"Black magic" and white terror: slave poisoning and colonial society in early 19th century Martinique.
Subject: Slaves (Crimes against)
Poisoning (Investigations)
Author: Savage, John
Pub Date: 03/22/2007
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2007 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Spring, 2007 Source Volume: 40 Source Issue: 3
Topic: Temporal Scope: 19th century AD Event Code: 290 Public affairs; 980 Legal issues & crime Computer Subject: Company legal issue
Geographic: Geographic Scope: Martinique Geographic Name: Martinique Geographic Code: 5MART Martinique
Accession Number: 162457473
Full Text: On October 30, 1826, the Provostial Court of Martinique delivered its final verdict on an unwieldy criminal case involving some 30 defendants, including slaves belonging to nine different owners, several runaways with no known master, and three free men of color. At the core of the conspiracy was a group of five slaves whose confessions revealed a plot aimed at "entirely ruining" two plantations by poisoning livestock, slaves and the white masters themselves. One group stood accused of selling the deadly, venomous powder used in the crimes, while another provided a poisonous syrup to be used on the slavemaster. At the same time, a woman named Martherose was said to have performed two abortions using "harmful substances," and that "two of her own children and one belonging to another woman seemed to have died from poison, following threats she had made." The court records go on to say that these offenses "do not seem entirely proven," but the two women were nevertheless condemned to forced labor in Senegal. Five other slaves were accused of poisoning both men and animals, "but these charges, though very compelling, are not completely convincing, although time could bring proof of these crimes." The slaves in this group were not sentenced by the court at all, but sent back to their respective masters to be disciplined.

Finally, the provost and his fellow magistrates spent some time sorting out the case against Lubin, a freedman denounced by the slave Hyacinth, who claimed to have seen him at a secret meeting of a societe d'empoisonneurs. According to Hyacinth, Lubin was well known among poisoners for having started the tradition of drinking a toast to their fallen leader. Another slave testified that Lubin had asked him for a protective amulet during Lent, a practice said to be common among poisoners. Yet another slave-witness asserted that Lubin "[was] said to be powerful in the sect of poisoners" and that he was "well known" to have poisoned livestock on a nearby plantation. But Lubin was defended by his former owner, la Dame Millet, who blamed the rumors on a slave Lubin had once owned, "un negre tres mauvais sujet who could have wanted to slander his master's reputation." The court that decreed Lubin be watched by public authorities, but he was given no punishment. (1)

This account of a single session of the colonial Provostial Court provides ample evidence that slave poisoning was a phenomenon with complex social and cultural dimensions, and raises a number of questions. For one thing, why did magistrates see seemingly unrelated crimes in terms of a conspiracy organized by an underground "sect," complete with its own hierarchy, secret rituals, and black market for various mysterious substances? The account seems to explain murder and property damage in terms of vengeance of slaves against masters, but was the motivation for the crimes so clearcut? Did the presence of runaway slaves suggest that maroon communities were behind the crimes, or rather that coordinated action between slaves and freedmen was the norm, even as one of the freedmen implicated was himself a slaveowner? The cases of abortion and infanticide suggest that women played a key role. But to what extent were white views of "poison" simply evidence that planters misunderstood African herbalism, medicine and religious practices?

Perhaps most striking is the prevailing tone of uncertainty that pervades the court records. The "compelling" but "not entirely proven" charges rely on statements, often mere rumors, made by slaves, thereby limiting the punishments magistrates could assign. (2) It is clear the court had been extraordinarily murderous in the months after it was created in the late summer of 1822, executing large numbers of slaves after summary judgments, despite the fact that evidence was often lacking. Four years on, however, the court appeared to be assigning more moderate punishments in an effort to make them proportionate to the certainty of guilt and safeguard the property interests of slaveowners who objected to its methods. (3) By this time, members of the governing council had few illusions that sentences of forced labor or transportation to Africa would really deter criminal activity among enslaved people. The fact that some of the accused were simply returned to the custody of their masters demonstrates that, rather than sparking a judicial terror, these crimes provoked a crisis in the colonial courts. By the mid-1820s, even the martial justice of the Provostial Court was unable to stem this most dramatic form of slave insubordination and left many slaveowners to address it with their own private means of discipline.

Though poisoning by slaves has been identified and studied in many Atlantic societies, the case of Restoration era Martinique presents a unique example of the phenomenon, both for its scale and its periodization. In other places, historians have argued the phenomenon was disappearing by the 19th century. In Martinique during the 1820s, on the other hand, planters became obsessed with slave poisoning as a threat to the very "survival of the island." In this sense, the poisoning crimes provide an extraordinary angle from which to examine the final phase of France's slave society. In this article, I argue that the mass slave poisonings must be understood in terms of the specific context of the economic and cultural pathologies of the end of French slavery. At the intersection of tense metropolitan-colonial relations, commercial and financial anxieties, changing racial demographics and slave resistance, poisoning crimes brought inherent contradictions to the surface. In the longer term the inability of planters to quell the waves of poisoning that swept over the island undermined their demands for autonomy from the French state, and paved the way for a new metropolitan-colonial relationship.

Dutiful Slaves and Negres Empoisonneurs

The problem of slave poisoning was not new in 19th century Martinique, but contemporaries claimed the phenomenon was changing. First and foremost, planters and colonial officials were confounded by both the ferocity and the prevalence of the crimes. This is clear in the reports of Baron Delamardelle, an envoy sent by Louis XVIII to reform the colonial court system. "The negres empoisonneurs spare nothing," he wrote his superiors at the Ministry of the Navy and Colonies, "animals, their comrades, their closest family members, their own children all become victims. They take revenge on their master by attacking his fortune." (4) By murdering those closest to themselves, poisoners diverted suspicion toward others, which allowed them to renew their crimes. With little or no physical evidence planters were left to interrogate potential witnesses for what they might know. Yet, as one provostial judge lamented, "neither the fear of torture, nor the threat of punishment as accomplices to the crime will bring slaves to denounce their comrades." (5)

Most importantly, in addition to victimizing livestock and fellow slaves, planters claimed that slaves were poisoning their white masters, something they insisted had not occurred in the pre-revolutionary era. (6) This threat was accompanied by a change in planters' understanding of who the poisoners were. In this sense, the case of Lubin is worth remarking upon. As a freedman who enjoyed the trust of his former mistress, to the point where she testified on his behalf in court, he hardly fit the classic image of the slave-poisoner. During the early decades of the 19th century, the old view of the poisoner as a mysterious African obeah master, or as outlaw and insurgent, epitomized by the figure of Mackandal in pre-revolutionary St. Domingue, was giving way to a new, and to planters, far more disturbing understanding of the crimes. (7) By the early 1820s, the colons had become preoccupied with the idea that "poison is appearing in areas where we had succeeded in keeping it away until now, on the plantations where the blacks are best managed and taken care of." (8) Rather than serving as a gauge of overly harsh treatment, as Governor Donzelot put it, poisoners "are found principally on the plantations that are run with the most gentleness and humanity, among the slaves who live in the best conditions and who enjoy the greatest level of their master's trust: the overseers, sugar refiners, livestock herders, chambermaids and children's nurses." (9)

Many planters took up the assertion not only that loyal and dutiful slaves were occasionally involved in the crimes, but that poisoning almost always originated with them. At the same moment, free people of color found themselves suspected of complicity in the poisoning crimes. Like the focus on "dutiful slaves," the denunciation of freedmen was another new element in the planters' view of the problem as compared with 18th century accounts that had not typically implicated them. The operations of the Provostial Court served to generate and disseminate stories of such betrayals, such as an 1823 account of two female slaves "who had the sacrilegious adroitness to disguise their intentions with an external demeanor of devotion to the sacraments." (10) The crisis was such that it changed the way white planters lived their lives. Observers noted how long trusted house servants were no longer allowed indoors, nursemaids were watched at all times while with children, and ladies used to being served would only eat food they had prepared themselves. (11)

If it was true that poisoners were well treated or even emancipated slaves, then what could be the motivation for the crimes? The King's envoy, Baron Delamardelle, recounted an anecdote that provided an explanation. A planter had spoken in front of his slaves of his desire to return to France and give up his life in Martinique. Soon after, poison struck both animals and slaves on his plantation. After desperately interrogating likely suspects and being unable to uncover the slightest clue, he finally discovered the guilty party was a trusted slave he had treated extremely well. Asked to explain himself, the guilty slave answered "that the fear of losing such a good master had made him cause damage to his fortune to stop him from going back to France." (12)

A more elaborate, as well as extreme, example is the story of an orphaned girl of good family, raised by her caring slave nourrice, "who replaced her lost parents with a zeal, affection and devotion that were admired throughout the colony." On reaching marriage age, the young woman chose an officer who took over the family estate, one of the finest on the island. She kept her old nursemaid nearby, giving her a cottage of her own and assigning slaves to take care of her. Within a year, though, the estate was ruined, having been swept by a wave of poison that decimated both slaves and livestock. Left with nothing, the planter couple were told the old woman was involved. On confronting her, the woman interrupted her masters' tentative questions and admitted her crimes, "Do you think one can give a black good drink, good food, good sleep, while giving him nothing to do? [...] Since your marriage I've been given no work; you've given me everything I needed, everything I could want. I had to do evil." (13)

