In writing Rosalie l’Infâme, Evelyne Trouillot wanted to lend a voice to the invisible slaves. It turned out to be a journey that would introduce her to history’s hidden horrors and women’s silent day-to-day resistance.
Writing Rosalie l’infâme was like stepping back into history through the side door, the less-frequently-used door, the door that scares people because it provides an unavoidable reminder of horrors that should remain silent. I thought that I knew quite a lot about Haiti’s history, having recited it so often at school. I thought that I had gradually become less sensitive about slavery, having heard about it so often. Then I began researching my as-yet embryonic text. Without any idea of what I was getting myself into.
While flicking through La Révolution aux Caraïbes by Cauna, Abenon and Chauleau, I came across the following concise but eloquent quotation, « Descourtilz cites the case of an Arada mid-wife. When she was trialled, the woman showed a rope necklace that she was wearing. Each knot represented one of the 70 children she had killed, ‘I stuck a pin into their brain via the fontanel to save these young beings from degrading slavery.' » (1)
Behind the colonial clichés I suddenly saw the human being, the slave become woman. Through what hell had she passed to arrive at the point of no return and deliberately kill 70 newborn babies? Behind the word « slave »-that abstract entity so demurely referred to in history books-real men and women had existed. Children, both boys and girls, had lived under this system that crushed human dignity. Into what kind of dementia had they sunk? How did they survive? And at what cost?
It was the challenge of portraying the slave woman, man and child with human feelings and emotions and that drove me to pursue my journey. At times I had the very painful impression that I was making that crossing on the Rosalie l’infâme and I had to extract myself from the horror of it.
Initially, I took time to do the research necessary to write a story set some two hundred years ago. A number of documents have been invaluable for me to create a realistic portrayal of the life of the times and situate the slaves with details that would make them seem very real and human. It was far from a serene process. I had moments of total despair because there was just so much information and I absolutely had to make a choice. I had to find a way to transform all the information and emotions into written text. I had to learn to transcend my indignation and rage and use the magic of words to make them powerful and effective. I had to learn to go beyond my distress and my rage and invest them into my characters so as to avoid the trap of writing a moralistic or tearjerker novel. That was probably the most testing but most decisive aspect for me. The writing adventure made my foray into hell possible, making it vital. In a way, writing has transcended the infamy.
I deliberately chose to lend a voice to the slaves, despite the problems involved with this choice (from linguistic and language barriers to the lack of data and information available for the slaves) to cite just a few. Most of all, it was a huge challenge to recreate the intimate world and state of mind of the slaves with very few, if any, eyewitness accounts from slaves themselves. Most often, fictional texts on slavery tell the story from the colonists’ point of view. In Haitian literature there are very few stories about slavery. The most well known novels about Santo Domingo are written by foreign authors, including Kingdom of This World by Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier, published in 1957, and closer to home, All Souls’Rising by American author Madison Smartt-Bell. Could there be an unconscious desire to mask over this period as grief gone unheeded? The deeper I delved in my research, the more I felt it was important to not only speak about slavery but to ensure that the slaves’-all categories of slaves-voices are heard, not the heroes whose names we all know, such as Toussaint Louverture, who is universally known, or the more controversial figure of Dessalines, or Henri Christophe who built the Citadel, but rather the invisible members of history: the women, the men, and the children with their lives that were traded through some dishonourable deal.
If we accept history as we are told it, women appear to have played a very small part in the Haitian revolution. Apart from the few women mentioned-Claire-Heureuse, « Dessaline’s woman »; the quateron Henriette St-Marc, who spied on French officers for the indigenous troops; and Catherine Flon, who made the flag conceived by Dessalines in 1803-the great majority of women have been totally forgotten. Abortions, suicides, poisonings, marronage and murder through which both women and men manifested their rebellion against slavery are rarely referred to. And yet, a number of contemporary documents relate numerous acts of fierce resistance of this kind, whether it be at their time of capture in Africa, aboard the slave ships, during the early days or at the height of the slave system in Santo Domingo.
