Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Pierre Toussaint: Slave, Saint and Gentilhomme of Old New York, Part II

  The following is a continuation of the guest post by James Sullivan, whom I asked to share with us some of his research on Pierre Toussaint, about whom he is writing a book. Part I is HERE.

Toussaint was born in Saint-Domingue on the Berard plantation near the town of St. Marc in the l’Artibonite Valley about 1781. The French colony of Saint-Domingue (today’s Haiti) was at the height of its prosperity –the richest colony in human history. It surpassed Jamaica, the British colony in sugar production, accounting for 40 % of the world’s crop.  Sugar cane was harvested on about 800 plantations, perfected by French irrigation techniques, resting on the labor of a slave population (500,000) that outnumbered the white master class, 10 to 1.  Underneath a tripartite caste system – whites, mulattoes and black slaves –  discontent was roiling however.  This volcanic mixture would burst forth in 1791 in the north province with the firing by black slaves of plantations outside Cap Francais, a city described by 18th century European visitors as equal to any second-tier city in Europe.  The Haitian Revolution was fueled not only by the wretchedness of slavery but equally by revolutionary movements in the mother country (the French Revolution) and the earlier success of the American Revolution. 

Events in France in 1789, would electrify white colonialists in Saint-Domingue who sought the reduction of the commercial  hegemony exerted by the French Crown.  The mercantilism of France required that the vast spoils of Saint-Domingue; its coffee, sugar, indigo and cotton be exported to the mother country, exclusively.  White planters looked approvingly at American rebels who had gained their own liberation from the British.  But just as the planters of Saint-Domingue looked with admiration  on the efforts of Franklin, Adams, Washington and Hamilton, they resisted, even more adamantly any calls to unite abolition with free trade.  Their republican identification drew a line regarding slavery.  Les Amis des Noirs, a club in Paris  led by Brissot and Abbe Gregoire which aimed at abolition held no appeal for the planters as they saw slavery as an economic fundamental in the their rise to incredible wealth. At the same time, the middle group, people of mixed ancestry or Free People of Color saw their opportunity for political parity with the white planters.  Soon, these two groups would feel the grievances of the third constituency, the dispossessed slaves.   Fighting continued until 1804 with the ouster of Napoleon’s forces and the establishment of Haiti, the first Black Republic. 

Although a slave, Pierre’s condition was ameliorated by being removed from the debilitating work of field labor.  A house slave, he was a quite capable correspondent and his gifts as a letter writer were acquired on the plantation. Beyond his secular studies, his education also involved an acquaintance with French spiritual writers.  Emma Carey, a mid- 19th century convert to Catholicism, who knew the hairdresser when she was a young girl in New York City noted that Toussaint was entirely conversant with such authors as Bossuet and Massilon.   In knowing Bossuet, Toussaint had a connection with Thomas Jefferson who kept a copy of the French Bishop’s political writings in his library at Monticello.  It is also reasonable to infer Toussaint’s acquaintance with the thought of St. Francis de Sales.  Many French homes of the haute bourgeoisie contained a copy of Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis’s famed treatise on the possibility of living a spiritual life even while immersed in a worldly profession. It would be surprising indeed, given Toussaint’s knowledge of Bossuet and Massilon that he did not also have a working knowledge of Francis de Sales gained through his reading in the Berard library.

We do not know who taught Pierre, whether it was his omni-competent grandmother, Zenobie Julien or perhaps his master, Jean Jacques Berard or whether a parish priest may have been his instructor. In any case he lived the life of an “elite slave,” with a suitable education alongside the accoutrements necessary to the refined  life on the plantation.  We know he could play the violin and piano, had a fine singing voice and also doubled as a dancing  master. Indeed, a scrap of notepaper found in his personal effects, reads; “En avant 4 et en arriere & chasses & dechassee sans rigidon / balances vos Dames  a vos place & un tour de main…”  One imagines a ball at City Hotel or a fancy party where Toussaint’s services were required.  We know that he was summoned on occasion to dress the hair of a room full of youngsters at Madame Bancel’s school. His grandmother, Zenobie lived in the Berard household as a free black having acted as a governess for Jean Berard and his brothers and sisters who were sent to Paris for formal education. She made five Atlantic crossings to France and in some cases remained several months while each child became acclimated to their Parisian setting.  For her service to the family, she was freed yet remained a trusted servant continuing to live on the plantation. She would remain in Haiti and correspond with Pierre in  his early years in New York.  Eventually, her letters to “Citoyen Toussaint” would end.  Her final years in Haiti are unknown.