Given the frequency of such references, the author's contention that "there are thousands of similar stories to tell," seems not far off the mark. A colonial doctor recounted the following confession as an "often retold anecdote": "Eh! it's because of your goodness that I committed so many crimes: things were too good for me; if you'd been harder on me, as with the others, if you had forced me to work, I wouldn't have thought of doing it." (14) Another slave poisoner claimed to have taken action out of the sorrow caused by seeing his beloved mistress, recently widowed, remarried to a despised neighbor. (15) Finally, in another shocking story, a devoted old cook, "always at mass and communion, favored and spoiled by her masters," was discovered not only to have poisoned their young child, but to have unburied the body, ground up pieces of the flesh and mixed them into her mistress's food, and even hidden the rest of the corpse under the floorboards of their house. (16) The lesson of these stories was, as one planter put it, that "the class of poisoners is made up almost exclusively of slaves who are their masters' favorites ... their crimes are not brought about by despair or excessive labor; it is rather because of laziness and the special advantages they enjoy." (17)

Paradoxically, the proximity of those responsible for the crimes made rooting them out all the more difficult. As a leading planter later put it, "it was all the harder to discover [the guilty parties] because we [were] less wary of them," (18) Part of the problem, as white planters began to conceive of the crime, was that acts of poisoning could not usually be traced to a single perpetrator. Most whites adopted the belief that poisonings were not the product of individual malefactors at all, but slaves who were controlled by a sophisticated network of African obis: sorcerers and "black magicians" who had special knowledge of poison. According to a prominent planter who served as a provostial magistrate, these were true "societes, [with] leaders, secret signs and passwords, initiation rituals and ranks ... In a word, it is a special masonry dedicated to poison." (19)

As a result, planters complained that standard methods of legal procedure were ineffective precisely because of the individualized nature of French law. Even when they found the guilty party, it was nearly impossible to gather the necessary evidence and testimony required for conviction. Meanwhile, the unseen network of slave poisoners intimidated potential witnesses and covered up the crimes. Indeed, rather than fearing the terror of the courts, it was the fear of this powerful underground network that made so many slaves refuse to cooperate with investigations. "One cannot doubt," wrote the Governor in 1822, "that a large number of blacks have become initiated to the sect of poisoners in order to be safe from its grasp ... in order to not become victims 'they' have joined the ranks of the assassins." (20)

Poisoners posed a threat that went to the foundations of the colonial order. Planters were adamant that poisoning of livestock or slaves, let alone that of whites, disrupted the operations of a whole atelier, and undermined discipline among all slaves. The loss was not to be measured in terms of individual pieces of property, but as a threat to the whole social fabric of the island. For this reason, it made sense to many planters that this well organized network of poisoners was explicitly out to overthrow the slave system itself. Certainly, stories of Mackandal using poison as a means of political resistance were familiar to planters and slaves alike. This threat of social insurrection is what justified the rejection of individualistic metropolitan legal procedures. As one magistrate put it, "in order to succeed, we must consider judicial instruction of a poisoning case as if it is directed against all the members of these societies; because they all know each other, and each judgment is but a single step in this vast procedure." (21) In this sense, just as a Provostial Court had played a key role in counterrevolutionary backlash in France, the colonial Provostial Court waged its own "white terror" against rebellious slave poisoners.

In fact, just weeks after the court began its operations in the fall of 1822, an actual slave revolt erupted near the town of Le Carbet, leading to the deaths of several white slaveowners. Not only was this the first attack in memory in which whites were killed, planters were also shocked to learn that the slaves implicated in the revolt had been close to their masters. These were trusted house slaves, "loved as much as [their owners] loved their own children," the prominent planter Pierre Dessalles wrote in a letter to his mother. In one case, the guilty party was the illegitimate child of the murdered planter, a detail all the more disturbing that so many white planters lived surrounded by their metisse children. (22) The revolt was put down forcefully and the insurgent slaves brought to trial, but the incident only heightened the sense of urgency of the itinerant Provostial Courts. In a sense, whites came to see slave poisoning as a parallel to the Carbet revolt, that is, as the product of a conspiracy in which otherwise obedient slaves had come under the sway of alternative, hidden masters. The treacherous dissimulation of the dutiful slave was the all too explicit counterpart of the underground network of resistance controlled by master sorcerers and "black magicians."

Anxiety over control of the slave population was only exacerbated by the so-called Affaire Bissette the following year, in which a tract denouncing the treatment of free people of color was harshly suppressed and its author jailed and later deported. The affaire also provoked a full scale scandal in the French press, and helped revive the anti-colonial movement in Parliament, at this point largely focused on obtaining rights for freedmen. (23) In an 1823 letter, Pierre Dessalles described the case of a group of wealthy freedmen who were convicted as poisoners and sentenced to death just a week after receiving their confirmation in the Church. The case bolstered his suspicion of the priests who practiced on the island: "the [free] people of color and the blacks believe nothing of the truths of religion," he wrote, "they have but one thing in mind and it makes me tremble; the destruction of whites and the overthrow of the government." (24) By 1825, Dessalles wrote that "most people believe that the current poisonings come from the free people, who are directing the slaves toward evil." (25) Another planter made the connection between slave crime and liberal reformism in the metropole explicit: "the vociferations of the supposed amis des noirs in Parliament and in the press have come over to us without being opposed. They have been carefully spread among the blacks who repeat that it is the King's will that they have their liberty, that General Donzelot and his circle want it as well, but their masters are opposed." (26)

White Terror and Continental Reactions

Colonial resentment over political trends in France or continental interference in local courts did nothing to endear metropolitan officials to creole planters. On the contrary, the tensions seemed to have made French officials more skeptical of both poisoning claims and colonial institutions more generally. (27) The King's envoy, Baron Delamardelle, for one, became increasingly critical of the Provostial Court. His report on specific court cases, drafted in 1826, provides a sense of what some French observers objected to in the court's operations. Delamardelle's report examined two decisions from the town of St. Esprit. The first case revolved around a mother and son, Angelique and Auguste-Charles, both freed slaves who stood accused of poisoning. As the Baron noted, the prosecution was not initiated by white landowners, but when neighbors submitted a petition demanding their expulsion from the colony.

A number of witnesses were heard, all of whom repeated that the two had reputations as poisoners, and that Auguste's dead father had himself been "a great master." One witness claimed he had once been threatened by Auguste, explaining:

The next witness described Auguste's mother, Angelique, as "also famous among people as a witch." In the court record, this phrase was followed by the word poisoner in parentheses. But a white planter then testified on Angelique's behalf. Though "she passes for more powerful than her son," he said, "I don't think she did me any harm; she often announces that she is lighting candles in Church and making novenas so that God will punish those who say bad things about her son; and she says that all the harm that's been done to the landowners is the result of Divine Justice punishing those who slander him." (29)

The substance of the case against Angelique had to do with her service as midwife on a nearby plantation. According to several witnesses, all of the newborn children had been healthy there until the master replaced her with another woman. Soon after, a slave mother lost her newborn child and claimed Angelique had killed her baby to take revenge for losing her post. Though she had been a successful midwife elsewhere, the new woman did not "succeed" with babies on this plantation, and the expectant mothers reportedly had terrible stomach pains. Finally, the master asked Angelique to come back, and since then the newborns were again healthy. It was the white planter who could not help but conclude that "Angelique has the high science of the poisoners." (30)

Because her son Auguste had fled on being indicted by the court, which the magistrates saw as a sure sign of his guilt, only the seventy year old Angelique could be questioned directly. She denied all the allegations against her, and explained her unfortunate reputation with the following testimony:

In the second case, Josaphat, a slave who had been the personal cook of former Governor Donzelot, stood accused of having seduced a pharmacist's slave girl in order to get hold of some arsenic. To this end, he enlisted the help of his brother and cousin, both slaves of the royal prosecutor himself, but the young woman refused to give him any arsenic. The court devoted much of its effort to discovering what Josaphat intended to do with the poison. Suspicion fell on his relationship with a slave woman he had attempted to have hired as a cook by the prosecutor, Maitre Girard. The latter refused because, as the investigation showed, his housekeeper la demoiselle Modeste would not allow it. "It may be," the court concluded, "this arsenic was destined for this woman who stood in the way of the plans of Josaphat and his concubine." (32)

Baron Delamardelle's point by point review of these cases betrays a tone of criticism, even outrage, coupled with moments of wry sarcasm. In the case of Josaphat, first of all, the Baron wrote that the whole scenario about poisoning Modeste to get a position for his partner was totally unsubstantiated, and "results from a rich and lively imagination." The idea that attempting (unsuccessfully) to purchase some arsenic could result in sentence of hard labor for life provoked his ire, not out of humanitarian concern for the slave, but as a jurist confronted with flagrant contempt for legal forms: "No sir, there is in no Code such a barbaric disposition that assigns such a punishment for such an action." Reviewing the other case Delamardelle concluded that "what we learn from all this testimony is that Angelique and her son are seen by others as poisoners." But no hard evidence had been presented, and the court had not even taken the trouble to name those thought to have been their victims or attempted victims, leaving him wondering whether the instruction process had been borrowed from the medieval past. (33)

Over time, reports like these led officials to question the longstanding autonomy of colonial institutions, as well as planter claims of victimization at the hands of malevolent slaves. At the same time, an increasing number of court cases like those criticized by Delamardelle were being brought to appeal in France. These cases, brought in situations where there had not been sufficient proof to assign capital punishment, were often initiated by slaveowners angered by their loss of property, although it is possible affective concerns sometimes played a role. Indeed, these efforts to intervene can be read as a gauge of how difficult it was for some slaveholders to abandon their most devoted slaves in a society where planters were often physically isolated from other whites, and for whom enslaved people were omnipresent in their intimate lives.

