The Mulatto Solitude

The Mulatto Solitude symbolizes the Caribbean women and mothers who fought to protect the ideals of equality and freedom in the context of slavery.

Pedagogical Unit

Historical context

Slave society and hope of freedom

Introduction

The story of the mulatto Solitude took place in Guadeloupe at the end of the eighteenth century.

Between 1789 and 1802, Guadeloupe went through a period of political unrest marked by the spread of the ideals of freedom and equality triggered by the French Revolution. In the space of ten years, Guadeloupe’s population experienced, one after the other, slave uprisings, a war against the British, the abolition of slavery and the recapture of Guadeloupe by an army of soldiers of colour (1794), the disbanding of this army (1802) and, finally, the reinstatement of slavery.

The hope that was embodied by revolutionary ideals gave way to the bloody suppression of the uprising of slaves and free people of colour (black and mixed-origin), who had fought for freedom and equality.

Map of the Guadeloupe, around 1650. Engraving by Abraham Peyrounin, edition P. Mariette, Paris, 1750.

At that time, the society of this Caribbean archipelago was organized entirely around slavery and tropical agriculture (sugar cane, coffee, cotton, etc.).

French colonization and slave society

The French landed in Guadeloupe in 1635 and fought the island’s indigenous Carib population. In 1660, under the treaty of Basse-Terre, the Caribs handed Guadeloupe and Martinique over to the French, but kept Dominica, Saint Vincent, Saint Lucia and Grenada, where French settlers were tolerated. In the eighteenth century, more and more French and British settlers arrived on the islands still in Carib hands.

In the space of a few decades, the French established a slave society in order to develop tropical agriculture, in particular sugar cane farming. They relied on the transatlantic slave trade to obtain slave labour for their colony. This society lasted until 27 April 1848, when the provisional government of the Second French Republic signed the decree on the abolition of slavery. On the eve of the French Revolution, 84 percent of Guadeloupe’s population were slaves, whether born in Africa or Guadeloupe (Creoles) (Régent, 2004).

Caribbean Man from the Rocoué Islands in the West Indies, with his arc.
Painting by Charles Plumier, 1688.

Transatlantic slave trade

The transatlantic slave trade led to the forced migration of more than between 12.5 and 14 million Africans, who were captured, enslaved and sold in the Americas and West Indies between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.

It formed the basis of a colonial commerce and maritime trade, led by the Europeans, between Europe, Africa and the Americas.

Source: The UNESCO Slave Route Project.

A number of French merchants profited considerably from this trade.


1789: French Revolution and hope

From 1789, ideals of freedom, equality and fraternity conveyed by the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which proclaimed that ‘men are born and remain free and equal in rights’, gave hope to free people of colour and slaves in Guadeloupe, and fuelled their demands.

Talk of freedom and equality continued to spread and slave-led conspiracies increased in number. In France, the Société des Amis des Noirs (Society of the Friends of the Blacks), created in 1788,

campaigned for the prohibition of the transatlantic slave trade and the gradual abolition of slavery. It opposed those representing the interests of the main white aristocratic planters (the Massiac Club).

Cachet of the Society of the Friends of the Blacks, 1788.

Discourse on the necessity to establish in Paris a company to contribute to the abolition of black slave trade. The S.A.N, 1788.

April 1794: the British invasion

In 1793, the political climate was tense: France declared war on Britain, its colonial rival; meanwhile, tensions were growing in Guadeloupe between republicans and royalists, with the latter prepared to ally themselves with the British.

At the beginning of 1794, faced with the threat of a British invasion, Collot, Governor of Guadeloupe, suggested that large numbers of slaves be recruited to the republican army and offered citizenship in return for armed service. Many citizens opposed this decision.

On 9 April 1794, the British attacked Guadeloupe with the support of the French royalists. Collot, who had failed to impose his decision to recruit slaves to the republican army, was forced to surrender to the powerful British army.

June 1794: the proclamation of general freedom and terror

Following rebellions by free people of colour and slaves in Saint-Domingue, and in order to meet the Republic’s need for soldiers, the French laws of 4 April 1792 and 4 February 1794 granted equality to free people of colour and freedom to slaves, respectively.On 7 June 1794, Victor Hugues, sent from Paris, proclaimed the abolition of slavery in Guadeloupe.




On 7 June 1794, Victor Hugues, sent from Paris, proclaimed the abolition of slavery in Guadeloupe. In the space of a few months, thanks to the inclusion of former slaves and free people of colour in the army, he recaptured Guadeloupe from the British. The former slaves showed incredible courage – both the men at the front and the women who looked after the injured during the British bombing of Pointe-à-Pitre.

The period of general freedom (1794–1802) was, in reality, a period of forced labour: the former slaves who did not join the army were forced to work on their old plantations.

Proclamation of the abolition of slavery.
Victor Hugues, 1794.

Napoleon takes power

In 1799, in France, Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in a coup d’état. He abolished the regime of equality that had transformed the colonies into French départements.

However, he favoured the use of soldiers of colour in the war against the British.

At the Council of State meeting on 16 August 1800, the First Consul declared: ‘The question is not whether slavery should be abolished […]. I am convinced that [Saint-Domingue] would be in English hands if the Negroes had not joined us in the interests of their freedom. They may make less sugar, but they will make it for us and they will serve us as soldiers if necessary. If we have one less sugar refinery, we will have one more citadel occupied by friendly soldiers’.

General Antoine Richepanse.
Painting by Louis-Edouard Rioult, 1846.

May 1802: freedom or death

In October 1801, Lacrosse, appointed to govern Guadeloupe by Napoleon Bonaparte, wanted to deport a number of officers of colour. However, the officers rebelled and threw Lacrosse out of Guadeloupe.

A provisional government took charge of Guadeloupe, led by Magloire Pélage, a Chief of Brigade from Martinique with a mulatto father and a black mother. Pélage swore allegiance to Bonaparte’s France. Even so, in early 1802, Bonaparte sent Richepance and 3,500 men to Guadeloupe to restore Lacrosse to his post and punish the rebels.



In May 1802, Pélage prepared to welcome Richepance’s troops. When his troops were relieved, the soldiers and officers of colour were taken on board ships. Some went peacefully, while others were humiliated and beaten by Lacrosse’s soldiers. Pélage submitted to Richepance’s authority. Some officers and soldiers of colour escaped.

May 1802: freedom or death (continued)

Fearing Lacrosse’s revenge, Commander Joseph Ignace and Captains Palerme and Massoteau, and the Martinican Commander Louis Delgrès organized a resistance movement against the oppression. On 10 May 1802, Delgrès signed a proclamation entitled ‘To the whole universe, the last cry of innocence and despair’. The mulatto Solitude, a few months pregnant, joined the fight.


On 26 May 1802, Joseph Ignace lost the battle of Baimbridge and took his own life to avoid being taken prisoner.

On 28 May 1802, Delgrès and his troops, composed of soldiers, officers and civilians, including many women, blew up the Danglemont house in Matouba, where they had taken refuge, thus living up to their promise of ‘freedom or death’.


Between May and December 1802, more than 3,000 insurgents died in the fighting and the suppression of uprisings.