The Slaves from Africa


The Slaves from Africa


The African born slaves brought with them their African rituals and customs, but the white planters also tried to get them to accept French manners and mores. Moreau de Saint–Méry had a great curiosity about all parts of these Africans’ lives. One can easily see his own biases in these passages.


Médéric-Louis-Elie Moreau de Saint-Méry, A Civilization That Perished: The Last Years of White Colonial Rule in Haiti, (Philadelphia, published by the author, 1797-1798), translated, abridged, and edited by Ivor D. Spencer, (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985), 39-47.







The Slaves

Although the slaves are not the class in the population which immediately follows the whites, it seems natural to speak of them before taking up the freedmen. After all, the latter offer the combined product of the slavery of the one and of the liberty of the other.

The point made about the white population, that is not entirely made up of Creoles, ought to be repeated for the slaves, since two-thirds of these latter . . . came from Africa, while the balance were born in the Colony. Thus, we must speak separately of these two classes, which in certain respects have traits which make them more or less distinct.

Africa Slaves

The island of Santo Domingo was the first part of the Americas to have African slaves. No one forgets that they were introduced as laborers as a result of the advice of Bartolemé de las Casas. Las Casas had seen some of them who were brought by chance to Santo Domingo after 1505. He proposed to substitute such persons for the natives of the island, for whom the work in the mines had meant very cruel hardships and had seemed likely to destroy them entirely. . . . The idea of Las Casas, who was led astray by his very humanity, was adopted. This was really because it presented a new chance for human greed. The unfortunate Indians were pretty nearly all mowed down, anyway.

All the French Colonies in the Antilles had African slaves from the start. The Island of Santo Domingo already had them, since its first conquerors had possessed them at that time for nearly a century and a half. . . . It would be easy to believe that during the beginnings of the efforts of the Adventurers, they carried off some negroes . . . from their enemies and that it was only in devoting themselves to agriculture that they had a real need for Africans. They were to be seen for quite a long period cultivating with their own hands, in association with a sort of white slave called "Engagé" or "Thirty-Six Months." These names expressed their servile state and its length.

The Engagés

The Engagés were Frenchmen who were wracked by a wish to try their luck in the Colonies. They sold themselves for a term of years, usually three, to a ship captain who would bring them overseas and sell their contracts to a colonist. . . . This arrangement, remarkably enough, was first introduced by the English in their North American Colonies, where it still exists today, despite their independence. Indentured service could not survive in the French islands, however. It was only until the time when tobacco was the chief and just about the only product of colonial trade, that the indentured servants were found suitable for the same employment as the blacks. But the raising of indigo and especially of sugar cane implacably demanded men more capable of standing the continual effect of the hot sun. Also, this crop . . . offered ample earnings with which to pay for the Negroes whom merchants were having sent from Africa. . . . The number of slaves kept on increasing. . . . It has now risen to 452,000.

The indentured servants, who had continued to be transported—in very small numbers—and whom the laws several times boldly directed the ship owners to bring over free of charge . . . became merely foremen to the gangs of blacks.

It could be added, however, that the memory of these white bondsmen helped to hold down the pride of the other white men, who by their disdainful airs forced those whose pride was injured to look up their backgrounds in self-defense. . . .

What is most remarkable and what is the least affected by the sea change that has occurred, is the black's careless nature. Call it perhaps thoughtlessness, so general in the negro character. . . .

From this it is no step at all to indolence, which is the favorite state of the Negro Lacking any education, left wholly prey to his prejudices and to all the terrors of ignorance, he is feeble and fearful, however much he may affect to scorn physical dangers. In fact, he scorns them precisely because his imagination fails to rise to the dangers.

The Africans transplanted to Saint Domingue remain in general indolent and idle, quarrelsome and talkative, and liars, and are addicted to stealing. Always given to the most absurd superstitions, there is nothing which does not frighten them more or less. Incapable of analyzing religious ideas intellectually, they turn all their belief to external manifestations. If they go to church, they mumble some prayers which they have half learned, or indeed they fall asleep. . . .