In other cases, it was the enslaved themselves who appealed their convictions, such as a group of eight slaves who collectively contested a provostial decision of November 1823. (34) These appeals were all the more extraordinary that, technically speaking, all decisions of the Provostial Court were final; there was no option for review. Yet this did not stop France's highest jurisdiction, the Court of Cassation, from hearing the appeal of Marie-Louise Lambert, a free woman of color convicted by the Provostial Court. As in other appeals, the fact the convicted woman had been transported to France for imprisonment allowed her to take advantage of a network of sympathetic whites. Her case, for example, was taken up by the prominent anti-colonial spokesman Francois-Andre Isambert, who also served as counsel to Cyrille Bissette in the widely publicized Affaire des hommes de couleur. Though the high court ultimately found it could not break the verdict, her sentence was nevertheless reduced, an outcome that characterized a number of similar cases. (35)

Skepticism grew among metropolitan observers with the revelation of the excesses of the Provostial Court and its failure to stem the tide of crime. How was it, wrote Baron Delamardelle to the Ministry, that despite harshly sentencing fifteen to twenty slaves at a time, the supposed chefs among the poisoners always managed to elude the itinerant magistrates? (36) It was cases like these that helped convince metropolitan authorities to do away with the colonial Provostial Court altogether by the end of 1826, a move that accompanied the replacement of Governor Donzelot, relieved of his duties for consistently siding with the most ardently independent-minded planters. In addition to the procedural irregularities that drew the ire of Baron Delamardelle, the sheer ineffectiveness of the court no doubt also played a role. After an initial drop in their number, poisonings continued to strike throughout this period, even at times in the specific areas where the court was operating. In the end, the spectacular terror intended by public executions may also have come across more as spectacle than terror by black onlookers, with all of this display leading some to remark simply that the victim had had "un bel enterrement." (37)

The suppression of the Provostial Court signaled a new era in metropolitan-colonial relations, one in which administrators were more skeptical of colonial claims and planters were left disaffected from the court system and fearful about the future of the colony. The skepticism of officials like Baron Delamardelle eventually led to a more systematic examination of the phenomenon of slave poisoning that would underscore the distance between the French authorities and the local planter elite. It was certainly not the first time someone in an official capacity had questioned the exact nature and extent of poisoning crimes. The official annals of the governing council, for example, contain several discussions of the poisoning problem during the 18th century, including one in which a council member stated: "I have seen their concoctions produced several times at trial; I even once had some dug up that had been buried in my fields, and as much as I examined them, I found nothing that could cause death, even to an ant." (38)

In Saint Domingue, the other colony where poisoning outbreaks were most severe in the 18th century, a group of colonial doctors formed an association in the 1780s to combat the false ideas on the subject held by so many planters, and to promote the idea that most deaths ascribed to poison were in fact caused by epizootic livestock diseases. (39) Even the creator of the Provostial Court, Governor Donzelot, privately expressed his uncertainty about the stories when he first arrived in the colony, initially reporting back to Paris that "the facts described were for the most part accompanied by circumstances that were so bizarre, and that supposed such an extreme and gratuitous perversity on the part of the accused, that at times ... [I] had trouble believing in their reality." (40)

In response to the continued claims of victimization made by planters in the wake of the suppression of the Provostial Court, a colonial doctor undertook a systematic medical study of the poisonings. Dr. Rufz de Lavison served as a civilian assessor for the Royal Court of Martinique in the 1830s, where the evidence presented in several poisoning cases provoked his skepticism. (41) With the support of Governor Val d'Ailly, itself testimony to a new political context in the islands, he formed a commission that analyzed more than twenty substances drawn from roots, flowers, barks, leaves, glass, metals and sea creatures and their effects on various livestock, dogs or human subjects, including himself. His experiments included extracting snake venom and feeding it to horses and feeding a cow twelve pounds of feared Brinvilliers herbs, named for the notorious female poisoner of the court of Louis XIV. He recorded the minute effects on the physical state, energy level and stool of the animal, and whether they consumed the substances willingly in various forms. Though the forensic analysis of poisons was in its infancy, he referred to scientific studies of the substances when available. (42)

Dr. Rufz was by no means the first observer to point out that colonial surgeons had little real medical expertise, and that their ignorance reinforced the planters' willingness to see criminal mischief behind their misfortunes. Indeed, though the surgeons had little training, they often became closely linked with great landowning families, making their judgments all the more suspect. (43) It was the lack of experience and skill of these practitioners that made it common for autopsies to confirm the presence of poison in cases where lesions on internal organs were caused by tropical fevers. In fact, Rufz argued that the aggregate death rate among livestock in Martinique followed a regular pattern that belied the role of slave crime. His detailed statistical study of the importation of horses, mules and cattle suggested that poor supply lines from Europe, rather than poison, were to blame for sparse herds of livestock. Such evidence did not matter to planters, he wrote, since they were positively obsessed with diabolical conspiracies as the only possible explanation for their misfortunes. (44)

The association between poisoning deaths and a range of diseases is not inconsistent with reports of other contemporaries. Discussing the mysterious waves of "yellow fever" that seemed to accompany times of great rainfall, Paul Dhormoys speculated that "yellow fever is simply a poisoning caused by harmful miasmas that we breathe in" during the humid weather. (45) It was commonly believed by whites that contagious diseases were especially prevalent during the long rainy season known as l'hivernage, which was also when hurricanes were likely to strike. (46) Others commonly associated slave poisonings with this season: "it is during the time of epidemics that they usually choose to exercise their crimes most freely," wrote one doctor. (47) Using the same sort of assumption, Governor Donzelot concluded his report on the Carbet slave revolt by writing "it is always during the season of l'hivernage that plots are revealed." (48)

Recent medical history provides at least some support for Rufz's claims. Genevieve Leti does not make the argument herself, but her research provides strong anecdotal evidence that outbreaks of yellow fever correlate with the deaths attributed to slave poisoning, and that planters contributed to the contagion out of ignorance. (49) Meanwhile, Richard Sheridan has emphasized the huge mortality rates associated with dysentery, influenza and pleurisies, especially among newly arrived Africans. (50) In this same period, doctors in Europe discovered that Asiatic Cholera provoked symptoms very similar to those of arsenic poisoning, making misdiagnosis a common problem. (51) Finally, natural disasters such as hurricanes also had a direct impact on death rates, and recent scholarship has suggested how hard it was for creole whites to adapt their economic calculations to the effects of such calamities. (52)

In concluding his study, Dr. Rufz stated clearly, first of all, that isolated instances of human, and perhaps also livestock, poisoning did occur in Martinique. He had identified three available substances that were at least potentially poisonous: arsenic, the sap of mancenillier trees, and manioc juice. The problem was that the quantities necessary for these substances to kill not just one person or cow or horse, but dozens of mules, cattle, or slaves, would be enormous. Even to kill one animal would require several bottles of manioc juice force fed in a short span of time. As for arsenic, its sale was tightly controlled on the island, and it would require not just a few grains but half an ounce or more to kill a single large animal. Besides, he argued, most of the human deaths attributed to poison manifested symptoms more reminiscent of cholera or dysentery than arsenic. Gathering, storing and administering such quantities of poison would be a complex undertaking to say the least, and would necessarily leave a trail of clues in the event it caused death, which took recognizably different forms according to the substance used. "I can conceive," he wrote, "of the partial poisoning of one or several people, or of a horse or a cow; but organized and repeated poisonings en masse, to the point of imitating an epizooty, impossible!" (53)

Beyond Skepticism

The writings of Dr. Rufz de Lavison are an extraordinary resource for the wealth of detail they provide about slave crimes, white responses, and the material conditions of slavery in Martinique. His study also reveals something important about changing metropolitan views of this plantation society. The results of his experiments inexorably pointed to "the ignorance" of colonial planters when it came to livestock disease. The implications of his findings were clear: white planters misread straightforward material evidence because of their paranoid obsession with slave revolt. Late in life, he came back to the subject to bolster this thesis by asserting that poisonings disappeared in Martinique after the abolition of slavery in 1848. (54) In this sense, Rufz was arguing for a direct link between poison crimes and the condition of slavery itself. From the perspective of the "modern" European medicine that Rufz embodied, belief in poison was no more than mere superstition, evidence of both African backwardness and the reign of ignorance and fear among white creoles. Above all, it was a sure sign that true civilization could only come through reform initiated by the metropolitan authorities.

