The Mystery of Marie Rose: Family, Politics, and the Origins of the Haitian Revolution

Robert D. Taber

Marie Rose was manumitted at 43 when she married her owner in Léogane, Saint-Domingue in August 1785. He had purchased her and their three children thirteen days before the wedding. [1] About twenty-three years earlier, the free people of color and slaves of Léogane began exploiting a clause of the Code Noir that granted freedom to slaves who married their owner, as well as any of their children owned by the master. When Marie Rose married Romain Rivière, it was the thirty-fourth time a free/slave couple in Léogane had used the law in this way. [2]

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 9.22.04 AM
Marriages in Léogane, Saint-Domingue, 1777-1789, by race and status. From Taber, “‘The Issue of Their Union’: Family, Law, and Politics in Western Saint-Domingue, 1777-1789.”

Marie Rose’s manumission, however, was not her first experience with freedom. In the fall of 1763, she presented her newborn daughter for baptism. Marie Rose stated that she herself was a free mulâtresse, the father unknown, and the baby would be named Marie Louise. [3] When Marie Louise married a free black man in 1787, two years after her mother’s manumission, she used a copy of that 1763 baptismal record to prove her own free status. The notary, however, also identified her mother Marie Rose as the wife of Romain Rivière, and Rivière as the bride’s stepfather. [4]

btv1b23000455 (1)
Nègre et Nègresse de St. Domingue, from Jacques Grasset de Saint-Sauveur, Illustrations de Encyclopédie des voyages, contenant l’abrégé historique des moeurs, usages, habitudes domestiques, religions, fêtes… (1796).

Four possible explanations exist for the incongruity between Marie Rose’s status as free in 1763 and slave in 1785. Taken together, these possibilities illuminate how individual efforts to navigate Saint-Domingue’s slave society intersected with and shaped local, colonial, and imperial politics.

Marie Rose may have simply passed as free in 1763. At some point she may have been re-enslaved, but not before Marie Rose placed her daughter Marie Louise with a guardian who continued to raise her as free.

Perhaps Romain Rivière practiced polygamy, maintaining relationships with two women named Marie Rose, one enslaved and the other freeborn. [5] One notes that since records are involved, an ignorant or complicit notary would have been required.

Another notary-centered possibility is that the individual making the records found another Marie Rose whose records were a close match—in other words, eighteenth-century identify theft. [6]

Finally, Marie Rose may have been free but then enslaved for harboring a fugitive slave—a law enforced as late as 1768. [7]

Regardless of whether Marie Rose passed as free, was a polygamous spouse of Romain Rivière, had a notary’s assistance in stealing another woman’s identity, or was sold back into slavery for harboring a fugitive, her daughter Marie Louise came of age when Dominguan families of color faced increasing legal barriers to establish their children as beneficiaries of the plantation economy. When Marie Louise married her free black husband, Marie Rose and Romain Rivière promised the newlyweds a slave man and woman “forming a couple” from the next ship to arrive at Léogane. [8] Economic and social mobility at the time required slave ownership, and family tactics oriented around the purchase and use of slaves, even among newly free families of color.

Families like Marie Rose’s used different tactics than freeborn families of color, or white fathers who provided for their children of color, or white families of all classes. Tactics deployed by families and individuals in their particular struggles for social respectability intersected with their participation in the colonial state, shaping the political priors with which they encountered the French Revolution. [9]

When the Estates General met in 1789, few free residents of Saint-Domingue questioned the overarching socioeconomic strategy of the colony. After the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, debates (and a low-level civil war) erupted between poorer whites and free men of color eager to claim the title of citizen. In 1790 poorer whites helped create an autonomist all-white colonial assembly in Saint-Marc. The next year, free people of color in Port-au-Prince, frustrated by decades of discrimination and months of equivocation, rose in rebellion at the same time as the (separate) rebellion of the Northern Plain’s slaves. Shortly thereafter, Romain Rivière, feuding with a neighboring white planter, called upon his broader social network to provide soldiers and weapons, but did so in a remarkable way, recasting himself as Romaine-la-Prophétesse and raising an army of up to 12,000 slaves. [10]

Economic life in Saint-Domingue hinged on two institutions: African slavery and the patriarchal family. The intersection of slavery and patriarchy tells us a great deal about Saint-Domingue, and broadly speaking, the history of the colonial family and ideas and practices regarding gender and race. This examination also provides the critical foundation for understanding the fracturing of colonial society after 1789 and the emergence from the revolution of the new Haitian society.

Robert D. Taber is a postdoctoral associate at the University of Florida and a specialist in Caribbean and Latin American history. The author of “Navigating Haiti’s History: Saint-Domingue and the Haitian Revolution,” his current book project is Family, Slavery, and the Haitian Revolution.

Title Image: Moi libre aussi : [estampe] / Boizot del.t ; Darcis sculp.t

[1] Centre d’Archives d’Outre Mer (CAOM), dépôt des papiers publics des colonies (DPPC), notariat, Saint-Domingue (SDOM) 1530, 22 August 1785; CAOM, DPPC, État civil (EC), Léogane, 1785, f.f. 24.

[2] Out of 315 marriages during that time period. EC, Léogane, 1762-1785. As a work in progress discusses, the extension of manumission to a couple’s children magnified the impact of this provision on the growth of Léogane’s free population of color.

[3] EC, Léogane, 1763, f.f. 20.

[4] SDOM 1532, 15 October 1787; EC, Léogane, 18 December 1763.

[5] Sarah M. S. Pearsall, “‘How Many Wives’ in Two American Revolutions: The Politics of Households and the Radically Conservative,” The American Historical Review 118/4 (2013): 1000-1028.

[6] Neither Romain Rivière nor Marie Rose could sign their names. They may have been able to read, but would not have enjoyed the same access to the Léogane parish records as the notary.

[7] Louis XIV, “Ordonnance du Roi, contre les Nègres libres, . . .” 10 June 1705, in Moreau de Saint-Méry, Loix et constitutions, 2:36-37. Council of Le Cap, “Arrêt du Conseil du Cap, qui ordonne que le nommé Hercule, . . .” 23 March 1768, in Moreau de Saint-Méry, Loix et constitutions, 5:165.

[8] SDOM 1532, 15 October 1787.

[9] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), ix.

[10] Terry Rey, “The Virgin Mary and Revolution in Saint-Domingue: The Charisma of Romaine-la-Prophétesse” Journal of Historical Sociology, vol. 11, issue 3, 341-369.

Recommended readings:

Garrigus, John. Before Haiti: Race and Citizenship in French Saint-Domingue. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

Geggus, David. The Haitian Revolution: A Documentary History. Cambridge: Hackett, 2015.

Ghachem, Malick. The Old Regime and the Haitian Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

King, Stewart. Blue Coat or Powdered Wig: Free People of Color in Pre-Revolutionary Saint-Domingue. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2001.

Palmer, Jennifer. “What’s in a Name? Mixed-Race Families and Resistance to Racial Marginalization in Eighteenth-Century La Rochelle.” French Historical Studies 33/3 (2010), 357-385.

Rogers, Dominique. “On the Road to Citizenship: the Complex Route to Integration of the Free People of Color in the Two Capitals of Saint-Domingue.” David Geggus and Norman Fiering, eds. The World of the Haitian Revolution. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2009, 65-78.

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