Rumor and Report in Affiches Américaines: Saint-Domingue’s American Revolution

This post is a part of a series entitled “(In)forming Revolution: Information Networks in the Age of Revolutions.”

By Rob Taber

“A pamphlet circulates in the colonies of America with the title ‘Common Sense.’ Mister Adams, one of the delegates to Congress, happens to be the author. This work entirely erases the idea of reconciliation and excites the Colonies to independence.”

–“Nouvelles D’Europe: Angleterre,” Affiches Américaines, Cap Français, Saint-Domingue, 17 July 1776.

The last decade has seen an explosion of work on the impact of the Haitian Revolution on the United States. But what of the influence the American Revolution may have had on colonial Haiti? Studies of French Saint-Domingue and the rebellion in British North America tend to focus on the free soldiers of color who fought in the Battle of Savannah. [1] A few scholars have also explored the “independent spirit” (l’esprit autonomiste) within the colony’s white population, largely by examining correspondence or travelers’ accounts. [2] The dispatch in Saint-Domingue’s (state-sanctioned) colonial newspaper indicates that Dominguans, free and captive, who could read or listen, received regular doses of news about the political unrest in North America. Rumor and report alike shaped what Dominguans heard about the American Revolution, shaping their perspective on why colonial rebellions occurred and what they might achieve.

Despite the tremendous spread of printing in France and British North America during the eighteenth century, the print environment in Saint-Domingue was more limited and entirely in official hands. The colony had two printing presses, one in Port-au-Prince and one in Cap Français, used for printing official proclamations. The newspaper began as an initiative of a new intendant to bolster the economy after the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War in 1763. Like many newspapers of its era, Affiches Américaines focused on information that 1) performed state functions, or 2) would be of interest to the mercantile / planter elite. Ship arrivals and departures, the price of goods in various ports, colonialists’ intention to depart (required notice to their creditors), and, most famously, ads describing enslaved runaways and lists of those captured made up part of every issue. Advertisements of plantations or enslaved workers for lease or sale, lists of books available for purchase or rent at the printer’s office, and notice of escaped horses or donkeys rounded out the short ads. Occasionally there would be longer “sponsored content” type articles, including a two-page “prospectus” regarding a special mineral water to prevent the spread of venereal diseases “among slave crews” that ran at the end of May 1769. [3]

The newspaper offered regular updates on the protests, boycotts, and ultimately, successful rebellion within what would become the United States. In a lengthy item printed on 29 January 1766, the paper detailed the violence directed at the houses of tax collectors over the Stamp Act, collectors returning to England, and appointees refusing the commission.  It also noted the publication of an extraordinary publication of the Providence Gazette entitled “Vox Populi, Vox Dei,” part of what this state-published paper called a “dangerous fermentation.” [4] When the Carolinas and Georgia agreed to join the resistance against the Act, protests in Boston turn violent, and when merchants’ associations formed to organize boycotts, it was all reported, though typically with a delay of several months. [5] The newspaper also printed anti-metropolitan arguments, including a long letter from a Bostonian that read in part, “I don’t know anyone who isn’t willing to lay down their life for King George III, but I’m also persuaded that there isn’t anyone who will do all they can to defend their rights, their liberties, and their possessions.” [6]

This pattern of repeating anticolonial arguments and following developments closely continued during the momentous years of the US War of Independence, including the discussion of Common Sense referred to above. The printers of Affiches were mindful of the danger of reprinting unverified reports. When a Spaniard in Port-au-Prince said that a recent earthquake had almost entirely wiped out the town of Santiago de Cuba, the editor remarked, “This news is based solely on the rumor spread by a Spaniard,” and it requires “more clarifying, to ascertain the degree of certainty it should be given.” [7] The editors of Les Affiches drew on two types of sources for information about the war: dispatches from the London press, and reports from American sea captains arriving in Saint-Domingue to trade.

