1612: The slave rebels of Mexico City

Add comment May 2nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1612, Spanish colonial authorities smashed an alleged plot among Mexico City’s black slaves with a grisly mass execution.*

In Mexico as elsewhere in the Americas, African labor had been imported en masse in the 16th and 17th centuries; David Davidson estimated** that Mexico City had a black population ranging from 20,000 to 50,000. And as elsewhere in the Americas, they frequently resisted: Mexico City slave risings dating back to the 1540s had badly shaken the city, and led the viceroy Luis de Velasco to worry in 1553 that “this land is so full of Negroes and mestizos who exceed the Spaniards in great quantity, and all desire to purchase their liberty with the lives of their masters.”

The most illustrious name of this era was Gaspar Yanga, who was kidnapped into bondage from the Gold Coast, and escaped bondage by leading a large band of fugitive slaves into the highlands of Veracruz and founded an outlaw colony that still bears his name today.

Yanga’s palenque — known in his time as San Lorenzo de los Negros de Cerralvo — had to fend off military action by the Spanish authorities from 1609 until a truce in 1618.

Still, a truce was possible: a refuge like San Lorenzo offered slaves the unwelcome-to-their-masters prospect of escape from the scourge economy, but the real threat to New Spain was that purchasing liberty with lives bit.

As we have seen in the American South, the situation on the ground begat paranoia that makes it nigh impossible for later interlocutors to disentangle fact from fantasy: was there really a phenomenal slave rebellion nipped in the bud? Or just informers and torturers refracting the terrors of those outnumbered Spaniards?

The slaves in this case were said by a Portuguese merchant who overheard them to be readying themselves to exploit Spanish inattention during Holy Week celebrations, and to bloody those days by falling upon their masters and taking possession of the colony. In the inevitable rounds of arrests and torture that ensue, the alleged plot as recorded by the annalist Chimalpahin (Spanish link) sounds suspiciously like a psychosexual projection, for it

involved castrating any surviving Spanish males, making sexual slaves of white women, and gradually “blackening” the latter’s descendants.**

Certainly the punishment blackened Mexico City; our correspondent uses this same word to describe the condition of the gibbeted corpses when they were finally let down from their gallows on the feast of the Holy Cross. Even then, the flesh of the would-be slave kings could not rest: most were beheaded posthumously and mounted on pikes while six others were quartered for display on all the roads entering the capital. This in itself was a small moderation for the public good. Chimalpahin reports that doctors advised the state that “if all the dead were to be quartered and hung up in the main streets to rot, their stench will blow a sickness across the city.”

* Thirty-five is the execution count supplied by Chimalpahin; some sources give 33.

** “Negro Slave Control and Resistance in Colonial Mexico, 1519-1650,” The Hispanic American Historial Review, Aug. 1966.

† Maria Elena Martinez, “The Black Blood of New Spain: Limpieza de Sangre, Racial Violence, and Gendered Power in Early Colonial Mexico,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Jul. 2004.

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1793: Philibert Francois Rouxel de Blanchelande, governor of Saint-Domingue

Add comment April 15th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1793, Philibert Francois Rouxel de Blanchelande was guillotined in Paris — victim of two revolutions an ocean apart.

Blanchelande (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a comfortable henchmen of the ancien regime, descended of a marshal.

At the outbreak of the French Revolution, Blanchelande was the governor of the Caribbean sugar colony of Saint-Domingue.

Like other New World colonies, Saint-Domingue’s brutal slave plantations generated vast wealth for the grand blancs, a tiny white oligopoly which was massively outnumbered by its black servile chattel. The demographics made for a perpetual source of conflict and danger — but that was the price of doing business for Europe’s sweet tooth.

The promised liberte, egalite, fraternite of 1789 fell into this tinderbox like a torch.

By 1791, slaves were in full rebellion. Mirabeau had once said that Saint-Domingue’s masters “slept at the foot of Vesuvius”; when it exploded, Blanchelande fell into the caldera with the grand blancs. The slave rebellion quickly overran the western third of Saint-Domingue — the germ of the imminent Republic of Haiti. But the situation on the ground in the early 1790s was extremely fluid, and perilous from the French perspective: Great Britain lurked at nearby Jamaica, scheming to swipe the lucrative island away from its rival amid the chaos. So here Britain accepted Saint-Domingue’s white refugees, and there she treated with black rebels to grant their emancipation in exchange for their allegiance.

The old royal hand Blanchelande was impotent to control the cataclysm with only a handful of troops, and he must have looked increasingly antiquated by the rapid progress of the Revolution too. A 1792 relief force of 6,000 soldiers arrived bearing word of the National Assembly’s too-little-too-late grant of political rights to free blacks, and bearing also Blanchelande’s replacement: a Girondin envoy named Leger-Felicite Sonthonax.

Both these steps were also swiftly overrun by the eruption. Blanchelande returned to Paris and was forgettably guillotined as a counterrevolutionary on April 15, 1793, not long after France and Britain officially went to war. “For losing Saint-Domingo,” Carlyle says a bit dismissively, and maybe that’s even right. But if so the loss reounded to the glory of the Jacobins. The Revolution’s ideals would soon come to mesh with the pragmatics of maintaining the allegiance of Saint-Domingue.

On February 4, 1794 — 16 Pluviose Year II, if you like the revolutionary calendar — the National Convention thrilled to “launch liberty into the colonies” (Danton) with a momentous proclamation abolishing slavery throughout the empire.

Slavery of the blacks is abolished in all the colonies … all men living in the colonies, without distinction of color, are French citizens and enjoy all the rights guaranteed by the constitution.


“Les Mortels sont égaux, ce n’est pas la naissance c’est la seule vertu qui fait la différence…” (Via).

