This is a worthy companion piece to CLR James’s Black Jacobins, which immortalised Toussaint L’Ouverture and the successful slave revolt in the French Caribbean colony of Saint Domingue (now Haiti) in the 1790s. The book’s core brings to life the everyday resistance that often gets lost when recording revolutions. The slave owners were terrified of the slaves’ endlessly creative ways of spreading news. The existence across the Caribbean of “masterless” free black people made it harder for owners to control their slaves. The owners hated the Jamaican “higglers” — free black women who travelled around plantations buying produce from slaves to sell in cities, and also spreading news.
The Common Wind is a remarkable piece of research, combining news reports, letters and treaties. Scott shows how both racism and resistance flow and shift. It is shocking that this wonderful book, written 30 years ago, has only just been published.
People of mixed heritage — known as mulattoes — were important to networks of resistance, as were the maroons — originally escaped slaves and local people who had fled European domination and set up their own communities. The escaped slave Brutus defiantly turned up at an end of a harvest ball for slaves in Jamaica. He “scoffed at his owner’s attempts to recapture him” and called on slaves to join him in a new maroon town.
An attempt to bulk up “white” Jamaica by importing English and Irish indentured servants — often prisoners — backfired. In 1718 the governor complained, “The greatest part of them are gone and have induced others to go with them a pirating and have inveigled and encouraged several negroes to desert their masters.”
Scott examines black people’s constant interaction with “masterless” poor whites and pirates. African women in Saint Domingue referred to each other as “sailors”, a term they picked up from pirates, who used it as a term of solidarity.
Once the revolution had started other states, including the US, became keen to stop refugees bringing their slaves and the revolutionary ideas that they had picked up. French troops were sent to quell unrest in Saint Domingue. In the period, before the more radical Jacobins supported the slaves’ call for the abolition of slavery, that meant supporting the slave owners. Officers informed the troops that the slogan written on their banner “Live Free or Die” was unsuitable — because the slaves would take it seriously.
As years passed crowds formed in ports across the Caribbean whenever a mail boat arrived, frantic to hear the news from France as the tide shifted first to the abolition of slavery and later under Napoleon to its return.
Elsewhere newspapers carrying revolutionary news were banned. The real danger in these ideas was exposed in Louisiana in 1811, when up to 500 rebel slaves marched on New Orleans, burning plantations. Their leader was Charles Deslondes, a “free mulatto from St Domingo”. They were defeated, but this was the biggest slave uprising on the north American mainland. Its memory terrified plantation owners in the southern states until slavery was abolished.