Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.
So we ended last week with the momentous vote by the National Assembly in May 1791 to grant full citizenship to free people of color who were born of two free parents. The vote was taken at the end of an exhausting week of debate and was a last minute compromise. And it’s doubtful any of the delegates realize just how momentous this last minute compromise would turn out to be. And looking back at last week’s show, I noticed that I very foolishly neglected to mention the actual date the vote was taken. The date was May 15, which is important because everyone calls it the May 15 decree. So now you know why I am about to start calling it that.
Meanwhile, we left off in the colony in February 1791 with the execution of Vincent Ogé. And it is [Ogé], not [Ogay]. Thanks to listener John for the correction. The deteriorating relationship between the whites and coloreds led to further arrests of armed coloreds throughout the colony over the winter. And we’re going to talk more about that in a minute. But oddly enough, it was patriotic small whites in Port-au-Prince who made the next overtly seditious move. Still angry that the Saint-Marc Assembly had been suppressed, the small white leaders plotted revenge on the royal administrators, even though the new royal governor, a guy named Blanchelande, had only arrived in the colony in October 1790 and he had nothing to do with it.
In March 1791, two new brigades of regular army troops arrived from France. And the small white leaders in the colonial capital ingratiated themselves with the newly arrived enlisted men who had themselves been bathed in two years of revolutionary rhetoric. Within days, a full blown mutiny against the royalist garrison commandant broke out, forcing Governor Blanchelande and his staff to flee north to Le Cap. The small whites now effectively controlled the capital of Saint Domingue.
Even after this incident, though, elections began for a Second Colonial Assembly to replace the failed Saint-Marc Assembly. And it was in the final stages of these elections that news of the May 15 decree arrived in the colony at the end of June. The news set off an immediate firestorm. Not only was the Metropole trying to end the apartheid system, they were unilaterally legislating beyond their prescribed jurisdiction. Throughout the colony, the electors threatened to tell their delegates to vote for immediate independence if the authorities actually tried to enforce this illegal encroachment on their internal sovereignty. Governor Blanchelande, already chased out of his capital, immediately wrote back to his superiors and said, “I cannot enforce this decree.” So the collective revolt of the white colonists in mid 1791 is the first of our three revolts.
Meanwhile, the free coloreds of Saint Domingue were just as incensed as the whites after the arrival of the May 15 decree, but for the opposite reason. In the last 18 odd months since the colony had first learned of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the coloreds had continued to endure unjust racial discrimination at the hands of the whites. Then, of course, in February, they had watched Ogé get broken on the wheel and beheaded for what? Standing up for those rights. Well, now we finally have a decree from the National Assembly confirming that race cannot and should not play a role in politics, economics or social relations. And instead of accepting this decree from the Metropole, the whites are gathering to declare independence.
Now, up in the North Province, whites totally outnumbered coloreds. But down in the west and south provinces, the coloreds were at least equal to the white population, and in some areas formed a clear majority. So all through July 1791, while whites burned effigies of the Abbe Grégoire and Le Cap and threatened to declare independence, coloreds in the west and south talked amongst themselves. On August 7, about 40 colored representatives met in a church in the town of Mirebalais, a town about 30 miles inland from Port-au-Prince, to protest the white reaction. They demanded immediate enforcement of the May 15 decree specifically and the Declaration of the Rights of Man generally. They wanted every white’s only assembly on the island declared illegal for not allowing qualified coverage to vote or participate. But up in Le Cap, Governor Blanchelande was more concerned with the existing white revolt than a potential colored revolt, and he refused the demands and ordered the Mirebalais Assembly to disperse. With the governor siding with the treasonous whites who stood in defiance to the King and the National Assembly, the colored decided not to disperse, but instead to take up arms. And this is the second of our three revolts.
