses; I can still see my brave comrades contending vainly against steel and fire; I still see the feeble inhabitants in flight, half-naked, dragging in the streets, in the midst of accumulated debris, the mutilated corpses of their families or their friends. In such terrible moments danger to those dear to us makes us forget danger to ourselves. I joined a troop of determined young creoles, and we went from house to house to snatch from death those whose weakness prevented them from trying to escape. Twenty times, with them, I tried to penetrate the line to my house, which was situated in the center of the enemy holdings; twenty times, repulsed by a superior force, we returned with despair in our souls, and succeeded only in bringing back the bleeding remains of some of our comrades.
- Alas! Whilst with horror,
- I cried at my powerless efforts;
- All the cherished objects of my heart
- Remained prey to this terror,
- Without remedy, without hope!
- I, lying upon the earth, spent, desolate,
- Could see the hastening fire
- Rising from their collapsing roof.
- (p.214) I accused myself of parricide;
- I felt that I had been called
- By my plaintive sisters, by my dying mother
- Hapless Ones! I was son and brother,
- Yet, when Death attacked them before my eyes,
- I could not oppose its bloodthirsty scythe,
- Save with useless tears and sterile yearnings!
- Already the flames had spread
- And encircled their last retreat.
- Led by the thirst for spoils,
- A horde of bloodthirsty bandits,
- With ax in hand opened up a passage.
- O God! What horrible moments!
- I thought I saw my suffering family
- Between fire and murder
- Beseeching vainly these brutal men,
- With blades already pointed …
- Inhuman ones! What are you doing? See their helplessness:
- It is Beauty, Childhood, and Age
- Who bathe with their tears your bloody arms.
O my tender friend! But this is not the moment that I should recount the end of this deplorable scene. The entire city was entirely ablaze. Of those who inhabited it, some were dragged by the Negroes to the feet of the Commissioners; a large number of them were slaughtered; those who had saved themselves from death and slavery were reunited on the shore, lamenting their misfortune. What a sinister picture this part of our isle then offered! Once a flourishing city, now reduced to ashes. These heinous Africans, all stained with blood, were replacing murder with excesses, amidst a population without refuge, without clothes, and without food.
The thousands of unfortunates of different sex and ages were sitting on the ruins of their property crying for the loss of their families and their friends. The shore was covered with debris, with weapons, with wounded, with dead and with dying. On one side, a barrier of flames and of swords; on the other, the immense expanse of ocean. Over all was misery, want, and suffering! And nowhere was there hope! The sun, in all its majesty, was rising upon this baneful scene.
- O would-be philanthropists,
- Go and enjoy your works,
- (p.215) Give a fraternal kiss to the cheeks
- Of those sage Congos, according to you, so misunderstood,
- And who would derive from their rights such noble usage!
- It was a glorious day when your deputy,
- In the name of your Humane Clique,
- Crying for joy, signed their liberty!
- Go then, join with your African brothers!
- There, in blood to your knees,
- Amongst the bodies of ten thousand victims
- In the rubble, the witnesses to your crimes
- Behold them vegetate at your side,
- That stupid, indolent race
- Of your new friends, naked and dying of hunger.
- Cry, O cowardly Solons, in a triumphant voice,
- That philosophic refrain
- “Perish the treasures of this wicked isle,
- Perish Whites and Blacks, perish the country,
- Perish the whole human race
- Rather than betray
- The Sacred Rights of Man and our precious Maxims!”21
We had not determined upon our future course, and at this time, we knew not which choice to take; whereupon M. de Sercey, commander of the squadron, sent us word that he was to set sail for New England22 and he advised us to escape with him from a country no longer inhabitable. This proposal cured our uncertainty, and we gratefully accepted the offer, which the merchant captains made, to receive us on board without payment. The vessels which were to take us had only enough provision for their crew, and we went forth to extract from the ashes any poor provisions we could find, and thus fortified, we entered the launch which they sent to carry us to the squadron.
I assure you I shed some tears; and for a long time my eyes gazed in sorrow upon my native city, over which black smoke still hovered, covering the sun. The cannon shot gave the signal for departure, the anchor was raised, the sails were set, and I was fleeing from my country's without a sou [i.e., penniless]—a strange experience!
- Heretofore, in foolish rapture,
- Dreaming only of frolic and pleasures,
- I imagined youth exempt of worries
- (p.216) But alas! upon that black coast,
- The Fate that saw my error
- Drew the thread of my young life
- And drenched it in the tears of sorrow,
- Yet, in spite of my misery,
- Hope wiped dry my eyes,
- And Love with a light hand
- Close to you, adorned me with flowers….
- All the blessings which I had lost, …
- I could again imagine their return;
- One knows that a stormy dawn
- Often ushers in a sunny day.
I was received aboard the vessel, Rosalie. I was exhausted with fatigue and in need of food. My clothing, which I had not been able to change for three days, was covered with blood, sweat, and dirt, and was almost entirely in tatters; I borrowed others from the captain. Nature had given that good man dimensions and proportions very different from my own, and the clothes that he lent me made my appearance so ludicrous that they even caused some of my companions in misfortune to smile. This borrowed outfit, the only one I had then in the world, had to serve me for the entire voyage. Also, how I had lost weight! As soon as the ladies had gone to bed, I went each night on the prow and did the work of a laundryman, and enveloped myself in a sail until the breeze had dried my clothes. Sometimes, armed with a needle, I stopped the too rapid progress of much wear. I carefully guarded my hat and shoes, so that they would honor me at my debarkation.