The fact that the Toussaint family lived an intact status suggests that the Berards were conscious of their obligations under the Code Noir, a 17th century document issued by Louis XIV which sought to regulate the lives of slaves and to mitigate the onerousness of a life of bondage. Regarding home and family life, the Code maintained that slaves were not to be seized and sold separately while belonging to the same master.  Children, under fourteen years of age, were not to be separated from their parents.  Sales in violation of this provision were declared null and void.  Much discussion has ensued over the last 200 years as to how effective the Code was and how many planters even honored it.  Pierre Vaissiere, an historian of the early 20th century admitted abuses by colonists, but argued that the more responsible planters approved the Code.  On the other hand, a majority of contemporary historians following Carolyn Fick and John Garrigus see the Code as largely abridged by the planters.  Certainly, the practice of the Berards was more in line with Vaissiere’s understanding and may explain why Toussaint’s plantation life fails to excite any interest among those historians too eager to view the majority of colonists as derelict in adhering to the Code.
Pierre’s life has been  handed down to us in a memoir by Hannah Sawyer Lee,  the sister of Mary Ann Schuyler.   A Unitarian and an abolitionist, Hannah penned Memoir of Pierre Toussaint, (1854) based on actual meetings that she had had with Toussaint, as well as notes provided by Mary Ann Schuyler. She is quick to extol the benignity of the Berard’s, insisting that “slavery was but a word” for them.  Published in Boston, a year after Toussaint’s death it is the primary source for his life.  Although a progressive in her own time and an abolitionist of “gradual” predilections, she would on occasion rinse the record of more egregious forms of racism.  Still her Memoir is the foundation stone for Toussaint’s career.  Over the years, other biographies have emerged, yet each must follow the treatment of Hannah Sawyer Lee.  In 1955, Arthur and Elizabeth Sheehan coauthored, Black Pearl: The Hairdresser From Haiti, a slightly fictionalized yet charming hagiography of Pierre as seen against the backdrop of Old New York. This was followed by Ellen Tarry’s book, The Other Toussaint written at the request of Terrence Cardinal Cooke.  Tarry, who recently died at age 101, a black Catholic writer with connections to the Harlem Renaissance dedicated her book to the Sheehan’s.  Arthur Jones authored Pierre Toussaint: a Biography, 2003, the most recent account.  Jones was able to update the Toussaint history with crucial new material concerning time of arrival in New York, as well as a better fix on Pierre’s birth date. A former editor at National Catholic Reporter, Jones gave a fulsome defense of Toussaint’s life, although occasionally wishing him more in the mold of a fighter. 

The plantation l’Artibonite lay in the West Province of Saint-Domingue below the area of the initial fighting.  The plantation was indeed wealthy, estimated at 2,500,000 livres.  It was most certainly a sugar plantation, says historian Stewart King, and could have easily numbered as many as 300 slaves. The Berard’s were the plantation owners and had been fixtures in the life of Saint-Domingue going back generations.  Jean Frederic Berard, the senior member of the family belonged to the Club Massiac and was a notable personality in the region of St. Marc and West Province.     

We lack many of the details concerning how the slave revolt affected the Berard’s and their plantation.  We do know that the family sought to steer a middle course during the conflict; most likely sensitive to republican sympathies.  Pierre’s mistress, Marie Bossard Berard had seen her own family plantation in Dondon captured, while a sister had married General Dessource who would lead troops allied with British forces and directed against the slave insurgents.  The British were attempting to capture Saint-Domingue and add this wealthy prize to their other  possessions in the Caribbean. They also were holding out hope to the planters that slavery would be retained, provided they could overcome Toussaint Louverture, the principal leader of the slave insurrection. By 1797, with the collapse of the British offensive, Jean Jacques Berard made a decision to evacuate Saint-Domingue for New York.  In August of that year, he took his wife, her two sisters and 5 slaves of the plantation, including Pierre and departed out of Cap Fraņcais -through the Windward Passage – on the Pulaski.  For Pierre, a chapter had closed and he would never see the island of his birth again. 
 (To be continued.)

Copyright © James Sullivan, 2011. All rights reserved worldwide.



May said...

VERY interesting. Might we post the links to these articles in the 'Slave Narratives' section on the forum?

The picture and the discussion of the slave revolt show that the common claim, "slavery only led to civil war in the United States and ended peacefully everywhere else", is highly misleading. Still, it was unusual that slavery led to whites fighting other whites in this country, rather than to blacks fighting whites, as happened elsewhere and as predicted by people like De Tocqueville.

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, please do, M. Thank you!

It is still a fact of history that *most* countries that had slavery were able to end it through legal and judicial means rather than a bloodbath.

May said...

True, I just meant that people should not create the impression, as they sometimes do, that the process was painless and bloodless elsewhere.

One also has to take into consideration the different constitutional and social conditions in the different countries. The American constitution, reserving so much power to the states, surely made it harder to effect nation-wide emancipation. Now, I generally believe in federalism and allowing the states to manage their own affairs as much as possible, but when states have unjust institutions, federalism makes it more difficult and complex to get rid of them. Congress could not emancipate all the slaves across the board, in one fell swoop, on its own authority. The consent of all the various legislatures in the slave states would have to be obtained for the thing to be done legally.

Another point is that American slaveholders were actually all living among their slaves, permanently, and there was a great deal of fear among the whites regarding not only emancipation, but coexistence, competition and potential war with the blacks after emancipation. This surely made them much more reluctant to consider plans of gradual, compensated emancipation than, for instance, British planters who only intermittently visited their properties on distant sugar islands and really had little to fear from emancipation, provided their economic interests were protected by compensation.

I will post the links to this series after it is all finished. Thank you very much for sharing it here!

elena maria vidal said...

That would be great! I just have two more installments.

Did you see the film "Amazing Grace" about all that William Wilberforce went through to abolish the slave trade? MANY British merchants were for slavery and fought Wilberforce tooth and nail. It was a long, hard battle but it was done by gaining the support of the British people against the slave trade.

Many British did live on their plantations and estates in Jamaica and elsewhere, just as the French plantation owners lived in Haiti and Martinique. Most of those plantations needed hands on supervision, just as in the American South, just like any farm. They didn't run themselves and unless you had a trusted manager then you had to be there.

I think that slavery could have been abolished here without war just as someday abortion will hopefully be abolished.

May said...

Yes, of course, many did live on the islands. But there were also many absentee planters. In any case, the British and French slaveholders had a mother country to go back to if needed. The American slaveholders had only one homeland at this point.

There is an interesting article about the role of slavery in Jane Austen's 'Mansfield Park', where the family live in Britain but have estates in Antigua.


I agree with you that it should have been possible to end slavery, even here, without a war, with more good will on all sides. (Indeed, the war was not even started to end slavery). I just think there were institutional reasons why it would have been harder to do so.

I have not yet seen 'Amazing Grace' but I would love to.