The Haitian Revolution of 1791 was one of the most important events in modern history, but it’s rare to find a historical novel about it, so I was very pleased to come across this. It also covers another crucial event, the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. However, Mrs Rochester strikes again – we have a mad Creole wife. And there’s an incestuous marriage. But, apart from those two rather OTT storylines, it’s a fascinating depiction of life in Saint- Domingue (Haiti) and later New Orleans, seen from the viewpoints of various different people.
I don’t think I’d realised just how complicated society was in colonial Saint-Domingue. And, by all accounts (well, Google and Wikipedia), the “casta” system of race and class still holds quite strong in Haiti today. In 1791, slaves, black and mulatto, made up 87% of the population. 87%! The rest of the population consisted of grands blancs, the well-to-do, upper-crust whites, many of them in favour of independence because of concerns about Revolutionary France’s attitudes towards both slavery and trade, the less well-off petits blancs, and affranchis – free “people of colour”, mainly but not all of mixed descent. To complicate matters further, there was a hierarchy amongst mixed race people, based on relative percentages of black and white blood. And there was some support amongst affranchis and slaves for a British takeover, seen as preferable to independence under the grands blancs.
The main character in this book is Tete (short for Zarite), a young slavewoman, taken away at an early age from her mother, a black teenage girl who’d been raped by a white sailor on a slaveship. She becomes the personal maid to the wife of Toulouse Valmorain, a French plantation owner, and nursemaid to their son. Valmorain’s Creole wife is “mad”. What is it with this idea of Creole women in the West Indies being mad? Is it all about Mrs Rochester, or does the idea go beyond that? It’s years since I read Wide Sargasso Sea, but I thought I remembered there being something in it, maybe in a foreword or an afterword, suggesting that the idea of Creole women going “mad” was actually fairly commonplace. However, when I tried Googling “Creole women mad”, I got a zillion hits but they were all about Mrs Rochester!
Anyway, seeing as Madame Valmorain is largely out of the picture, Toulouse forces Tete to become his mistress. They have two children. The first one is taken away and handed over to Valmorain’s friends, a wealthy free mulatta courtesan with whom Tete had once lived as a child, and her white husband. Another couple also feature in the story – again, a white man and a mulatta woman, but in that case the man will not marry his lover or legally acknowledge their children. So we’ve got three very different relationships, all involving white men and mixed race women. Other characters include a slave man who becomes Tete’s lover, and an elderly free black woman who’s involved in voodoo – voodoo plays quite a significant part in the book.
Syncretic religions are fascinating, and obviously voodoo is very important in Haitiain culture. (The spelling “voodoo” is actually now avoided in Haiti, because there are so many misconceptions about it, and “vodou” is preferred.) A voodoo/vodou ceremony took place just before the 1791 rebellion began.
Once the rebellion’s begun, Tete, aided by her lover – although he later leaves her in order to play a full part in the rebellion -, helps Valmorain, their child, and his child by his wife to escape from the plantation. She’s become very attached to Valmorain’s son and heir, and he regards her as his mother. He’s also very close to her daughter, his half-sister. They all survive.
It’s pretty accurate as to what actually happened. (Excuse the change of tense – it’s easier to write the historical stuff in the past tense and the book’s storyline in the present tense, for some reason!). Hundreds of thousands of slaves joined the rebellion. Plantations were destroyed. Many white people were raped and or murdered. Civil war broke out: white people killed black people in revenge.
At this point, the rebels were looking for an end to slavery, not for independence from France. The authorities in France – Revolutionary France, of course – then granted civil and political rights to free men of colour, and abolished slavery in some areas … whereupon the grands blancs decided that maybe a British takeover was the best bet. Britain then got stuck in. So did Spain. Then, in 1794, Robespierre’s government abolished slavery in France and French colonies, and granted civil and political rights to black men in the colonies. That’s pretty impressive – the bad things that Robespierre did tend to overshadow the good, and he deserves a lot of credit for that particular decision. Napoleon later reversed it, and slavery in the remaining French colonies then lasted until 1848.
