“The Suspence Is Dangerous in a Thousand Shapes”: News, Rumor and Politics of the Haitian Revolution

Common_wind-
George De Baptiste, François-Dominique Toussaint

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The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution by Julius S. Scott is a gripping and colorful account of the intercontinental networks that tied together the free and enslaved masses of the New World. Read an excerpt from his book below. 

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The mobility which characterized the masterless Caribbean at the end of the eighteenth century provided a steady undercurrent of opposition to the “absolute” power of masters, merchants, and military officers in the region. In passing from plantation to plantation, from country to city, from town to town, or from island to island, people on the move challenged the social control which symbolized imperial authority. But the movements of runaway slaves, free people of color, deserters from military service, and sailors did not take place in a vacuum; their traditions of mobile resistance assumed an even wider significance when political currents swirling about the Atlantic world brought excitement and uncertainty to the shores of the American colonies, as they did during the revolutionary 1790s. In such times, officials worried openly about possible connections between mobility and subversion.

In the oral cultures of the Caribbean, local rulers were no more able to control the rapid spread of information than they were able to control the movements of the ships or the masterless people with which this information traveled. The books, newspapers, and letters which arrived with the ships were not the only avenues for the flow of information and news in Afro-America. While written documents always had a vital place, black cultural traditions that favored speech and white laws that restricted literacy gave a continuing primacy to other channels of communication. For the harbors where the masterless congregated also buzzed with an assortment of orally transmitted accounts—scraps of news, conflicting interpretations, elusive facts, and shifting rumors. A spicy story or telling anecdote could furnish attentive listeners with news of slave unrest, an impending imperial conflict, unstable sugar prices, or new departures in colonial policy. Whatever their form, reports of developments abroad which might have a tangible effect on American slave societies brought to the surface underlying tensions about authority, legitimacy, and belief. In cultures where people depended upon direct human contact for information, news spread quickly and became part of a shared public discourse.

As emancipation drew near in the British West Indies, the effective “grapevine” of slaves would baffle British colonists and officials. In the early 1830s, colonial governors commented—sometimes in amazement, most often in exasperation—on the slaves’ facility in gathering and transmitting information. Slaves learned quickly of each new initiative in Parliament and each move in their behalf, and the ripples which such news caused in black communities complicated efforts to control the slave population. “The slaves have an unaccountable facility in obtaining partial, and generally distorted, information whenever a public document is about to be received which can in any way affect their condition or station,” wrote Governor Smith of Trinidad in 1831. The governor of British Guiana discovered a similar dynamic among the slaves in that colony, and concluded that “nothing can be more keenly observant than the slaves are of all that affects their interests.”

What was true in the abolition era in the British colonies was equally applicable generations before. Of all the types of intelligence which arrived either on the printed page or by word of mouth in Afro-American societies, none was more eagerly anticipated or potentially explosive than news which fueled hopes of black emancipation. Just as planters and traders sought news on prices and market conditions and soldiers and sailors watched and listened for word of war or peace from all the publications and people crossing the local dock, so slaves too developed a keen sense of their own interest and kept their ears open for news relevant to their concerns. As the example of Spanish policy regarding runaway slaves makes clear, circulation of such reports among slave societies could spread uncontrollably and galvanize dissident slaves into action.

In addition, local black activists themselves created, transmitted, and utilized combinations of news and rumor to advance their interests independently. Several examples suggest some of the ways in which forceful rumors could raise expectations when carefully placed within slave communities. In 1749, slaves in Caracas, taking advantage of the confusion in the aftermath of a popular uprising of coastal traders against the monopoly of the Caracas Company, seized upon a rumor of impending freedom to organize a revolt of their own. The agitation centered around Juan de Cádiz, a free black recently arrived from Spain, who circulated news that the king had decreed that all Spanish slaves in the Indies be liberated. Promptly, Caracas slaves were whispering among themselves that His Majesty had dispatched the historic cédula in the care of a replacement for the local bishop who had recently died. While some slaves looked out for the new bishop’s arrival, others were certain that the spirit of the deceased bishop would deliver them by bringing the decree back as his last act in this world. In Martinique in 1768, several slaves who gave voice to an equally powerful liberation rumor discovered how effective—and perilous—such manipulation of public opinion could be. French authorities identified them as the original sources of the rapidly spreading news that a powerful African king had arrived, had purchased from the colonial government all the slaves on the island, and that they could soon expect to board vessels to return to Africa. Thee bearers of these tidings were placed in irons and publicly suffered thirty-nine lashes for three successive days.

