The Specter of Saint-Domingue
Part II: The Horror of Saint-Domingue in the Antebellum South

Auguste Raffet, Attack and take of the Crête-à-Pierrot, 1839.

2,671 words

Part I [1]

As Saint-Domingue sank ever deeper beneath the churning waves of black filth, those whites fortunate enough to survive fled for the greater Caribbean, including the antebellum American South. The colonists were no longer welcome in their home of France, which, in any case, was too dangerous at the time. The experience of one of the planters of Saint-Domingue, newly arrived in Revolutionary France in May 1794, is telling. Scarcely had the Frenchman cast anchor when the port officer approached him, gleefully celebrating the extermination of his own race: “Well,” he exclaimed, “at last they are free; those unhappy slaves. After a century of abuse and torture, it was high time that they became your equals and enjoyed our precious liberty; for they are as much men as we ourselves.” The former planter wrote in a passage eerily reminiscent of the epidemic of ethnomasochistic racial treason that has consumed much of our race today:

I was silent; it was no time to reply. The guillotines were “en permanence” upon the public squares. . . in coach or barge, in public house or private home, at cross-road or on city square, everywhere I found the same prejudice, the same virulence against the colonist. . . It was a furious hatred which prevailed. . . of such intensity that our most terrible misfortunes did not excite the slightest commiseration. To those prejudiced minds, we appeared more guilty than the most abandoned criminals, to whom are often vouchsafed some dregs of pity. We colonists. . . destitute, ruined, impoverished, often fated to beg our bread, found only cold hearts and unfeeling souls. . . I could name a great number of persons, men and women, young and old, who to my story of misfortune merely answered, “You have richly deserved it!” Our detractors had poisoned against us all classes of society. . . the very day-laborers in the fields. These simple people, impressed only by striking ideas, remembered about us only those reports most sensational. . . In their opinion, we colonists were worse than cannibals, and they really believed that we were accustomed to mutilate, flay, and massacre our slaves. I was actually introduced to many persons so touched by the “unhappy lot of the slaves” that they had long since ceased to take coffee; thinking that they swallowed only blood and sweat in this sugared drink! [1] [2]

The white refugees of Saint-Domingue were, at least initially, welcomed with open arms in the Southern ports of the United States. Louisiana was a popular destination, particularly New Orleans, as were other major ports, like Charleston, South Carolina. These whites brought two significant items of baggage: primary accounts of the horrors of Saint-Domingue, and black slaves who had just witnessed a merciless race war, and whose hearts were thus filled with the desire to follow its example. The blacks — and even some of the French whites — thus spread not only the grim tidings of black violence, but the very same egalitarian propaganda which had brought the cataclysm to fruition.

Significantly, the fall of Saint-Domingue may very well be seen as the single most important event that caused the Southern planters to grow increasingly recalcitrant about the abolition of slavery, even accompanied by colonization; in other words, the full sketch of black supremacy led Southerners to dig their heels in and hold closer the fiends whose freedom they well understood could not be countenanced. Innumerable accounts of the white genocide in Saint-Domingue “convinced Southerners that the only thing they could expect from freed slaves was vicious retaliation. . . three generations of white Southerners believed that race war would be the only result of the universal emancipation of slaves.” [2] [3] Slavery thus came to represent for many the most effective means of white self-preservation.

The black republic of Haiti, rife with voodoo cannibalism, [3] [4] also stood — and still stands in all of its disgusting putrescence — as proof of the inherent inferiority of blacks, of their native incapacity of participating in, let alone building anew, any semblance of a civilization. Haiti “represented an affront to the laws of nature, and the republic was therefore doomed to fail.” George Fitzhugh observed that “the fruits of freedom in that island, since its independence, in 1804, are revolutions, massacres, misrule, insecurity, irreligion, ignorance, immorality, indolence, and neglect of agriculture. . . wherever this race is found in a state of freedom, a blight and curse seem to follow.” Black slaves, however, looked at Haiti much as blacks today look to the fictional nation of “Wakanda,” as “an indication of the potentialities of black people,” as if blacks would achieve Great Power status were it not for the white colonizer. The Haitian insurrection thus formed an important part of a nascent black nationalist militancy and Pan-Africanism. [4] [5]

As time wore on, the Haitian insurrection also served to inflame sectionalism in the prelude to the War for Southern Independence as Northern abolitionists made it explicitly clear that they desired to foment white genocide in the South. Shortly after the blacks renamed their putrid, smoking ruins of a country “Haiti,” Northern politicians pushed for American recognition of the black republic and the establishment of diplomatic and trade relations. Southerners were revolted at the very notion of normalizing such a vile land and state of affairs, especially given the ever-present danger of black insurrection within their own borders. In fact, it was only after the Southerners had resigned from Congress that the United States recognized Haiti. The statesman Hugh Legaré, speaking in opposition to the Northern-proposed American recognition of Haiti, expressed the Southern perspective well:

It is not for the paltry commerce of a horde of barbarians that agitation is beginning on this subject. It is because it affords a plausible pretext and a convenient opening to a continued discussion of that fatal question which has been agitated out of the House of late, with so much vehemence. . . My objection against this memorial is that it aims at abolition — is a part of a system — is not for the benefit of commerce, but for the ruin of the South. . . As sure as you live, Sir, if this course is permitted to go on, the sun of this Union will go down — it will go down in blood, and go down to rise no more. I will vote unhesitatingly against nefarious designs like these. They are treason. [5] [6]

The universal praise and religious adulation given to the terrorist John Brown was the final nail in the coffin of union. Southerners fully and immediately understood that John Brown’s 1859 raid at Harpers Ferry, Virginia was “nothing more nor nothing less than an attempt to do on a vast scale what was done in St. Domingo in 1791,” and that “there is in the South a widespread organization of conspirators whose object is servile insurrection and the conflagration of Southern society.” The law of self-preservation thus required full-bore resistance to “Northern Jacobinism” and its demoniac missionaries, animated by “lust for Southern blood.” [6] [7]

In response to reports that the abolitionist Lydia Child was keeping John Brown company as he awaited his execution, the First Lady of Virginia, appealing to the experiences of the whites of Saint-Domingue, wrote: “You would soothe with sisterly and motherly care the hoary-headed monster of Harper’s Ferry! A man whose aim and intention was to incite the horrors of servile war — to condemn women of your own race, ere death closed their eyes on their sufferings from violence and outrages, to see their husbands and fathers murdered, their children butchered, the ground strewed with the brains of their babies.” It is surely a testament to the singular resonance of the fall of Saint-Domingue that even after sixty or seventy years, Southerners so vividly recalled those horrific events as the fate that lay in store for them should the volcano erupt. [7] [8]

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As the nation split asunder in late 1860 and early 1861, the Northern Establishment openly sponsored the incitement of black insurrection against their own ostensible countrymen, their own racial kinsmen. Indeed, contemporary Northern abolitionists took to calling Toussaint Louverture the “Washington of San Domingo.” [8] [10] President Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 Emancipation Proclamation was more than an attempt at retroactively grafting a narrative of moral profundity onto a war of ruthless conquest; in its words, Southerners saw a brazen attempt at conjuring a repeat of Saint-Domingue. The Confederate Congress condemned the tyrant’s attempt at “inciting servile war” and trying “to convert the South into a San Domingo by appealing to the cupidity, lusts, ambition, and ferocity of the slaves.” One Confederate officer wrote home that he saw it “as a direct bid for insurrection, as a most infamous attempt to incite flight, murder, and rapine on the part of our slave population.” [9] [11]

Slaves who had lived in Saint-Domingue were often implicated in the formation of insurrectionary conspiracies, and many other black slaves looked to what had happened in Saint-Domingue as a divine call to arms. After the nightmarish Nat Turner insurrection in Southampton County, Virginia, citizens received a mysterious letter addressed from Boston, gloating that blacks were taking lessons from Haiti and “know how to use the knife, bludgeon, and the torch with effect — may the genius of Toussaint stimulate them to unremitting exertion.” Heeding the warning of John Randolph against the “introduction of slaves into this country, or of the maroons, brigands, or cutthroats from St. Domingo,” nearly every Southern state enacted legislation aimed at excluding slaves from the turbulent West Indies in an attempt to discourage the arrival of potential insurrectionary leaders. [10] [12]

Many Southerners saw demographics as the key to preventing another Haiti in their own backyards, and, as such, were convinced that the uninhibited growth of the black population was to blame. South Carolina was the first state to take legislative action based upon this premise when, in 1792, it banned the importation of all new slaves into its borders. Early on, while French authorities maintained some scant control over the colony, they attempted to deport their most troublesome negroes from their West Indian possessions to the United States. Though some blacks did land in New England from Guadeloupe, this gambit failed, largely because the Americans were wise to the scheme. One Virginia newspaper warned that “the infernal French are disgorging the whole of their wretched blacks upon our shores.” [11] [13] A report commissioned by Louisiana Territorial Governor W. C. C. Claiborne remarked thus:

Some few weeks ago. . . there passed up the fork from sea a vessel having on board some twelve negroes said to have been Brigands from the Island of St. Domingo. These negroes in their passage up were frequently on shore, and in the French language made use of many insulting and menacing expressions to the inhabitants. Among other things, they spoke of eating human flesh, and in general demonstrated great Savageness of character, boasting of what they had seen and done in the horrors of St. Domingo. [12] [14]