Now, one of the 40 colored delegates at the Mirebalais Assembly is super important to the whole rest of the course of the Haitian revolution. So let’s go ahead and introduce him right now: 30 year old goldsmith André Rigaud. Rigaud was born in 1761 in Les Cayes, the capital of the South Province. He was a mulatto, his father was a big white planter, and his mother was a slave. Now, unlike Julien Raimond, Rigaud was too young to know any system but the apartheid system. But even still, he was recognized as a legitimate son by his father, educated in France, where he was trained as a goldsmith. Historical tradition also has Rigaud being one of the volunteers who took part in the siege of Savannah, but sadly, there is no solid record of him actually taking part in the expedition. By the mid 1780s, Rigaud was back in Les Cayes, making a go of it as a goldsmith.
As the atmosphere in the colony charged after 1789, Rigaud was in the middle of free colored activism. And when the Ogé uprising began in October 1790, an armed Rigaud joined a few hundred of his neighbors down in the south. But Ogé was defeated before a colony-wide covered rebellion could begin. After Ogé’s arrest, Rigaud was then himself arrested in January 1791 for allegedly helping to incite an aborted slave rebellion. Thrown into prison and Port-au-Prince, he was very possibly slated for torture and execution. But the mutiny of the Port-au-Prince garrison in March allowed Rigaud and his fellow prisoners to escape. After that, he lingered in the backcountry of the West Province, not believing it was safe to return home to Les Cayes. When the colored assembly met in Mirebalais in August, Rigaud joined and served as its secretary. Now, among the colored leaders, Rigaud was a staunch advocate, not just for enforcing the May 15 decree, but for total racial quality. Born of a slave woman, or at least a woman who could not prove that she was free, Rigaud would not have qualified as a full citizen under the May 15 formulation, so anything less than full equality was simply not an option for the proud young man. And whatever trajectory Rigaud thought he was on, he probably would not have believed that in just a few years, he would be the master of the entire southern peninsula, because, spoiler alert, that’s where André Rigaud is headed.
As the 30,000 whites were rising up in revolt to defend their right to oppress the 30,000 coloreds, and as those 30,000 coloreds were rising up in revolt against that oppression, the 500,000 slaves watched with increasing interest. And just as July 1791 was a time for the whites to organize a revolt and for the coloreds to organize a revolt, the slaves, too, began to organize the third and most spectacular of our three revolts, specifically, the slaves and the allimportant sugar plantations of the Northern Plains. The most lucrative part of the most lucrative colony in the world was about to be consumed by blood and fire.
Now, as I mentioned back in Episode 4.1, the leaders of the slave revolt were drawn from the ranks of the elite slaves, primarily drivers and coachmen, almost all Creole, trusted by the whites and enjoying certain privileges of movement. These guys were well plugged into the tensions that had been brewing in the colonies since 1789. With an easy reach of news from Le Cap and well versed in internal colonial politics, the elite slaves of the Northern Plains knew all about the revolution back in France and its divisive effect on the free population of Saint Domingue. And then, when the May 15 decree hit, and every part of the free population of the colony started getting ready to revolt against every other part of the free population in the colony, the slave leaders were like, I think we might be able to exploit this. Plus, rumors were now swirling that beyond the May 15 decree, the King and the National Assembly had granted further rights to the slaves. They had abolished the use of the whip and had granted three days off a week, but that the evil masters were intentionally suppressing the news, which isn’t exactly far-fetched.
So throughout July, and early August, the slave communities of the north began to organize and recruit members for a fullblown insurrection. On Sunday, August 14, leading slaves from practically every parish in the Northern Plains met at a plantation just 5 miles from Le Cap. This meeting was not secret, as large gatherings of trusted slaves were tolerated by the masters as necessary for general morale. But for sure, the masters did not know what the slaves were talking about. By this point, all the groundwork had been laid. And so the purpose of the August 14 meeting was simply to set a date for the revolt. The plan was for the slaves out on the plantations and slaves inside Le Cap to rise up simultaneously. Caught in a double eruption, the free citizens of the colony would have nowhere to turn. Now, some of the slave leaders argued that we start the revolt, like, right now, today. But the hotheads lost to more careful planners, who almost certainly picked Wednesday, August 24, as the day. The date was chosen to coincide with the first meeting of the Second Colonial Assembly in Le Cap. The slave leaders were savvy. If things went according to plan, they would sever the head of the master class with one bold stroke.