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1812: Jose Antonio Aponte, Cuban revolutionary

Add comment April 9th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1812, the great Cuban revolutionary leader “Black” Jose Aponte was executed with eight comrades.

Like South Carolina’s Denmark Vesey, Aponte led a slave revolt but was not actually a slave himself. Instead, he was a free black woodworker, and a respected captain in Cuba’s black militia.

Aponte led a bold island-wide conspiracy of slaves and free blacks who aimed at liberating themselves by revolution.

A few hours’ sail off Cuba’s eastern coast lay Haiti, whose slaves had done just that only a few years before to the greater hope or terror — depending on which end of the lash one had — of slave societies all around the region.*

So it was with Aponte.

There is some debate over the degree to which Aponte personally can be said to have led or coordinated the various planned (and in some cases, actual) rebellions around Cuba. He was certainly a leader of such a plot in the capital city and viewed by Spanish authorities as a figure of significance across the island, and so the whole movement has become known as the Aponte Conspiracy or Aponte Rebellions.

By any name they were an impressive undertaking, and the widespread collaboration of free black militiamen must have chilled the blood of plantation owners who banked on these forces to maintain order in Cuba. Five of those hanged with Aponte were, like him, freemen.

Sadly lost to history is a book of of Aponte’s drawings which are known only by the descriptions of interrogators who were alarmed by its depictions of, among other things, black armies defeating white ones** … and maps of the military fortifications around Havana.

This book and the movement it supported were betrayed to the Spanish with the familiar consequences. Aponte and his comrades hanged outside Havana’s Catillo San Salvador de la Punta on the morning of April 9, 1812. Then their heads were posthumously hewed off for public display around the city.

* Hilario Herrera, a principal organizer of the conspiracy in Oriente, was himself a veteran of the revolution on Saint-Domingue.

** Some of the subversive drawings depicted Aponte’s grandfather, Captain Joaquin Aponte, fighting the 1762 English invasion of Havana.

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1759: William Davis, St. Croix slave revolt suicide

Add comment December 14th, 2013 Headsman

On the morning of December 14, 1759, William Davis succumbed to a self-inflicted wound rather than face St. Croix’s harsh justice for an alleged slave rising plot.

They strung up his remains just the same.

St. Croix, today part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, was at the time a Danish colony.* As with other Caribbean islands, its economy catered to the lucrative new European taste for sugar — powered by human bondage.

“The establishment of the sugar industry created the demand for labor in the West Indian islands,” Eric Williams wrote. “It was a choice, from the sugar planter’s point of view, of Negro labor or no labor at all. Sugar meant slavery.”

It was, in fact, sugar which raised these insignificant tropical islands from the status of pirates’ nests to the dignity of the most precious colonies known to the Western World up to the nineteenth century …

Tremendous wealth was produced from an unstable economy based on a single crop, which combined the vices of feudalism and capitalism with the virtues of neither. Liverpool in England, Nantes in France, Rhode Island in America, prospered on the slave trade. London and Bristol, Bordeaux and Marseilles, Cadiz and Seville, Lisbon and New England, all waxed fat on the profits of the trade in the tropical produce raised by the Negro slave. … Sugar was king; without his Negro slave his kingdom would have been a desert.

For those in King Sugar’s castle this desert stuff was no mere metaphor, but life and limb itself. They trafficked fantastical wealth from the shores of tiny islets where they took their sleep surrounded by a vastly more numerous** servile population whom they controlled ever so delicately. Just let the serfs of such a manor commence a jacquerie

White planters’ vulnerability to a potential slave revolt, dramatically underscored by a 1733 revolt on neighboring St. John, bred great paranoia about imagined plots: a casual word here or there could be heard as a seditious murmuring, and then a politically motivated judicial machinery of torture, hearsay, and panicked accusations set into motion. It can be maddeningly difficult from the distance of centuries to weigh the truth value of a supposed slave plot strangled in the crib. Intrepid resistance? Or phantom from the planters’ nightmares?

Either way the slaves wound up just as dead.

We have the story of this revolt’s suppression from one of the judges, Engelbert Hasselberg, and this naturally constrains our view. Hasselberg wrote up his report, complete with an index of all the slaves punished, for eyes in Copenhagen. He’s certain that there really was an intended rising, even as he acknowledges a want of firm evidence: “many of the conspirators have refused to confess anything at all, although there has been sufficient evidence against them, insofar as it may be called evidence at all, where rogues have plotted and been the sole witnesses.” That is, a few people’s highly questionable accusations/confessions† sustained the entire affair.

But the story must have had the judges’ hearts in their throats.

Each [Negro] was if possible to slay his master or foreman; next, those whose masters’ plantations lay in the Christianstaed district, were to gather on Colleman’s plantation … and those Negroes who belonged to the West-End, were to assemble at the West-End fort, and first take possession of Fort Friderichswaern and of all the ammunition there to be found. Thereupon all those who had procured weapons were to march to Christianstaed, setting the plantation[s] on fire on the way, and killing or burning all whites who collected to put out the fires, and finally to storm [Fort] Christianstvaern.

Hasselberg’s report begins, oddly enough, by meditating that “the greater part of the slaves on colonies as recently developed as St. Croix are free-born, and have therefore just as good claim to their freedom as we have to ours. One or other fateful occurrence has brought them out of that natural equality which at birth they enjoyed with us, and made those persons our slaves who by a contrary event might have become our masters. What wonder then that such persons seek their freedom when they are provoked by the unreasonable conduct of unwise masters, and when they believe that the enterprise is not impossible.”

