Haiti 1791

History of the Disasters in Saint-Domingue

Source: Michel Etienne Decourtilz, Histoire des desastres de Saint-Domingue. Chez garnery, Paris An III (1795);
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2004.

The French naturalist Michel Etienne Descourtilz lived in Saint-Domingue during much of the revolt that led to independence for the island. This is his account of the beginning of the uprising in August 1791 in Le Cap.

It was August 23, 1791 that the plot broke out that, in the blink of an eye, covered in ruin and blood the most brilliant, the richest county of the universe. The entire horizon suddenly seemed covered by a thick smoke, and one could distinctly see the flames occupy the environs of Limonade and Morin in the north, La Petite Anse and Limbé, and finally the entire extent of the area known under the name of Plaine du Cap that surrounds that city. A crowd of men, women and children, escaped from the fire and iron of the assassins, ran there from everywhere, seeking refuge. It was learned from them that the slaves were in a state of insurrection, and that almost everywhere they'd killed their masters and representatives, and that they'd set fire to the buildings and the sugarcane in order to promote their projects.

Soon the ravages reached the gates of Le Cap, from which one could see the rebels — the torch in one hand and iron in the other — set fire everywhere, and pursue the unfortunate ones who fled the burning homes and sought to escape a sure death. Panic fear was the first emotion one felt in that city.

There soon followed a disturbing agitation and furor: there was a united cry against the mulattoes, and the multitude viewed them as the authors of the disaster that surrounded them. From this idea it was only one small step to the most terrible vengeance. The petits blancs [1] threw themselves upon the first men of color who offered themselves to their blows, and treated them just as the rebels were treating at the same time the whites of the burning plains. Some were massacred and the rest would have met the same fate if more humane men hadn’t thrown themselves between them and their assassins, and hadn’t managed to calm this movement of a blinded and furious multitude. The provincial assembly of the North immediately established places of refuge for these unfortunates, most of whom, at least the women and children, had nothing to do with the crimes for which their like were responsible...

Masters of the plains, where they met no resistance, the blacks could have spread out and carried throughout the colony the example of the rebellion, the germ of which must secretly have existed everywhere there was slaves, and that waited for nothing but their approach in order to develop. A little bit of concerted action would easily have overcome the feeble obstacles put in their way in the first moments. But themselves astonished by their progress and drunk with joy, they lost the most precious instants by celebrating their victories, festivities that ended with the massacre of a great number of unfortunate prisoners, who their rage had at first spared. They had barely spared a few elderly — most of whom have since died of hunger and poverty — and a few women exposed to outrages a thousand times more cruel than death.

The impression they'd initially made gradually weakened; one began to have contempt for an enemy who was only terrible due to his number and the flames that marked his steps. It was soon resolved to attack him in the midst of the ruins with which he was surrounded. Of the 25 parishes that make up the North only eight — but the most important of them — had been totally ruined. The others had only partially suffered. The fury and the attacks of the blacks had slowed down. Not only could the places they hadn’t attacked be guaranteed, but they could even have been attacked in the center of their conquests and in the places in which they believed themselves to be the most tranquil owners if, left to themselves and their own means, they hadn’t been supported and guided by an invisible and experienced hand. In all of the blacks’ attempts, and in the most remarkable of their actions, they appeared to march under the command of freemen of color, along with chiefs they'd chosen from among their own class. Everywhere one saw the mixed- bloods make common cause with them, and their property spared in the midst of the ruin of that of whites. Some among them made themselves remarkable by acts of barbarism more atrocious than those committed by the most ferocious blacks: the mulatto Candy had the eyes of whites who'd fallen into his hands torn out with corkscrews reddened by fire; the bloody Coco Mondion had 34 hung in one day.

1. non-landowning whites.