Letter from Fr. Bréban, S. J. (19 January 1732)



                  Cap Français,

on the island and coast of Saint Domingue,

19 January 1732



My dearest brother,


I promised you a detailed account of the character and labors of the Negroes who are in our colony of Saint Domingue.  I would have kept my promise long ago, if not for a multitude of occupations that I have had, one after another, for more than a year now and that have prevented me from satisfying both your curiosity and my inclination.  Now that I am a bit freer, I am going to begin the conversation with you.  Don’t be put off by the length of this letter.  It is difficult to be brief on a subject as vast as this one. I will indeed be brief, however, if I limit myself to telling you only interesting things.  That is my goal in this account.  If I succeed, I will consider that my efforts have been put to good use.


You already know the general fact that nearly all the Negroes here are slaves.  They are sold and they are bought, the same as horses or cattle.   Indeed, they serve the same purposes for the most part; half of them, like the Swiss, resemble men only in their voices and bodies.  The Negroes clear and work the fields.  Plows are unheard of in Saint Domingue, as the fields are too stubborn and most of them are on mornes, to use the local word—that is to say, on mountains.


The enslavement of Negroes perhaps seems to you at odds with the holy laws of Christianity, but you will no longer feel that way when you reflect on the inestimable good fortune they have to be enlightened by the purest light of true religion.  This is an advantage that they would not have in their own land, submerged as it is in the thickest shadows of paganism.


In all the French colonies of southern America, the number of Negroes surpasses that of whites by an infinite margin.  The Europeans call themselves “whites” here, because of the complete difference of color.  There are at least twenty blacks for every white.  It is only thanks to a continual and utterly miraculous providence that so many slaves, still half-barbarous, oppressed by the most frightful burdens and punished with severity, if not excessive cruelty, do not even conceive of the thought of revolting.  This is all the more true, given the ease with which they might accomplish such a thing and how absolutely impossible it would be for the whites to defend themselves in the event of a general conspiracy.[1]


It is true that extremely stringent laws have been passed vis-à-vis the Negroes, in order to prevent any event of this type.  They are not allowed, under any circumstance whatsoever, to raise their hand to a white.  Any self-defense on their part, however legitimate, is forbidden.  Woe be to him who fails to obey this law: he is hanged without mercy, no matter how good the reason he gives to justify his action.  This law, like any other, has its disadvantages.  The whites, often more brutal than the Negroes, abuse it constantly and commit countless outrageous acts against the slaves they meet on the roads.  This is, however, an unfortunate situation that must not be afforded much importance, given the indispensable necessity of the law in a land where, without it, the lives of the planters would be in danger.


Half of our slaves are from Guinea, which covers an immense amount of territory.  The largest port is Ouidah, where the French have a trading post.  Guinea is divided into several small states, whose sovereigns are constantly warring with each other.  All they seek to accomplish in their military excursions is to capture slaves, in order to sell them to the ships from Europe. If they have no prisoners of war, the kings sell their own subjects and even their own wives when they have lost their taste for them or are unhappy with them.  These degraded queens don’t live long after their fall from grace: ashamed to wear chains after having had a crown on their heads, nearly all of them kill themselves.  A Carmelite priest, who was a chaplain on a slave ship (that is what they call those ships that transport a cargo of Negroes), told me last year that one of the wives of the King of Ouidah, whose perfidious husband had sold her to the ship, reproached the king for his betrayal, broke into a thousand pieces a gold chain that he had let her keep, out of a vestige of affection, and climbed aboard the French ship, with a supremely poised look on her face, as if in defiance of the fate that was subjugating her.  Soon, however, all her pride melted away and she fell into a dreadful melancholy.  They were never able to persuade her to take any food.  One day, when she was not being watched as closely as usual, she threw herself into the sea, preferring death to slavery.


Mind you, Negroes in Guinea are not being bought with gold or silver.  The coin of the realm consists rather of pouches of small seashells which are found only on a few foreign shores.[2]  The European ships stock up on them and assign value to them by the pound, more or less the same way the silver marc is valued in France.  Negroes are also paid for in brandy, in firearms, and in fabric; the price varies, as with all prices, according to variations in the merchandise.  At one time, a handsome Negro, healthy and robust, would only cost the French merchants fifty pounds.  But the princes of Guinea, if one can give such an august title to those veritable portraits of the Devil, through either greed or increasing sophistication, raised the price of their slaves; these days, a pièce d’Inde Negro (as they call the fittest specimens), can cost as much as two hundred pounds.  In Guinea, you don’t buy old people, only children or young adults of both sexes, under the age of thirty.


These savages, with the exception of the prince and his court, go around stark naked in their own land, due to the excessive heat of the climate.  The European merchants, at least all the French ones, take care, as soon as they buy Negroes, to cover what chaste eyes cannot gaze upon without horror. They simply put a light rope around their hips, to which a piece of leather, shaped like a hunter’s pouch, is affixed.  That serves as their shirt, their jacket, their breeches and, in fact, their entire outfit.  The women, like the men, have nothing else with which to cover themselves.  In our colonies, we actually dress them and you will see below in this letter that the luxury and vanity of clothing, which dominates the culture here more than anywhere else in the world, has been passed on from the masters to their slaves.


In addition to the trade in Negroes that takes place in Guinea, large quantities of gold dust are also purchased.  This precious little product is found in the rivers, mixed in with the sand.  The Negroes, who don’t value it very much, trade it for pouches of seashells or for brandy.  As for anything else concerning Guinea, according to what I have heard from several Frenchmen who have traveled up and down the coast, it is one of the worst places on earth.  There are few climates so badly scorched by the sun.  Aside from a few sheep, goats and dogs, the only foodstuffs are wild fruits, which consist almost entirely of bland and insipid roots.


The perfectly black color of the Negroes will remain for some time to come an enigma for scholars scrutinizing Antiquity.  To date, no one has been able to find a reason for it, at least not one that is sufficiently solid to satisfy the mind.  To say that the cause is the heat of the region is improbable, because we know that there are climates in the world where the sun’s rays are felt even more intensely than in Guinea, and the inhabitants there are merely brown-skinned, without that layer of smoke-black that so deforms the Negroes.


Furthermore, the children of the  Negroes transplanted to Saint Domingue and Martinique, where the air is much more temperate, inherit their parents’ color; they in turn transmit this charming inheritance to their descendants, down through the tenth and twentieth generations, without any loss whatsoever.  Some old Negroes were asked about this difference in color, which is their fate and theirs alone.  They answered that, according to an ancient legend in their culture, they were cursed by heaven; several of our scholars claim that Negroes are the true children of Ham, who was found worthy to bear the full brunt  of his father Noah’s curse. I am not presenting this idea as fact, but you will make do with it, please, in the absence of any better explanation.  You are free to delve into the dusty splendors of Antiquity, or into the fertile source of your own imagination to try to construct a more convincing theory to explain the lustrous ink smeared over the faces of all Negroes.


You might be tempted to think that they are horrified by themselves and that when they encounter their hideous faces in a mirror, they envy the lilies and roses of European countenances.  You would be wrong.  They prefer their color to ours, and find us every bit as ridiculous as we find them. For them, the most beautiful Negress is she who is the blackest.  They have nothing but scorn for the women whose faces are the lightest in color.