For Hasselberg this freely acknowledged natural inclination is not so much a systemic critique as a management challenge, and he expands on the talents required by the slaveowner to extract surplus-labor without “expos[ing] himself to resentment”, while not neglecting to request that Denmark increase its subsidy to St. Croix.

The enterprise was exposed by a few stray remarks from a quarrelsome slave.

It was in the month of December, 1759, that 2 white men, Matthias and Benjamin Bear, were molding bullets on Sr. Soren Bagge’s plantation. A Negro slave by the name of Cudjo, working at that time on Bagge’s plantation, asked Benjamin Bear to give him some of the bullets as a present, but as he was unable to give a proper account of what he was going to do with them, Bear gave him none. But Matthias, who did not think so far ahead, gave Cudjo a dozen bullets while Bear had stepped aside. Bear learned about it, and in the afternoon of the same day, he said to Cudjo, in the presence of a white man, Peter Hyde, and of a number of other Negroes, that he had heard that Matthias had given him some bullets, but he, Cudjo, had better look out, or his head might some day be found lying at his feet. To this, Cudjo replied, addressing himself to the 2 white men, Benjamin Bear and Peter Hyde, “You look out that some of your heads won’t lie at your feet pretty soon.” Peter Hyde then asked, “Whom will you then kill?” and Cudjo replied, “You shall be the first that I shall kill.”

The day before this conversation took place between Bear, Hyde and Cudjo, the Cudjo aforementioned had said concerning Mr. Bagge’s plantation house, “Maybe that house will be mine in a short time,” to which one of Bagge’s Negroes, namely Will, replied, “God damn you, you can’t keep a secret.” The same day Cudjo had asked B. Bear how long it would be until Christmas, and when Bear asked Cudjo why he wanted to know this, he answered, “I am asking about it, as I hope by that time to be a little Petit Maitre.”

Bear and Hyde reported the conversation and under questioning on December 11, Cudjo and his blood brother started revealing details of a slave rebellion in the offing — scheduled to capitalize on whites’ distracting Christmas celebrations. William Davis, a free black, was its supposed instigator.

Davis was under interrogation the very next day. The particular suspicion he was under would have instantly impressed him as placing him in the gravest peril; when induced with a plea bargain-type offer to merely suffer banishment, he “made a frank confession” and “exposed the whole dessein, and gave the names of quite a number of Negroes, some of whom have been found guilty and others acquitted.”

Hasselberg’s categorical assertion that Davis’s plea-induced statement was a “frank confession” doesn’t square comfortably either with Davis’s subsequent attempt to repudiate the “confession” or with the acknowledged denials and acquittals of most of the people he named. Perhaps this speaks well of St. Croix’s judicial restraint, but what might actually have been afoot for Christmas 1759, and how many people it might have involved, is heavily conjectural.

Not least because Davis — in remorse for naming names, perhaps, or else not trusting his captors’ assurance of humane treatment — took any subsequent remarks to an early grave.

[H]e managed to cut his throat in the morning of December 13, while in the fort. The wound was not considered dangerous by the surgeon, and he was immediately bound. He made various confessions after that time, but on the following night, he tore the bandage from his neck, cursed and scolded those who approached him, and swore that if they cut him up piece by piece, and roasted on the fire, he would nevertheless confess nothing. On the following morning, December 14, he died, and he was made an example of.

Hasselberg is not completely explicit here that the posthumous punishment occurred on that same day Davis succumbed, but he does not mince words when it comes to the example itself.

His dead body was dragged through the streets by a horse, by one leg; thereafter hanged on a gallows by a leg, and finally taken down and burned at the stake.†

By Hasselberg’s accounting, Davis was just the first of 14 people hanged, burned, broken on the wheel, or “set up in a gibbet or iron cage” to die of thirst and exposure.§

* St. Croix’s most famous denizen for posterity at this hour was a very small child named Alexander Hamilton.

** Of the British territory Nevis, one late 18th century chronicler remarked, “the present number of whites is stated not to exceed six hundred, while the negroes amount to about ten thousand; a disproportion which necessarily converts all such white men as are not exempted by age and decrepitude into a well regulated militia.” According to Hasselberg, the ratio on St. Croix was 1,690 whites to 11,807 blacks.

† The first slave to provide a corroborating account, one Qvamina, received his freedom and 50 rigsdalers in a conspicuous ceremony performed in front of other slaves.

‡ All translations are via Waldemar Westergaard in “Account of the Negro Rebellion on St. Croix, Danish West Indies, 1759” in The Journal of Negro History, January 1926.

§ William Davis was the first; the full roster of additional executions in Hasselberg’s report:

2. Franch (or French), free negro, convicted by witnesses, but confessed nothing himself.

He was broken on the wheel with an iron crowbar, laid alive on the wheel, where he survived 12 hours. The head was then set on a stake, and the hand fastened on the gallows.

3. Prince Qvakoe, belonging to his Majesty, convicted by witnesses, and has confessed being implicated.

Was executed in the same way as Franch and lived 2 hours.

4. Cudjo, belonging to Doran, is convicted by witnesses, and has himself confessed.

Was burned alive on a pyre, lived in the fire 4½ minutes.

5. Gomas, belonging to John Bradshou, is convicted and has confessed.

6. George, belonging to James Hughes, has confessed and is convicted.

Both these negroes (5 and 6) were first pinched with hot tongs, then hanged by the legs in a gallows, and a dog likewise, by the neck, between them. Gomas lived ½ an hour and was strangled; George lived 3 hours and was strangled.

7. London, belonging to Thomas Lacke, is convicted and has himself confessed.

He was first pinched with glowing tongs, then hanged up by the legs, lived 12 hours and was strangled.

8. Sam Hector, belonging to Pieter Heyliger, Senior, is convicted by witnesses, but has confessed nothing himself.

He was set up in a gibbet or iron cage and lived 42 hours.

