An excerpt from
Facing Racial Revolution
Eyewitness Accounts of the Haitian Insurrection
Jeremy D. Popkin
The First Days
of the Slave Insurrection
At the sound of the gunshot, my dog who was lying in the gallery near my bedroom
started to bark loud enough to wake me. Wrongly irritated by this continual barking,
I got up to quiet him down, and then went back to sleep. Fifteen minutes later,
the poor dog started up again even more insistently. But, alas, it was too late
to wonder what was happening, the blacks had already taken over all the paths
around the grand’case [the plantation owner’s house].
Hearing the noise they were making, I jumped out of my bed and shouted: “Who
goes there?” A voice like thunder answered me: “It is death!” At the same time,
I heard a considerable number of gunshots and the voice of a horde of blacks
who filled the house with these terrible words: “Kill, kill.” Seeing what was
happening, and having no way to escape, I ran to get my pistols. Luckily for
me, they were not loaded; I say luckily because if they had been, I would have
defended myself, I would have killed some of these assailants and would not have
been able to escape succumbing to their blows.
In the blink of an eye the shutters and curtains of my windows, which were of
a man’s height, were broken through. To escape the shots fired at me, I bounded
into the space behind my bed, and there I waited, trembling, to be discovered.
Several blacks who had come into my room and thought they had killed me in my
bed began pillaging, while others who wanted my blood and my belongings bashed
against the door to force it open. Judge, dear reader, if my situation was alarming!
The shots that I heard being fired in my relatives’ apartment, which was at the
other end of the building, told me that they were no longer alive. Given the
fury and the determination of these wretches, if I had been found, I would surely
have suffered the same fate.
An hour went by in this cruel dilemma, during which I heard them listing the
victims. The blacks, finding nothing more to steal, opened the door that had
remained closed. A crowd of new assailants entered, uttering horrible cries,
and poking the bed to make sure I was dead, but when they didn’t find me, they
yelled like madmen: “He got away, he got away.” They all suddenly ran out of
the house to look for me in the brush, which revived me a little and gave me
some hope of surviving. I thought that they wouldn’t come back into my room,
but I was wrong. The black who had answered me when I had cried “Who goes there?”
realized that I could not have escaped; he entered my room, and others soon followed.
While they poked under the bed with their sabers, another one investigated the
space behind it. Ah, no matter how I tried to make myself small . . . the black
who kept sticking his hand in there touched my shoulder. . . . What a shock!
My heart nearly stopped, a deathly fear seized me, the black jumped back with
a start and cried like a madman: “He’s still there.” I gave up trying to hide:
I approached these blacks and said to them: “Take everything I’ve got, but leave
me my life.” They answered me in a mocking tone: “What does he want us to take,
there’s nothing left in his closet” [que ça l’y vlé nou prend,
ni a poin a rien encore dans buffet a li]; as they spoke, they went out and closed
the door behind themselves. Then the whole band, like a pack of wolves about
to tear into a lamb, entered the house. Cries of “load your guns” from all sides
made it clear to me that the climax of the tragedy was approaching. I tore my
hair, I bit my fists, I bashed myself against the walls, in a word my anger boiled
over. I tried to flee through the window, but it was no use. Seeing that death
was inevitable, I just wanted it to come from a bullet, so that, with the thread
of my days snapped all at once, I wouldn’t have to suffer the cruel torment that
the ferocity of these barbarians was bound to imagine.
Fate decided otherwise: the commander of this bloody horde, named Boukman,
whom I had always treated well, arrived at this point and, seeing me in my room,
whose door was half broken, all bloody and desperate, had pity on me. He addressed
his men and told them firmly: “Don’t kill him, he’s a good white and knows more
than the others around here.” The reason he said this is that, when I had surveyed
the plantation, I had chosen him as an assistant because he was the most intelligent
of them (he had been astonished to see that I could determine the distance from
one point to another without pacing it off, leading him to think that I was smarter
than other whites). I was quite surprised to hear such words because I would
not have thought him susceptible, in these circumstances, of so much humanity.
