Copy of a Letter from a Captain presently in Cap Français, sent via the ship named the Cap-Français, which arrived in Nantes after 31 days on November 15, 1791, addressed to Paris, to M. W

On May 15, 1791, Louis XVI and the National Assembly promulgated a decree that granted full citizenship to property-holding Free People of Color born to free parents.[1] While only a small number of Free People of Color enjoyed the benefits of the new law, white planters took up arms and sought to abolish the decree. In their own defense, Free People of Color also bore arms, fighting the white planters to either retain or expand liberties to all freed peoples. However, the extent to which Free People of Color – those receiving and not receiving citizenship rights – were unified is unclear. The immediate response in June to the May decree, coming on the heels of Vincent Ogé’s failed rebellion in 1790, is part of a series of mainland revolts and uprisings by free and enslaved blacks between 1790-1791.[2] It has also been suggested that white planters, realizing that they could not defeat the slave masses, granted full citizenship to all Free People of Color on April 4, 1792 so that they would help the whites reinstate an orderly slave society.[3]

Written by an unnamed ship captain preparing to return to Cap Français, this letter recounts the violence that had consumed Saint-Domingue. He began by recounting the slave uprisings on August 22, sparked by the ceremony at Bois-Caïman that left hundreds of northern plantations in ashes, emphasizing the massacre of Whites at the hands of the formerly enslaved.[4] After noting the slave revolt, the captain intimated the numerous ways the Whites and Creole planters retaliated against the enslaved and other people of color through various acts of torture and extermination tactics.[5]

[1] For a translation of the decree, see: Dubois, Laurent, and John D. Garrigus. Slave Revolution in the Caribbean, 1789-1804: A Brief History with Documents. Basingstoke; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

[2] For a transnational reading of the May 15, 1791 decree, see Dun, James Alexander. “(Mis)reading the Revolution: Philadelphia and ‘St. Domingo,’ 1789-1792.” The Haitian Revolution and the Early United States: Histories, Textualities, and Geographies. Eds. Elizabeth Maddock Dillon and Micheal Drexler. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016, 42-57.

[3] See the introductory essay in Geggus, David. The Haitian Revolution: A Documentary History. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2014.

[4] Scholars generally agree that the ceremony of Bois-Caïman took place in late August, between the 20th and the 23rd. For historical work on the ceremony, see: Geggus, David. Haitian Revolutionary Studies. Indiana University Press, 2002.

[5] These acts are part of a genealogy of torture of black bodies in the Caribbean. For more see: Johnson, Sara E. The Fear of French Negroes: Transcolonial Collaboration in the Revolutionary Americas. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2012.

(Copie d’une lettre d’un capitaine présentement au Cap François, venue par le navire le Cap-François, arrivée à Nantes, en trente-huit jours, le 15 Novembre 1791, adressée a Paris à M.W.)

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At Cap Français, September 17, 1791

It is my honor to announce my arrival on the 18th of the present month. It pleases the Lord that I am once again in Nantes, knowing what is happening [in Saint-Domingue]. I see myself on the eve of a ruinous voyage, without being able to sell anything, and without any cargo. The negroes [sic] have been revolting since August 22.[6] They burned part of the plain around the Cap. Two hundred sugar plantations and many coffee plantations have been burned. Wherever they find whites, they massacre them. More than two hundred have already been killed. We have three little armies in the countryside. One army holds the passages at Caracole [sic] to prevent [the Negroes] from advancing any further and to spread them out at Fort Dauphin and its environs. The other is close to the Artibonite to prevent them, as well, from advancing to this side. And the third, which is the strongest, fights the negroes [sic] wherever it finds them. We have often butchered them, but they recruit reinforcements easily. We enclosed the city with a strong fence. The majority of the negroes [sic], spread out inside the city, are locked in the church and divided up amongst the ships in the harbor.[7] We are on the verge of slitting all of their throats, if the salvation of the people and supreme law orders us so to do. It is better to kill men without hesitation than court your own death.


