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  • The Gauolet Uprising of 1710:Maroons, Rebels, and the Informal Exchange Economy of a Caribbean Sugar Island
  • Brett Rushforth (bio)

It's not just conspiracies that are accompanied by silence, not just coronations that have their procession of reasons.

—Wisława Szymborska, "No Title Required"1

For Laurence, an escaped slave living in a small maroon settlement in Martinique's dense northern woods, the morning of September 17, 1711, would have seemed unremarkable. More than a year earlier, she had fled a slave labor camp run by her master, a Sieur Gallet, after he had flown into such a rage that he set her cabin on fire in an apparent attempt to kill her. Fearing for her life, she kept a safe distance but did not go far. Joined by friends who had run from neighboring plantations, Laurence and her small band of perhaps twenty fugitives searched for a suitable place to build a few modest dwellings and plant a garden. They settled on a secluded portion of land owned by the prominent Sainte-Marthe family, a risky location but one that kept them close to their families and friends still held in slavery. Through weeks of hard labor, as they cleared a patch of ground [End Page 75] and waited for new plants to grow, Laurence and her companions survived however they could. They stole bananas and dug roots. They caught fish and bartered for vegetables. They returned at night to their former plantations for help from loved ones. But for many months now the small community had enjoyed a reliable harvest of cabbages, cucumbers, plantains, sorrel, and parsley from their gardens, trading surpluses for manioc flour and other necessities. Laurence tended the garden with two older companions: Margot, a forty-year-old creole woman from Antigua; and Maude, a fifty-five-year-old woman born, like Laurence, in Martinique. Their lives, if always in some danger, had taken on a routine.2

When a friend and former community member named Michau stepped into the clearing that September morning, however, Laurence sensed that their fortunes were about to change. Are they after us? she remembered them asking. Were you followed? She knew that Michau understood the dangers facing them. Even a passing glance at his body would show that this was not his first time in the woods. There were his ears, which had been partially cut off several years earlier as both a punishment for escape and a mark to warn others of his rebellious character. Each of his shoulders bore a large scar in the shape of the fleur-de-lis, which had been burned into his skin after two previous escapes. He almost certainly walked with a limp, the result of having his hamstring severed at the order of his master. In the months following Laurence's escape, when Michau had helped establish the maroon settlement, the knowledge he had acquired during these previous stays in the woods helped the group avoid capture, starvation, and other hazards. But if his scars were evidence of valuable experience, they were also indicators of vulnerability. He had been caught before, and it could happen again. And many people were looking, hoping to collect a bounty recently offered by the governor: three hundred livres for producing Michau's severed head, six hundred for returning him alive. Colonial authorities had declared him one of the two most wanted men in all of Martinique.3 [End Page 76]

The other, Laurence knew, was her husband, Jérôme.4 The previous summer, the two men had been implicated in a series of attacks by enslaved people that witnesses claimed were meant to culminate in a coordinated insurrection targeting specific colonial leaders and setting fire to Saint-Pierre, the island's busiest port city and the hub of the sugar and slave trades. The uprising had been orchestrated by members of a secret society called the Gauolet, which linked as many as two hundred enslaved and free people of color from the countryside with their counterparts in Saint-Pierre.5 Many times in the weeks before the rebellion, Jérôme and Michau had walked from their maroon settlement to the city...