“Only when French generals will give their daughters in marriage to the Nègres”: Jean-François Petecou and the Other Path to Haitian Freedom

By Miriam Franchina

When Haiti proclaimed its independence from France in 1804, Jean-François Petecou was on the other side of the Atlantic in Cádiz, Spain. He had been among the earliest leaders of the 1791 slave insurrection that became the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804). From 1793 to 1795, as the general of the Black auxiliary troops of King Carlos IV, Petecou made it possible for Spain to envision a conquest of Saint-Domingue, France’s richest colony, across the border from Santo Domingo. It was Petecou’s former comrade Toussaint Louverture who tipped the scales of war in France’s favor. He, too, had begun as a Spanish ally, but switched his loyalties to France in 1794. Louverture was equally unable to witness Haiti declare its independence; he died imprisoned and neglected in France in 1803. 

Petecou lost twice: on the battlefield against Louverture, and again in the historiographical arena. In fact, scholars still refer to him as “Jean-François” or by his former master’s surname – Papillon – although he refused to be reduced to a first name “like a vile beast.” Instead, like Louverture, he chose for himself a surname – Petecou.[1] Louverture has gained rightful attention as one of the forgers of Haitian political independence and freedom for all enslaved people. Petecou, by contrast, is remembered as the leader who valued Spanish military decorations over the universal abolition of slavery and only fought for partial freedom.[2] It is largely overlooked that he, too, similarly and earlier than Louverture, considered changing loyalties from Spain to France.[3] Petecou ultimately did not trust that white planters would simply accept that the formerly enslaved shake off their chains. Scholars are uncovering the nuanced strategies and conflicting interests at play in the Haitian Revolution to fully reconstruct the agency of the formerly enslaved.[4] Haitian history does not need another hero with epaulettes. Notwithstanding, Petecou’s lifelong challenge to the colonial system reminds us that Haitian attacks on colonialism and slavery were complex and, seen in hindsight, controversial. At Petecou’s back were between 7,000 and 12,000 soldiers and their numberless families. Archives do not give us their voices, yet they stood by Petecou, and fought their enslavers while “avenging God and the King.”[5]

All we know of Petecou before the Haitian Revolution stems from an act of defiance. In 1787, his master published an ad seeking to retrieve the 22-year-old, island-born enslaved man. The brands on his body – uncommon for a creole – suggest that this was not the first time that he had run away. Thereafter, Petecou would never be enslaved again.

When Black Saint-Dominguans launched the Haitian Revolution in August 1791, Petecou swiftly established himself as one of their leaders and took the reins – alongside Georges Biassou – of the negotiations with France. At the same time, he received informal entreaties and weapons from Santo Domingo, whence Spanish officials closely observed the insurgents’ movements. After declaring war against France (January 1793), Spaniards were eager to secure Petecou’s vast army, convinced that he would docilly execute their orders. European colonizers assumed people of African descent would naively embrace causes of which they understood little, if steered by white masterminds.[6] Petecou proved both Spaniards and the French wrong. He systematically challenged European racial biases, presenting his troops as loyal and brave soldiers, and their families as devout Christians and hard-working land laborers. Petecou made his position clear from the very first encounter with a Spanish envoy in April 1793. He met Father Vázquez at a secret location and staged an impressive entrance amidst 250 armed men.[7] Vázquez was to gain the Black general’s trust and direct his actions, but it was really Petecou who gained the priest’s unstinting support, and through him, that of the Archbishop of Santo Domingo, Fernando Portillo y Torres. 

French commissioners were just as eager to gain Petecou’s army, and in June 1793, Petecou considered leaving Spain and allying with France. He was mindful, however, to keep both the Spanish and the French offers of alliance open. On June 21, he reassured the Archbishop of Santo Domingo of his loyalty, and only a week later approached the French commissioners.[8] Petecou proclaimed he had always “been and will always be French” and outlined a possible alignment of 9,000 men under the French flag. Eventually, however, he mistrusted the French republicans for they did not prevent Saint-Dominguan white planters from attacking his people.[9] In white planters’ eyes, Petecou was the leader of a mob of rebel slaves, and not the general of Spanish vassals at war. Petecou requested that the white planters “lay their weapons in front of us or in front of you [the commissioners].” This likely never happened, for Petecou sealed his definitive rejection of a French alliance in July 1793.[10] He met with French delegates and had King Louis XVI’s will read aloud. The King of France had entrusted his son with the sacred debt of honoring whomever fought on his behalf. This was the promise that Petecou trusted when he pledged allegiance to Louis XVI’s cousin, Carlos IV of Spain. It was not out of vanity that Petecou pinned medals to his uniform; alongside written Spanish commitments, such honors were tangible signs of his – and his men’s – status as vassals. 