Now the Creole blacks claim that they are greatly superior to the African blacks—because they have been baptized. Such baptized ones are called "Bossals," a name used throughout Spanish America. The Africans, whom the Creole blacks address insultingly as "horses" [apparently meaning horses as stupid beasts of burden], are very eager to be baptized themselves.

At certain days, such as Holy Saturday and the Saturday of Pentecost, when adults are baptized, the blacks go to be sure to have a sponsoring "godfather" and "godmother." Even these, in fact, may be arranged for after they get there. They thus receive the first sacrament of the Christians and are guaranteed against any injury addressed to non-baptized persons. The Creoles always refer to them contemptuously as "baptized standing up" [i.e., not held in the mother's arms].

The respect which the Africans have for their new godfathers and godmothers is pushed so far that they act as if they were their own fathers and mothers. To curse another person's godmother, by the way, is like inflicting the most bloody injury upon him, and if the two parties ever after come to understand and tolerate each other, it is at best after long quarrels.

The most grave offense, which seems to be a tradition in the kingdom of Angola, is to make derogatory remarks about the morals of the mother as well as the godmother. To this, the injured party responds with offenses of the most bizarre type, often crying out: "He has insulted me, but he hasn't dared to curse my godmother." Such an incident may well arouse the attention of the masters, for on a plantation it is not uncommon for a black who abuses his godfather to be ordered helped by a new arrival. This increases his own work, if the new man is not sufficiently acclimated [or is ill] . . . because he has to do the work of both. Blacks who share the same godparent by the way, frequently call each other "brothers" and "sisters."

Magic and Sorcery

The Negroes believe certain days unlucky. They will never begin an important undertaking on Friday, for instance. If one of the blacks hits his right foot against something, he doesn't mind, because it is the good foot, but if it is the left, that is bad. If he hits this foot against someone, that person must be given a little kick with the right foot. He calls that "giving back some foot." But what irritates him most is to see a broom touch some portion of his body. He at once asked if people think he is dead and he remains convinced that this shortens his life.

The Negroes belief in magic and the power of their fetishes follow them from overseas. The more absurd the tale, the more appealing it is to them. Rough little figures of wood or stone, representing men or animals, for them are the authors of supernatural things. They call them "bodyguards."

There are many Negroes who acquire an absolute power over others by such [superstitious] means. They take advantage of their credulity to win money, power, and pleasures of all kinds, even sexual pleasures.

This sort of subjection of one African to another is all the less surprising if you consider the following statement: that among the blacks shipped to America fully one-forth of those sold into slavery in their home areas were ones convicted of being sorcerers! . . . The crime of poisoning, by the way, is also said to cause many, many sentences of deportation from the African kingdoms, [but] these monsters who devote their effort to killing their fellows are not as common in the colonies as was long credited. . . . Probably many deaths which supposedly were the result of poisoning were really the product of physical or climatic circumstances. It is also true, however, that some of the elderly African slaves profess this vicious art. . . .

With the Negroes as with all non-civilized peoples . . . gestures or signs are many and form a basic part of their language. The blacks love above all else to use imitative sounds. If they speak of a cannon shot, they add "boom," a musket shot, "poum," a slap, "pam," a kick or block of a stick, "bam," a whip, "v'lap, v'lap." Did one fall lightly, it is "bap," heavily, it is "boom," for tumbling down, "blou coutoum"; and whenever one wishes to give a sound an augmentive force, it is "loin, loin, loin," which expresses a great distance, etc.

The blacks love proverbs and sayings. The latter are often very moral. After a wrong deed, they commonly say in repentance: "Ah, if I had but known." The blacks have derived from that their proverb: "If I had only known. Never the stick! You can always read it on my behind!" [i.e. afterwards!] to indicate that they had not taken thought until it was too late.

