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

The Story of the Slave Insurrection in the North of Saint-Domingue

Constantly changing in light of new historical evidence, the story of the Haitian Revolution has become a living legend through the course of the last few centuries. Insofar, the revolution’s earliest recollections have functioned as the prevailing truth and sole authority for both the ensued legend and conceived reality of the seemingly miraculous events. One of these early chronicles, Antoine Métral’s work, The story of the slave insurrection in the north of Saint-Domingue,[1] examines the underlying causes leading to history’s only successful slave insurrection, providing a valuable account on why the French were unable to prevent the outbreak or suppress it once it commenced. The author takes a close look at how the ebullient concept of freedom was dispersed from France into the minds of the slaves, and how it allowed the slaves’ yearning for freedom to reach a new high. Noting the bloodshed on both sides of the civil war, Métral spares no one in his testimonial of what happened. Yet, as presented through a lens of imperial justification on the nature of events, the true value of Métral’s chronicle stems from his ability to describe with precision the feelings of the white colonists, thus contributing to a more comprehensive understanding of the insurrection as a whole.

In the translated excerpt, Métral examines the unfolding of the events in the north of Saint-Domingue, highlighting the effects that French politics had in the revolution.[2] He details the prevailing attitudes of the French regarding the slaves. For example, he presents how colonists denied slave insurrections as part of a conspiracy concocted by rival whites who wanted to further their own political agendas. The misbelief undermined the efforts of the slaves in their emancipation, which later facilitated the recording of the Haitian Revolution as a slave-orchestrated non-event in the books of history. As analyzed by Michel-Rolph Trouillot, the revolution’s significance and uniqueness were forgotten in part due to the lack of representation of the revolution as a slave victory rather than as a French defeat.[3] Furthermore, Métral surmises that the success of the slave revolts was in large part a result of the imprudence of white planters, who imported an untenable number of slaves to the colony. Métral’s colonial identity highlights the attitude of the French who would attribute their loss to anything, but to the superiority of the black slaves.

The attitude persists even in the way Métral chronicles the slaves’ desire for freedom that would lead to their emancipation. He attributes the slaves’ longing to take action to break free from their shackles to their very French oppressors. Métral explains that colonists who had lost their reputation in debauchery in France came to look for a second chance for life across the Atlantic. They inadvertently brought the ideas of freedom to the slaves, who thus started to question their working conditions and the possibility for change. In other words, Métral claims how it was the French themselves who ultimately motivated the slaves to rise up against their oppressors, a suggestion that further undermines the slaves’ inner desire for freedom.

Overall, Métral provides a singular perspective regarding the details of the revolution, and sheds light on how colonists perceived its escalating intensity. His framework regarding the revolution’s inner dynamics is foundational for getting a more acute understanding of the origins and accuracy of the legends surrounding the Haitian Revolution.
 Translated and introduced by Mikael Reijonen


