Methodology

General orientation

The fugitive slave – or « maroon » - plays a central role in Haitian identity. He is the ancestor of the Fathers of the Nation, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Boukman, to name but three of the heroes of the Haitian Revolution. The maroon ensures an uninterrupted genealogy, in spite of the numerous hardships that have afflicted the young nation since its birth in 1804. He is survival, resistance and the refusal to quit. He is Haiti and vice versa, the incarnation of the Haitian Revolution, a reality well reflected in literary works by Victor Hugo, Edouard Glissant Maddison Smart Bell and Aimé Césaire.

Our project, naturally, in no way aims to question the social and cultural legitimacy of such an important heritage. However, it proposes new ways to question it and shed better light on it by calling on a resource that, strangely, has been left unexplored – maroon slave advertisements – and on an experimental broadcasting tool. The maroon slave as imagined today hides, by his heroic nature, a complex historical reality that is much more fragmented and nuanced: a history created by thousands of men and women that fled their masters or left them for a few days or more… and who, for the most part, came back or were probably captured. Escape – or rather the ways in which the slave tried momentarily to take control of his own body and labour – played a fundamental role in the creation of slave communities and the endless renewal of a servile identity during the colonial period. If escape only rarely led to freedom, the different forms of social circulation and interaction that followed the decision to flee allowed slaves to take advantage of the flaws in plantation and urban slavery and negotiate, to the best of their ability, the terms of their servitude. In spite of the importance of such a subject for Haitian history, the history of slavery and more generally the history of the French Atlantic, few historians have shown an interest for it, save some rare exceptions (Fouchard, Debien, Greggus). Our objective is to take this fugitive slaves out of the margins of history and collective memory and ask radically new questions concerning their resistance strategies.

Bits of life stories, fragments listing thousands of names, rough drafts of various stories, geographical descriptions, racial tensions played out on paper, these advertisements are still waiting to be read, questioned, put in their proper context and broadcast as widely as possible. Our intuition is that these texts constitute a unique heritage which, widely spread, will rewrite entire sections of the history of French colonial slavery and enrich our collective memory.

Marronnage in Saint-Domingue intends to fill a hole in the history of slavery in the Atlantic world. Even if this field of history is in rapid development, most research today focuses on English-speaking slave societies. The French Atlantic world, in the center of which lay the colony of Saint Domingue, still suffers from a lack of interest. This situation is largely due to the fact that French history is largely centered on the mainland at the expense of its territories, overseas departments and former colonies, particularly those in Western Africa. In other words, historians have been late in adopting a radically different way of thinking about the history of France as that of an imperial nation-state within which the socio-cultural concept of race played a particularly fundamental role in the way power was organised during the entire modern period. Even if the situation is getting better – with the notable creation of the International Centre for Slavery Research at the CNRS and of the Committee for Remembering Slavery, as well as the opening of new museum spaces in old French slave ports – incomprehension persists between both the French national community and the formerly colonized populations. Some people have lamented the persistent silence, while others have criticized a trend for repentance, and others still have pointed towards so-called excessive memory.

Yet, as historian Myriam Cottias has rightly shown in an essay on colonialism, the current problem is not excessive memory but rather a deep-rooted error in the production and distribution of knowledge concerning slave history in the French colonial – and notably Atlantic – world, as well as the existence of surprising historiographical gaps, notably with regards to servile resistance. The issue that faces historians, and to which we wish to bring our contribution, is to rethink the history of slavery in France in a transatlantic perspective, focusing on the point of view of slaves, and adapting the methodology to fit the legitimate needs of their descendants and of all those concerned in all or in part by questions of identity born of the slave-owning past of France.

We wish to create a tool that will allow historians to initiate new searches, wether while teaching the history of slavery or promoting research in history departments. We want to remove entire poorly studied corpuses from the shelves of archive rooms, subject them to new questionings and encourage the mixing of various points of view (between genealogists, artists, descendants of slaves, historians, teachers, students, etc.).

It is hardly worth mentioning that we have not chosen our corpus of advertisements haphazardly. Such advertisements are, since the early 1970’s, one of the resources most often used by slave historians to retrace the setup of servile identities and identify the resistance strategies used by slaves. Entire anthologies of advertisements have been published for North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. The website « The Geography of Slavery in Virginia » was even launched in 2005, but is sadly not yet finished. In spite of such interest, there are still entire collections of newspapers that have yet to be explored, analysed and made readily accessible. Such is the case for the Affiches américaines, the main gazette in the colony of Saint Domingue from 1766 to 1790. It would be a mistake to underestimate the importance, the originality and the quantity of the advertisements published in this newspaper, a fact already brought up by historian David Geggus in the mid 1980’s. Never have so many advertisements been published in a single colony of region as in Saint Domingue The approximately 10,000 advertisements that still exist today are an unequalled mine of information that could be used for undergraduate, graduate or even doctoral theses. In order to spread this thousands of advertisements with success and originality, we are proposing a new tool that is neither a book – which would have obvious limitations in terms of space – nor a traditional website – for which continuity and accessibility are often problematic – nor a simple database made for specialists.