Another problem for those who are curious about such things is the hair of the Negroes.  It is extremely black.  It is not long and straight like a horse’s mane, like that of all other men, but is rather a sort of fine, curly wool, like the wool of a sheep.  If you have seen the hair of one Negro, you have seen the hair of them all, since nature has given them all the same attributes in that regard, just as it did for the color of their faces.  What does deserve particular attention, however, is the fact that after eight or ten years, their hair ceases to grow and remains as it is, unless they are obliged to undergo a shearing because of illness or injury.  At that point, their hair starts to grow again, until the sheep’s fleece has been fully restored.  Old people turn somewhat gray, but never completely white.  Their beards are the same, just a light covering of down in curly little bouquets.


It is time for us to leave Guinea behind and follow these poor Indians, violently torn away from the bosom of their native land and from the arms of their families to be led into slavery.[3]  So here you have a ship that has completed its commerce in Guinea and is laden with its cargo of human flesh, flying across the water its contents on the coasts of America.  The captain of the ship must be quite prudent and artful in order to contain the slaves.  Imagine four or five hundred savages, all of them convinced that they are being led to the slaughter, overseen by a crew of only forty or fifty men.  Indeed, they have the idea deeply engraved in their minds that they have been bought only in order to be eaten.  It is terribly difficult to reassure them that that is not the case.  Unless they are watched carefully, day and night, it is to be feared that they will either throw themselves into the sea or start a revolt.  The former happens fairly often and the latter is not unheard of.


Less than two years ago, the crew of a French ship coming back to Saint Domingue from Guinea was about to have their throats slit; Providence hadn’t seen fit to avert such a barbarous plan.  According to custom, the captain of a slave ship chooses the flower of youth, one slave of each sex, to serve at his table.  These domestic valets conspired secretly with the Negroes in the galley to kill the captain and the sailors, take over the ship, and return to their native land. They had already taken possession of all the table knives and some axes and were getting ready to set upon the whites, when one of the Negroes, less barbarous than  the others, went to the captain and revealed the secret conspiracy. The most guilty were hanged immediately from the highest yardarm.  The others were disconcerted by this prompt punishment and stayed in line for the rest of the trip.  A service as important as the one the faithful slave had just rendered to the captain deserved to be rewarded at least by giving the man his freedom; but the French captain’s greed prevented him from doing so.  His deliverer was sold in Cap Français along with the most wicked of the conspirators, the only difference being that he had the good fortune of falling into our hands, where he lives still, with all the comforts he could wish for, except his freedom.[4]


Other slave ships were less fortunate.  The Negroes, having cut the throats of all the whites, would become masters of the vessels; lacking any notion of how to navigate, they would drift  for  a long time, at the mercy of the wind and the waves, until they would run out of food and all of them would die of starvation and misery.  Several years ago, on the high sea, some Englishmen found a ship full of decomposing corpses.  There was only one Negro left, barely clinging to a wretched vestige of life, with nothing to feed on but a few scraps of human flesh.  He revealed that his miserable fate and that of his comrades was due to a conspiracy they had woven together against the crew of the vessel: after having mercilessly  massacred all the whites, he had tried in vain to set sail for Guinea.


You may say that, in order to defend against such misdeeds, all the barbarians should be put in chains.  But, aside from the difficulty and the incommodities that would entail, the melancholy of the newly enslaved Negroes is always more a cause for concern than their fury.  They would all die of despair if they were put in chains.  It is already, even without chains, a difficult task to cheer them up.  Drums, instruments and dancing must be deployed.  And yet, even with all possible accommodations made, the painful fact is that some of them will always manage to escape the watchful eye of their Argus and throw themselves into the sea.  That is how attached they are to the pitiful idea that they will see their native land again and be reunited with their families.


There is a strategy for disabusing them of such a glaring error.  When a Negro dies (there are always many deaths on board a slave ship—some from lassitude, others from distress), the captain of the vessel ties the cadaver to the end of the yardarm and slowly lowers it toward the surface of the water.  The result is that sharks, those monsters of the ocean with such a taste for human flesh, are attracted by the sight and smell of the prey and begin leaping out of the water, attempting to gobble up the cadaver.  As they get closer to their prey, the rope is tightened and the cadaver raised.  This irritates the shark, who begins to jump higher and higher to achieve his goal. Eventually, they let him have the cadaver, which he sometimes devours whole.  The Negroes who are watching, and for whose sole benefit the spectacle is produced, are terrified at the sight of the frightful tomb of their comrade and lose their interest in throwing themselves in the water, fearing the famished maw of the shark.


I won’t even mention the shameful misdeeds committed by the whites on board the slave ships.  You are already well enough aware that the commandment of non concupisces (thou shalt not covet) is violently disobeyed by Frenchmen who have, before their eyes and at their entire disposal, a workshop of young Negresses, all of them naked as the day they were born, except for the hunter’s pouch-type garment that is only a few inches wide.[5]  Add to that the fact that the young beauties can hardly imagine what it is to refuse a suitor.  The difference in color is one of the weakest barriers to the self-restraint of our Frenchmen.  Their fury in the matter exceeds any words I could find to describe it, as I will prove to you convincingly soon enough.  You will conclude, I am sure, that if even those who are most discriminating in matters of lust spend themselves so freely on Negresses, sailors must go very far indeed in their malfeasance and crime.


But before I paint those awful portraits for you, let us enter into Cap Français with the Negroes we pulled out of Guinea.  The slave ship has no sooner pulled into the harbor than the King’s doctor and  the surgeon-general of the fleet inspect it to verify that the Negroes have no contagious diseases.  Next, the taxes are paid.  Two Negroes are delivered into the hands of the commandant-general of the colony, one to the governor of the city, and one to the administrator-in-chief.  Given that they choose these slaves themselves, they always get the finest specimens of the lot.


After the Negroes have been thoroughly washed and rubbed dry, like horses that are to be shown at market, the sale is declared open by the firing of the ship’s cannon.  Planters in launches approach the ship from all sides, to buy whatever they need in the way of Negroes.  Prices vary according to the number of slave ships anchored in Cap Français at any given time.  Typically, the finest Negroes sell for a hundred pistoles.[6]  The Negresses are always worth less, while the price of children is determined by their age and strength.  Please note that I am speaking only of the Negroes newly arrived from Guinea. The Creoles, that is to say those who are born in our colonies, are always sold for more, since they are already used to the air, the language, and the work that is done in this land. If they know a trade, that increases their price even more: for example, a Negro who is a horse trainer or a carpenter or a baker or a good locksmith is worth his weight in gold.  Some are valued at as much as 10,000 pounds and make six pounds a day for their master.  I would say the same for the Negresses who are good seamstresses or good washerwomen.  It is easy to judge from this the considerable losses that are incurred by a poor planter with only one or two Negroes, good laborers, when they die and take with them to the grave all their master’s wealth.


To give you a clear and distinct idea of the labor of our Negroes, I must separate them into two classes.  The first is made up of those who do domestic work in their master’s house; the second are those who cultivate the fields or process sugar, indigo, and tobacco.  As you can surmise, this requires a large number of slaves; thus, our planters, especially the ones who have sugar mills, own prodigious quantities of them.  Some planters have as many as six or seven hundred slaves; the fewest one can have, to work a sugar mill, is a hundred or so.  Much lodging and much organization are necessary in a sugar mill and neither one is in short supply.


You would be charmed to see our plantations, which is what we call the country houses in the colony.[7]  A plantation looks like a village in France. There are as many as a hundred shacks, laid out along streets straight as a pin.  The shacks all look the same, are of the same height, and are placed at equal distance from each other, which makes things pleasing to the eye.  The master’s house is always separated from the Negro shacks and situated upwind, because of the intolerable odor of the Negroes, who smell like goat-musk– some more than others, but all of them give off scents to which it is extremely difficult to become accustomed.