When, not long ago, I enjoyed in Paris all the amenities of luxury, I would not have believed that one day I would be doing my laundry and mending these ridiculous clothes that had been loaned me in charity. How happy I was for several years! And then, see the constancy of Fortune! You would like to have described, no doubt, the divers sentiments which filled my heart during the course of that voyage. I was completely ruined, without home, without money, without clothes; I was going to a country of which I knew not the language, customs, nor habits, and where I had not one person whom I could approach for assistance. I was ignorant of the fate of my family; in vain did I question for news of them among the passengers of our convoy; everyone, as I did, believed them among the number of victims.
A favorable breeze pushed us rapidly toward the continent, which was a great blessing; for, if our crossing had been even as long as the ordinary passage, we would certainly have died of hunger, considering the small amount (p.217) of provisions and the number of consumers. After two weeks of hardships, boredom, and privations, we arrived in the waters of Chesapeake Bay, along the coast of Virginia. What an astounding difference there was between these shores, which the late spring had recently embellished, and the aspect of those desolate ones which I had just left!
Yes, my sweet friend, they were there, that good and loving family, whom I thought I had lost; they were there, I saw them, and I kissed them again! Our eyes, dried out from suffering, again found tears to cry for joy; and in the happiness of the moment, we drowned all our memories of past misfortunes.
You remember the deplorable state in which I left them. Bullets were piercing their abode; burning beams were falling all around them; the inexorable swords were suspended over their heads; their prayers, their cries had been useless; with closed eyes they awaited death. All at once a chief with a ferocious air came to hasten the fatal execution. He approached with rage in his eyes, with curses on his lips, ready to watch, no doubt, and to enjoy their agony!—yet, it was Heaven that sent him. He recognized my mother at first sight, whose former slave he had been. “What! it is you, my mistress,” he said. “Be reassured. My soldiers will henceforth respect you and I will save you from the fury of the others—if I can.” While speaking, he used a large saber to disperse the brutes who were surrounding my family. He gave orders to a few remaining slaves to gather in haste all they possibly could. By some bizarre hazard, these useless scribblings of mine were saved from the debacle of Saint Domingue, important family papers became tinder for the flames. Except for that, I am not sorry, for these words recall some moments of pleasure which memory furnishes me. Then the Congo chief, supporting my step-father and my brother-in-law, both of whom long illness had overcome, set out with his sad cortège, proceeding toward the elevated part of the Cape where were the main quarters of the Commissioners:
- What a journey, good God! for timid women,
- Like weak and weeping children,
- And men dragged, yet living,
- From beds still echoing with their sufferings!
- The tropic sun, which burns all Nature,
- Had fevered their pale brows.
- Everywhere they could see about them
- Murder, pillage, and unchecked license.
- They could hear the cries of the furious tigers
- Who were enraged to see their prey escape.
- Amongst such perils, they arrived at last
- (p.218) Near dying of fatigue and sadness,
- And soon were bound in undeserving chains …
- O my Mother!—your son, uncertain of your fate,
- Had been swept to another shore,
- And could not avenge nor console your sufferings
- Unfortunate captives, surrounded with horrors,
- Covered with vile tatters, and deprived of food;
- Stretched out upon the hot, hard earth;
- Seeing each instant their fierce jailors
- Come to heap upon them threats and insults.
- No doubt the sole hopes that could then console them
- Were for that refuge where no misery exists;
- And that each passing hour
- Would be for them their last!
However, the next day, by the intervention of the chieftain, who was protecting them, they obtained permission to return to their plantation on the plain. They embarked in a skiff, but deciding to flee forever from such a forbidden country, they succeeded, by force of money and entreaties, to persuade those taking them back to steer the bark where the vessels were anchored. The signal had just been given to depart. Already several ships were moving; those that remained refused to take them under the pretext of scant provisions or of not enough space. They then sadly returned to place themselves again at the mercy of the barbarians, when the frigate, which acted as the rear guard of the convoy, saw the skiff, and at last received aboard these poor refugees. They landed at Norfolk before I did, uncertain of my fate, as I of theirs.
I will not trouble you about our transports over this unexpected reunion; you know all too well what one experiences when one finds out of danger a person for whom one has feared. I witnessed your loving sensibility, of which I, too, was the happy inspiration, when lately you made me experience those rapid transitions that carry the soul from despair to the most immoderate joy.
Excerpts from Extrait D̓une Lettre, Sur Les Malheurs De Saint-Domingue
This anonymous pamphlet23 was among the earliest detailed accounts of the burning of Cap Français published in France. It is dated October 1793 from the French port city of Lorient. An author's note says that it had initially been presented (p.219) to Prieur de la Marne, a member of the Committee of Public Safety then on mission in Brittany to oversee the French navy. Prieur had told the author to go to Paris and show his account to Couthon, another member of the committee; the author decided to publish it when he realized that Couthon had not forwarded his work to the rest of the committee. The author gives little other information about himself in his text. He states that he was not a colon or longtime resident of Saint-Domingue and claims that he left France for the Antilles only in July 1792. He shared the white colonists' conviction, however, that there had been a conspiracy to destroy them, a conspiracy that had united, he claimed, Robespierre, Pétion, Barnave, Brissot, Condorcet, and others. In his view, Sonthonax and Polverel, “these pitiless dictators,” had provoked the events that led to the destruction of Cap Français, and the city's whites had been helpless victims. He was among the whites who had fled into the hills surrounding Cap Français to escape the fighting, and he was, therefore, unable to reach the ships that carried refugees away on 24 June. His account gives a brief description of events in the weeks following the destruction of Cap Français, up to the point when he was able to obtain passage on an American ship.
