"The Faithful Slaves of Haiti." by Charlotte M. Yonge (1823-1901)
Mournful as are in general the annals of slavery, yet even this cloud is not without its silver lining; and noble deeds of fidelity and self-devotion are on record even from those whom their masters have been accustomed to look on as so degraded as to be incapable of more than an animal species of loyalty.
The French are not in general bad slave-masters. Excitement does indeed stir their Keltic blood into a state in which they will perpetrate horrible ferocities; but in ordinary life their instinct of courtesy and amiability makes them perhaps the least obnoxious of all nations to those whom they believe their inferiors, whether in the bondage of conquest or of slavery.
No doubt, however, there was a fearful arrear of wrongs in the beautiful West Indian island of Hispaniola, or St. Domingo, as it was called when it was shared between France and Spain, with the boundary between them of a river, now known by the portentous name of Massacre. One of the most fertile of all the lovely isles whose aspect had enchanted their discoverer, St. Domingo was a region of rapid wealth to the French Creoles, who lived at ease, and full of luxury and enjoyment, on their rich plantations of sugar, cotton, and coffee, and, often men of high birth, further formed, in right of their white skins, a jealous aristocracy, holding their heads high above the dark population below them, alike of free mulattoes of mixed descent and of negro slaves. Little were they prepared for the decree of the French National Convention, which at one sweep levelled all distinctions–placing the black and brown of every tint on an equality with the whites. The consequence was that the tricoloured cockade was trampled on by the indignant Creoles, who refused obedience to the decree of the mother country, and proceeded to elect a General Assembly of their own; while the aggrieved mulattoes collected on their side in armed bodies for the defence of their newly granted privileges.
In the midst a more terrible enemy arose. The slaves, with the notes of freedom ringing in their ears, rose in a body, and began to burn the plantations and to massacre the whites. Fugitives came rushing into Capetown, the capital, from all quarters; and at each plantation reached by the insurgents, the slaves, even if previously contented, were gathered into the flood of savagery, and joined in the war of extermination. In less than two months, 2000 white persons, of all ranks, sexes, and ages, had perished, 480 sugar plantations, and 900 coffee, indigo, and cotton settlements had been destroyed. With the horrors and the bloodshed of those days, however, we are not concerned, nor need we trace the frightful and protracted war that finally established negro supremacy over the island that now bears the name of Haiti. It is with the bright spots in the dark picture that we are to deal.
Count de Lopinot, an old officer in the army, who had settled with his wife upon the island, had been so uniformly kind to his slaves, that their hearts were with him; they rose for the protection of him and his family, and when the way of escape was open, entreated him to take them all with him, to live and die in his service. The place chosen for his retreat was the English island of Trinidad, where he obtained from Government a grant of waste land among the mountains, to be selected by himself. The centre of Trinidad is so mountainous, as to be still uncultivated and unsettled, and the Count was forced to take with him his bodyguard of faithful negroes, to cut a passage for him through the tropical forest.
The spot he selected was beautifully situated, fertile, and. well watered; but the best road he could make to it was so rugged as to be unfit for the transport of sugar, and he therefore laid it out for cocoa–upon a design peculiar to himself. The outline of his grounds represented a gigantic French general officer; epaulettes and all, upon whose prostrate form were ranged cocoa plants, at about fifteen or twenty feet apart, each about the size of a gooseberry bush; and at intervals, the forest tree, known by the negroes as Cocoa-Mammy because it is supposed to shade, nourish, and even gather dew for the cocoa plants under its charge. It is from sixty to eighty feet high, and bears brilliant flame-coloured blossoms, so that the hills of Trinidad seem all in a blaze in its flowering season. To this curiously planned estate the grateful count gave the surname of La Reconnaissance, and on the first day when he brought his countess, and installed the negro families in their new abodes, he celebrated a solemn thanksgiving. So much was he beloved, that twenty years after his death the negroes of La Reconnaissance still kept a holiday in his memory.
These negroes were loyal in a body; but on another estate in St. Domingo there was a single loyal exception, a genuine African, not born on the estate, but brought thither by the slave trade. The whole of his master's family were massacred, excepting two little boys, of five and three years old, whom he contrived to hide, and afterwards to escape with to the coast, where he put them on board ship, and succeeded in conveying them to Carolina. Happily, in those days, slavery was apparently on the decline, even in the Southern States, and free negroes were allowed to be at large in the streets of Charleston, so that the faithful man was able to maintain the children by his labour; and not only this, but to fulfil his earnest purpose of educating them consistently with their parents' station in life. He placed them at a good boarding-school, and, while living a hard and frugal life himself, gave them each a dollar a week for pocket money.
The elder of the two went to sea, rose to be captain of a merchant-ship, and married a Spanish heiress in Cuba, when, on settling upon her estate, he at once sent for his good old guardian, built him a house, and made him an overseer, giving him, in memory of old times, a dollar every week for pocket money, and treating him with great affection. The old man lived to a great age, and, on his death, his master was surprised to find that, though a devout Christian, and an intelligent man, he still wore round his neck a little African amulet, which no doubt his affectionate spirit retained as the only memory of his native land.
