Saint-Domingue Lost: Imperial French Narratives of the Haitian Revolution

Histoire de Mesdemoiselles de Saint-Janvier Pt.1

The following excerpt and translation come from Histoire de Mesdemoiselles de Saint-Janvier: Les deux seules blanches conservées à Saint-Domingue by Mademoiselle de Palaiseau. It was published in 1812 in Paris by Chez J.-J. Blaise, libraire.[1] The story is brief at 83 pages, yet it tells the tale, as noted by the title, of the two Saint-Janvier girls. Their youths were marked by trauma and revolution, and living complex, stressful lives in Saint-Domingue to New England in America. The central ideas revolve around slavery and the treatment of slaves, as they are subject to watching family and friends murdered and forced into servitude as young women.

According to Livre: Revue des Romans by Girault de Saint-Fargeau and Pierre Augustin Eusèbe,

This book is not a novel, it is an extraordinary story and almost miraculous in its
circumstances, but true in its details, simple in its story, told, almost at the end of 
childhood, by the two young people who are the heroines, with all the candor of their age,
and all the ingenuousness of their character; collected, with the same ingenuousness and
candor, by another young person who, after having listened to this story, with all the
vivacity of feeling inspired at this age by the story of singular events and touching
adventures, makes the historian. [2]

The story opens with said narrator explaining how the trials and tribulations of the Mesdemoiselles de Saint-Janvier came to be, noting her particular interest in their lives’ experiences. The de Saint-Janvier parents were from the Americas, but were called to France when the girls were 8 and 4 years old, and soon after left France for Saint-Domingue.  From an early age, the girls were thrown into different, complex cultures at tumultuous points in history. Soon after arriving at le Cap[3], the island of Saint-Domingue was taken under control by Rochambeau[4], but the French evacuated shortly thereafter. The Saint-Janvier family stayed, and one of the chiefs of the revolutionary movement, Dessalines[5] called for the remaining white men to meet with him, and M. Saint-Janvier was summarily arrested and executed. Amidst grief and despair, word came that the most violent part of the “Negro” army was to arrive in le Cap and scour it for remaining white folk. It was just before their arrival that the de Saint-Janvier women joined ranks with the Mme. Georges[6] and her three daughters, and it is here where the excerpt picks up.
Within this excerpt specifically, the Mesdemoiselles de Saint-Janvier are not yet the central focus; rather, it is a piece from the early pages of the story and involves the separation of the girls from their mother and friends. Their experiences involve hiding from “Negroes” and revolting slaves who are out to massacre all of the whites on the island. When they think that the “Negroes” have spared them, they rejoice and thank God, only to realize that they are to be put to death in ceremonial, public fashion. This cycle, of hope transformed into grave despair, is an emblematic pattern of many events within the story: the girls hope to stay and live with Diakué, the general of les quatrièmes[7] the but must be shipped away; the girls hope to find family in America, but are put into a servitude. The sense of false hope is troubling indeed, and the narrator’s voice adds to the sadness and horror that can be felt from their condition. Through personal, exclamatory statements and diction that sympathizes with the young girls, the narrator portrays the de Saint-Janvier sisters as helpless victims in need of sympathy. It is this voice that makes the story all the more intriguing and poignant for the reader.
Translated and introduced by Porter Geer
“Three days passed in this way. The servant Marie brought them food during the night. They already said that the Negroes only massacred the men, and that they would do nothing to the women and children. These women were preparing to leave their hiding place, when Marie ran to tell them that the massacre of women had been ordered.... Indeed, in the evening, les quatrièmes[8]entered the house and pillaged it. They asked where were the Georges and Saint-Janvier families (who heard everything that was happening, without daring to make the slightest movement). Marie said that they were going to be massacred… Jean-Baptiste[9], the father of Marie, and one of the slaughterers, threatened to kill his daughter on the spot, if she does not say where her mistress is. The poor girl throws herself on her knees in front of her father, and protests to him that they have killed all of her masters, which she swears on her word. Far from wanting to think about her, her father suspends his sword above her head, and orders her to speak… She replies that she will give her life if she has to, but that she will never tell a lie, and that her masters are dead, she cannot say that they are hidden.
The soldiers, touched by the courage of this generous girl, were content to go explore the whole house and then leave. Unfortunately, the other Marie discovered that her mistress had gone up into the attic, and seeing that les quatrièmes had not seen her, she ran to denounce the place of their refuge. A Negro slowly climbs the ladder and enters…The two mothers kissed, kissed their children, with feelings of joy and happiness that made them feel that they had been saved.