It was in August 1791 that this insurrection broke out, which offered one of these strange spectacles rare in human history. Never had anyone seen at a glance so much fire, blood, and ruins, with tender virtues and ferocious crimes. The furies of liberty mingled with those of servitude. This calamity was accompanied by great terror, because it had been unforeseen and it was not in the power of men to stop it when it appeared. Although there had been insubordination among the slaves, they were in different times and places and moreover, as they had been suppressed by means of torture, the colonists, fully occupied by their own disagreements and later by those with the freedmen, believed in their own sufficient security, as if they were men living near an ignored volcano.
            Meanwhile, the concept of liberty which had now crossed the Atlantic resonated in the ears of the slaves.[4] Adventurers, sailors, people without fortune coming from different walks of life – most of whom had lost their honor as a result of debauchery – and people seeking to repair the ruin caused by the disorders of their lives, came in the meantime from the coasts of France. They roamed the countryside and the slave workshops, complained about the miserable condition of the slaves, and voiced that, like their masters, they had come out from the hands of mother nature naked; they had been taken away forever from their country, they watered stupidly with tears and sweat a land which they could not render fertile enough to satisfy the avarice of their masters. Then their masters entertained them with the sweets and charms of liberty, making them understand how they could free themselves from servitude. The slaves eagerly listened to these stories, and in their spare time secretly discussing them among themselves, they became more and more passionate about freedom.
Two parties were tearing apart France, that of democracy and that of royalty. Both agitated Saint-Domingue, which was even more agitated by two other parties, that of the freedmen and that of the masters: these four parties had more or less influence to cause the slaves to the revolt. The discords between the masters and the freedmen had made them witnesses and sometimes accomplices to all that some did to obtain equality, and to those that tried to repel it; and this spectacle, in which refined and atrocious passions were displayed, caused the slaves to meditate on themselves, and exhausted the sleep from their servitude. In the democratic party, those with a generous love of humanity, those with the unease of ambition, recklessly reconciled the freedom of slavery. The Royalist party, in which most of the officers of land and sea were found, had more union, cunningness, and perspective in its views; the party regarded the slave revolt as a means of rendering commerce an enemy of the French Revolution, and it considered to attach the revolt to its own interest, to increase its power. Thus, in order to overthrow democracy, the royalists did not fear to see the most opulent region of the West Indies burn and bleed. The slaves were ready to do anything to get out of servitude. As the royalist party convinced the slaves that the king wanted their liberty out of sheer kindness, without caring for the truth of the fact, they conspired for liberty in the name of the king and under his flag.[5]
Although most of the colonists formed various conjectures to the way that this conspiracy was formed by the slaves, it was neither prepared nor meditated with the precautions and subtlety of an enterprise of this kind. The violence and bitterness of their hatred did not allow enough deep and varied combinations. Their conspiracy was barely formed, when their vengeance burst forth. So many past and current miseries, so many cruelties exercised by masters who had nothing in common with them, in country, civilization, morals, language, nor colors and forms of the body; so many arbitrary works and punishments without hope for a better future caused – under a sky which communicates its fires to the passions – a vast conspiracy in its drawings, and humane in its views, but whose execution had to be appalling. In order to overthrow the domination of their masters, they resolved to cut their throats, to burn the countryside, the villages, and Le Cap.[6] As it was difficult to prevent anything from leaking because of the multitude of the conspirators, the masters had initially some warning which they disdained. The conspiracy was soon set into motion with the torching of Chabaud's estate which, nevertheless, was extinguished. Slaves of the plantation were arrested, and some denounced the conspiracy; but it was so extraordinary, that it seemed incredible, and it was rejected as unreasonable.
The conjuration became increasingly likely. According to the deposition of an old slave arrested on the night of August 20, there had been on the 14th on the Lenormand estate, at Le Morne Rouge, an assembly composed of two deputies, of each workhouse, parishes of Port-Margot, Limbe, Acul, Petite-Anse, Limonade, Plaine du Nord, Quartier Morin, and several other places. There, the conspirators were to fix the day of the insurrection that had been meditated for some time. It is reported that, before executing the plan, they conducted a sacrifice on untouched ground covered with wood, called The Cayman[7]; that the victim was a black pig whom they surrounded with fetishes, and charged with offerings of various kinds; that a young priestess, dressed in a white robe, stuck the sacred knife into the innards following the usual ceremonies; that they drank ravenously its blood, and that they took its hair, a sort of talisman which was to render them invulnerable in combat.