When the North American colonists declared independence, it took until 20 November 1776 for any discussion to appear. Even then, the newspaper did not print the Declaration of Independence. Rather, it printed a London-sourced dispatch that included other parts of Congressional resolutions declaring reconciliation impossible and underlining the need to establish sovereign government in the colonies. The dispatch also included a response from the city of Boston, militant in its rejection of Britain. Although the Boston resolution placed “the most importance” on the question of public order, it also rejected the idea that the British would help. Bostonians used the opportunity to detail again British abuses. Upon the conclusion of the Boston declaration, the dispatch noted “the counsel given to the Americans by that little work called Common Sense has been welcomed.” [8] The comment does not come across as a compliment.

It wasn’t until the fighting had been going on for over a year that the second avenue for news took shape. Like the London dispatch’s misidentification of the author of Common Sense, the news reports borne by American captains experienced some garbling. The American rebels had a series of victories in New Jersey in late 1776 and early 1777, halting and turning back a British advance. In late January, a captain from Charleston arrived in Cap Français with news of two major American victories in the previous month (presumably the battles of Trenton and, perhaps, Princeton). The exaggerated reports claimed that in the first battle, in which 6,000 Hessians attacked an army under General Lee, who captured 4,000. In the second, wherein royalists attacked Washington’s army, Washington’s troops “killed or wounded” 7,000 and “take many prisoners.” [9]

However, the Charleston captain never provided a location, allowing them to be reported repeatedly as different battles. In late February, a notice was published, copied from a Boston paper, about the Battle of Trenton that was generally accurate in the (far lower) counts. [10] On April 7, a ship from New England arriving in the port of Môle St. Nicholas had the news that on February 17th the colonists won “a most complete victory” wherein Washington outmaneuvered a contingent of 7,000 Hessians, capturing them and their weapons without a life lost on either side. [11] On May 21, by way of London, there was a rumor that Cornwallis and Grant’s German soldiers were surrounded and unable to escape. [12]

These accounts of a victorious colonial army would be passed from hand to hand, read aloud in taverns and in plantation homes, discussed and debated as to their veracity. The stories may have shaped perceptions of free colonists and the enslaved alike regarding war between creoles and Europeans. I am not saying that the enslaved of Saint-Domingue rebelled because they had a rosy picture of how the U.S. War of Independence went for those seeking independence—merely that we should consider consumption of news of developments in North America (and throughout the hemisphere) when we evaluate Saint-Domingue’s print culture, its connections with other colonies, and how residents of Saint-Domingue, free and enslaved, approached the possibilities laid open by the French Revolution.

Robert D. Taber, Ph.D. is assistant professor of government and history at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina. A historian of Haiti, he is currently working on a book project examining the intersection of slavery and family life in Saint-Domingue and the early Haitian Revolution. Follow him on Twitter @RobTaber.

Endnotes:

[1] John Garrigus, Before Haiti: Race and Citizenship in French Saint-Domingue (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

[2] Charles Frostin, Les révoltes blanches à Saint-Domingue aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles (Haïti avant 1789), Paris: L’École, 1975; Malick Ghachem, The Old Regime and the Haitian Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Paul Cheney, Cul de Sac: Patrimony, Capitalism, and Slavery in French Saint-Domingue (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).

[3] “Prospectus sur l’eau minérale du sieur Chervain,” Affiches Américaines, 5/29/1769, 176-146c. (All subsequent references to Affiches Américaines.)

[4]  “Amérique” 1/29/1766, 38.

[5] “Amérique” 2/26/1766, 80-81; “Amérique” 4/9/1766, 130; “Amérique — Extrait de trois Lettres écrites de la Pensilvanie le 7 Novembre 1765” 4/30/1766, 153.

[6] “Extrait d’une Lettre de Boston dans la Nouvelle Angleterre” 4/16/1766, 137-138.

[7] “S. Domingue du Port-au-Prince, le 9 juillet” 7/16/1766, 252.

[8] “Angleterre,” 11/20/1776, 555-557.

[9] “Amérique: Du Port-au-Prince” 1/29/1777, 55.

[10] “Amérique” 2/26/1777, 200.

[11] “Amérique,” 4/16/1777, 186.

[12] “Angleterre,” 5/21/1777 245.

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