In the moment of indescribable joy that took the place of my horrible fear, I
do not know if it was by my own movement or that of some blacks (I don’t know
exactly where I was at that moment), but, having opened the door in front of
which a crowd of these unfortunates were drawn up, and having thrown myself,
all trembling, into the midst of them, I was nearly sacrificed just when I thought
I had been saved and when I was already saying to them: “What did I do to make
you want to kill me?” Several blacks, their sabers raised and their pistols pointed,
were about to kill me if Boukman had not quickly gotten me out of their sight
by wrapping his arms around me. Only with difficulty did this chief, along with
two others who by then had taken an interest in me, succeed in calming the anger
of the thugs who had found me. He had to employ all the authority of a despot
and punish the most determined ones to stop their fury.…
The noise having gradually dissipated, Boukman put me under the guard of one
of his blacks, who took me, in my nightshirt, away from the house but into new
dangers. Surrounded now by a crowd of these brigands who had not witnessed what
had happened, I had to endure the most atrocious insults that mouths can utter;
a hundred times they were ready to kill me in spite of the efforts of my guards.
In the new situation in which I found myself, I cried out for Boukman to come
reassure me, but the brigands ordered me sternly to be quiet, and I had to drive
out of my heart the idea that I had had of recovering my freedom. However, after
I had been left quite a while unsure of whether I was going to live or die, Boukman
appeared. I expressed my fears to him and begged him, since he had wanted to
save my life, not to abandon me this way and also to have clothes brought for
me so that I wouldn’t suffer from the cold air. Several blacks told me I was
wearing enough, and that in any event my time was over. Nevertheless, Boukman
got me a vest and some canvas trousers, along with an old pair of shoes. One
of them (Jean-Jacques from the Noé plantation) was good enough to cover
my head with a battered white hat.
Only then did I notice two whites that the brigands had seized…; this
sight calmed me somewhat, and I congratulated myself inwardly on having companions
in my misfortune, but I kept silent as the circumstances demanded; the slightest
appearance [of resistance] could have been mortal for us. We quietly followed
the brigands who were looking for recruits in the blacks’ huts, as much by force
as by goodwill. The blacks already seemed remorseful for the crimes they had
committed: they didn’t want to go any further. But Boukman, who no doubt had
more at stake than the others in making sure that things didn’t stop there, planted
himself behind them and struck them with his rifle butt: “March, Negro dogs,
march or I’ll shoot you down!” Truly, the apathy and the reluctance of these
animals was such that if only ten whites had arrived at that moment, they would
have broken up this savage horde with no resistance.
To get rid of us, some of these brigands suggested locking us up in the dungeon
of the plantation. But this didn’t suit the leaders, luckily for us, because
we would probably never have gotten out. They settled for giving us two Negroes
as guards, one of whom I chose, and sending us to the grand’case [main
house] of the Noé plantation, which we found stained with the blood of
the unlucky whites who had already been sacrificed there.
After our transfer to the Noé plantation, the two Alquier daughters arrived,
all in tears, and told us of the cruel fashion in which their father had been
sacrificed. An old Negro from the Clément plantation, whom I had always
considered a good fellow, came to tell me what had become of Mme Clément
and her daughter during the night: they were holding M Clément’s hand
when a pistol shot fired through the window curtain tore him from them by killing
him. The unfortunate women, not knowing what to do, put themselves in the hands
of a Negro woman whose loyalty proved constant. This Negro woman took advantage
of a moment when the rebels were busy to hide them safely.
The brigands who were already at this moment numerous on the plain ran all over,
which made me very uneasy and almost completely robbed me of the hope I had had
of recovering my freedom. The black guards assured me it was so, and the clouds
in every direction seemed to confirm to me that the city of Le Cap was already
reduced to ashes. Oh God! I cried, is this the day you have fixed for the end
of our existence and that of one of the most beautiful countries in the world?
The cruel notions that came to my mind kept me awake.