The best-looking Negroes and the prettiest Negresses are chosen for domestic work.  The houses of the planters on Saint Domingue are like the mansions of the great aristocrats in Paris, with butlers, cooks, kitchen-servants, coachmen, grooms, valets, chambermaids, and lackeys in livery (albeit a different kind of livery, as you might imagine, from that worn by servants in France).  Another group of domestics take care of the barnyard and the kitchen-garden.  These kinds of Negroes do their jobs impeccably.  I have been surprised to see Negroes coordinate great banquets, and serve at multiple tables with as much taste and refinement as the most skilled caterers in Paris.


But where you see the skill of the Negro valets even more clearly is in their ability to ride and handle a horse.  They are all excellent horsemen and sit so well in the saddle that they seem to be as one with their mount.  They spoil this fortunate talent, however, by the lack of consideration they have for the horses.  If they are not directly under the eye of their master, they always ride at a full gallop, no matter how long the trip.  You never see a Negro, alone on the road, who is willing to go at the walking-pace of his horse; instead, he races at full speed until he gets within sight of his master’s house, at which point he reins the animal in, so as to let him catch his breath, and arrives in a leisurely fashion, as if he had been riding like that all along.  Less than a month ago, a planter was traveling by coach and saw a Negro belonging to one of his friends racing past for no reason at all.  He stopped the man, telling him that he had a note that he wanted him to deliver to his master.  Right away, the planter went into a neighboring shack and wrote to his friend, informing him of the little adventure undertaken by his slave.  The Negro, who suspected nothing, thus became the bearer of his own sentence and was promptly punished for it.  This amazed him so much that he decided that his master must be a sort of sorcerer, unable to imagine how he could have known of his misdeed without having witnessed it.


One of the main reasons why the Negroes race their horses to the point of exhaustion, especially at night, is their nearly intolerable penchant for sensuality.  They have mistresses on all the neighboring plantations and take advantage of the messages their masters send them off to deliver as a means to go see their fair ladies.  Since one knows roughly the amount of time ta slave needs to complete an errand, if he is traveling at a reasonable pace, our gallant Mercurys instead fly like the wind and thus manage to serve both their master and their mistress.  They often don’t even wait to be told to go anywhere, they just jump on a horse in the middle of the night, bareback, and take off to go see their wench.  They take care to get back to their shacks before daybreak, so that no one can witness their little maneuver.


Although all Negroes are natural thieves, it must be said that this is infinitely more true of domestic servants.  It is impossible to keep too close an eye on them.  They snatch up whatever falls within their reach.  The most skillful shell-game player at the Saint Germain fair is no more adept than a Negro spiriting away a bottle of wine from the top of a sideboard, and when the rascal gets hold of it, he pours it right down his gullet without even using a glass.


One of these sleight-of-hand tricks was discovered several weeks ago on a rich plantation.  A Negro valet, who was considered a model of faithfulness, had all the keys to the storerooms but had never, according to his master, drunk a single glass of wine.  The truth, however, is that the master was being duped by his servant’s supposed good behavior.  By chance, one night a white man who had lost his mind was prowling around the Negro’s shack; through the spaces between the boards, he spied the virtuous soul devoutly drinking great tumblers-full of lovely-colored wine.  The lunatic asked him quite humbly if he could have something to drink and was turned away with scorn.  This offended him so much that the next day, he reported everything he had seen to the master. The master inspected the Negro’s shack and  found only a large chest, containing nothing but clothes.  Curiosity made him move the chest and to the greatest surprise of his life, he found a vessel full of wine, buried in the ground.  It was a great pot, made of glazed earthenware, which held nearly a half-barrique.[8]  The chest covered the mouth of the pot, and when the Negro was thirsty, he would draw straight from  the source, having only to push the chest out of the way to make that possible.  Needless to say, all that wine was the fruits of the hypocrite’s thefts and he was beaten, without delay, like a bob-tail dog.


In addition to this inclination that the Negroes have for thievery, they are also the most shameless liars in the world.  They vehemently deny all the thefts of which they are guilty.  If you catch them in the act, with the loot still in their hands, they make a thousand declarations of their innocence, or else they coolly state, in their own language: “Devil himself put that in my pocket.”  It is true that their thefts are often occasioned by their libertinism, as they have to maintain their mistresses,  and how can they do that other than by stealing from the master of the plantation?  But the master himself is the most frequent cause of his slaves’ larceny, being so hard-hearted as to refuse to provide them with the items most necessary to life and not even giving them anything to cover their nudity.  Is theft so criminal in such circumstances?  If we were in the Negroes’ place, we would do the same thing and perhaps worse.


Now we come to the processing of sugar and indigo.  In a sugar mill, you need horse trainers (called machoquets here), carpenters, coopers, woodcutters, stonemasons, carters (known in Saint Domingue only as cabrouetiers, from the word cabrouet, which is used for all types of wagons and carts).  The Negroes ply these trades with some skill.  The rest of the operation is taken up by agriculture.  As soon as the first light appears in the sky, the bell rings for prayers, which are said in unison; then they go work on the place— in other words, in the master’s field.[9]   There they stay until noon, without being permitted to stop working for a single moment, unless an urgent necessity obliges them to stop.


In order to keep them always alert and applied to their work, they have behind them a Negro foreman, armed with a big whip; his sole occupation is to wake up, in the firmest possible fashion, those who fall prey to laziness.  The girls and women are not spared any more than the men.  They work alongside them and almost always sing as they work.  All their songs have a refrain.  Usually, one of the younger Negresses sings the couplets.  The chorus responds, admirably on pitch.   They beat out the rhythm with their hoes, which they raise and then drop to the ground in cadence.  The Negroes like to sing so much that, from morning to evening, they hum barbarous tunes, ugly to our ears but pleasing to theirs; but, as the saying goes, “you can’t argue about taste.”  What you may find hard to believe is that there are poets among them, who take it upon themselves to compose songs at any time and in any place; the objects of their satire are whites as well as Negroes, and in fact more so than Negroes.  And especially those of our Frenchwomen who are not distinguished by their honor and whose supposed “swelling” goes down after nine months.  You wouldn’t believe how the Negroes mock them.  If there is no rhyme in their songs, there is nonetheless some truth, and it cannot be said that they don’t capture rather well people’s ridiculous ways.


At noon, the Negroes come back from the fields to their shacks, where they have a mere two hours to rest.  During that time, they also have the burden of pulling together their dinner, which they often have to go dig out of the ground, more than a half-league away from their dwelling.  When the clock strikes two, they go back to the fields and don’t return until nightfall.  They then say prayers, all together in a group, as they do in the morning. After that, they go to “vigil,” meaning that they work at small tasks, until ten o’clock.[10]  The planters who are less greedy for profit and who, out of  a sense of charity, have some consideration for their slaves, spare them the hardship of the vigil.  It is almost always midnight before the Negroes can have their supper, meaning that they get only four or five hours of sleep. Nonetheless, the wretches often slip away to a rendez-vous with one of the profane objects of their lechery.


The sugar mills, which run everywhere, day and night, only stopping on feast days, require specific kinds of work.  There are Negroes who have no job other than whipping the horses at the mill, others deliver the bundles of sugar cane, others stoke the furnaces, while still others take care of the boiling vats.  Not to mention the Negresses, some of whom feed the mill, while others take away the bagaces, the chaff left over from the sugar cane.  The Negresses have to take extra care not to fall asleep at night, while they are pushing the canes through the mill, as they risk being subjected to the most horrifying death you can imagine.


