- Research Note:New Perspectives on Kongo in Revolutionary Haiti
On February 26, 1794, Louis Narcisse Baudry des Lozières arrived at the port of Norfolk, Virginia, from Le Havre on the coast of France. His journey had not been an easy one. Shortly after leaving France, the ship carrying Baudry, his wife, their 13-year-old daughter, and a Norman servant girl was caught in a terrible storm. The family endured a harrowing four-month Atlantic crossing, but they had experienced far worse. Just two years earlier, Baudry had discovered his wife and daughter “wandering in the woods” of St. Domingue, after rebels had forced them to abandon their home in the early days of the Haitian Revolution. Baudry, a distinguished French military officer, had himself been wounded fighting the insurgents near Léogane, and the majority of the soldiers under his command had been slaughtered. Fearing for his life, Baudry fled the colony in March 1792.1 In Paris, he briefly reunited with his more famous brother-in-law, the lawyer and writer Médéric Louis Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry.2 However, both were soon forced into exile, and he eventually settled in Philadelphia. There, Baudry worked as a clerk, bookseller, and editor. He also used his exile as an opportunity to travel North America, spending time with his wife and in-laws in New Orleans. Eventually, Baudry presented himself as an expert on the natural history of the French colonies, delivering lectures to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia and publishing several articles on “scientific” topics.3
Among Baudry’s most famous works is a two-volume account of his “voyages” to Louisiana. The first volume, published in 1802, was such a success that [End Page 83] he completed the much longer Second Voyage just a year later. Like the first volume, Baudry’s Second Voyage à la Louisiane focuses neither on a voyage, nor very much on Louisiana, perhaps explaining why so little attention has been paid to it by scholars. Rather, the book is a natural history of St. Domingue, offering an eclectic mix of the biological, botanical, and medicinal knowledge of the island, alongside poetry, anecdotes, and political reflections. Baudry firmly believed that France would once again rule over its rebel colony. As such, the volume’s true aim is stated in the first two sentences of the introduction: “We will without doubt reconquer the incomparable island of Saint Domingue. It is in this hope... that I decided to offer the Colonists the fruit of some of my observations on the peculiarities of this beautiful country.”4
A significant portion of Second Voyage is devoted to African slavery—a description of the “Angola” coast, interactions between masters and slaves in St. Domingue, and most notably a 39-page “Dictionnaire ou Vocabulaire Congo.” Baudry’s intent was to educate planters on the operation of efficient, productive business enterprises. He believed that knowledge of Kikongo would aid masters in preventing the high mortality and other “inconveniences” frequently suffered by bossal (“raw,” newly arrived) slaves. Indeed, Baudry viewed the treatment of slaves through much the same redemptionist prism as he saw the colony’s “lost” natural history. For Baudry, communication with Africans was a “science”: “As a farmer myself, I have felt the usefulness of this kind of science, and in my leisure moments . . . I have tried to learn enough to understand my bossal slaves and to be understood.” According to Baudry, speaking to the bossal in his own language will “brighten him and inspire his confidence. His hope born, you soften in him the memory of his hut, his sad family, and soon he no longer sees you as a man superior to him, but as a benefactor who has snatched him from death, misery, and the degradation of man.”5
A cynical reading of Baudry’s account might conclude simply that he was calling for the manipulation of Africans to capitalize on their labor. Such a conclusion would not be wrong. Baudry was no champion for Africans nor, more generally, for people of color in St. Domingue, especially in the wake of the Revolution.6 Yet, his writing does reveal a...