Vassals were under royal protection and could not be simply handed over to France, as had happened with Vincent Ogésome years prior.[11] When Spain signed the peace treaty of Basel with France in 1795, Santo Domingo became a French territory, and the Black auxiliary troops had to be dismantled. While historiography tends to see this as the final defeat of the once-powerful Petecou, archives suggest a different story, one of protracted resilience. For several months after the peace declaration, Black auxiliaries continued to fight, seeking alliance with Great Britain and obtaining gunpowder from the Spaniards. For this reason, French authorities foresaw no place for Petecou and his men on the island. Nor would Spanish colonies welcome the armed general and his men who were feared as “seeds which would only yield thorns, no matter how carefully cultivated.”[12] While most of his former comrades – including the other general, Georges Biassou – were eventually dispersed into Spanish territories in the Americas, Petecou had become too powerful a symbol of Black resistance. Imperial authorities worried that the presence of Haitian soldiers might empower the insurrection of enslaved populations. In October 1796, for instance, enslaved people who rose in arms in Santo Domingo had reached out to former Black auxiliary troops. While officials in Madrid, Havana, and Trinidad debated sending Petecou to the uninhabited Malvinas where cold weather would tame his feisty spirit, Petecou himself wanted to take up the Spaniards promises of lands.[13] And he could advance his cause nowhere better than at the king’s feet in Spain. In January 1796, Petecou sailed to Cádiz with about hundred people – his closest military associates, his and their families, and enslaved individuals. Petecou knew his freedom was paper-thin, and he defended it through the only paper evidence Spain might be receptive to – correspondence and commendations he had painstakingly collected during the war and brought with him across the Atlantic. In Cádiz, Petecou petitioned multiple times for an audience with Carlos IV. As a proud royal vassal, Petecou would only discuss his relocation options with the king himself, staunchly demanding that the hundred people in his following remain with him. 

He was never admitted to the king’s audience, allegedly because a renewed war was brewing between Spain and France. Petecou died on September 15, 1805 and was inhumated in niche no. 65, line 4, in the cemetery of San José, registered as “Don Juan Piticou.”[14] The record acknowledged his free status (“don”) and added the family name of his choice, albeit misspelled, rather than that of his last enslaver. But the burial record made no mention of the military title Petecou had so often insisted on having recognized.  Petecou had fought on the losing side, that of Spain and of conditional rather than universal freedom for Haitians. To his damning memory, he sold nègres français captured at war into slavery, and took enslaved people with him to Cádiz. Petecou considered freedom something to be gained, something for himself and his closest associates rather than a universal value.

It was amidst the subversion of the world as the Europeans envisioned it that Haitian revolutionaries began crafting an identity of “brothers” with a common cause that would be later reinforced during Haitian independence. Petecou’s paper trail reflects the genesis of such an identity. In his 1791 letters to French and Spanish authorities, he clearly drew a line between himself and the rest of the Black fighters. He was the mighty commander who could bridle the violence of thousands of illiterate Africans. By 1793, however, he rejected French entreaties as not ensuring the safety of “us and our color.” [15] A month before Spain officially signed a peace with France, Petecou offered an amnesty to all the Black fighters who would join his ranks. He addressed the amnesty to his “frères” in a last attempt to “open their eyes” to the false lure of French promises.[16] Many Haitians rejected Petecou’s notion of freedom. But thousands of men and women kept fighting, cultivating, and some eventually emigrated to Spain with him. Their willful adherence to their general’s ideals is hard to reconstruct, yet they were responsive to Petecou’s admonishment that France could never afford to make Africans free, given its economic dependency on their enslaved labor. His comrades likely saw freedom gained on the battlefield as the only viable option.

We know now that Petecou had well-founded reasons for mistrusting the French. In 1802, a year before Louverture’s solitary death in a French prison, Napoleon Bonaparte reintroduced slavery and sent an expedition to crush the Haitian Revolution. Haitians won their freedom and independence in 1804, and thereafter strove to prove to the world that Europeans had been barbarians for promoting colonialism and slave trade. Petecou himself had described the French republican commissioners as “barbarians.”[17] He trusted French abolitionist proclamations only if and when their generals “gave their daughters in marriage to the nègres.[18] This never happened. Not during the Haitian Revolution, and not for long after that. In Petecou’s eyes, France had nothing but empty promises to offer Haitians.

Petecou’s remains still lie today in an unmarked common grave in Cádiz, where he was transferred at an unknown date. The graveyard of San José, where he had originally been buried, is currently being excavated at the behest of the Spanish government to exhume the remains of about 200 civilians shot under Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in 1940. In their memory and honor, a monument has been erected. 

