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

Histoire de Mesdemoiselles de Saint-Janvier Pt. 2

Despite Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s evaluation of the West’s attitude towards the Haitian revolution as first unthinkable and later a non-event, the tumultuous events of the slave uprisings and revolution in colonial Saint-Domingue provoked vivid contemporary accounts and emotional stories from its former ‘Western’ residents. As the John Carter Brown Library of Brown University notes in its online introduction to the book, “after the great diaspora of white planters and landed affranchis back to France, and other places of Haitian refugees such as Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and New Orleans, as well other islands in the West Indies, one can imagine that the image of Saint-Domingue as ‘home’ might have stirred strong feelings of nostalgia.”[1]
This text titled L’Histoire de Mesdemoiselles de Saint-Janvier is attributed to Mlle de Palaiseau by Barbier, Bissainthe and Sabin.[2] Not much else appears to be known about the author. The text is a work of fiction relating the story of the Saint-Janvier family, white colonial planters, in Saint-Domingue during the revolution and of their young daughters. The text features an engraved frontispiece depicting a woman holding her two small daughters before a soldier. The frontispiece depicts the soldier as white and has no caption. A second engraving one-third of the way into the book depicts the soldier as black in the same position and is captioned "Ah! M. Diakué, sauvez mes enfants.”[3]
The excerpt I have selected for translation presents a scene of the death of Mrs. de Saint-Janvier followed by the efforts of her children to hide in the home of M. Diakué and their attempt to leave the island. Interestingly, the scene showcases the efforts of black women to save the white children after the death of their mother. Calling Palaiseau’s story a “remarkable narration of the complications of female resistance in Saint-Domingue”, Marlene Daut, Associate Professor of African Diaspora Studies at the University of Virginia, writes further that the work presents “women who are represented not as having fully participated in the Revolution, but as also having been immediately defiant in the face of both colonial and broader patriarchal authority.”[4] [4]. She continues: “Importantly, one of these rescuers, Marie-Claire Heureuse [...] shirks patriarchal authority in a broad and complex way that defies horizontal understandings of resistance as ‘black’ against ‘white’, the enslaved against the free, here, pitting males against females and husbands against wives.”[5]
Translated and introduced by Andrew Blank