There is much in Rufz's account of poisoning that helps illuminate some of its more mysterious dimensions. It is clear, for example, that many of the substances said to be used in the crimes were perfectly harmless, that medical practitioners were not only untrained, but actually thrived on the business of questionable autopsies, and that at least some poison outbreaks resembled livestock disease in a number of ways. At the same time, however, his purely "materialist" explanations can only go so far. Most importantly, his otherwise exhaustive studies all but exclude attention to the practices of slaves themselves, other than to dismiss them as superstitious "black magic." Because of this, his observations must be combined with one in which the role of slaves is re-placed at the center of events, just as the crimes were understood by both white and black contemporaries.

In her work on African healing practices in the Caribbean, Christiane Bougerol has emphasized the way slavemasters perceived slave medicine as a threat to their authority. She argues that the advent of Enlightenment models of nature and the body made poisoning claims disappear by the end of the 18th century, thus sealing the hegemony of an imperial worldview. (55) In Martinique, however, despite the presence of "Enlightened" observers, poison not only persisted, but whites made it the most dramatic justification of the slave system. And far from transforming backward colonial practices, recent scholarship has shown just how ineffective European medicine was in the islands. (56) In fact, the incompetence of most colonial pharmacists and surgeons coupled with the lack of medical supplies from Europe meant that many whites still looked to "la pharmacopee noire" for their medical needs well into the 19th century. (57)

These observations suggest, first of all, that we should avoid taking "poison" as a known and given object, to be "discovered" or dismissed according to predetermined definitions. Its cultural meanings were multiple and coexisting, whether for African or Creole slaves, local planters or metropolitan physicians. This point has been emphasized in recent scholarship on the phenomenon of obeah in Caribbean slave societies, which has shown how medical and spiritual practices inherited from African cultures were often misunderstood and recast as "black magic" by anxious white planters. (58) Philip Morgan, for example, emphasizes that it is most useful to think of "poison" as the whites' term for a range of practices of conjuring or intentionally harmful sorcery. (59) For this reason, paradoxically, the idea that liberal ideas and the hope for freedom were behind the poisonings is in some ways an interpretation fundamentally shaped by the perspective of planters. (60)

In African societies, the obeah master attended to matters of cosmic and collective, as opposed to purely physical and individual, importance. In this sense, in addition to physical healing, slave doctors "were experts in the prevention, diagnosis, and cure of misfortune." What Europeans would understand as accidents, illness or the "natural causes" of death were seen as the result of spiritual forces or, in some cultures, the product of deliberate ill-will in the form of witchcraft or poison. Yet "poison" could also refer to substances used in order to "set things right" in the face of social or spiritual conflict. (61) Though planters in Martinique tended to use the African-derived word obi to speak of magical practices in a general way, they spoke of "poison" when they suspected criminal intent. The usage suggests the planters' broad inability to distinguish between herbalism or "sacred science" on one hand, and efforts to harm others, whether through conjuring or the use of noxious substances, on the other. Therefore, accounts of "poison" that invariably come to us mediated by white observers have already made an interpretation of events or actions that may have had very different meanings for enslaved people.

The competing cultural meanings of poison must also be understood in relation to the changing historical context of slavery. Along with Bougerol and other scholars, Jerome Handler's work on the case of Barbados suggests that obeah became less prevalent as the proportion of African born slaves declined in the final decades of the 18th century. In fact, Handler shows that even as whites tended to emphasize the negative and treacherous nature of obeah, the practices themselves were falling into disuse. (62) This analysis is especially notable in that conditions were best for the survival of African cultures in Barbados. (63) In Martinique, on the other hand, planters claimed poison was spreading on an unprecedented scale in the 1820s, and that the authors of the crimes had very different motivations and intentions compared to previous times.

Was there anything different about Martinique's slave population in this period? Recent work on the Atlantic slave trade offers some suggestive possibilities. For one thing, there was a dramatic shift in the provenance of newly enslaved Africans at the very end of the 18th century. According to David Eltis's Dubois database, in the early decades of the 19th century, the Bight of Biafra was the origin of some sixty percent of the trade, where only a small percentage of slave ships heading for Martinique originated there during the previous century. (64) Douglas Chambers has argued that most slaves from the trading ports of the Bight of Biafra could trace their heritage to the Igbo peoples of the hinterland, where obeah practices and poisoning were particularly well-established. Chambers argues that an "Igboized" slave culture emerged in Virginia due to the numerical predominance of slaves imported from Biafran ports, in an example of the relatively direct transmission of culture from Africa to the Americas. (65)

The idea that this influx of African slaves can help explain an increase and transformation of slave poisoning is appealing. It is indirectly supported by the fact that overall, the trade from the Bight of Biafra was in decline at precisely the moment it became the principal source for Martinique, a detail that reinforces anecdotal suggestions that Igbo slaves may have been considered undesirable in many Caribbean ports, perhaps because they were prone to resistance. (66) The argument also has the advantage of explaining why accusations of poisoning were less likely to involve human deaths after 1830, the year the illegal slave trade was finally curbed. During the July Monarchy (1830-1848), those poisoning cases that did go before the courts tended to focus on the simple possession or procurement of noxious substances, as opposed to actual acts of poisoning. (67)

But while the Igbo immigration may well have played a role in the slave poisonings, the shift in the origin of slaves can only serve as a partial explanation. After all, the majority of slaves from the Bight of Biafra went to ports in the British Caribbean for most of the 18th century, and while poisoning existed in Jamaica and Barbados, it was generally a much more limited phenomenon. (68) And surely it is more difficult for an otherwise politically stable, established and creolized slave society to have been "Igboized" than one that was still just a few generations from its origins. Meanwhile, though there were exceptions, slaves who held onto African cultural identities would also be those least likely to find themselves in the position of the trusted domestic servants who came under suspicion in this period. (69)

At the same time, several scholars have questioned the extent to which a unified Igbo culture was the common background of slaves who embarked at the Bight of Biafra, arguing that Igbo identity only came into being once Africans from highly localized cultures came into contact with each other in the Americas. (70) Others have emphasized the very different regions slaves came from before being funneled into the small number of ports of departure, and the shifting focus of the trade over time. And of course still other historians have found obeah and witchcraft to be prevalent among slaves from several other African regions. (71)

In fact, the only direct reference to the "ethnicity" of poisoners in Martinique comes to us from Baron Delamardelle, who was told that poisoners came especially from "Popo," a name that referred to one of two African trading ports, or the nationality of slaves in a region of the Bight of Benin. (72) It seems that any strong correlation between poisoning and the Igbo would not have gone unremarked, however, especially since a major source of white anxiety was the extraordinary network of associations serviles that were grouped according to their African "nations" of origin. Yvan Debbasch has shown that there were no fewer than seventeen of these associations in each of Martinique's two major towns in the late 1820s, and they can serve as a powerful illustration of the theory that ethnogenesis was largely the product of urban contexts in the Americas. (73)

As Kristin Mann has written, it is necessary to go beyond a simplistic opposition between "Africanist" and "Creolist" interpretations of New World slave cultures, toward an appreciation of the dynamic evolution of the processes of syncretism and acculturation that were fundamentally shaped by specific contexts. (74) While Igbo customs are recognizable in some practices of Caribbean obis, the intensity and prevalence of poisoning belie any kind of "traditional" use of magic or medicine. These practices adapted, moreover, to a very different social context than that of the British islands in the 18th century. With the end of the official slave trade and the specter of the Haitian Revolution, planters increasingly understood the world they had made to be under siege. This was true because of the revival of abolitionism in Europe, but more concretely, also because of the changing realities of the Atlantic sugar economy.

As Dale Tomich has shown, changes in the world economy meant the work regimen of industrial sugar production became markedly more rigorous in the 1820s, with the difference between solvency and bankruptcy often a question of extracting greater surplus from slave labor. (75) The decreasing tolerance for the illegal trade in this same period made harsh discipline seem more imperative. This economic connection was implied by Dr. Rufz de Lavison, who suggested that the mortality rates of both livestock and enslaved people were highest when the outcry over poison was at its peak. If a slaveowner acquired twenty new slaves and ten of them died in short order, he claimed, it was poison rather than the harshness of their new life that would be blamed. (76)

Records of the governing council also confirm that the island faced great difficulties in providing basic foodstuffs to slaves in this period. In a direct challenge to the cliches repeated by white planters, Dr. Rufz echoed those observers, including Baron Delamardelle, who pointed to the extremely poor physical state of most slaves as a potential cause of otherwise unexplained mortality. Of course, malnutrition contributed mightily to their susceptibility to disease. More directly, Gabriel Debien describes how planters would sometimes sell cows that had outlived their usefulness to slaves during the 18th century, a practice that likely continued in this period. He goes on to note a case where slaves were "poisoned" by eating the meat of donkeys and cattle that may have died from epizootic disease, as well as an instance of a slave dying after eating a crab that had itself been poisoned by mancenillier. (77)

