Slavery and poisoning

From the beginning of the 18th century until the abolition of slavery, if abortion and tanning are considered as vices inherent in slavery, poisoning appears, especially in Martinique, as the most formidable scourge. “It is a general belief in the French West Indies and particularly in Martinique, that negroes have a taste, an inclination, a passion to poison” says Doctor Rufz de Lavison. Any suspicious death of animals or slaves, the cause of which is not obvious, is due to poison! “Madness, pernicious fevers, poison! stomach ache, poison! phthisis, poison! poison ulcers! ” Martinique appears, in the eyes of the colonists and the travelers, like an island where the negro slaves have only one rage: to kill their congeners by starting with their own family and also the beasts of the dwelling because their objective is the ruin of their masters.

The government follows the colonists and is led to take very severe retaliatory measures against the slaves, in pure loss, it seems, since this “crime” continues until emancipation. Many were the slaves tortured, beheaded, burned alive or deported and therefore who paid with their lives for this belief in poison.

What is it really like? Were the colonists in the grip of a collective psychosis? Can we, at present, by the light of the sources, elucidate this problem?

The colonist’s point of view

To try to understand the colonist’s point of view, let us refer to a case heard in 1838: In October 1838, Mr. Brafin, a merchant at Saint-Pierre, owner of the Abandon dwelling at Rivière Salée, was brought before the indictment chamber for excessive punishment against his slaves. The accusation chamber is the genesis of the case.

The house is located on the low and marshy land of the commune of Rivière-Salée and we have long regretted the loss of slaves attached to culture in this house called the Abandon.

“All the care taken by this inhabitant, all the new expenses made to clean up the grounds, that is to assure to the slave a well-being in clothing and food, could not have stopped this destructive plague which did not spare even the cattle. Since January, ten Negroes of the Abandon had died. Sieur Brafin seeing all his unsuccessful improvement projects and his lost sacrifices, attributed to a supernatural cause the plague which ravaged his dwelling while the neighboring properties sitting on the same ground and subjected to the same atmospheric influences seemed to him to enjoy a fate prosperous.

Consequently, Mr. Brafin believed that the armed malice of poison had projected its ruin; his suspicions fell on his workshop and mainly four of his slaves, Théophile, Marie-Joseph, Zaire and Jean-Louis. Strengthened by his suspicions or rather lost by the irritation caused to him by losses always unexpected, he went one day to the Abandon’s house, had the workshop assembled, exposed to him all the losses hitherto experienced and returned his responsible slaves on their heads, deaths which could occur henceforth on the dwelling. These threats, said Mr. Brafin, appeared to produce a happy effect for some time, but since the beginning of the year, mortalities started again and a few days before July 22, two close and sudden deaths and the desperate state of a third slave that I had to transport to town forced me to go up to my house.

Sieur Brafin goes up on his house on July 22; that one imagines the state of irritation and anger which his spirit was in prey when he was at the same time informed by his manager, that he had left on the dwelling, that the losses multiplied in cattle and slaves since the beginning of the year; that he could only attribute them to supernatural causes and that he was answerable for nothing. He assembled the workshop, brought out six slaves, Angélique, Joseph, Jean-Louis, Théophile, Zaïre and Marie-Joseph. The last four were suspected of using the poison and the other two were charged with breaches of discipline.

These six slaves were whipped. Those who were most severely punished are Zaire, who received 29 lashes from the commander _ whose bloody marks hindered him in his walk. Jean-Louis who received 22 blows from the hand of Brafin himself who had taken the whip from the hand of the commander because the latter seemed to him tired. Théophile and especially Marie-Joseph were even more so. Applied to the scale, they were whipped, the first by the commander, and the other by Mr. Brafin after having returned the workshop. This negress could not declare the number of lashes she had received because she cannot count; but his condition was most serious, forced to lie on his stomach to give his testimony before the investigating judge. After inflicting his punishments, the Sieur Brafin, in the grip of the fury which led him astray, went to the hut of the named Camille, whom he found in her bed after giving birth and put a shackle on her neck which she kept several days.

After Zaire received his punishment, a shackle was tied to his neck, and as a babysitter, he was tied to culture. Desperate for her retribution and her new state, she was drowned the same day and the next day her corpse was removed from the river.