But things did not go according to plan. On August 16, a few of the slave insurrectionaries jumped the gun and set fire to a part of their plantation. Then, four days later, a few of the culprits were captured, and one spilled the beans. He said there was a widespread conspiracy that was planning to launch a mass uprising in just a few days. But in response to this shocking news, the white masters did nothing, which was a curious decision. And the general consensus among historians seems to be that they just couldn’t believe it was possible that for all their paranoia about slave uprisings and for all their wailing that any interference with internal colonial affairs would lead to a slave revolt, the masters simply did not believe the slaves were capable of a unified uprising. The blacks had been terrorized into submission, and besides, everyone knew slaves were naturally lazy and stupid.
Word spread through the slave communities about the fire and the capture of the arsonists. Afraid that the whole operation was about to be blown. The rebel leaders gathered together on the night of August 21, this time very much in secret, to decide how to respond. In the mythology of the Haitian revolution, this meeting in a wooded area called Bois-Caïman is the genesis of everything. Not just the slave revolt, but also slave emancipation and eventually the declaration of independence and founding of modern Haiti 13 years later. I have cobbled together various images of the Bois-Caïman ceremony and thrown them up at http://www.revolutionspodcast.com, along with some other illustrations from this all important summer of 1791. You can go check them out at your leisure.
Now, there are no true eyewitness accounts of the Bois-Caïman meeting, and a lot of romantic details were piled onto the story as the years went by. But we do have a general idea of what happened. For one thing, the meeting took the form of a Voodoo ceremony. Voodoo and Saint Domingue had developed as a mixture of various African religions mashed together with a few trappings of Catholicism. Technically, Voodoo was forbidden by the Code Noir, but Voodoo ceremonies had been tolerated by the masters as harmless religious and social outlets for the slaves. Voodoo plays an important role in the brewing insurrection because, as we discussed earlier, the slaves came from a geographically, ethnically and linguistically diverse population back in Africa. And once deposited in Saint Domingue, Voodoo became one of the few points of common ground for all the blacks, wherever they had come from. New arrivals could see elements of familiar ceremonies in Gods, right here in this terrible new world.
So the Bois-Caïman ceremony was presided over by a Voodoo priestess and then a priest named Boukman. But Boukman was not just a religious leader, he was also the principal leader of the entire uprising. Boukman had at one point been a driver and was most likely a coachman in the summer of 1791. There was also strong suspicion that he had come to Saint Domingue by way of Jamaica and that he had been deported from the British colony for being a troublemaker. The grand tradition of the revolution has Boukman sacrificing a black pig and then leading the drinking of its blood to bind all the would-be insurgents together. Tradition also gives him a speech wherein he says “The God of the white man calls on him to commit crimes. Our God asks only good works of us, but this God who is so good orders revenge. He will direct our hand, he will aid us. Throw away the image of the God of the whites who thirst for our tears and listen to the voice of liberty that speaks in the hearts of all of us.”
The practical upshot of this quasi-mythical Bois-Caïman ceremony was that the insurrection was moved up to the very next night, August 22 1791. Unfortunately, this meant abandoning the simultaneous rising in Le Cap. But better to act now than not be able to act at all.
I’m going to pause here for a moment and make a point. We’ve been through three major revolutions now, and at the beginning of each, we’ve seen English roundheads, American colonists and French revolutionaries crying about liberty and tyranny, arguing that various despotic tyrants wanted to make them all slaves. The word ‘slave’ was on the tip of all their tongues all the time. It was a condition that filled their enlightened minds with existential dread. And yet, who were these guys in reality? They were usually well to do. They were respectable, well educated, comfortable. They wore nice clothes, they slept in fluffy beds. Usually what they described as slavery was a relatively innocuous tax hike. I mean, currently, the whites and Saint Domingue are ready to start a revolution. Why? Because the National Assembly doesn’t want them to oppress the coloreds quite so much? So for as much overwrought handwringing as we’ve seen over all our revolutions about slavery and tyranny, we are now finally seeing for the first time, actual slaves rising up against actual tyranny.