During the course of my research, I penetrated into the degrading world of the barracons, the camps where the slaves were kept until they were loaded onto the slave ships. Curiously, I had trouble finding the word « barracons » in the Grand Larousse and several other French encyclopaedias that I consulted. In the end I found it in the Trésors des mots exotiques, in the « Le Français retrouvé » collection published by Editions Belin, with the following definition: « From the Spanish barracon, word from the Upper Volta (19th Century), place of confinement or large hut where the black prisoners were kept; now refers to a warehouse or hangar »(2). This definition could hardly be more concise. To my mind, the fact that this word is eclipsed in French dictionaries is symbolic of the silence surrounding slavery. From the tragedies so often told and upkept in the collective memory, to those that history renders banal or shrouds in indifference, the way that the information has been treated is hardly innocent. Over the centuries and throughout society, its treatment is generally the result of power struggles, ideological choices, beliefs and prejudices.
Rosalie l’infâme is set during a period marked by a fear of poisoning, with the extreme impact that this had on already-tarnished relations. I have deliberately avoided the 20 years of uprisings and generalised revolts that preceded the revolution in Santo Domingo and have concentrated on the 1750s, with the rage that tended to over-boil but was still fairly infrequent, and, of course, the powerfully symbolic death of Mackandal, who wanted to rid Santo Domingo of both whites and slavery. It was a period that abounded with resistance movements, supplying me with a whole gamut of personal dramas, which helped me gain a more nuanced understanding of society in Santo Domingo. The central character is a young woman called Lisette who is haunted by the doubts and contradictions that go hand in hand with her condition as a domestic slave. One of the key locations is the main house, a crucial meeting point and delicate space where the colonials mix with the slaves, giving rise to the host of emotions and feelings that such contact provoked. It is a complex area, where the truth that connects people cannot always be outlined in terms of the master-slave relationship and where the laws of desire and passion are as destructively violent as the regime itself. In spite of the fact that her childhood was modelled by the voices of her grandmother and godmother, who both came from Africa aboard the slave ship La Rosalie, Lisette remains wildly Creole, with her roots firmly planted on the island where she was born. Young, with a thirst to live in a world where her life is not her own, she has to make some painful choices. The novel tells the story of how she learns to live in a world dominated by violence and baseness, where she encounters both ugliness and generosity.
In delving into the tragedy of slavery, I have touched upon problems that stretch across more than one era or moment in time. How far will a mother’s love stretch before she turns into a monstrous machine? What is the effect of personal interests on the wellbeing of the group? What colour do dreams take on in a world where life can only end in horror? At the end of the day, writing a « historical » novel is also about giving eternity back to humanity. For me, it was vital that I lift the anonymous mask from the figures of the slaves. The silence is justified by their anonymity. Anonymity also wards off a guilty conscience. As I wrote the book I was humbly aware of reinforcing memory. Not out of a backward-turned or defeatist nostalgia, but rather to give their humanity back to the men, women and children that have so marked history. As Lisette did by taking and using the words of her grandmothers, I wanted to bring the men, women and children who made the voyage on slave ships like the Rosalie l’infâme back to life, along with those born in Santo Domingo termed Creoles. Under a system that considered them as objects from the outset, that is, the property of their masters and a source of revenue, they managed to regain, preserve and cultivate a dignity without which the Haitian revolution would most probably never have been possible. Alongside and above the much-cited heroes, I wanted to portray these painfully alive men and women so that their image will not fade from our collective memory.
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Trouillot, Hénock : La condition de la femme de couleur à Saint-Domingue, Revue de la Société haïtienne d’histoire, de géographie et de géologie, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan-April 1957.
(1) Translated by Africultures for the purposes of this article.
(2) Translated by Africultures for the purposes of this article. Evelyne Trouillot is a writer and teacher. She is the author of numerous poems and novels, tales and children’s stories. She is currently head of languages at Caraibe university. Rosalie l’Infâme, her first novel, was published in 2003.///Article N° : 5717