Such was their terror, their despair, when they saw the Negro appear! This man nevertheless told them with a strong civil tone: “Do not worry, I am not going to bring you any bad news, on the contrary I bring you good news. The massacres are over, and our general had granted you life and freedom, Since you have had the fortune of escaping the general massacre, and he sent me to invite you to come down, because he will be charmed to see you.” The women continued to thank the heavens for saving them a second time in the middle of so many dangers, and descended calmly with their children. But they soon fell back into the most cruel consternation, when they saw the house filled with soldiers who assailed them from all sides. Imagine their condition, finding themselves in the hands of their executioners, after having thought they had escaped the dangers and misfortunes that threatened them!
They separated them, and drove them to a promenade called La Fossette[10]; that was where the barbarians slit the throats of their victims. The night was dark, and all of the inhabitants were sleeping. The infamous Jean-Baptiste whom they talked about, raised his voice, and said that it was better to slaughter them the next day, in the daytime, so that they would be ashamed to be seen by everyone; they applauded this unworthy proposition, which was met with enthusiasm. They were then led into a large and superb mansion that was in a prominent place in the town; they were put in a vestibule, to rest there until the next morning at 8 o’clock, when they would come to take them to execution.
That evening, someone named Diakué, one of the leaders of the Negro army, went to the place where these poor victims were staying. This general had a very good heart, he had come to see these women with the intention of helping them. Mrs. Saint-Janvier had known the father of Diakué in a rather singular way: Mr. Saint-Janvier had obligations to someone named Diakua who had commissioned him for a commission in Jamaica. Diakua being back, Mr. Saint-Janvier came to thank him and invite him to dinner. Diakua and Diakué moved from the same place; Mr. Saint-Janvier was deceived, and found himself at Diakué’s home instead of Diakua’s. He did not realize his mistake until he entered the home of general Diakué.
Mr. Saint-Janvier, who had as much grace in his spirit and manners as amiability in character, congratulated Diakué for the misfortune that had brought him home, and invited him to come congratulated Diakué on the mistake which had brought him home, and invited him to congratulated Diakué on the mistake which had brought him home, and invited him to make it even more agreeable, by coming to breakfast at his house. Diakué who was not, as one might think, of a very distinguished extraction, was very flattered by the visit and the politeness of Mr. Saint-Janvier, and infinitely sensitive to his invitation. I should maybe have not allowed myself this digression in such a terrible moment; but this episode seemed very important and also necessary to make known, to show the motifs and the interest which this general took of sorts in Mrs. Saint-Janvier and her children.
Diakué, in fact occupied by ways to save this poor woman and her family, proposed to Mrs. Saint-Janvier to come have dinner at his home with her children, to distract them from their horrible situation. Mrs. Saint-Janvier did not want to separate from Mrs. Georges or leave her alone, and refused Diakué invitation, who could not extend it to the second family, without giving rise to suspicions; He refrained from asking Mrs. Saint-Janvier to give him the girls, but they did not want to leave their mother, and said that they wanted to share her fate and die with her, if they had to.
It would be difficult to paint the horror of the night that these unfortunate mothers had to pass. The next day at 8 o’clock, they came to seek the victims; there were seven… Mrs. Saint-Janvier and her two children, and Mrs. Georges and her three girls.
Each quarter had their general bring the whites to and preside over their execution, and preside over their execution. Diakué found himself in charge of this. The custom was to read the victims their sentences, as Dessalines[11] had brought them. They began with Mrs. Georges; the sentence condemned her to be hanged by her feet, her head at the bottom, and her three girls would perish by the cut of the sword. The miserable women having been executed, Diakué, who had to read the type of death reserved for Mrs. Saint-Janvier and her children, was so indignant that he tore up the paper without announcing the sentence. They asked him what was the kind of death she was to endure? … Diakué did not say anything… Finally, Mrs. Saint-Janvier, seeing that despite all of the good will of Diakué, she could not escape death, through herself on her knees of the general, and said to him, “even though my white skin condemns me to die, oh Mr. Diakué, save my children!” At the same moment, a soldier cut off her head, which, detached from her body, fell in the arms of the unfortunate girls, and covered them in the blood of their poor mother. Diakué, pretending to want to reserve the honor of slaughtering the last two whites who remained in Le Cap[12], said to the Blacks: “Soldiers, you have had the satisfaction of killing quite a large number of these Whites, it is right that your general also has his part.” At this instant, he drags these two enfants back to his home with a ferocious air, while crying that he would kill them according to his fantasy and that they would not come back to life… The Blacks, certainly satisfied, and assured that these innocent girls would die, let them leave. Diakué, supported always by the generous character that he showed, brought the Saint-Janvier girls to his home, gave them to his wife, named Judith who had a very good heart. They hid them underneath a bed, where they stayed very troubled and ill at ease for 14 days.


