And among these nations shalt thou find no ease, neither shall the sole of thy foot have rest: but the Lord shall give thee there a trembling heart, and failing of eyes, and sorrow of mind. And thy life shall hang in doubt before thee; and thou shalt fear day and night.
Even the most harried, downtrodden Acadian exile would have admitted it: by 1763, Louis XV had endured several bad years in a row. The king’s downward spiral began in January 1757, when an out-of-work domestic servant named Robert-François Damiens tried to kill him with a penknife on the steps of the royal palace at Trianon. Interrogated, tortured, and finally drawn and quartered in the center of Paris, Damiens haunted his victim. As a British spy reported that summer, Louis “frequently burst into tears” and even mused about abdicating the throne.1
By then, though, the king had much more to cry about. After a promising start in North America and Europe, his war had become a disaster. British and Prussian victories over the French and their Austrian allies had spread like a pox: Rossbach and Leuthen in 1757, Louisbourg and Gorée in 1758, Québec and Guadeloupe in 1759, Montréal in 1760, Pondicherry and Belle-Ile-en-Mer (a mere ten miles from the west coast of mainland France) in 1761, Martinique in 1762. Signed on February 10, 1763, the Treaty of Paris ended the Seven Years’ War by humiliating Louis as few monarchs had been humiliated before. Although France kept the Caribbean colonies of Saint-Domingue, Guadeloupe, and Martinique, losses in Canada, West Africa, India, the Mediterranean, and Louisiana gave the defeat an air of finality. Worse, territorial downsizing offered limited financial help for the debt-burdened kingdom, forcing Louis to extend wartime taxes. For the Parisian diarist Edmond-Jean-François Barbier, it came as no surprise that two weeks after the peace, the spectacle of placing an equestrian statue of the king on its pedestal in the Place Louis XV (today’s Place de la Concorde) became an occasion for “bad speech” and “indiscreet remarks.” Some snickered that the statue was guided into position by four cranes, or grues, just as the king himself had become a puppet of his ministers. That grue was also slang for “whore” only made the allusion more amusing.2
Personally and geopolitically, Louis XV needed a boost. Luckily for him, sometime in 1762, a forty-two-year-old scientist named Jean-Baptiste-Christophe Fusée Aublet had had a great idea.
Its greatness, Aublet knew, sprang from its singularity, and its singularity was rooted in a unique set of personal experiences. While studying botany, chemistry, and geology at the university in Montpellier, Aublet had cultivated a group of patrons that included the atheist philosophe Paul-Henri Thiry, baron d’Holbach, Guillaume-Chrétien Lamoignon de Malesherbes, the freethinking director of France’s book trade, and Bernard de Jussieu, a botanist and sub-demonstrator of plants at the King’s Gardens in Paris. Spurred on by his backers, the young Aublet took a position with the Compagnie des Indes on Ile de France (now the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius), where he was to found a “laboratory” to supply the company’s outposts with medicines and a garden stocked with “plants that may become useful to the Colony.” Aublet had found his dream job. “To train my body and mind for the work that awaited them,” he exulted, “I made the journey [from Paris] to Lorient, my place of embarkation, on foot, observing and describing minerals along my route.” After three hundred miles of walking, Aublet boarded the Phelyppeaux and set sail for a new world.3
On Ile de France, Aublet stuck out. He brought no pacotille, slang for the trinkets used in illicit trade, leading some to believe he had come to the island only for a “change of scenery.” Their observation was not far off the mark: Aublet changed Ile de France’s scenery immediately. He took over an old garden at Pamplemousse, near Port Louis on the northwest coast, and launched into experiments. Sabotaged by unnamed enemies (who “destroyed with as much ardor as I devoted to creation”), Aublet packed up his seedlings and moved inland to Le Réduit, where he “gathered all of the rare, useful, or curious plants I could procure.” In time, his duties expanded. After a typhoon ravaged Ile de France in the mid-1750s, Aublet spent weeks cutting a new road across the island, “sleeping in the woods” with a team of “intelligent, energetic, and skillful” Malagasy slaves. With those same “Madagascar Negroes,” he built signal stations in the mountainous interior, working with his multiracial crew at the edge of a “terrifying precipice” on Corps-de-Garde, a dormant volcano south of Port Louis.4
By 1761, however, Aublet had worn out his welcome. Miscalculating badly, he aligned himself against Pierre Poivre, an ambitious botanist in the pay of the Compagnie des Indes, over the cultivation of nutmeg on Ile de France. With his reputation under siege from Poivre’s well-connected friends, Aublet arranged his affairs, freed his own slaves, and headed back to Paris.5 Within weeks of his arrival, the crown offered Aublet work in Cayenne, its colony on the coast of South America.6 Charged with cataloguing the region’s natural resources, the “apothecary-botanist” threw himself into more tropical research.7 The next summer, as he braved clouds of mosquitoes, impassable barriers of “thorny shrubs,” and the threat of “marooned, fugitive, and irritated Negroes” while searching for a much-rumored mercury mine in the unmapped interior, it hit him.8 He, and perhaps he alone, knew how to make a wronged France right again.
At the heart of Aublet’s plan was a trip. Given a canoe and some money, he would “ascend the Amazon, cross Peru to Mexico, there to embark for Manila in the Philippines, stop at Madagascar, and from there sail to Ile de France and return to Cayenne.” Along the way, Aublet intended to collect “the most precious plants, such as nutmeg and clove trees.” This haul of spices and curatives could first be replanted in the gardens of Cayenne and then transferred to tropical plantations worldwide.9 Results were sure to follow. Shattering the Dutch monopoly on the spice trade in the East Indies, Aublet’s maneuver would turn Cayenne into a hub whose wealth in exotic plants promised to fill Louis XV’s coffers at the expense of allies and enemies alike.
Aublet saw his journey as a preemptive strike against British encroachments in the Southern Hemisphere. Even in 1762, months before the Treaty of Paris, everyone suspected that such intrusions were in the works. Henri Pouillard, a panicked merchant from the French port of Le Havre, put it this way:
The efforts that the English have made, and will continue to make, to strip us of what remains in Canada, lay before our very eyes their intention to become masters of all of North America. Who can say that in the future they will not push their designs even farther?10
To stop the advance of “a restless, petulant nation like England,” some hoped to create an equatorial bulwark, pinning Britain in the north by establishing a French stranglehold over cultivation and commerce in the tropics. Michel Adanson, a well-known botanist tapped to work alongside Aublet in Cayenne, had long advocated shipping plants (such as acacia trees, which produced gum arabic) and animals (including, remarkably, elephants and camels) from French Senegal to South America, boosting the economies of both settlements in the process.11 Given France’s position, it all made sense.
Yet Aublet harbored another motive. Put bluntly, he hated slavery. He hated the injustice of it, hated that it drained the “mildness and gaiety” from good Frenchmen, hated that its advocates denigrated Africans as “drunks, libertines, thieves, liars, idlers, and traitors.” Cayenne, however, heralded something better. Boosting production to match expanding markets, landowners might be convinced to turn slaves into peasants. Working “in proportion to their needs and desires,” African families would pay rent “with the harvest, as in Europe,” participate in colonial defense, and in general “do more work than expatriated slaves, who labor for masters they detest.”12 Indeed, Cayenne might provide a haven for Aublet’s wife, Armelle, a Senegalese woman whose freedom he had purchased from the Compagnie des Indes on Ile de France, and for their three children.13
Combining his familial anxieties and patriotic aspirations, Aublet sent a proposal to Versailles in April 1763, entrusting the document and a box of fruit for Louis XV to the captain of the frigate Diligente. Restless, he headed inland “immediately” after theDiligente’s departure, penetrating into Guiana’s landscape of rivers and creeks with two slaves and Pierre Basson, a “mulatto” guide.14
Neither Aublet nor his proposal came through unscathed. As the botanist picked his way through razor-sharp underbrush (“My breeches,” he wrote ruefully, “now serve only as rags”), his imperial plan met with criticism no less cutting.15 Friends and patrons sent endorsements to ministers back in France, but they did little to stave off the attack. While “curious, passionate, enterprising, [and] tireless,” reported Cayenne’s governor, Aublet was not “easy to handle.” Still, the governor explained, “if he loses control sometimes, he is back to his old self soon”—and that old self, he argued, was the man to undertake a journey “whose success, no matter what it may cost, will be as profitable for the state as it is glorious for him.”16 Metropolitan leaders lacked even this kernel of faith. Aublet’s “courage” notwithstanding, they doubted his health (“He didn’t look so good,” noted one who had seen him recently) and his ability to conserve samples over long years of travel. The plan was rejected. But ministers made sure to include “some marks of satisfaction” for Aublet himself, hoping to soften the blow and “revive his zeal.”17
Cold comfort, no doubt. And worse was to come, for Louis XV’s ministers had their own South American aspirations. Like Aublet, they had slavery in their crosshairs. Rather than liberate Cayenne’s seven thousand Africans, they hoped to lure thousands of white Europeans to a new colony at the site of a Jesuit mission on the Kourou River, thirty miles to the northwest.18 These migrants would grow food, provisioning sugar islands such as Saint-Domingue as well as the French navy. Remarkably, slavery would not exist among them. The importation of “any Negro, mulatto, or other slave” was to be prohibited by law, creating an all-white preserve at the doorstep of the great plantation societies of the Caribbean. With “soils well suited to all sorts of crops [and] the most beautiful prairies,” the Kourou might well have passed for “the promised land” in the eyes of some poor white farmer.19 But for Aublet, it promised only a prolonged journey in a cursed wilderness.
They would not have known it, but Aublet and the Acadians had a great deal in common. Both were caught up in a cascade of creative, improbable, and ill-fated colonial experiments that promised to remap the Atlantic basin. Almost convulsively, post-1763 European ministers threw reformist ideas, crown funds, and especially settlers at a host of now-forgotten projects.