After having spoken of the ills that pain this sad land, I am going to talk about what made it take place. I am far from blaming the May 15th decree in favor of the Free People of Color[8], I approve of it and desire its execution. Because of it the colony will be stronger, more prosperous, better connected to the metropole, and all French citizens would feel its advantageous impact. But we are now far from that desired point! in [sic] passing this decree in the colony, it had to be applied with sufficient force to prevent the planters from rejecting it, and [to prevent] the Free People of Color from granting it provisions it can not and should not have. France has done no such thing […]

As soon as the decree was known in the colony, the whites assembled themselves in their respective quarters. The result of these assemblies was the nomination of the members of a new general assembly, seemingly in Le Cap, and the resolution to die rather than accept the decree.[9] The president, whose ancestors were born in Africa and whom we believe to be white because he says so, opened the session wearing the black badge, with scarves of the same color. Soon, the black badges became fashionable, half of Le Cap was wearing them, and they all proclaimed loudly that France meant nothing to them anymore.[10] The Abbé Grégoire[11] was hung in effigy and the entire national assembly was treated with the utmost suspicion. While the whites carried on with these excesses, the Free People of Color from the South and the West took up arms. After many massacres, [the Free People of Color] forced the whites to assimilate [not] only by approving the decree that recognized as active citizens those who were born to property holding, free fathers and mothers, but to everyone without distinction. The Free people of Color no longer wanted to have to ask whites for these required qualities [of the citizen]. In the northern province, their behavior was quite different. Feeling weaker than the whites, some amongst them, along with the whites in their party, they provoked the work gangs, and immediately Marmelade, Dondon, haut [sic] du Cap, the area around Morin, Petite Anse, Limonade, and two others – eight parishes in total – were instantly devoured by flames. Freedom is their rallying cry. We told them that the king liberated them three days of the week, and that the other three days they would work for their masters, earning 3 livres per day. They took the canons and arms from each of the parishes they burned. We suspect the Spanish of having given them ammunitions because they are very well provisioned, and all the aristocrats in the colony blow smoke on the fire. They have a king who rules his subjects like a tyrant and is named François – formerly a slave and runaway belonging to M. Papillon (editorial note: need to hyperlink to the court case between Lesens and Papillon), who has been to France and knows how to read and write. The other day we found, in the pocket of one of their officers killed in battle, a letter stating in specific terms: “I order …, major-general of the cavalry, to kill those named George [sic] [Biassou] and Boukeman [sic] [Dutty] wherever they might be found. Signed, [Jean] François, king.”[12]

[6] This refers to slave uprisings. For visual renderings of Bois-Caïman, see:

[7] Recaptured slaves could have either been re-enslaved and sold to throughout the Caribbean, or potentially gathered in order to be drowned in the Caribbean Sea. On re-enslavement see: Ferrer, Ada. Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

[8] We have subsequently changed this to a proper noun for clarity.

[9] This assembly was the result of the unification of the provincial from the North, West, and South – Antoine Delmas refers to it as the Colonial Assembly. Its President was the Marquis de Cadusch. For more see: Dalmas, Antoine. Histoire de la révolution de Saint-Domingue, suivie d’un mémoire sur le rétablissment de cette colonie, 1814. 107-118; Lacroix, Pamphile vicomte de. Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de la révolution de Saint-Domingue. Pillet aîné, 1819. 42.

[10] Black badges at this point were in contrast to the tricolor cocarde that was in fashion to support the Republic in France

[11] Abbé Henri-Baptiste Grégoire was a French abolitionist and man of letters in eighteenth century France. He went on to write many texts concerning the abolition of slavery and arguments for the rights of people of color. For more on Abbé Grégoire and Saint-Domingue see: Geggus, David. The Haitian Revolution: A Documentary History. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2014.

[12] Georges Biassou and Jean-François were early leaders of the revolts that started the Haitian Revolution. Boukman Dutty is said to have been the Vodou priest who, along with Cécile Fatiman, presided over the ceremony of Bois-Caïman. This information seems to have either been fabricated or misread because Jean François never declared himself king even though he did wear a fleur-de-lys in support of the French monarchy. Boukman was killed in mid-November, presumably when this letter arrives in Nantes and it is unlikely that Jean François would have ordered his compatriot Biassou to be killed.