Le Cap to Carlisle: News of the Early Haitian Revolution in the United States

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

By James Alexander Dun

Enslaved people in the North Province of French Saint Domingue rose in revolt on the night of August 22, 1791.  In less than three weeks, people in spots across the eastern seaboard of the United States knew something of the fact.  By the end of September, accounts would blanket American newspapers, making the insurrections a topic of conversation, debate, and even dreams.[1]  To be sure, this interest stemmed from the momentousness and scale of the tumult: by August 23 some 2000 insurgents were destroying plantations in the parishes of Acul, Limbé, and Petite Anse; by the 25th nearly ten times that number were involved, the violence had spread across the Plaine du Nord, and Cap Français, the colony’s leading city, was besieged.[2] 

But Americans’ interest also flowed from concerns that were more fundamental.  Not only was Saint Domingue a possession of the nation’s most important ally, since 1789 many had regarded the colony as a local expression of the struggles taking place in Paris.  The fact that those struggles had come to include the question of racial equality resonated in particular among white and black Americans thinking about their own Revolution’s egalitarian precepts, as well as its implications for slavery.  Finally, a more palpable interest stemmed from Saint Domingue’s importance as a source of American trade.

That commerce, in fact, was indispensable to the movement of news from Saint Domingue.  Before the invention of the telegraph, human beings were the conduit by which information transferred between distant places.  Trade was the reason most people traveled, making those places sharing commercial contacts “known” more quickly and efficiently than those without.  Thousands of American vessels traveled to and from Saint Domingue in the 1780s and ‘90s.  In 1791 alone, voyages from the colony to Philadelphia made up over twenty percent of all foreign arrivals to the U.S. capital.  Nearly sixty American vessels were at Cap Français (or, Le Cap) when the violence began.   In addition to closing the port to prevent departures in case a general evacuation was needed, authorities co-opted American sailors into military service.  Only once a harried stability had been achieved did they begin to allow American vessels to leave.  The stories and letters (and, in several cases, people) that they ferried would form the basis of more widespread ideas about what had taken place on the Plaine du Nord.[3]

Of course, even these proximate perspectives were removed from the insurgents they described.  This important moment of the burgeoning Haitian Revolution came to the United States secondhand (at the least), articulated in the panicked tones of planters peering from behind the barricades and mariners scanning the plain from their mastheads.  Americans would begin to forge their notions of what was taking place in the French colony, therefore, through information that was confused and confusing.  That forging—about this moment and many more—is the subject of my book.  Here, I’d like to focus simply on the mechanics behind the widening awareness of this particular moment.

Three streams of information flowed to the United States from Saint Domingue immediately after the initial insurrections.  In the heat of the crisis, authorities at Le Cap sent emissaries abroad to plead for help.  On August 26 at 4 a.m. the brig Three Brothers was allowed to embark for New London, Connecticut; the sloop Polly left for Charleston, South Carolina on the following day.  Once it seemed the danger was no longer imminent, port officials began to allow the remaining vessels to leave piecemeal as new arrivals replaced them.  A steady drip of departures took place after September 13, the majority of which were bound for New York and Philadelphia.[4]

Winds and currents dictated the pace of these movements, but it was more than geography that shaped their impact.  After a fifteen-day passage, the Polly arrived at Charleston on September 10.  The Three Brothers landed at New London three days later.  Upon arriving, their captains (named Newton and Edgerton, respectively), crews, and passengers, no doubt, told tales of what they had seen.  Those stories moved in several ways.  Those of the Dominguan delegates, because they involved a request for aid, became part of the correspondence between public officials.  M. Polony met with South Carolina governor Charles Pinckney before September 12, prompting Pinckney to write George Washington for counsel on September 20.  Then at Mount Vernon, Washington wouldn’t receive Pinckney’s letter until late October, when he had returned to Philadelphia.  M. Roustan, the delegate arriving at New London, traveled quickly to New York, where the French vice-consul Antoine De Laforest persuaded him to meet with French Minister Jean Baptiste Ternant in Philadelphia.  Ternant wrote to Washington (and to Alexander Hamilton and Henry Knox, both of whom forwarded his letters to the president) on September 24; Washington received the letter in early October, though he had seen those from his cabinet members in late September.  By that point, the president had already received notice of the insurrections from his secretary, Tobias Lear, who wrote from Philadelphia on September 21.[5]

The fact that information moved more quickly from north to south is not surprising, nor is it remarkable that public news outpaced the Dominguan emissaries’ private pleas.  By the time Lear wrote, the capital was awash in newspaper reports from Saint Domingue, all of which came from New England.  Though Captain Newton’s account had been printed in Charleston shortly after his arrival, the news was not mentioned again, nor was it reprinted outside of Charleston.[6]  Edgerton’s arrival at New London, meanwhile, generated an account of the “Insurrection of the Negroes” that ricocheted around New England and the mid-Atlantic states.[7]  Other accounts emanating from the Three Brothers circulated similarly, to include a pair of letters written on August 26 by a Cap Français correspondent to his contacts in New London and New York.[8]  Taken together, this printed body of public information from the colony moved far more quickly, and more expansively, than that conveyed through official lines.

In the meantime, mid-Atlantic newspapers eagerly grabbed new accounts arriving via vessels from Saint Domingue.  The schooner Peggy left St. Marc for New York on September 5, arriving there on the 24th.  Three days afterwards a New York newspaper printed the news brought by the schooner’s captain White, news that on the following day began to travel up and down the seaboard, ultimately reaching as far as Portland, Maine and Easton, Maryland.[9]  One of the first vessels allowed to leave Cap Français itself after the initial violence was the schooner Hardy, captained by Rufus Green.  Green sailed on September 13 for Philadelphia, arriving on October 1.  Pierre Thouronnet of the sloop Polly arrived the same day.  Hugh Watson left Le Cap on September 14 in the brig Betsy, arriving in Philadelphia on October 6.[10]  Green, in addition to his own account of the “melancholy situation” at Cap Français, conveyed letters written on September 7 and 11.  All three depictions were reprinted so widely that, by the time of Watson’s arrival, the only novel detail he could provide was the fact that the whites there were offering “any price” for “powder and arms.”[11]

In part because of indications such as this, American commercial ventures in Saint Domingue would continue.  Over the following weeks information from Saint Domingue would pour into and between American port cities, first via the tales told by mariners and refugees and then through the accounts that circulated in newspapers.  As I hinted above, however, the travels of this information were not over once they reached the printed page.  Because Dominguan events were so momentous, and because they were understood as relevant to other changes taking place around the Atlantic world, Americans reflexively injected them into contemporary debates, and ultimately wove them into domestic political discourse.[12] Indeed, this was a process that had begun in 1789, and which the advent of insurgent violence only intensified.  Over the next decade and beyond, Americans continued to look to and discuss developments in the colony.  As they did so they, in effect, made a Haitian Revolution, one intricately related to, but also discrete from, that which took place in Saint Domingue.

James Alexander (“Alec”) Dun is an early American historian and is the author of Dangerous Neighbors: Making the Haitian Revolution in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016). His scholarly interests—in race and identity, radicalism and revolution, slavery and antislavery—lead him to focus particularly on the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in America. Those same interests, however, widen the boundaries of this “America” to include the Caribbean and, in some ways, the greater Atlantic basin as a whole. You can reach him at jamesdun@princeton.edu or tweet him @AlecDun1.

Endnotes:

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Title image: Fernand de la Bruniere, Vue du Cap Francois, Isle St. Domingue, prise du Chemin de l’embarcadère de la petite Anse, 1791.

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