So that you may understand this part of my account, I must give you some notion of sugar cane and of the mill that crushes it, in order to extract the sugar juice of which it is full.  Sugar cane looks something like those big reeds they use in churches in France to light the candles, the difference being that our canes are four times bigger around than our ecclesiastical reeds and not as tall.  The tallest of them, with their heads cut off, are no more than eight feet high.  As for the mill itself, it is a machine whose essential pieces consist of three iron cylinders, called “drums,” because they have the same shape as an army drum.  With the help of two big levers, each of which is pulled by two horses, these drums, perpendicular to each other, turn on their pivot, the first and the third moving in the same direction and the second moving in the opposite direction; they are so close to each other that only a few hand-widths separate them.  The cane must be inserted between the first and the second drums in order to be milled.  Once the drums have taken hold of the cane, it keeps moving forward until it has come out the other side, where another Negress feeds it back in, between the second and third drums.  I don’t know if I am making any sense but I don’t know how else to explain the process more clearly.  If I knew how to draw, I would make a sketch of our mills for you, but all I know how to do is write, and even my writing requires your indulgence.  Come to Saint Domingue and get enlightened about these things firsthand.  You will learn more by seeing for yourself for one minute than you can learn from all the most artful sketches in the world.


I will now suppose, rightly or wrongly, that you are well informed about our rolling drums. A Negress who is inattentive to the canes that she is feeding into the mill runs the risk of putting her hand in along with the cane.  Once her hand has been seized, it is urgent that the mill stop immediately, which is no small feat, as the horses have been encouraged to walk at a fast pace. If not, the body of the Negress will be dragged into the mill and will be broken and flattened as flat as the cane itself.  There is almost no agony more horrible than that, and several half-asleep Negresses have provided gruesome proof of that fact.  In order to prevent such a misfortune, each mill has a hatchet on hand, ready to quickly chop off the arm of the Negress who has negligently let her fingers slide in between the drums.  There is no other way of saving her body.  The Negresses who watch over the boiling vats face another danger, no less horrible:  falling headfirst into the waves of boiling sugar and, in a single second, entering into the other world, candied like lemons.


In the indigo mills, although the work is different, the order of the day is the same: the Negroes have no more rest there than they do in the sugar mills.  You might ask, at this point: can the master of a plantation oversee so many different kinds of work all on his own? My answer is that it is not possible. And even if it were, our planters, who all have the manners of grand aristocrats, would consider it beneath them to enter into the infinite details of the care required by a plantation.  Like princes who have their wars fought for them by their generals, content to direct the proceedings from the back of their tents, our rich Frenchmen on Saint Domingue all have in their employ a white man with the title of “bursar.”[11] It is thanks to him that they can spare themselves the strain of overseeing their sugar mills.  Every evening, the master gives the bursar his orders for the following day; the bursar then takes those orders to the Negro foreman [commandeur] and watches over him to ensure that they are followed.  The bursar must keep his eye on everything, because he is responsible for everything.  His remuneration is never less than one thousand pounds.  A good bursar is the philosopher’s stone of a plantation.


Let’s return to our Negroes. You may well think that it costs a planter immense sums of money to feed hundreds of slaves on a daily basis; you will see, however, that that is not true.  A planter on Saint Domingue takes it upon himself to provide his slaves with clothing, which consists of two shirts a year for each one of them. Their food, however, is their own affair.  They provide for themselves as they like, or rather as they can, and their master doesn’t take any responsibility for it, except when they fall sick, in which case he takes care of it.


How and on what, then, do the Negroes live?  That is the big question.  On every plantation, each Negro is given a bit of land that he must make the most of.  The Negro take care of his own garden and plants in it victuals for himself and for his family.  He can have all the fruits of the earth he wants, as the land refuses nothing to the hand that cultivates it.  With this resource, the laboring-communities of Negroes would not need to be pitied, if only their masters gave them at least two days a week to work in their garden.  But there are countless masters so consumed by a spirit of greed and irreligion that they mercilessly demand that all the work of the week be given to them, without even making an exception for Lord’s holy day.  They make their slaves work at the sugar mill and give them a scarce few hours in the course of an entire month to weed their gardens.  Others, less greedy and a bit less impious, let their slaves have all the feast days off, to plant or harvest their victuals.  This causes another problem: the Negroes, who in some cases live as much as three leagues away from the church, and who have only the Capuchins’ horses, are completely unable to go to Mass and to Sunday instruction.  They would be dying of hunger all week long if they didn’t take advantage of the only day they have to pull together something to eat.  The missionaries decry the injustice and impiety of the tyrannical masters, but sacrilegious desire, the auri sacra fames (the accursed greed for gold) wins out over all Christian remonstrances.[12]


It is true that Negroes are allowed to raise chickens and to have their own little yard for pigs.  But the amount of profit they derive is very small, barely enough to buy themselves the items of clothing they are not given and basic household utensils.


The planters who have the fear of God in their hearts, and who seek to fulfill all their obligations vis-à-vis their slaves, give them two days, other than Sundays, to cultivate their gardens. In so doing, they make it possible for the slaves to have all the necessities and even some comforts. I do not want to claim that we are an example, our plantation has some Negro families that, through their own hard work, aided by our indulgence, are as well off as rich French peasants.


The favorite foods of the Negroes are cassava, yams, and potatoes.[13]  Cassava is a sort of cake, very flat, cooked on a flat iron surface and made from a big root called “manioc,” which has been shredded.  It is the bread of the Negroes.  They prefer it to wheat bread and all our white Creoles eat it with delectation, despite the fact that it has no more taste than a crêpe made of pure wheat bran.  The most unusual thing about this flour is that the water that comes out of it is a very subtle poison. The root is pressed in a mold between two beams of wood, to extract the water, and when the residue has dried, it is cooked on a fire, in the manner I have described.


Potatoes and yams are also roots, as big around as your thigh, and rather tasty, I think.  They are eaten boiled or roasted under ashes.  The taste of the potato is exactly the same as that of a boiled chestnut.[14]  There are numerous other excellent fruits in the land, all of them healthful; the melons are delicious and never cause indigestion as they do in France.  As for European fruit-trees, they all die on Saint Domingue.  Only figs grow here and they are exquisite. Believe it or not, the apples that are brought to us from Normandy cost as much as four pounds a dozen, and a Williams’ Bon Chretien pear goes for five or six pounds.[15]  On the other hand, we have all the vegetables of France, in all four seasons.  All year long, we eat peas, lettuce, asparagus, and all sorts of small and large beans.


Having fed the Negroes, let us have them speak. Their language is completely bizarre and I don’t think that any of these gentlemen will ever have the honor of being admitted to the Académie française.  It was only after much time and effort that I was at long last able to find  the key to the Negro dictionary.  They speak the French language and the Negro one at the same time—that is, they express themselves in our language the same as they would in the language of Guinea.  They don’t have nearly as many words or circumlocutions as we do. They are perfectly ignorant of verb conjugations, always using the infinitive or the past preterit, right after the pronoun.  For example, instead of saying “I am going there” or “I will do that,” they say “Me go there” or “Me do that.”  They have a marvelous talent for mangling words, and disfiguring them beyond recognition.  The call the King’s prosecutor “the King’s parakeet,” wild chicory is “horse poo-poo,” the Englishman Mr. Troemorton becomes “Mr. Trickmutton,” and so on. I am speaking not of a specific, individual Negro—every single one of them is prone to this foible.