Despite the author's evident bias against the free-colored and black populations of the city, his account gives a convincing portrayal of face-to-face interactions between members of different racial groups at the height of the fighting. The author gives us the words shouted by the blacks running through the streets announcing the first news of Sonthonax's emancipation proclamation—“You are all free … all whites are now equal to us”—and makes it possible for us to imagine the sensation they must have caused. When he describes a white woman timidly opening her door after a night of rioting and appealing to blacks she recognized—people who had probably been her neighbors' slaves twenty-four hours earlier—to tell her what was happening, he dramatizes the suddenness with which the whites' world had been overturned. And, when he describes how he reacted to the tragedy with “tears of compassion” (larmes d̓attendrissement) and recollections of a passage from Virgil's Aeneid, he shows us how whites like himself drew on the cultural resources of eighteenth-century sentimentalism and of their classical education to try to cope with events for which they had no frame of reference.
As Galbaud's forces headed for shore on 20 June 1793, the author, who had been watching the ships, fled for safety.
Like the others, I hastily quit the seashore to go home to the rue des Espagnols. Along the way, as I cross the town, I encounter no one except groups of mulattoes and blacks who force the non-libres [slaves] to go with them, and (p.220) who cry out to them, Zotes tous libres ça commissaires là io qui bas zotes libres, tout blanc ça legal à nous, tout pays-ce ça quine à nous [You are all free; the commissioners say you are all free, all whites are now equal to us, this whole country belongs to us]. They led them to the arsenal or to the Government House, armed them from head to toe, and thus increased their party….
The whites, pale and frightened, were in their doorways, and asked each other what they ought to do, where they ought to go, and why the citizens of color had been summoned [to arms] and not them. In the face of this pressing danger, some of them assembled at the place d̓Armes, with the intent of reestablishing order and bringing back tranquility. As they went up to the Government House to ask for instructions they were treacherously fired on by the mulattoes and blacks who were hidden there. This betrayal and this criminal behavior made them all cry, “To arms, to arms, they're killing our brothers.” (13–14)
After recounting Galbaud's initial unsuccessful assault on the Government House, the author continues.
While this was taking place, the city was given over to brigandage and pillage by the mulattoes and the blacks. At eight P.M., five or six blacks and a black woman belonging to one Michel, a former lemonade-shop owner, had already filled a large room in the house where I was with liquor and different valuables they had pillaged…. The night of the 20th to the 21st was almost as stormy as the day. We passed it in the cruelest torments. At every moment, we heard blacks banging on our doors with their musket butts, threatening to set fire to the house if we didn't open, and saying angrily, “There are white fuckers in there, we should kill them all. The colony's got to be either all white or all black.”
On the 21st, one of the women who had been hidden with us opened the street door timidly to see what was happening. She saw several blacks whom she knew, she called them over, invited them to come in, gave them coffee and brandy, which they demanded and which they certainly didn't need. While they downed this breakfast, we questioned them about what had happened during the night, and asked them if all whites were still being shot. They told us yes, that they had been killed in piles, and that they didn't think we should go out. Since these blacks seemed intelligent, and informed about everything that was happening, we tried to win them over, in order to find out from them what was going to be the result of so many misfortunes. They told us confidentially that the city was going to be set aflame, that the commissioners were at Haut du Cap at that moment, meeting with Pierrot, Biassou, (p.221) and other brigand chiefs, and that if we didn't want to be burned, we had better try to leave on the double.24 What a cruel situation! We saw ourselves obliged to abandon our homes forever. The women began to cry, the children imitated them, but we had to decide: the mulattoes who were masters of the Guinée neighborhood had already started to set fire to that part of the town. We hurriedly packed our things with our most precious possessions, we gave them to our servants to carry, we took our children in our arms, and we fled. As soon as we were outside, however, we were surrounded by mulattoes, who took our bags, forced our blacks to go with them to the Government House, and wanted to force us to come, too. Luckily we managed to get rid of them, and all along the way, we were targeted by groups of blacks and mulattoes who were hiding in all the corners of the buildings. We had the good fortune, however, to reach the city gates without any of our group being killed. Some were wounded, and I was among them; I took a ball in the heel, and a machete cut on the head.
We thought we were now out of danger, but we were deceiving ourselves. It wasn't long before we saw the fulfillment of the prediction of those blacks who, that morning, had told us that the commissioners and the brigand chiefs had made a plan to let them into the town. They poured in from all sides and burned, pillaged, and even slaughtered the whites. We had to climb the mornes to escape from their fury; there, we suffered everything it is possible to suffer. Finally, worn out from hunger, fatigue, and despair, we rested with our poor children. But what a painful spectacle presented itself to our eyes! In every direction, the only thing we saw was large groups of men, women, and children crowding around the gates of the town, emerging in disorder, fleeing their assassins while pleading for mercy; others, more fortunate, fell under their blows. I will never forget the tears of compassion I shed as I saw pious children carrying on their shoulders, in imitation of Aeneas, their fathers or their mothers, bent under the weight of their years. (15–18)
After describing the fighting in the city after he had fled and the atrocities committed against the whites, the author continues.
The town went on burning for two more weeks with an unbelievable intensity; the surrounding plain was also in flames. I saw this spectacle from the heights of a morne. I cannot express how much I suffered from this, but my grief was so strong that for three days I could hardly eat a thing…. When the fire died down somewhat, I left the mornes to return to the town. (Hunger drives the wolf out of the woods.) I found nothing but dead bodies: the streets were strewn with them, all the houses were burned and the streets (p.222) blocked by their debris. In the whole town, which had been a little Paris in terms of grandeur and beauty, there was nothing but the Government House and the barracks that had not been burned.
I stayed hidden (because we whites could not show ourselves without running the greatest dangers) until the month of August (1793 in the old calendar), when my wound finally allowed me to embark. I left on an American ship, armed with a passport signed by Polverel, which cost me four gourdes, trying to reach my country by way of North America, where I hoped to find the convoy. (18–21)
Before leaving Cap Français, the author witnessed the celebration of the anniversary of 14 July, organized by the commissioners to mark their reentry into the city. His comments express the white colonists' refusal to see these events as an affirmation of the values of the French Revolution.