Théophile, learning of the death of Zaire, with which he lived, tried to drown, he was prevented but succumbing to the pain, he hung himself three days later in his hut.

According to the foregoing account, Whereas it results that Mr. Brafin had inflicted or inflicted himself on several of his aforesaid slaves excessive punishment which caused two of the said slaves to kill themselves, these punishments were so without cause that indeed the procedure did not reveal any previous fact likely to give rise in the mind of Mr. Brafin the slightest suspicion against slaves to have used poison in a subject dwelling by its topographical position to the deleterious influences caused by the stagnant waters of its poorly maintained canals, which is noted by the report of Doctor Reynier, surgeon with the reports, (…) ”.

It emerges from this trial that, for the settler, the death of too many slaves or cattle can only be due to malice or to supernatural causes. There was no autopsy to verify the causes of death and it is without any evidence that he arrested certain slaves he suspected. Rufz de Lavison tells that a settler told him that having poison on his house, he suspected the nurse at his hospital and asked him to go get him brown cane; the hospitable woman having turned pale, he concluded that he was holding the poisoner. Here is an opinion quickly made!

These are the most tenderly loved negroes who are often considered guilty and have the means to administer the poison: a letter from Governor Donzelot of September 28, 1822 translates this common opinion:

“(…) These scoundrels meet mainly in the workshops conducted with the most gentleness and humanity and among the slaves enjoying the greatest confidence of the master and the best fate, the commanders, the refiners, the chiefs cattle keepers, hospitallers, maids, nannies ”.

In addition, they could only get the poison with the help of free colored men who were also involved in the poisoning: “It is believed that free mulattos excite slaves”. At Robert, in 1822, more than twenty mulattoes were arrested. From there to see the hand of the mulattoes and a general plot, there is only one step quickly crossed: “It is undoubtedly a set-up and everything seems to announce treacherous projects”, writes Dessales, settler in Sainte- Married.

In the 18th century, it is believed that the slave does not dare to attack white people: “it is true that their poisons have (and this is another wonder) no power over white people and that they admit it themselves … ”. But in the 19th century, the slave was made responsible for the disappearance of entire families of whites: “Monsieur de Sainte Julie, his wife, daughter, sister, brother and son died in seven weeks (.. .) The last two have been opened and the poison has been found. It thrills, ”wrote Colonel Dessales in 1822. The negroes are no longer content to kill their congeners and the beasts, they also attack the whites, the taboo would it have disappeared?

poison2

Why does the slave kill?

The colonist is convinced that the slave has only one idea, his ruin. By killing slaves and cattle, is it not directly to the master’s fortune that he is attacking? In fact, in notarial documents, we realize that slaves are valued for half the value of the dwellings. The black also uses poison to take revenge: Thibault de Chanvallon writes around the middle of the 18th century: “They (the negroes) brought from home and spread among our people the knowledge of several poisonous plants.

Trained in their country to use poison, they use it only too often in our islands. When they want to take revenge on their masters, they poison the other slaves, the oxen, the horses and the mules necessary for the exploitation of the house, kill their own family (…) They do not try their poisons on the whites. They are convinced that success depends on the power of their gods or their demons who have none on us ”.

The negroes attack their own families for training but also for not being suspected! This seems natural for the settler because for him “what to expect from another from a savage, from a brute who has no morals and over whom religion has no hold!” ” They also poison to prevent a beloved master from leaving or even to denounce a manager they do not like. Poisoning is a way of expressing yourself, of getting a message across!

But, according to the captain of genius Villemain: “most of the time, the crime exists proven, patent, confessed without any motive, interested and passionate: it is the man who burns to burn, who poisons to poison, it is instinct without reflection and that fear alone can contain “. For Granier de Cassagnac, who echoes anecdotal accounts collected during his visit to the island in 1840: “Why do the negroes poison?” We do not know anything. Is it slavery that drives them there? Not at all. Because the poison has always been unknown in the English islands and it is still unknown in the Spanish islands. Exported to Puerto Rico, they do not poison as soon as they are there. Is it out of revenge? No, because they poison their children, brothers, friends, the teachers they love the most. They proceed like lightning, they kill in two or three nights thirty oxen, twenty mules, a hundred sheep, ten or twelve negroes. (…) ”. So why don’t they directly attack the master and his family who are hurting them? And it does not seem curious that it is almost only in Martinique (much less in Guadeloupe, it seems where yet there are many trials for poisoning) that the slaves are accused of poisoning, then that in the other islands, there is no question, when they are from the same countries of Africa and therefore bearers of the same traditions?