Man-Woman Relationships

All the negroes born in Africa are polygamous in Saint Domingue—and jealous. Marriages are very uncommon and the most religious of the white masters are practically obliged to give up trying to push them to marry. This would only be a scandal, anyway! The influence of their primitive customs and the very disproportion in the number of women to men, of which the first form hardly a half [sic] are very logical causes of this pluralism. The climate also favors it.

The black men treat very harshly the women who were unfaithful or whom they suspect of unfaithfulness, and it is to the latter that the bad treatment comes. This is so even though the men don't feel too badly about being disloyal to their women. The women have fits of jealously, but such reactions are limited by their fear of irritating their men too much. Unfortunate is the man whose mistress is too strong for him, however, for he must worry about something more than threats.

In general, the African women accustomed to polygamous husbands, however, are not furious in their reaction to their man's conduct. It is also somewhat common to see several wives of one man living together in a sort of harmony, although they all love the same one. Privately, the women call each other "seaman," from the old filibustering usage, for the filibusters formed societies whose members all called each other that. Among the women, it may be added, whether in the polygamous sector or elsewhere, it is common to form a sort of league against the men. Without loving them, and hardly knowing them, they substitute for each other [in bed] when it is a question of fooling the lover. . . .

A very distinctive quality of the African women is their invincible preference for the negro men. Neither their behavior with the whites, nor the advantages which that brings them, even the freedom so often resulting—for themselves or for their children—can hold them back. . . . Nor can their concern about the punishment that white pride and jealousy can make so severe.

The women put up a long fight, or more or less happily hide this inclination, but their preference for black men wins in the end. . . . This is proved by the public choice, which they always make, of a negro man, when some happening returns them to their own race, destroying their close relation with the whites. Their common mental processes and language, the perfect equality between them, the familiarity which stems from that and which is not the smallest charm of love, are no doubt the chief causes of this tendency. It is also fortified by their primitive education. Perhaps, further, and I have heard several negresses avow it, the advantages which nature—or the use of palm wine—has given to the negro men over other men in what is the physical agent of love, has a great influence on this choice, for which, in any case, the white is only a puny competitor.

Interpreters, Mirrors, and Watches

What it is necessary also to speak of is the pride of the negro women in being considered Creoles or native-born, even though that is not true. The men have the same attitude. Both aim at least to be regarded as having come to the Colony when very young. One result of this is a refusal, generally, to act as interpreters for newcomers who are of their own African tribe. They use the pretext that they have forgotten the language. It is one of the inconsequences of life that the Africans . . . often refer to others who came over on the same ship as "shipmates"—which gives them away.

Self-esteem of a different sort is the reason for refusing, quite obstinately, to give details of the customs of their particular country. This is especially so if the white person questioning them lets it be seen that he is amused at what is told. The only Africans who will speak freely are those who arrived when very old, or those talking to white children. In such cases, it is apparent that they loved everything about the old country—the mountains, the trees, the honey bees, the crocodiles, and so on.

When the slaves come off the ship they are not greatly surprised at the various natural products of the island. These are all too similar to what they knew in Africa. But almost all the manufactured objects surprise them. Most striking to them are the mirrors and the reflections they produce. The negro looks at a mirror, feels the glass, and runs around back to try to find the other copy of himself. Finally convinced of the uselessness of these efforts . . . he performs a thousand antics and makes a thousand faces, trying to imitate the other person. It is a phenomenon which nobody can explain to him. A watch is also puzzling. He at first supposes that there is an animal making it work.

There are negroes to whom red wine causes a lively horror the first time one is given any. He thinks the wine is blood and he fears the terrors he felt when on the voyage come back to him. Yet he likes the intoxication it brings. Ere long, he prefers the "tafia," of which he is excessively fond, because it is more powerful.

It remains to be said that the above comments apply also, equally, to the Creole blacks. But let us go on to discuss what is especially true of the latter.



“The Slaves from Africa,” LIBERTY, EQUALITY, FRATERNITY: EXPLORING THE FRENCH REVOUTION, accessed February 22, 2024,