Unclaimed Runaways and the Power Struggles of Colonial Haiti: Part I, Legislating Nègres Épaves

By Erica Johnson Edwards

This is a part one of a three-part series on nègres épaves in colonial Haiti, tracing the origins of regulations regarding nègres épaves and the roles of these peoples within various colonial struggles throughout the eighteenth century.

While scholars have investigated many aspects of maronnage, the running away or self-liberation of enslaved Africans within the French Caribbean, little has been said about maroons who were unclaimed.[1] Article 38 of the Code Noir defined maronnage as a crime and outlined punishments for it, but its authors in metropolitan France in 1685 did not anticipate that runaways would go unclaimed. [2] By the early eighteenth century, however, authorities in colonial Haiti created and revised local laws regarding these unclaimed runaways, known as nègres épaves. The laws addressed the imprisonment, reporting, advertisement, use of labor, and sale of the nègres épaves. Through various arrêts, régléments, and ordonnances between 1700 and 1745, runaways who remained unclaimed became victims of reenslavement and a domestic slave trade.

There were many possible reasons for a runaway to go unclaimed. Many individual slaveholders in colonial Haiti practiced absenteeism, residing or traveling outside the colony. Also, merchant houses in France’s port cities owned plantations and enslaved peoples of African descent in colonial Haiti. Both relied upon gérants (managers) to maintain their holdings, who often mismanaged them.[3] Whenever a slaveholder had to travel suddenly due to an illness or passed away without necessary arrangements, this left their estates in a precarious position. Further, some slaveholders or managers did not regularly update their registries to reflect the high mortality rates in colonial Haiti and continuous sales and purchases of enslaved peoples.[4] Without an accurate registry, they had no proof of maronnage, or means to reclaim a runaway.  Authorities, moreover, relied upon runaways for information about themselves and their owners, which enslaved peoples did not always know or were not always willing to share.

The oldest surviving decree regarding nègres épaves came from the jurisdiction around the city of Cap, in northeastern Haiti. In early 1707, Cap’s notary proposed the sale of unclaimed runaways by the receveur des amendes et confiscations (receiver of fines and confiscations), because of the public cost of their continued detention. Based on what had recently become custom in the city Cap, he suggested, after one month of imprisonment, the authorities should advertise in all the parishes around Cap that the nègres épaves would be sold one month later.[5]  One month should have provided ample time for a slaveholder or manager within the jurisdiction to come forward to claim any runaways. However, if the runaway came from a different jurisdiction further away from Cap, slaveholders and managers in other parts of the colony would not necessarily be aware that a person they enslaved had been arrested around Cap or of the impending sale. Furthermore, if a slaveholder were out of the colony at the time, one month was not enough time for any notification to reach them or for them to respond. The proposal also did not provide a procedure to reclaim nègres épaves if a slaveholder or manager came forward at any time after the sale. While this plan came out of a local need, it did not account for all possible scenarios, leaving it open to dispute. Although it was the first, Cap was not the only jurisdiction in the colony to address the issue of nègres épaves.

Léogane, Cap’s neighboring jurisdiction to the South, addressed the sale of nègres épaves in the summers of 1711 and 1712. The acting intendant, Jean-Jacques Mithon, issued an ordinance in June 1711 pertaining to the capture, imprisonment, and auction of nègres épaves around Léogane.[6] In it, he referenced the enslaved runaways in dungeons in Petite Riviere who had been imprisoned for “a very long time” without knowing to whom they belonged. He expressed the need to advertise their sale on the door of the administrative office of Léogane and the entrance to the parish church. Although he did not specify how long they needed to be imprisoned before sale, he was precise about the price to buy nègres épaves. In addition to the cost of nourishment while imprisoned, purchasing each unclaimed runaway required buyers to pay 12 livres to the seneschal, 8 livres to the clerk, and 6 livres to the bailiff.[7]  In July 1712, Mithon issued another ordinance specifying that nègres épaves could only be sold after one month of imprisonment and three public advertisements.[8] The regulations for nègres épaves in Léogane evolved as necessary to accommodate local circumstances.

