“Genocidal Imaginings” in the Era of the Haitian Revolution

By Marlene L. Daut

“What will you do with this population? For what could it be beneficial? The 110,000 affranchis will intensify the plague that desolates you, for have you not forgotten that this is the caste that wrought havoc on everything. Besides, do you believe that two such disparate peoples could fraternize and live together? For my part, I believe it to be impossible.”

–Jean Barré Saint Venant, Des Colonies Modernes sous la Zone Torride, et particulièrement de celle de Saint-Domingue (1802)

Many French colonists from Saint-Domingue, like Barré de Saint-Venant, not only believed that the so-called “affranchis” were responsible for a “racial” insurrection in the colony, but they also meditated on whether or not it was appropriate for “blacks” and “whites” to live together, ostensibly because they were different “peoples.”[1] These musings appear to have led some “white” colonists to form opinions about what should be done with people of color (including the enslaved), in general, and people of “mixed race,” in particular.

The Marquise de Rouvray, the wife of a famous French colonist and military leader, penned a remarkably detailed outline for the total “destruction or deportation” of the free people of color in a letter to her daughter in August of 1793. She wrote that a massacre of the “white” population of Saint-Domingue was generally unavoidable unless

We succeed in creating another way of doing things which will entail the destruction or the deportation of all free men and women of color, after having marked them on both cheeks with the letter “L” for Libre, so that they will never be tempted to come back to Saint-Domingue.

These deportations, according to de Rouvray, should remain in effect ex post facto: “those who were born subsequently” would, at the age of “seven years old,” be branded and deported. “If we held firm to this rule,” the Marquise writes, “we would be able to rebuild our properties in Saint-Domingue.” Her plans continue as she proposes sterilization:

One other measure may perhaps be more final than the one that I just described, which would be to render male and female children of color unable to reproduce […] the men would be too weak to try anything against the whites and the women would no longer serve the latter. In the end, my dear girl, if we do not crush this caste, there will be no salvation for Saint-Domingue.[2]

In 1792, the colonist Barillon also made the case for “crush[ing]” “mulattoes” by proposing their “extermination” or “at least their deportation to the island of Ascension […] providing them with food for one year […] and giving them for a bishop that troublemaker Grégoire, and for a mayor that coward Brissot.” Wary that some might disapprove of his primary suggestion of exterminating the “mulattoes” by way of the “bayonette,” Barillon concludes that “the first point is the deportation of the mulattoes, and the confiscation of their property in compensation [for the property] of the whites that were burned.”[3] According to Garran de Coulon, a group of sailors had also threatened to “exterminate that execrable race of mulattoes. This is the expression used in a recitation signed by these sailors themselves.”[4] 

The number of times that exterminating the entire population of “mulattoes,” free people of color, and eventually all “negroes” is alluded to in writing about the Haitian Revolution is astounding. This is likely what led André Rigaud to lament in his 1797 memoir, “There exists (and this is not at all in doubt), there exists a faction that tends to want the total destruction of all the citizens of color in Saint-Domingue.”[5] Such horrifying tendencies on the part of ordinary citizens, as well as public officials, mariners, and travel writers vis-à-vis people of color, suggests that readings of the Haitian Revolution as a “racial” revolution not only supported the ends of transatlantic slavery, but could also be used to urge the implementation of modern policies of eugenics and what has euphemistically been called “ethnic cleansing.” Indeed, revolutionary Saint-Domingue was a world in which the idea of “race war” was so well accepted that a language that reeked of genocidal imaginings was fairly ubiquitous.[6]

Evidence abounds pointing to French generals Leclerc and Rochambeau as having used genocidal tactics, namely mass drowning, in their attempt to defeat the Haitian revolutionists.[7] But as the comments from de Rouvray and Barillon suggest, many people in Saint-Domingue who lacked the resources and power to attempt actual “racial” extermination had no trouble imagining ways in which it might be carried out. These kinds of genocidal imaginings are directly related to early nineteenth-century French political theories, and in some cases, actual policies, concerning how France could best re-conquer its former colony.

