The Economic Authority of Cap-Français’ Marchandes de Couleur on the Eve of Haitian Independence

By Carrie Glenn

Doit M. Dupuch & Ducasse
à Mde. Poumaroux
Pour le compte du general en chef
25₶ de morue 6.$.[1]

For merchants in colonial Haiti, prospects appeared dire in the fall of 1803. Britain’s blockade strangled Cap-Français’ trade, leaving only the United States and a few Spanish vessels free to enter the harbor since summer. But even they faced inspection by the Royal Navy who searched for and confiscated French property on board.[2] The city was likewise cutoff from the interior. The indigenous army commanded by Jean-Jacques Dessalines bested French General Donatien Rochambeau, cornering him in Cap-Français and confining the French forces to a few ports throughout colonial Haiti.[3] Turning his ire inward, Rochambeau ordered six of the city’s merchants to pay 6,000 gourdes each under pain of death. Shortly after, Rochambeau issued a second order to all of the city’s merchants, demanding 990,000 francs, or 1,500 gourdes each from the city’s 120 merchants.[4]

In this tense, late October atmosphere, the widowed marchande (woman shopkeeper) Marie Rose Poumaroux opened her residence to J.J. Borie, a white merchant from Bordeaux. Their connection, which started out as strictly financial, transformed into intimacy after her husband Benjamin’s death in early 1803. Borie confessed to Poumaroux that he had no intention of paying his portion to Rochambeau.[5] With Rochambeau’s subordinates searching for him, Borie implored Poumaroux for help—he required a place to hide and her help in acquiring a passport. But there was more. With him were the substantial remnants of his shop left unsold and subject to confiscation. Intent on absconding, Borie “sought . . . a reliable person” to see to his “general interests.” He determined that Poumaroux’s “quality of womanhood” and her “color of quateronne” rendered her best able to sell his goods.[6] Well-connected, trustworthy, and a woman of color, Poumaroux’s economic authority was acknowledged by Borie.

This episode between Marie Rose Poumaroux and J.J. Borie underscores two important themes during Haiti’s War for Independence: the relationship between Cap-Français’ businesswomen and commercial networks, and white men’s reliance on people of color, including women, to safeguard property.[7] Interrogating these connections through the perspective of Marie Rose Poumaroux promises to provide valuable insight into the economic presence and power of women, especially women of color, in Cap-Français during the final years of French colonization.

Marie Rose was born in Cap-Français in 1786 to Catherine Nicolle, a “mulâtress” also known by “Zaïre,” and Sebastien Aimée. The precise character of Zaïre’s relationship to Aimée is unknown; it also seems to have ended a few years after Marie’s birth. By the early 1790s, Zaïre formed a partnership with Étienne Dupuch, a white merchant from Bordeaux. Intimacy and business structured their relationship. Living in the commercial hub around Quay St. Louis and Rue du Gouvernement, Marie Rose spent her early childhood amidst the flurry of commercial activity, observing the day-to-day practices of buying and selling locally produced and imported goods and acquiring skills that positioned her well as a marchande later in life.[8] By the late 1790s, she was literate and able to keep business records.

Family networks aided Marie after she married the marchand Benjamin Poumaroux. The colony’s Commander-in-Chief, Toussaint Louverture, appointed Étienne Dupuch to handle his accounts for d’Héricourt, a plantation in the Northern Province that Louverture acquired after the colonial government sequestered plantations from absconded planters. In this role, Dupuch supplied day-to-day goods for the plantation along with household goods for Louverture the commander was in Cap-Français. To supply Louverture and d’Héricourt, Dupuch relied on shopkeepers like the Poumaroux’s for goods.[9] On November 23, 1800, the Poumaroux’s sold cod, onions, and garlic worth 25 gourdes to Louverture.[10] And on six occasions, they sold him burning oil.[11] Alongside these goods, the Poumarouxs sold soap, lard, cheeses, candles, anisette, wine, and salmon in their shop.[12]

Bar graph of the number of women engaged in different occupations in 1802.
Table 1: (Partial) Occupational Breakdown of Women in Cap-Français in 1802
Source: État nominative des contribuables de la ville du Cap, Centre d’Archives d’Outre Mer (CAOM), dépôt des papiers publics des colonies (DPPC) G1/496