The results were colorful. Eager to tighten its grip on newly acquired East Florida, the British Board of Trade encouraged the diplomat and physician Andrew Turnbull to plant a settlement of Greeks, Corsicans, and Minorcans at New Smyrna in 1767.20 Even as Spanish statesmen mulled over plans for populating Louisiana, transferred to them by the French in the semisecret Treaty of Fontainebleau, Catherine the Great recruited entire Moravian congregations from Germany to people Russia’s unruly southern frontier. For her part, the empress Maria Theresa of Austria aimed to plant thousands of German- and French-speaking farmers in the Banat region of Habsburg-ruled Hungary, at the doorstep of Ottoman Turkey.21 As imperial cartography shifted, older assumptions about the nature of empire came under suspicion. With that suspicion came ventures capable of sweeping up tinkering botanists and hardy colonists alike.
In 1763, the Acadians were ripe for the taking. Of the seven thousand captured in 1755 and shipped to British North America, most still lingered near port cities, living on charity and whatever work they could find. Authorities in Virginia, of course, had rejected the nearly one thousand Acadians sent to Hampton, dispatching them to England in the spring of 1756. Eventually these exiles ended up in Bristol, Liverpool, Falmouth, Southampton, and the Welsh port of Penryn. Following a deadly outbreak of smallpox soon after arriving, they settled into the margins of urban society. On orders from local officials, Acadians typically lived near each other (in a run-down neighborhood of Liverpool, or in converted warehouses in Bristol, for example). Some worked odd jobs, but most were “restrained” from doing so “to prevent the Clamor of the laboring People.”22
As in North America, Acadians in Great Britain were pulled in more than one direction. Many continued to petition for better treatment based on their status as British subjects. Others clung to France as their best hope, a sentiment expressed by Acadians in Liverpool who, during a visit from a staffer from the French embassy on New Year’s Eve in 1762, burst into cries of “Vive le Roy!” so loud that neighbors were “scandalized.” In Penryn, though, boys apprenticed to British craftsmen had, wrote one observer, “contracted some not-so-French inclinations.”23 In any case, exiles across the British Empire were, at war’s end, on the lookout for new opportunities.
These Acadians, however, represented only part of the total number uprooted by the British campaigns in Nova Scotia. Perhaps eight thousand Acadians had evaded capture, taking flight from the Bay of Fundy in all directions. Hundreds hid in the peninsula’s forested uplands, hoping to ride out the storm. Others linked up with Charles des Champs de Boishébert, a French commander patrolling the Saint John’s River in present-day New Brunswick, to wage a guerilla war against the British. In 1756 and 1757, when the French enjoyed the upper hand in the North American theater, these fighters played a crucial role in the defense of New France. “Independent of charitable motives, which will not permit that we should abandon them,” noted one Canadian official, “it is of great importance to conserve [the Acadians] to fortify the borders of Canada, Ile Royale and Ile St. Jean.” He even hoped to “make good use of them if circumstances permit us to take action in Acadia.”24 While the insurgents harassed British detachments, stole horses, and took captives, the declining fortunes of the French war effort left them exposed. As the marquis de Vaudreuil lamented in the spring of 1757, many of the Acadians had died in the wilderness, while the sick remained sick due to poor food, “often being forced to eat extremely emaciated horses, sea cows, or cow skins.”25
A few kept up the struggle. Pierre Doucet, once the proprietor of a farm near Fort Beauséjour, received a commendation for valor at the siege of Québec in 1759 and was picked to command a “company of Acadians” at Montréal in 1760. At Restigouche on the Baie des Chaleurs, a group led by Nicolas Gaultier used a few old schooners to prey on British vessels in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, marking the exiles’ “readiness to attempt anything against the present establishment” of Nova Scotia.26 But well before the Treaty of Paris, the Acadians who had fled knew, in the words of one of their priests, that “the dice are thrown” and that the enemy had emerged as their “masters.”27 By 1761, even Gaultier and the “pirates of Restigouche” had made peace, gaining assurances from the war-weary British that there would be no repeat of 1755. Although numbers are hard to estimate, by 1763 upward of two thousand Acadians likely lived on the mainland west and north of Nova Scotia, while a handful remained imprisoned in Halifax or elsewhere on the peninsula.
Others had traveled farther. During the winter of 1755–56, Acadians dashed for Ile Saint-Jean in droves. Making the frigid crossing in skiffs and canoes, they crowded into the island’s still-new settlements, jostling with the three thousand Acadians who had fled there over the previous six years. They all grew desperate. Jacques Girard, a priest who ministered to Ile Saint-Jean’s swollen congregations, later remembered that even though the crown had given pre-1755 Acadian migrants “three years of provisions, tools, [and] clothing, … they could not survive” without frequent gifts of food; in the fall of 1755, new arrivals made survival even more tenuous.28 The island’s residents, reported one official in April 1757, “had no means of subsistence, and could not plant their seeds this spring; women and girls dare not go out, being unable to cover their nudity.”29
Undermined by hunger and increasingly isolated from a harried French military, the Acadians of Ile Saint-Jean put up little resistance when, after the British seizure of Louisbourg in July 1758, Colonel Andrew Rollo sailed into Port-la-Joie with five hundred soldiers in tow. After marveling at the “good land” (“so fine a climate … that it must invite settlers, & would soon have been a Granerie for the French settlements as it abounds in Wheat, Barly, Rye, Oats & some Indian corn”), they launched into a new round of deportations.30 Although some Acadians fled for Canada from the island’s northern coast, Rollo and his men quickly captured nearly three thousand civilians, shuffled them aboard seventeen waiting ships, and sent them off—not, however, to the cash-poor, perpetually complaining British provinces to the south, and certainly not to Britain itself. Instead, these Acadians were shipped to France.31
Many never made it. Some succumbed to disease during the Atlantic crossing, but perhaps as many as five hundred Acadians were killed in the shipwrecks of the Duke William and the Violet off Cornwall, while more than one hundred drowned when theRubybroke up on the rocks near the island of Pico in the Azores.32 The rest were deposited in French ports including Boulogne-sur-Mer, Le Havre, Cherbourg, Saint-Malo, Morlaix, Nantes, and La Rochelle. Dependent on funds from the crown and the charity of locals, these Acadians endured as much as their old compatriots in North America. During the late 1750s and early 1760s, letters to and from Versailles detailed the exiles’ sorry state. Visiting Boulogne-sur-Mer, the British author Tobias Smollett gawked at the Acadians, struggling to imagine how they got by on a “wretched allowance” from Louis XV.33 Almost immediately after the Treaty of Paris, these exiles were joined in France by the surviving Acadians—just under nine hundred of them—from Great Britain. Gathered by the French ambassador in London, transported to Southampton in convoys of rented “wagons,” and spirited across the English Channel on a balmy spring day in 1763, they were first housed in old barracks near Morlaix and later dispersed to towns across northern France.34 In total, roughly three thousand Acadians had come to inhabit the land of their ancestors.35
Dike builders, backwoods traders, and friends to the Mi’kmaq eight years earlier, these Acadians were now disintegrated and marginalized in urban France. Soon after 1763, the Acadian diaspora, already remarkable in its scope and suddenness, would expand again. Pushing the exiles along was a bundle of radical ideas that, taken together, constituted a damning critique of slavery, the coercive institution at the heart of European imperialism. To create new colonies for a new world (“nurser[ies] of some good intentions,” one reformer called them), powerful Frenchmen contemplated an empire without slaves, in the process transforming scattered Acadians from unwanted pariahs into a “population too priceless not to receive with pleasure.”36 Flanked by men such as Jean-Baptiste-Christophe Fusée Aublet, however, Acadians would learn to be wary of “good intentions” in the American tropics.
Reeling from the losses inflicted by the Treaty of Paris, French ministers believed Cayenne to be a key to imperial revival. Slung across a coastal island near the mouths of the Montsinéry and Mahury rivers, the fortified town was the only bona fide settlement within the larger claim known as Guiana or la France équinoxiale. Bordered by Portuguese Brazil, Dutch Surinam, and the Atlantic, Guiana theoretically extended French rule deep into the South American rain forest, but in reality the interior remained something of a mystery. Indeed, while Guiana had attracted French adventurers, religious zealots, and profit seekers throughout the seventeenth century, the colony had long been considered a failure by the crown. Dreams of mineral wealth had been dashed early on, leaving a sweat-stained residue of plantation owners, soldiers, and officials to contend with their own chattel and the region’s still-powerful Galibi natives.
The settlements of French Guiana. Jacques-Nicolas Bellin, Carte des costes de la Guianne, ou la France équinoxiale (1763). Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.
It was a cruel place to live. In 1687, one cleric recited a litany of Cayenne’s horrors: churches “menaced with ruin” from negligence, a hospital where the poor and sick were “very badly treated,” and whites who refused to feed or clothe their healthy slaves while simply abandoning invalids.37 Beyond Cayenne, others recoiled at the sheer disorder on Guiana’s vast frontier. On the Approuague River to the south, for example, a French official reported on “ghastly acts committed against the Indians,” relating his efforts to “remove from one inhabitant an Indian woman that he kept at his home” after the man’s white wife “made a complaint.”38 Civilization seemed distant.