9. Michel, belonging to Hugh O’Donnell, is convicted by witnesses, but confessed nothing.

Got the same punishment as Sam Hector, lived 91 hours.

10. Will, belonging to Soren Bagge, is convicted by witnesses, but made no confession.

Was burned alive, lived in the fire 14 minutes.

11. George, belonging to John Cookly, confessed and was convicted by witnesses.

He was pinched with glowing tongs and hanged by the neck.

12. [Name not given], belonging to Manan Rogers, is convicted by witnesses, and made a partial confession.

Was set up in a gibbet from January 18, at 3:30 p.m. to Jan. 27, 8:30 a.m.

13. Sylvester, belonging to James Conningham, has confessed and been convicted by witnesses.

He was burned alive, and lived in the fire 4½ minutes.

14. Jupiter, belonging to W. Burnet, has confessed and been convicted by witnesses.

He was burned alive, and lived in the fire for 1½ minutes.

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1797: Figaro the Elder and Jean Louis, Charleston slaves of Dominguan exiles

Add comment November 21st, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1797, two French slaves were hanged in Charleston for plotting rebellion.

This plot was the product of the liberation-minded aftermath of the Haitian Revolution … although whether the product was in the minds of the slaves, or those of the paranoid slaveowners, is still up for debate.

As the great slave revolution unfolded, many of Saint Domingue’s white planters had fled abroad. Charleston, South Carolina was a major destination, one of several Atlantic cities in the U.S. that received these refugees in quantity* — lugging along as many slaves as they could. “My Fellow-Citizens know your goodness,” said one of their number in an address to the South Carolina legislature, “and anticipate the Share you are about to take in their Calamities.” The state government accordingly granted relief money to these put-upon immigrants; the British themselves are thought to have been kicking into the relief kitties in Charleston as part of 18th century covert ops to check the spread of Jacobinism.

With the Haitian Revolution and its beneficiaries aligned (for the moment) with the French Revolution,** these French exiles fit right in with pro-British federalists to a continental reactionary backlash.

Revolutionary France’s consul in Charleston (he was U.S. ambassador by the time of the events in this post) maneuvered against that city’s planter exiles (“colonial aristocrats,” as he called them†) and eyed hemispheric emancipation, according to this book.

Yet the very flight of Saint Domingue planters also brought like a contagion the idea and experience of successful revolt in the breast of those refugees’ own chattel slaves … and in the midnight terrors of those slaves’ owners. As early as August 1793, rumor gripped Charleston that a slave revolt was in the offing. Jittery Southern states began passing laws to restrict slave imports from the West Indies who might be carriers of the virulent dream of liberty.

It was in this context that Charleston authorities discovered in 1797 “a conspiracy of several French Negroes to fire the City and to act here as they formerly done at St. Domingo.”

These several Negroes denied the plot, for a while.

Eventually, and surely encouraged by what me might today dignify “enhanced” interrogation, one of them turned state’s evidence. This “Figaro the Younger” — there were two named Figaro arrested for this same plot‡ — was the property of one Jacques Delaire, one of the Dominguan community’s more belligerent aristocratic grandees. Figaro the Younger’s evidence, though only a “partial confession” was enough to doom two of his fellows.

After the condemnation of Jean Louis, he turned to the two Figaros and said, “I do not blame the whites, though I suffer, they have done right, but it is you who have brought me to this trouble.”

(A French freedman named Mercredi hanged for the same affair a week later.)

For testifying against his mates, Figaro the Younger saved his own life and was sentenced to be transported to Suriname. En route, the pressure of his leg irons caused “a swelling about the ankles which turn’d into a sore & … a mortification of the flesh ensuing his toes rotted & one of his feet drop’d of[f] entirely.”

The southern anti-slavery cause was soon crippled, too.

Especially after the 1800 Gabriel Prosser revolt, any dalliance with emancipation, republicanism, revolution, became practically unutterable, as if to speak the words would conjure up the flames of Cap-Francais. “Beyond a reasoned fear of domestic insurrection seems to have lain a desire to banish the reality of St. Domingo,” as Winthrop Jordan put it.

But the threat and the example of Haiti long stalked the imagination of those caught in the toils of the South’s peculiar institution. And more literally than that, as Robert J. Alderson notes,

Captain Joseph Vesey … was [one] of the dispensers of [refugee relief] aid, [and] many Domingan refugees made calls on him. When the Domingan planters visited, their slaves had a chance to speak with one of Captain Vesey’s slaves, Denmark Vesey.

* For example, see Gary Nash, “Reverberations of Haiti in the American North: Black Saint Dominguans in Philadelphia” in Pennsylvania History, Vol. 65 (1998). Philadelphia was at the time still the U.S. capital.

** Said alignment between revolutionary Haiti and the mother country was, of course, tenuous and not permanent.

There’s a report in the Paris archives from this period of the French consulate’s low opinion of Charleston’s Dominguans: “tricky people, at the end of their resources that vengeance towards their country and despair may lead to anything. Among the French whom we have here, there are some very good patriots who know what the hospitality of the country demands of their gratitude, but the number is small.”

‡ The Figaro plays and some of their operatic adaptations were culturally current in the 1780s and 1790s. That includes Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro but not yet Rossini’s Barber of Seville with its definitive Figaro aria … although such would be very poor excuse not to post the latter.

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1844: Gabriel de la Concepcion Valdes, “Placido”

1 comment June 28th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1844, Cuban poet Gabriel de la Concepcion Valdes was executed in Matanzas for conspiring to overthrow Spanish authority on the island.

