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May 27, 2023

Nighttime in the 18th century French Caribbean with Adrian van der Velde

Nighttime in the 18th century French Caribbean with Adrian van der Velde

An episode covering night time culture in the French Caribbean.


Gary: Today’s special episode is by Adrian van der Velde. Adrian is currently a PhD candidate in early modern Atlantic World and European history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His dissertation, entitled “When Unwelcome Night Came,” examines the role of nocturnality in the British, Dutch, and French Caribbean in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Via the categories of mobility, religion, sociability, technology and production, and violence, his work employs a cultural methodology to explore the ways that people discussed and experienced the night and applies it as a lens to see the way that marginalized people—especially the enslaved—could use it to resist colonial authority.

In today’s episode he illuminates the dark nighttime culture of the French Caribbean and reveals everyday life in the tropical new frontier for European empires.


Adrian: On the night of November 4, 1765, several men were playing an “underground” game of cards in Cap-Français, the largest city in the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue. They were probably drinking alcohol and chewing or smoking tobacco while sitting around a tavern table, their cards dimly lit by a few candles. Over the course of several decades colonial governors had enacted legislation that banned these “games of chance” in order to preserve taxation revenue and maintain religious dictates against avarice and greed. Nevertheless, such diversions were as common in the colonies as they were in metropolitan France.

One of the participants in this particular night’s game was Jacques Maury, a shoemaker who had immigrated to the island from southern France. As a skilled artisan, most of his customers would have been whites and free people of color, because the majority of the island’s population—enslaved people of African descent—were rarely afforded shoes. At some point during the game, the men at the table started to argue over something, and it turned into a full out brawl. In the midst of the fight, Maury struck one of the other men in the head, leading to the man’s death. After Maury was arrested by the night watch, he was tried and condemned to death for murder. However, as was his right as a French citizen, he appealed his sentence to the king, Louis XV, and he claimed that he had acted in self-defense. It took almost five years, but evidence from the archives shows that Maury’s appeal was successful, and his crime was reduced from murder to manslaughter.

While it may seem incidental that this story occurred at night, understanding the nocturnal context illuminates several facts about life in the French Caribbean. First, it is obvious that people engaged in social activities like gambling at night during their free time, as otherwise they would be working. Second, nighttime activity was (and often continues to be) seen as less socially acceptable, because the darkness was assumed to hide the truth. Third, it was easier to kill someone at night and get away with it, often by claiming self-defense. Indeed, European and colonial laws differentiated between crimes committed during the day and those at night, with “victims” given greater leeway to defend themselves and “criminals” receiving harsher punishment for transgressing the law.

Hello, my name is Adrian van der Velde, and I am an historian of colonialism and nocturnality in the early modern world, specifically in the Caribbean. In this episode of the French History Podcast we will learn about everyday life in the French Caribbean, especially during the eighteenth century, and take a brief look at what using the night as a category of analysis can help us uncover about the era.

As this is the first French History Podcast episode to focus solely on the Caribbean, I want to begin by providing some geographical and historical context to help understand the setting of the French Caribbean and its three major colonies of Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Saint-Domingue. The area of these three colonies comprised less than 12,000 square miles (19,000 square kilometers), with Saint-Domingue making up about 90% of the territory. For comparison, this land is about the size of Belgium or less than half the size of West Virginia. The colony of Saint-Domingue was located on the western half of Hispaniola, about 650 miles away (or 3-5 days sail) from the small island of Guadeloupe in the east, which was only about 80 miles north of Martinique (or about a half-day’s sail).

France initially settled most of its Caribbean colonies between the 1620s and 1660s. Initially driven by private companies with some state support, colonization was a difficult process. Death from accident, disease, and malnourishment was a constant threat. It also entailed violent conflict with the local Carib population on Guadeloupe and Martinique as well as competing European empires, especially Spain, England, and the Dutch Republic. Indeed, the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Caribbean saw constant warfare, and control of the Antillean islands constantly shifted. In the case of Saint-Domingue, French pirates on Tortuga—the small island of Pirates of the Caribbean fame—established settlements on the western side of Spanish Hispaniola, and these were eventually recognized by Louis XIV as belonging to France.