What are they poisoning with?

It is generally believed that slaves use arsenic but the sale of this product is closely controlled, so how do slaves do it? It is believed that they obtain it through free agents or passing sailors. However, to kill so many slaves and cattle, huge quantities of products are needed. So ? In addition, the colonists are persuaded that there are in Martinique sects of poisoners with their passwords which work behind the scenes for their ruin: according to the great judge Lefessier Grandpré, in April 1804, it is necessary to fight “against a large confederation of criminals organized with a kind of method having their signs, their passwords and rallying, their correspondents peddling poison in all the workshops. The governor repeated the same assertions in 1822, but wondering if these associations are so numerous as that.

The slaves are supposed to know how to use the many poisonous plants so common in Martinique: the mancenillier, the brown cane or arum seguinum, the lemongrass root, the lilac root of Martinique, the sensitive or the oleander, but also the crushed glass, verdigris, snake venom or sea galley … When, during the autopsy, nothing is discovered, which happens most often, the colonist is not in trouble. For him there is no doubt because there are poisons of which only the negroes have the secret. They do not use poisons which kill quickly and which can leave traces: “they prefer, according to Riccord Madiana, those (substances) which do not feel their effects until some time after taking them”. They know unknown herbs and they have an unknown art to prepare and administer them. Could it not be an epizootic? Let Colonel Huc answer: “There is no epizootic, there is not an example in two centuries; there are no dead animals, there are sick only by poison ”.

So until the end, the settlers are convinced that only the poison is responsible for the suspicious deaths on the house. In short: – slaves poison more in Martinique than anywhere else, – they poison without the slightest reason and for the smallest revenge, – they poison their parents, friends, benefactors, to divert suspicion, – they have unknown poisons which they prepare according to a secret art, – they form associations of poisoners who profit from epidemics, – they kill with poisons with slow effects drawn from the vegetable kingdom, – the poisoning of the cattle is considered as a particular revenge to the negroes who make use of it for the least grievances, – their objective is to bring about the ruin of their masters, – it is the most pampered slaves who poison their masters, – the mulattoes are implicated as accomplices of the poisoning slaves.

The impression that emerges is that the master, instead of having a rational view of the problem, prefers to refer to the supernatural, believes that the negro has an unknown, marvelous instinct to administer the poison. The slaves who have the misfortune to be suspected, are defenseless before the master who tortures them, exercises against them abuse which can lead to their death and even uses spells against them: let us quote Assier in the 18th century (in Dessales, tome 1 p .497) “(…) The inhabitants who, seeing themselves ruined, to take revenge on the criminals and stop the course of their losses, imagined several means, and among others that of putting in the quick lime the hearts of animals who die from these kinds of diseases and prick them every day with a nail, claiming that this causes the poisoner to suffer very sharp pains, and that he finally dies when the heart is completely consumed “.

What is the government doing in the face of these settler claims?

Government action

It would seem that the government intervenes from two points of view: the first consists in replacing the justice of the colonist to avoid the excesses; the second and most obvious is to put in place repressive justice to help the settler more effectively. One has the impression that the powers in place do not doubt the veracity of the poisoning crimes and if they recommend autopsies, the process is hardly followed. ‘ Besides, the first veterinarian did not arrive in Martinique until around 1820. According to the report of Mr. Davoust (who led the repression) to the director of the interior, under the Restoration, the crime of poisoning would have caused the loss of 73 whites, 5,000 blacks and 8,000 cattle.

The governors, often skeptical at the start, were brought under pressure from the colonists to take increasingly harsh measures to manage to curb the scourge, without any success, moreover: “considering that the crimes of poisoning are multiplying to to such an alarming degree that it is urgent to take the most prompt and effective measures to repress them. That this detestable crime even threatens the existence of society that it becomes necessary to use all the force of authority to root it out and that the government owes the colonists all its protection at a time when all the properties are in the grip of a plague which tends to annihilate them and which is renewed in the most violent and most general way (…) It is necessary to punish promptly ». The first decrees on poisonings date from 1724 and throughout the 18th century the measures multiply with more or less rigor.