From the French perspective, little had improved during the eighteenth century. According to Pierre Barrère, the fortified town of Cayenne was so depopulated in 1743 that one could “kill a person in broad daylight, so to speak, without fear of being seen.”39 At midcentury, the total population consisted of six hundred whites and seven thousand slaves, a “lack of inhabitants” that, argued then-governor Gilbert Guillouet d’Orvilliers, was primarily responsible for the colony’s “languishing state.”40 The Seven Years’ War only made matters worse. In 1756, when asked by officials in Paris to provide a chart of prices in Cayenne, intendant Antoine-Philippe Lemoyne responded that he could not, as “barter is the only form of trade.” Lack of money, he complained, led to demographic weakness. Since 1744, the slave trade in Guiana had existed “only by chance.” No ship from “the coast of Guinea” had intentionally docked in Cayenne for more than a decade; the two most recent had limped in after taking on water, with only “infected cargo … reduced to less than half by sickness and want of supplies.” As sure as “two and two make four,” Lemoyne noted, Guiana’s survival depended on specie and the slaves it would attract.41
For Frenchmen such as Lemoyne, then, slavery looked like the solution to Guiana’s problems. “It is only by advancing money, provisions, and reasonably priced slaves to both new and old settlers,” wrote one would-be reformer, “that [Guiana] will enjoy the harvest in peace.”42 Seen from a perspective at once more local and more imperial than Lemoyne’s, however, slaves hardly equaled stability. First of all, they represented a constant, deadly threat to their masters. In 1726, for example, a company of soldiers on a scouting expedition “four or five leagues” from Cayenne stumbled upon a “dreadful murder.” A local farmer had been killed, his wife raped and beaten to death, his “three- or four-year-old child” kidnapped, and his still-breastfeeding baby abandoned “for more than sixty hours … among the corpses.” According to officials who sent troops toward the Amazon in search of the victim’s “Negro and Indian slaves,” the murders “concerned all of the colonies in general, and all crowned heads have an interest in them.”43
To be sure, this was a spectacular case, but the threat of slave violence was ever present. A few years later, a woman named Chateauneuf was tending to her isolated farm while her husband was in Cayenne on business. The woman tried to intervene when a slave attacked his wife with a dagger. Enraged, the husband made a run for the plantation house, found a gun, and shot Chateauneuf in the thigh. “Seeing herself wounded,” she dragged herself into a pirogue, or dugout canoe, and paddled for Cayenne. Bloodied and exhausted, she made it; tracked through the swamps by French soldiers and their Indian guides, her assailant did not.44
Seemingly savage and capricious, slaves—although necessary for agriculture in the Caribbean vein—made Guiana’s planters uneasy. Ensuring African submissiveness was, of course, always a primary goal, as one Frenchman with designs on Guiana made clear in 1761:
The American way demands that we keep the blacks in the most strict subordination and the harshest submission to make ourselves feared, and to impress upon them that we are as much above them as they themselves are above the animals. They are so ingrained and convinced of this that they say, in their language, to the horses: Me slave of the white man, and you slave of the Negro.45
But slaves so persuaded of their own inferiority were, as the evidence suggests, a figment of the French imagination.
Unlike small Caribbean islands such as Martinique or Guadeloupe, Guiana offered slaves endless chances to cause havoc by escaping to the colony’s ungoverned interior. “Louis, a Negro, slave of Sieur Gourgues,” did just that in 1747, only to be captured by a French patrol. Clapped in irons and questioned, the fifteen-year-old told a worrisome story. After being whipped by his master, Louis’s father gathered some supplies, stole a canoe, and took the boy up the Mahury River, spending “several weeks” hiding in the woods. One day, as if by magic, a former slave named André emerged from the brush and led the pair toward the “headquarters of the maroons.” Although the path was shrouded and tough to follow, the wilderness soon yielded to sown fields and a bustling camp, where dozens of ex-slaves enjoyed “provisions from the common store,” cowered under the whip of “Captain André” when they shirked their duties, and carried “hatchets and billhooks” on raids to the nearby plantations of Tonnegrande.46 Officials sent expeditions against the maroons in 1749 and 1750 but succeeded only in forcing André’s villages to “abandon their old settlements.” In 1753, troops reconnoitering the Kourou River basin crept up on the maroons’ new villages. Surrounded by fields of corn and manioc, the Africans were singing within a central grouping of huts. After a soldier’s footsteps alerted the maroons to the detachment’s presence, the village erupted. Most of the ex-slaves took flight as the French opened fire, but one woman was killed and “five or six” children, who watched in silence as the soldiers burned the village, were taken “to serve as guides.”47 Even in 1756, as war with Britain began, Cayenne’s militia fought to neutralize “these wretches … who only shoot from behind trees.” In an engagement early that year, frightened soldiers fired wildly into the forest upon meeting some maroons in a clearing, but as their leader explained, “they do not know whether they killed any.”48
Slavery in Guiana, then, generated a persistent, ever-growing threat in the west. It did much the same on the Atlantic coast. In 1759, with South America on the lookout for the British navy, Cayenne’s governor, d’Orvilliers, took the unusual step of manning the town’s fortifications with slaves. Since the king would pay for any slave “killed or mutilated,” d’Orvilliers demanded “the elite” from nearby estates. Planters protested on financial grounds, while others questioned the plan’s military wisdom. “Exposing our slaves to … a capitulation,” wrote an unimpressed Lemoyne, would create “an object too attractive to hope for any mercy from the enemy.”49 Given slavery’s negative effect on white migration (a 1762 inquiry found 125 whites in Cayenne capable of bearing arms), colonists had little choice but to defend royal property with their own.50 For his part, Lemoyne thought so little of d’Orvilliers’s tactics that in the event of an attack, he recommended burning Cayenne to the ground, assembling “all of our forces capable of rendering an occupation useless” in Guiana’s interior, and launching guerilla raids on the British. Ironically, these raids would include slaves: “harassed during the day by whites, during the night by Negroes capable … of undertaking things impossible to even the most determined white,” the British (or anyone else) would simply give up.51 The plan exposed the contradictions and dangers of Guianese slavery in a world of belligerent empires.
Slavery made the French Caribbean profitable. But given Guiana’s lack of strong institutions, maroon-friendly geography, and susceptibility to invasion, it remained unclear that the establishment of a slave society along the lines of, say, Saint-Domingue’s would be either possible or desirable. In fact, a rising chorus of French thinkers during the Seven Years’ War had constructed a compelling argument against slavery in general, but especially in half-formed places such as Guiana. The most influential such thinkers went by the name les economistes, or, to their enemies, la secte. We know them as the physiocrats.
Headed by the royal physician François Quesnay and his protégé Victor Riqueti, marquis de Mirabeau, this “first modern school of economics” used dizzying calculations and baroque diagrams to reach a simple conclusion: that the laws of society should agree with the laws of nature.52 Agriculture, then, deserved more emphasis than any other economic activity, for it alone created surplus wealth and state revenue, while commerce and industry merely moved money around. “Let the Sovereign and the Nation never lose sight that the soil is the only true source of riches,” wrote Pierre-Samuel Dupont de Nemours in 1768, “and that it is agriculture that multiplies them.”53 During the 1750s and 1760s, physiocracy made numerous converts. French aristocrats saw in Quesnay’s doctrine a way to revitalize the traditional, agrarian values of their order. For others, physiocracy promised universal applicability in an age of relativism. “There is one natural, essential, and general order that contains the … fundamental laws of all societies,” claimed Nemours, while Pierre Poivre cast agriculture as the “thermometer” by which to measure any society’s adherence to that order.54 Certain that the laws of economics were as clear as Newton’s laws of physics, the physiocrats built up a robust, demanding worldview—and slavery had no place in it.
Put simply, physiocrats believed that slavery infringed on “the first fundamental law of society,” that of property over one’s person.55 “The laws of nature and of the true interest of all men … obviously forbid slavery,” explained a contributor to the physiocratic journal Ephémérides du Citoyen.56 Slavery threatened the rise of free markets for goods and labor. Fostered by enlightened rule, such markets would steer Frenchmen away from the sterile pleasures of urban life toward farms, families, and fecundity, they argued. Slavery, however, promoted artificial inequality, linking agriculture with what Mirabeau called the “lowest rank” in society and spurring the advance of luxury and depopulation.57 On this last point physiocrats became especially animated. Thinkers in Europe had long lamented the demographic effects of the slave trade on Africa.58 Mirabeau brought such concerns home. If slavery went unchecked, a disastrous trend would spread from the New World. “Little by little,” he predicted in 1756, “the population of slaves will rise, and that of the masters will diminish.” Slaves would constitute a global underclass, their increase squeezing whites, for whom farming was by now a marker of low status, into colonial cities where no mates could be found, hampering the “spirit of population” that promised to reanimate Louis XV’s empire.59
After 1763, many Frenchmen rejected colonialism altogether, declaring Europe’s overseas ventures morally repugnant or concluding, like the abbé Gabriel Bonnot de Mably, that “this kingdom can be … very powerful without colonies.”60 In general, the physiocrats were not among them. Most saw the colonies Louis XV had left as crucial to France’s economic independence, as “new province[s], capable of producing commodities that have become necessary, which cannot be produced on … old lands.”61 The key idea was agricultural integration between colony and metropolis. “Colonies are simply newly cleared lands,” Mirabeau noted in 1764 (in a book whose title promised that the ideas within its covers would “ensure the prosperity of empires”), linking France’s colonies with freshly drained swamps near Bordeaux and felled forests on the German frontier.62 If properly planned and executed, physiocrats argued, the rebirth of Louis XV’s empire could herald a new era in European imperialism.