But the most important thing to keep in mind about the French Caribbean was its existence as a slave society. Western European empires—especially Britain, the Dutch Republic, France, and Portugal—had been plundering Africa of its people since the mid-sixteenth century. Via the Middle Passage, French ships alone had transported about 1.2 million captives to the Caribbean, yet by the 1790s only about half of that number remained in these three colonies: around 650,000. This in 1790 population was about 50,000 larger than the total number of captives that arrived in the 13 American colonies or the United States between 1619 and 1808.

Racialized chattel slavery was brutal wherever it existed, but in the Caribbean it was especially horrific. Enslaved people were viewed as an expendable commodity. Most enslaved people worked on large plantations, which on average had 300 men, women, and children working the fields. For comparison, only 5% of U.S. plantations had over 100 people, even though the amount of land available to cultivate was significantly larger. The French colonial plantation economy produced crops like coffee, indigo, and tobacco, but the primary output was sugar.

On the plantation, enslaved people were literally worked to death, as the average person lived only 2-3 years after they arrived. The working conditions and the nutrition on the plantation were so bad that many enslaved women were unable to bear children, while others practiced abortion or infanticide to prevent their children from becoming slaves. It might seem that slavery in the cities—such as Cap-Français, Cap-Haïtien (Port-au-Prince), or Fort-de-France—was less physically demanding, but no matter where they lived, enslaved people existed under a regime of constant physical and sexual threat, and they were subjected to a system intended to dehumanize them.

Society throughout the French Caribbean was stratified into four major groups, and I’ll use the example of Saint-Domingue to show a more-detailed view of how this played out. At the top of the social structure were a tiny number of grand blancs, the white elites who owned the large sugar plantations and had the most wealth, but most of them were absentee owners who lived in France. Many of them were part of the Ancien Régime’s noble class. The next tier, the petit blancs, were the whites who owned small and less-profitable plantations. They were also everyday laborers, similar to Jacques Maury in our opening story, and they were about 8% of the colony’s total population. Next came the gens de couleur libres or free people of color, almost all of whom were born in the Caribbean. For those unfamiliar with Caribbean societies, it may come as a surprise that members of this group owned property and slaves. As a whole, this group was slightly smaller than the petit blancs, making up about 5% of the total population. The last group were simply called gens de couleur. These people were the enslaved African-descended people, and they made up over 80% of the population.

These strata that I just described were based primarily on class, but within them was another dominant category of difference—race. Whites were divided into two categories: those born in France and the “creoles” born in the Caribbean. I need to quickly break down this term “creole,” as it’s often quite confusing in how it appears in historical writings. The description I began with was the literal usage—born in the New World, or in this case, the Caribbean—and it applied to anyone, regardless of race. Many people in the eighteenth century used it as pejorative, as being born in the Americas was viewed as damaging to a person’s intelligence or even their genes. Historians tend to use “creole” to refer to a type of culture, usually one that mixes elements from the Old World (Europe) and the New World (the Americas) to create something new. It can also be a type of language based upon a variety of influences, such as the Kreyolspoken in modern Haiti (which is based upon French and several African languages) or Papiamentu, spoken in the Dutch Caribbean islands of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao. Another usage of creole is as a type of cuisine, such as the foods from Louisiana. Creole can also be a unique, regional way of doing things.

Anyway, to continue talking about the racial system of the Caribbean, let’s consider African-descended people. Like whites, they were also divided into categories, but these divisions were much more complex. At the lowest tier were the African men, women, and children who survived the Middle Passage. Derogatorily referred to as “saltwater slaves” in the British Caribbean, they were often derided as lazy or incalcitrant, in part because they struggled with the French language. Next were the creole slaves, individuals born in the Caribbean, and they were viewed by slaveholders as being most adapted to the demands of the plantation economy.

