Rosaries and Revolution: Father Philemon, Catholicism, and the Haitian Revolution

By Erica Johnson

After the slave uprising began in the North Province of Saint-Domingue in August 1791, Capuchin Father Philemon, the parish priest of Limbé, allegedly joined the slave insurgents in perpetrating violence against whites. The attorney on the Clément plantation claimed that “Father Philemon … who since the beginning of the revolt was with the rebel blacks, their pastor, or better to say…their instigator, committed more than one crime.”  The attorney asserted that Philemon had held white women prisoner in the church, sharing them with the insurgents as concubines each evening, “like a seraglio.”  The witness recounted a conversation with one of the females he knew, writing that “one of my neighbors, a little old woman, whose soul was her only beauty, came up to me.  The curé had wanted to sleep with her, and when she refused, she received fifty lashes, the scars of which she still bore.”[1]  He claimed many of the other women did not survive more than a few days after being freed by colonial forces, because they had been mercilessly abused and had contracted diseases. 

Map of Saint-Domingue.
Map of Saint-Domingue

For his supposed vicious crimes, including his alliance with the insurgents, white colonists detained Philemon, eventually publicly executing him.  Despite the priest’s alleged sexual and spiritual crimes, the official charges brought against Philemon focused on his undesirable alliances.  Philemon was “accused and convicted of having supported the blacks in revolt and having corresponded with their chiefs, as well as the Spanish. He was hanged on the Place d’Armes at four in the afternoon.”[2]

Father Philemon’s story, while likely exaggerated or even fabricated by white enemies of the Haitian Revolution to vilify the priest for sympathizing with the slave insurrectionists, reveals the complexities of one of the most significant revolutions in world history.  Contradictory to depictions of the Haitian Revolution as a struggle between black and white, Catholic clergy, such as Philemon, worked across racial lines with blacks and free people of color.  They acted on their faith in humanity amidst a slave society and a violent revolution.  Priests conducted masses for the souls of martyred insurrectionists, provided continued religious instruction and rituals for rebel camps, served as intermediaries between slave leaders and French authorities, offered council for revolutionary leaders of all colors, and remained in Haiti after it became an independent, black nation.  Although the extent of their involvement was quite different from the accusations directed at Philemon, these philanthropic clergy sought to improve the lives of people of African descent. 

The Catholic Church had a long history in the French Atlantic world.  It did not officially oppose enslavement of Africans during the eighteenth century, but some individual members of the Church recognized the people of African descent as potential converts and considered them to be equal in the eyes of God.  Many Africans had been exposed to, and even converted to, Christianity in Africa before being sold into slavery in the Caribbean.  The Christianity brought to Saint-Domingue by slaves traces back to the western coasts of Africa, where the Portuguese introduced Catholicism even before Columbus landed in the Americas.[3]  Of course, not all slaves accepted Catholicism in the style of the French, but instead observed other forms of religious syncretism, such as Voudou.  The similarities between African cosmologies and Catholicism facilitated syncretism, combining African beliefs with Catholic representations. 

The French Crown cemented the relationship between the Catholic Church and its colonies when it decreed the Code noir (Black Code) in 1685.  Catholicism was central to this decree. Although intended to regulate relations between masters and slaves, Catholicism appeared throughout the Code noir.  The first article of the edict explained the need for the authority and justice of the French Crown to maintain Catholicism before mentioning any regulations on slavery.[4]

Prior to the revolution, Saint-Domingue was France’s most profitable colony.  The profits came primarily from sugar production, which required substantial slave labor.  Therefore, slaves represented nearly eighty percent of the colony’s population.  In the years before the slave uprising, the clergy gained the trust and respect of the enslaved population.  While the clergy did, indeed, own plantations and slaves, they often expressed sympathy for peoples of African descent.[5]  For example, some clergy members helped slaves become literate, while other priests even allowed slaves to catechize or even conduct mass.  Interactions between the clergy and slaves remained a constant in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and these relationships eventually contributed significantly to the revolution in Saint-Domingue. 

The Catholic clergy of Saint-Domingue played an important, but little known role in the Haitian Revolution.  They allied with the slaves in various ways.  They protected both slaves’ rights to religious instruction and freedom for people of all colors.  Rather than for personal benefit or as a result of opportunism, these clerics explained their philanthropic efforts in the name of enlightened defiance, conscience, humanity, and religious devotion.

Erica Johnson is an Assistant Professor of History at Gordon State College.  She specializes in Caribbean and Latin American history.  Her current book project is Revolution for People of All Colors:  Philanthropy and Race in Saint-Domingue.

Title image: Le 1er. Juillet 1801, Toussaint-L’Ouverture, chargés des pouvoirs du peuple d’Haïty et auspices du Tout-puissante, proclame la Gouverneur général, assisté des mandataires légalement convoqués, en présence et sous les Constitution de la république d’Haïty

[1] Anonymous, “La Révolution de Saint-Domingue, contenant tou ce qui s’est passé dans la colonie française depuis le commencement de la Révolution jusqu’au départ de l’auteur pour la France, le 8 septembre 1792,” F 3 141, Archives nationales d’outre mer (ANOM).

[2] “La mort du chef noir Boukman et du pretre blanc Philemon,” in Jacques Thibau, Le Temps de Saint-Domingue:  L’esclavage et la révolution française (Paris:  J. C. Lattès, 1989), p. 319.

[3] John K. Thornton, “The Development of an African Catholic Church in the Kingdom of Kongo, 1491-1750,” The Journal of African History, vol. 25, no. 2 (1994): 147-167; Thornton, “On the Trail of Voodoo:  African Christianity in Africa and the Americas,” The Americas, vol. 44, no. 3 (1988): 261-278; and Cécile Fromont, The Art of Conversion: Christian Visual Culture in the Kingdom of the Kongo (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

[4] The Code noir, cited and translated in Slave Revolution in the Caribbean, 1789-1804: A Brief History with Documents, Laurent Dubois and John D. Garrigus, eds. (New York:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 50.

[5] Inventaire des biens des missions des Dominicains, des Capucins et de toutes les cures desservies par des réguliers (22 juin – 15 août 1773), F5A 23, ANOM.

Further Readings:

Hurbon, Laënnec.  “Church and Slavery in Saint-Domingue,” The Abolitions of Slavery:  From Léger Félicité Sonthonax to Victor Schoelcher, 1793, 1794, 1848, Marcel Dorigny, ed. New York:  Berghahn Books, 2003.

Jan, J. M.  Les Congrégations religieuses à Saint-Domingue, 1681-1793.  Port-au-Prince: Henri Deschamps, 1951.

Janin, R. P. Joseph.  La Religion aux Colonies Française sous l’ancien régime (de 1626 à la Révolution).  Paris: D’Auteuil, 1942.

Peabody, Sue.  “‘A Dangerous Zeal’:  Catholic Missions to Slaves in the French Antilles, 1635-1800.”  French Historical Studies Vol. 25, No. 1 (Winter, 2002):  53-90.

Rennard, J.  Histoire Religieuse des Antilles françaises des origines à 1914: d’après des documents inédits.  Paris: Librairie Larose, 1954.

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