Not that the physiocrats were abolitionists. “I would not undertake to ban the use of Negroes,” wrote Mirabeau in 1756, doubtless aware of the importance of Saint-Domingue, Martinique, and Guadeloupe to the French economy. “But do you want to limit [slavery], and soon enough make it unnecessary? Encourage cultivation of the land in the colonies.” As new, enlightened settlers led the way by “presiding over their own crops” and never “disdaining to put their own hand” to the plow, the progress of a more diversified French agriculture in the Americas would, in time, promote the demise of slavery and the growth of empire. Here Mirabeau could not resist an agrarian metaphor. The “gold of Peru,” he wrote in 1756, had been “lime at the foot of the tree” for Spain; Britain’s commerce had spawned an “aquatic, swamp-dwelling plant” with “floating, unsupported leaves” soon to fall from the plant altogether. France, by contrast, would nourish the agrarian “root of state.”63 If the monarch followed the natural order, Mirabeau predicted, not only would the French Empire overcome its adversaries, but landowners in places such as Guiana would also come to “prefer workers, and even farmers earning a wage to slaves for which one must pay dearly, and who are almost always burdensome and disloyal.”64
Two strands of French anti-slavery—one rooted in the raw, brutal experience of the Guianese frontier, the other in the physiocrats’ high-minded theorizing—collided in July 1762, when a man arrived in Paris from South America. Jean-Antoine Bruletout de Préfontaine had spent the previous twenty years running his own plantation near Cayenne and leading French soldiers and Indian path-finders into the backcountry in search of maroons.65 Like Aublet, Préfontaine’s life at the edge of the French Empire had, he believed, given him some insights. Upon reaching Paris, the visitor made contact with his friend Joseph de Jussieu, a prominent botanist who had spent time in Guiana. At Jussieu’s invitation, Préfontaine presented his ideas to a group of agriculturalists who met at Jussieu’s home. They included Jean-Baptiste Thibault de Chanvalon, a former member of the conseil supérieur of Martinique and author of a natural history of that island; Etienne-François Turgot, a nobleman who had served for fifteen years on the island of Malta; and his younger brother Anne-Robert Turgot, a royal intendant in the backwater province of Limousin who would later become Louis XVI’s first finance minister. To one degree or another, all were followers of physiocracy, and Préfontaine sparked their imaginations.
In some ways, Préfontaine’s plan was traditional. It involved a new settlement on the Maroni River, a hundred miles northeast of Cayenne near the border of Dutch Surinam. He proposed a town composed of fifty new plantations to be populated by three hundred French whites and six hundred slaves transported directly from West Africa. Préfontaine, however, had taken to heart at least some of the concerns over slavery generated by Guiana’s past. Migrants to his Maroni River settlement would, he hoped, shun cash crops in favor of growing food (at least in the beginning), and he hoped to keep the African population small and well regulated.66 But with the future of the empire and valuable patronage up for grabs, the men gathered in Jussieu’s drawing room thought bigger. Seizing on Préfontaine’s ideas, the salon physiocrats used their political connections to make the project their own. Bewildered, Préfontaine found himself whisked to meetings at Versailles, culminating in a November audience with Etienne- François de Stainville, duc de Choiseul, Louis XV’s foreign minister. Choiseul was receptive, having long believed in Guiana’s strategic importance.67 By February 1763, he had named the elder Turgot governor and Chanvalon intendant of what they had all come to call “La Nouvelle Colonie.” He had also recruited several investors ready to purchase land, and had reserved a choice plot of Guianese soil for himself.68
Little of Préfontaine’s original vision remained. Instead of a thousand masters and slaves, the colony would be populated by ten thousand white peasants and a handful of great proprietors. Capital-rich entrepreneurs bound for Guiana, declared Choiseul, would be granted land and laborers “in proportion to the money [each] contributes.” The colony’s “peasants” would be given small plots, but they would not be allowed to exploit these holdings for five years after their arrival. Instead, they would clear and till for the great landowners, receiving wages from their employers along with an allowance from the king.69 One element of Préfontaine’s plan did survive: his injunction that planters grow food “to eliminate the fear of famine” during the first few years.70 Even this point was amplified. Not only would the first settlers grow food initially, but all settlers would grow food indefinitely, creating a breastwork of farms that could, by Choiseul’s lights, produce “livestock and provisions” with which to “supply the Isles du Vent, and create a regular trade with them.”71 To help landowners resist the allure of sugar, coffee, and indigo, Choiseul took a radical step. Citing Louis XV’s desire to “multiply and increase the population and strength of this part of his possessions in America,” he barred the importation of “any Negro, mulatto, or other slave.”72
None of this had anything to do with African humanity. Broadly speaking, Choiseul and physiocratic fellow travelers such as the Turgot brothers had one important principle in common: they championed the cause of “rich farmers.” Men of means, talent, and agrarian savoir faire, these rural aristocrats were to enclose massive tracts of land within France itself, transforming subsistence plots into profitable farms and backward peasants into wage-earning laborers.73 “La Nouvelle Colonie,” in a sense, represented a colonial trial run for the metropolitan future. For Choiseul, it also made geopolitical sense. Arguing that “the English made their conquests in the late war by means of their northern colonies, which are solely populated by whites,” he advocated emulation. Anne-Robert Turgot agreed. “I see only one way to make a solid settlement,” he wrote to Chanvalon, “and that is to cultivate and populate with whites.” A quick influx of free settlers alone, Turgot offered, could raise the colony to the “degree of population” capable of resisting a British attack.74 What Préfontaine thought of all this is unclear. He did, however, agree to accompany the first migrants back to Guiana, but only after receiving the Cross of St. Louis, France’s highest military honor, and 18,000 livres.75
A traditional vision of colonial prosperity through African slavery: the Guiana plantation of the chevalier de Préfontaine, portrayed in his Maison rustique, à l’usage des habitans de Cayenne (1763). Courtesy of the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University.
Leaders set to the task of finding settlers. Acadians intrigued Choiseul most of all. In the spring of 1763, as nearly eight hundred refugees crossed the English Channel to France, Choiseul received a memoir describing their character from Louis-Jules Barbon Mancini Mazarani, duc de Nivernais, France’s ambassador in London. Good Catholics with a “tenacious attachment for France,” the Acadians were also good workers, he testified. As “yeomen” in Nova Scotia, they had toiled “constantly” to build dikes, sow crops, and reap the harvest. Unlike the besotted peasants and artisans of the metropolis, idle moments found the Acadians weaving cloth or fishing.76 While Nivernais may have admired the refugees, he had a clear motive for presenting them as “all given to hard work” on soils that “demanded diligent farming.”77 He owned Ile de Bouin, an uninhabited, sandy island at the mouth of the Loire River, and hoped to make it “a particular settlement for the Acadian prisoners in England.” Envisioning them as just the tenants to make a wasteland profitable, Nivernais began the process that would eventually land Acadians in Guiana, transforming them from an unknown quantity into a cohesive community of ideal agricultural workers.78
Choiseul had little trouble seeing the Acadians’ value. Indeed, competition for the refugees’ services had become lively. A British agent had contacted Acadians living in the Norman port of Cherbourg in 1763. Feigning interest in wooden sabots carved by the refugees, the man took them aside and promised them “a happy lot in Acadia” and “Irish Priests for the exercise of the Catholic Religion.”79 Rumors also swirled of settlement offers on the island of Jersey, where farmers expelled from Nova Scotia might fortify another frontier of the British Empire. The prospect of Britain retaking the Acadians gnawed at Choiseul. “It is important for the State not to lose this people,” he told the controller general of finances, Henri Bertin, “which would augment … the English; you feel the consequences of this as well as I do.”80 Choiseul rejected the Ile de Bouin scheme, telling Nivernais that the king “has for a long time had designs on [the Acadians] for a new colony.” Although at times “indolent,” Acadians were “laborious, good farmers, in general proper for anything as they were obliged to do everything in their country … building their own houses, chopping down trees, milling them, [and] constructing fishing boats.”81 In short, they were perfect.
Choiseul also had a darker motivation for favoring the Acadians for Guiana: they were bleeding his treasury dry. Upon arriving in France, the refugees were given a royal allowance, or solde, of six sols per day, or slightly more than a laborer’s daily wage. Compassion was not at the measure’s root. Louis XV was simply trying to match the British, who had given the Acadians “sixpence per day for their Subsistence, and … what may be reasonable for Lodging” in their metropolitan ports.82 By 1763, Acadians across France had grown dependent on government assistance. The corporate nature of the old régime, in which guilds and compagnonnages regulated labor, made work hard to come by. All Acadians, even men such as François Arbourg, a freebooter noted for “tavern debts,” and Aimable Henry, who left the Norman port of Cherbourg in 1758 for the “Guinea coast … aboard a slave ship,” used the solde to get by.83
Like much of France’s financial apparatus, the amount paid to Acadians remains shrouded in a mist of venality and grift, but costs likely rose to nearly 200,000 livres per year, paid directly from Choiseul’s budget.84 He sought to ease the strain. In 1761, Cherbourg officials began employing their Acadians on public works, withholding the allowance as they worked.85 Choiseul legitimated the move, declaring that “persons unmarried and in condition to work, those that while married … can procure a living, and finally artisans” should be removed from the list of those receiving aid.86 In response, Acadians begged. Once sympathetic, the cherbourgeoisie turned sour. “Inhabitants of this town who … have given them food, clothing, and other needs,” a functionary named de Francy worried, “have begun to refuse them.” With locals unable to cope with Acadian destitution, the burden once again fell to the crown. Guiana, then, offered Choiseul financial relief at home.