In De Saint-Domingue: de ses guerres, de ses révolutions, de ses ressources et des moyens à prendre pour y rétablir la paix et l’industrie (1814), the former French colonist Drouin de Bercy spent ten pages describing how “ambush,” starvation, and “terror” should be “the order of the day” to “reestablish” Saint-Domingue.[8] Averring that popular opinion in France held that “the colony will never be tranquil if we do not destroy every last one of [the people of color],” he proposed that “all the leaders above the rank of corporal must disappear,” “all of the black women […] who were mistresses and prostitutes […] should be subject to the disposition of the government which will send them wherever seems fit,” and as for the “mulatto caste, as the most dangerous, the most restless, the cause and soul of all the insurrections of the negroes, they should be treated, if it is even possible, with more severity than the blacks” (169–71). Drouin de Bercy concluded by unequivocally proposing that after this “purge[…]” the colony could be easily repopulated:

When the island has been completely conquered and purged of all of those who could cause trouble […] the government, one year afterward […] could send on its behalf ten old ships, provisionally armed, to traffic in Africa for as long as it sees fit in order to re-introduce blacks into Saint-Domingue. (171)

Pierre Victor Malouet’s instructions to the three French agents (Dravermann, Medina, and Lavaysse) sent to the West Indies by him in 1814 in order to spy on both Haitian governments, were inflected with this same language of extermination. Instruction number six reads: “Purge the island of all the blacks whom it would be inappropriate to admit among the free and whom it would be dangerous to leave among those who are engaged on the plantations.”[9] Even though neither Drouin de Bercy nor Malouet’s specific plans to destroy independent Haiti and restore slavery would ever be imposed, ongoing international intervention in Haiti does remind us that the gap between genocidal imaginings and the implementation of conditions that have the effect of ending life can be small, something that we will not want to forget in our own Age of Revolutions, when U.S. politicians and ordinary citizens alike publicly imagine extermination.

Marlene L. Daut (@fictionsofHaiti) is Associate Professor of English and Cultural Studies and Director of the Graduate Certificate Program in Africana Studies at Claremont Graduate University. She is currently compiling the first anthology of fictional writings about the Haitian Revolution. For more information visit her website: haitianrevolutionaryfictions.com

Title image: Kimathi Donkor, Bacchus and Ariadne, Caribbean Passion: Haiti, 1804 series, 2004

[1] Around 1770 the French government began systematically referring to free people of color as “affranchis,” meaning the freed, “as a way of saying that they were all ex-slaves, even those who were born free.” See, John Garrigus, Before Haiti. New York: Palgrave Macmillan (2006): 167.

[2] Rpt. in Laurent François Le Noir de Rouvray. Une correspondance familiale au temps des troubles de Saint-Domingue. Paris: Larose (1959): 102-103.

[3] Rpt. in J.P. Garran de Coulon, Rapports sur les troubles de Saint-Domingue. Paris: Imprimerie nationale, (1797–99) : 3:36-37.

[4] Qtd. in Garran de Coulon (3:440).

[5] André Rigaud, Mémoire du Général de Brigade André Rigaud. Aux Cayes: L’Imprimerie de Lemery (1797): iii-iv.

[6] Even though the word genocide did not exist in the era of the Haitian Revolution, genocidal acts far predate its mid-twentieth-century definition, which includes “deliberately inflicting on [a] group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” http://legal.un.org/avl/ha/cppcg/cppcg.html

[7] See one eye-witness account in “Picture of St. Domingo.” The Literary Magazine and American (1804): 1: 446–50.

[8] L.M.C.A. Drouin de Bercy, De Saint-Domingue. Paris: Chocquet (1814): 53-63.

[9] Rpt. in Vastey, “Appendix,” Essai sur les causes de la révolution et des guerres civiles d’Hayti. Sans-Souci: L’Imprimerie Royale (1819) : 58-69.

Further Reading:

Marlene L. Daut, Tropics of Haiti: Race and the Literary History of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World. Liverpool UP, 2015.

Sara Johnson, The Fear of French Negroes: Transcolonial Collaboration in the Revolutionary Americas. U of California P, 2012.

Claude Ribbe, Le Crime de Napoléon. Édition Privé, 2005.

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