Haiti: Her History and Her Detractors/Part I: Chapter IV

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


The French part of Saint-Domingue—Its prosperity—Its different classes of inhabitants; their customs—The color prejudice—The colonists: their divisions; their jealousy of the Europeans—Their desire to be in command—Their contempt for the affranchis (freedmen)—Their cruelty toward the slaves—The maroons.

By recognizing the French conquest the treaty of Riswick rid the colonists of Saint-Domingue of their anxieties arising from the vicinity of the Spaniards. The latter even became their allies, the war for the succession of the throne of Spain having just confounded the interests of Louis XIV with those of the heir of Charles II.

The eighteenth century began under the happiest auspices; quiet once established, Saint-Domingue was not long in astonishing the world by its prosperity. The ardent tropical heat, however, soon exhausted the vigor of the hired Europeans known as "engagés," whose position resembled that of serfs. The cultivation of sugar-cane and of indigo required hardier constitutions. In consequence the Africans were in favor. Nobody hesitated to participate in the slave-trade. As many as 30,000 blacks were annually imported.

In the beginning their position, pitiable as it seemed, was less hard to bear. The first colonists, unsociable and haughty, had however very simple tastes. Their wants up to that time were not numerous and were easily satisfied. In the colony there was a scarcity of white women, and those who had arrived about the beginning of the French occupancy could not be regarded as models of austere virtue. The fierce free-booters and their immediate successors did not consider the negresses as unworthy of their attentions. The unbounded devotion of the latter often moved the hearts of the terrible masters whose companions they had become. The children born of such a commerce were not entirely neglected by their fathers. There existed no color prejudice to complicate the relations of the two races. No one had cause to feel shame or humiliation. The appearance of the mulatto, in arousing feelings of fatherly love, ameliorated the condition of some of the slaves. Mothers and children were often freed owing to these sentiments. Unfortunately through the riches resulting from the fruitful soil of Saint-Domingue these ideas began to suffer a change. Surrounded by extravagant luxury, the wealthy colonists made it the fashion to look down upon the Africans and their descendants. And the new families, arrived from Europe, exaggerating this disdain, hardly considered as human beings those whose color was not white. Barriers arose; and the odious distinctions between men, which the Gospel was supposed to have done away with, were more than ever firmly established.

At the time of its greatest splendor the inhabitants of Saint-Domingue were divided into three distinct classes: the whites, the "affranchis" or freedmen, and the slaves. To these classes officially admitted, may be added a fourth one—the maroons.

Naturally the whites had arrogated all the privileges. They were the masters; their color sufficed to confer on them all the rights and advantages. However, interest and prosperity in time divided the predominant class, introducing four subdivisions: 1st, civil and military functionaries; 2nd, the wealthy planters; 3rd, merchants; 4th, mechanics, storekeepers and adventurers in quest of success. These groups were jealous of one another. And those who were neither functionaries nor wealthy planters were scornfully called "petits blancs." The latter were envious of the social position of the former. Besides, the white natives of Europe considered themselves far above the Creoles, i. e., those who were born in the colony.

Notwithstanding these distinctions prompted by their unbearable vanity, all of them—the whites from Europe, Creoles, wealthy planters, and "petits blancs"—made common cause in the matter of taking advantage of the colonial régime which allowed them to trample upon the slaves, and to heap humiliations upon the "affranchis." However, the wealthy planters, who formed the aristocracy of the island, could not disguise their displeasure at the despotic and military government of Saint-Domingue.

The Governor-General[1] had usurped supreme power. He interfered with everything, even in the administration of justice, thus usurping the duties of a special agent or "intendant" who was there for that purpose. His word was supreme law.

The wealthy planters thought that the surest way for their party to become the ruling power was by shaking off his authority. Hence a bitter rivalry, and an underhand war began between them and the Governor-General.

While undermining the position of the agents appointed by the King of France, the planters did nothing to gain the sympathy of the "petits blancs"; and their contempt for the "affranchis" was too great to allow them even to think of them as allies.