“Trois jours se passèrent ainsi. La bonne Marie leur apportait à manger pendant la nuit. On disait déjà que les Noirs ne massacraient que les hommes, et qu’ils ne faisaient rien aux femmes et aux enfants. Ces dames se disposaient à sortir de leur retraite, lorsque Marie a couru leur dire que le massacre des femmes était ordonné … Effectivement, dès le soir, les quatrièmes entrèrent dans la maison et l’ont pillée. On demandait où était les familles Georges et Saint-Janvier (qui entendait tout ce qui se passait, sans oser faire le moindre mouvement). Marie répond qu’elles viennent d'être massacrées… Jean-Baptiste, père de Marie, et un des massacreurs, menace sa fille de la tuer sur-le-champ, si elle ne dit où est sa maîtresse… La pauvre fille se jette aux genoux de son père, lui proteste qu’on a tué tous ses maîtres, qu’elle en jure sa parole… Loin de vouloir la croire, son père suspend son sabre sur sa tête, et lui ordonne de parler… Elle répond qu’elle donnera sa vie s’il le faut, mais que jamais elle ne dira un mensonge, et que ses maîtres étant morts, elle ne peut dire qu’ils sont cachés.
Les soldats, frappés du courage héroïque de cette généreuse fille, se contentèrent de faire recherches dans toute la maison, et s’ont retiré . Malheureusement, l’autre Marie s'était aperçue que sa maîtresses étaient montée dans le grenier, et voyant que les quatrièmes ne l’avaient pas découverte, elle a couru leur dénoncer le lieu de son refuge. Un Nègre monte tout doucement à l'échelle et entre… Les deux mères s’embrassaient, embrassaient leurs enfants, avec le sentiment de la joie et du bonheur que leur faisait éprouver l’espoir d'être sauvées.
Quel fut leur effroi, leur désespoir, lorsqu’elles ont vu paraître le Nègre! Cet homme cependant leur dit d’un air fort civil: … “Ne craignez rien, je ne viens pas vous annoncer de mauvaises nouvelles, je viens au contraire vous en apprendre de bonnes. Les massacres sont finis, et notre général vous accorde la vie et la liberté, puis que vous avez eu l’adresse de vous soustraire au massacre général, et il m’envoie pour vous inviter à descendre, parce qu’il sera charmé de vous voir.” Ces dames ont remercié encore le ciel de les avoir conservées une deuxième fois au milieu de tant de périls, et sont descendues tranquillement avec leurs enfants. Mais elles n’ont pas tardé à retomber dans la plus cruelle consternation, lorsqu’elles ont vu la maison remplie de soldats qui les ont assailli de toutes parts. Qu’on se figure leur état, en se retrouvant dans les mains de leurs bourreaux, après s'être crues échappées aux dangers et aux malheurs qui les menaçaient !
On les séparait, et on les a conduit à une promenade appelée la Fossette ; c'était là que ces barbares égorgeaient leurs victimes. Il était nuit close, et tous les habitants étaient couches. L'infâme Jean-Baptiste dont nous avons parlé, a élevé la voix, et dit qu'il valait mieux les massacrer le lendemain, au jour, afin qu'elles aient la honte d'être vues de tout le monde ; on a applaudi à cette indigne proposition, qui a été accueillie avec enthousiasme. On les a mené donc dans une grande et superbe maison qui était sur la principale place de la ville ; on les a mis dans le vestibule, pour y rester jusqu'au lendemain matin à huit heures , qu'on devait les venir prendre et les mener au supplice.

