A Game of Robes: The Clerical Battle for Africans’ Souls during the Haitian Revolution

A Game of Robes: The Clerical Battle for Africans’ Souls during the Haitian Revolution

Miriam Franchina

Universität Trier

Religious disputes during the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) have seldom attracted scholarly attention, despite their integral roles in the conflict between metropolitan France and colonial Saint-Domingue. Focusing on the timespan between Toussaint Louverture’s rise to power and demise (1797–1802), this paper reconstructs how a plethora of French clerics competed to gain exclusive authority over the Saint-Dominguan church. Unexploited French and Vatican sources show how conflicts between Paris and the Holy See influenced plans for the colony: was the model to involve secular priests appointed by France, or an Ancien Régime structure based on missionaries sanctioned by Rome? All clergymen adapted to an unprecedented set of believers – black cultivateurs, officially free since 1794. By promoting the cultivateurs’ allegiance to the Catholic Church, priests strove to ensure French possession of Saint-Domingue and, ultimately, to put an end to the “unthinkable” slave revolution. I probe how they applied methods being used in the French countryside to uproot superstition to the Saint-Domingue context, and suggest that Catholicism was their tool to control supposedly naïve masses. While clerics used Catholicism to forge industrious and law-abiding French citizens, black Saint-Dominguans molded the same religion to articulate their own aspirations. Examining a devotional booklet from Saint-Domingue, I indicate possible clues for the slaves’ appeals to the king as guarantor of Sunday rest; and for their use of protective amulets in revolutionary battles. Overall, this paper calls for a reconsideration of religion in the study of the Haitian Revolution.


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