His mother (who gave him up to an orphanage) was a Spanish dancer. His father (who adopted him back) was a “quadroon” barber. Valdes, aka Placido (Spanish link, which is true of most available online resources about him) grew up as a free mixed-race youth in a slave society.

This situated him in the privileged (relative to plantation slaves) but precarious position of the petty bourgeoisie, menaced not only by the prospect of economic reversal but by the vicissitudes of Spanish policy towards his caste — whose growth many colonial officials fretted warily.

Though Placido made his bread apprenticing as a print-maker and later making turquoise combs, he made his fame by dint of literary gift that was celebrated throughout Cuba and abroad. His “La siempreviva” won a literary competition when he was just 25, and led to an invitation to visit Spain (Placido declined it); the Cuban-born, naturalized Mexican poet Jose Maria Heredia visited Cuba in 1836 and made a point to look up Placido; and according to the out-of-print Cuba’s Romantic Poet: The Story of Placido by Frederick Stimson, the young Cuban was wildly popular with North American slavery abolitionists as well.

Placido is less well-remembered beyond his home island today, but arguably rates as Cuba’s most distinguished Romantic poet.

In the 1830s especially, when civil war in Spain put the reigning monarch on the liberal side, Placido was able to exploit the opening to write openly of Cuban political aspirations.

His La Sombra de Padilla, dedicated to Spain’s “wise and exalted Queen”, imagines one of Spain’s martyred comuneros charging him to venture his life for liberty against absolutism.

Better to fall prey to La Parca [the Grim Reaper]
Than to a despotic Monarca

But notwithstanding the war in Iberia, the exalted Queen still put Cuba under special (read: repressive) law. Placido’s prominence, having advocated for much more freedom than Cuba was slated to enjoy, subjected him to automatic Spanish suspicion as more authoritarian governance arrived in the 1840s.

The poet was arrested in the Conspiración de La Escalera (Conspiracy of the Ladder, so named for the structure its accused were tortured upon). This purported plot to raise a slave revolt may or may not (pdf) have really existed, but the crackdown it authorized sure did. Indeed, despite the “slave revolt” bogeyman, it was overwhelmingly free blacks whom the Spanish suppressed in this affair.

Gariel de la Concepcion Valdes, known as “Placido”, was shot with ten others, “miserable instruments of the most depraved machinations of immoral men, men who deserve the curse of the living and the opprobrium of generations to come,” just a week after his conviction.

The appointed lot has come upon me, mother,
The mournful ending of my years of strife,
This changing world I leave, and to another
In blood and terror goes my spirit’s life.

But thou, grief-smitten, cease thy mortal weeping
And let thy soul her wonted peace regain;
I fall for right, and thoughts of thee are sweeping
Across my lyre to wake its dying strains.

A strain of joy and gladness, free, unfailing
All glorious and holy, pure, divine,
And innocent, unconscious as the wailing
I uttered on my birth; and I resign

Even now, my life, even now descending slowly,
Faith’s mantle folds me to my slumbers holy.
Mother, farewell! God keep thee — and forever!

-Valdes, “Farewell to My Mother”

There are volumes of Placido’s poetry (in the original Spanish) freely available via public-domain Google books offerings here and here, with a short thumbnail biography here. For the nonfiction biographical exploration of Placido’s life, and detailed critical analysis of his poetry, this Vanderbilt master’s thesis (pdf) is highly recommended.

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1799: Isaac Yeshurun Sasportas, anti-slavery insurrectionist

Add comment December 23rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1799, Portuguese Jew Isaac Yeshurun Sasportas was publicly hanged in Kingston for attempting to incite a slave revolt in the British colony of Jamaica.

Here in a revolutionary age, probably no insurrection could terrify Europe’s ancien regimes like the Haitian Revolution.

History’s most successful slave revolt, the rising that seized Saint-Domingue from the French conceivably threatened — if it should spread — the entire material foundation of Europe’s colonial exploitation, and the racist intellectual superstructure that justified it.

This nightmare of crowned heads was also the dream of the epoch’s visionaries, and the subject of a struggle whose victims included Isaac Yeshurun Sasportas among many, many others.

Domingue if I do

An insurrection of Caribbean slaves against European exploiters had obvious appeal to their brethren groaning at the bottom of the Atlantic economy. In “Saint Domingue in Virginia: Ideology, Local Meanings, and Resistance to Slavery, 1790-1800” (Journal of Southern History, Aug. 1997) James Sidbury explores the (to whites) nerve-wracking arrival in that U.S. state of both news and refugees from revolutionary Saint-Domingue.

In 1793 Willis Wilson complained to Governor Lee of the “defenceless situation” of the town of Portsmouth, whose militia lacked arms and whose streets contained “many hundreds [of] French Negroes” including, Wilson had been “inform’d,” many who “belong[ed] tothe insurrection of Hispaniola.” … a commander at the state arsenal of Point of Fork — located on the James River west of Richmond and southesat of Charlottesville — reported dangerous “conversations amount the “people of colour” … “particularly since the Arrival of the French from C[ap] F[rancois],” Saint Domingue.

While these currents carried along Gabriel Prosser and a young Denmark Vesey, they also swept up men who were not slaves at all.

Isaac Sasportas, the nephew of a prominent Charleston trader (said trader’s 200-year-old home still stands there), was himself a wealthy Caribbean shipper who in the 1790s seems to have taken a nearly professional interest in revolution. After trying and failing to re-ignite a rebellion in Dutch Curacao, he started zeroing in on Haiti’s next-door neighbor, the brutal British sugar colony of Jamaica. Distinguished as it was by a running history of slave revolts, it was a natural target for the fin de siecle‘s savvy revolution-exporter.

Sasportas landed there in 1799 under cover of his gadabout-merchant act to reconnoiter British defenses and make contact with the island’s maroons.