They came in a procession between two lines formed by a large number of mulattoes and blacks, and crossed the ruins of the town to the Champ de Mars. Polverel gave them a speech in which he spoke a lot about liberty, equality, virtues, patriotism, and humanity. What hypocrisy! How can one think oneself the friend of humanity, and have thousands of citizens killed? (22)
The Battle in the Harbor: The Testimony of a Man of Color
While Galbaud's sailors and the commissioners' defenders fought in the streets of Cap Français, another drama unfolded in the city's harbor. This deposition by one François Lapierre, a man of color from the small town of Petite Anse, outside of Cap Français, is a rare account of the behavior of whites as experienced by a member of another racial group. Lapierre was taken prisoner on board the Jupiter, the flagship of the fleet and the ship Galbaud had seized as his command post. He narrowly escaped being killed by members of the ship's crew, whose anger at the hommes de couleur extended even to innocent bystanders. The behavior of the sailors, most of whom were from metropolitan France rather than the colonies, shows that racial prejudice could affect even whites who had no stake in the system of slavery. Lapierre's account was part of the evidence that Sonthonax collected in an effort to document the causes of the catastrophe in Cap Français, but it contradicted the republican commissioner's conviction that Rear Admiral Cambis had been in alliance with Galbaud. The crew of the Jupiter, whose virulent hostility to the hommes de couleur Lapierre depicts, continued to resist their (p.223) Commander's authority even after the fleet departed; when the ship reached New York harbor, they mutinied, yielding control of the vessel only when the French representative, Genet, threatened to cut off their food supplies.25
Today, the 12th of August 1793, the second year of the Republic, there appeared before us Léger Félicité Sonthonax, civil commissioner of the Republic, delegated to the French Leeward Islands of America for the purpose of reestablishing order and public tranquility, and the secretary Joseph Destival … Lapierre, sublieutenant of the Compagnie Beaubert of the National Guard of the town of Petite Anse, who told us: Having been at Caracol for some time, and needing to come to Le Cap for his business, he embarked on the evening of 20 June. During the night he heard sounds of musket and artillery fire, which seemed to be coming from the direction of Le Cap, or Haut-du-Cap, but, since he had not yet come around the Point of Caracol, he could not actually see where the fighting was taking place. On the morning of the 21st, around 5:30 or 6 A.M., as they entered the harbor of Le Cap, with the aid of a light breeze that they had had all night, he was lying next to citizen Fevret, captain of the ship. He saw several small boats filled with armed sailors, who rowed up to the ship and asked who the captain was. “It's me, citizens,” Fevret responded. The sailors asked him: “Are you carrying any mulattoes and free blacks?” The deponent replied: “Citizens, here is one of them. What can I do for you?” The sailor closest to him came at him with sabers and pistols drawn; the deponent grabbed his own saber to defend himself, which made his attacker stop, but at the same moment thirty of his comrades armed with sabers and muskets joined in, saying: “Come on board our commander's ship, fucking brigand, scum, assassin,” etc. He replied that if they had orders from the civil commissioners, or any other legal authority, he would obey, but otherwise he was ready to let himself be killed. One of them pointed his pistol at him, but it didn't go off; he pulled out a second one that misfired twice. Another [sailor] told him: “It's us who give orders, brigand, and not the fucking commissioners, and we're going to take care of all of you.”
At that moment, another boat drew up, in which there was a young officer … from the warship L̓Indifférente who placed himself between the sailors and the deponent to protect him from the blows directed at him from all sides as well as the shots that were coming from the merchant vessels, which had made the sailors back off since they didn't want to be hit. This young officer promised him protection and made him get into his longboat, after giving up his saber, which was taken by a sailor who said: “It's nicely sharpened; it will do to cut off your head in a little while.” As he was getting (p.224) into the longboat, several sailors hit him with their gun butts, and, once he was in the boat, several more shots were fired from the merchant vessels. They didn't hit him, but the officer had to place him by his side and keep calling to them not to shoot. For a companion in his misfortune he had the mulatto Pierre.
When they neared the Jupiter, the whole crew cried out that he should not be allowed on board, that they should cut off his head and throw him in the water. Nevertheless, they drew up to the ship, where the noisy demonstrations of the armed sailors forced citizen Cambis and Roussel, an officer, to appear. Their humanity obliged them to take them under their protection and shield them with their own bodies to keep him from the carnage that the sailors were ready to inflict on them. Cambis had to strongly repeat that they needed to respect the laws that forbade arbitrary acts of force and that, if the deponent was guilty, the same law that they were threatening to disobey would ensure his punishment. They managed to enter the council chamber, where Cambis told them: “My friends, here you are safe under my protection; you don't need to fear for your lives.” He asked them what bad luck had brought them here and whether they had been captured bearing arms during the fighting at the arsenal that night. The deponent told him that he had been on a passing ship, coming from Caracol, where he had been for quite a while. Cambis then told him that the sailors and the citizens of color were massacring each other on shore. He asked Cambis the reason for this and was told that the sailors and some of the townspeople wanted the civil commissioners to be deported to France, and that the citizens of color and the good whites were opposed to this, and that Galbaud was on shore at the head of the armed sailors, trying to capture the commissioners.
They were interrupted by loud cries from the forward and aft decks: it was the sailors, who, seeing a large longboat carrying twelve or thirteen men of color, were yelling: “Kill, kill! Cut the throats of all those fucking villains; we don't want them on board.” He looked to starboard and recognized the citizens Latortue and Pierre Augustin, both captains in the free corps, [as well as] the citizens Desmules, Megret, and others whose names he didn't know. The citizens Cambis and Roussel treated these new arrivals with the same goodness they had shown to him. The group was put in chains under the forward deck, and Cambis came to them and said: “My friends, the crew is very angry at me for letting you on board. Your lives and mine will be in danger if you are here much longer. Even though I don't like it, I have to satisfy their demand by putting you in chains with the other citizens who have just arrived, but have no fear, you will be safe, it is just to appease them.” They (p.225) were taken down by Roussel. The guard posted to watch them was unable to keep the sailors from insulting and menacing them and showing them lighted fuses ready to fire the cannon pointed at the town; at eleven or twelve o̓clock, all the guns were aimed and ready to fire at the first signal. They were told that all the other warships were prepared to do the same thing, and this lasted until the next day.
