- The Maréchaussée of Saint-Domingue:Balancing the Ancien Régime and Modernity
It is supremely ironic, and often incomprehensible to students newly discovering the slave societies of the Atlantic world, that people of African ancestry were often responsible for forcing slaves to remain on their plantations and enforcing discipline while they were there. The irony and the incomprehension spring from a misunderstanding of the identity of free people of color, and especially those who were active in the military. These products of the ancien régime did not see themselves as part of a racial unit, or a (creole) national unit, so much as they did as part of a group defined by status (rank in the social order, especially freedom from slavery) and by place in family and pseudo-kin networks.1 Thus they were not, as one undergraduate’s anguished question put it, “chasing down their own people for the white man,” but chasing down a despised and feared class of people for kinsmen, patrons, or at worst, fairly benevolent employers.
The white power structure regarded these enforcers as the most useful of their African-American subalterns. The enforcers were rewarded with privileges rarely given to people of their race, such as the right to bear arms (outside their offical duties) and the right to own land or slaves. This paper will illustrate how one group of enforcers, those in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, modern Haiti, played their role in society.
In Saint-Domingue, the enforcers were called the maréchaussée, after the rural police of metropolitan France. The maréchaussée in the homeland were responsible for hunting deserters from military service and bandits and securing property pursuant to court orders or during the inventorying of estates. The maréchaussée of Saint-Domingue fulfilled these functions, but the vast majority of their work involved the slave population. All enlisted members of the maréchaussée of Saint-Domingue after 1733 (and most before, apparently) were of African ancestry. These were important men in their communities and formed part of a group of free people of color defined by their lack of family connections with whites and by their frequent use of military service to advance socially, build networks with each other and white patrons, and get access to capital to permit economic advancement. I term this group the “military leadership group” in my recent book Blue Coat or Powdered Wig?2
The maréchaussée was an institution balanced between its roots in the ancien régime as a protector of a society of orders, based on personal respect and loyalties, and its role in a capitalist society as a protector of property rights and the power of the state. In this, it mirrors the betwixt-and-between nature of slave society as a whole, caught between the feudal nature of the master-slave relationship and the capitalist world economy of which it was a central part.
An example of this tension can be found in the mysterious affair of the wandering horse. On the 3rd of November, 1785, a Sieur Jean Louis Martin Theron, a (white) militia officer, described by the local notary in his report as an habitant, or planter, and by virtue of both of these facts an important personage in his parish of Terrier Rouge, appeared before notary Jean-Louis Michel of Limonade. He was there to report a crime, thereby firing the first shot in a potential lawsuit. Some weeks before, Sr. Theron’s horse disappeared from his plantation in Terrier Rouge, near the frontier with Limonade. While searching the region, he came to the home of a Sr. Sicard, a small-time white planter living nearby. There, he saw a horse that he identified as his own being ridden by a black man. He called for the rider to stop, but the rider sped away, spurring the horse and crying out “until tomorrow.” Theron pursued his horse and the mysterious rider to near the plantation of Sr. Adhenet, who was the exempt, or local commander, of the maréchaussée of Limonade. There, Sr. Theron stopped to seek help. Adhenet was not...