It is forbidden to sell arsenic to blacks and only three pharmacies located in Saint-Pierre, Fort-Royal and Trinité have the right to sell it. It is forbidden to employ free colored men and slaves in pharmacies for the preparation of medicines. An ordinance of October 4, 1749 recommends autopsies but it is hardly applied. News was taken on November 12, 1757, doctors and surgeons were responsible for the autopsy, but there was no follow-up. Only the arrest of the culprits does not put an end to the crime, it is therefore necessary to intimidate the poisoning slave with prompt and expeditious justice:

– a special court was set up on May 8, 1780 at Gallion, in Trinidad: 25 accused were tried. Three were burned alive, six hanged and their bodies thrown into the fire, four were whipped and marked. The others were unloaded but had to attend the executions. – in 1799, there was again a regulation against the poisoners because “the prosperity of the factories was slowed down, compromised by the villainy and the destructive art of the criminals; that in different circumstances and at different times, we tried to repress the mast and stop its progress … insufficient means so far (…) It is almost impossible to obtain evidence against the accused, some culprits that ‘they may be’. Surgeons must go to dwellings to find the body of the crime. We have to arrest and detain witnesses.

– on October 17, 1803, an order of Governor Villaret de Joyeuse created a court to try the crimes of poisoning and arson. We also target those who are aware and would not report the crime. The judgment is immediately enforceable. For the great judge Lefessier-Grandpré, it is necessary to fight against a “large confederation of criminals organized with a kind of method, having their signs, their passwords and rallies, their correspondents peddling the poison in all the workshops”. The government is trying to replace the justice of the settler based on torture and torture. According to a letter from the Governor dated January 12, 1820, there were 127 executions.

– on August 12, 1822, again, a provost court was created to punish the crimes of poisoning. It is necessary “to persecute them (the poisoners) with a speed which by ensuring their punishment can strike with a salutary terror those who would be tempted to imitate them”. The crime of poisoning is punished with death. The condemned person will have his head severed and the judgment is enforceable within 24 hours. Almost 600 people are believed to have been tried for the crime of poisoning. The investigation was generally quick, the judges being quickly convinced. According to Morénas, there were about twenty slaves or free men tried per month and half were executed despite generally inconclusive evidence; it was enough to be “vehemently suspected”. The rest were whipped, buried up to their necks, branded with iron, sent to the galleys or expelled for life. The colonists received a sum of 2,000 francs to compensate them for the loss of their slave. We even wondered if there was no cause and effect relationship.

But that does not give the expected results. The court was abolished on February 28, 1827, at the very request of the colonists because it could not remedy the evil: the Negro did not fear death and the crimes of poisoning were never more common than in when we were trying to suppress them.

From 1831 to 1842, according to Dr. Rufz de Lavison, there were 45 complaints of poisoning in the borough of Saint-Pierre and only 18 convictions, for lack of evidence, 28 complaints and 6 convictions in that of Fort Royal . It is not at all surprising to see an increase in requests from the masters demanding the outright expulsion of the colony of so-called dangerous slaves, because they fear seeing them return after having served their prison sentence on the island: in 1829 , there were 17 requests for eviction, 25 in 1830 …

The Privy Council, under article 76 of the ordinance of August 22, 1833, followed the colonists in the majority of the cases, following the following example, June 1836: “Expulsion of three slaves requested by Mr. Ernest la Rochetière, resident owner in Saint-Pierre and Mr. Chalvet in Basse-Pointe to which they attribute the considerable losses of cattle that they have both experienced for several months “. Allowed. To prevent a refusal from the Privy Council, the master simply abandons the slave to the government. How then to doubt his good faith? If necessary, he provides testimonies from neighbors, or even the mayor, to justify his request. And it is by the dozens that, from 1829 until the abolition of 1848, despite evidence deemed insufficient, slaves, having to abandon their families, were deported to Senegal but especially to the island of Biègues in Puerto Rico where they are sold. Some masters have even been accused of wanting to traffic it.

What to think about it?