To cut a long story short, there were years of fighting, involving the Haitian “rebels”, Napoleonic France, Britain and Spain; there was a mass epidemic of yellow fever; there was horrific violence; thousands of people died … and Haitian independence was eventually declared in 1804, but followed by the mass rape and murder of white French people. The Haitian economy, further hindered by an 1825 agreement to pay reparations to French ex-slaveholders, has never really recovered.
We don’t actually see all that in the book, though, because Valmorain, Tete and the two children leave for New Orleans. That’s pretty true to life: many white people did leave for continental America, and many of them took their slaves with them. The relationship between Tete and Valmorain is very complicated, and complicated further by the closeness between her and his young son. Even though he becomes violent and abusive towards her, she doesn’t try to leave him. Their parting only comes when he remarries, and his new wife doesn’t want her or her daughter around. Tete eventually meets another man, finds happiness with him, and is able to force Valmorain to free her as a reward for saving his life back in Saint-Domingue. So her story does end happily. The “island beneath the sea” of the title is death. In the early chapters, many of the slaves long to reach the island beneath the sea. By the end, Tete rejoices in her life.
But there’s the question of what’s going to happen to her daughter, and the answer seems to be placage, the system whereby a white man and a black or mixed race woman would enter into a relationship which was a formal union, with a legal contract, but not a legal marriage. It happened in many places, but is generally associated with New Orleans. Rosette, the daughter, is presented at one of the famous quadroon balls (there is some historical debate about these quadroon balls), so that she can try to attract a suitable man … but there’s then a very odd storyline in which she and her half-brother, Valmorain’s son by his first wife (the Mrs Rochester one), get married. She then dies in prison after hitting Valmorain’s second wife. I’m not sure what Isabel Allende was getting at with that, TBH. Placage would have accurately reflected the life of an attractive quadroon woman in New Orleans in the early 19th century. Marriage to a half-brother, and marriage between a quadroon woman and a white man in general, didn’t, to put it mildly.
These latter stages of the book take place against the background of the Louisiana Purchase – a reminder of what a shock the people living there must have got when they found out that Napoleon had just blithely sold them to the United States, and also a reminder that the Haitian Revolution indirectly led to the acquisition by the young United States of a huge tract of territory, changing the course of American history as well as Haiti’s own history.
Haiti changed the world. That’s been forgotten, to a large extent. In many ways, it was absolutely inspirational – the majority slave population threw off their shackles, literally in some cases, defeated their oppressors and took control. That is very, very rare in world history. White people were shown that they weren’t naturally superior, whatever they may have thought before.
However, whilst that should have struck a huge blow for racial equality, it did the opposite – fear of slave revolts, especially in places like South Carolina where slaves formed the majority of the population, led to a hardening of attitudes over race and slavery, especially as so many white people from Haiti, like Toulouse Valmorain, settled in slaveholding parts of the United States (or areas which would become the United States). It gets a mention in Gone With The Wind, by Grandma Fontaine, just by the way. Any overthrowing of the authorities by slaves would have attracted a negative reaction, but the horrific violence committed by both sides made it far worse.
And the other huge effect it had was being arguably the main reason for the Louisiana Purchase. It’s hard to think that a megalomaniac like Napoleon didn’t fancy the idea of ruling a trans-Atlantic empire, and it seems to’ve been events in Haiti which made him decide that it would actually be more trouble than it was worth. The Louisiana Purchase consisted of (I’ve copied this bit from Wikipedia because I couldn’t be bothered typing it all out!) “land that forms Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahome, Kansas, and Nebraska; the portion of Minnesota west of the Mississippi River; a large portion of North Dakota; a large portion of South Dakota; the northeastern section of New Mexico; the northern portion of Texas; the area of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado east of the Continental Divide; Louisiana west of the Mississippi River (plus New Orleans); and small portions of land within the present Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan”. If France had tried to hang on to that, how would American history have panned out? Possibly very differently indeed.
So that’s two huge events in world history, covered in one book. And all the blurbs make it sound as if the book’s all about Tete, but it’s not – and I mean that in a good way, because it means that we get to view events through the eyes of a number of different people. I think I could have done without the incestuous marriage storyline, which I found rather distasteful and completely unrealistic, but, other than that, it was a very interesting book. Recommended 🙂 .