The Revolt from An Historical Account of the Black Empire of Hayti

Rainsford’s detailed contemporary account of the revolt emphasizes the strenuous yet ultimately unsuccessful mobilization of colonial French resources.


Another misfortune arose, which, however it might have been long expected, was still more unlooked-for than any other. Witnesses of the general commotion of the colony, and perceiving that, notwithstanding the attention which had been paid by the mother-country to the people of color, (except interweaving their sufferings with the subject, for the purposes of oratory) nothing was proposed with regard to them; the negroes began to consider of some melioration for themselves among the new arrangements then taking place. As they had unfortunately perceived that the first step in all the disputes of their masters had consisted of outrage, so they determined to follow those means which promised such certain success, and at the same time, afforded objects the most grateful to people in a state of slavery. It cannot be denied, that they may have felt no great pleasure in contemplating an acquisition of power by the mulattoes, who, from being, according to their own account more conversant with their habits, and better acquainted with their dispositions, had always been considered by the negroes as their severest masters; it is very probable, that they exercised the same, or greater rigor, over the negroes, than they received themselves from the whites. Be this as it may, while a perfect calm seemed to pervade every contending interest, one morning before day-break a sudden and confused alarm spread throughout the town of the Cape, that the negro slaves in the neighboring parishes had revolted, were murdering the whites, and setting fire to the plantations. The governor immediately assembled all the military officers, but nothing certain could be collected till dawn, when the reports were too sadly confirmed by the arrival of numbers, just escaped with life, who, begging for protection in the town, communicated the particulars.

From them they found, that the negroes in a plantation called Noe, in the parish of Acul, were the ringleaders, fourteen of whom, after having murdered the principal managers of the plantation, followed by the remainder, hastened to the adjoining one, and repeated the same enormities. The slaves of this estate immediately joined them. Their determination seemed, that it was necessary none should escape, for they shewed not the same discrimination they afterwards used. M. Clements, the owner of the latter plantation received his death from one he had regarded with much tenderness, and promoted (for so it was considered) to be his position. The same occurred at the largest plantation on the plain of the Cape, that of M. Galifet, whose negroes, the whole of whom joined the insurrection, were proverbial for receiving good treatment. Similar circumstances took place at the very time, on the estate of M. Flaville, a few miles distant, from whence they carried off the wife, and three daughters, of the Procureur, after murdering him before their faces. Day-light convinced the astonished inhabitants that the revolt was concerted, for some parties of observation sent from the town, soon perceived that the rising was general throughout the province, and the flames quickly burst from all quarters. The terror of the whole community now became excessive, and the shrieks of women and children as the appearances of horror spread, wildly, running from door to door, inquiring their fate of each other, produced a most distressing effect. The men armed themselves, and the General Assembly invested the governor with the command of the National Guards. As soon as any plan could be matured, it was determined, to send the white women and children on board the ships in the harbor; and the ablest of the domestic negroes in the town were also sent, under a guard, lest they should be concerned in any treacherous connection.

The next transaction which took place was relative to a considerable body of mulattoes in the town, who, although they had not joined the previous disputes, were immediately marked as objects of vengeance by the lower classes of white people, and it became necessary for the Assembly to afford them protection. This circumstance became the medium of an agreeable conciliation; for, in return, all the able men among them, proposed themselves to march against the rebels, leaving their wives and children as hostages for their fidelity. They were, therefore, enrolled in the militia, and a mutual confidence, to a certain degree, established itself between them.

As many seamen as could be spared from the ships were joined to the inhabitants, and the whole formed into a military order, when M. de Touzard, an officer who had distinguished himself in North America, took the command of a detachment of militia and troops of the line, and marched to attack the most powerful body of the revolters in the neighborhood. They were posted at the plantation of M. Latour, to the number of 4,000 negroes, a large portion of whom were destroyed, but their places were supplied by such increased numbers, that M. de Touzard was compelled to retreat. The weakness of the town obliged the governor to stand on the defensive, till he could contrive means to strengthen the only position he could command; if the negroes had proceeded to Cap François at that time, they might have easily taken the town, and effected every enormity they chose.

On the river which intersected the main road from the plain at the east end of the town, over which there was a ferry, a battery of cannon was raised on boats, protected by two small camps at a short distance; at the other principal road lying over the Haut du Cap, a considerable body of troops, with artillery, was stationed, while a strong palisade and chevaux-de-frize, surrounded the town on the land side; an embargo was laid on the shipping, for the purpose of retreat, and retaining the assistance of the sailors. The whole of the inhabitants, without distinction, labored at the fortifications.

Every method was used to communicate the information of the insurrection, when it could be conveyed with safety, and several camps were formed, which seemed to arrest the progress of the rebellion; nevertheless, those at Grande Rivière and Dondon were attacked by the negroes, joined by mulattoes, and after a sharp contest, forced with great, slaughter. The surviving whites from Dondon took refuge in the Spanish territory.

The whole of the plain, of the Cape, and the district of Grande Riviere, now in the possession of the insurgents, and abandoned to their ravages, as were the miserable inhabitants, to whom no assistance could be given, who, therefore, suffered every injury, that bewildered licentiousness could devise, before a death, in this instance merciful, but of more than common torments, closed for them the scene.

It serves few of the purposes of history to describe the various modes of torture which occurred to the savage insurgents, or to relate amounts of the grossest violations of virgins and pregnant women, in the presence of their dying husbands, or parents; much it is to be regretted, that civilized states should ever find it necessary to render torture of any kind familiar to vulgar minds; for they are exhibitions that live in the memory, and steel the heart against those affections which form the grandest boundary of our nature. There is reason to fear that the perpetrators of those horrid deeds had been witnesses to the ridicule of misery in others who should have evinced themselves superior to such conduct, by the godlike attributes of mercy and benevolence; the licentiousness of their intercourse with the female slaves could leave no impression to prevent a retaliation on the occasion, with objects, too, of such superior attraction, alas! unhappily for themselves.

Source: Marcus Rainsford, An Historical Account of the Black Empire of Hayti: Comprehending a View of the Principal Transactions in the Revolution of Saint-Domingo; with its Ancient and Modern State (London, 1805), 134–39.