Failing a true industrialization of production as would occur in Cuba, planters focused on intensified work discipline. This meant, among other things, that the longstanding habit of petit marronage that had served as a kind of safety valve to release tensions between masters and slaves was less tolerated than in the past. Some evidence of how this dynamic worked can be found in the letters of Pierre Dessalles. Each time he heard of a poison outbreak on a neighboring plantation, he wrote in 1824, he would step up the "firmness" of his management, "to stop the evil from getting to us." The following year he wrote his mother that poisoning continued to wreak havoc in the area, but "our losses are slow; we owe it to [our] severe discipline and great vigilance." (78)

But Dessalles's "firm management" also contributed to the high rate of slave suicides, abortions and infanticides he complained of, and his correspondence also shows how the fear of poison led neighboring planters to suspect each other of laxity, since their fate seemed to rest on the whims of slaves who resided nearby. (79) Of course, for planters, blaming deaths on poisoning conspiracies was easier than confronting the reality of systematic mistreatment. Increasingly violent efforts at social control may well have contributed to increasing acts of slave resistance, even if the "poisons" used were not actually lethal. (80)

Resituating Slave Resistance

Because poison crimes were both direct attacks on property and undermined the discipline and productivity of a whole habitation, it is not difficult to imagine why planters were vigilant to the point of paranoia. In this sense, though accusations of poisoning were surely, at times, merely panicked reactions to a financially crippling livestock disease, they also reflected the fundamentally new atmosphere of fear, and new dynamic of slave resistance, that characterized the period following the Haitian Revolution. (81)

On one hand, it is clear that conjuring, magic and sorcery were intensified in the New World at a time when, as Philip Morgan puts it, resorting to such practices "seemed especially appropriate in new and disorienting conditions." (82) The specific nature of obeah's relationship to social and kinship structures could also explain why the more traditional habit of limiting harmful efforts to other slaves might finally have given way to direct attacks on whites. (83) Further, as Jerome Handler has suggested, the context of new world slavery could lead to a dynamic in which exaggerated white views of the "dark" and "evil" nature of obeah could eventually lead slaves to adopt similar views. (84) White views of obeah and their panicked reactions to the crimes could therefore shape slave culture.

In this perspective, "poison" increasingly became the idiom of the day, not because of its significance in African cultures, but in European ones. In France, the poison scandals of the court of Louis XIV meant that poison would long be associated with the sophisticated subterfuges of aristocratic women, often in efforts to gain financial independence through the control of inheritance. The nearly hysterical response to the scandals in French society have been linked to deep felt anxieties over threats to the authority of the paterfamilias, and therefore to the social fabric itself. (85) As the quintessential "weapon of the weak," poison retained a strong association with women through the 19th century. In the Caribbean, however, it was not that the crimes were mainly carried out by women, but that like women, slaves were seen as passive subjects and deemed incapable of more direct forms of resistance. (86) In this way, the "poisoning" crisis in Martinique provides a concrete example of how obeah was transformed in the new world setting, in part through a mixing of African traditions, in part due to the changing nature of slave labor, and in part because of the white social imaginary.

Vincent Brown has argued that in Jamaica, the plantocracy "tried to place its own authority above human contestation by alternately appropriating and censuring the spiritual authority of the enslaved." (87) This appropriation implied a recognition, an acknowledgement of the reality of the obeah master's power alongside of efforts to control it. Indeed, plantation owners in Martinique often described African sorcerers in almost supernatural terms, as only such forces could explain the sinister influence that led slaves to kill their masters, others of their own race, close family members and even their own children. To cite an 18th century description, echoed in later accounts:

In the 1820s, Dhormoys recounted the story of an old woman denounced as a poisoner by her fellow slaves who was asked to provide proof of her magical powers. Bring six mules down this path, she demanded. The mules went no more than fifty steps when all six fell to the ground. "Good" she said, instructing the planter to dig a hole in that spot. According to the account, "at a fairly great depth they found a handkerchief holding some hair, nails, and a small, newly severed finger." Remove these items and the mules will be able to pass, she told them, and the mules were suddenly able to walk over the spot where they had previously fallen. (89)

When whites accepted and retold poison stories third and fourth hand, they only magnified the aura of the obeah masters that led the "sect of poisoners." It was precisely the idea that poison could be controlled from afar and administered slowly that allowed whites to see virtually any disease as a poisoning. Many whites also used their own black diviners and sorcerers both to identify the guilty parties and to take revenge upon them. Whites feared that those slaves who used talismans and magical practices were those most likely to challenge their authority, to engage in marronage and commit other crimes because they felt invincible. But when white victims kept the hearts of the animals that died and stabbed them with nails in order to inflict pain on the guilty slaves, they were propping up the power of "black magic" as much as any slave. (90)

Indeed, panic over poisoning actually led whites to build up the magical powers of slaves. When Governor Donzelot wrote that many planters were certain slaves had destroyed livestock and murdered humans "par des malefices," he exemplified this tendency. (91) In another example, a leading provostial magistrate earnestly recounted the story of slaves who poisoned a priest and fed his remains to a pig whose flesh was then distributed around the island by spirits in order to be eaten by leaders of the sect. (92) What emerges from such details is a picture of colonial society in which, far from dominating or suppressing traditional spiritual practices, whites absorbed and even magnified them. (93)

It is also clear that while many slaves were victims of the spectacular terror stoked by white panic, some enslaved people also used white fears for their own purposes. One example can be found in a story told by Moreau de Jonnes about a slave "spoiled by the good deeds of his master," who one day admitted, though he was not even suspected of the crime, that it was he who had poisoned his master, mistress and their young child, all of whom had died within a two week period with symptoms that suggested dysentery. Brought before the special tribunal, he calmly declared that all those slaves who had died with similar symptoms, many of whom were among his family and friends, had also been victims of his poison. Completely impassive, he recounted the details of each crime, shocking the court, which condemned him to death. At the execution, "he maintained the same indifference with which he had retraced his crimes and provoked his punishment." (94)

In the late 1830s, a freedman who owned a plantation known for the good will and good health of its slaves was suddenly hit by a wave of poisoning that devastated both slaves and livestock, leaving him ruined. Soon after, a slave who lay on his death bed on a nearby plantation summoned the landowner. The slave asked forgiveness for his crimes; it was he who had caused the deaths. "But why?" the planter asked, "what did we do to you? Nothing, added the dying man, but my master always criticized us because the work of your slaves brought you more revenue than he had." (95) While the truth of such stories is by definition unverifiable, they nevertheless suggest the appeal that "confessing" to poisoning crimes might have had for some slaves. As we have already seen in the provostial case reviewed by Delamardelle, reputed poisoners could intimidate both slaves and whites. Though this may not amount to the kind of resistance posited by some scholars, such accounts certainly confirm the willful agency of the enslaved.

Denouncing those guilty of poisoning was also a role that gave slaves importance and some degree of power, though it was sometimes linked to more mundane concerns. The obligation to denounce other slaves under threat of torture meant that those accused were often "selected" through a popular decision that reflected the collective suspicions of a community of slaves. The governing council actually records one large case in which more than thirty slaves were handed over, noting they had been accused "either by their masters or by la clameur publique." (96) Yet such choices may have been as likely to feed into petty ambitions, jealousies and rivalries among slaves as to serve as a vector for concerted rebellion. As David Geggus points out, "for Africans who attributed misfortune to witchcraft, it may be that resignation or resort to counterwitchcraft seemed a more appropriate response than rebellion." (97)

The degree of control slaves had over those accused of the crimes can also help explain the paradox of the "dutiful slave" poisoner. At the height of the poisoning wave that hit his plantation in 1824, for example, Pierre Dessalles wrote that his slaves were pointing to one of his most trusted "favorites," Eusebe, as the guilty party. Dessalles could not believe it at first, but then confided to his mother that he felt pressure to act on the suspicions: "Having been denounced everywhere," he wrote, "it would be impolitic to let him remain free." Confronted by another slave implicated in the crimes, Eusebe denied the allegations, but within a few weeks the discovery of another dead cow led Dessalles to deliver him to the Provostial Court, which had him executed. (98) The case of Eusebe suggests how the petty resentments of the slave hierarchy might play out in such a way as to bring those seen as most "dutiful" under suspicion. One effect of the poison panics, then, was to effectively polarize the races by undermining those slaves, so crucial to slaveholder ideology, who lived in close affective proximity with their masters. (99)

Though Eusebe and many other "trusted" slaves were male, it is clear that women often occupied a special position within the master's household and more often had access to the interior domestic space. Indeed the "household" was dual on many plantations, with masters surrounded by children of a slave mistress. There is some evidence that the spurned slave concubine would sometimes resort to poisoning, and certainly the obscure accounts of mysterious abortifacients and apparent infanticides seem most often to implicate female slaves. (100) But in other cases the role of gender is less predictable. In one case a group of enslaved children, aged from seven to eighteen years old, was found guilty of attempting to poison their white mistress. Under interrogation, they confessed to having been put up to the crime by a house servant, angry that her mistress would not release her to work in the fields. The unusual demand came because of a relationship with a man that led her to want to live in her own case. Here, the affective rivalries and interpenetration of private life among masters and slaves suggest the complex situations generated by the "intimacies of empire." (101)


In a telling formulation, in an effort to help a continental correspondent understand the situation, one planter suggested that "poisoning in Martinique is organized in the same way as the Carbonari in Europe." (102) The analogy to the underground struggle for national liberation illustrates the way slaveowners saw poisoning as a fundamentally political act. They feared the implicit bond among slaves that could only oppose their authority and discipline, and saw a "special masonry" where slaves may have been more focused on mundane preoccupations than fundamental political change. If the bloody uprising of Saint Domingue had become, along with the Reign of Terror itself, the purest symbol of anarchic revolutionary violence, then the image of the slave-poisoner recalled this dark legacy in the form of repeated acts of individual desperation.