So on August 22, 1791, the insurrection officially began in the parish of Acul. A plantation manager later wrote a firsthand account saying that he was asleep in his bed when a group of slaves came into his room and said that they had to talk to him. But then suddenly, brandished machetes and attacked. He managed to fend them off, but in trying to raise the alarm, it became clear that this was not a small gang, this was a band of hundreds. By the next morning, the insurrection had spread from Acul to Limbé, with as many as 2000 slaves now marching together from plantation to plantation, armed with machetes – the tool of their enslavement – but also swords and at least a few guns, the latter weapons having been entrusted to the drivers for hunting and keeping the other slaves in line. As the slaves marched, they killed any of the hated managers and overseers they came across, as well as slaves who refused to join the rebellion or who the insurgents thought too loyal to the whites. But the killing was not totally indiscriminate. Anyone identified as a doctor or surgeon was taken prisoner because they might prove useful, and priests were generally left unharmed for superstitious or political reasons. There are also numerous instances of slaves saving the lives of various whites and either allowing them to slip away unharmed or making sure they were simply taken prisoner rather than murdered. As the revolt progressed, nearly every slave camp had its fair share of prisoners.
But though the initial killing sprees were shocking, nothing defined the initial revolt so much as fire. Fire everywhere. In fact, the principal object of the moment was not hunting down and killing the masters, but reducing their beloved sugar empire to ashes. Everything was put to the torch. Cane fields, which burn very easily, plantation houses, all that expensive industrial equipment, the boilers that had scalded slave bodies, the presses that had ripped off black limbs – all of it was set ablaze, and all of it just left to burn.
Meanwhile, further east, in the North Province, separate uprisings were launched. But by now, the alarm was spreading as fast as the fires, and quick witted plantation managers were able to organize a hasty defense. So by the afternoon of August 23, the genuine battles were now being fought. Sometimes the slaves overcame their masters and the killings and fires preceded. Sometimes the masters beat the slaves, and the plantation managed to survive at least for a few more hours. But these successful holdouts were for sure the exception. Thousands of slaves every hour, better armed and more numerous swept across the northern plains. Within a few days, something like 200 sugar plantations and 1200 coffee plantations had been burned to the ground. By August 27, the slave armies, and they were now truly becoming armies, were estimated at 10,000 strong.
The free men and women who lived out on the plantations were by now either dead, prisoners or streaming into Le Cap as refugees with literally nothing but the clothes on their back. The residents of Le Cap at first could not believe the stories coming in. But as more refugees arrived, their terror mounted. And by then the pillars of smoke were rising from the plains all around them. And as the fire spread, the entire horizon took on a persistent ominous glow and the sky grew hazy with ash and soot. The residents of Le Cap could actually watch the progress of the revolt by the appearance of new smoke columns and by the extension of that ominous glow to previously darkened areas. Governor Blanchelande and the Colonial Assembly wasted no time preparing to defend the city from inevitable attack. They barricaded all access points and roads and mustered every available soldier and national guardsmen to defend the perimeter. A few attacks on the city were launched by the slaves. But without the requisite firepower to actually take a fortified city, the attacks failed, leaving a pile of dead slave bodies in their wake. But just to be safe, Governor Blanchelande also closed the Le Cap harbor and refused to allow ships to leave. He wanted to make sure that everyone would be able to get out, should it come down to that.
The residents of Le Cap then naturally grew incredibly paranoid about all the slaves in their midst. The population of the city was about 18,000, but fully 12,000 of those were slaves. 6000 men and 6000 women. The free citizens believed that even the most loyal slaves were now about to murder them all in their beds. So any slave even slightly suspected was just executed. On August 25, 100 slaves were dispatched in a single mass execution, all very public and all designed to keep the rest in line. True to their own form, the small whites of Le Cap marched around targeting any free colored they could find, simply assuming that they must be the ultimate instigators of the uprising. A few coloreds were lynched, but the municipal authorities cracked down on all this, believing that the whites might have to gasp ally with the coloreds against the slaves.