For refugees on the dole, recruitment proved to be an unpleasant process. Using incentives that had worked in the past—a payment of 50 livres for each family, plus 10 livres per child and the promise of arable land in Guiana—de Francy pitched the plan to an assembly of Acadians late in 1763. Seventy-five out of two hundred accepted, then changed their minds over the next few days, apparently thinking better of a move to the tropics.87 Although he exempted self-proclaimed nobles (unaccustomed as they were, he assumed, to the “painful work of their hands”), Choiseul declared that those Acadians who refused to migrate would lose the solde and were, from that point on, “free to become what they wished,” having misused the king’s “support and kindnesses.”88
Acadian resistance to these measures rarely ended well. Nastazie Doré Gaudet and Marie Henry, for example, accepted the crown’s offer early in 1764, then reneged and gave the 50 livres back. De Francy “threatened to make them leave by force.” Henry vanished into Cherbourg’s alleyways, while Gaudet endured more frustration. Convinced that her fiancé had signed on for Guiana, she approached de Francy and once again asked to leave, only to discover that the young man had no intention of departing for South America or of marrying her. She “kept herself hidden” for weeks thereafter.89 Others languished on the town’s docks, or tried to demonstrate nobility by showing De Francy “excerpts of [noble] titles.”90 In June, nine Acadians struck from Cherbourg’s welfare rolls gave in, bringing the number destined for South America to one hundred. By summer, the would-be migrants had trekked from Cherbourg to Le Havre, where they waited aboard ships destined for Guiana. Still more prepared to sail from Saint-Malo, Morlaix, and Boulogne. For Choiseul, the affair was a success. Acadians were deployable, dependent, dependable, and, at only 50 livres per family, compared to 2,000 livres for a healthy African slave, cheap.
As these Acadians (probably two hundred in all, although precise figures are hard to come by) assumed their too-familiar positions belowdecks, Préfontaine had reached Guiana. He had more than one hundred French, Canadian, Savoyard, and Irish pioneers in tow, along with Marie-Madeleine Boudrot and Madeleine Lapierre of Beaubassin, two Acadian women who had married a baker from Auvergne and an artillery officer from Normandy, respectively.91 Reconsidering the Maroni River site, he chose instead the Kourou, likely hoping to use the remaining buildings of an abandoned Jesuit mission. The group soon built a fort, drained marshes, and planted gardens. Counting on a “gradual peopling,” Préfontaine surveyed the river, portioning out farmland for the two thousand additional colonists he expected within a year. Joined by a regiment of soldiers and a few concessionnaires, the wealthy landowners recruited by Choiseul, the original colonists thrived. The death rate was only 5 percent.
The Kourou River as it appeared before the great migration of 1764. Jacques-Nicolas Bellin, Carte de l’entrée de la riviere de Kourou (1763). Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.
Arriving on Christmas Day 1763, the intendant Chanvalon waxed messianic about the Kourou colony. It was “singular,” he wrote, to reach Préfontaine’s settlement on the day on which “the church sings, Today the Child is born, Today the Savior appears.” After a chilly reception at Cayenne, Chanvalon had traveled overland to his destination, where “the entire colony was at arms on the shore.” Breaking decorum, the colonists embraced their leader with great “tenderness” inspired by the “impulses of the heart.”92
Failure was the furthest thing from Chanvalon’s mind. “Never, since the discovery of America,” he wrote, “has there been an enterprise so grand, so well supported … executed with more zeal, toil, and fidelity!”93 Others, however, were less sanguine. Jacques-François Artur, a physician at Cayenne, found it odd that Chanvalon had not consulted anyone in the old settlement on the prospects of an “entirely white colony.”94 Some of Cayenne’s longtime inhabitants, Artur reported, feared a repeat of 1717, when French passengers aboard Le Roy Guillaume had infected hundreds with smallpox. Late in the summer of 1763, word from the Kourou colony of stricken soldiers on the Prothée and the Corismande triggered old fears.95
Those fears would soon be realized. In February 1763, even as Choiseul began to train his eye on the Acadians, he also dispatched agents across France’s eastern border in search of good colonists. The inhabitants of German-speaking regions such as Alsace and Bavaria had endured a great deal during the Seven Years’ War. Exchange ground to a halt, marauding armies decimated crops, and news of peace brought little relief. French representatives, however, carried word (on custom-made German broadsheets) of a good deal for all willing migrants. After giving proof of “good conduct and manners,” German colonists bound for Guiana would receive money to transport themselves and “a certain quantity of goods or effects” to an Atlantic departure point—usually Rochefort in western France. Louis XV promised to take care of them. The crown would provide “food, clothing … household implements, hammocks, beds, sheets, medicines … treatment from doctors and surgeons, tools for farming and crafts, [and] seeds for planting” upon arrival in Guiana.96 These gifts would continue for three years, after which migrants would support themselves on their own lands. At the outset, though, the colony’s “little people” would grow food—emphatically not “the country’s principal commodities, which have made the most necessary provisions expensive and even scarce”—on the estates of Guiana’s big landowners.97 It was, Choiseul knew, a formula for success. Properly supplied and supervised, the Germans would thrive. And when the Acadians who remained in France “receiv[ed] news from their compatriots” in Guiana, Choiseul predicted, “they will little by little lose the dangerous ideas that they have fabricated” about the tropics.98
In June 1763, Choiseul picked Baron Louis de Bodelschwingh, a Prussian aristocrat who had served as a battalion commander in the German theater, to spearhead and consolidate recruitment efforts in the Palatinate. Bodelschwingh started out in Landau, where he produced a new “invitational placard” complete with maps, a poetic description of Guiana (a “beautiful country” that yielded “two harvests per year”), and a statement explicitly welcoming Jews.99 He emphasized the pleasures of the transatlantic crossing itself, including shipboard musicians such as Jacques-Blaise Ruisson, a smallpox-scarred, snub-nosed nineteen-year-old from Marseille who, for 50 livres, signed on to “play the tambourine for the amusement” of migrants headed west.100
Something then went horribly wrong. The first signs of trouble appeared that fall on France’s eastern border. “Men and women are coming in droves,” warned one of Choiseul’s aides in Strasbourg, reporting two hundred to three hundred arrivals per day in October.101 Concerned, Choiseul ordered Bodelschwingh to “suspend, for three months at least,” all new departures.102 The Prussian either did not get the message or ignored it. Making final preparations for his own departure from his estate in Normandy, Étienne-François Turgot received a letter from Bodelschwingh at the end of October. Five thousand migrants were on the way, Bodelschwingh reported triumphantly, with more soon to follow. Turgot begged Choiseul not to reject “men so precious.” “If this opportunity is lost,” he warned the minister, “all will return to the English, and will aid them in establishing new colonies.”103
Wishful thinking: an artist’s depiction of the disembarkation of migrants to the “new colony” on the Kourou River. Le Débarquement des François pour l’établissement de la nouvelle colonie dans le port de la nouvelle Cayenne ou la France équinoxiale (1763). Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.
Soon, however, events escaped Choiseul’s control altogether. Flush with money (or, more often, IOUs from Bodelschwingh), nearly seventeen thousand German-speakers began marching across France to the sea.104 Coalescing into town-sized bands, the would-be colonists begged, got drunk, and slept in churches along the way. In an effort to stagger their arrival, Choiseul tried to create six “staging points” at 150-mile intervals between the eastern frontier and Rochefort, but by late November they had been swamped.105That administrative paralysis set in should come as no shock: the number of prospective migrants to Guiana doubled the annual outflow from Great Britain to its North American colonies during the boom years between 1760 and 1775, and outdistanced any single colonial migration in French history by at least a factor of ten.106 About eleven thousand of those Germans ultimately reached Rochefort, doubling the mud-splattered port’s population upon their arrival. Fearing a disease outbreak, officials petitioned Choiseul for advice. He responded with orders to rush the migrants’ departure at all costs.
As Rochefort’s Germans were herded onto a hastily assembled fleet of transports, the roughly two hundred Acadian recruits assembled at Le Havre, Saint-Malo, Morlaix, and Boulogne sailed for Guiana. They left no journals, no firsthand accounts of what they experienced as they left Normandy for South America during the first months of 1764. But from his perch at the helm of one of the Germans’ transports, the Duc de Praslin, Captain Etienne Garcin saw it all and recorded his observations.
On April 23, Garcin sailed from Marseille with 350 Germans crammed belowdecks, avoiding the diseased chaos of the Rochefort embarkation. His six-week crossing was mostly uneventful. On the second night in the Mediterranean, a “little child” died of smallpox, after which the crew “threw her into the sea.” Seven more deaths followed: two children, four and eight years old, of smallpox; a five-year-old child, two teenage boys, and a fifty-year-old man, of “putrid fevers”; and Marguerite, one month and twenty days old, because “her mother had no milk.”107 Leaving their bodies in his wake, Garcin sped for Cayenne’s harbor, where he dropped anchor on June 10.
