Unclaimed Runaways and the Power Struggles of Colonial Haiti: Part II, Effects of War on Nègres Épaves

Click here for part one, which focuses on the legal history of the nègres épaves in colonial Haiti.

By Erica Johnson Edwards

Two mid-eighteenth-century Atlantic conflicts disrupted colonial Haiti and threatened the colony’s system of slavery: the War of Austrian Succession (1744-48) and the Seven Years’ War (1756-63). Although the Caribbean experienced little direct military engagement in the War of Austrian Succession, France’s island colonies suffered considerable trade interruptions.[1] The British navy worked to prevent French commercial vessels from trading sugar and enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean. British naval interceptions reduced French colonial sugar imports to Bordeaux by half. Further, while roughly 14,000 enslaved peoples from Africa disembarked in the French Caribbean in 1744, slavers only unloaded around 1,700 enslaved Africans in colonial Haiti between 1745 and 1748. On the other hand, British imports of enslaved Africans to their Caribbean colonies increased during those same years.[2] In addition to the reduced numbers of imported enslaved Africans, colonists in colonial Haiti warred internally against maroon bands. After the war and moving into the 1750s, “some observers estimated that” colonial Haiti had three thousand maroons.[3] Maroons, led by Makandal, supposedly carried out a series of poisonings against livestock, free whites, and enslaved people in 1757 and 1758.[4] In response to fears that Jesuit priests allowed enslaved Africans to worship independently and taught them immortality, which led to “enormous crimes, including desecration and poisoning,” the French expelled the Jesuits from colonial Haiti in 1763.[5] These internal and external threats to colonial Haiti raised further concerns about maronnage, and further complicated postwar colonial and metropolitan claims to authority there, including that regarding nègres épaves.

Black and white engraving of Jean Etienne Bernard de Clugny.

Following the Seven Years’ War, authorities in the metropole and colonial Haiti issued conflicting ordinances affecting nègres épaves. In 1760, the metropole appointed Caribbean property owner and member of the Parlement of Dijon, Jean Etienne Bernard de Clugny de Nuits, as colonial Haiti’s intendant, the “first high officer not to come out of the military.”[6] He issued a new ordinance specific to nègres épaves in 1764, sending any captured runaways to prison, and allowing the use of their labor for public works on one of three “chains”: Cap, Port-au-Prince, or Saint-Louis-du-Sud. If not claimed within one month of being jailed, authorities would sell the nègres épaves for the cost of capture and care during imprisonment.[7] In 1768, Louis XV put forth a comprehensive ordinance regarding nègres épaves, with ten articles addressing elements in all previous eighteenth-century regulations. In the introduction to the articles, Louis XV condemned Clugny de Nuits’ 1764 ordinance, because the provisions for using nègres épaves as labor on public works contradicted his own ordinance forbidding it from October of 1746. His regulations required sale after three months, with sales four times each year on the second of January, April, July, and October.[8] In this case, the king’s authority was final, and his regulations struck a balance between royal and colonial interests.

Ordonnance du Roi, 18 November 1767.
Liste des Negres Epaves, Affiches Américaines, 26 October 1768.

The colonial press aided in the administration of Louis XV’s regulations for nègres épaves by advertising their recorded names, descriptions provided by jailors, and dates of scheduled auctions. Charles d’Estaing, who was governor from 1764-1766, established a printing press in colonial Haiti, which produced a colonial newspaper, the Affiches Américaines. Printed in Cap and Port-au-Prince, the newspaper had 1,500 subscribers at one point.[9] Article III of the king’s ordinance of November 1767 required publication of lists of the nègres épaves in the Affiches Américaines two months before the sale.[10] In July of 1768, Port-au-Prince’s edition of Affiches Américaines reprinted a story from Cap’s edition explaining the new legislation and that Cap’s Superior Council had registered the king’s ordinance in June.[11] On October 26, the Affiches Américaines published the first list of nègres épaves from Cap, but the advertisement did not include an auction date. Of the five nègres épaves, all in their thirties, four were listed by name. They had spent four to five months jailed at the time of the publication, even though the legislation stated that they only needed to be jailed for three months before auction.[12] There were no nègres épaves advertised in Port-au-Prince’s edition of the Affiches Américaines in 1769 because of a battle between the colony’s governor and free colonists over militia service.