Now, in the first weeks of the insurrection, Governor Blanchelande was in a nearly impossible situation. The plantation owners and refugees demanded he send out the army garrison to crush the rebels. But just as loudly, the residents of Le Cap demanded he stay put and not leave them to be slaughtered. And though he did send out a few small sorties on particular missions, for the most part Blanchelande settled in on a policy of defense. Hold Le Cap, then, when the initial reform was literally burned out, we’ll be able to go out and restore order. The horrified plantation owners then accused Blanchelande of secretly wanting the slaves to succeed which brings us to a very interesting discussion of the myriad conspiracy theories the free inhabitants cooked up to explain who was really behind the slave revolt. I mean, the slaves themselves are uniformly stupid and lazy so who’s really calling the shots and why?
So just so you can get a sense of how paranoid Saint Domingue was by early September 1791, let’s run through a few of these theories. First, there was the belief that this was the work of uppity coloreds using a slave revolt to secure their own alleged rights. This was a favorite of the small whites. The big whites meanwhile, believed that it was the damn Friends of the Blacks back in France and all that abolitionist talk, that their radical polemics had made their way into slave hands who were then inspired to rise up. Then there was the exact opposite theory that some big whites had actually helped trigger the uprising so that they could blame the May 15 decree for triggering a slave uprising. But others thought, no, this is actually a conspiracy masterminded by Blanchelande. With the big whites threatening independence, he had sparked the revolt and was now busy not putting it down. All the easier to reassert the tyrannical authority of the Metropole. Each theory had its adherence and though some coloreds did indeed join and even serve as officers in the slave armies, most of those guys were veterans of the Ogé rebellion now coming out of hiding, mostly Occam’s razor is at play here. Astute slave leaders recognized that the master class was divided and distracted and took their shot at throwing off their chains. I think in the end it pretty much is that simple.
Okay, so who were some of these astute slave leaders? Besides Boukman, who was quite literally the spiritual leader of the whole rebellion, there are three others of particular note, and before you ask, no, it is not yet time for Toussaint Louverture. First, there was a guy named Jean-François. Jean-François is notable for being practically the only maroon leader of the bunch, coming down from the mountains to help plot the uprising and then lead its growing armies. His runaway notice in 1787 described Jean-François as Creole, aged about 22, 5’10 in height, slim, good looking, branded on the right side of the chest ‘RB’ and above ‘Mr. M’, with a long scar under his chin. Jean-François was smart, courageous and as we will see next week, an utterly ruthless pragmatist.
Next we have Georges Biassou, who was more extravagant and flamboyant than Jean-François. A deep believer in Voodoo, Biassou kept himself surrounded with priests who advised him daily on how to proceed. He was also far more hungry for revenge than either Boukman or Jean-François and moderated his passions only very reluctantly. Jean-François and Biassou will remain two of the principal slave commanders all the way through until 1795, when … well, we’ll get to all of that down the road.
Finally, we have to introduce a leader who was subordinate to Jean-François in the somewhat fluid slave command structure, but who is not going to make it out of 1791 alive: Jeannot. Jeannot is infamous in the history of the revolution as probably the cruelest of the slave leaders. Being taken prisoner by a slave army was understandably terrifying, but falling into Jeannot’s hands meant torture and death, full stop. Jeannot was happy to recreate for the former masters all the cruel tortures that had been inflicted on the slaves for the past century, and he took very evident delight in the suffering of his captives. He even executed a fellow slave leader for allegedly helping a white family escape. But perhaps because of his murderous zeal, Jeannot was also a very effective fighter. And on September 10, it was Jeannot’s army who captured the town of Dondon, which guaranteed access to the Spanish side of the island, which will turn out to be absolutely critical to maintaining the insurrection.