Because of a pattern of sexual exploitation of enslaved women by white men, there were many mixed-race children in the colonial world. Almost all of these children were born into slavery, but this only happened after a significant change to the French legal system that was specific to the colonies. For centuries in France (as with most European societies), a person’s status had been dependent upon the father, a so-called “patrilineal” system. So, if your father was a noble, you had the possibility of inheriting his land or titles, even if your mother was of a lower class. However, early French colonists quickly realized that this would have destroyed the future of slavery in the colonies, as it meant that all children born to enslaved women with a white father would have been free. So, the law was changed to follow a matrilineal system that had children inherit the status of their mother, ensuring the continued growth of the enslaved population, and also building the practice of fathers enslaving their children.

The children born with one white and one Black parent were referred to as a mulâtre, or “mulatto,” a term we consider derogatory in the modern era. Over generations, their descendants were further categorized based upon the fraction of African or European heritage, from 7/8s African all the way to 1/64. In Saint-Domingue there were nine named gradations, whereas in Guadeloupe and Martinique there were five.

Although this was clearly a terrible system of racial discrimination, one that tilted the racial scale to value whiteness over Blackness, there were opportunities for African-descended people. The African-descended people who became free—either by manumission or by purchasing their liberty—could hold property, run businesses, and even own slaves. And, unlike in the American South, where the infamous “one drop rule” defined a person’s racial status as “Black” if they had any African heritage whatsoever, free people of color in the Caribbean could, in the eyes of the law, “become white.” This was based both upon someone’s racial heritage and upon their wealth. Indeed, because of their wealth and assumption of whiteness, Saint-Domingue’s free people of color allied with the petit blancs against the revolting slaves during the earliest stages of the Haitian Revolution in 1794.

There was one last social class in the French Caribbean, and this group was defined by the liminal state of its people, specifically the fact that they existed in-between slavery and freedom. These were the marrons, or “maroons,” people defined by what historians call “self-emancipation,” or running away from slavery. Enslaved people would often escape at night, sometimes by themselves and other times in groups of 10-20 people, taking advantage of the cover of darkness to get away from the plantation. Wherever slavery existed in the Americas, they joined with indigenous people to form long-lasting communities, which were located outside the reach of cities and plantations. Many of the individuals lived in a perpetual state of jeopardy, and advertisements for runaway slaves appeared in the newspaper—Les Affiches Américaines—years after a person had escaped, for slaveholders always had hope that they could recoup their losses. The main contact that maroons had with colonial society was via outright conflict or warfare, acting as scouts, and, somewhat paradoxically, helping slaveholders retrieve other escaped slaves who did not join a Maroon community.

Now that we’ve explored some of the social structures, I want to shift to the economy and everyday life. As I mentioned earlier, sugar was the region’s primary crop, and the French Caribbean dominated the market. Saint-Domingue alone produced more than all of the British Caribbean combined—about half of all the sugar consumed in Europe and North America. Because of this tremendous output it was known as France’s “Pearl of the Antilles,” a reference to its wealth and location. Indeed, the wealth generated by sugar help prop up the French war machine throughout the colonial era, especially under Louis XIV.

There’s an important question to consider: why was sugar so valuable and significant? Before the early modern era, sugar was a rare and incredibly valuable commodity in Europe, often reserved for the nobility, because it had to be grown in a warm climate. Rotten teeth were seen by some as a sign of wealth, for only the upper crust could afford the sweet delights of sugar. Evidence from material culture provides further illustration, as many sugar bowls were ornamental and were made by silversmiths, and some even included a lock to prevent theft. Once the sugar revolution began in the seventeenth century, sugar became much cheaper and readily available throughout Europe. Indeed, the influx of easily accessible calories actually increased the length and quality of life for Europeans, something that feels like a paradox given our modern perceptions of sugar. Because of the way it changed daily consumption and the obvious ways it benefited everyday life, sugar transformed Europe.