Finally, I started a conversation with the two black guards, Jean-Jacques,
who belonged to the comte de Noé, and Vincent, who belonged to my cousin.
I asked them who could be the instigators of such a vast event and what their
purpose was in committing so many crimes. They answered that it was the high-ranking
whites of France, that their goal was to punish us for having dethroned the king,
and because we no longer had either faith, or law, or religion, and because we
had burned the royal decree that gave the blacks three free days a week at Port-au-Prince.
The two blacks said that if they had not received orders from these important
whites to revolt in order to contribute to the restoration of the king to his
throne, the question that concerned them would not have driven them to such extremes,
seeing that in any event they were not intelligent enough and lacked the facilities
to conceive of such a vast project, which consisted of nothing less than the
destruction of all the whites except some who didn’t own property, some priests,
some surgeons, and some women, and of setting fire to all the plantations and
making themselves masters of the country.
I showed them how astonished I was at everything they told me, but I didn’t make
any response to it. I simply asked them why they were sparing the priests, the
surgeons, and the women. They replied that they were keeping the priests so that
religious services could be held, the surgeons to heal their maladies, and the
women to take for their own and get pregnant, as well as a few whites to organize
them, in view of their lack of industriousness and abilities. Striking me on
the wrists, they told me: “Don’t worry about anything, we know what we’re going
to do with you.” My curiosity having stopped there, I don’t know what their intentions
with regard to me were. I learned only some time later, from a mulatto woman
who had been Boukman’s prisoner, that that chief, when he saved my life and gave
me a guard of two Negroes, only meant to let me go to Le Cap, where he said that
I would be totally safe.
Around noon, our guards, who had already been drinking wine all morning, told
us they were going to have dinner at the Clément plantation and said we
did not need to worry since they would soon return. We made every effort to keep
them from abandoning us, but in vain. Perhaps people will ask me why we didn’t
let them go off so that we could escape. It is easy to answer this question:
remember that the roads were full of brigands and that we were almost certain
that Le Cap had been burned. You will agree with me that it was much more prudent
to stay where we were since our captors had protected our lives and we were firmly
persuaded that those whom we might encounter would not be so humane to us.
While our guards went off to eat, we were very uneasy; we sometimes saw lots
of brigands going by on the main roads, and we feared that they would come find
us despite the protection we had been promised and would put us to death. We
relaxed only when our guards came back. I didn’t hide our anxieties from them
and even suggested a plan that the fear of other brigands had made me think up,
which was to hide us in the wood near the house. They told me that was unnecessary,
that even if other Negroes came by, it would be sufficient for them to talk to
them and persuade them that justice had already been meted out on this plantation
in order to make sure that they wouldn’t do anything bad to us.
At three in the afternoon two Negroes arrived who had been wounded by the troops
that had come out from Le Cap on hearing the news of the insurrection. There
had been a terrible struggle near the Cagnet plantation on the seashore, four
leagues from Le Cap: the whites had been routed and chased all the way to the
water. The surgeon went to work on them. We helped bind up their wounds.
We were lamenting the sad fate that life was preparing for us when we saw
a detachment of dragoons at the gate of the plantation who were heading toward
us. I signaled them immediately to hurry up and abandoned myself to the joy that
the view of our fellows was bound to inspire. Our guards didn’t know what to
think: I addressed them in the tone of a master and said: “Stay, you protected
us, nothing will happen to you.” At the same time, I ran toward the detachment,
which wasted no time in coming up to the grand’case. What
a moment of happiness was that in which we recovered our freedom, what unspeakable
pleasure I felt, along with all our companions, at the approach of our deliverers!
Our intertwined arms hid the tears of joy that we all shed to show them how grateful
we were!!! After we had told them the sad things that had happened, they wept
with us at the loss of so many good citizens who had been pitilessly massacred
and whose still-steaming corpses seemed to demand that we take revenge for them.
Our black guards were taken back to Le Cap on Monday night, but, having been
denounced as accomplices in the killing of M. Dumené, the procureur of
the Noé plantation, they were shot a few days later.