It would be difficult to paint the horror of the night that these unfortunate mothers had to endure. The next day at eight o'clock, the victims were picked up; there were seven of them. . . Mrs. de Saint-Janvier and her two children, Mrs. George and her three daughters.
Each neighborhood had its own order to lead the whites to the torment and preside to the execution. Diakué found himself in charge of it. The custom was to read victims their sentences, such as Dessalines had given them.[6] It began with Mrs. George; the sentence condemned her to be hanged by her feet, head down; and her three girls were to perish by sabre blows. The unfortunate women having been executed, Diakué, who was to read the type of execution reserved for Mrs. de Saint-Janvier and her children, was so indignant, that he tore the paper without pronouncing the sentence. What kind of death was asked?... Diakué did not answer. ... Finally, Mrs. de Saint-Janvier, seeing that despite all Diakué's good will, she could not escape death, threw herself to the General's knees, and said to him: "Since my whiteness condemns me to death, Mr. Diakué, save my children.” At the same moment, a soldier cut off her head, which, detaching itself from her body, fell into the arms of her unfortunate daughters, and flooded them with the blood of their unfortunate mother. Diakué, then pretending to want to reserve for himself the honour of slaughtering the last two white women who remained in Le Cap, said to the blacks: "Soldiers, you had the satisfaction of killing a rather large number of these white women, it is just that your general also has his share". At the moment, he took these two children home with the air of ferocity, shouting that he would make them die according to his fantasy, and they wouldn't come back to life....
The Negroes, fully satisfied, and assured of the death of these innocent victims, let them go. Diakué, still supporting the generous character he had shown, led the children of Mrs. de Saint-Janvier, entrusted them to his wife, named Judith who had a very good heart. They were hid under a bed, where they remained embarrassed and very uncomfortable for two weeks. Judith brought them food, taking great care. It was only at the end of this time that they were allowed to lift up their covers, and to come out for a few moments from their hiding place. The doors were then carefully closed; Judith took great care and stood in continuous surveillance, so that no one could see them.
One day, before the designated time for them to come out of hiding, one of these young ladies, thirsty, went into the room to get some water. A general, named Soudry, Diakuë's companion, without being his friend, was then in the house, and entered the room when the young White girl was drinking. He immediately drew his sword, which was already suspended on the poor child's head; when Diakuë fortunately entered, stopped Soudry's arm (who was drunk), and persuaded him, when the young person had fled, that he had made a mistake, and that it was not a white woman he had seen. It wasn't long before they hid the children, and it was hoped that Soudry, in coming to his senses, would not remember this adventure. Diakué received, in the evening, an order to present himself at Saint-Marc the next morning.[7]
While he was gone, Soudry, not having forgotten that he had seen a white woman in his comrade's house, assembled his troops who were in the city, and entered Diakué's house by armed hand, saying that there were white men in hiding. Judith immediately made the poor children pass through and hid them, and shut the door upon them, which was built in such a way that it could not be seen that there was really a door there. Judith put a chair outside the door, and made herself seem to be busy working.
Some Blacks arrived, searched everywhere, ransacked the place up to the pots and pans, and not discovering the children, because they didn't see this blessed door, they withdrew. Diakué, on his way home, saw the looting that had taken place, asked for a reason, and obtained it.
These young people were still under the same surveillance for a month, after which Judith gave them more freedom, that is, that they remained in the house, but without being hidden. The massacres were over, and there was nothing left to fear for their lives. Yet it was not published how they had been saved, so as not to compromise their liberator; several months went by like this.
Diakué having been obliged to go, for his service, to Saint-Marc, the respectable Judith, who was then all reassured on the fate of her little white girls, put them up as if in a boarding school where they were taught their religion, and where they learned to read and write. One day Judith sent for them, ordered them to dress properly and bring them to her immediately. These poor little ones, whom the least thing frightened, feared at first that it was to make them die; they all arrived trembling. Seeing them, the maid Judith asked them if they would be happy to go to New York, where it was believed that they had parents, and told them that a lady who had owed their father money, had found an opportunity to get them out; that she even took care of all the expenses of their passage up to when they would be handed over to their family. One must get an idea of the pleasure these young girls felt when they heard such good news. They immediately went to this charitable lady, who received them very well, and introduced them to those who had taken them. The departure was set for the following Monday; it was then on Saturday. All the preparations for the trip were taken care of, and on Sunday evening their effects were transported to the ship.
On Monday, at the time indicated, the ladies of Saint-Janvier went board the ship, but one can guess what was their despair, by learning that the ship which was to take them, had sailed in the night to go to cross in a place where there were pirates ! Not knowing in what time or place he would land, the shipowner could not take care of them, and had left their effects on land. They were thus forced to return to their lodging, no longer having any hope of getting out of their very unhappy and difficult position. They thought that they could not always stay in the house, and that Diakué could get tired of having them at home; and what would they become without parents, without friends, without support on earth? These thoughts were very sad and disturbing, especially for the eldest, who was already old enough to feel her misfortune; she was between twelve and thirteen years old.