Officials in Cayenne shooed the Duc de Praslin away. They informed Garcin that the disembarkation of new settlers would take place on the Iles du Salut, three rocky islands a few miles off the Kourou’s mouth. Guided by a local pilot, Garcin left Cayenne early on June 13. At eleven that morning, as the islands’ jagged silhouettes emerged from the haze beyond the Duc de Praslin’s bow, the passengers noticed something in the water—a pirogue in which sat an exhausted, frightened African man. Garcin launched his own canoe and “went out and got him.” Adrift for three days after a “shipwreck,” the man belonged to a Cayenne merchant named Romain. The Germans gathered and gawked as the dehydrated slave was plucked from the pirogue and hauled onto Garcin’s deck, an uncomfortable meeting between Guiana’s bright future and its grim past.108
More unexpected encounters followed. As the Duc de Praslin neared the Iles du Salut, a flotilla of ships came into view. Garcin listed the Zélé, the Bénédiction de Dieu, the Balance, the Amphitron, the Roland from Le Havre (with a complement of Acadians on board), and “seven other ships whose names I have forgotten.” Together, they held over three thousand migrants. After a brief visit with Préfontaine and Chanvalon on the mainland, Garcin returned to the anchored Duc de Praslin and waited. A week later, he offloaded his 343 passengers onto small boats from Kourou, watched as the Germans scrambled onto Ile du Diable’s rocky beaches, and ordered his crew to “sweep, scrape, and wash” the Duc de Praslin’s decks. Garcin then haggled with Chanvalon over flour (the captain wanted to sell what remained in the ship’s hold, but the intendant claimed to have “more than I need”) and a few financial details before making preparations to depart for Cap Français in Saint-Domingue. On July 7, after a few days of bad weather, the Duc de Praslin’s “canoe” was commandeered to help “disembark Captain Pinates’s Germans.” Garcin told his crew to be ready to sail the moment the canoe returned, so that “no ship can prevent us from casting off.” He had good reason to hurry—“fevers” were on the rise around the Iles du Salut.109
Garcin’s instincts were more right than he knew. What he perceived as a disaster in the making was in fact a disaster in full bloom. In late February 1764, Chanvalon had received word that the frigate La Ferme would soon arrive with four hundred German passengers. Unable, he thought, to receive them on the mainland, he set up makeshift camps on the Iles du Salut. When La Ferme arrived, however, the ship’s captain passed on bad news. Two thousand more Germans, he reported, followed hard on his heels, with an unknown number of vessels lined up behind them. By April, the tone of Chanvalon’s dispatches to Choiseul had changed: “I cannot hesitate to say it: all is lost without hope, if you do not give the most prompt and precise orders to stop these prodigious deliveries of men.” On the Iles du Salut, the migrants either expressed “confusion” or hinted at “sedition”; most, however, were too weak to be much of a threat.110 “We have three kinds of disease that predominate here,” wrote a physician on Iles du Salut, “namely fevers, scurvy, and dysentery.” His remedies “had, after a certain time, absolutely no effect,” leaving patients to “certain death.”111 Even with the occasional killing of a giant tortoise, the doctor lamented the absence of “fresh meats, the only means by which to recover the sick.” Piled atop smallpox, typhoid, and diarrhea was an “epidemic” of ophthalmitis (a painful eye inflammation common aboard slave ships), a growing number of “illnesses of inaction,” and, thanks to sailors from the Fortune, an outbreak of venereal disease.112By July, Chanvalon had all but given up. “The new colony is full of grief and desolation,” he told Choiseul. “We are surrounded by the dead and dying.”113
No one really knows how many people perished. Thomas Knowler, a British naval officer who passed by Iles du Salut in March 1765, understood that of “fourteen thousand people that came out to settle the colonies … ten thousand of them died.” Turgot, who only reached Guiana in January 1765, found himself “surrounded by a multitude of emaciated and pale widows and orphans of both sexes … who clasped their hands and raised their eyes toward heaven.” He guessed nine thousand deaths in all. After twelve of his own family members and servants died of “contagious illness,” he turned on Chanvalon, accusing the intendant of hoarding food and cruelly rationing water from the lone spring on Ile du Diable.114 By that winter, Chanvalon was moldering in prison on Mont Saint-Michel, where, in 1767, he would hear of the seizure of his fortune to fund a hospital in Cayenne and “a perpetual mass for the souls of the inhabitants who perished.”115 Set against the devastation of Native Americans by Old World diseases and warfare, or the staggering human toll of the slave trade, the Kourou colony’s collapse seems small in scale. But for white settlers, it remains the deadliest single episode in the long history of European colonization in the Americas.
The Iles du Salut, formerly the Iles du Diable, where Acadian, German, and French migrants to the Kourou colony succumbed to starvation and disease in 1764. Plan des Isles du Salut, cy-devant les Isles au Diable, servant d’entrepot a la nouvelle colonie de Cayenne (1763). Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.
Although the Acadians sent from northern France clearly suffered, they emerged better off than most. Indeed, nearly one hundred managed to avoid the overwhelming mortality on the Iles du Salut, making their way to a tiny settlement at Sinnamary, far to the north and east of the Kourou River. In 1765, even as a despondent Turgot threatened to suppress government aid to Sinnamary unless its inhabitants left the colony for France, the Acadians—including brothers Joseph and Pierre Saulnier, Augustin Trahan, Jean Boudreau, and Joseph Lejeune—dug in their heels alongside a few Canadian and French neighbors. Some, such as Anne Thériot, whose husband had died in Guiana, did flee, but others remained to enjoy some success as poor, non-slaveholding farmers.116
Acting as governor at Cayenne beginning in 1766, Louis-Thomas Jacau de Fiedmont held the Acadians in high esteem. Born on Ile Royale to an Acadian mother and a French father, Fiedmont had served as an engineer at Fort Beauséjour during the 1750s. Perhaps wistfully, he saw Sinnamary as an analog to the Bay of Fundy. Like “our settlements in Acadia,” he wrote, the exiles’ farms were “washed over” by runoff from nearby hillsides, thus “trapping compost [engrais] in the soil’s depths.”117 In 1768, Fiedmont tried to coax “a number of Acadians, working as sailors aboard English vessels” into staying in Sinnamary.118 None came, but Guiana’s original Acadian core endured. François de Barbé-Marbois reached Sinnamary after his deportation from France in the left-wing coup d’état of 18 Fructidor 1797. “Welcome,” an Acadian widow told him, “our fathers were banished like you … [and] we feel pleasure in offering you consolation and an asylum in our cabins.”119
No doubt, theirs is an intensely human story of coercion and pain, resilience and adaptation, but the Acadians sent to Guiana also lived and died within a larger context. Although 1763 is often considered to be the terminus of the early modern French Empire, the Kourou affair reveals the persistence of imperial ambition in Louis XV’s kingdom. It also hints at the massive scale of a postwar movement to revolutionize the very nature of the European presence in the New World. This eruption of new thinking consumed many of France’s best minds (from brash physiocrats to the philosophe Denis Diderot, who got his lover’s nephew a job in Guiana) and most influential statesmen (notably Choiseul, who hoped to build a “European system” of social and political life in the American tropics).120 The Acadians were caught up in these events, but they also had a hand in causing them. The presence of three thousand colonists—a “population too priceless not to receive,” as Choiseul put it in 1763 or, as another official styled them, “vassals to be desired”—helped make anti-slavery ventures like the Kourou colony thinkable.121
Thinkable, and also stupid. Or so Jacques-François Artur, Cayenne’s contrarian physician, told anyone who would listen after 1764. By his lights, Acadian and German settlers had labored under “cruel servitude” and “harsh slavery.” Condemned to work for richconcessionnaires, they “and their posterity” would have “perpetually” lacked the “power to change or better their condition.” Given the choice, Artur would rather have been a slave, for “even a Negro can better his lot, become free, and acquire all the rights of a citizen.” As he saw it, France’s new imperial vision for the Caribbean had not so much replaced slavery as redirected the institution’s coercive energy.122
Had Artur known that in a “deserted corner” of Saint-Domingue a smaller version of the Kourou experiment was under way, he would have been stunned.
Before 1763, Môle Saint-Nicolas had never attracted much attention. Perched at the western tip of Saint-Domingue’s northern peninsula, it had long consisted of a few unimproved land claims strung along the Saint-Nicolas River. It was far removed, both geographically and culturally, from the colony’s centers of power, the bustling metropolis of Cap Français and the slave-rich sugar plantations of the Northern Plain, and Port-au-Prince, the province’s fledgling administrative center. Not that Môle had no good points. Royal hydrographer Jacques-Nicolas Bellin described it as ideal for the cultivation of “vegetables and cotton” and raising livestock, cataloguing a host of “wild bulls, pigs … pigeons, turtledoves, and a few guinea-fowl” to supplement the diet of any settler.123 Still, the region’s rugged terrain and lack of roads seemed likely to keep it a backwater.