The "affranchis" formed the intermediary class between the colonist and the slave, and consisted of the blacks and mulattoes who had been able to obtain or to buy their freedom. Through personal efforts and hard work they began to rise gradually from the low condition they had occupied from their birth. They acquired urban and rural property; they appreciated learning; and their sons, sent to France at great sacrifice to themselves, had often more success at school than the children of the colonists.

The wealth and knowledge they acquired made the "affranchis" feel they were the equals of the whites. Therefore they were highly indignant over the prerogatives the latter had assumed at their expense. They claimed the exercise of the political rights granted them by the Black Code. Circumstances placed them face to face with the colonists, who sought to check their ambition by humiliating them. Thus the liberal professions were closed to the "affranchis"; they were debarred from learning any kind of trade; they could not be silversmiths, for instance. In the army they could no longer become officers. At last they were even forbidden to go to France (1777); and were ordered to wear clothes of a material different from the whites.

And yet those men upon whom the colonists heaped humiliation after humiliation were good soldiers. They were enlisted in both the militia and the horse-police (maréchausée); and they all understood the use of firearms. It was into the hands of such men that the colonists committed their safety. As a means of putting a stop to the ever-increasing colonial pride and haughtiness, the women, mulattresses and blacks alike, resorted to their native charms. Wives or concubines, they availed themselves of whatever influence they possessed to secure the freedom of the men of their race. Incensed by the preference shown to their colored sisters, the white women added the weight of their jealousy to the already existing causes of conflict.

The slaves were in a pitiable plight. Not being considered as human beings, they were entirely without rights that a white man was bound to respect. They were treated and sold like cattle, with which their masters confounded them in the inventory of their estates. They were subjected to the most barbarous punishments. According to the Black Code all fugitives were punishable by death; it was lawful to mutilate them by chopping off their legs and their ears. The hounds were let loose on them, inflicting the greatest torture by their fierce attacks on the unfortunate creatures. Flogging was the mildest chastisement inflicted on the slaves. The honor of their wives, the chastity of their daughters were matters of the slightest consideration to their masters.

Small wonder it was that the slave was beset with one fixed idea—to free himself of that odious yoke. Throughout his sufferings he never despaired: liberty was the one hope of his existence. And when he could not buy his freedom he would secure it for himself by fleeing; at the first opportunity he would fly for safety into the densest forests and the most inaccessible gorges of the mountains. When he was successful in effecting his escape he became what was called a maroon.

Hence the maroons were slaves who, at the risk of their lives and after undergoing untold hardships, had eventually recovered their freedom. Being outlaws and hunted like wild animals they had continually to be on the lookout. Any place where they could find a safe shelter from their pursuers became their domain. Should they happen to be caught by their owners they knew beforehand that no mercy was to be expected and that the most inhuman punishments the colonial imagination could invent would be theirs. Consequently, when attacked they fought with the fiercest desperation. Theirs was a perpetual struggle for existence. It was these men, without education or culture, who gathered from their confused ideas of human dignity the necessary energy to wage war on the society which was oppressing them so brutally. The first to bid defiance to the colonial system, they showed the men of their race that hardships, sufferings, even death—all were preferable to such degrading servitude. They formed the vanguard of the future army of liberation.[2]

Such were the four classes of men who inhabited Saint-Domingue; the clashing of whose conflicting aspirations was destined to hurl them one against the other. After irrigating the Haitian soil with their sweat, "affranchis," slaves, and maroons firmly united, would lavish their blood on it in order to root out forever the shameful institution of slavery.

  1. In speaking of the Governor the inhabitants of the colony were in the habit of calling him, by way of abbreviation, "Général" or "mon Général" (my general). (Moreau de St. Méry.) Hence the custom of the country people in Haiti of calling any one occupying a position superior to theirs "Général." Foreigners hearing this word applied indiscriminately to Haitians believed that every one held that military rank.
  2. In 1784, after an unsuccessful attempt to subdue by force the maroons in hiding in the Bahuruco Mountains, Governor-General Bellecombe acknowledged their independence.