During these two days, they sent detachments of fifty or sixty men on shore to relieve those who were there, but the last time they tried to find fifty volunteers to go relieve the men on shore only ten or twelve came forward, and, when he saw the number of wounded who were brought on board, he judged that they had not been well received.
That same day, a citizen with his hands bound behind his back was brought on board, and they wanted to put him in irons along with them, but there was no place, so he was imprisoned. His skin was light colored, but the deponent didn't know if he was white or of mixed race. All the sailors wanted to kill him, and one them pulled a knife out of his belt, and gave him two deep cuts on the face, and then, with a furious air, looked around to see which other he would strike first.
Citizen Cambis appeared, with tears in his eyes, and reproached them for their barbarity, saying: “What explanation are you going to give to the nation for all the cruelties you are committing? How will you dare return to France, among our brothers?” He had the wounded man taken to the surgeon for treatment, and he didn't come back.
[The deponent] learned that citizen Galbaud was going to come on board during the afternoon. In consequence, he asked for paper and ink, which they refused to give him, but which he nevertheless managed to obtain, thanks to the armorer, whom he had gotten to know. He wrote a petition to Galbaud, in which he explained how he had come to be arrested, and, since he could tell from the sailors' talk that they intended to put him to death, he asked that he be given a hearing quickly, telling Galbaud that he would be able to answer his accusers. He gave his petition to an officer who told him that he had taken the place of Massot, the capitain of the harbor, and asked him to give it to Galbaud. In the evening, they were taken down into the ship's hold, which disturbed the crew, who thought that this was being done in order to make it easier for them to escape under cover of darkness. The sailors came down with torches to reassure themselves, and, finding that [the prisoners] were not chained up, they would have massacred them if not for an officer who was in charge of them. The sailors demanded that they be put back in irons on the forward deck and kept under guard by men from (p.226) the quarterdeck. Sentence was pronounced on them, to be executed the next morning, to the sounds of the “Carmagnole,” and as a result they were each given a number; the deponent was number four.
At sunrise on the 23rd of June, the sailors told them that they were going to prepare the ship for departure and that they were in the way and had to go below. At the same moment, an officer came along and led him down under the passavant, where he saw the sailors sharpening their sabers on a grindstone. The officer told him they were preparing to butcher the mulattoes and free blacks.
After lunch, a whistle was blown to assemble the crew on the aft deck, and all he could hear were cries of “Yes,” “No,” “Vive Galbaud,” “Good patriot,” “Long live Galbaud and the French Republic,” etc.
He gathered from the words of the sailors that they were angry with Cambis and that they said: “He's scum, and it won't be long before we cut his throat; he's the agent of the fucking commissioners.”
Around noon on that same day, the sailors gathered in groups of ten or twelve, talking to each other in low voices, and all he could hear was: “We have to speak our minds; we don't want him.” A moment later, the whistle was blown a second time, no doubt to announce a deliberation on the prisoners' fate because they heard voices saying: “We need to kill them, yes, yes, yes.” Then there was a sudden silence, and then they heard: “In good time, that's the way to do it.” And the assembly broke up.
A marine officer, as it seemed, came to tell them: “See how good our General Galbaud is to you, bunch of scum and criminals, and nevertheless you won't recognize his authority. He has just pardoned you, and you will be released from your irons this afternoon.”
At midday, they were given some salted meat in addition to the usual seabiscuit, and they were even promised wine, although they never got it, and, from this moment on, the crew became less menacing. One of them said: “You will soon be happy, you're going to be released, and we'll be happy too.”
Between three and four in the afternoon, they were released from their irons. A corporal told them to come upstairs so they could be sent on shore and said a guard would be sent with them. They asked for permission to go thank the citizens Galbaud and Cambis for the favor they had done in setting them free, but this was refused, and they were threatened and forced to leave the ship immediately in a skiff, but the owner of that vessel wouldn't take us, saying that he had just gotten permission to go to Caracol and didn't have the time to go back to shore since it was already late.
They were finally sent off in a leaky skiff, along with a number of black slaves of both sexes, and they were forced to leave the harbor before they had (p.227) time to obtain oars and a rudder. A bad sail was their only resource, and, when they asked for the escort they had been promised, the only response was threats to shoot them.
They had hardly gotten beyond two rifle shots' range of the Jupiter when the ships they had to pass opened a steady fire on them, shouting: “Come over here, you band of criminals.” It did them no good to reply that they had no grappling hook; the gunshots continued, and, seeing that they had no effect, sailors from several vessels came down, armed with pistols and sabers, and came alongside their skiff, but two officers from the merchant vessels came in behind the skiff before the others and took an interest in their fate. They transferred the deponent and the citizen Merie to their longboat, but they barely had time to push off before the sailors boarded the skiff that they had just left and massacred those who were still on it, including Latortue and Pierre Augustin.
Their liberators proposed to take them to the Jupiter, and the deponent explained to them that they had come from that ship and that certainly the sailors didn't want to see them return. When they came up behind the ship, the officers put them in a rowboat that happened to be there and told them to wait, but they never saw them again.
