Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (5 page)

BOOK: Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution

of Columbus’
Santa Maria,
which had sunk off the coast of the island in 1492. Elsewhere there was forensic proof of Spanish cruelties. In a cave

in the north of the colony were found five skulls with their foreheads

flattened—a common practice among the indigenous peoples of the Carib-

bean—which identified them as “Indian.” No other bones were found,

however, and Moreau concluded that this was because the “Spanish had

dogs to whom they gave over the corpses of their unfortunate victims.” He


av e n g e r s o f t h e n e w w o r l d

knew his history well: in 1493 Columbus had indeed brought attack dogs—

mastiffs and greyhounds—to terrorize the Taino population.15

The colony was in fact full of haunting reminders of its vanished inhabit-

ants. In Limonade one encountered “with each step, debris of the utensils

of the indigenous people who lived here,” and in Quartier-Morin, “ev-

erywhere you find their bones, their simple but ingenious utensils, their

hideous but sometimes very artistically made fetishes.” On one sugar plan-

tation, each hole dug for the cane turned up “some new vestiges of the ex-

istence of this race now erased from the list of humans.” In the church of

the town of Jérémie, in the Southern Province, a stone carved with the fig-

ures of four seated women, the work of the “natural” inhabitants of the is-

land, had been turned into a
—a holy-water font. Near the town of Les Cayes was a peninsula where it was easy to find “fetishes” left behind by its former inhabitants, as well as small caves they had carved into

the rock, and small figurines made of conch shells. “The regret of the phi-

losopher is awakened,” wrote Moreau, “when he thinks about the fact

that from a people so numerous, there is not one left to enlighten us about

its history.”16

The first site of European conquest in the Americas, Hispaniola became a

pioneer in another way during the sixteenth century. Las Casas had, ironi-

cally, advocated the importation of African slaves to save the brutalized in-

digenous population. Soon imported slaves replaced the rapidly dying in-

digenous ones, serving as laborers in a new industry that supplemented

that of mining. Sugarcane had been brought to the colony by Columbus in

1493, and by the early 1500s the Spanish began establishing the first sugar

plantations in the New World. By the 1530s there were more than thirty

sugar mills in the colony, and by the mid-sixteenth century the annual pro-

duction of sugar reached several thousand tons.17

The capital of Hispaniola, Santo Domingo, flourished, eventually boast-

ing the first Catholic cathedral and the first European university built

in the Americas. From there the conquest of neighboring Cuba was

launched. Soon the Spaniards continued on to the mainland and the con-

quest of Mexico. Hispaniola was soon overshadowed by the treasures un-

veiled, and the opportunities opened up, with the fall of the Aztec and Inca

empires. Having been for a few decades at the center of the new Spanish

empire, Hispaniola was soon consigned to its margins. The sugar economy

s p e c t e r s o f s a i n t - d o m i n g u e


in the eastern portion of the island declined by the end of the sixteenth

century. Ginger and cacao cultivation briefly took its place, but by the latter half of the seventeenth century cattle ranches were “the only real commercial endeavor on the island.” Many slaves gained their freedom, and new

slave imports to the colony were limited. By the end of the eighteenth cen-

tury only 15 percent of the population remained enslaved. Meanwhile the

western part of Hispaniola remained for the most part unsettled. The

name of the island’s capital, Santo Domingo, was increasingly used to refer

to the entire island, and the French who eventually settled there in the

early seventeenth century simply translated the name into French, calling

their colony Saint-Domingue.18

During the seventeenth century the French and British successfully

challenged Spanish and Portuguese hegemony in the Americas. Pirates

opened the way for this new phase of European colonization. Throughout

the sixteenth century, ships heavy with silver and gold dug by indigenous

slaves out of the mines of the Americas constantly crossed the Atlan-

tic. These floating treasure chests, often traveling relatively unarmed, were all-too-tempting prey. The Spanish and Portuguese defended their ships

against these marauders, at significant cost, while English and French gov-

ernors saw that it was in their interest to support piracy against their

enemies. By weakening the Spanish hold on the seas and establishing unof-

ficial settlements elsewhere in the Caribbean, the pirates opened the way

for more permanent, colonial settlement supported by European royal


Spanish explorers had found the Carib inhabitants of the eastern Carib-

bean quick to resist encroachment, and had left these islands for the most

part untouched. It was here that British and French settlements initially

took root. The first was a colony on the tiny island of St. Christopher,

where English and French lived side by side. From there the English

founded Barbados, the most important of the early Caribbean slave colo-

nies. It developed so rapidly that within a few decades settlers left a

crowded Barbados and established a colony on the mainland—South

Carolina. In 1635, meanwhile, the French founded colonies in Martinique

and Guadeloupe. Throughout the seventeenth and early eighteenth centu-

ries the Caribs managed to survive by playing off the French and the Brit-

ish against each other. Gradually, however, they were isolated on certain is-

lands, and by the end of the eighteenth century even those were colonized

by the British. Only a few small indigenous communities remained.20


av e n g e r s o f t h e n e w w o r l d

As the colonies of the eastern Caribbean grew, a motley crew of pi-

rates and settlers from St. Christopher, both French and English, settled

on the island of Tortuga, northwest of Saint-Domingue. The pirates—

by the French—were joined by another group, called
who lived on mainland Hispaniola. The Spanish had introduced new species there—not only dogs, many of whom escaped into the

wild, but also pigs and cattle—which, without human or animal predators,

had thrived in the intervening century. The
hunted the wild cattle, smoked the meat using an indigenous method called the

and sold it to sailors on passing ships. Gradually settlers on both Tortuga

and the mainland began to grow provisions and tobacco.21

The Spanish repeatedly tried to dislodge these interlopers in Tortuga

and the northern coast of Saint-Domingue, but the French settlement sur-

vived and continued to grow. The French named a royal governor to over-

see Tortuga and the coast of Saint-Domingue in 1664, and he personally

recruited settlers for the colony from his native region of Anjou. A popula-

tion of 400 Europeans there when he first arrived grew to 4,000 by 1680.