After the suppression of the Provostial Court at the end of 1826, the new Governor sent word that poison was once again on the rise. It had recently spread throughout the countryside, into the towns, even into the homes of prominent notables who found themselves forced to distance themselves from old servants they used to trust. Like his predecessors, the governor repeated the claim that a secret, underground network was responsible for the crimes: "[our] society does not have to defend itself against isolated criminals," he complained, "it must struggle against a whole population that is tightly unified and under the influence

of a doctrine of death." Echoing the planters around him, the governor explained it was a mistake to think poisoning was provoked by cruel treatment. Rather, the cause of the crimes was to be found in "a complete and deeply rooted demoralization" of the slave population, and he was concerned that the loss of the Provostial Court had "struck at the heart of legal power, and [colonial] society itself." (103)

Yet rather than support colonial planters in their efforts to suppress these invidious crimes, metropolitan officials seemed to become more skeptical of them. In the end, the dramatic claims of slave betrayal left the colons open to the charge that it was slavery itself that was the cause of this moral degradation, as opposed to some essential malevolence slaves had brought with them from Africa. In fact, before the abolitionist movement was fully revived, the image of the slave poisoner was probably conveyed to the French public most effectively through literary accounts that used poison as a conceit to dramatize the horrors of slavery. Though they were sometimes set in the past or in non-French islands, novels like Victor Hugo's Bug Jargal (1826) or Eugene Sue's Atar-Gull (1831) used depictions of African witchcraft to draw the attention of their readers to the dire situation in the French colonies. And although they were infused with a colonial perspective, these stories did not portray white colonists as innocent victims. In the years that followed, Victor Schoelcher himself adopted the idea that slaves were using the "weapons of the weak" to overthrow the slave system, while also making poisoning one of the great symbols of the evils of slavery. (104) In doing so, however, he relied heavily on the accounts of planters just as state officials were questioning their validity.

As late as 1842, the same year that Victor Schoelcher expressed his solidarity with slave-poisoners, Governor Huc lashed out against the chorus of criticism from France in a speech to the sovereign council, angrily declaring that "there is no epizooty, there hasn't been an example of one in two centuries; there are no dead animals; there are only those who are sick because of poison." (105) The colons' stubborn attachment to the narrative of their own victimization gives us a sense of the psychological dynamic at work among slaveholders. Whether male or female, the idea that slaves were being treated too well was an essential component of a whole worldview. Given the threats of slave revolt and marronage, increasing financial pressures at home and growing abolitionism in France, white panic over poison epidemics functioned in terms of a kind of myth of insubordination and rebellion, an epic framework that justified their vision of colonial society.

As the end of the slave trade created a perceived need to enforce greater plantation discipline, this myth was a way to criminalize the behavior of the slave population as a whole and juridicize the social tensions generated by slavery. The collective perception that prevailed among whites asserted the inability of even the most trusted slaves to be educated and civilized, and also served as proof of the absence of sovereign will in these slaves, that other, unseen forces, were their masters. In a strange symmetry, the sorcerers who supposedly led poisoning networks acted as the counterpart to the absolute (legal) ownership that masters claimed over their slaves. In this perspective, poison and obeah were not so much legacies of a bygone, barbaric past, as they were traditional cultural forms newly invigorated and transformed in response to white scrutiny, changing economic realities, and the extension of state power. (106)

At a time when the creolization of the slave population heightened fears of demographic imbalance, poisoning scares also served to demarcate the races. It was precisely at the moment outsiders implored planters to extend the rights of freedmen as their only chance to save the slave system that planters drew a conspiratorial connection between slave poisoners and the gens de couleur. Conflating merchant freedmen and "black magicians" brought together the deepest of white anxieties: racial resentment, financial panic, and demographic despair. At the same time, where the legal rules of evidence were at first temporarily set aside as impractical, it was now the very absence of evidence that constituted proof of the crime. The only marker left to recognize was race itself.

As Joan Dayan has suggested, the violence and degradation of slavery can be seen as the reflection of French practices and values, a kind of baroque mirror of French society. (107) As he searched for the sources of poison in the island flora of Martinique, Dr. Rufz de Lavison arrived at a similar conclusion: "the name of Brinvilliers is given to an herb that has since been considered one of the principal agents used by the blacks in their evil spells. It is not the only one of our prejudices that arrived in this way from France." (108) Indeed, another was the fantasy of uncontrolled aristocratic privilege and power couched in the trappings of honor and independence that was the cornerstone of the slaveholder's world-view. At the same time, the idea of poison as the quintessential "weapon of the weak" found ready adherents among whites on both sides of the Atlantic, and the trope of the desperate, vengeful, and ultimately inhuman slave poisoner was accepted just as uncritically by a French public that was increasingly unsympathetic to slavery as it was by slaveowners.

Department of History

Bethlehem, PA 18015-3081


I would like to acknowledge the helpful comments of participants in the 2005 Law and Humanities Junior Scholarship Workshop at which an earlier version of the paper was discussed, as well as the financial support of the Lawrence Henry Gipson Institute for 18th Century Studies and the Franz/Class of 1968 Fellowship at Lehigh University.

1. Archives Nationales, Centre d'Archives d'Outre-Mer (hereafter CAOM), FM SG Martinique 141/1271, Arrets de la Cour Prevotale, third session at St. Esprit.

2. The colonial Provostial Court was still subject to the criminal ordinance of 1670, which placed a number of formal restrictions on magistrates' ability to issue the death sentence, especially when the accused refused to confess. On the rules of evidence in the Old Regime, see Richard Mowery Andrews, Law, Magistracy, and Crime in Old Regime Paris, 1735-1789 (New York, 1994), pp. 432-441.

3. One estimate based on archival sources suggests more than six hundred executed and more than a thousand others condemned to the galleys, forced labor or deportation. Joseph Elzear Morenas, Precis historique de la Traite des Noirs et de l'Esclavage colonial (1828; rpt. Geneva, 1978), 323-324. The estimate is corroborated by the maitre de requete, Baron Delamardelle, CAOM Mart. 52/431, reports of August 24, 1827 and March 27, 1830.

4. CAOM FM SG Mart. 140/1265, Papiers Delamardelle, 1820-28, "Projet de rapport au Roi sur la cour prevotale de la Martinique et sur les empoisonneurs."

5. CAOM FM SG Mart. 52/430, Rapport au Ministere de la Marine, n.d. On the use of torture see also Anon., Moeurs des trois couleurs aux Antilles (Migneret, 1822), pp. 10-11.

6. "... on dit que leurs poisons n'ont point de pouvoir sur les blancs, et qu'ils l'avouent eux-memes. Ce qu'il y a de certain est que jusqu'a present il n'y a heureusement point d'exemple qu'un Blanc soit mort par de pareilles voies...." Annales du Conseil Souverain de la Martinique (1786; rpt. Paris, 1995) I, 1: p. 497. See also Moeurs des trois couleurs, p. 8; Gabriel Debien, Les Esclaves aux Antilles Francaises XVIIe-XVIIIe siecles (Basse Terre/Ft. de France: SHG/SHM, 1974): 401. Philip Morgan also finds that blacks in the American South mainly used poison against each other. Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the 18th century Chesapeake & Lowcountry (Chapel Hill, 1998), p. 614.

7. On Mackandal, see Carolyn Fick, The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below (Knoxville, TN, 1990), pp. 59-75.

8. CAOM FM SG Mart. 52/430, Extrait du registre des deliberations du Conseil de gouvernement et d'administration, n.d.

9. CAOM FM SG Mart. 52/430, Rapport du General Donzelot, September 28, 1822. In the 18th century, planters linked poisoning to harsh labor discipline; see Debien, Les Esclaves aux Antilles Francaises, p. 402.

10. CAOM FM SG Mart. 52/430, unsigned letter of September 14, 1823; see also Rufz de Lavison, "Recherches sur les empoisonnements pratiques par les negres a la Martinique" Annales d'hygiene publique et de medecine legale 31-32 (1844), 31: p. 429.

11. Memoires de M. le Comte de Vaublanc (Paris, 1857), p. 95-7; 108; Jean Baptiste Ricord-Madianna, Recherches et experiences sur les poisons d'Amerique avec un essai sur l'empoisonnement par les miasmes des marais [...] et les maladies qui ressemblent aux empoisonnements ... (Bordeaux, 1826), p. 43.

