Issue 3.0: Introduction

The six pamphlets that make up the next installment of A Colony in Crisis bring to the fore of this project a number of pressing concerns about the kind of knowledge about life under slavery that can be gleaned from the colonial archive. The historian Barbara Bush once wrote, “History has been written for men, by men, and thus records only what men wish to see.”[1] The documents gathered, translated, and contextualized by the editors in versions 1.0 and 2.0 of A Colony in Crisis painfully reveal that official colonial history can only help us to discern what “white” colonial men in power thought was important and what they believed should be remembered about the Saint-Domingue grain crisis of 1789.

The pamphlets presented in version 3.0 continue to proliferate with the confusion of meanings that colonialism encourages, and indeed appears to engender, about the seemingly self-evident ideas of life and death, freedom and equality, and, in the end, humanity. In the documents presented here in English translation for the first time, these terms, which came to be seen as the basis of enlightenment universalisms, are used counter-intuitively to serve colonial interests just before and then in the wake of the rebellion of the free people of color and the enslaved population of Saint-Domingue in 1790 and 1791, respectively. The “Supplique,” penned by some of the more activist free people of color, and the Réflexions sur le code noir, written by members of the Société des Amis des Noirs, in particular, provide powerful glimpses of the distortion that colonial slavery wrought on the social world. The colonial plantation was characterized by forms of sociality whereby death could be considered better than life and where bondage could be promoted as being preferable to freedom.

All of the documents in this collection therefore beg to be read with an eye toward the kind of suspect knowledge that colonial language creates. It is not only the intentions of the authors’ that deserve to be called into question, but the very meanings of the words embedded in the sentences themselves. Paying attention to the way that particular vocabularies and their received connotations came to be inverted in debates about slavery in the colony may bring us closer to understanding the experiences of those who had been subjugated by enslavers and colonial authorities.

The “Réponse des Députés,” for instance, praises the “Colonists” for the “gentle and humane government they are using toward their slaves.” In another section, the authors suggest that enslavement was “one hundred times more preferable to the unfortunate liberty” of the “working man in the majority of our countryside.” The very essence of gentleness and our sense of what it means to be “humane” become suspect when attached to the utterly violent conditions of slavery. Even the received understanding of liberty is here made profane when it is rendered an “unfortunate” condition that dooms one to a life of labor rather than recognized as an inalienable state germane to life itself.

Is it any wonder then that the self-styled citoyens de couleur did not want to be “confused with Slaves,” as they wrote in the “Supplique?” The opposition of the free people of color to the kind of inhumanity associated with both blackness and slavery is only punctuated by the governor of Saint-Domingue’s decree of 20 June 1762, which stated that it was “[nature]” which had “established three different classes of humans—Whites, mixed-race and Free Mulattos or Negroes.” As the editors point out, the enslaved do not even figure in this taxonomy of humanity, as they were considered meubles or household belongings.

The “Copie d’une lettre d’un capitaine” even more succinctly reveals how simultaneously valuable and expendable a slave life was to those in power; perhaps more importantly, the letter also indicates how little enslaved people may have valued the concept of life itself: “We have often butchered them,” the author writes, “but they recruit reinforcements easily.”

Death in rebellion or in suicide was preferable for many enslaved people over a life lived under the tortures of slavery. This is, at the very least, the description of slave life supplied in the Réflexions sur le code noir, where we learn that a colonist named Mainguy has been charged and convicted of having “beaten his slaves,” “wounded them with scissors” and a machete, and burned them with hot coals and irons. Taking his own life was an immediate deliverance for at least one of Mainguy’s slaves who could no longer “resist these agonies.” A commonsense understanding of freedom as the liberty to move about and do as one pleases was consciously and repeatedly undermined in a world where “[t]he spirit of freedom that is unfolding […] only served to greater tighten the slaves’ chains.” To be human in such a world was thus itself suspect. The authors of the Réflexion lament, in the end, “we are still afraid of being human.”

The Discours prononcé le 23 Octobre 1791 only adds to the proliferation of confused shadows cast by the usage of social words in colonial context. “Friends,” “citizens,” “brothers:” what can these terms possibly mean in a society driven entirely by the desire of one group of people to deprive others of ever knowing what it feels like to embody any of these social positions? “Citizens of color, my friends, here you lose this denomination,” the document proclaims, “No distinction exists anymore [between you and whites], no more difference. We will only have in the future, all together, one identical title, that of CITIZEN.” This last phrase, of course, would come to mean virtually nothing in a plantation economy where human beings could be bought and sold largely on the basis of the color of their skin, and where all non-white “citizens” would find themselves hunted down during Leclerc and Rochambeau’s genocidal policy of extermination at the turn-of-the-century.

Indeed, the final document in the collection, the Mémoire pour Pierre Lesens, reveals the very extent of the ability of enslavers to monetize black lives, such that “men fighting for their freedom” could be plainly characterized by Lesens’ lawyer as terrifying rather than as righteous.

Ultimately, I hope that readers will join me in examining the way that the language of a seemingly self-evident and otherwise familiar social world of human connection and affinity was being made to function in these texts as the very grounds for the alienation of existence wrought by colonialism and slavery. For, the colonial archive undermines the idea that freedom, equality, and humanity have ever been universal ideas serving singular and shared goals of preserving and affirming the goodness of human life.

Marlene L. Daut, University of Virginia

[1] Barbara Bush, “Defiance or Submission? The Role of the Slave Woman in Slave Resistance in the British Caribbean.” Immigrants & Minorities 1.1 (1982): 16-38.