Another negro, named Eustache, who was born in 1773, on the sugar plantation of Monsieur Belin de Villeneuve, in the northern part of the island, had been always a remarkably intelligent man, though entirely ignorant, and not even able to read. When the bloody attacks on the houses of the whites took place he is said, by his timely warnings and ingenious contrivances, to have at different times saved the lives of no less than 400 white persons without betraying the negroes; and, lastly, he was enabled to place his master safely on board an American vessel with a sufficient cargo of sugar to secure him from destitution. Eustache himself embarked at the same time, considering himself as still M. Belin's slave as completely as though they were still on the plantation. On the voyage the vessel was captured by an English privateer; but, while all the Americans and French were put under hatches, the negro was left at large to profit by the liberty the English sailors fancied they had conferred upon him. They were a drunken, undisciplined set, and while they were carousing Eustache played all sorts of antics for their amusement, until they were so completely off their guard, that he succeeded in releasing and arming the prisoners and carrying off the prize, with the English as prisoners in their turn, safe into the roads of Baltimore. He there hired himself out to work, and applied all his earnings to the assistance of the many ruined French from St. Domingo, who had taken refuge there. After a time it was supposed that the French power was re-established in the island, and M. Belin ventured back, with a number of his friends, in hopes of recovering his property; but he found himself in greater danger than ever. The town of Fort Dauphin was occupied by the Spaniards, and 20,000 negroes, commanded by a black called Jean Français, were encamped on the heights near the town, and massacred every Frenchman they encountered. The Spaniards gave the unhappy French no arms nor assistance, and M. Belin fled for his life to the seashore, pursued by a party of blacks. He saw a Spanish guard before him, and, throwing off his coat, ran in among them, giving his name to the officer. A Spanish uniform was thrown over him, and he was saved.
Eustache had been separated from his master in the crowd, and, uncertain whether he were still alive, resolved at least to save his property. He actually persuaded Jean Français' wife to let him hide some boxes of valuables under her bed, by telling her that, if his master had been massacred, they would belong to himself; and then, going to the place of slaughter, examined all the corpses, but happily in vain. After much enquiry, he discovered M. Belin, and succeeded in getting both him and his property on board ship, and bringing all safely a second time to Baltimore.
M. Belin afterwards resided at Port au Prince, where he became president of the council. Eustache continued in his service as attached and devoted as ever, and after a time observing that he was distressed by the increasing dimness of his eyesight, this devoted slave went secretly at four o'clock every morning to get himself taught to read, overcame all difficulties, and, when he thought himself perfect in the art, came to his master with a book, and thenceforth kept the old man occupied and amused.
M. Belin took care to emancipate his faithful servant before his death, and left him a considerable legacy, which he regarded as a trust for his master's distressed countrymen, and spent from day to day in acts of beneficence, gaining his own livelihood by hiring himself out as a cook at great dinners, for he was admirable in that line, and obtained constant employment. In 1831 he was still alive, and was sought out to receive the prize for which ten years before M. Monthyon had left an endowment, to serve as an acknowledgment of the noblest action that could each year be discovered. Eustache's exertions were then made known, and in the words of the discourse made on that occasion, his daily deeds were thus described: "Every moment some new instance of his incorrigible generosity comes to light. Sometimes it is poor children whom he has put out to nurse, or others whose apprentice fee he has paid. Sometimes he buys tools or agricultural implements for workmen without means. Here, relations of his master obtain from him large sums which they will not restore and that he will never demand; there he is left unpaid by persons who have employed him and whom he does not press because they have fallen into misfortune, and he respects distress." When he found, to his great surprise, how much his doings were admired, he answered one of the committee who had sought him out, "Indeed, sir, I am not doing this for men but for the Master above."
Eustache was not the only negro who received a "prize of virtue". In 1848 the French liberated all the slaves in their various colonies, without having given sufficient time for preparation. The blacks made instant use of their freedom by deserting their masters and setting up little huts for themselves with gardens, where the tropical climate enabled them to grow all their wants required without any need for exertion. This was, of course, ruin to the owners of the large plantations hitherto entirely dependent on slave labour. Among those thus deserted was one in French Guiana, named La Parterre, and belonging to a lady, a widow with a large family. Out of seventy negro slaves, not one remained on the estate except Paul Dunez, who had become a sort of foreman, and who promised his mistress that he would do his utmost for her. He tried at first to obtain some hired labour; but not succeeding, he tried to keep as much as possible under cultivation, though he had no one to help him but his wife and young sons. The great difficulty was in keeping up the dykes which fence out the coast from the sea on that low, marshy coast of northern South America, a sort of tropical Holland. Day after day was Paul labouring at the dykes, and at every spring tide he would watch for two or three nights together, so as to be ready to repair any breach in the embankment. This went on for thirty-two months, and was labour freely given without hire, for faithful loyalty's sake; but at last the equinoctial tides of 1851 were too much for Paul's single arm, he could not be at every breach at once, and the plantation was all laid under water!
To work he set again to repair the damage as best he might, and the government at Cayenne, hearing of his exertions, resolved to assign to him a prize which had been founded for the most meritorious labour in the colony; namely, the sum of 600 francs and admission for his son into the college at the capital. But Paul's whole devotion was still for his mistress. Her son, not his own, was sent to the college, and the 600 francs were expended in fitting the boy out as became the former circumstances of his family, on whose service Paul continued to spend himself.
The next year his name was sent up to Paris, and the first prize of virtue was decreed to him for his long course of self-denying exertions.
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