12. CAOM FM SG Mart. 140/1268, Delamardelle report of Nov. 19, 1819 (1821), p. 69n.

13. Paul Dhormoys, Sous les tropiques, souvenirs de voyages (Paris, 1864), p. 135-137; emphasis in original.

14. Rufz de Lavison, "Recherches sur les empoisonnements," 31: p. 400.

15. Ricord-Madianna, Recherches et experiences, p. 50.

16. Dhormoys, Sous les tropiques, pp. 131-4.

17. CAOM FM SG Mart. 52/431, Memoire Riviere, 1829.

18. CAOM FM SG Mart. 52/431, Memoire Riviere, 1829.

19. CAOM FM SG Mart. 52/431, Memoire Riviere, 1829.

20. CAOM FM SG Mart. 52/430, Rapport du General Donzelot, September 28, 1822.

21. CAOM FM SG Mart. 52/431, Riviere letter of Oct. 30, 1829. The poisonous pouches carried by slaves were known as Mackandals.

22. Pierre Dessalles, La Vie d'un colon a la Martinique au XIXeme siecle (Courbevoie, 1987), I: p. 73.

23. See Stella Pame, Cyrille Bissette: un Martyr de la liberte (Fort de France, 1999).

24. Dessalles, La Vie d'un colon, I, p. 91, letter of July 4, 1823.

25. Dessalles, La Vie d'un colon, I, p. 143, letter of Feb. 18, 1825.

26. CAOM FM SG Mart. 52/430, unsigned letter of September 14, 1823.

27. See, for example, CAOM FM SG Mart. 161/1478, Correspondance du procureur general Girard, 1824-1826.

28. CAOM FM SG Mart. 141/1271, Cahier d'information fait par le president de la Cour Prevotale, pieces du proces contre le negre esclave Josaphat et Angelique ..., testimony of Nov. 11, 1826.

29. Ibid., testimony of M. Demarnon.

30. Ibid., testimony of le sieur Arthur Trabaud.

31. Ibid., testimony of Angelique.

32. Ibid., Remontrance du procureur general contre Josaphat.

33. Ibid., DelaMardelle letter of Nov. 29, 1827.

34. Another specific case is that of Leon, whose letter begins as follows: "A poor slave, a French Christian, a man, in the end, victim of a special tribunal, of irregular procedure, and out of his love for justice and truth, determined today to kiss your knees to obtain from your humanity that his appeal for royal clemency be placed at the foot of the throne." CAOM FM SG Mart. 141/1270, Demandes de grace des negres justicies; lettre de M. Leon, No. 40 provisoire, Bagne de Rochefort, n.d.

35. See the various actes de commutations in CAOM FM SG Mart. 141/1270, Demandes de grace des negres justicies. Isambert et les principaux avocats de la France, Consultations et Memoires a l'appui du Recours en Cassation des Hommes de Couleur (Paris, 1827).

36. CAOM SG Mart. 52/431, Reports of Aug. 24, 1827 and March 27, 1830.

37. The phrase was supposedly common among slaves; see CAOM FM SG Mart. 52/430, Documents de la Cour Prevotale, letter of Jan. 25, 1823.

38. Annales du Conseil, I:1, p. 497.

39. Yvan Debbasch, "Le Crime d'empoisonnement aux iles pendant la periode esclavagiste" Revue d'Histoire d'Outre-Mer 51 (1963): p. 145.

40. CAOM FM SG Mart. 52/430, Donzelot Report of Sept. 28, 1822.

41. Rufz de Lavison, "Recherches sur les empoisonnements," 31: 411; 32: 170.

42. Ibid., 32, p. 192; 350. On the role of snakes in slave poisonings, see Moreau de Jonnes, "Monographie du trigonocephale des Antilles, ou grand vipere fer-de-lance de la Martinique" (Paris, 1816), p. 35.

43. Pierre Pluchon, "La Sante dans les Colonies de l'Ancien Regime" in Histoire des medecins et pharmaciens de marine et des colonies (Toulouse, 1985), pp. 99; 107; see also Moreau de Jonnes, L'Hygiene Militaire des Antilles (1816), p. 82n. Philippe Masson argues that Napoleonic reforms in the Naval Ministry led to a dramatic shortage of trained physicians in the Restoration, opening careers up to unregulated charlatans; "Le corps de sante de la marine de 1789 a 1871" in Histoire des medecins, pp. 135; 143.

44. Rufz de Lavison, "Recherches sur les empoisonnements," 31: p. 428-429.

45. Dhormoys, Sous les tropiques, p. 32. See also B. W. Higman, Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 1807-1834 (Baltimore, 1984), pp. 272-273.

46. Moreau de Jonnes, Tableau du climat des antilles (Paris, 1817), p. 9-10; Genevieve Leti, Sante et Societe Esclavagiste a la Martinique, 1802-1848 (Paris, 1998), p. 70.

47. Quoted in Rufz de Lavison, "Recherches sur les empoisonnements," 31: p. 393.

48. Quoted in Francoise Thesee, Le General Donzelot a la Martinique vers la fin de l'ancien regime colonial, 1818-1826 (Paris, 1997), p. 121.

49. Leti, Sante et Societe Esclavagiste, pp. 126; 131.

50. Richard Sheridan, Doctors and Slaves: A Medical and Demographic History of Slavery in the British West Indies, 1680-1834 (New York, 1985), pp. 162, 186, 212.

51. Katherine Watson, Poisoned Lives: English Poisoners and their Victims (London, 2004), pp. 8-9.

52. Leti, Sante et societe esclavagiste, pp. 70-71; Sheridan, Doctors and Slaves, p. 161; Matthew Mulcahy, "Weathering the Storms: Hurricanes and Risk in the British Greater Caribbean." Business History Review, 78: 4 (Winter 2004): pp. 635-664.

53. Rufz de Lavison, "Recherches sur les empoisonnements," 32: pp. 405-6; 413-14. Cf. Dominique Ansel, et al. Plantes Toxiques des Antilles (Ft. de France, 1989).

54. Rufz de Lavison, La Martinique sous le gouvernement de M. le contre-amiral du Val d'Ailly, 1840-44 (Paris, 1882), p. 23.

55. "Towards the end of the century, physicians of the kingdom maintained in their post by the government, came to join the surgeons on the habitations. Their medical knowledge ... provided a fresh understanding of the situation.... With time, this calming influence won out over the surgeons of the islands who had absorbed the emotions of colonial life ..." Christiane Bougerol, "Medical Practices in the French West Indies: Master and Slave in the 17th and 18th centuries" History and Anthropology 2 (1985): pp. 125; 130; 136.

56. Juanita de Barros, "'Setting Things Right': Medicine and Magic in British Guiana, 1803-1838" Slavery and Abolition 25: 1 (April 2004): p. 30. Jerome Handler, "Slave Medicine and Obeah in Barbados, Circa 1650 to 1834" New West Indian Guide 74: 1-2 (2000): p. 82; Higman, Slave Populations, pp. 271-272.

57. Pluchon, "La Sante dans les colonies," p. 111. Looking at the case of Barbados, Jerome Handler argues that most modern scholarship has given the false impression that slaves had little or no role in their own medical care; "Slave Medicine and Obeah," p. 57n. On the relationship of science and Enlightenment to views of the body in the colonies, see Sean Quinlan, "Colonial Encounters: Colonial Bodies, Hygiene and Abolitionist Politics in 18th century France" History Workshop Journal 42 (1996): pp. 107-125, and James McClellan, Colonialism and Science: Saint Domingue in the Old Regime (Baltimore, 1992).

58. According to Jerome Handler, obeah in the Caribbean derived from various kinds of herbalism and medical practices that were "probably composed of different, albeit broadly related, beliefs and practices deriving from several West African ethnic traditions." "Slave Medicine and Obeah," p. 82.

59. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint, pp. 612-613. See also Douglas Chambers, Murder in Montpelier: Igbo Africans in Virginia (Jackson, 2005), pp. 13-15, 67-71. On the question of the "reality" of witchcraft, see Peter Geschiere, The Modernity of Witchcraft: Politics and the Occult in Postcolonial Africa Peter Geschiere and Janet Roitman, trans. (Charlottesville, 1995), pp. 19-23.

60. Indeed, the sheer ubiquity of references to poison has stopped many scholars from questioning the material basis of the crimes. For example, Bernard Moitt, Women and Slavery in the French Antilles, 1635-1848 (Bloomington, 2001), p. 139; Josette Fallope, Esclaves et Citoyens: les noirs a la Guadeloupe au XIXe siecle dans le processus de resistance et d'integration, 1802-1910 (Basse Terre, Guadeloupe, 1992), p. 203; Arlette Gautier, Les Soeurs de Solitude: La Condition Feminine dans l'Esclavage aux Antilles du XVIIe au XIXe siecle (Paris, 1985), pp. 223-225; Nelly Schmidt, Victor Schoelcher et l'Abolition de l'Esclavage (Paris, 1994), p. 32. For a North American case study, see Philip Schwartz, Twice Condemned: Slaves and the Criminal Laws of Virginia, 1705-1865 (Union, NJ, 1998). Other scholars echo the materialist skepticism of Rufz de Lavison, such as Genevieve Leti: ("Il peut arriver que ce soit de vrais empoisonnements ...") Sante et Societe Esclavagiste. p. 52; or Liliane Chauleaux: ("Il est possible qu'il y ait eu dans quelques cas des empoisonnements ...") Dans les Iles du Vent: La Martinique, XVIIe-XIXe siecle (Paris, 1993), p. 127. Cf. also Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Social Control in Slave Plantation Societies: A Comparison of St. Domingue and Cuba (Baton Rouge, 1970), pp. 71-74, and Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the 18th Century (Baton Rouge, 1992), pp. 162-165; Pierre Pluchon, Vaudou, sorciers, empoisonneurs: de Saint-Domingue a Haiti (Paris, 1987), pp. 254-68; Morgan, Slave Counterpoint, p. 618; Thesee, Le General Donzelot, 112.