There is no similar monument commemorating Jean-François Petecou. Spain still has not fully engaged with the memory of the slave trade and has yet to take account of the former slave who fought under its flag. In the bicentenary of Bonaparte’s death, with scholars holding France accountable for the deafening silence around the question of his reintroduction of slavery, we may want to think about Petecou and how he represented another possible, if failed, path to attempting freedom in Haiti. 

The only representation we have of Petecou depicts him kneeling humbly in front of the first set of French commissioners. Yet, the archives tell a different story, one of a resilient maroon and a proud royal vassal who was ready to consider concessions when negotiating with France, but who never bowed to their pretensions. As Richard Drayton reminded us, “cast in the bronze bath of the hero factory, the rough edges of real historical figures disappear.”[19] The complex reality of Petecou and his people can be found in no bronze statue. It lies instead between the lines of Petecou’s letters, letters which whisper the story of a fierce, if ill-fated, resistance. We may prefer to think instead of Petecou as one of the unknown maroons celebrated by the monument in Port-au-Prince, a symbol for thousands of forgotten Haitians who fought for freedom on a path that was not the winning one. 


Miriam Franchina is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Trier for the project “Religion, Slavery and Race in the Age of Revolutions: Catholicism from Colonial Saint-Domingue to Independent Haiti” funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.

Title Image: Battle of Vertières by Ulrick Jean-Pierre.

Further Readings:

Araujo, Ana Lucia. Slavery in the Age of Memory: Engaging the Past. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021.

Cañas Carrillo, Jesús A. “Localizados dos cadáveres de represaliados de la Guerra Civil en una fosa de Cádiz.” El País, June 25, 2018.

Céry, Loïc and Sala-Molins, Luis. “Bicentenaire Napoléon et mémoire de l’esclavage: des «ombres» aux mensonges,” Mediapart, Jan. 10, 2021.

Daut, Marlene L. “The Wrongful Death of Toussaint Louverture,” History Today 70, No. 6 (2020).

Dize, Nathan H. “Monumental Louverture: French/Haitian Sites of Memory and the Commemoration of Abolition,” Age of Revolutions, April 9, 2018.

Franchina, Miriam. “From Slave to Royal Vassal: Jean-François’s Negotiation Strategies in the Haitian Revolution.”Slavery & Abolition (2021), DOI:10.1080/0144039X.2021.1903324.

Gener Basallote, José Maria. “Localización y estudio estratigráfico de las fosas comunes vinculadas a los represaliados de la guerra civil española. Cementerio de San José (Patio 1), Cádiz.” Ayuntamiento Civil de Cádiz, March 19, 2018. 

Hernando, Silvia. “Lo que queda de la esclavitud en España: estatuas, calles, pinturas y música.” El País, June 23, 2020.

Jiménez, Jésus. “‘Cachita’, el documental que nos descubre la historia de la esclavitud negra en España,” RTVE, October 10, 2020.

Martin, Miriam R. “The Black Auxiliary Troops of King Carlos IV: African Diaspora in the Spanish Atlantic World, 1791-1818.” Ph.D. diss., Vanderbilt University, 2015.

Pinto Tortosa, Antonio. “Santo Domingo’s Slaves in the Context of the Peace of Basel: Boca Nigua’s Black Insurrection, 1796.” Journal of Early American History 3, no. 2/3 (2013): 131–53.

Nessler, Graham T.  An Islandwide Struggle for Freedom: Revolution, Emancipation, and Reenslavement in Hispaniola, 1789-1809. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016.

Piqueras, José Antonio. La esclavitud en las Españas. Un lazo trasatlántico. Madrid: Catarata, 2011.

Saint-Louis, Vertus. “Le surgissement du terme ‘africain’ pendant la révolution de

Saint-Domingue.” Ethnologies 28, no. 1 (2006): 147–71.

Thornton, John. ““I am the Subject of the King of Congo”: African Political Ideology and the Haitian Revolution.” Journal of World History 4, no. 2 (1993): 181–214.

Victoria Ojeda, Jorge. “De afroamerindios. Memoria histórica, identidad y creación de un ancestro entre los garífunas de Livingston.’ Ciencias sociales y humanidades 1, 1 (2014): 46–59.

Victoria Ojeda, Jorge. “Un líder de la revolución haitiana en Cádiz.” Trocadero 1, no. 18 (2006): 191–202.

Yingling, Charlton W. “Colonialism Unraveling: Race, Religion, and National Belonging in Santo Domingo during the Age of Revolutions.” Ph.D. diss., University of South Carolina, 2016.