The sailors from the Jupiter were going to shoot them when Cambis appeared and prevented them from firing. At that moment, the citizen Moras, a naval officer whom the deponent had known when he commanded Fort St. Michel, appeared and said that he had put in a word for him with the captain of one of the other warships, who would come get him at sundown, in order to put him on board his own ship, and Merie went off in a longboat with someone he knew.
When night came, a longboat drew up to the rowboat, and its officer made him get in and took him to the brig Le Républicain. The crew, which consisted of only a few men, seemed willing to receive him. A minute later the citizen Mireur arrived and was very well received. He gave him a letter from citizen Moras, expressing the pain he had felt on hearing of his misfortune, and urging him to be patient.
After he had shared the details of his adventure with citizen Mireur, the latter told him that they had to leave the next day for North America, and, if he wanted to go with him, he would recommend him to his friends there. The deponent thanked him for his offer but asked to be allowed to go ashore, saying that he was in his native country and that he wanted to die there. Mireur replied that he could not put him ashore but that he would send him to another small ship commanded by Chaluet …, which he did, also giving him a letter of recommendation.
(p.228) On board Chaluet's ship, he gave him his letter of recommendation, and, once it had been read, he was told that there was no bread or wine, and that, furthermore, since the ship had no ballast, Chaluet was going to sail for France on the Jupiter or the America, and that he couldn't wait any longer. He took his bag and left, while the deponent remained on board with two mulatto slaves and a Negress, very worried about his situation, and fearing to see the threats he had heard made by the sailors on board the Jupiter carried out.
A moment later a longboat passed alongside the ship he was in, and he thought he saw a citizen of color, who inspired his confidence by the interest he took in the event that had just struck the town of Le Cap. The deponent asked him for permission to come aboard his boat, and he was immediately allowed to lower himself into it and was taken to his ship while waiting for a favorable moment when he could be taken to the shore. Having, however, heard this man say that he was going to come alongside the Jupiter to take on sailors so that he could depart, and fearing to fall into the hands of these evil men again, he asked him to take him to the Pomona, an American ship that was leaving for Saint Marc, which was done.
On board the American ship, he found the citizens Massot, Sallenave, and Mossée, who seemed to take a great interest in his situation. Citizen Sallenave asked him what arrangement he had made with the captain; he replied that his only resource was a watch. The citizen Sallenave promised to put in a word for him with [the captain] Coopman and have him taken to Saint Marc for free. He took him on board, where he was kindly received by citizen Coopman, who promised to help him and to take him where he wanted to go.
On the 25th, as they were already under way, the citizens Fadeville and Ira came by in a longboat. They told him they were headed for the Petite Anse and invited him to come with them, assuring him that he had nothing to fear and that everything there was in the greatest tranquility. The deponent seized this chance to return to his home.
Witnessed From Afar: The Impact of the Burning of Cap Français Outside the City
The burning of Saint-Domingue's principal city and the granting of emancipation to black fighters who joined the French republican forces affected the entire colony, as the following passages from the plantation owner François Carteaux's account (the Histoire des désastres de Saint-Domingue; see n. 8 of the introduction) show. As we have seen in an earlier selection (see chapter 9), until June (p.229) 1793, Carteaux's slaves had continued to work for him and enabled him to keep his plantation functioning. The new situation created by the events of June 1793 forced whites and free people of color to face the prospect of a society in which newly enfranchised blacks would greatly outnumber them. Slaveholding whites in the West and South provinces, and even some of the free people of color who were numerous in those regions, were now prepared to welcome the British forces that landed in Jérémie and Môle Saint-Nicolas in September 1793, adding an international dimension to the conflicts on the island.
After the most sinister omens and the most alarming reports, after a series of local events that rendered our situation even more desperate, the fatal catastrophe of the burning of Le Cap occurred. There had never been anything sadder or more horrible: neither the furious sacking of Thebes, nor the deplorable flames that consumed the city of Troy, nor the despair of the inhabitants of Saguntum, nor the extremities to which the Jews were reduced when Jerusalem was besieged and taken by Titus, nor finally any other calamity of this nature that history records can be compared to this one, with regard to the scale of the evil, the criminality of the means, or the innocence of the victims who were immolated. I was at my post, eight leagues from the scene of this horrible tragedy, when the fire broke out. For four consecutive days and nights, we saw the fires raging with constant force, consuming this rich and famous city, the glory of the French colonies. If such a spectacle is terrible to any eye, even one with no particular stake in it, how much more devastating and horrible must it have been for us, who saw our last refuge and our only hope going up in smoke? We were stupefied by the sight of the immense columns of black smoke during the day, and stunned by the strength of the flames, which, striking the broad and high promontory above the town, lit up from there the entire extent of the plain that separated us from it.
For two whole days, we had this frightening spectacle before our eyes, without knowing the reason for it. The sound of a few cannonshots on the first day had made us think that fighting had broken out, but who was involved in it, and what it was about, we did not know. Full of thoughts, whites, mulattoes, and blacks mixed together in our position; each color silently held itself on guard against the others, preparing to sell its life dearly. In this state of uncertainty, we waited impatiently to learn the result of this fatal confrontation. The whites, who had long suffered the injustices and rigor of the commissioners, were those who had the gloomiest anticipations of the outcome for themselves, and they had already made their decision. What does death matter, when sufferings are already at their worst? It is only the (p.230) end of this terrible situation. On the third day, two or three whites, the younger Lima and the two Labat brothers, who had escaped on horseback from the arsonists and assassins of Le Cap, told us what was happening there. Others arriving by water in canoes, among them one de Paroi, young Miniac, Busson, Turfa, etc., confirmed these first accounts. I cannot omit at this point something that posterity will have difficulty imagining. In the course of their journey along the shore, these people had encountered armed Spanish launches whose crews had stripped them of everything of value they had been able to save.