The Seven Years’ War, however, thrust Môle Saint-Nicolas into the spotlight. As the most lucrative of France’s remaining colonial possessions, Saint-Domingue garnered plenty of attention from Versailles after the Treaty of Paris. At issue was loyalty. Stung by the seemingly easy capitulations of Guadeloupe and Martinique, and by the planters’ clear preference for the British slave trade over its less consistent French counterpart, the monarchy embarked on the delicate task of reining in Saint-Domingue’s creole elite, a group notoriously suspicious of metropolitan rule and, as the abbé Raynal wrote, “less attached to their reputations [as good French subjects] than to their wealth.”124 The quest to cement Saint-Dominguan allegiance led to two shifts in policy. First, in the spring of 1763, France dismantled the colony’s system of military government, ending the much-hated practice of mandatory militia service and instituting parish elections for civilian officers to replace once-powerful militia commanders. Concerned over the new régime’s perceived inability to maintain order, Versailles reversed course in 1764, reinstituting the militia and placing Charles-Henri-Hector, comte d’Estaing, a career navy man, at the head of a reinvigorated military government.125
Saint-Domingue, the slave-rich core of France’s Caribbean empire. Jacques-Nicolas Bellin, Carte de l’Isle de Saint-Domingue (1764). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Whipsawing between civilian-driven economic liberalism and military-minded authoritarianism, reform in postwar Saint-Domingue produced violent debates over means but left little doubt as to France’s desired ends: keeping the colony securely in Louis XV’s fold while using it to extend the king’s power in the Caribbean. In light of these concerns, Môle Saint-Nicolas became, as one high-ranking official wrote in early 1764, “essential to settle.”126 Jutting out past Tortuga toward the southern coast of Cuba, Môle overlooked a prime shipping channel to and from Jamaica and the western Caribbean. Properly colonized, the entire peninsula might become a base of operations for a resurgent French navy. Alternatively, if Môle were somehow seized by the British, it would provide great advantages to the enemy. As d’Estaing proclaimed, “Môle St. Nicolas … seems placed by nature to belong to the dominant naval power in the seas of America.”127
Remarkably, even in the Caribbean’s most self-consciously pro-slavery society, the Seven Years’ War had made both Saint-Dominguans and royal officials skittish about using African labor in places such as Môle Saint-Nicolas. As in Guiana, some worried that the isolated northern peninsula might become a haven for maroons. After all, hundreds (possibly thousands) of escaped slaves had, over the previous half century, established long-standing communities on the outskirts of frontier towns such as Jacmel and Les Cayes in Saint-Domingue’s sparsely populated, similarly mountainous southern peninsula.128
In addition, recent experience had made Saint-Dominguans fearful of slaves who remained on their plantations. Mostly it had to do with poison. This was hardly a new problem. In 1712, one resident of Cap Français complained that “for a long time” he and his neighbors had endured “considerable losses in livestock and slaves from causes unknown, leading them to suspect some of their Negroes of poisoning them.” The death of a “handsome enough” horse belonging to a local militia captain gave planters “the opportunity to look into these matters.” A slave named François, “who seemed to understand the use of poisons,” quickly fingered the militia captain’s slave Thomas, who in turn had purchased the poison from Claude Roy’s slave Colin—or so they all said after “having been put to the flames.” The existence of this little network of poisoners posed a “delicate” problem, the planters admitted.129 In most cases, solutions were anything but delicate. In 1723, a maroon named Colas Jambes Coupées was broken on the wheel in Cap Français for poisoning several slaves, his mangled body put out to cure as a warning to anyone contemplating the same crime.130
After years of sporadic local flare-ups, poisoning became an epidemic during the Seven Years’ War. In the spring of 1757, a slave named Médor made an apparently uncoerced statement implicating himself in an old poisoning case. He also accused the slaves Madeleine, Margot, and Angelique in the more recent death of their mistress, one Dame Delarue. Imprisoned and shackled, Médor kept talking until, “seeing that he would be delivered to justice, he stabbed himself to death” in his cell.131 From his testimony, authorities began to see the outlines of a vast conspiracy involving dozens of slaves, free blacks, and maroons. Meanwhile, cattle, slaves, and masters died at a frightening pace around Cap Français. A nine-month-long search netted one hundred arrests and thirty executions, culminating in the capture of François Makandal, a maroon identified by many slaves as the source of their poisons, and of the occult “secrets” needed to make proper use of them. After confessing to his part in the conspiracy, Makandal was burned at the stake in Cap’s central square. Famously, he somehow broke his bonds and leapt from the flames, but French soldiers (spooked, no doubt, at the sight of the African conjurer defying death) threw him back in.132
This execution notwithstanding, the poisoning phenomenon seemed un-stoppable. “The truths of the Christian religion,” wrote one planter, “which should have destroyed [the slaves’] superstitious practices, seem instead to have fortified them; and Slavery, far from putting a brake on their vices, appears only to have added to them.”133 The body count slowed in 1758, but rumors only circulated faster.134 Twisted sabbath ceremonies, with talismans of wax, holy water, old Hosts, nails, and “bones, especially those of baptized children”; white families “who could only eat and drink with secret worries, not knowing who to suspect among the Negroes serving them”—this was the frenzied mind of wartime Saint-Domingue.135
As the fighting ended, there were no reassuring conclusions. Asked why they had done it, condemned slaves mouthed that “the Devil had tempted them,” but investigators found a jumble of motives: “hopes of future liberty, love affairs, envy, revenge, harsh punishments, exaggerated weakness, games of chance.” Whatever the particular causes, suggested a 1762 summary of the poisonings, “these epidemic crimes have so corrupted the hearts of the slaves that … in vain do we tell ourselves that they will die out on their own.”136 A postwar influx of poor white Frenchmen made matters worse. “Where the colony has so few women, it is not surprising that men of all ranks enter into relations with Negro women, slave and free,” explained one Saint-Dominguan observer. Both “criminal” and “against good mores,” these unions produced the sorts of “jealousies, animosities, and disorders” that had triggered the “scourge” of poisonings in 1757.137 Falling prey to slave women and “mulatto mistresses,” this “mass of people” flooding into Saint-Domingue “has polluted the country,” complained Claude-François Borthon, an attorney with a plantation near Limbé.138 These demographic realities only heightened Saint-Dominguan paranoia about poisoning at the hands of “these monstrous assassins.” “Fire and scaffolds have not destroyed the contagion,” a memorialist wrote to Louis XV in 1764, for “this plague, almost always hidden, will be forever lethal to this Colony; may it not cause its ruin!”139
Getting rid of slavery, of course, was not an option. It was “the political essence of agriculture in the colonies.”140 But after 1763, colonists and royal officials seemed more willing than usual to work with something other than the blunt instrument of African labor. D’Estaing, for instance, lobbied to bring free “lascars” from the Indian Ocean to Saint-Domingue, hopeful that these “Moorish sailors” might instruct “many blacks” in the science of extracting and processing coconut oil.141 As a key element in France’s broader imperial plans for the Caribbean, the colonization of Môle Saint-Nicolas was more important than coconuts—and having just endured “an unhappy war with the English … while keeping up an internal conflict against even more dangerous Negroes,” slaves looked like a risky, expensive bet.142 For his part, d’Estaing flirted with the idea of using crown funds to purchase three hundred slaves at “one thousand livres per head” to work on fortifications and “even grow food,” but worried over the “onerous” cost and inevitable “abuses” sure to follow.143 Run-of-the-mill white migrants would never do, and not just because of their boorish behavior. Early in 1764, intendant Jean-Bernard de Clugny reported that of sixty “workers” recently arrived in Port-au-Prince from northern France, forty-five had died within a few months and ten had gone home “because of their health,” leaving only five.144 That left Acadians.
Those destined for Môle Saint-Nicolas took a tortuous path to Saint-Domingue. After hearing of France’s redemption of Acadians in England early in 1763, exiles across British North America sent notes to Choiseul’s offices, each brimming with the “meager, poorly dictated thanks of your poor servants, the neutral French of Acadia.”145 They asked for a place under Louis XV’s “standards,” but, hedging their bets, Acadians also wrote to Port-au-Prince. A group in South Carolina tried to send representatives to Saint Domingue in 1763 to ask the governor-general’s “assistance … to draw us nearer to him.” That voyage failed due to “bad winds,” but others succeeded.146 Later that year, with plans for the Môle Saint-Nicolas colony under way, Clugny and his associates hatched a scheme to transport Acadians from northern seaports. They hired a New York captain named John Hanson and passed secret instructions to Acadians to find him on the city’s docks. In a second circular spirited to Acadians that summer, Saint-Domingue officials promised that they would “be maintained by the King during the first months of their stay, that they may be able to earn a living themselves.”147 The pitch worked.
A sense of precisely what would be built at Môle Saint-Nicolas developed even as hundreds of Acadians made their way from British North America. The final plan was drawn up by intendant Clugny and Pierre-André de Gohin, comte de Montreuil, a veteran of the Canadian theater of the Seven Years’ War who had surely known Acadian refugees at the defenses of Québec and Montréal. The settlement at Môle would function both as military base and as rural breadbasket. Acadians would do the farming, French regulars the fighting. As soon as the Acadians had disembarked, leaders were to set up camp using “tents, covers, and hammocks such as those given to Negroes.” When these materials had been offloaded, the Acadians would erect “barracks, a blockhouse, a hospital, and the officers’ quarters.” In addition, they would cut a road leading from the source of the Saint-Nicolas River to the sea, in order “to transport by coach … the supplies and tools necessary for the Settlement.” A surveyor would mark out plots of “tencarreaux of land” along the river, each belonging to an Acadian family as “certain and incontestable property.” It came at a price. Those who “refused to give themselves to the operations of the settlement” risked confinement in a prison constructed by their own hands.148
The Acadians arrived at Môle Saint-Nicolas by sea from Cap Français on February 2, 1764. Among them were Marain Leblanc, a master carpenter initially exiled to South Carolina with his family, a young mason named Jean-Baptiste Doucet, and Joseph Poirier, a cartwright.149 Most of the others were farmers, or had been before 1755. What is known of their first months in Saint-Domingue comes not from their own testimonies but from the letters of Bertrand de Saltoris, a grasping, career-minded naval scribe charged with overseeing the settlement. Desperate to make a good impression, he penned his first report to Clugny “on a knee,” unwilling to wait for his desk to be unloaded from the ship.150 His Acadians were “the best people in the world,” especially when given some wine to “refresh their blood, [which had been] corrupted by too much salted meat.” Saltoris’s decision to ban hunting, fishing, and washing in the river caused some murmurs, but no real upset.151 “The Acadians love me and fear me,” he exulted, promising to continue “to inspire in them these two feelings at once.”152 Aside from a few cases of diarrhea, the first week at Môle Saint-Nicolas passed quietly.