In 1733, royal administrators in colonial Haiti offered remedies for abuses of the existing laws regarding nègres épaves. They admitted to receiving “frequent complaints” about the mistreatment of imprisoned runaways held in jails for long periods and the inflated prices at auction for nègres épaves. They demanded the officers in their jurisdictions investigate the colonists’ claims, and they insisted nègres épaves must be sold after one month in jail for only the cost of imprisonment.[9] One year later, they ordered each jurisdiction within the colony to report all nègres épaves sold to the intendant each month. This suggests that all jurisdictions were already selling or were expected to begin selling nègres épaves, making it another form of slave trade within the colony.[10]

In the 1740s, colonial authorities attempted to use jailed nègres épaves in service of the colony and king. Article XXVI of the regulations for the maréchausée (rural slave-hunting police force) stated that after one month of imprisonment, unclaimed runaways would be conducted to a “chain” or workshop to labor on fortifications or “other works of his majesty.”[11] However, two years later, Saint-Domingue’s administrators claimed the colony’s plantation owners opposed the use of nègres épaves to labor on public works, most likely because the War of Austrian Succession (1744-48) had begun to disrupt the slave trade.[12] They further suggested it was extremely difficult to get the unclaimed runaways to work because of their “taste for maronnage,” and their labor was “mediocre” when they did. Therefore, they decided not to enforce the “unhelpful provision.” However, the colonial leaders stated their intention to continue selling nègres épaves after one month of detention. They would allow the original slaveholders or managers to reclaim and pay for any nègres épaves within one year of sale or receive reimbursement for the price of sale within five years.[13] In October 1746, Louis XV issued an ordinance supporting the governor and intendant’s decision to discontinue using imprisoned runaways on public works.[14] Despite the efforts of officials to make some profit off nègres épaves in the 1740s, they compromised when plantation owners raised opposition.

In the part two, I will discuss the evolution of the regulations for nègres épaves in the context of internal struggles within the colony regarding religion, maronnage, and militia service as well as two international wars.

Erica Johnson Edwards is Assistant Professor of History at Francis Marion University. She is the author of Philanthropy and Race in the Haitian Revolution, part of the Cambridge Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies Series (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

Title image: The sculpture Le Marron Inconnu in the city centre of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in April 2018.

Further Readings:

Bona, Dénétem Touam. “Les Métamorphoses du Marronnage.” Lignes. No. 16 (2005):  36-48.

Burnard, Trevor and John Garrigus. The Plantation Machine: Atlantic Capitalism in French Saint-Domingue and British Jamaica. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

Debien, Gabriel. “Le Marronage aux Antilles Françaises au XVIIIe siècle.” Caribbean Studies.   Vol. 6, No. 3 (Oct. 1996): 3-43.

Eddins, Crystal Nicole Eddins. African Disaspora Collective Action: Rituals, Runaways, and the Haitian Revolution. PhD Diss., Michigan State University, 2017.

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


[1] See for example, Gabriel Debien, “Le Marronage aux Antilles Françaises au XVIIIe siècle,” Caribbean Studies, vol. 6, no. 3 (Oct. 1996), 12; Dénétem Touam Bona, “Les Métamorphoses du Marronnage,” Lignes, no. 16 (2005), 38-39; Crystal Nicole Eddins, African Diaspora Collective Action:  Rituals, Runaways, and the Haitian Revolution, PhD Diss., Michigan State University, 2017, 126, 214, 216; Frédéric Régent, “Résistances serviles en Guadeloupe à la fin du XVIIIe siècle,” Bulletin de la Société d’Histoire de la Guadeloupe, no. 140 (2005):  38; and John Savage, “Unwanted Slaves: The Punishment of Transportation and the Making of Legal Subjects in Early Nineteenth-Century Martinique,” Citizenship Studies, vol. 10, no. 1 (Feb. 2006), 40.