We are faced with several theories: – the poison really exists and therefore shows the vices of the colonial system because the negroes do not practice it at home. It is the case of Schoelcher who declares in 1842: “It is a disease of country with slaves, it is in the air, the servitude charged its atmosphere of the colonies, just as the pestilential miasmas charge it with yellow fever, poison is a terrible and unforgiving weapon in the hands of blacks, a weapon of cowards no doubt, to which slavery condemns them “. He in no way questions the poisonings which are, in his eyes justified by slavery, which, by the same token causing evil, can only be condemnable.

They are supposed poisonings and the executions practiced in the boroughs in the presence of the slaves would aim to keep them in obedience by terror. For Morénas, this rather leads to indignation and revolt and thus explains the Carbet insurrection which took place during the existence of the provost court, when calm reigned in Guadeloupe where this court did not exist.

It is a collective psychosis of the colonists expressing their fear in an environment where they are in the minority and become more so every day. This is the case of Lavison’s Doctor and this is also the theory that I will develop: What is astonishing is that the Black Code makes no mention of any crime of this kind or, moreover, Father Labat who, however, mentions the case of an epidemic which led to the death of many slaves and cattle at the Martinique. Surgeons and health officials were judged incompetent, ignoring tropical diseases and the signs inherent in poisoning: the colonists quickly persuaded them of the crime. Dr. Rufz is harsh on them: “In general, many health officials, when they take minutes, do not suspect that in the eyes of educated doctors, they are proving their ignorance by using terms vague and entrenched in the speculative nature of medicine; on the contrary, such an assertion highlights their ignorance, for one must not believe that medicine is a conjectural science in everything. No: there are precise, incontestable facts, on which, when we do not know them, we can be caught in the act of ignorance, with proof in hand “. We can also quote Assier in Dessales in the 18th century: “Our surgeons find themselves embarrassed by the illness of the poisonous negroes, whom they know nothing about. It may be their fault and it is likely that this pretext is often used to cover their ignorance ”; “His ignorance is conveniently hidden behind the diagnosis of poisoning”.

On the other hand, those who try to go against the colonist are criticized and violently taken to task and ridiculed, as is the case of Dr Laporte, doctor in Santo Domingo in 1757, then in Martinique in 1766: “never a colonist has recourse to natural causes, he does not know them, therefore the negroes must be accused” and he adds “I have been ridiculed a lot, this has given me many enemies”. It is rare to find isolated cases of death of cattle. By following the mortality of the animals in 1822, in the journal of the colonel Dessales, one sees the epidemic spread from one dwelling to another; no precaution is taken since we prefer to believe in poison and poisonous sects.

According to settlers, one cannot raise animals in Carbet: “the negroes of this district, it is said, do not like cows and oxen, there is no way to have them, they kill them all , they want less of the mules ”. However, we can note at the time, with Dr. Rufz, that Carbet is a dry district where often, the canes and the herbs are burned, we do not know how to preserve the fodder and the good savannas are too far away. Elsewhere, the cattle are badly acclimated and exposed to the sun during the hot season, it is children of 10-12 years who are most often responsible for the care of the cattle. We can note the almost general absence of stables. Mortality is higher on newly landed mules. One can be surprised, moreover, to see the slaves kill oxen, horses or mules and respect the sheep which however are relatively numerous and succumb more easily to the poison!

It is especially at the time of the traffic that the mortality of the new negroes is enormous, after, the mortality decreases considerably. We prefer to believe in the marvelous: a doctor, testifying in 1842 in a trial, to whom the following question was asked: “Do you believe that the Negroes possess substances capable of producing pulmonary phthisis?” Replied: “As a doctor, I do not know of no substance which has this property. As a Creole, I believe the negroes so nasty that they are capable of anything ”.

Many stories repeated by word of mouth, are anecdotal if not novel: a settler does not tell these confessions of a slave: “it is because of your very benefits that I committed all these wickedness; I was too good; if you had been hard on me, as on the others, if you had forced me to work, I would never have thought of it ”. The very excess of these words makes us doubt it. Often during trials, blacks do not always understand the questions, they answer “less save”. And despite everything we try to push them to their limits and they contradict each other more often. Witnesses parade and their testimonies are more marvelous than reality. The judges themselves, warned against the poisoners, are most often confused by the lack of evidence and they are forced to admit that the substances found in the huts of slaves: bone reduced to powder, crushed leaves, earth, glass pounded, bird feathers, nails, hair, horse hair, anole or toad legs could not harm an ant. But you have to take into account the strength of prejudice. In addition, we note that they do not poison in their country, and do not continue after their deportation, while in Martinique, they do not stop. When they are arrested and the poisonings continue, we speak of associations: “the facts discovered by the criminal reports which speak louder than all reasoning demonstrate that unfortunately there are associations of this kind, although I do not believe that these associations are as numerous as some people claim ”. There is a little doubt but the settlers are so convincing!