The flames that devoured Le Cap were the complement of the yellow caste's triumph over the white race, and the forerunners of the future primacy of the blacks. (4–6)
The general emancipation of the slaves, occurring two months later, made the condition of the whites still in the colony worse than that of those who had fled. Those, at least, although naked and reduced to beggary, had only that to worry about, and, arrived in a peaceful country and a safe asylum, they could sleep peacefully. We, still living in this desolated land peopled by our enemies, we were condemned to perpetual suffering, both in the form of mental anguish and in the form of every possible privation. Stripped of everything, exposed to starvation (for the blacks, as soon as liberty was proclaimed, had abandoned even the cultivation of food crops), lacking the knowledge or the strength to work the land, and unable to pay servants, for lack of resources; treated worse than the blacks and the mulattoes, to whom all jobs and positions of authority were given, fearing their revenge and their malice, having to swallow daily humiliations from them, exposed to the capricious proscriptions of the commissioners and seeing no possible way to escape from such evils: was there ever a more deplorable situation? (7–8)
This cruel situation forced me to risk everything to escape. No hope was left to us, neither of raising crops, nor of keeping our property. Everything around us was dying and disappearing. Sonthonax, left alone in Le Cap26 and not seeing any of the promised benefits from the liberty he had granted, seeing, on the contrary, that the blacks, once freed, became lazy, disobedient, and dangerous even to him, that without agriculture and hence without anything to trade, his presence and all administration there would soon be useless, was preparing to quit these ruined and completely lost environs, to go locate himself further down the coast. I was nevertheless obliged to take with me the products that I had been accumulating for two years, thanks (p.231) to the constant fidelity and the hard work of my good blacks. They didn't amount to a tenth of what their time, employed as it had been formerly, would have given me. But I had to keep this modest amount safe from the greedy commissioner, who expropriated everything he found.
No ship under the French flag in condition to set sail floated in this famous harbor, which was formerly decorated by a forest of masts from our country and others. There were a dozen ships, from Provence, Nantes, Bordeaux, Normandy, drifting on the water where their crews had abandoned them during the fire, along with whatever was on board: they had rushed to save themselves by getting on board vessels that were better prepared to face the sea, at a moment when the fear of being set on fire by a victor who threatened to do so, or that of being sunk in the passage by the guns of the forts, made it necessary for the fleet to leave as soon as possible. There was no chance for me to escape this country of desolation, except five or six American vessels and two from Ragusa. These promised to take me straight to France: I preferred them for this reason. (9–10)
After describing how his ship was captured by a British corsair and taken to Bermuda, Carteaux concludes by depicting both the depression that overtook him when he had a chance to reflect on his experiences and the conditions under which he began to write them down. This passage is one of the most vivid expressions of the motives that drove so many former colonists to recount their misadventures.
The sad details that I have just related, and the crushing weight of our unimaginable misfortunes, only really began to affect me deeply in Bermuda. Until then, perpetual anxieties in this land of suffering, the preparations for my departure, the encounter with the corsair, our capture, the circumstances of our voyage, the great number of us on board, the frequent perils at sea, and the continual quarrel between our captain and the English officer who had taken command of his ship, which I constantly had to appease, since I was the only one on board who could speak the latter's language—all these things, coming so soon after one another, had given me enough subjects of distraction and enough occupation to have kept these searing and somber ideas out of my mind. But our disasters were so great and so fresh; their impact on my life was so harsh, the fate of my family was bound to be so greatly altered, that, from the moment when I found myself alone in my room in Bermuda, they forced their way into my memory with so much force and so continually, and I saw them in such dark and frightening colors, that I remained completely traumatized because of them. Without (p.232) plan or order, guided only by the pressure of a concentrated misery that needed to be given an outlet, I put the principal elements on paper. They terrified me when I saw them set down on paper, and saw so many crimes and treacheries. “Our descendants will never believe them,” I told myself then, “unless they are reported by eyewitnesses, and set down in a faithful narrative.” (12–13)
(1.) The French government was particularly concerned to determine the role of naval officers in the attack on the city launched by General Galbaud. Testimonies from some of them are in Archives nationales, D XXV 19, D XXV 55 (rear admiral Sercey), and D XXV 80. The official version of the story was published as Rélation détaillée des événemens malheureux qui se sont passés au Cap depuis l̓arrivée du ci-devant general Galbaud, jusqu̓au moment où il a fait brûler cette ville et a pris la fuite (Paris: Imprimerie nationale, An II ), putting the blame for the disaster on Galbaud. A reply in his favor, written by Galbaud's aide-de-camp, is André Conscience à la Convention nationale, sur les derniers événemens de Saint-Domingue (n.p., July 1794).
(2.) Another vivid first-person account of these events is that of Samuel G. Perkins, an American merchant who had established himself in Cap Français in the 1780s. See “Sketches of St. Domingo from January 1785, to December, 1794, written by a Resident Merchant at the Request of a Friend, December 1835,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 2nd ser., 2 (1886): 305–90.
(3.) Lettres de J. Raimond, à ses frères les hommes de couleur: Et comparaison des originaux de sa correspondance, avec les extraits perfides qu̓en ont fait MM. Page et Brulley, dans un libelle intitulé: Développement des causes, des troubles, et des désastres des Colonies françaises (Paris: Cercle social, An II ), 108.
(4.) Dalmas, Histoire, 2:177.
(5.) The original manuscript is bound in at the end of the third volume of the collection of the Moniteur générale de la partie française du Saint-Domingue in the Bibliothèque nationale, sig. Fol. Lc12.28. Another copy, with a slightly different text, is in the University of Wisconsin library.
