A Strange Ally
In August 1791, the slaves of Saint-Domingue revolted. They were joined by free people of colour, and together they set plantations on fire. The whites fought back and the violence escalated on both sides.
Either because she was actually blamed, or because she felt she would be blamed, or again because she thought that her work was relevant to what was happening and needed to be defended, Gouges brought out a new edition of her play, Zamore and Mirza in March 1792.
In the preface of that edition Gouges attempted to defend her work against its detractors: she repeated what she had said in her open letter in 1790, that did not incite revolt, and that her motives were philanthropic and had justice on their side. She acknowledges that she prophesized the revolution, but claims that it was ‘an invisible hand’ that started it, and that she herself is blameless.
But rather than spending time defending herself, or even reminding the colonists that ‘she told them so’ and that they are responsible for what happened to them to a large extent – she thinks they have suffered enough – Gouges decided to lecture those she had previously defended: the slaves and free men of colour.
Her admonition is in two parts. First, she blames the Haitian revolutionaries outright for their ‘ferocity’ and ‘cruelty’ telling them that by their actions they demonstrate that they belong in chains, that they are more brute than human. She acknowledges that her evidence is hearsay – she has read reports from white men of crimes committed by black men. Yet, perhaps because she has witnessed similar crimes being committed in Paris, she is inclined to believe these reports.
One cannot help sensing that Gouges had placed great trust in these people she had not met, that she had seen in them something close to her own ideal of human nature – unsophisticated nature of the sort she felt was most suited to happiness. Even now she claims that slaves and people of colour live ‘closer to nature’ than their tyrants, the white colons, do. This makes little sense even if she is only addressing slaves. What does she mean by living closer to nature? It cannot be to live as nature intended, as they are slaves and she does not believe slavery is natural. Is it simply wearing fewer layers of protective clothing and spending more time outside in the heat? If so, how can she regard this as a good thing? The climate of Haiti was ill-suited for field work, and the black slaves suffered from it as much a white workers would have, the only difference being that they had no choice but to work until they dropped.
Her claim is even more puzzling in the case of free people of colour, whom Gouges addresses in that same sentence, and who lived lives very much like those of the white colonists. They owned property, or worked in the city, and had their own slaves. They received the same education as their white peers did, and some, who had been sent to France to learn, were indeed better educated (which created some resentment amongst the poorer white colonists). Her close acquaintance, Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George, was an aristocrat, a colonel in the army, and an influential musician whose name was put forward for the direction of the Paris Opera. Saint-George was probably living as far from nature as it was possible to do in the late 18thcentury! In the colonies themselves, many free men and women of colour were better off than the whites. Their ancestors had inherited lands at a time when it was plentiful, and the family wealth had had time to grow, so that they were better off than newly arrived white families – which created a certain amount of resentment.
The colonies were also full of white paupers, the ‘pacotilleurs’ who made a living selling poor quality merchandise. These were the real lower class of the free Haitian society. So it is a mystery what Gouges is trying to say when she claims that those people lived ‘closer to nature’ than their tyrants.
In the second part of her admonition Gouges asks that the slaves, instead of revolting, should wait for the ‘wise laws’ to see to it that they receive just treatment. And the free men of colour, she says, should count their blessings. The French Nation has given them more freedom than they ever had, she says. And both slaves and free men of colour are better off, she says, in the colonies than they were in their own countries, where their own parents sold them into slavery, where human beings are being hunted like animals, and in some cases eaten too.
There is something very strange with hindsight, in Olympe’s atttitude to the revolutionary Haitians. She seems very willing to take seriously the reports of those she still calls the ‘Odious colonists’, and shows no effort to find out how much truth there is in them. The very idea, it seems, that her beloved victims have turned violent against their tyrants shocks her. Yet, even Zamore et Mirzashows a hero who murdered his master, and who is at the end of the play, pardoned.
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