The tropical marine climate of the Caribbean enabled sugarcane to be grown throughout the year, and harvest time lasted for about six months. Enslaved people would chop down the woody stalks, which grew between six to twenty feet tall (or two to six meters), using machetes or billhooks. These would be pulled by wagon to a mill. There the cane would be crushed between the mill’s gears to extract the cane juice, and this process was powered by animals, people, water, or wind. The extracted juice then had to be boiled, and this process reduced it to molasses, which was stable enough to store in barrels. These were then shipped to European factories, which refined the molasses further into sugar.

We normally think about agriculture as a diurnal process, or one that occurs during the day. And certainly, the most visible labor of harvesting sugar happened under a hot sun. But one of things that I find fascinating as an historian of the night is the fact that the sugarcane had to be processed all night long. Once the sugarcane was harvested, it was like starting a ticking clock. The cane juice needed to be extracted within a few hours, as otherwise it would turn rancid within the cut stalks and be unusable. This placed time pressure on milling, and it didn’t matter whether or not the natural day had come to an end.

A first-hand account from Jean-Baptiste Labat, a French Jesuit priest who traveled throughout the Caribbean during the early 1700s, described the working conditions for the enslaved women who fed the mill at night. He wrote,

“Exhausted with the day’s work and sleepiness, they fall asleep while pushing the canes, and leaning over the workbench while still holding the canes, they involuntarily follow them and are crushed before they can be rescued.”

Labat went on to describe the injuries and deaths in gruesome detail, but such incidents were not just a rarity meant to titillate his readers. Indeed, these accidents were common enough that writers advised plantation owners to stash machetes by the mill in order to cut off the ensnared limb and save the trapped person, and there were many amputee slaves on plantations because of this type of occurrence.

However, the night’s labor did not end with the milling process, as the cane juice needed to be heated in the boiling house and gradually transformed into molasses. This meant that several people had to tend the cauldrons of syrup throughout the night, working indoors in hot and smoky conditions. When the mixture was sufficiently thickened into molasses, it would be cooled and transported in hogsheads to ships in the harbor, who would then sail it across the Atlantic Ocean to refine. Remember that, on top of the demanding labor and lack of sleep, every step of the way was supervised by drivers and overseers who abused the workers.

We should keep in mind that working around the clock was not unheard of in the early modern era. Iron forging and glassmaking are examples of two types of labor that required some overnight work. Distilling liquors such as whiskey and rum also necessitated 24-hour labor. But these examples were limited in scope to a few nights a year. In comparison, Caribbean sugar processing required enslaved people to do this for six months out of the year! And unlike the factories of the Industrial Revolution that came later, many of the same people who cut the sugarcane during the day were milling or boiling it at night, hence the stories of exhaustion.

I now want to shift to quickly discuss two types of positive self-expression or enjoyment that people in the French Caribbean could experience, specifically by examining some nocturnal activities. While oppression dominated everyday existence in these colonies, we should not define people by this oppression, but instead look to see how they chose to live their lives when they had freedom.

Let’s start with the realization that, despite the demands of nighttime work in sugar mills, the hours of darkness were viewed as a time that enslaved people could enjoy some independence. They could form family ties, tend their own vegetable crops, and even travel to neighboring plantations to gather with other enslaved people. This was especially true for Saturday evenings, as Sunday was supposed to be a day of rest in order to observe the rites of the Catholic Church. Like their Spanish counterparts, French slaveholders were legally required to train the enslaved population in Christian tenets.

This also meant that the observance of most African religious beliefs, such as Islam, were forbidden under colonial law. Despite this, enslaved people developed new spiritualities, often creating syncretic practices that drew upon their experience. There were several traditions that were passed down via oral culture based upon their African heritage and their interaction with Roman Catholicism, and they created a new, “creole” (to bring back that term) type of religious expression. Most notable among these was Vodou, often described as “Voodoo” in the American context. Europeans described its practice as being “bizarre” or “mere superstition.” The French lawyer, writer, and slaveholder Moreau de Saint-Méry derided Vodou, saying that it “never takes place except secretly, when the night casts a shadow, in a closed place and sheltered from all profane eyes.”