(6.) The commissioners Sonthonax and Polverel had left Cap Français several months earlier to subdue rebellious white groups in other parts of the colony. Alerted to Galbaud's arrival in Cap Français on 7 May 1793, and dissatisfied with his replies to their letters asserting their authority over him, they returned there on 10 June. The law of 4 April 1792, granting free people of color the same civil and political rights as whites in the colonies, had barred the appointment of anyone owning a plantation in the colonies to any position of authority there. After receiving his appointment as governor of the colony, Galbaud had notified the Ministry of the Navy, which was responsible for the colonies, that, as a result of the recent death of his mother, he had inherited a plantation there, but the ministry never responded to him, and he therefore set sail to take up his post (Ardouin, Etudes, 2:31).
(7.) Galbaud had alienated the city's merchants by arrogating the right to dictate the prices at which they could sell their goods, an emergency measure similar to the maximum that the National Convention had imposed in France in April 1793 (Dalmas, Histoire, 1:154–56; Perkins, “Sketches,” 333–37).
(8.) Cap Français was located on the west side of a bay and surrounded on all sides by hills. (p.381) After they came ashore, Galbaud and the sailors had to advance westward across the city toward the Government House, which was located in the northwest corner of the city, close to the army barracks. The Place Montarcher was a square separated from the Government House by a public garden, in which the commissioners' defenders had taken up position. The arsenal, the other key building involved in the fighting, was on the seashore, in the northeast corner of the city; the road leading to Haut du Cap and connecting the city to the island's northern plain ran south from the city.
(9.) Joseph Cambis and Pierre Sercey were the admirals commanding the warships in the harbor. As becomes clear later in the narrative, they did not support Galbaud's attack.
(10.) Before being sent to Saint-Domingue, Galbaud had served on the staff of General Charles-François Dumouriez, a commander linked to the Girondins who had gone over to the Austrians in April 1793, contributing to the crisis atmosphere in France.
(11.) Henri de la Tour d̓Auvergne, vicomte de Turenne, was a famous military commander under Louis XIV.
(12.) Antoine Dalmas's account also says that Galbaud was seen “seated in front of a desk, wearing a nightcap and slippers, with a pen in his hand. … This was neither the right costume, nor the right place for a general whose army was engaged in a bloody and terrible combat” (Dalmas, Histoire, 201).
(13.) The fortified port of Môle, at the northwest corner of Saint-Domingue, was known as the Gibraltar of the Caribbean.
(14.) In the fall of 1792, before he was chosen to become the military governor of Saint-Domingue, Galbaud had served on the staff of Charles-François Dumouriez, a prominent French general and politician who was close to the Girondins. In April 1793, alarmed by the growing radicalism of the revolution, Dumouriez tried to persuade his army to march against the National Convention; when his troops balked, he turned himself over to the Austrians. The fact that, like Dumouriez, Galbaud had led an attack on the civil authorities of the Republic lent plausibility to the notion that they were part of a conspiracy, but, in fact, Galbaud had left Dumouriez's army in November 1792 to prepare for his Caribbean assignment, long before either man could have imagined the circumstances that led to Dumouriez's treason. For Galbaud's letter of appointment, dated 27 November 1792, see Archives nationales, D XXV 47, d. 446.
(15.) The dates for these decrees are given incorrectly in the text as 15 May 1792 and 4 April 1793, respectively. The first Saint-Domingue commission, consisting of Philippe-Rose Roume, Frédéric-Ignace Mirbeck, and Edmond Saint-Léger, had left France before news of the August 1791 slave uprising had arrived and reached the island to find a crisis they hadn't expected. They returned to France in early 1792.
(16.) The comte d̓Esparbès had been named as military governor and sent to Saint-Domingue together with the civil commissioners Polverel and Sonthonax. After their arrival in the colony, he quickly came into conflict with the commissioners, who had him shipped back to France in October 1792. Galbaud, the new governor referred to in this paragraph, had been named as his replacement.
(17.) This claim is highly unlikely. The poorer whites, the so-called petits blancs, were mostly hostile to the free-colored population and the commissioners.
(18.) Poem omitted in de Puech Parham, trans. and ed., My Odyssey.
(19.) Another detailed account of the fighting, the third-person narrative of Antoine Dalmas, identifies the “Chevalier de B.” as de Beaumont and agrees that his incapacitation broke the momentum of the Galbaud forces' attack at a critical moment: “He was about to cross the (p.382) threshold [of the Government House], when a ball, fired from inside, shattered his knee, and forced him to stop at the instant when he was about to achieve a decisive victory, by seizing the commissioners” (Dalmas, Histoire, 2:195).
(20.) The section of the manuscript of “Mon Odyssée” running from “This troop, whose maneuver had stopped us from pursuing the mulattoes,” to this point (bk. 1, pp. 132–35) is omitted in de Puech Parham, trans. and ed., My Odyssey.
(21.) The last lines of the poem are an elaboration on a famous phrase uttered by Maximilien Robespierre during the May 1791 debate about the rights of free-colored men: “Périssent les colonies, plutôt qu̓un principe!” (Let the colonies perish, rather than our principles!).
(22.) The French in Saint-Domingue referred to the entire United States as “New England.” In fact, the fleet was headed for Chesapeake Bay.
(23.) Extrait d̓une lettre, sur les malheurs de Saint-Domingue.
(24.) Biassou, one of the original leaders of the slave insurrection in August 1791, was not among the insurgents who responded to the commissioners' appeal. He remained loyal to the Spanish and eventually left the island for their territory in Florida.
(25.) “Déclaration de Lapierre,” Archives nationales, D XXV 5, d. 53. There are numerous documents concerning the Jupiter mutiny in Archives nationales, D XXV 6, d. 59.
(26.) After the burning of Cap Français, Sonthonax's colleague Polverel left for Saint-Domingue's West Province. The two commissioners each issued a series of edicts progressively widening the scope of emancipation, but they were not always in agreement with each other about the details of the process. By the end of 1793, however, they had essentially promised freedom to the entire black population of the colony.