Bois Caïman Ceremony
The Haitian Revolution begins with the Bois Caïman ceremony. Ready to carry out their plans, the slaves meet in Morne-Rouge to make final preparations and to give instructions. The slaves decide that “Upon a given signal, the plantations would be systematically set aflame, and a generalized slave insurrection set afoot.” Rumors circulate that white masters and colonial authorities are on their way to France to fight the Crown’s recent decrees granting mulattoes and free blacks rights. Though false, these rumors “served as a rallying point around which to galvanize the aspirations of the slaves, to solidify and channel these into open rebellion.” (Fick, 91)
The Bois Caïman ceremony and subsequent insurrections are the result of months of planning and strategizing. There are 200 slave leaders involved from around the North. All hold privileged positions on their plantations, most of them commanders with influence and authority over other slaves.Through strategic maneuvering, these leaders successfully unite a vast network of Africans, mulattoes, maroons, commanders, house slaves, field slaves, and free blacks.
The Bois Caïman ceremony takes place in a thickly wooded area where the slaves solemnize their pact in a voodoo ritual. Some historians believe the ceremony took place on the 22nd of August, not the 14th. The ceremony is officiated by Boukman, a maroon leader and voodoo priest from Jamaica, and a voodoo high priestess. Various accounts from that night describe a tempestuous storm, animal sacrifices, and voodoo deities. However, over the centuries the ceremony has become legendary, and it is important to note it can be difficult to distill fact from myth.
Image: Andre Normil's 1990 painting, "Ceremonie du Bois-Caiman."
Voodoo, alternately spelled Voudou or Vodun, is a traditional Afro-Haitian religion. A cultural backbone of Haiti historically as well as contemporarily, it has been frequently been misrepresented by Western media. Before and during the Haitian Revolution, the religion evolved as enslaved Africans incorporated elements of Christianity to camouflage and preserve traditional spiritual practices as they endured slavery.
“Voodoo, both a sacred dance and a religion, was expressly forbidden in the French colonies, and from the very beginning, the colonists tried in vain to crush it.” (Fick, p. 41)
Voudou prevailed despite the whites’ efforts, nurtured in secret by the colony’s first slaves. During European colonialism and the Haitian revolution Voudou played a singular role for slaves:
“Despite rigid prohibitions, voodoo was indeed one of the few areas of totally autonomous activity for the African slaves. As a religion and a vital spiritual force, it was a source of psychological liberation in that it enabled them to express and reaffirm that self-existence they objectively recognized through their own labor . . . Voodoo further enabled the slaves to break away psychologically form the very real and concrete chains of slavery and to see themselves as independent beings; in short it gave them a sense of human dignity and enabled them to survive.” (Fick, p. 44)
During the revolution, Voudou brought together disparate forces in the colony, uniting various rebel factions to fight side by side. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Voudou was widely misrepresented and misunderstood in the rest of the world. Hollywood portrayed the religion as primitive and savage, ignoring its rich history and complexity. Many researchers have misinterpreted its relationship with Catholicism, which has masked and at times fused with Voodoo as it has evolved over time.
Voudou today is still a significant part of many Haitians’ daily lives. As one Haitian woman put it, “the loa [spirits] love us, protect us and watch over us. They show us what is happening to our relatives living far away, and they tell us what medicines will do us good when we are sick.”
Source: Carolyn E. Fick, The Making of Haiti, p. 41
Slaves in the Limbé district stray from the rebel leaders’ plan, apparently due to a misunderstanding, and are caught setting fire to an estate. During their interrogation they reveal the conspiracy and the names of the leaders.
Interestingly, though, many of the planters who are warned of the rebellion stand by their slaves and refuse to believe the rumors. One plantation manager, for example, “offered his own head in exchange if the denunciations….proved true.” Other planters, warned of the coming violence, escaped with their lives but still couldn’t protect their property, often losing everything.
The other slaves involved in the conspiracy prepare to move ahead with the rebellion as planned, vowing to “to burn le Cap, the plantations, and to massacre the whites all at the same time." (Fick, 102)
Image: Limbé near Cap Haïtien. Source.
The slaves launch their insurrection in the North. That night Boukman and his forces march throughout the region, taking prisoners and killing whites. By midnight, plantations are in flames and the revolt has begun. Armed with torches, guns, sabers, and makeshift weapons the rebels continue their devastation as they go from plantation to plantation. By six the next morning, only a few slaves in the area have yet to join Boukman, and scores of plantations and their owners are destroyed.
The group, numbering 1,000 to 2,000, next splits into smaller bands to attack designated plantations, demonstrating their highly organized strategy. As the revolt in the North grows “awesome in dimensions,” whites become anxious about defending Le Cap, where the colonial government is centralized. It is to Le Cap–the social and cultural hub of the colony–that whites flee their burning plantations and rebelling slaves. Later an interrogated slave would declare that “in every workshop in the city there were negroes concerned in the plot.” (Fick, 103) The whites and slaves both realize that controlling the city would be critical in determining the revolution’s outcome.