The colonial militia experienced a period of crisis in the late 1760s. In March 1763, “imperial officials dissolved the militia,” but by 1764, “advocates of a reestablished colonial militia” began to claim that maroon raids had increased because of the anarchy that had replaced “wartime discipline.”[13] Indeed, militiamen of color often assisted the maréchausée in pursuing runaways.[14] When Louis-Armand-Constantin de Rohan-Montbazon became governor of the colony in 1766, he immediately pursued the reestablishment of the colonial militia, despite opposition from slaveholders, both white of color. Accordingly, the Council of Port-au-Prince refused to approve such a measure. In October 1768, King Louis XV sent his support for Rohan-Montbazon’s militia law.[15] Instead of mustering, “antimilitia whites and free men of color” gathered in protest in early 1769, and Rohan-Montbazon sent royal troops to repress them.[16] This crisis illustrated how planters allied together across a hardening color line against royal authority when necessary and prevented the implementation of certain laws. By the spring of 1770, peace had been restored and the Affiches Américaines in Port-au-Prince once again advertised nègres épaves.

In the third and final part of this series, I will discuss the peoples deemed to be nègres épaves. Through the advertisements in the Affiches Américaines, it is possible to learn significant details about who the unclaimed runaways were. They were young and old, creole or from scattered parts of West and Central Africa and bore marks of their origins and their enslavement.

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: British ships in the Seven Years War before Havana, 1762.

Further readings:

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

John D. Garrigus. Before Haiti: Race and Citizenship in French Saint-Domingue.  New York:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

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


[1] See Herbert William Richmond, The Navy in the War of 1739-48, vol. 2 (Cambridge University Press, 1920), 190-233.

[2] 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. For more on the transatlantic slave trade numbers, see slavevoyages.org.

[3] Burnard and Garrigus, The Plantation Machine, 14.

[4] Sébastien Jacques Courtin, “Mémoire sommaire sur les prétendues pratiques magiques et empoisonnements prouvés aux procès instruits et jugés au Cap contre plusieurs Nègres et Nègresses dont le chef nommé François Macandal, a été condamné au feu et exécuté le 20 janvier 1758,” quoted in Sue Peabody, “‘A Dangerous Zeal’:  Catholic Missions in the French Antilles, 1625-1800,” French Historical Studies, vol. 25, no. 1 (Winter 2002), 79.

[5] Moreau de Saint-Méry,”Arrêt de Règlement du Conseil du Cap, sur les abus, en matière de Religion, de la part des Gens de couleur,” Loix et Constitutions, vol. 4, 352-356 ; and “Arrêt définitif du Conseil du Cap, qui prononce l’Extinction des Jésuites, et leur expulsion hors de la Colonie,” Loix et Constitutions, vol. 4, 626-628.

[6] John D. Garrigus, Before Haiti: Race and Citizenship in French Saint-Domingue (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 114.

[7] Moreau de Saint-Méry, “Ordonnance de M. l’Intendant, concernant les Negres Marrons. Du 23 Mars 1764,” Loix et Constitutions des Colonies Françoises de l’Amérique sous le Vent, vol. 4 (Paris, 1785), 717-718.

[8] Moreau de Saint-Méry, “Ordonnace du Roi concernant les Negres épaves. Du 18 Novembre 1767,” Loix et Constitutions des Colonies Françoises de l’Amérique sous le Vent, vol. 5 (Paris, nd), 139-141.

[9] Dubois, Avengers of the New World, 19-20; Garrigus, Before Haiti, 124.

[10] Louis-Elie Moreau de Saint-Méry, “Ordonnance du Roi concernant les Negres épaves. Du 18 Novembre 1767,” Loix et Constitutions des Colonies Françoises de l’Amérique sous le Vent, vol. 5 (Paris, nd), 139-141.

[11] “Amérique du Cap, le 30 juin,” Affiches Américaines, no. 27, 6 July 1768, 222-223.

[12] “Etat des Negres épaves qui, suivant l’Ordonnance du Roi du 18 novembre 1767, doivent être vendus à la diligence du Receveur de ce droit, extrait des Registres du Greffe des Prisons Royales du Cap,” Affiches Américaines, no. 43, 26 October 1768, 352.

[13] Garrigus, Before Haiti, 116, 118.

[14] Stewart R. King, Blue Coat or Powdered Wig: Free People of Color in Pre-Revolutionary Saint Domingue (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2001), 63.

[15] Garrigus, Before Haiti, 128, 130.

[16] Burnard and Garrigus, The Plantation Machine, 176-177.

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