Diplomatic L’Ouverture

The Haitian Revolution’s progress through the 1790s and into the first years of the 19th century was itself a complicated political process entailing the realest of realpolitik. Here was a colony surrounded by rival empires’ outposts, whose home country was itself engulfed in revolution. This could, and did, cut a lot of different ways.

Legendary national liberator Toussaint L’Ouverture agreed to work with the French revolutionary government in April 1793 to repel the inroads of Brits, who smelled an opportunity to swipe the lucrative colony. Alliance with the French (L’Ouverture’s black regiments served under French colors) came in exchange for the French recognizing emancipation. Win-win.

But the script had flipped by the last years of the decade.

Toussaint L’Ouverture reveals to British officer Thomas Maitland papers from the French representative d’Hedouville.

In 1798, the British were evacuating their Saint-Domingue enclaves … and L’Ouverture, now the Bonaparte figure of a somewhat autonomous polity, had to maneuver it regionally vis-a-vis its neighbors.

Fomenting slave rebellions willy-nilly was not on his agenda. Indeed, “one could even describe Louverture, in the diplomatic field, as an active impediment to the spread of emancipation.”*

So far was the former slave L’Ouverture from anti-slavery firebrand that in 1798-99 he made arrangements with the slave powers Britain and the United States, helping them oppose the French. And when the French envoy went to work on the grab-Jamaica scheme with Sasportas as an agent — Paris now being the one to smell an opportunity to steal a rival’s colony — L’Ouverture found it expedient to play along whilst quietly tipping the British to the whole plot. In effect, L’Ouverture shopped Sasportas.

Louverture could have used his newfound power to advocate independence and emancipation across the Caribbean; he decided otherwise.

Napoleon Bonaparte and other French leaders hoped that Louverture would turn Saint-Domingue into the centerpiece of a revolutionary French empire in the Americas. With an army of twenty thousand veteran black soldiers, Louverture could have threatened France’s enemies in North America, most notably British Jamaica and the United States. But Louverture declined the offer, choosing instead to sign secret treaies of nonaggression and commerce with these two countries in 1799 …

That same year, the French agent Roume drafted an ambitious plan to use part of Louverture’s army to invade British Jamaica. After the landing, Roume redicted, Jamaica’s slaves would revolt and join local maroons and Dominguian liberators on a victorious march to Kingston. Dominguian troops would become heralds of freedom, France would acquire a lucrative colony at little cost, and the expedition would deal a mortal blow to British commerce. Louverture acquiesced in public, but in private he notified British and U.S. authorities of Roume’s bellicose plans. England subsequently captured France’s secret agent in Jamaica, a French Jew named Isaac Sasportas, and the entire venture foundered. Having apparently concluded that an expedition would divert key troops and resources that were needed to secure his power base in Saint-Domingue, Louverture chose to sacrifice the Jamaiacans’ freedom on the altar of his own ambitions. Jamaican slaves would remain in bondage until 1834.

– From Haiti: The Tumultuous History — From Pearl of the Caribbean to Broken Nation

Haiti the Game

Whether one rates it as dextrous statecraft or unconscionble betrayal, L’Ouverture’s maneuvering to maintain a scope of action for himself and his fledgling nation would continue until 1802. It featured brutal continuation of Haiti’s cash crop plantation economy — now worked by cultivateurs supporting black elites, instead of slaves supporting French elites — rough suppression of labor protests, high-minded assertion of racial equality, and unsentimental diplomatic skullduggery shifting arrangents among France, Britain, and the U.S. He even bought slaves to regenerate the half-island’s labor force, decimated by years of warfare.

In the end, this Bonaparte of Haiti was undone by the Bonaparte of France** in 1802, with the full support of the British. During a lull in those nations’ hostilities, they found frank agreement that “Toussaint’s black empire” was to neither’s liking — and “We both want to destroy Jacobinism, especially that of the blacks”.† L’Ouverture played the diplomatic game very adroitly, but he had no card to match a mutual agreement of white privilege among his opposite numbers.

Toussaint L’Ouverture died of pneumonia in a French dungeon … but his countrymen rallied against the French incursion and completed the Haitian Revolution. Its independence day is January 1, 1804.‡

* Philippe R. Girard, “Black Talleyrand: Toussaint Louverture’s Diplomacy, 1798-1802,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Jan. 2009

** Napoleon’s wife Josephine was herself of Caribbean aristocratic stock: she grew up on her family’s sugar plantation in Martinique.

† Prime Minister Henry Addington, as quoted in The Slaves Who Defeated Napoleon: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian War of Independence, 1801-1804. Thomas Jefferson, fretting “another Algiers in the seas of America,” also kinda-sorta went along with the idea, although Jefferson was at least equally concerned about a potential French resurgence keyed by its unruly Caribbean base; for America, this politicking set up the Louisiana Purchase, and that transaction was considerably facilitated by the French failure to re-establish control in Haiti after arresting L’Ouverture.

‡ In one last warped expression of colonialism — and a dreadful preview of the ruinous debt peonage more familiar to our present day — Haiti had to pay “reparations” to France for the loss to the French empire of itself, Haiti. It made these payments until 1947. France has no plans to repair the reparations.

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1776: Jamaican slave rebels

1 comment July 19th, 2011 Headsman

In our late constant disputes at our tables (where by the by every Person has his own waiting man behind him) we have I am afraid been too careless of Expressions, especially when the topic of American rebellion has been by the Disaffected amongst us, dwelt upon and brandished of with strains of Virtuous Heroism.

what mind of a Slave will not recoil and burn into Resentment; when he shall have been the frequent witness of Sedition and Ingratitude in the Conduct of his Master — when he shall hear the Obligation of a subject to his Lord spurn’d at — the Blood spilt by Rebells extoll’d … Obedience to Laws and Authority upon all these Occasions mentioned with a strong Idea of Slavery. And Men toasted into Immortal Honours for Encountering Death in every form, rather than submit to Slavery let its Chains be ever so gilded.