Le soir, un nommé Diakué, l'un des chefs de l'armée des Noirs, s’est rendu dans affreuse situation. Ce général avait un très -bon-cœur, et il était venu voir ces dames dans l'intention de leur être utile. Mme, de Saint-Janvier avait connu le sieur Diakué d'une manière assez singulière ; voici comment : M. de Saint-Janvier avait des obligations à un nommé Diakua y qui s'était chargé d'une commission pour lui à la Jamaïque. Diakua étant de retour, M. de Saint-Janvier alla pour le remercier et l'inviter à déjeuner. Diakua et Diakué demeuraient sur la même place ; M. de Saint-Janvier trompa, et fut chez Diakué au lieu d'aller chez Diakua. Il ne s'aperçut de sa méprise, que quand il fut entré chez le général Diakué.

M. de Saint-Janvier, qui avait autant de grâces dans l'esprit et les manières, que d'amabilité dans le caractère, se félicita auprès de Diakué , de la méprise qui l'avait amené chez lui, et l'invita à la lui rendre plus agréable encore, en venant déjeuner à sa maison. Diakué qui n’était pas, comme on peut croire, d'une extraction bien distinguée, fut très-flatté de la visite et des politesses de M. de Saint- Janvier, et infiniment sensible à son invitation. J'aurais peut-être dû ne pas me permettre cette digression dans un moment aussi terrible ; mais cet épisode m'a paru trop important et même nécessaire à faire connaître, pour montrer les motifs de l'intérêt que ce gênerai prit au sort de Mme. de Saint-Janvier et de ses enfants.