It must nonetheless be said that they express themselves sometimes in a very moving way and that they create vividly evocative images. To make it known that they are very angry, they use the phrase “Heart of mine burn too much.”  Similarly, when they want to say that it has been a long time since they have seen someone, they say, “Long time, time, time that eyes of mine not looked in eyes of yours.” One of our Negroes saw for the first time a good-hearted Capuchin father who was going to Missisippi (as a missionary, you understand)—do you know how the Negro described the angelic man? “I see an animal made like the world (that is to say, in the form of a man), with a goat-beard, a sack of manioc, and a mule-halter held tight to his chest.” That is what is known as calling things as you see them.


Here’s another word-picture, just as naïve but a bit less honest. The scene takes place, once again, in Cap Français, at the house of the Jesuit fathers.  A sixteen-year-old Negro was sleeping on our portico, flat on the ground, with his mouth wide open.  My little Negro valet, who is clever as an imp, pulled down his pants and made the sleeping man kiss his behind. The sleeper awoke, with his eyes and his mouth still on the other man’s two globes of flesh.  Immediately, “heart of his burn too much,” and he administered a couple of solid whacks to my little scamp of a valet.  Hearing the noise, I ran out and demanded to know the cause of the quarrel.  The moon-kisser recounted the affair to me in these terms: “I sit here and sleep, and little Negro there put ass in hand of mine, and fart in mouth of mine.”


I could go on forever if I tried to tell you all the funny saying of the Negroes, so I will limit myself to just one more, which deserves to be told.  His Honor our governor had come to visit us and had found none of our priests at home.  One of the Negroes who keep watch in the house, said to us that evening, “You fathers have big man.” When we asked him who had been there, all he could say was, “Big man there who keeps soldier in his ass.”  This was because the governor never walks about without a bodyguard at his side; the bodyguard was the “soldier in his ass.”


The character of the Negroes, like their language, is a monstrous combination of good and bad qualities.  It would be difficult to say if they have more virtues or vices.  Most of them have very little memory and a mind that is dense and incapable of serious reflection.  It is extraordinarily difficult to teach them the principal mysteries of our Holy Religion.  Preparing them for baptism takes years on end.  They are rarely authorized to take communion because they are rarely properly prepared to do so.  Our method of ascertaining this is to ask them at the Holy Table about the holy act they wish to perform in receiving the sacrament.  We ask them if they have made their confession and, if so, to whom.  We ask them: “Has Father given you permission to take communion?”; “What is the Eucharist?”; and “Do you firmly believe in the truth of this sacrament and believe it worthy of adoration?” If they respond correctly to all of our questions, we admit them to participation in our most holy mysteries.  If they are unable to answer the questions, we refuse to give them communion, which causes no scandal whatsoever, because the whites know the behavior and the crude nature of the Negroes.


In general, they have an infinite respect for everything that has to do with religion.  In church, they are as modest and prayerful as angels; the shameless conduct of the whites in the holy place is continual source of scandal for them and they are not tempted to imitate it.  In clear contrast to other idolaters, they have no trouble renouncing pagan superstitions and wear us out by constantly nagging us to promise to baptize them.  Their godfathers and godmothers serve as Papas and Mamas for them, and that is exactly what they call them.  They honor them as such and, in return, are cherished by those godparents with the utmost tenderness.  If a Negro or Negress does something seriously wrong, the godfather or the godmother punishes him almost as severely as the strictest father would, and the guilty party, regardless of his age, takes the blows without daring to utter so much as a murmur. This is a good example for the whites, who adhere so little to the promises they made when they held their godchildren in their arms at the baptismal font.


Another excellent quality the Negroes possess is that, although they are all strongly inclined to lie, they never disguise their true thoughts in the tribunal of confession.  If they tell us that they are renouncing sin and a certain shameful commerce which they are all too prone to commit, you can take them at their word.  They will keep the promise they have made to you without fail and will not falter.  On the other hand, if they are too attached to their passions, they will admit that to you frankly: “See, Father, I still love woman there too much; still not know how to leave her.”  Once they have uttered those words, you needn’t give another thought to exhorting them to penitence. You could threaten them with death, with the Last Judgment, and with all the devils of Hell, and you would still be wasting your breath. “You not want me give you absolution?” we say to them.  “Ah, ah!” they respond coldly, “if you no want, you no give me absolution, what that do to me?” How many sacrileges would our Frenchmen spare themselves, if only they made their confessions with such sincerity!


With all these good and bad qualities of the Negroes, you wouldn’t believe how hard a confessor has to work in order to extract an admission of fault from their mouths.  They are all saints when they are kneeling before the priest.  They have never done anything wrong in their lives.  It is only by way of interrogation that you uncover their sins.  Here is an example of their confessions:


Question: “What you do since you come last to this little shop here?”[16]

Answer: “I no do nothing, Father.”

Q: “You no offend Good Lord?”

A: “I never think of offend Good Lord.”

Q: “You no swear?”

A: “That sure, Father! I swear some.” [At this point, they regale you with an entire sonnet’s worth of curse words, a vocabulary that would do the most brutish sailor in France proud.]

Q: “You no steal?”

A: “I steal for mouth of mine, steal yams, steal potatoes.” (We don’t make much of thefts of this sort, because it is nearly always necessity that compels them to do it.)

Q: “You not steal any other thing?”

A: “Yes, Father, I steal bread, I steal wine, I steal meat.” (For these kinds of theft, we give them a terrible scolding, because they are exposing themselves to frightful punishment at the hands of the masters, and furthermore, wine brings out the very worst in them.)

Q: “You not yet say everything.”

A: “What you want I say to you?”

Q: “You say you steal meat? That meat there belong to master, no?”

A: “Yes, Father. I steal one cow in field of master of mine, I steal two sheep of him, I steal pigs, I steal chickens.” (That wasn’t what you were expecting to hear, was it? And yet nothing is more common among the Negroes than to spirit away their masters’ livestock.  They lead them furtively into the woods and treat their friends to a feast during the night.  They don’t need a spit or a stew-pots for cooking, they just roast the flesh right on the fire. Whatever is left over they abandon to the dogs or pack in salt to take back to their shack.)

Q: “You run around?”

A: “No, Father, I never run around.” (The term “to run around” means to have many mistresses.)

Q: “You married?”

A: “I not married in front of Father Boutin.” (This was one of our first missionaries, who served as the vicar for Negroes and sailors.)

Q: “But you have woman?”

A: “I have two woman, I shack all with them.” (Among the Negroes, it is not considered a great sin to have a mistress or two and to “shack,” which means to have relations, with them. Those are just peccadilloes for them.)

I leave you to surmise what the rest of their confessions are like from the little abbreviated sketch with which I have just presented you.


There are moments when you could die laughing when you are hearing the confessions of the silly vixens.  A young Negress, seventeen years old, confessed to having a lover.  The confessor asked her how many times they had “shacked” together. “Hold on, Father,” said the Negress, “Pierrot, man of mine, in church right there. I go ask him how many times.” And indeed, she went and interrogated her Adonis, who slunk out of the church in shame, not daring to say a word in response.  Upon her return to the confessional, she told the priest guilelessly that Pierrot had not wanted to answer her question, and that she would come back to him after she had brought her man into line.