It is the settler himself who is the cause of his ruin, as the trial cited at the beginning of this article shows. He is so convinced that it is poisoning that nothing can make him mess it up, and he himself puts his own home in jeopardy with baseless accusations: “An inhabitant whose head entered the idea of poison is full of distrust against everything around him (…) He does not know who to blame (…) He consults the sorcerers, the magnetizers, opens his ear to all advice , in all reports, frightens, disorganizes his workshop by raising the terrible suspicion: everyone is trembling because we do not yet know where the blow will fall. From there, denouncement, browning, the real ruin “writes Dr. Rufz who is however also owner of a house at the bottom Canonville in Saint-Pierre.

It was not until the 1843s, under the governor of Val d’Ailly and at the instigation of men like Doctor Rufz de Lavison, that a commission was set up to study more closely the crimes of poisoning: this commission is formed in Saint-Pierre of doctors Rufz, Noverre and Pouvreau and pharmacists Morin, Accarie and Peyraud. Mr. Forest, veterinarian, assists them. They analyze and experiment on plants or products deemed harmful. They realize that the quantities administered to cause death must be enormous and that slaves would have great difficulty in obtaining poison in such quantity. Often animals instinctively refuse to eat, they must be made to take it by force. The symptoms are clear and one cannot be mistaken about the origin of the poison: characteristic odor, immediate action. The brinvillea, for example, acts quickly on the nervous system, some blacks are accused of having killed their master by mixing it in the calalou.

“Someone who has not drunk anything or eaten for four hours could not be suspected of being poisoned with brinvillea”, because this plant causes dizziness, convulsions, vomiting, we die with a swollen face and tongue hanging and Dr. Rufz assures that, for eight years that he has been practicing in Martinique, he has not seen any case of this kind. The mancenillier who is often accused does not grow in the north, nor in the vicinity of Saint-Pierre and the blacks are afraid of it because they believe that those who touch it become swollen. Despite the results of this commission, the so-called dangerous blacks continued to be expelled from the colony and to pay for being different or agitators from the workshops. Some blacks suffering from vitiligo and called negro-magpies, are designated in public vengeance as poisoners: it is the poison they handle that discolours them!

Until the end of slavery, the colonists remained in their positions and obstinately refused to see anything other than poisoning in the mortality of their animals or even their slaves. For them, the black is only a savage, obeying primary feelings, acting cowardly in the shadows and in the context of associations of poisoners. We believe that, during slavery, poisoning existed as in all times and in all latitudes. But the settlers, in making the crime of poisoning a fact of society and refusing to let go of it, acted more under the effect of a collective psychosis, perhaps due to the fact that they are overwhelmed by more and more free slaves and colored men.

These poisonings are therefore located in the larger framework of slavery and show its vices: fear of the colonist, abuse, sadomasochistic relationships, recourse to the marvelous. And we can see that it was the slaves who paid, once again, their tribute in human lives to these beliefs.

Bibliography: – The Sovereign Council – 1820 – 25 – p 100. – The Privy Council 1830-1842. – RUFZ DE LAVISON (Dr): “Research on poisonings practiced by negroes in Martinique”. Annals of public health and forensic medicine – volumes 31 and 32. – DEBBASCH (Y): “The crime of poisoning on the islands during the slave period”. French review of overseas history 1963. – MORENAS (J): Historical summary of the slave trade. Paris 1828. p. 325 and following. – DESSALES (PFR): in Annals of the Sovereign Council of Martinique – T1 p.497. – SCHOELCHER (V): French colonies immediate abolition of slavery T. 1. – LETI (G): Health and slavery society. Martinique 1802-1848. History thesis, May 1996. p. 162-172.

Abonnez-vous à notre newsletter et recevez en priorité les derniers articles.