By the time Leclerc arrived in 1802 to reassert metropolitan control and re-establish slavery in colonial Haiti, women like Marie Rose were thoroughly embedded in Cap-Français’ commercial sector, acting as propriétaires (landladies), blanchiseusses (washerwomen), couturières (seamstresses), and sellers of goods.[13] [Table 1] According to an 1802 tax list of the city, the number of women who engaged in selling goods reached 538, or about 10 percent of the taxable population.[14] Residing in every quarter of the city, these women cultivated, crafted, bought on credit, advertised, and sold locally produced and imported goods, carving out commercial spaces in the public for all to see.[15] Some engaged in small-scale operations, working as street vendors while others setup stalls in the marketplace or carried fruits and vegetables around town. Others, like Marie, operated out of a shop. She was hardly exceptional. Tax collectors identified 356 women as marchandes. [Table 2] The majority of women were resellers of goods imported by the city’s merchants to the city’s consumers. Marchandes like Marie Égyptienne, Anne Rossignol, and Marie Rose fill the pages of extant merchant records, giving us the briefest of glimpses at the kinds of goods women resold and the commercial relationships they forged with French, Dominguan, and American merchants.[16]

Bar graph of the Occupational Categories of Women Engaged in Selling Goods in Le Cap, 1802.
Bar graph of the Occupational Categories of Women Engaged in Selling Goods in Le Cap, 1802.
Table 2(a) [Top] – Table 2(b) [Bottom]: Occupational Categories of Women Engaged in Selling Goods in Le Cap, 1802.
Source: État nominative des contribuables de la ville du Cap, Centre d’Archives d’Outre Mer (CAOM), dépôt des papiers publics des colonies (DPPC) G1/496

Marie lived in this world of commercial exchanges but also in a period of great uncertainty. When Leclerc arrived, she was cooperative with the new order, even if she and her family secretly grew critical of Leclerc and Rochambeau.[17] Market women believed to be spies or instigators of rebellion became particular targets for retribution. Among the market stalls of the marché des noirs at the Place Clugny, one street away from Poumaroux’s residence, stood gallows. There, officials publicly hanged women of color suspected of espionage. Leclerc’s death in November 1802 offered no reprieve. Torture turned into public spectacle, as Rochambeau instilled terror in the city’s non-white population to force submission. As a woman of African descent, Poumaroux’s life was one of precarity under Rochambeau’s regime.[18]

In this atmosphere of racialized terror, Borie sought Poumaroux’s assistance on the night of October 24/25, 1803. For eight days, Borie hid in her cellar while Poumaroux lobbied successfully on his behalf. “Mr. Borie was about to be condemned, not having paid his contributions [. . .] General [Jacques] Boyé who knew me helped me, and pardoned him,” Poumaroux wrote decades later. She did not elaborate on her relationship to Boyé, but it was strong enough to overturn Borie’s death sentence. With passport in tow, Borie fled to nearby Cuba. Marie did not immediately desert Haiti after the French evacuation. She stayed with her mother Zaïre to coordinate the sale of Borie’s goods. She left the remaining unsold items in Zaïre’s care before leaving for Cuba. Other women of color acted in similar fashion. For example, Clarissa Raveilhac, partner of acting U.S. Consul and merchant Unite Dodge, sent shipments of coffee and cassava to merchants previously based in Cap-Français. And Zaïre continued to safeguard Borie’s property until the last of it sold sometime in 1805.[19]

Throughout the Haitian Revolution and War for Independence, businesswomen of color like Marie Rose Poumaroux permeated Cap-Français’ marketplace, forging strong financial and social relationships with merchants and politically influential men and wielding significant economic and political capital. Revolution and inter-imperial war required Marie to adapt to new political realities and feign allegiances at a moment’s notice. She joined others in serving as key intermediaries between the city’s merchants and shoppers, buying from commission merchants and reselling to consumers, including Toussaint Louverture. Marie Rose benefitted from family connections, but built her own network ties, too. When white merchants fled independent Haiti, they turned to women of color like Poumaroux to safeguard their property, find buyers for unsold goods, and remit payment. As this episode suggests, women of color were central actors in the port’s commercial dynamism during the Haitian Revolution.