Another Negress began her confession abruptly, saying, “I have ten men.”  Now that’s what you call getting right to the point. It reminds me of the confession of that Spanish monk, who, having already gotten dressed for Mass, asked one of our priests to hear his confession:

“Most Reverend Father, just a little word of reconciliation, please… I have lived for three years among nuns as a bull lives among cows. I ask for absolution. Mea culpa, mea culpa.[17]


I defy the most serious man to keep a straight face, hearing the confession of certain Negroes.  But what sad meditations afterward, on the incontinences of these half-beasts!  The evil would only be half as bad if the whites didn’t give them an example of the most horrible brutality. But our Frenchmen are the first to abuse the Negresses’ enslaved condition.  The ease with which they have their way makes them supremely lascivious and none, or nearly none, of the plantations is exempt from this contagion.  The Negresses dare not resist; to do so would be to expose themselves to mistreatment at every moment. It is in their best interest to surrender.  Some of them even compete with each other for the honor of occupying both the master’s heart and his bed. It is from this abominable mixing of different blood that are born so many mulatto children, of which the colony is full. And from there stems domestic dissension between the master and the mistress of the house.  How many Frenchwomen are forced to endure the insulting haughtiness and scorn of an insolent slave, arrogantly imposing herself, on the strength of her vile master’s preference for her!  This in turn brings about the romantic intrigues, assignations, and adulteries that are so common among those Frenchwomen, so unjustly scorned.  It also causes the rage and despair of the poor Negro husbands, who, as the song says, have only half of their better half.  They get carried away sometimes to the most violent extremes, and, after slitting their wives’ throats, go off and hang themselves from the nearest tree.  Less than six months ago, we saw another instance of that bloody catastrophe.


It is rare to see Negresses who, like the chaste Susanna, choose death over dishonor.[18]  There are nonetheless a few with that kind of character, and I know more than one who preferred to suffer the brutal treatment of her master rather than serve his vile lust.


Drunkenness is another vice common among these Negroes.  They have a passionate love for a kind of brandy made from sugar syrup, which has much more fire to it that our French brandies.  They call it tafia or guildive.  When the Negroes have had more than they should, they are like brutal beasts consumed by fury.  It’s not that they don’t like wine. The story I told you about the vessel of wine underground is proof of that.  But it is not as easy for the Negroes to get hold of wine as it is for them to get tafia, which is made only for them.


Smoking tobacco is also a treat for them.  All the Negroes, men and women, have a pipe in their mouths all day long.  That does not prevent them from getting their work done.  They never take snuff.  They laugh at us when they see us with our snuffboxes in hand, stuffing our nostrils with a substance that is intended, according to them, only “for a Christian’s mouth.”  The art of smoking has spread so commonly from the Negroes to the whites that there are almost no Creole planters, and even Creole women, grand ladies, who don’t smoke fifteen to twenty pipes a day.  And a little nip of brandy or tafia always comes after a pipe.  That leaves them with an odiferous mouth, which announces their imminent arrival from as far away as the musk of the Negroes announces theirs.  Ah, the fine spectacle, on our plains, of a lady decked out like a goddess, in a carriage pulled by four horses, smoking her pipe with as much delectation as if she were sniffing a bouquet of roses or drinking a glass of lemonade! To see that sight is to behold the marvels of the New World—to each land, its own customs.


It will no longer come as a surprise to you that our Creoles take on so easily the ways of the Negroes when you learn that, in Saint Domingue, there are no wet nurses or nannies for the children other than the Negresses.  It is certain that children drink in the inclinations of their wet nurse along with her milk.  These initial inclinations are fortified later by the persuasive force of example, so that, other than the difference of color, there is almost no difference between a white child and a little Negro.  The richest of our planters send their children to France very young, seeking to rectify their initial education, but whatever they do, some measure of that first impression always remains.


When the Negresses are in service as wet nurses, even to their own children, they live apart from their husbands, until the child is fully weaned. They all idolize their offspring, legitimate or not.  They would fear for the fruit of their fecundity if they didn’t live in the strictest abstinence.  This virtuous conduct on the part of Negro mothers leads to rampant misdeeds on the part of their husbands, who are not always virtuous enough to contain themselves for years at a time.  They seek to compensate this loss elsewhere, and they always find plenty of opportunities to do so– often too many, which leads to their misfortune.  There is hardly a country on earth where Bavarian herb tea and Swedish mercury are more commonly in use than on Saint Domingue.[19]


Among the blacks, as among the whites, there are charlatans, fortune tellers, only a few genuine sorcerers but many poisoners.  Our planters themselves have neither shame nor scruples in consulting these Negroes concerning a thousand hidden things that they want to know about.  Nearly always, the only enlightenment they come away with is that they have been duped by their own foolish and impious credulity and have wasted both their time and their money in seeking to shed light on mysteries of which God alone has knowledge.


The Negro poisoners have more success in their execrable profession.  They know many venomous herbs by which, in short order, they dispose of all their enemies.  One is amazed sometimes to see twenty or thirty Negroes perish on a single plantation, at almost the same time.  The cause is sought, and it is discovered that a wretched Negro has poisoned them all. Last year, one of our richest planters lost more than sixty Negroes, all dead from poison.  The guilty party was found and died in chains, as if he were possessed by the Devil. His body was burned, as was his shack, the entire thing witnessed by the rest of the slave community; the ashes were scattered to the winds.  The goal of this scoundrel, if God hadn’t prevented it, was to kill all his master’s Negroes, of which there are  nearly four hundred.  It is fairly common for the poisoner to go hang himself if he realizes that he is being suspected.


Judge for yourself the diabolical maliciousness of an evil Negro in the following tale.  One of our planters, having seen several of his slaves waste away and die, suspected that poison was involved and cast his suspicions on an old Negro on the place.  It was indeed, for reasons I do not know, that infernal monster who was administering a slow poison to his comrades.  The master had no certain knowledge of this, but felt nonetheless that he must act as if he had proof positive of the fact.  He threatened to burn the Negro alive if he didn’t return to health two of the master’s best slaves, who were visibly wasting away.  The Negro promised to do so and told his master that, in order to make it happen, he needed the sick men to go with him into the woods, where the proper herbs grew and where he could apply them to the men on that very spot.  The master consented to everything.  The two Negroes entered deep into the forest, preceded by their guide, who told them that, in order to be more surely and promptly cured, they would have to let him tie each of them to a tree.  They allowed it ; but as soon as the traitor saw that they were unable to defend themselves, he pulled a knife out of his pocket and plunged it into their hearts.  The finishing touch to the scene was his hanging himself from the branch of a tree, just above the victims of his insatiable fury.  It wasn’t until three days later that this was discovered.  The master, not seeing his Negroes return, sent a search party into the woods, where all three of them were found, in the state I have just described to you.


The most commonly used method of punishing Negroes is whipping, but with what kind of whip?  You are going to shudder when you read this story.  Imagine one of those whips that our Issoudun coal merchants use to guide their horses—that is more or less the kind of whip that is used here to regale the Negroes.[20]  An ordinance of the King expressly forbids giving a slave more than forty lashes, but our planters, who thumb their noses at the laws most worthy of respect, go far beyond that number.  Here is how they go about punishing a guilty Negro.  They have him lie down, naked, with his chest on the ground, and tie his hands and feet to four stakes.  Once that is done, one of the most robust Negroes on the planation (usually the Negro foreman), takes the whip in hand and stands about eight or ten paces away from the guilty party, so as to give his whip the play it needs.  He metes out, with all his might, lashes that can be heard from more than a half-league away.  Often, he takes the skin off with the very first blow; the whip enters into the flesh, making blood flow in abundance.


