By the mid-to-late eighteenth century, the Saint-Domingue colony, situated on the western end of Hispaniola, where Haiti is today, accounted for two-thirds of France's overseas trade. It was the world's largest sugar exporter and produced more of the valuable white powder than all the British West Indian colonies combined. Thousands of ships sailed in and out of Port-au-Prince and Cap Français, bound for Nantes, Bordeaux, and New York. When the British, after winning the Seven Years' War, chose to keep the great swath of France's North American colonies and instead return its two small sugar islands, Guadeloupe and Martinique, they unwittingly did their archrival a favor.
Saint-Domingue was the most valuable colony in the world. And its staggering wealth was supported by staggering brutality. The "pearl of the West Indies" was a vast infernal factory where slaves regularly worked from sunup to past sundown in conditions rivaling the concentration camps and gulags of the twentieth century. One-third of all French slaves died after only a few years on the plantation. Violence and terror maintained order. The punishment for working too slowly or stealing a piece of sugar or sip of rum, not to mention for trying to escape, was limited only by the overseer's imagination. Gothic sadism became commonplace in the atmosphere of tropical mechanization: overseers interrupted whippings to pour burning waxor boiling sugar or hot ashes and saltonto the arms and shoulders and heads of recalcitrant workers. The cheapness of slave life brushed against the exorbitant value of the crop they produced. Even as the armies of slaves were underfed and dying from hunger, some were forced to wear bizarre tin-plate masks, in hundred-degree heat, to keep them from gaining the slightest nourishment from chewing the cane.
The sugar planter counted on an average of ten to fifteen years' work from a slave before he was driven to death, to be replaced by another fresh off the boat. Along with malnutrition, bugs and diseases could also eventually do in someone working up to eighteen hours a day. The brutality of the American Cotton Kingdom a century later could not compare to that of Saint-Domingue in the 1700s. There would be no shortage of cruel overseers in the United States, but North American slavery was not based on a business model of systematically working slaves to death in order to replace them with newly bought captives. The French sugar plantations were a charnel house.
Because Versailles loved laws and orders, France was the first country to codify colonial slavery. In doing so, King Louis XIV passed a law, in 1685, that changed the history of both slavery and race relations.
Le Code Noirthe Black Code. Its very name left no doubt about who were to be the slaves. It elaborated, point by point, the many ways in which black Africans could be exploited by their white masters. The Code sanctioned the harshest punishmentsthe penalty for theft or attempted escape was deathand stated that slaves could not marry without their master's consent or pass on property to their kin.
But the very existence of a written legal codea novelty of the French colonial empireopened the way for unexpected developments. If there were laws governing slavery, then slave owners, at least in some instances, could be found in violation of them. By articulating the rules of white domination, the Code, theoretically, at least, limited it, and gave blacks various opportunities to escape from it. It created loopholes. One of these was on the issue of sexual relations between masters and slaves, and the offspring resulting from such relations.
Excerpted from The Black Count by Tom Reiss. Copyright © 2012 by Tom Reiss. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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