All through September, the slaves were basically winning. They now numbered at least 20,000, with other contemporary guesses putting it at closer to 80,000. And the ranks just kept growing. Whatever potential middle ground might have existed between moderate whites looking to negotiate or moderate slaves not wanting to join the rebellion disappeared in a storm of mutual atrocities. The blacks decorated their camps with the heads of whites. The whites decorated the perimeter of Le Cap with the heads of blacks. It was dangerous to be white in council moderation. It was almost suicidal to be black and not join the insurrection. So every day, the ranks of the slave army swelled. By the end of October, they controlled the entire eastern half of the North Province, making bases in the mountains, on former plantations, and in occupied towns.
The success of the slave army was shocking and incredibly frustrating to the master class. Though they had started with machetes, the slaves had seized arms and equipment wherever they went, and soon deployed even cannons. As they systematically seized territory in the North Province, they could rely on sheer numbers against terrified civilians. But when they did meet armed resistance, as they did most especially in the east, they fought using a brand of warfare unfamiliar to the Europeans. Many of the slaves that had recently arrived on the island had effectively been prisoners of war in tribal conflicts back in Africa, and they fought using African methods. They set traps everywhere and deployed small autonomous units to ambush isolated militias or convoys. They always attacked from behind cover, and if they meant determined resistance, they simply melted backwards in a rapid retreat, which European observers often mistook for cowardice. But if the slaves detected an opportunity, they would blow a menacing conch shell, signaling a mass attack. And the casualty ratio during 1791 ran as high as ten to one slave to master. But with the widespread Voodoo belief that death meant a return of the spirit to Africa, the slaves were fearless in the charges and relentless in attack.
But despite these advantages and success, the momentum of the slave insurrection finally stalled out. In mid November, Boukman himself was killed in a skirmish and the death of their spiritual leader caused great fear and dread to sweep through the slave armies. And they cried, “Boukman is dead! What will become of us?” Then rivalries among the leaders started to break out as conflicting agendas began to surface. On November 1, Jean-François marched into Jeannot’s camp, arrested his subordinate and had him shot. The standard line was that Jeannot’s cruelty was damaging the moral authority of the rebellion and would only make negotiating with Le Cap that much harder. But it’s just as likely that the charismatic and talented Jeannot was about to start posing a threat to Jean-François own authority. And so Jean-François had his rival executed.
Then Governor Blanchelande did finally manage to organize a successful military operation. He did not have the manpower to defeat the mass rebellion, but he was able to fortify and garrison a string of military forts through the mountains that divided the North Province from the West Province. These forts were called the Cordon of the West and they effectively contained the main rebellion to the North Province. So by the end of November 1791, the momentum of the slave revolt stalled and a stalemate set in.
Now, while all of this was unfolding in the north, down in the West Province, armed conflict had also broken out in August 1791, but it was between the whites and the coloreds rather than the masters and the slaves. After Governor Blanchelande had rejected their demands in mid August, the coloreds in Mirebalais armed themselves and prepared to fight for their rights. The small white dominated Port-au-Prince and a detachment of dragoons up to break up this little rebellion. But the dragoons were soundly grubbed. Knowing that another, bigger attack would no doubt follow, the coloreds took a momentous step in the history of the Haitian revolution. They promised freedom to any slave who fought for them. The slaves who came forward were a mix of plantation slaves and maroons. And they were soon nicknamed the Swiss, after our old friends, the mercenary Swiss Guards who protected the monarchy back in Paris. I should note, however, that this recruitment of slaves started before the slaves in the north went into revolt and the two are entirely unrelated. Though the existence of the Swiss was later taken as proof that the coloreds were secretly behind the slave revolt.
In early September, Port-au-Prince finally sent out a larger force. But when they arrived, they found themselves battling coloreds and slaves. The coloreds-slave force won the ensuing battle and many of the defeated whites fled into the cane fields to hide. But of course, as we’ve seen, cane fields burn very easily. The coloreds put the field to the torch, and the trapped whites all burned to death.