[2]Louis Louis XIV, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, and François-Michel Le Tellier, “Code Noir ou Edit servant de Règlement pour le Gouvernement et l’Administration de la Justice et de la Police des Isles Françoise de l’Amerique, et pour la Discipline et le Commerce des Negres et Esclaves dans ledit Pays,” Loix et Constitutions des Colonies Françoises de l’Amérique sous le Vent, edited by Louis-Elie Moreau de Saint-Méry vol. 1 (Paris, 1784), 420. For a discussion of the drafting of the Code Noir, see Brett Rushforth, Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2012), 122-132.

[3] Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2004), 20, 37.

[4] Dubois, Avengers of the New World, 39-40.

[5] For the custom he referenced, see M. de Charitte, “Ordre du Commandant du Cap, pour indiquer qu’il y a des Negres Epaves au Corps-de-garde de la même Ville,” 6 April 1704, Loix et Constitutions des Colonies Françoises de l’Amérique sous le Vent, edited by Moreau de Saint-Méry, vol. 2 (Paris, 1784), 8. For the legal decision, see Council of Cap, “Arrête du Conseil du Cap, touchant les Negres Epaves,” 9 February 1707, Loix et Constitutions, edited by Moreau de Saint-Méry, vol. 2, 92.

[6] The French metropole did not appoint an official intendant for Saint-Domingue until 1718, but Mithon was acting in the preceding years. For more on Mithon, see François Maurice Lafillard, Etats de services dit “Alphabet Lafillard,” de 1627 à 1780 (s.d., XVIIIe siècle), 525, D2 C222, ANOM and Kenneth J. Banks, Chasing Empire across the Sea: Communications and the State in the French Atlantic, 1713-1763 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press, 2002), 225-226.

[7] Jean-Jacques Mithon, “Ordonnance de M. l’Intendant, sur la Vente des Negres Epaves, 17 June 1711,” Loix et Constitutions, edited by Moreau de Saint-Méry, vol. 2, 261-262.

[8] Jean-Jacques Mithon, ” Ordonnance de M. l’Intendant, touchant les Negres Epaves, 12 July 1712,” Loix et Constitutions, edited by Moreau de Saint-Méry, vol. 2, 324-325.

[9] Le Marquis de Fayet and Jean-Baptiste Duclos, “Ordonnance des Administrateurs, touchant la vente des Négres-Epaves,” 6 April 1733, Loix et Constitutions des Colonies Françoises de l’Amérique sous le Vent, edited by Moreau de Saint-Méry, vol. 3 (Paris, 1785), 355-356.

[10] “Lettre du Ministre aux Administrateurs, concernant les Amendes, Confiscations, Epaves et Aubaines. Du 13 Juin 1734,” Loix et Constitutions, edited by Moreau de Saint-Méry, vol.  3, 399-400.

[11] “Réglement du Roi, concernant la Maréchaussée de Saint-Domingue, 31 July 1743,” Loix et Constitutions, edited by Moreau de Saint-Méry, vol. 3, 754-759.

[12] For more on the War of Austrian Succession and the Caribbean, see See Herbert William Richmond, The Navy in the War of 1739-48, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1920), 190-233; and Trevor Burnard and John Garrigus, The Plantation Machine: Atlantic Capitalism in French Saint-Domingue and British Jamaica (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 83-84, 14.

[13] Charles Brunier, Marquis de Larnage and Simon-Pierre Maillart, “Ordonnance des Administrateurs, concernant les Négres-Epaves. Du 2 Juillet 1745,” Loix et Constitutions des Colonies Françoises de l’Amérique sous le Vent, edited by Moreau de Saint-Méry, vol. 4 (Paris, 1785), 834-835.

[14] “Ordonnance du Roi, qui confirme purement et simplement celle rendue le 2 Juillet 1745, par les Administrateurs, portant que les Négres fugitifs arrêtés, seront, faute de réclamation dans un mois, vendus comme épaves,” 26 October 1746, Loix et Constitutions, editd by Moreau de Saint-Méry, vol. 3, 852.

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