Dear Liberty has rang in the heart of every House-bred Slave, in one form or other, for these Ten years past — While we only talk’d about it, they went no farther than their private reflections upon us & it: but as soon as we came to blows, we find them fast at our heels. Such has been the seeds sown in the minds of our Domestics by our Wise-Acre Patriots.

–Rev. John Lindsay, Hanover Parish, Jamaica

On July 3, 1776, as tensions between the North American colonies and England came to a head, the garrison at Hanover, Jamaica sailed from Lucea to reinforce General William Howe.

The departure of this regiment was the pre-arranged signal for the parish’s slaves — both imported Coromantee and, more ominously for the slaveholder, the generally less-rebellious Creoles — to mount a general rising.

The only reason it didn’t happen was because it was sniffed out — after the regiment left, but before the date planned out by slaves passing word from estate to estate.

For a century or so, lucrative sugar and coffee cultivation on the island (and elsewhere around the thought to have been imported to Jamaica before the slave trade was abolished in 1808.

Planters reaped stupendous profits from this harvest of misery, but perpetually stood in danger of reaping the whirlwind, too. At the time of the intended rebellion, there were 20 or more slaves for every white around Hanover. A Hanover militia officer said in the days after the plot was uncovered that he was “deeply Concerned in the Intended Insurrection, the Number of the Troop is small and the Duty severe, Our apprehensions are great upon the occasion as we know not where it will end.” As the number of implicated slaves mounted past 100, a planter lamented that “there appears to be no end to this horrid affair.”

As jumpy as they were, the authorities managed to keep a lid on this situation through the usual methods, which gives this site its excuse to notice the affair.

We have try’d — found Guilty and Executed Yesterday the following Conspirators, Blue Hole Harry, and Leander of the Spring Estate, Charles of the Baulk, Peter of Batchelors Hall, Prince belonging to John Priest of Lucea, and Quamino to Sir Simon Clarke, these are the Chief Ring-leaders and the most Active in Promoting the Intended Insurrection and We propose proceeding tomorrow in trying the Other Chiefs.

-Report to Sir Basil Keith from the magistrates of Hanover, Jamaica, July 20, 1776

Slavery persisted in Jamaica, dogged by regular rebellions, for another 57 years, until Samuel Sharpe’s revolt helped finally convince Parliament to ban it. Whether that past is really past … that’s another question.

For more, see Richard B. Sheridan, “The Jamaican Slave Insurrection Scare of 1776 and the American Revolution,” The Journal of Negro History July, 1976, which is the source of the quotes in this article.

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1714: Various rebel slaves in the Cape Colony

1 comment February 7th, 2011 Headsman

This site has previously noticed a milestone 1714 execution in the Dutch Cape Colony of South Africa.

That execution of a black slave and his white lover was exceptional — and, of course, the chronicles of the Cape are replete with less exceptional fare, the humdrum penal brutality of an 18th century colony disposed of in a sentence of two between reports of smallpox outbreaks, price fluctuations, the transit of slave ships, and all the other business of frontier life.

A slave condemned to be burnt alive for arson; another to be hanged for theft … Two white men hanged for desertion, sheep-stealing, and attempt to murder … A Javanese “Guru” sentenced to death for instigating slaves to run away, harbouring and arming them … Matthys of Ternate punished for running away and cattle theft, &c. Sentenced to be hanged … A slave hanged for breaking into the house of Lieutenant Captain Slotsboo … Five slaves sentenced to be broken, and a female slave to be scourged … Two soldiers sentenced to run the gantlope …

And so on.

This date marks a number of such executions for a minor slave revolt (incidents of slave insubordination also pepper the Colony records). At three full entries in the chronicle, 16 implicated slaves, and some spectacularly savage punishments, it must have been one of the more noteworthy of its day; what the colonial register leaves us is just enough to suggest the forgotten suffering and resistance of the half-nameless chattel of yesteryear.

1714.

January 7 — Some 16 fugitive slaves who had conspired, armed themselves, and did much mischief. They resisted the officers of justice, shot a soldier, and murdered a Hottentot woman. They were now brought up for examination.

February 7 — The sentences passed on the fugitive slaves, and the whole history of the case. “Tromp” to be empaled alive, and to remain in that position till he dies. “Cupido” to be put on a cross, his right hand to be cut off, and with “Neptunus” to be broken on the wheel, and then to be left on a hurdle until dead. “Titus” to be broken with the coup de grace. Jeroon and Thomas to be hanged; three others to be scourged and have their right heels cut off. The eleventh prisoner is merely to look on, and afterwards to be sent home; paying the costs however.

February 8 — The empaled convict found strangled in the morning. He had received some linen from a kind friend during the night for the purpose. He would otherwise have been still alive.

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1800: Prosser’s Gabriel, slave rebel

Add comment October 10th, 2010 Headsman

On this date* in 1800,** the Virginia slave Gabriel — sometimes remembered as Gabriel Prosser after his owner’s surname, although that wasn’t what his contemporaries called him — was hanged in Richmond, along with a number of his confederates in a planned slave rising.

Decades before Virginia’s more famed Nat Turner rebellion, Gabriel was plenty frightening for the growing little burg of Richmond in 1800. (The incident would result in a clampdown on education and mobility for slave and free blacks alike.)