And it was true that many practices recognizable as Vodou occurred at night, in part because this was the time that it was available. For African-descended people, the night was not scary as it was for Europeans, in part because of their different beliefs, but also because of their lived experience—greater freedom. Many of the most beneficent spirits were believed to roam at night. For some of those nocturnal spirits that were evil, their power was limited to areas lit by the moon, and staying in complete darkness could keep the traveler safe.

There were several traditions within Vodou that occurred at night. For example, there were nighttime dances with large groups that had spiritual function, namely the performance of rites that were intended to help individuals contact their Lwa. The Lwa were seen as spirits that communicated with Bondye, the supreme deity of Vodou, and they provided various types of help to practitioners. There were also nighttime ceremonies to mark the death of community members. Although slightly different from the “Nine nights” tradition found in the other parts of the Caribbean, enslaved people in French territory would set aside several consecutive nights to mark the passing of family and friends, with the last night serving as a type of celebration or funeral. These examples show us that life in the French Caribbean was certainly difficult for enslaved people, but they created and maintained culture and community despite their conditions.

Let’s transition to look at something that the upper-class residents of French Caribbean cities enjoyed in the late eighteenth century: the theater. Although the first theater wasn’t built in the colonies until 1762, demand for theatrical performances exploded over the next three decades. Before the Haitian Revolution there were 10 theaters on Saint-Domingue, 3 on Martinique, and 2 on Guadeloupe. Acting societies had high expectations for attendance, exemplified by Saint-Domingue’s city of Cap-Français, where the largest theater could hold 1,500 people, or almost 10% of the city’s entire population!

Like most theater performances in the eighteenth century, these usually started after dark in the early evening (perhaps around 7 o’clock) and continued for at least 2-3 hours. For most attendees this would be at the end of the workday, but for elites this was the tail end of a day of socializing. Unsurprisingly, the inside of the theater was racially segregated. Indeed, this was considered by colonists to be a feature. When the first theater in Cap-Français opened in 1766, the newspaper made sure to note that “mulattoes and mulatresses” were relegated to the rear of the theater.

The productions ran the gamut of what would be seen in a typical theater anywhere in Europe: ballets, comedies, dramas, operas, recitations, and tragedies. Most of these would have been first performed in France, but they were modified to meet local expectations, especially as they portrayed race and slavery. Often the star performer was traveling through the region on tour from France, but the other actors were members of the local acting societies.

Personally, I would describe theater night as a marathon session of entertainment for patrons. The evening might begin with a multi-act opera, followed by a multi-act comedy, and then finish with a musical performance, such as a concerto. But the night was not done! Many theatergoers would proceed from the theater to go to a ball, usually held in a large dance hall, where they would dance, drink, and eat for hours. This was seen as a socially acceptable way for men and women to meet and develop romantic relationships. However, there were also critiques that accused women of attempting to seduce men above their station or outside of their race, and these were especially aimed at free women of color.

One thing to keep in mind is that colonial elites wanted to mimic French metropolitan society. They desperately wanted to see themselves as equals to their European counterparts, and cultivating the theater and participating in balls was a way to do this.

Well, that is a wrap on this episode on the history of the French Caribbean and nocturnality. Special thanks to Gary Girod for letting me share some of my research with you. If you’re interested in reading further on the topic, there are several books that I recommend that I will include in the transcript. Thank you for listening!

Suggested further reading:

Trevor Burnard and John Garrigus, The Plantation Machine: Atlantic Capitalism in French Saint-Domingue and British Jamaica (2018)

Laurent Dubois, A Colony of Citizens: Revolution & Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804 (2004)

Doris Garroway, The Libertine Colony: Creolization in the Early French Caribbean (2005)

David Geggus, Haitian Revolutionary Studies (2002)

CLR James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938)

Bernard Moitt, Women and Slavery in the French Antilles, 1635-1848 (2001)