All Souls' Rising - By Madison Smartt Bell Page 0,1

when the mulattoes began sending delegations to Paris to petition for political equality and voting rights. These delegations found sympathy among the more radical French Revolutionary factions and among abolitionist organizations like Les Amis des Noirs. But in the early phases of the French Revolution, the parties in power believed very firmly that the Rights of Man must apply to white men only. Saint Domingue was one of the few sectors of the French economy still functioning after the Revolution; therefore slavery and the racial hierarchy underwritten by the slave system had to be maintained.

As for the tremendous number of black slaves, only a minority were Creole (a term designating anyone of any race who was born in the colony). In part because absentee ownership was so common, abuses and cruelty were much more frequent and severe in Saint Domingue than in the southern United States or in most other slaveholding societies. Through suicide, infanticide, abortion, starvation, neglect, overwork, and murder, the black slaves of Saint Domingue died off at a much faster rate than they could replace themselves by new births. It was necessary for the proprietors to import twenty thousand fresh slaves from Africa annually in order to maintain the workforce at a constant level.

Thus a two-thirds majority of the slaves in the colony had been born in Africa. They came from ten or twelve different tribes and spoke as many different languages. They communicated with their masters and with one another in a patois with French vocabulary and African syntax; this language, also called Creole, is still spoken in Haiti today. The slave population synthesized a variety of different African religious traditions into a common religion called vodoun or voodoo, which was universal among the African slaves and very common among the Creole slaves also—including those Creole slaves who were nominally Christian. Vodoun, which includes a pantheon of gods who take literal and physical possession of their worshipers, incorporated components of African ancestor worship with a new mythology evolved on slave ships. Practitioners believed that Africa, or Guinée, existed as an island below the sea and that death was the portal of return to Africa.

Occupied with their quarrels among themselves, the whites of Saint Domingue gave little thought to the possible effects of the French Revolution on the mulattoes and almost none at all to its possible effects on the black slaves. Because of their common economic interests, some queasy and unstable alliances did form between grand blancs and mulattoes. The blacks, who were not generally acknowledged to be fully human, were ignored. Meanwhile, Revolutionary conceptions like “the Rights of Man” circulated freely and noisily through the entire colony and were as audible to the black slaves as to anyone.



The weighing of our anchor with this morning’s tide brought me a lightening of my heart. These last few days we’ve been in port were most uneasy, owing to rumors of renewed disturbances, perhaps a more serious revolt, to be inspired by the deportation of the brigand chief Toussaint, our passenger and prisoner. All factions in the city of Le Cap or what remains of it are once again aroused against one another. As for the harbor itself, it is alive with sharks, which feed most avidly upon the flesh of those who take the losing part in struggles on the shore.

Thus I was greatly comforted to see us well away, to stand on the stern with the breeze freshening in my face, watching the broken soot-stained ruins sink rapidly enough to the horizon. The town of Le Cap has twice been burned to the ground these last ten years, but even at the height of its ostentation it could not, when seen at such a distance, have seemed any more than a most precarious foothold on this savage shore. Rounding the cape, I see that city give way to rocky escarpments plunging vertically into the waves, and above these the incomprehensible blankness of the forests or, where the trees are cut, the peaks standing out as bare and sharp as needles’ points. My sojourn here was brief but more than long enough to satisfy me. Here no enterprise has managed to achieve a good result—the hand of civilized man has done no more than make of a wilderness a desert. Perhaps before Columbus landed, it was some sort of savage Eden here. I believe it would have been better for all if he had never come.

As we set sail, there stood near