were joined, and ultimately outnumbered, by colonists who founded small plantations.22

In 1697 a French commander arrived in the growing colony of Saint-

Domingue. Preparing to attack the Spanish port of Cartagena, he nailed

an invitation on the church of the settlement at Petit-Goâve calling on

and inhabitants of the “coast of St. Domingue,” including “negroes,” to join him. The recruits from Saint-Domingue participated in the

siege, capture, and brutal pillage of Cartagena. One of the officers taking

part in the raid, Joseph d’Honor de Gallifet, who later served briefly as

governor of the colony, invested his portion of the loot in land, establishing plantations that were to become some of the most successful in the colony.

The defeat suffered by the Spanish in Cartagena contributed to their deci-

sion to cede the western portion of the colony of Hispaniola to the French

with the 1697 Treaty of Rhyswick. A century later the siege of Cartagena

was still remembered for other blessings it had brought to the French col-

ony. There was a roadside statue of the Virgin Mary looted from the Span-

ish port town in 1697 in the Southern Province; under it a candle usually

burned. The most famous of the stolen relics was a cross revered in the

church of Petit-Goâve. Moreau described the powerful devotions of the

worshipers who gathered around it each evening, especially on Fridays,

and most of all on Good Friday, placing hundreds of burning candles un-

s p e c t e r s o f s a i n t - d o m i n g u e


derneath it, so that the floor was covered with wax and the walls stained

with smoke. Normally the climate of Petit-Goâve bred masses of mosqui-

toes, but there were few in the town thanks to the cross from Cartagena.23

Having gained official status as a French colony, Saint-Domingue—one

of the last colonies founded in the Americas—would soon outshine all

others. The earliest plantations in Saint-Domingue were worked by both

African slaves and European
or indentured laborers. The latter worked alongside the slaves, but for limited terms—in the French case

for three years—after which they became free. Along with the remaining

many of these former indentured laborers started farming small plots of land, notably with tobacco, a crop that required little initial investment and could quickly turn a modest profit.

But the competition of Virginia tobacco, changing colonial policies, and

the emergence of other crops soon ended tobacco cultivation in Saint-

Domingue. The second crop to take off in the colony, indigo, involved a

more sophisticated processing procedure that turned the harvested grasses

into a blue dye, and so required a bit more capital. Nevertheless, small in-

digo plantations appeared throughout the colony. This crop would remain

an important part of the island’s economy, but it was soon overshadowed by

the crop that came to dominate Saint-Domingue for the rest of its century-

long existence: sugar.

Sugar was the economic miracle of the eighteenth century. Originally

from the Middle East, sugarcane had been cultivated on Spanish and Por-

tuguese islands of the eastern Atlantic for centuries. The Spanish in His-

paniola and the Portuguese in Brazil pioneered cane cultivation in the

Americas, and the French and English drew on their examples and on the

knowledge and finances of the Dutch in establishing their plantation socie-

ties in the Caribbean. These colonies both depended on and drove the ex-

pansion of the emerging capitalist system of the Atlantic world. Starting in

the seventeenth century a remarkable spiral of cause and effect trans-

formed sugar from a luxury enjoyed by only the wealthiest Europeans to a

necessity that was a central part of many Europeans’ diets.24

Slavery was deemed essential to the production of sugar. In the Carib-

bean, plantations often had several hundred slaves carrying out the

difficult tasks of planting and harvesting cane, and a smaller group special-

izing in its transformation into sugar. Once harvested, cane must be pro-

cessed quickly, and during certain periods work continued all night. The

highly diversified and industrialized sugar plantations of Saint-Domingue


av e n g e r s o f t h e n e w w o r l d

and its nearby British competitor Jamaica had some of the largest numbers

of slaves of any colonies in the Americas. A fifth of the slaves on these

plantations worked in occupations other than fieldwork, as specialists who

processed the sugarcane, as artisans making barrels to transport it, or as

domestics serving masters or managers. The combination of “field” and

“factory” made the plantation regions of the Caribbean some of the most

industrialized in the eighteenth-century world.25

At first many plantations were worked by a combination of African

slaves and white indentured laborers. In Saint-Domingue in 1687, whites

outnumbered slaves, 4,411 to 3,358. But by eighteenth century, labor in

the Caribbean had been deliberately and obsessively racialized. With the

exception of a few managers and overseers, plantation workforces were en-

tirely of African descent. In Saint-Domingue by 1700, the population of

slaves had grown to 9,082, while the population of whites had decreased by

several hundred. As sugar plantations proliferated over the next decades,

the numbers of enslaved increased dramatically; by midcentury there were

nearly 150,000 slaves and fewer than 14,000 whites, and on the eve of the

revolution, 90 percent of the colony’s population was enslaved.26

The number of plantations in Saint-Domingue increased with startling

rapidity as well. From 1700 to 1704 they jumped from 18 to 120. In 1713

there were 138, 77 of them in the Northern Province. All of these pro-

duced raw sugar, which contained many impurities. Bigger profits were

available to those who could afford technology to purify sugar on-site, re-

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