Il serait difficile de peindre l'horreur de la nuit qu'eurent à passer ces mères infortunées. Le lendemain à huit heures, on vint 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 présider à l'exécution. Diakué se trouva chargé de celle-ci. L'usage était de lire aux victimes leurs sentences, telles que Dessallines les avait portées. On commença 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 fut si indigné, qu'il déchira le papier sans prononcer la sentence. On demanda quel était le genre de mort?... Diakué ne répondit rien. . . . Enfin, Me. de Saint-Janvier voyant que malgré toute la bonne volonté de Diakué, elle ne pouvait échapper à la mort, se jeta aux genoux du général, et lui dit : « Puisque ma qualité de blanche me condamne à mourir, 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 enfans 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 Mme. 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. Judith leur apportait à manger, et en avait le plus grand soin. Ce ne fut qu'au bout de ce temps qu'on leur permit de relever leur couvre-pied, et de sortir pour quelques momens de leur cachette. On avait alors bien soin de fermer les portes; Judith prenait les plus grandes précautions et se tenait dans une continuelle surveillance, pour que personne ne pût les apercevoir.
Un jour, avant l'heure qui était marquée pour sortir de la cachette, une de ces jeunes demoiselles, qui avait soif, alla dans la chambre prendre de l'eau. Un général, nommé Soudry, compagnon de Diakué, sans être son ami était alors dans la maison, et entra dans la chambre au moment où la jeune Blanche buvait. Il tira aussitôt son sabre, qui était déjà suspendu sur la tête de cette pauvre enfant, lorsque Diakué entra fort heureusement, arrêta le bras de Soudry (qui était ivre), et lui persuada, lorsque la jeune personne se fût enfuie, qu'il s’était trompé, et que ce n'était pas une Blanche qu'il avait vu. On cacha bien vite les enfants, et on espéra que Soudry, en recouvrant la raison, ne se souviendrait plus de cette aventure.
Diakué reçut, dans la soirée, l’ordre de se rendre le lendemain matin à Saint-Mar lorsqu'il fut parti, Soudry qui, en retenant à lui, n'avait pas oublié qu'il avait vu une Blanche chez son camarade, assembla ses troupes qui étaient dans la ville, et entra à main armée dans la maison de Diakué, en disant qu'il y avait des Blancs de cachés. Judith fit passer aussitôt les pauvres enfans dans leur cachette, et ferma sur elles la porte qui était construite de manière qu'on ne s'apercevait pas au-dehors qu'il y en eût une. Judith mit une chaise devant cette porte, et parut être occupée de travailler. Les Noirs arrivent, cherchent partout, pillent jusqu'aux casseroles, et ne découvrant pas les enfants, parce qu'ils ne voyaient pas cette bienheureuse porte, ils se retirent. Diakué, en rentrant chez lui vit le pillage qui s'y était fait, en demanda raison, et l'obtint.
Ces jeunes personnes furent encore sous la même surveillance pendant un mois, au bout duquel Judith leur laissa plus de liberté, c'est-à-dire, qu'elles restèrent encore dans la maison, mais sans être cachées; les massacres étaient finis, et il n'y avait plus rien à craindre pour leur vie. On ne publiait pas pourtant comment elles avaient été sauvées, pour ne pas compromettre leur libérateur; plusieurs mois se passèrent ainsi.
Diakué ayant été obligé d'aller, pour son service, à Saint-Mar, la respectable Judith , qui était alors toute rassurée sur le sort de ses petites Blanches , les mit dans une pension où on les instruisit de leur religion , et où elles apprenaient à lire et à écrire. Un jour Judith les envoya chercher, avec ordre de les habiller proprement et de les lui amener tout de suite. Ces pauvres petites, que la moindre chose effrayait, craignirent d'abord que ce ne fût pour les faire mourir ; elles arrivèrent toutes tremblantes. La bonne Judith leur demanda en les voyant, si elles seraient bien contentes d'aller à New York, où l'on croyait qu’elles avaient des parents, et leur dit qu'une dame qui avait eu des obligations à leur père, avait trouvé une occasion pour les faire partir ; qu'elle se chargeait même de tous les frais de leur passage jusqu'à ce qu'elles fussent remises à leur famille. On doit se faire une idée du plaisir qu'éprouvèrent ces jeunes personnes, en apprenant une aussi bonne nouvelle. Elles allèrent tout de suite chez cette dame charitable, qui les reçut très-bien, et les présenta à ceux qui s'étaient chargés de les emmener. On fixa le départ au lundi suivant ; on était au samedi. On s'occupa de tous les préparatifs du voyage, et le dimanche au soir, leurs effets furent transportés sur le vaisseau.
Le lundi, à l'heure indiquée, les demoiselles de Saint-Janvier se rendent au lieu de l'embarquement mais qu'on juge quel fut leur désespoir, en apprenant que le vaisseau qui devait les emmener, avait fait voile dans la nuit pour aller croiser dans un endroit où il y avait des corsaires ! Ne sachant ni dans quel temps ni dans quel lieu, il débarquerait, l'armateur n'avait pu se charger d'elles, et avait laissé leurs effets à terre. Elles furent donc obligées de retourner à leur pension, n'ayant plus d'espoir de sortir de leur position vraiment malheureuse et critique. Elles pensaient qu'elles ne pouvaient rester toujours en pension, et que Diakué pouvait se lasser de les avoir chez lui ; alors que devenir sans parents, sans amis sans appui sur la terre ? Ces réflexions étaient bien tristes et bien inquiétantes, surtout pour l'aînée qui était déjà assez grande pour sentir son malheur ; elle était âgée de douze à treize ans.
[1] "Histoire De Mesdemoiselles De Saint-Janvier. Les Deux Seules Blanches Conservées à Saint-Domingue. Seconde édition." Remember Haiti. Accessed April 11, 2018.
[2] ibid., n.p.
[3] Palaiseau, Mlle. Histoire De Mesdemoiselles De Saint-Janvier. 2nd ed. Paris: J.-J. Blaise, 1812., n.p.
[4] Daut, Marlene. Tropics of Haiti: Race and the Literary History of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World, 1789-1865. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015, 207.
[5] ibid., 209.
[6] Jean-Jacques Dessalines was a prominent figure in the slave rebellion and subsequent revolution in Saint-Domingue, taking a leading role after the departure of Toussaint Louverture.
[7] Saint-Marc was a coastal colonial town northwest of Port-au-Prince and there remains a moderately sized town.

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