Another lesson learned from the fall of Saint-Domingue was the extreme danger of egalitarian rhetoric in inflaming blacks. Indeed, “whatever revolutionary sentiment there had been in the South during the American Revolution soon lapsed into silence over the ominous events in St. Domingue. Southerners admitted refugees from St. Domingue as a humanitarian act; they cautiously excluded revolutionary ideology as an act of self-preservation.” As Whitemarsh Seabrook noted in an 1825 address in Charleston, “Our history has verified the melancholy truth, that one educated slave or colored freeman, with an insinuating address, is capable of infusing the poison of insubordination into a whole body of the black population.” [13] [15] William Gilmore Simms agreed, seeing the tragedy of Saint-Domingue as “the introduction of troublesome ideas and people into a stable slave society.” [14] [16]

Southerners saw themselves as living “on the edge of a precipice,” and if they did not guard against radical ideas and radical men, there might come “a crisis which may overwhelm this country as St. Domingo was destroyed — a single false slip may precipitate us — a spark may produce an explosion.” Thomas Jefferson wrote that “the recent scenes transacted in the French colonies in the West Indies are enough to make one shudder with the apprehension of realizing similar calamities in this country. Such probably would be the event of an attempt to smother those prejudices which have been cherished for a period of almost two centuries. . . if something is not done; and soon done, we shall be the murderers of our children.” [15] [17]

Jefferson’s grandson, Thomas Randolph, agreed that blacks and whites could not “exist upon the same soil in an equality of condition; one will govern by force, the other will rebel in bloody massacre.” The Richmond Enquirer reported on the thousands of whites who “fell under the bloody hatchet of the Haitians, and the warm stream of blood which ran from them, [which] quenched the thirst of their murderers, who went to their knees to receive it.” The Enquirer went on to sound the alarm about this “dark and growing evil at our doors.” [16] [18] John Taylor of Caroline shared the same fear, but rather than articulate them into a call for gradual emancipation and colonization, he believed that the only solution was to maintain and strengthen slavery as the only barrier standing in the way of a “war of extermination” initiated by the vengeful hordes. [17] [19]

In his Disquisition on Government, John C. Calhoun cautioned that liberty, “when forced on a people unfit for it, would instead of a blessing, be a curse; as it would, in its reaction, lead directly to anarchy — the greatest of all curses.” Alexis de Tocqueville was likewise convinced that the natural and inevitable result of emancipating blacks and allowing them to remain in the United States with whites would be gruesome racial warfare. He warned Americans that “the most formidable of all the ills that threaten the future of the Union arise from the presence of a black population upon the territory.” Wherever blacks gained dominance, “they have destroyed the whites.” “This,” he continued, “has been the only balance that has ever taken place between the two races.” [18] [20]

De Tocqueville spoke then not merely with prescience, but with eternal wisdom. Yes, the Jew is the Enemy. But the footsoldiers, the golems on the streets that menace our children, rape our women, and humiliate our brothers, the animals with whom we must deal with first, are the blacks. Blacks do not belong here. They never have, and they never will. Even if there ever comes a day when no whites are left in the land formerly known as America, it will still be ours. This land will never be theirs. Take courage, dear reader, for all is not lost. Let us rejoice at the account of a survivor of the abominable birth of Haiti: “I had a single combat with a large Mondogue negro. We sparred for some time. . . he was stronger, I was more agile. At last, he jumped for the little bottle of rum which I carry slung over my shoulder; happily, by a thrust well placed, I gave him a second mouth, a little beneath the one made by Nature; but I assure you that this time, Art surpassed Nature by at least two inches.” [19] [21]

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[1] [25] T. Lothrop Stoddard, The French Revolution in San Domingo (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1914), pp. 239-41.

[2] [26] Alfred N. Hunt, Haiti’s Influence on Antebellum America: Slumbering Volcano in the Caribbean (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988), p. 2.

[3] [27] Sir Spenser St. John, Hayti, or the Black Republic (London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1884), pp. ix, xiii, 193-94, 197-200, 219-20, 223-26.

[4] [28] Hunt, 2-3, 138.

[5] [29] Mary Treudley, “The United States and Santo Domingo, 1789-1866,” The Journal of Race Development, Vol. 7, No. 2 (October 1916), pp. 220-274, 230.

[6] [30] Hunt, 140.

[7] [31] Ibid., 140-41.

[8] [32] Ibid., 92-93.

[9 [33]] [33] Ibid., 143.

[10] [34] Ibid., 107-09 99.

[11] [35] Ibid., 107-09, 112.

[12] [36] Ibid., 113.

[13] [37] Ibid., 107, 111, 114.

[14] [38] Ibid., 130.

[15] [39] Ibid., 122, 124.

[16] [40] Ibid., 2, 5, 128.

[17] [41] Ibid., 123.

[18] [42] Ibid., 131, 137.

[19] [43] Ibid., 21.