Carrie Glenn is a Ph.D. Candidate and Dissertation Completion Fellow at the University of Delaware. She will defend her dissertation, The Revolutionary Atlantic of Elizabeth Beauveau and Marie Rose Poumaroux: Commerce, Vulnerability, and U.S. Connections to the French Atlantic, in April 2020.

Title image: Le Cap’s Marchandes on the Eve of Haitian Independence

Further Readings:

Butel, Paul. Les négociants bordelais, l’Europe, et les îles au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Aubier Montaigne, 1974).

Dubois, Laurent. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004.

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

Rogers, Dominique and Stewart King. “Housekeepers, Merchants, Rentières: Free Women of Color in the Port Cities of Colonial Saint-Domingue, 1750—1790,” In Women in Port: Gendering Communities, Economies, and Social Networks in Atlantic Port Cities, 1500-1800, 357-397. Leiden: Brill, 2012.

Socolow, Susan. “Economic Roles of the Free Women of Color of Cap Français,” In More than Chattel: Black Women and Slavery in the Americas, edited by Barry Gaspar and Darlene Clark Hine, 279-297. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996.


[1] Undated bill from Marie Rose Poumaroux to Dupuch & Ducasse, Borie Family Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, (hereafter BFP, HSP).

[2] The author Leonora Sansay noted that Le Cap was “in the greatest consternation, for inevitable ruin threatens the place. The English will no doubt prevent all vessels from entering the port and take all that go out.” Leonora Sansay, Secret History; or, The Horrors of St. Domingo, in a series of letters, written by a lady at Cape Francois to Colonel Burr (Philadelphia: Bradford & Inskeep, 1808), 87. On the nationality of vessels moving in and out of Cap-Français, I consulted “Déclaration des Départs de Navires” of extant issues of Gazette Officielle and Affiches Américaines de Saint-Domingue and Mouvements du Port, Papiers Rochambeau, 135 AP 1, Archives nationales, Paris.

[3] The French lost Jérémie in August, St. Marc in September, and Port de Paix and Port Républicain in October.

[4] See John Joseph Borie to François Laborde, December 4, 1803, Volume 1, BFP, HSP.

[5] Borie wrote “the tyrant, wanting to make everyone see and feel that he was the master, announced a levy of 180,000 gourdes on the merchants. . .everything was paid except for the 1,500 gourdes that had been demanded from me, so the general did not fail to search for me for eight days. I owe my life to the precaution I took of going into hiding for eight days,” Borie to Laborde, December 4, 1803, BFP, HSP.  On Poumaroux’s relationship to J. J. Borie, see Box 3, BFP, HSP.

[6] J.J. Borie, undated statement [circa 1804], “État des marchandises laissées à St. Domingue,” Box 4, BFP, HSP. “Quateronne” referred to a woman who possessed three “white” and one “black” grandparent.

[7] Borie is not unique. On the morning of February 4, 1802 before Cap-Français burned, U.S. Consul Tobias Lear left “two black women and one black man”—his servants—“in the House, with orders to save what they could. . . and to endeavour to save the House from flames if fire shd. be set to the City.” Meanwhile, the consul ascended an American vessel and remained there until the French expedition disembarked. Tobias Lear to James Madison, February 28, 1802, Founders Online, National Archives, last modified November 26, 2017,

[8] Poumaroux’s mother, Catherine Nicolle “dite Zaïre” co-habitated with one of the city’s négociants, Étienne Dupuch, as early as 1791. See will of Étienne Dupuch, September 9, 1803, Box 5, BFP, HSP. A “mulâtress” was a racial designation given to a woman with one “white” and one “black” parent.

[9] In a note dated April 30, 1799, Henry Christophe, Chef de Brigade, Commander l’arrondissement du Cap” referenced Dupuch as being “in charge of the business” of Toussaint Louverture. See Box 6, BFP, HSP.

[10] Doit le Citoyen Toussaint Louverture Général en Chef à Poumaroux,” 3 Frimaire an 9, Box 6, BFP, HSP.

[11] Toussaint Louverture Accounts Current with Dupuch, merchant at Le Cap, boxes 6 – 8, BFP, HSP. These transactions occurred between July 1800 and the end of 1801.