Endnotes:

[1] Petecou to Etienne Laveaux, 8.11.1794, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, manuscript 12202. The first signature as Petecou is in 10.05.1803, Archivo General de Indias, ESTADO,3,N.10. 

[2]  For Petecou’s alleged vanity, see Philippe Girard, Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life (New York: Basic Books, 2016), 123; Jane G. Landers, Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010), 62–63.Scholarship tends to concentrate on Petecou’s activities in 1791, before his alliance with Spain, see Carolyn Fick, The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from below (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990). Petecou’s activities as a Spanish ally are currently attracting new attention, see Antonio J. Pinto Tortosa, “Una colonia en la encrucijada: Santo Domingo, entre la revolución haitiana y la reconquista española, 1791-1809,” (Ph.D. diss., Universidad Complutense de Madrid, 2012); Graham T.  Nessler, An Islandwide Struggle for Freedom: Revolution, Emancipation, and Reenslavement in Hispaniola, 1789-1809 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016); Jésus G. Ruiz, “Subjects of the King: Bourbon Royalism and the Origins of the Haitian Revolution, 1763-1804,” (Ph.D. diss., Tulane University, 2020).

[3] The only exception, to my knowledge, is Jeremy D. Popkin’s cursory mention in You Are All Free: The Haitian Revolution and the Abolition of Slavery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,2010), 253.

[4] Jeremy D. Popkin, “The Haitian Revolution Comes of Age: Ten Years of New Research,” Slavery & Abolition (2020), DOI: 10.1080/0144039X.2020.1834279; Cynthia A. Bouton, “Eustache’s ‘Amazing Ruses:’ Loyalty and Liberty in Saint-Domingue during the Haitian Revolution, Slavery & Abolition (2020), DOI:10.1080/0144039X.2020.1844545.

[5] Petecou to Archbishop Portillo, 28.05.1793; and 24.06.1793, Archivo General de Simancas, SGU,LEG,7157,22. Hereafter: LEG,7157,22.

[6] See the widespread assumption among white colonists that French white counter-revolutionaries triggered Black insurgents. David Geggus, “Toussaint Louverture avant et après le soulèvement de 1791,” Mémoire de revolution d’esclaves à Saint-Domingue, ed. Franklin Midy (Montréal, CIDHICA, 2006), 113–129.

[7] Vázquez described the encounter in a letter to Archbishop Portillo, 30.04.1793, LEG,7157,22.

[8] Petecou to Archbishop Portillo, 21.06.1793, LEG,7157,22.  Petecou and Biassou to the French commissioners, 28.06.1793, Archives Nationales, DXVV/12. All quotes are taken from the latter until otherwise stated.

[9] Petecou referred to white planters from the Dondon area, who violated the established truce and attacked his troops in June 1793.

[10] Journal of Pedro Almonte and Juan Cartagena, 11.07.1793, LEG,7157,22.

[11] The mulatto aristocrat Vincent Ogé rose in arms in Saint-Domingue in 1790 to claim rights for people of color. In violation of asylum agreements, Santo Domingo returned the fugitive Ogé to the French authorities, who then brutally executed him. See Melania Rivers Rodríguez, “Los colonos americanos en la sociedad prerrevolucionaria de Saint Domingue. La rebelión de Vicente Ogé y su apresamiento en Santo Domingo (1789-1791),” Memorias: revista digital de historia y arqueología desde El Caribe 2 (2005), online at https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=1185378.

[12] Casasalvo to Príncipe de la Paz, 24.02.1796, Archivo General de Simancas, ESTADO,43, N.18.

[13] Chacón, govenor of Trinidad, to Príncipe de la Paz, 19.07.1796, Archivo General de Indias, ESTADO,66,N.51.

[14] Libro de asiento 8706, Archivo Histórico Provincial de Cádiz.

[15] Petecou’s earliest letters to the French commissioners are from December 1791 and are printed in Laurent Dubois, and John D. Garrigus, Slave Revolution in the Caribbean, 1789- 1804: A Brief History with Documents (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 99–102.

[16] Petecou to his frères, 11.6.1795, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, 12203.

[17] Petecou to Archbishop Portillo, 21.06.1793; and to Father Vázquez, 8.07.1793, LEG,7157,22.

[18] Petecou to Etienne Laveaux, see note 1. For interracial marriages during the Haitian Revolution, see Elizabeth Colwill, “‘Fêtes de l’hymen, fêtes de la liberté’: Marriage, Manhood, and Emancipation in Revolutionary Saint-Domingue, in The World of the Haitian Revolution, ed. David P. Geggus, and Norman Fiering. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009), 125–155.

[19] Richard Drayton, “The Problem of the Hero(ine) in Caribbean History,” Small Axe, 15 no. 1 (2011), 39.

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