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