[12] “Brig Union” records, and entries dated 14 Thermidor an 8 and 19 Fructidor an 8 in Brouillard Account Book, both found in BFP, HSP.

[13] See État nominative des contribuables de la ville du Cap, Centre d’Archives d’Outre Mer (CAOM), dépôt des papiers publics des colonies (DPPC) G1/496. (hereafter, État nominative des contribuables, CAOM). I have transcribed and analyzed the tax list of approximately 5,032 individuals. A staggering 1,189, couturières constituted 23 percent of the city’s taxable population in 1802. Making up thirty-four percent of the city’s taxable populace, the 409 blanchiseusses paid around six livres in community taxes in 1802. Women propriétaires who rented out property as a long-term strategy for earning an income numbered 155 and owned around twenty per cent of the city’s structures. By comparison, the tax list indicated 87 male propriétaires in the city. On propriétaires and marchandes in pre-revolutionary St. Domingue, see Dominique Rogers and Stewart King, “Housekeepers, Merchants, Rentières: Free Women of Color in the Port Cities of Colonial Saint-Domingue, 1750 – 1790” in Women in Port: Gendering Communities, Economies, and Social Networks in Atlantic Port Cities, 1500-1800, eds. Douglas Catterall and Jodi Campbell (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 364.

[14] État nominative des contribuables, CAOM. General Leclerc imposed a city tax to help him pay for defensive blokhouses outside the city’s perimeter. Surveyors took down the names, occupations, addresses, and required taxes for over 5,000 residents, but omitted children and dependent women from the list. Because of these omissions, the number of marchandes is probably much higher.

[15] Surveyors listed roughly 100 women whose occupation was to “vend des légumes” and another 7 who sold fruit. Women sold bonbons, chocolate, tobacco, and faïence, among other goods.

[16]  Of 113 French-given and surnamed individuals listed in the 50-page ledger of Lewden & Duhamel, a merchant house in Le Cap in 1801 and early 1802, women accounted for 28 percent of the total. Cross-checking the names with the 1802 tax list, at least twelve of the women were marchandes. Lewden and Duhamel ledger, Lewden Family Papers, Delaware Historical Society. Of the first 69 entries in the records of Brouillard, the commercial transactions of thirty-five women accounted for 72 percent (or 50 lines) of that total. Brouillard Account Book, Box 7, Borie Family PaBFPpers, HSP.

[17] Étienne Dupuch to Mr. Dubourd, February 7, 1804, Dupuch Letter Book, BFP, HSP.

[18] See Philippe Girard, “French Atrocities During the Haitian War of Independence,” Journal of Genocide Research 15 (2013), 133-149. Leclerc writes to the Minister of the Marine describing the scenes on 18 Thermidor an 10 in Paul Roussier, Letters du Général Leclerc Commandant en Chef de l’Armée de Saint-Domingue en 1802 (Paris: Société de l’Histoire des Colonies Françaises, 1937) 202.

[19] Rose Gancel to Mr. Odier, February 20, 1828, Rogé v. Borie, Equity Records, Box 245, Records of the United States Circuit Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, National Archives and Records Administration, Philadelphia. Borie left “4 steel combs, 2 steel pins, 3 dozen scissors, 69 knives, 12 dozen composition spoons, 13 dozen toothbrushes, 58 dozen pencils, 29 dozen snuffboxes, 3 pieces of mouslin, 72 dozen forks, 18 razors and their cases, 12 pounds of Rennes thread, 2 dozen glasses cases, 36 dozen scissor sheaths, 381 dozen colored threads, and 4 dozen irons.” He also placed in her care “a linen covered basket containing 54 copper scales, 4 large bins able to support twenty thousand drinking glasses, 33 empty bags, 8 pieces nankeens, a barrel and a package containing goldsmith tools, 3 cases of medicine, 168 dozen army uniform buttons, two large bags of corks, 5 hats, 10 handkerchiefs, 2 account registers, cloth coupons, and 1 cylinder.” These items are enumerated in a signed statement by Marie Rose Poumaroux dated October 25, 1803, BFP, HSP. On Clarissa Raveilhac and Zaïre, see Unite Dodge to J.J. Borie, April 18, 1805 and July 19, 1805, BFP, HSP.

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