Blanchelande writes that “Fears of a conspiracy [in Le Cap] were confirmed as we had successfully discovered and continue daily to discover plots that prove that the revolt is combined between the slaves of the city and those of the plains; we have therefore established permanent surveillance to prevent the first sign of fire here in the city which would soon develop into a general conflagration.”
The slaves march to the Limbé district, adding to their forces. The group moves from plantation to plantation, seizing control and establishing military camps. Along the way more slaves join the rebellion, and those who don’t are cut down mercilessly.
By the end of the day, “the finest sugar plantations of Saint Domingue were literally devoured by flames.” A horrified colonist wrote that “one can count as many rebel camps as there were plantations.” (Fick, p. 97)
Image: View of Cap Haïtien burning. Souce.
The slaves continue west to Port-Margot in the early evening, hitting at least four plantations.
The rebels march to Le Cap, after burning down the region’s largest plantations and killing scores of whites. Every entrance to the city is guarded, and the slaves march against the whites’ cannons and guns, meeting armed resistance for the first time. Though the whites manage to drive the slaves back, the rebels divide up and regroup, returning by two different routes to successfully seize the city.
The slaves hold out for three weeks against the planters, who are badly armed, disorganized, injured, and desperately in need of help. The slaves’ strategy is clear: every time the planters encircle or overcome them, the slaves retreat to the mountains to reorganize and prepare a new attack.
At the same time, slaves in the northeast rise up, “torch in hand, with equal coordination and purpose,” and advanced “like wildfire.” The slaves burn down the plantations methodically until all the major parishes in the upper North Plain region are hit and communication between them is severed.
The rebel slave forces reach nearly 15,000. Slaves join because they “had deserted their plantations, by will or by force, or by the sheer thrust and compulsion of events purposefully set in motion by the activities of a revolutionary core.” They are transformed from fugitive slaves into “hardened, armed rebel, fighting for freedom, ”a mental and physical process “accelerated by collective rebellion in a context of revolutionary social and political upheaval.” (Fick, p. 106)
“We had learned . . . that a large attack was afoot, but how could we ever have known that there reigned among these men, so numerous and formerly so passive, such a concerted accord that everything was carried out exactly as was declared? . . . The revolt had been too sudden, too vast and too well-planned for it to seem possible to stop it or even to moderate its ravages.”
- Colonist letter (Fick, p. 105)
The planters are able to protect Le Cap but cannot save their plantations. They send frantic requests for military aid to Santo Domingo, Cuba, Jamaica, and the United States to no avail. Within eight days the rebels devastate 184 sugar plantations in the north, losing planters millions of French livres. By September all the plantations within fifty miles of Le Cap are destroyed.
Image: Incendie du Cap Français, by Swebach-Desfontaines, 1802. Bibliothèque nationale de France. Link.
The revolution spreads, becoming more militant and organized. On the plantations it takes less to incite riots. Plantation crops are ruined as entire fields of slaves desert or simply stop working. In the “magnificent” Plaine-des-Cayes, comprising of almost 100 sugar plantations, every single plantation is destroyed. Many of the planters, “financially and morally ruined,” are desperate to save their fortunes while others consider themselves fortunate “just to get out of this wretched colony with their lives and a shirt on their backs.” (Fick, p. 150)
The white troops are completely unprepared for the rebel’s guerrilla tactics, which include surprise attacks, thefts of supplies and livestock, ambushes, and poisoned arrows. The slaves, more resilient than the whites, are merciless, taking no prisoners of war. Over half of the 6,000 troops from France have at this point already “perished from the ravages of a tropical climate and endemic sicknesses reaching epidemic proportions.” (Fick, p. 150)
“This is the graveyard of the French; here one dies off like flies.” - A French army volunteer
Image: Frontispiece from L’Incendie du Cap, ou Le règne de Toussaint-Louverture, by René Périn, 1802. Link.
Slaves continue to make demands, but with the entire colonial system at stake, the planters refuse to concede. One colonist writes presciently of the colonists’ dilemma in negotiating with the slaves:
“For, if we reward with freedom those who have burned our plantations and massacred our people, the slaves who have hitherto remained loyal will do likewise in order to receive the same benefit. Then nothing more can be said: the whites must perish.”
Another states, “There can be no agriculture in Saint Domingue without slavery; we did not go to fetch half a million savage slaves off the coast of Africa to bring them to the colony as French citizens.” (Fick, p. 154)
The Colonial Assembly at Saint Marc recognizes the May 15 decree. Remember that this 1791 decree declared a limited number of free-born persons of color eligible to be seated in future assemblies, with the rights of voting citizens. Though the action was conservative–only applicable to persons born of free parents and “possessing the requisite qualifications”–colonists were furious. In recognizing the decree, the Colonial Assembly grants citizenship to mulattoes and free blacks. White planters object violently and tensions in the colony rise.
The National Assembly in France revokes the May 15 decree, which had granted limited rights to free blacks and mulattoes, and names three commissioners to restore order in Saint-Domingue. In response, mulatto agitation in the South becomes open, armed rebellion in collaboration with the black slaves. Rebels in the west seize the capital city Port-au-Prince, cut its water supply and block all access to incoming food supplies before they are overcome by the French troops.
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