With the coloreds obviously superior soldiers and word of the slave revolt now arriving in gruesome detail, the big whites in the West Province reassess their position. On September 5, a prominent representative of the big whites approached the coloreds of Mirebalais and said, let’s talk. A few days later, the two sides signed a deal called the Concordat, that amounted to the total capitulation of the big whites to colored demands. The document began with an admission that the whites had violated both the Code Noir and the May 15 decree, that racial apartheid was legally and morally wrong, and then they apologized for all this and agreed to support its total abolition. They also called for the dissolution of any public assembly that had been elected without the votes or participation of the coloreds, which meant all of them. This model Concordat then spread to other small towns and parishes in both the west and south provinces. So with this new alliance of big whites, coloreds and Swiss slaves controlling the countryside around Port-au-Prince, the more radical small white leaders inside the capital began to lose influence, especially with fear of the slave revolt now dominating everyone’s imagination. By the end of October, the small whites finally gave it up. And at some point between October 19 and 23rd (I’ve seen different dates), all parties signed the second Concordat, which reaffirmed the previous Concordat. It also included the stipulation that quote “terms such as citizen of color and the free black, free mulatto, free quadroon known as and others of the sort shall be in the future strictly prohibited. Henceforth, they will be used for all the colony citizens only those terms used for the whites.” To great and somewhat forced fanfare, the coloreds and Swiss marched into Port-au-Prince, and on October 24, there was a big unity party. And for the briefest of moments, big whites, small whites, free coloreds, and at least some slaves were all on the same side.
This alliance is not going to hold together.
The first faction to get cut out was naturally, the Swiss. With the slave revolt in the north now raging, it would be the height of folly to keep free slaves under arms. So in a secret side agreement, the colored leaders agreed to renege on their promise of freedom. The slave fighters were disarmed and marched onto a ship for immediate deportation from the island. Now, the captain of the ship was supposed to sell the Swiss somewhere along the Central American coast. But understandably, no one wanted to buy slaves coming from Saint Domingue. So the captain sailed down to Jamaica and simply put them ashore on a deserted beach. When the British authorities were alerted to this, they rounded the Swiss up, put them on a boat, and sailed them back to Port-au-Prince. But as soon as the ship appeared in the harbor. The municipal authorities in the capital were like, we’re not taking these guys back under any circumstances. They outright executed about 60 of the Swiss and left the rest to rot aboard the ship, most perishing from disease or starvation. The story of the fate of the Swiss spread quickly through all the slave communities in Saint Domingue, and was a source of permanent mistrust between the blacks and the coloreds for the whole rest of the revolution.
Meanwhile, back in Paris, the National Assembly was about to blow up the ground upon which the white-colored alliance had just been forged. In fact, they had actually already blown it up before the second Concordat was even signed. So we’ll wrap up today by zooming back over to France, and where are we now in the French Revolution? Well, while Saint Domingue was reeling from the May 15 decree in June 1791, Paris was reeling from the flight to Varennes and all of its consequences. And as you’ll recall from Episode 3.20, the most immediate political consequence was bringing the triumvirate of Duport, Lameth, and Antoine Barnave to power. And of course, we last saw Barnave as the head of the Colonial Committee, and he had never been a fan of the May 15 decree, believing that matters of race were best left to the colonists. He had, in fact, used his influence to stall the appointment of the three commissioners who would have officially implemented the May 15 decree. So, as the National Assembly was preparing to hand power to the Legislative Assembly at the end of September 1791, Barnave engineered a repeal of the May 15 decree. On September 24, just days before the National Assembly disbanded, the delegates voted to annul its previous extension of citizenship to the free coloreds. Only then were three commissioners appointed to go enforce the Metropole’s authority in Saint Domingue – authority that now emphatically did not include race. So by the time the concordats were signed, the three commissioners were already in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, bringing the news that defending racial apartheid was no longer equivalent to treason. And the chair upon which the colored stood to make their case for equality was about to be kicked out from under them.
Next week, these three commissioners will arrive in Le Cap ready to implement the Metropole’s new colonial policy. But what will they wind up doing instead? That’s right – negotiating with the huge slave army they knew nothing about, because news of the massive slave revolt had not reached France when these three commissioners put to sea. These guys have absolutely no conception of the hellfire they are about to walk into.
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