A Negro does not have to have committed a serious crime to undergo this terrible punishment.  Some planters, and especially Creole women, have their Negroes “cut.” That is the term they use to say “whipped” and naturally so, since the buttocks of a Negro who emerges from a whipping are indeed cut as if with a razor.  That would be the case even if the ordinance of the King were not exceeded by a wide margin, but that which would horrify even barbarians has no effect whatsoever on our planters.  They order that a hundred, two hundred, three hundred and even four or five hundred lashes be given to their Negroes at one time.  Imagine the horrible cries and howls that those wretches emit in the throes of their torture.  They are like rabid dogs and sometimes seek to suffocate themselves, unable to bear the blows any longer.  What do our Neros do to prevent it? They hold a burning stick under the Negro’s nose, so that there is no way for him to hold his breath. Are they Dacians or Sarmacians to exercise those sorts of cruelty?[21]  No, they are Frenchmen, often more worthy of such treatment than their slaves are. Finally, before the Negro who has just been cut is untied, his wounds are rubbed with a brine made of lemon juice, salt, and vinegar.  It is among the most piquant of sauces, but necessary for maintaining the flesh in its natural freshness.  After this adventure, the Negro remains stretched out in his cabin, sometimes unable to move for months on end.


Some planters take their fury to even greater lengths.  Cutting their Negroes with a whip is not enough for them, they have them cut with a razor, on parts of their bodies other than buttocks, in order to take away from them both the desire and the means of chasing after Negresses.  Others put their Negroes to death from the blows or from some other form of torture even more cruel, convinced as they are that they have power over the life and death of their slaves, in direct contradiction to all laws, both human and divine.  But does fury respect laws?  I know of planters who, for trivial misdeeds, have had their Negroes put through the mill like a bundle of sugar cane stalks; several others who have had them burned slowly, over a low fire—in fact, there was a very rich lady who sat nonchalantly in an armchair, a pipe in her mouth, while before her very eyes a slave who had had the misfortune of displeasing Madame was being roasted.


Another small-scale planter had gotten it into his head that a young Negress, with whom he had been conducting business, had been unfaithful to him, so he thrust a red-hot iron rod into her womb. The same man, a short while later, in order to punish a Negro for who-knows-what misdeed, locked him, completely naked, in a barrel studded with iron spikes inside, and let him die there of rage.  All these bloodthirsty tyrants go about their merry way in the colony, without ever facing the slightest objection to their cruelty.  A complaint was raised one day, and the minister gave orders that these torturers of Negroes be rounded up, but through either indolence or prevarication on the part of those who were in the government at that time, or perhaps lack of sufficient proof (Negroes are not allowed to testify against whites), the crimes remained unpunished.  Doesn’t that alone prove the obvious necessity of a Universal Judgment at the end of days?


But sometimes God doesn’t wait until the Great Day of Revelation to punish such monstrous excesses.  The entire colony witnessed the event I am about to recount to you.  A planter had killed, with his own hands, nearly all his Negroes, one after another.  He had only two of them left and he was barbarous enough to castrate them himself.  The poor slaves, fearing that sooner or later they would be finished off like the others, fled into the woods and perished there from hunger.  The planter’s wife had also indulged in her husband’s carnage, albeit to a much lesser degree, so she too bore the blame.  One fine day, they both went furiously insane, at almost the exact same moment.  They tore off all their clothes and started running down the main road like maniacs.  In a pitiful state, they ended up on the district-commander’s plantation; he had them both put in chains, separately.  That is where I saw them myself several times. The husband was publicly confessing the infinite number of crimes and sacrileges he had committed in the course of his life.  In short, he died in a frenzy, speaking only of Devils from Hell and the just judgments of God.  The wife, whom God wanted to spare, given her greater innocence, recovered entirely from her madness and lives on today; one is as charmed by her present edification as one was scandalized by her past rage.


When a Negro feels guilty, in order to avoid punishment, he all too often takes flight and goes off into the woods to hide. This is called “going maroon” or “becoming a maroon.” Fugitive Negroes sometimes band together like a pack of thieves and go out in the night to pillage nearby plantations.  They are hunted like bandits.  If they happen to defend themselves against those who are pursuing them with arms in hand, and they happen to get caught, they are hanged with no mercy.  If they give themselves up willingly, they are led to the nearest guardroom, where they remain until the master to whom they belong comes to reclaim them.  If they refuse to stop when they are asked to do so, anyone is permitted to kill them and he who has done so gets a reward determined by the King when he brings in the head and a part of the maroon’s  body bearing a brand.  I mention the brand, because that is the only way of knowing to whom the Negro belongs—as you may know, all the Negro slaves, as well as all the livestock on the island, have their skin marked with a hot iron bearing the brand of their master.


A Frenchman whose Negro has gone maroon goes on the eighth day of the slave’s flight to the court clerk’s office to declare the fact.  This is because if his Negro is killed while marooning, and an official declaration has been made, the master will be paid five hundred pounds, by declaration of the King. It would seem neither fair nor in the public interest for a master to lose all of his Negroes; thus, he is given half of what a Negro is commonly considered to be worth.  The same sum is paid to those whose slaves are executed by court order.  The money comes from what is called here “the execution tax,” which is levied every year on the planters, each one paying a certain sum per capita for all the Negroes working on his place.


The maroons who want to return to their master of their own free will go find some white acquaintance of theirs and beg him to act as middleman in obtaining forgiveness for them.  It is usually the good missionary fathers who are charged with this sort of commission and we almost always succeed.  The planters would hardly dare refuse us—less out of respect for our persons than out of fear that, if they were to refuse, we would no longer speak to them on behalf of their slaves, thereby eliminating the only avenue for return that is available to the unfortunate fugitives.


Among the Negroes’ other good qualities, they are as courageous as lions.  Their bravery stands up to the test of the most frightful dangers.  They even have a sense of honor that we would admire among the most civilized peoples.  Take, for example, the Negro who had been sentenced to the gallows and who was offered, in exchange for his life, a job as an executioner in a neighboring jurisdiction. Despite the remonstrances that were made to him on the subject, they were never able to drag anything out of him other than these words: “I like better go see Good Lord than kill men.”  The ancient Romans would have given a slave his life to reward such nobility of soul, and all the more so since the man didn’t really deserve the rope anyway, but the Romans ceased to be a long time ago. The sentence was enforced and the Negro died a hero.


I know of only one point on which the mores of our colony are aligned with those of Ancient Rome, and that is the granting of freedom to certain slaves as a reward for their service and their zeal.  We have here a number of freed slaves.  They enjoy, in complete tranquility, all our privileges, with the exception of the fact that they have no more right to raise their hand to a white than do the slaves.  They are good citizens and good soldiers.  The elite among these free Negroes make up an infantry corps which, in terms of valor and faithfulness, are equal to our best troops in France.  They own houses, land and slaves, whom they treat even more severely than do the whites.  On that topic, one of the freedmen told me that they know the Negro nation better than we do and that anyone who sought to be served by them couldn’t afford to let them get away with anything.