On the 24th, from the crack of dawn, two detachments made up of residents of
the Acul quarter went to hunt down the rebels. M. Dubuisson, commanding one of
the detachments, went to the Clément plantation, where he killed six blacks
who were chained up in the hospital and two Negresses who were completely blameless.
This morning was terrible because of the awful effects of the rage that had
seized some of the inhabitants of Le Cap. Since appearances seemed to indicate
that the men of color were their enemies, they wanted nothing less than to destroy
all of them. Fourteen or fifteen of these poor people, residents of the town,
were the innocent victims of this first desire for vengeance; they were killed
in the street while they were seeking a refuge to save themselves from the fury
of their pursuers. The general committee subsequently published an order forbidding
anyone, on pain of death, from mistreating the people of color, against whom
no complaints could be made; the disorder was reduced.… Since the Negroes
of the town seemed dangerous, guard posts were set up at all the entry points;
the citizens spent the night in front of their gates to prevent any fires and
only went out armed. Some individuals, to control their Negroes, had them shut
up at night in the cathedral or put them on board ships in the harbor. Others
had them taken to the jail or the dry dock of Grammont, a small island half a
league off the coast. Then there were those who kept only the women and children
as servants. The adult black men could go out of the houses only with passports
from their masters.
Twenty-eight Negroes and Negresses taken prisoner by our troops at the Petite
Anse, brought to the town to be judged by the provost’s court, were hacked to
death on the Champ-de-Mars [on 25 August] by citizens burning to assuage their
thirst for vengeance. In the afternoon, fifty Negroes were shot in trenches prepared
in the town cemetery, and a Negro who had led a band was broken on the wheel
at the Place d’Armes, where the scaffold and the gallows had been set up, all
according to the judgments of the provost’s court.
On the 28th of August, a griffe [a man of three-quarters African
ancestry] arrested in Le Cap the day before was hanged; twenty black brigands
who had been captured were put on a boat and drowned in the sea, in accordance
with the sentence of the provost’s court.… On the 1st of September, some
Negroes and Negresses were shot at the parish house.
A black man and a black woman were hanged at the Place d’Armes. They came from
the town. He had said that the blacks would soon put the whites in their place,
and she had said that she would soon have the pleasure of making white women
Alas, it was not only the aristocracy that we should have blamed for our disasters;
the clergy caused the woes of France, and contributed to ours. You can judge
by the conduct of one minister of religion. Father Cachetan …, who should,
like all the plantation owners of his quarter, have withdrawn to Le Cap at the
start of the insurrection, preferred to stay in the midst of the Negro insurgents
to preach the Evangel of the law to them, and encourage them to persist in an
insurrection that was holy and legitimate in his eyes. He solemnly crowned the
Negro Jean-François and the Negress Charlotte king and queen of the Africans,
and leaders of the revolt.
So when the army overan the camp, seeing that he would soon be punished for
his crimes, he didn’t want to leave his presbytery. He had the nerve to say that
he was fine in the midst of his parishioners (the blacks) and that if anything
had been damaged at his place, it was only by the whites. This unworthy minister
of religion, according to the testimony of the white women and the sailors who
were rescued, was imprisoned the day after his arrival in Le Cap, and in order
not to scandalize the public and above all the blacks, he was done away with
a few days later in an ugly manner, and the rumor was spread in town that he
had been sent back to France.
The brigands were greatly affected by the loss of their general, Boukman. After
the death of this truly redoubtable leader, they ran this way and that across
the plain, making the air resound with this cry: “Boukman tué, que ça
nou vau! Boukman tué, que ça nou vau!” [Boukman is killed, what
will become of us!]. The same blacks who were in command at Dondon, having learned
of his death a few days later, ordered a solemn service.
We made our entry into the town that evening, with the cannon taken from the
enemy and the head of Boukman on a pike that was exposed afterward in the Place
d’Armes. The satisfaction was general; we thought that the death of one of the
most famous chiefs would drive the brigands to sue for peace.