Môle Saint-Nicolas in the eighteenth century. Le Môle Saint-Nicolas dans l’Isle de Saint-Domingue. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Hardships soon began. A storm left the settlers “flooded in our tents” and broke one of Saltoris’s boats on the rocks. The water also ruined several sacks of hardtack, much to the relief of Acadians disgusted with military rations.153 Through these initial difficulties, Saltoris wrote, the Acadians proved themselves to be “angels … who lacked the bad qualities of other men while surpassing them in goodness.” Instead of shrinking from Môle’s challenges, settlers worked hard and celebrated harder. A few weeks into the project, the entire community gathered on Fat Tuesday for what turned into a two-day-long feast in honor of twenty-three marriages to be “renewed or contracted.” Packing more than four hundred people under a makeshift arbor, the Acadians displayed the kind of rustic sociability Saltoris knew only from Rousseau. “There we were,” he exclaimed to Clugny, “men, women, children, all mixed together … until 11 o’clock at night, when we all embraced and went to bed.” Plenty of dancing (“young, old, whoever could jump the highest”), drinking (“two and a half casks of wine”), and eating (“one calf, twelve pigs, two barrels of flour, and one great cheese”), but no “bad speech” or “indecencies.” Throw a similarly raucous party for fifty Frenchmen, Saltoris imagined, and at least one of them would surely emerge “with one eye missing.” The Acadians were, he concluded, “not ordinary men.”154
Nor were they simpletons. After surveying the Saint-Nicolas River, ten Acadians returned to Môle “saddened” by the quality of the soil.155 Officials did their best to reassure them but could barely hide their own worries. Puzzled by the river’s weak current, Saltoris trekked upstream by himself, “walking not on the banks but in the middle, in boots.” He discovered that dozens of fallen trees blocked the flow, creating pools that liquefied the soil along its banks. Fatefully, Saltoris advised that the Acadians be employed in dredging the river and diverting its course. The project would slow Môle’s progress but would benefit Saint-Domingue in the long run. More worrisome to Saltoris, work along the river threatened to damage his ability to impress patrons. “I am mortified,” he wrote to Clugny in mid-February, “to be obliged to use the wrong hand [to write], but I wounded my thumb yesterday in the forest.”156
Although the scribe remained “content with the Acadians,” colonists raised tough questions about their relationship to the French empire, which now claimed them as subjects. For Saltoris, altering the river’s course was inseparable from cultivation, the Acadians’ role in the new Saint-Domingue. It was in everyone’s best interest, then, that the refugees do the work. Once rumored to be en route toward Môle, slaves from a nearby town had not arrived. Healthy white workers demanded high wages. In Port-au-Prince, officials lamented that “the journée of a white … has risen to ten sols per day.”157 Indeed, Saltoris would claim that a local contractor had estimated the cost of dredging at 300,000 livres. The Acadians, he boasted, could do the same job for 1,800 livres. He put the point to the new intendant in Port-au-Prince, René Magon: “You can hardly send us more hands; we must make do with those we have.”158
In a bold move, the Acadians demanded money. “Our Acadians are murmuring,” Saltoris reported, “and I do not believe it will be possible to make them work in the riverbed without paying them.” When Montreuil suggested that Acadian laborers be given goods instead of a wage, Saltoris disabused him. “These people are absolutely persuaded that the King should feed and clothe them,” he wrote, making clear that for unexpected work, the Acadians wanted pay above and beyond what had already been promised.159 No pay came from Cap Français. Dredging moved forward slowly. Saltoris grew embittered. Although the Acadians “were still the same,” he admitted in April to “swearing a bit too much these last few days.”160 He chased a young couple, Nicolas Vaudois and Marie-Louise Dubois, from the settlement for fighting with each other, describing the woman as a “real demon” who had been “marked and whipped at Louisbourg.”161 Mostly he complained about the other French officials who, when not “getting drunk, smoking, or sleeping,” passed their time circulating rumors about him among the Acadians.162 To d’Estaing, who finally reached Saint-Domingue in late April, Saltoris promised to reveal the colony’s “progress and growth” during the new governor-general’s visit to Môle, after which the scribe would happily accept a promotion.163
D’Estaing made that visit in July. He took a brief tour through what Saltoris had described as a bustling town of “several hundred hardworking, happy Acadian farmers who cherished those who administered to them.” What he saw pierced him to the core:
I found a few scattered men without shelter, dying beneath the Bushes, supplied in abundance with biscuit and salted meats that they could not eat, as well as tools they were in no state to use; they cursed an existence that, out of discouragement, they did not care to preserve. …… The greatest criminal would have preferred the galleys to a torture session in this plague-stricken place.164
Magon described the scene in equally shocking terms. “We found the settlement in the worst condition,” he confided to his journal. “Of the 556 Acadians sent here, 104 had already died,” with the rest well on their way to the grave.
“Solely concerned with his own interests,” Saltoris had lied about everything, or so Magon concluded. The scribe had treated the Acadians “like slaves,” barring them from hunting while he, in the style of a proper French nobleman, enjoyed free rein over Môle’s beasts. Even children were not safe. Saltoris had, Magon claimed, “pushed his inhumanity to the point of refusing milk to children who died without this resource.”165 Justice came swiftly. After enduring threats that “four soldiers would lead him away if [he] did not leave in two hours,” Saltoris was “thrown in a boat” in Môle’s harbor. He stayed there for five days with only peas and salt to eat. Taken to Cap Français, he sold the possessions he had managed to carry off, while the rest of his effects rotted at Môle Saint-Nicolas. Saltoris continued to dash off rambling protests, but the recipients paid him no mind.166
What had been a unique experiment in labor organization quickly reverted to the status quo. “Men in a condition to work should have been sent first,” Magon seethed, castigating Môle’s planners for not sending at least “a few blacks” at the very start. To replace Saltoris, d’Estaing and Magon tapped a former ship’s captain named Salomon, “a man accustomed to risking his life for little, and used to the kind of harshness needed to inspire today the man who will seemingly die tomorrow.”167 Under his command would be a familiar kind of laborer. “We will make a purchase of blacks,” Magon promised Salomon, “for the work which the Acadians, burdened by sickness, are no longer capable of performing.”168 To mark the slaves as the king’s, the intendant burned a fleur-de-lys into their cheeks.169
Imagining an empire without slaves proved much easier than building one. But, as Acadians discovered along the Kourou and Saint-Nicolas rivers, imagination had real consequences when paired with political desperation. Just as Africans had for decades been captured, categorized, and used up in the service of colonial production and metropolitan consumption, these refugees became instruments of empire.
A coda to all of these strange events shows their transformative power. Salomon, who replaced the hapless Saltoris at Môle, turned out to be anything but an improvement. Except for beginning “some nonsensical building projects” and attempting “grand theft” from the outpost’s coffers, he did nothing. D’Estaing replaced him in the late summer of 1764.170 None too soon, for ships loaded with nearly one thousand Germans from the Kourou River had recently arrived in Cap Français. Concerned about disease outbreaks and other disorders, d’Estaing intended to shift the migrants to Môle. He sent for an experienced hand to guide them. The new director—a “poor, uncouth devil, but honest and clever,” a man “unique in his species … fanatical about anything that concerns his work, as singular as he is learned”—sailed into Port-au-Prince in September. He picked up his instructions and a few farm implements and headed for Môle.
Having escaped from Guiana “half dead,” Jean-Baptiste-Christophe Fusée Aublet “knew better than anyone what we can expect” from Saint-Domingue’s all-white settlement.171 With his African wife and mixed-race children still a world away on Ile-de-France, the botanist went to work again. Suspicious of Môle’s arability, he left the remaining Acadians there, moving the German settlers several miles south to a new settlement called Bombardopolis after the sieur de la Bombarde, one of Aublet’s metropolitan patrons. While Bombardopolis made steady progress, Môle floundered. For his part, d’Estaing believed that the Acadians’ old village “will soon find itself depopulated … [and] all of these houses, built at such expense, will be left without occupants.”172 The task of settling and fortifying Môle Saint-Nicolas, he wrote, “will succeed only if the King has many Negroes” to clear, till, and haul in ways that people like the Acadians, “perpetually stalled by illnesses and lethargy,” could not.173
For Aublet, the physical, political, and emotional hardships of Môle became too much. His temper resurfaced. “He treated me very cruelly yesterday,” wrote one of his subordinates in March 1765, “and I do not know why.”174 That summer, after working with the Acadians on terraced gardens near their houses, Aublet informed d’Estaing of his decision to retire. Sickly and disheartened from exposure to France’s postwar struggle over anti-slavery and imperial reform, he left for France in September.
Bombardopolis ou Bombarde dans l’Isle de Saint-Domingue (1765). Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.
Despite Aublet’s departure, d’Estaing’s suspicions, and the Acadians’ precarious health, Môle Saint-Nicolas and many of its inhabitants endured. To be sure, some fled. Dozens—hundreds, perhaps—crossed the Gulf of Mexico to Spanish Louisiana. They followed a route traced by the renegade Joseph Broussard dit Beausoleil. After being liberated from captivity in Halifax at war’s end, Broussard gathered up two hundred of his compatriots and headed for the Caribbean, stopping at Cap Français in January 1765 on their way to new lands just west of New Orleans at Attakapas.175
Others took a different path. They clung to footholds in Môle and in spin-off settlements at Plateforme, Jean-Rabel, and Mirebalais. “Almost everyone who is not Acadian has deserted,” wrote one Môle official in September 1765, grateful for the refugees’ persistence. In February 1766, Marain Leblanc was busy leading a team of carpenters including Charles Cormier, Firmin Comeau, and Anselme Poirier. At Môle’s barracks, they worked alongside nine young Acadian apprentices (who constituted “the nursery that will shortly yield our best people,” according to their French commander) and eleven Acadian children (“who work fairly well, but who are not yet men”). Alain Daigre, by contrast, toiled in the woods, “driving the Negroes” who felled trees and cut planks. Daigre’s crew of slaves included Mabiala, Goma, and L’Espérance, or Hope. Scores of African women—Bouinga, Venus, Big Jeanne, Babel—hauled the Acadians’ water, while an enslaved child, Henry, played the tambourine.176
By June, all these Acadians and the king’s slaves remained in or around Môle, along with four hundred white farmers and laborers “not employed on the works.”177 Most of this last group consisted of Acadians as well. Over time, these men and women integrated into Saint-Domingue’s rapidly changing society. A few married other Acadians, but others did not, instead forming families with French, German, and Genoese migrants. Some later became slaveholding planters, but most scattered across Saint-Domingue’s northern peninsula, pursuing livelihoods on the margins of the colony’s booming sugar economy.178
Although plans for white colonies to defend and provision France’s sugar islands failed, they speak to the continued resonance of imperial thinking even after the stinging defeat of 1763. As outlandish as France’s plans for the Caribbean may now seem, they transformed the displaced Acadians’ sense of place and the quality of their most intimate social relationships. And almost unbelievably, the Kourou colony and Môle Saint-Nicolas were hardly the strangest or most far-flung imperial projects pressed upon Nova Scotia’s refugees.