In the 1770s, news of developments across the sea focused even more sharply the attention of Afro-Americans and energized their culture of expectation. This excitement centered in the British Empire. From England, accounts of Lord Mansfield’s historic decision in the case of former Virginia slave James Somerset arrived quickly in the American slave colonies. By 1773, barely a year after Somerset won his freedom in England, planters reported anxiously that word had reached Somerset’s fellow black Virginians, and some were attempting to board vessels for England “where they imagine they will be free (a Notion now too prevalent among the Negroes, greatly to the Vexation and Prejudice of their Masters).” The following year, another slave deserted an Augusta County plantation “to board a vessel for Great Britain ... from the knowledge he had of the late determination of Somerset’s Case.”

The coming of the American Revolution presented a wide range of opportunity for blacks to express their aspirations for freedom and to demonstrate their ability to absorb and transmit the revolutionary excitement in the air. Free blacks and slaves working in coastal occupations near Charleston, for example, clearly recognized the implications of the impending revolution in 1775, and passed word among themselves of the “great war coming soon” which would “come to help the poor Negroes.” Likewise anticipating the drama about to unfold, white patriots in the coastal South viewed with dismay their vulnerability in the event of a British invasion. Two Georgia delegates to the Continental Congress in 1775 shared with John Adams their fear that, if promised freedom, twenty thousand slaves from Georgia and South Carolina would fly to the British camp. They also related how recent news had stimulated the networks of black communication in the southern colonies. “The negroes have a wonderful art of communicating intelligence among themselves,” noted an obviously impressed Adams in his diary after their discussion. “It will run several hundreds of miles in a week or fortnight.”

Subsequent events fulfilled some black hopes and proved white fears prophetic. After the outbreak of hostilities, thousands of North American slaves in quest of freedom fled their masters to join the British; others hoped to gain freedom by fighting with the patriots. Not only did the revolt against British rule affect Afro-Americans in the rebellious colonies, the winds of the revolution swept into other neighboring areas of Afro-America. In Bermuda, black sailors took to the sea in privateers running powder and ammunition to the rebels. The dislocations and ideological currents of the revolt also affected Jamaica. Just as the Declaration of Independence appeared in the mainland colonies in July 1776, planters in Hanover parish barely averted an attempt of blacks along the coast to strike a blow for freedom. In the aftermath of the scare of 1776, white Jamaicans spoke anxiously of the danger posed by the currents of revolutionary ideology in slave societies. “Dear Liberty has rang in the heart of every House-bred Slave, in one form or other, for these Ten years past,” wrote one observer after the plot had been thwarted. “While we only talk’d about it, they went no farther than their private reflections upon us and it: but as soon as we came to blows, we find them fast at our heels. Such has been the seeds sown in the minds of our Domestics by our Wise-Acre Patriots.”

The peace of 1783 virtually extinguished the hopes kindled by the era of the American Revolution. In the years following the British defeat, the colonial powers in the Caribbean moved to recast their empires by closing loopholes (the new Spanish policy regarding runaway slaves provides the best example) and revitalizing the trade in African slaves. To the north, the victorious rebels did not extend their revolutionary principles to include the unfree, and by 1787 it was clear that the new nation would be built in large measure on the backs of the enslaved black workers who constituted fully a h of the population of the United States.

Beginning in the late 1780s, however, another wave of expectation and rumor gripped Afro-America. This time, the excitement encompassed a substantial cross-section of American slave societies, extending beyond the British colonies to include directly those of the Spanish and French. Not only did the revolutionary rumblings in Europe reverberate in the Americas, but slavery was everywhere under close and often critical metropolitan scrutiny. In Britain, whose slave trade was expanding again after declining during the war, popular pressure forced Parliament in 1787 to begin the long and slow process which would finally result in the trade’s abolition twenty years later. Similarly, the Bourbon reformers in Spain turned to the issue of slavery in the Spanish territories in the 1780s, and in 1789 attempted to place legal restraints on the absolute power of slaveholders and overseers on plantations. By 1789, of course, momentous news began to filter in from France. The storming of the Bastille, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the tentative colonial policy of the revolutionary government all held serious implications for the future of slavery in the French colonies. By 1790, the debates in Parliament over the slave trade, the Spanish reforms concerning slavery, and the French Revolution were not only topics of heated debate behind the closed doors of local government bodies; they were also the subjects of irrepressible speculation and rumor aboard ships, in city streets, and on plantations. From colony to colony, slaves and other disfranchised groups spread the news and shared their excitement, bending and stretching the conflicting accounts to build hopes that Atlantic “society was on the verge of a major transformation that would hasten their liberation.” This culture of expectation anticipated and helped to fuel the outbreak of revolution in the heart of Afro-America.