Gabriel and company conceived a daring revolution to seize the city of Richmond, take hostage Governor (and future U.S. President) James Monroe, and rearrange the state’s power structure.

This scheme, in which the rebels actually stay in Virginia, depended on an optimistic assessment for the prospects of a multiracial alliance — with Richmond’s own poor whites, and also, according to testimony given by conspirators, with Indians and with the French in opposition to a pro-British American policy tilt.

But if ever the time might have been right for such a plot, it was in 1800. A bitter presidential contest adjudicating the Republic’s most fundamental issues was unfolding; there were rumors that the governing Federalists would not voluntarily relinquish power, and the matter might fall to civil war between by the factions.

Gabriel unabashedly attempted to leverage this division between whites; working as he and many other urban blacks did side-by-side with white Republican laborers — whose own interests vis-a-vis Federalist merchants were being so bitterly contested — he must have had a good vibe about the situation on the ground to gamble his life on it. Though the hope was that the white working class would join the revolt after it broke out, there were at least a few whites already initiated into the conspiracy beforehand.

Alas, what broke out was not rebellion but a storm: a downpour that rained out the first planned rising, washing out bridges and roads that the conspirators were counting on to assemble. Before the makeup date could be scheduled, some slaves taking a care for their own necks had betrayed it.

The public mind has been much involved in dangerous apprehensions, concerning an insurrection of the negroes in several of the adjacent counties. Such a thing has been in agitation among the blacks, principally instigated by an ambitious and insidious fellow, a slave, by the name of GABRIEL, the property of Mr. Thomas Prosser, of the county of Henrico. This villain, assuming to himself the appellation of General, through his artfulness, has caused some disturbance, having induced many poor, ignorant, and unfortunate creatures to share in his nefarious and horrid design.

The plot has been entirely exploded, which was shallow; and had the attempt even been made to carry it into execution, but little resistance would have been required, to render their scheme entirely abortive. Thirty or forty of the party have been arrested and confined in jail for trial. Yesterday a called court was held for that purpose, at the court house in this city when six of them were convicted and condemned to suffer death this day at 12 o’clock. It is said that the evidence which has been procured, will go to prove nearly this whole of them guilty. To-day the court will proceed to go thro’ with the rest of the trials.

[The Governor has issued his Proclamation, offering a reward of THREE HUNDRED DOLLARS† for the apprehension of the above “GENERAL,” who has thought proper to take himself off. Exclusive of this sum, he likewise promises “to any number not exceeding five of the said accomplices, who shall apprehend the said GABRIEL, and deliver him up so that he be brought to justice, a FULL PARDON for their offences.” ]

Columbian Mirror, Tuesday, Sep. 16, 1800, quoting “a Richmond paper”

It would be interesting counterfactual history to know the world in which the insurrection was actually launched — whether “but little resistance” would have sufficed to put it down. Gabriel might have reckoned naively on the prospective balance of forces,‡ but his read of the fractious alliance against him was spot-on. Maybe with a modern communications infrastructure, the affair could have become a full-blown October Surprise.

The Jeffersonian party, desperate not to give its plantation supporters cause to rethink its partisan alignment, took pains to downplay what was really quite a bold conspiracy. Not for the last time, wealthy merchants (here backing the Federalists) sought their own advantage pressing the racial wedge issue — for the slaves’ prospective lower-class white allies were also part of Jefferson’s coalition.

“If any thing will correct & bring to repentance old hardened sinners in Jacobinism, it must be an insurrection of their slaves,” editorialized the Boston Gazetteex cathedra, as it were, from 18th century America’s very temple of Mammon. (The quote comes from this tome.)

One thing all right-thinking whites could agree on was a heaping serving of scorn for “General” Gabriel.


Columbian Mirror, Saturday, October 4, 1800.

But then, that personal interview with Monroe also gives a lie to Gabriel’s insignificance. (Gabriel told Monroe nothing of any use to the latter; Monroe sent him away with orders to keep him nearly incommunicado from the sort of working stiffs who would figure to be his jailers.)

A few years later, an English visitor captured at second hand this indefatigable portrait of the doomed slave in his masters’ courts.

I passed by a field in which several poor slaves had lately been executed, on the charge of having an intention to rise against their masters. A lawyer who was present at their trials at Richmond, informed me that on one of them being asked, what he had to say to the court in his defence, he replied, in a manly tone of voice: “I have nothing more to offer than what General Washington would have had to offer, had he been taken by the British and put to trial by them. I have adventured my life in endeavouring to obtain the liberty of my countrymen, and am a willing sacrifice to their cause: and I beg, as a favour, that I may be immediately led to execution. I know that you have pre-determined to shed my blood, why then all this mockery of a trial?”

In 2007, James Monroe’s (distant) successor as governor of the Old Dominion (informally) posthumously pardoned Prosser’s Gabriel. Gov. Tim Kaine’s statement on the occasion validated Gabriel’s own defense of himself.

“Gabriel and his colleagues were freedom fighters and deserve their rightful place in history as women and men of integrity who fought for freedom.”

And the site of his martyrdom? Well, it’s … a good place to park.

* Some sources give Oct. 7 as the date of execution; this apparently was the initial sentence of the court but delayed a few days to hang the ringleader along with others in a variety of spots around town.


Virginia Argus, Tuesday, Oct. 14, 1800.

** A pregnant year in the history of slave rebellion: Denmark Vesey bought his freedom in 1800; Nat Turner and John Brown were both born in 1800. (Noted here.)

† It was a slave who eventually turned in Prosser’s Gabriel … but Virginia stiffed him on the reward, handing over only $50 instead of the promised $300.

‡ Or maybe that’s just hindsight talking. In 1800, the Haitian Revolution was underway — so who could blame slaves for thinking big?

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