Ce fut au mois d'août de l'année 1791 qu'éclata cette insurrection, qui offrit un de ces étranges spectacles rare dans l'histoire du genre humain. Jamais on ne vit d'un seul coup-d'œil tant de feu, de sang et de ruines, avec des vertus tendres et des crimes féroces. Les fureurs de la liberté s'y mêlèrent à celles de la servitude. Cette calamité fut accompagnée d'un grand effroi, parce qu'elle avait été imprévue, et qu'il n'était pas au pouvoir des hommes de l'arrêter quand elle parut. Quoiqu'il y eût eu parmi les esclaves des mouvements d'insubordination, c’était en des temps et en des lieux différents, et comme ils avaient été comprimés par des supplices, les colons entièrement occupés de leurs propres dissentions, et ensuite de celles qu'ils avaient avec les affranchis, ne se croyaient pas moins dans une sécurité profonde : semblables à des hommes qui vivent près d'un volcan ignoré.
Cependant le mot de liberté ayant traversé l'Océan, retentit à l'oreille des esclaves. Des aventuriers, des matelots, des gens sans fortune et de divers partis, la plupart perdus d'honneur, souillés de débauches, et cherchant à réparer leur ruine, causée par les désordres de leur vie, venus en ce temps des côtes de France, parcouraient la campagne et les ateliers, plaignaient la misérable condition des esclaves, et disaient que comme leurs maîtres, ils étaient sortis nus des mains de la nature; qu'éloignés pour jamais de leur patrie, ils arrosaient stupidement de larmes et de sueur une terre qu'ils ne pouvaient rendre assez féconde pour satisfaire l'avarice de leurs maîtres. Ensuite ils les entretenaient des douceurs et des charmes de la liberté, leur faisant entendre de quelle manière ils pourraient s'affranchir de la servitude. Les esclaves écoutaient avec avidité ces récits, et pendant leurs loisirs s'en occupant secrètement entre eux, ils se passionnaient de plus en plus pour la liberté.
Deux partis déchiraient alors la France, celui de la démocratie et celui de la royauté. Tous les deux agitaient Saint-Domingue, plus violemment agité par deux autres, celui des affranchis et celui des maîtres : ces quatre partis eurent plus ou moins d'influence pour déterminer les esclaves à la révolte. Les dissentions entre les maîtres et les affranchis les avaient rendus témoins et parfois complices de tout ce que faisaient les uns pour obtenir l'égalité, les autres pour la repousser ; et ce spectacle où se déployaient des passions raffinées et atroces, les faisait méditer sur eux-mêmes, et fatiguait le sommeil de leur servitude. Dans le parti de la démocratie, ceux-ci par un amour généreux de l'humanité, ceux-là par l’inquiétude de l’ambition, rapprochèrent imprudemment la liberté de l'esclavage. Le parti de la royauté, dans lequel se trouvaient la plupart des officiers de terre et de mer, eut plus d'union, de ruse et d'étendue dans ses vues : il considéra la révolte des esclaves comme un moyen de rendre le commerce ennemi de la révolution de France, de le rattacher à son intérêt, d'augmenter sa puissance. Ainsi, pour renverser la démocratie, il ne craignit point de voir mettre à feu et à sang la plus opulente région des Antilles. Les esclaves étaient prêts à tout entreprendre pour sortir de la servitude. Comme ce parti leur fit entendre que le roi rempli pour eux d'une rare sollicitude voulait leur liberté, sans s'inquiéter de la vérité du fait, ce fut au nom du roi et sous son étendard qu'ils conspirèrent pour la liberté.
Quoique la plupart des colons aient formé diverses conjectures sur la manière dont cette conspiration fut tramée par les esclaves, elle ne fut ni préparée ni méditée avec les précautions et les finesses d'une entreprise de ce genre. La violence et l’amertume de leur haine ne permit point autant de combinaisons profondes et variées. Leur conspiration fut à peine formée, que leur vengeance éclata. Tant de misères passées et présentes, tant de cruautés exercées par des maîtres qui n'avaient rien de commun avec eux, ni pays, ni civilisation, ni mœurs, ni langage, ni couleurs et formes du corps ; tant de travaux et de châtiments arbitraires, sans espérance d’un meilleur avenir, engendrèrent, sous un ciel qui communique ses feux aux passions, une conjuration vaste dans ses desseins, humaine dans ses vues, mais dont l’exécution devait être effroyable. Pour renverser la domination de leurs maîtres, ils résolurent de les égorger, de mettre en cendres les campagnes, les bourgs et le Cap. Comme il était difficile que rien ne transpirât à cause de la multitude des conjurés, les maîtres en eurent d'abord quelque avertissement qu'ils dédaignèrent. La conspiration ne tarda pas à s'annoncer par le feu que les conjurés mirent à l’habitation Chabaud, et qu'on parvint néanmoins à éteindre. On arrêta des esclaves de cette habitation qui la dénoncèrent ; mais elle était si extraordinaire, qu'elle parut incroyable, et on la rejetait comme dénuée de vraisemblance.
La conjuration devint de plus en plus certaine. Suivant la déposition d'un vieil esclave arrêté dans la nuit du 20 août, il y avait eu le 14 sur l'habitation Lenormand, au Morne Rouge, une assemblée composée de deux députés, par chaque atelier, des paroisses du Port-Margot, du Limbé, de l'Acul, de la Petite-Anse, de Limonade, de la Plaine du Nord, du Quartier Morin, et de plusieurs autres lieux. Les conjurés devaient y fixer le jour de l'insurrection méditée depuis quelque temps. On rapporte qu’avant d'en exécuter le plan, ils firent un sacrifice sur un terrain vierge et couvert de bois, appelé Le Caïman ; que la victime fut un cochon noir qu'ils entourèrent de fétiches, et chargèrent d'offrandes de diverses espèces ; qu'une jeune prêtresse, vêtue d'une robe blanche, lui plongea le couteau sacré dans les entrailles suivant les cérémonies accoutumées ; qu'ils burent avec avidité de son sang, et qu'ils prirent de son poil, espèce de talisman qui devait les rendre invulnérables dans le combat.

[1] Métral, Antoine. Histoire De L’insurrection Des Esclaves Dans Le Nord De Sainte-Domingue. Paris: F. Scherff, 1818.
[2] Ibid. Pp. 10-16.
[3] Trouillot examines how the only successful slave-conducted revolution was misrepresented and forgotten over time. For additional resources, please refer to Trouillot’s seminal piece: The Haitian Revolution as a Non-event.          Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995.
[4] The coexisting French Revolution (1789-1799) brought to the forefront ideas of “liberty, equality, and fraternity”, in which the French got rid of their previous political patrons, and which had showed slaves the power of the collective.
[5] The collaboration of the slaves with different parties presented an interesting power dynamic, in which critics argue the slaves were merely used as pawns in their own revolution. For further reading and additional resource, it can be helpful to refer to C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins in order to place the events better into history.
[6] The Cap was indeed burned to the ground by rebelling slaves, with the torching beginning on the 26th of September 1791.
[7] There exists deep-routed confusion regarding the Bois Cayman ceremony in many testaments of the revolution. The event has been more recently understood to have had nothing to do with Vodou practices and believed not have furthermore happened on August 14th.  David Geggus’s “Haitian Revolutionary Studies” is a useful resource for understanding the ceremony in further detail.

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