The last thing I have to say is a word about the Negroes’ clothing.  All the slaves, without one single exception, walk around barefoot.  They are accustomed to it from childhood, and in a warm country like ours, it is less a hardship than a convenience.  Our small-scale planters themselves rarely wear shoes in their houses.  The Negroes who work in the fields are the dirtiest.  They have nothing more than a shirt on their back, while they work, and their heads are never covered, no matter how hot it is.  It would be a marvel to see a Negro struck down by sunstroke, just as it would be a marvel to see a white not succumb if he didn’t take particular care to cover his head.


The Negroes who work as valets in the house keep themselves cleaner than the others.  They have a handkerchief, made of madras, on their heads; another worn as a scarf or belt; and a third on their left leg, worn like a sort of gaiter.  A graceful style is the order of the day and the truth is that it suits them rather well.  They wear a hat when they are on horseback.  The Negresses who work as domestics also wear a madras kerchief on their heads, as well as a chemise of fine cloth and a colored skirt.  They know nothing of wearing a corset.  You see many Negresses wearing the most beautiful garments and the richest lace from Europe.  I’m sure you can imagine what kind of games those flibbertigibbets play in order to earn the money to feed their foolish and absurd vanity.  The freedmen and freedwomen all wear shoes.  The men wear a manchette at their side, a type of very wide saber.  The women wear their hair in the style of the Frenchwomen, but nothing could be less becoming to them, since the whiteness of their coiffure only serves to accentuate even more the blackness and vulgarity of their face.


So there you have, my dear brother, an authentic portrait of our Negroes.  I don’t know if it will please you, but be assured that I spared nothing to make it complete.  In any case, you will agree with me that our missionaries have their hands full, exercising their zeal among more than fifty thousand of these barbarous men. And after all, we owe them that justice, since they give us infinitely less trouble than the whites, most of whom have no religious sentiment whatsoever.  The unique and sovereign law for them is their own pleasure and money is their god.


I ask for your holy prayers, my dear brother,

and remain, in the highest possible spirit of friendship,

your most humble and obedient servant and brother,



Missionary of the Society of Jesus


[Translated by C. Rivers, October 2018; published 14 January 2019]


[1] Translator’s note: Bréban’s word here is conjuration. While conjuration can clearly and simply be translated as “conspiracy,” it nonetheless also retains the connotation of a magic spell as well (think of the English verb “to conjure”).  Given the fears and suspicions on the part of white colonists, not only about slave revolts but also about the practice of witchcraft, the word is worth noting.

[2] Translator’s note: The seashells in question would have been cowrie shells.

[3] Translator’s note: Bréban indeed uses the word Indiens here to refer to Africans.  It is not clear what this might mean, other than a general allusion to indigenous people in their homeland. The modern French edition of the letter, published in the Bulletin du Centre Historique des Espaces Atlantiques, includes the notation “(sic)” after the word.

[4] Translator’s note: In French, il eut le bonheur de tomber chez nous.  It is significant that Bréban avoids saying that the Jesuits bought this slave, as they surely did. Rather, he presents the transfer of the slave from the ship to the Jesuits as something that simply happened, as if by chance: he “fell” into their house. The supreme irony of this passage is that Bréban criticizes the ship’s captain for not having given the slave his freedom, but clearly sees no harm in the Jesuits’ keeping him as a slave and providing him with all kinds of “comforts”—other than his freedom.

[5] Translator’s note: This is a reference to one (or two) of the Ten Commandments. As rendered in the King James Version: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.” Roman Catholics, however, follow the lead of St. Augustine and separate the “thou shalt not covet” commandment into two: one prohibiting the coveting of one’s neighbor’s wife  and another prohibiting the coveting of his “goods.”  Both of those commandments, in Latin, begin with the words  non concupisces (Thou shalt not covet), so there is some ambiguity as to which of those two Catholic commandments Bréban is referring here—does he consider the young black women in question to be someone’s wives or someone’s “goods?”


[6] Translator’s note: Pistole is the French name for a Spanish currency used world-wide at the time and also for the French louis d’or, which was worth about the same amount. According to one source, a pistole would be roughly equivalent to about four dollars, meaning that “the finest Negroes” referred to here would sold for around four hundred dollars. But such equivalencies, across multiple centuries and multiple types of currencies, should of course be considered highly approximate.

[7] Translator’s note: In the French, habitations. Planters were referred to in the French Caribbean as habitants (not to be confused with the use of the same term in Quebec, where it meant something like “settlers”).

[8] Translator’s note: A barrique (the word is used in both French and English) is a wine barrel specifically used to store Bordeaux and of a specific size.  A barrique holds roughly fifty-nine gallons, meaning that the vessel in question here would have had a capacity of about thirty gallons.

[9] Translator’s note: In French, à la place. Presumably to designate the expression as the one used by the slaves themselves, it appears in italics in Bréban’s letter itself.

[10] Translator’s note: In French, “ils vont à la veillée.” Bréban probably puts the term à la veillée in italics to indicate that it is a local usage, specific to Saint Domingue or perhaps all the French Caribbean colonies, and that he realizes that it may seem odd to his French reader.

[11] Translator’s note: In French, économe. I have translated this as bursar, as it captures the connotation of a sort of financial administrator and is thus a solid literal translation. But, given the description of the duties given here, which entail close supervision of the actual labor being done on the plantation, with no mention of bookkeeping, “overseer” might have worked at least as well.

[12] Translator’s note: Auri sacra fames appears in Bréban’s text in Latin and in italics, without a French translation. The well-known phrase originated in Virgil’s Aeneid and was later famously quoted by Seneca. In the Christian tradition, it is echoed by St. Paul’s famous statement that the desire for money is the root of all evil (I Timothy 6:10).

[13] Translator’s note: These foodstuffs are capitalized and italicized in Bréban’s text, setting them off as foreign words. His list also repeats, for some reasons, the word ignames. (The modern edition of the letter, published in the Bulletin du Centre Historique des Espaces Atlantiques, puts a parenthetical “sic” after the second iteration of the word.)

[14] Translator’s note: The history of the exportation of the potato from the New World to Europe  and its adoption as a foodstuff is a long and complicated one. Cultivation of the crop did not become a widespread phenomenon throughout France until the late eighteenth century, decades after the writing of this letter (1732). Bréban’s assumption that the fellow Jesuit to whom he is writing knows little to nothing about the potato is thus not surprising.

[15] Translator’s note: Bréban calls this fruit poire de bon chrétien d’hiver; before 1800, it would have been known in English as a “Williams’ Bon Chretien” pear. Since the early nineteenth century, it has much more commonly been known as a “Bartlett.”

[16] Translator’s note: In the dialogue that follows, it is noteworthy that Bréban reports the confessor speaking the same kind of broken French as the slave.

[17] Translator’s note: The monk’s words are in Latin in the text. I have retained the italics where they appear in Bréban. Confession is more formally referred to as the sacrament of reconciliation.

[18] Translator’s note: For the story of “the chaste Susanna,” see Daniel 13, in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox versions of the Bible.

[19] Translator’s note: “Swedish mercury” (mercure de Suède) refers to the then-common use of mercury to treat venereal disease, especially syphilis.  “Bavarian herb tea” (tisane de Bavière) also, presumably, refers to a remedy for sexually transmitted ailments.

[20] Translator’s note: Issoudun is a small, medieval city in central France, formerly in the province of Berry and now in the department of Indre. It is not clear why Bréban refers specifically to coal merchants from that particular locale.

[21] Translator’s note: Dacians and Sarmatians are both ancient tribes, the clear implication here being that the cruelty of the French planters on Saint Domingue in comparable to that of the Ancient World and a perverse anomaly in the current one.