Diakué , occupe en effet des moyens de sauver cette malheureuse femme et sa famille, proposa à Mme. de Saint-Janvier de venir souper chez lui avec ses enfants, afin de se distraire de son affreuse situation.Mme. de Saint-Janvier ne voulant pas se séparer de Mme. Georges, ni la laisser seule, s’est refusé à l'invitation de Diakué, qui ne pouvait l'étendre jusqu'à cette seconde famille, sans faire naître quelques soupçons ; il se restreignait à demander à Mme. de Saint-Janvier de lui donner ses enfants; mais ces petites n’ont voulu jamais quitter leur mère, et ont dit qu'elles voulaient partager son sort et mourir avec elle, s'il le fallait.
Il serait difficile de peindre l'horreur de la nuit qu’ont eu à passer ces mères infortunées. Le lendemain à huit heures, on est venu chercher les victimes; elles étaient sept. . . Mme. de Saint-Janvier et ses deux enfants , Mme. Georges et ses trois filles.
Chaque quartier avait son général pour mener les Blancs au supplice, et piësider à l'exécution. Diakué s’est trouvé chargé de celle-ci. L'usage était de lire aux victimes leurs sentences, telles que Dessalines les avait portées. On a commencé par Mme. Georges ; la sentence la condamnait à être pendue par les pieds, la tête en bas, et ses trois filles devaient périr à coups de sabre. Les malheureuses ayant été exécutées, Diakué, qui devait lire le genre de mort réservé à Mme. de Saint-Janvier et à ses enfants, en a été si indigné, qu'il a déchiré le papier sans prononcer la sentence. On demanda quel était le genre de mort?... Diakué n’a rien répondu. . . . Enfin , Mme. de Saint-Janvier voyant que malgré toute la bonne volonté de Diakué, elle ne pouvait échapper à la mort, s’est jeté aux genoux du général, et lui dit : « Puisque ma qualité de blanche me condamne à mourir, ah M. Diakué, sauvez mes enfants ». Au même moment , un soldat lui trancha la tête, qui, se détachant de son corps , tomba dans les bras de ses filles infortunées , et les inonda du sang de leur malheureuse mère. Diakué, feignant alors de vouloir se réserver l'honneur de massacrer les deux dernières Blanches qui restaient  au Cap, dit aux Noirs : « Soldats, vous avez eu la satisfaction de tuer un assez grand nombre de ces Blanches , il est juste que votre général en ait aussi sa part ». A l'instant, il entraîne chez lui ces deux enfants avec l'air de la férocité, en criant qu'il ferait mourir à sa fantaisie, et qu’elles ne ressusciteraient pas.... Les Nègres, pleinement satisfaits, et assurés de la mort de ces innocentes victimes, les laissèrent aller. Diakué, soutenant toujours le généreux caractère qu'il avait montré, mena chez lui Mlles. de Saint-Janvier, les confia à sa femme, nommée Judith qui avait un très-bon cœur. On les cacha sous un lit, où elles restèrent bien gênées et bien mal à leur aise pendant quinze jours.
[1] See Haitian Revolutionary Fictions. Palaiseau, Mademoiselle de. Histoire De Mesdemoiselles De Saint-Janvier. Les Deux Seules Blanches Conservées à Saint-Domingue. Paris: J. J. Blaise, 1812.
[2] de Saint-Fargeau, Girault, & Pierre Augustin Eusèbe. Revue des romans. Recueil d'analyses raisonnées des productions remarquables des plus célèbres romanciers français et étrangers. Paris: Firmin Didot freres. 1839.
[3] Le Cap was an important city during the colonial period, serving as the capital of the French Colony of Saint-Domingue from the city's formal foundation in 1711 until 1770 when the capital was moved to Port-au-Prince. After the Haitian Revolution, it became the capital of the Kingdom of Northern Haiti under King Henri Christophe until 1820.
[4] Donatien-Marie-Joseph de Vimeur, vicomte de Rochambeau was appointed to lead an expeditionary force against Saint Domingue in 1802 after General Charles Leclerc’s death. His goal was to restore French control of their rebellious colony, by any means. After Rochambeau surrendered to the rebel general Jean-Jacques Dessalines in November 1803, the former French colony declared its independence as Haiti in 1804, the second independent state in the Americas.
[5]  Jean-Jacques Dessalines was a leader of the Haitian Revolution and the first ruler of an independent Haiti under the 1805 constitution.
[6] The women of the Georges family were a mother and three daughters also stranded without a husband in Le Cap who join with the de Saint-Janviers to hide from the invading revolutionary troops. 
[7]  See footnote 1 of the translation.
[8] Les quatrièmes were a sector of the “Negro” army who were labeled in the novel as the “most ferocious and barbaric”.
[9] Jean-Baptiste was the former servant of the de Saint-Janvier family who murdered Mr. de Saint-Janvier.
[10] La Fossette was a locality south-east of the town of Cap-Français, where the East India Company established a dwelling in 1720. Part of the house was sold in 1759 to establish the cemetery of the city. 
[11] see footnote 5 of the introduction to this excerpt.
[12] Cap Haïtien - nicknamed Le Cap is a favorably-situated port town on Haiti's agriculturally rich north coast on the Atlantic Ocean. The city is the second largest in Haiti, after the capital Port-au-Prince and has an international airport. During Saint-Domingue's extended reign as France's wealthiest colony, Le Cap was glorious. It became the thriving capital of the colony, and was called 'the Paris of the West'. At that time its formal name was Cap Français.


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