61. Barros, "'Setting Things Right,'" pp. 34-35; Chambers, Murder in Montpelier, pp. 52-53; Michael Mullin, Africa in America: Slave Acculturation and Resistance in the American South and the British Caribbean, 1736-1831 (Chicago, 1992), pp. 176-179; Sheridan, Doctors and Slaves, pp. 72-77; Handler, "Slave Medicine and Obeah," p. 60; Morgan, Slave Counterpoint, pp. 613-631; Phillippe Delisle, "Aux sources de l'univers magicoreligieux martiniquais: esclavage et phobie des sorciers" Cahiers d'Histoire 41 (1996): pp. 64-6; Franck Degoul, Le Commerce diabolique: une exploration de l'imaginaire du pacte malefique en Martinique (Petit Bourg, 2000), and more classically, Geoffrey Parrinder, West African Religion: A Study of the Beliefs and Practices of Akan, Ewe, Yoruba, Ibo and Kindred Peoples (London, 1969), pp. 156-164; Orlando Patterson, The Sociology of Slavery: An Analysis of the Origins, Development, and Structure of Negro Slave Society in Jamaica (London, 1967), pp. 187-189.

62. Handler, "Slave Medicine and Obeah," p. 69; Debien, Les Esclaves aux Antilles, p. 409.

63. Philip Morgan, "The Cultural Implications of the Atlantic Slave Trade: African Regional Origins, American Destinations and New World Developments" in David Eltis and David Richardson, eds., Routes to Slavery: Direction, Ethnicity and Mortality in the Transatlantic Slave Trade (London, 1997), pp. 127-128.

64. David Eltis, The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: a Database on CD-ROM (Cambridge, UK, 1999). The shift to the Bight of Biafra occurred in the late 1790s, just as the British trade from the region was going into decline. See also David Eltis and David Richardson, "West Africa and the Transatlantic Slave Trade: New Evidence of Long-Run Trends" Slavery and Abolition 18: 1(1997): pp. 18-21; Serge Daget, La Repression de la traite des Noirs au XIXe siecle: L'action des croisieres francaises sur les cotes de l'Afrique, 1817-1850 (Paris, 1997), pp. 100-104; Josette Fallope, "Contribution de Grand Lahou au Peuplement Afro-Caribeen (Guadeloupe-Martinique)" in Serge Daget, ed. De la Traite a l'esclavage (Paris, 1988), p. 18.

65. Douglas Chambers, "'My own Nation': Igbo Exiles in the Diaspora" in Eltis and Richardson, eds. Routes to Slavery, pp. 72-97; Murder in Montpelier, pp. 159-187.

66. Chambers, "'My own Nation,'" p. 83; Eltis and Richardson, "West Africa and the Atlantic Slave Trade," p. 21. Gwendolyn Hall and others have emphasized the reputation of Igbo slaves for being suicidal, Africans in Colonial Louisiana, p. 255, but her assumptions about ethnicity have more recently been questioned (see Morgan, "Cultural Implications," p. 135), and to some extent revised in her recent Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas (Chapel Hill, 2005), pp. 166-168.

67. Examples can be found in CAOM Greffes Mart. 918, Cour d'assise, St. Pierre, 1830-1832.

68. Despite the fact that obeah practices tended to be steadily demonized over time, the literature suggests that though poison/obeah were present, they were not the major focus of white social control. See, for example, Barros, "'Setting Things Right,'" p. 34; Emilia Viotti da Costa, Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood: The Demerara Slave Rebellion of 1823 (New York, 1994), pp. 107-113; Douglas Hall, In Miserable Slavery: Thomas Thistlewood in Jamaica, 1750-1786 (Kingston, 1999), p. 92; Christopher Waldrep, Roots of Disorder: Race and Criminal Justice in the American South, 1817-1880 (Chicago, 1998). On the perception of the relative prevalence of poisoning in the French Caribbean, see CAOM FM SG Mart. 52/431, Memoire Riviere, 1829; Pluchon, Vaudou, sorciers, empoisonneurs, p. 148; Fallope, Esclaves et citoyens, pp. 189; 204-5. Rufz de Lavison, "Recherches sur les empoisonnements," 31: pp. 402-3. For this perception in English-speaking colonies, see Clarence Maxwell, "'The Horrid Villainy': Sarah Bassett and the Poisoning Conspiracies in Bermuda, 1727-1730" Slavery and Abolition 21 (2000): pp. 48, 66-69; Morgan, Slave Counterpoint, p. 614; Mullin, Africa in America, p. 182.

69. Gwendolyn Hall argues that the frontier character of the Louisiana territories made it more possible for African cultures to survive, Africans in Colonial Louisiana, pp. 159-161. Francoise Thesee has described the fate of a group of Igbo slaves from a single cargo ship in the early 1820s. Though some of these newly arrived Africans worked as servants, perhaps even for some of the colonial officials mentioned in the case described by Delamardelle, what is most striking is the extremely high death rate in the group; see Les Ibos de l'Amelie: Destinee d'une cargaison de traite clandestine a la Martinique, 1822-1838 (Paris, 1986). Thesee does not suggest that slaves in this group of Igbo were associated with poisoning crimes or witchcraft.

70. David Northrup, "Igbo and Myth Igbo: Culture and Ethnicity in the Atlantic World, 1600-1850," Slavery and Abolition 21 (2000): pp. 1-20; Morgan, "Cultural Implications," p. 141; Femi Kolapo, "The Igbo and their Neighbours during the era of the Atlantic Slave-Trade" Slavery and Abolition 25:1 (April 2004): pp. 114-115; David Eltis, The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas (London, 2000), ch. 9. For a defense of Chambers' position, see "The Significance of Igbo in the Bight of Biafra Slave-Trade: A Rejoinder to Northrup's 'Myth Igbo'" Slavery and Abolition 23: 1 (April 2002): pp. 101-120; and Gwendolyn Hall, Slavery and African Ethnicities, ch. 6. For a useful illustration of the dynamic process of ethnogenesis in New World slavery, see Kenneth Bilby, "Ethnogenesis in the Guianas and Jamaica: Two Maroon Cases" in Jonathan Hill, ed. History, Power, and Identity: Ethnogenesis in the Americas, 1492-1992 (Iowa City, 1996): pp. 119-141.

71. David Northrup, "New Evidence of the French Slave-Trade in the Bight of Benin," Slavery and Abolition 24: 3 (December 2003), p. 69; Kolapo, "Igbo and their Neighbours," p. 120; Eltis and Richardson, "West Africa and the Transatlantic Slave Trade," p. 29; Hall, Slavery and African Ethnicities, pp. 168-169; Barros, "'Setting Things Right,'" p. 37; Patterson, Sociology of Slavery, p. 189; John Thornton, "Cannibals, Witches, and Slave Traders in the Atlantic World" William and Mary Quarterly 60: 2 (2003): pp. 273-294; Laura de Mello e Souza, The Devil and the Land of the Holy Cross: Witchcraft, Slavery, and Popular Religion in Colonial Brazil (Austin, 2003).

72. CAOM FM SG Mart. 140/1265, Papiers Delamardelle, 1820-28, "Projet de rapport au Roi sur la cour prevotale de la Martinique et sur les empoisonneurs."

73. The associations were highly organized, with registries of dues-paying members, as well as a "king," "queen" and other officials; "Les Associations Serviles a la Martinique au XIXe siecle," in Etudes d'Histoire du droit prive offertes a Pierre Petot (Paris: LGDJ, 1959), pp. 178-9; Josette Fallope, "Contribution de Grand Lahou," p. 17; cf. Morgan, "Cultural Implications," p. 141.

74. Kristin Mann, "Shifting Paradigms in the Study of the African Diaspora and of Atlantic History and Culture" Slavery and Abolition 22: 1 (April 2001): pp. 6-8. Philip Morgan has emphasized the particularly pragmatic and adaptive approach to religion in West Africa that could have facilitated a mixing of various cultural practices; Slave Counterpoint, p. 612.

75. Dale Tomich, "Small Islands and Huge Comparisons: Caribbean Plantations, Historical Unevenness, and Capitalist Modernity," in Through the Prism of Slavery: Labor, Capital and the World Economy (Lanham, MD, 2004), pp. 127-8; Tomich, Slavery in the Circuit of Sugar: Martinique and the World Economy, 1830-1848 (Baltimore, 1990), pp. 237-248.

76. Rufz de Lavison, "Recherches sur les empoisonnements," 31, pp. 429-30; Sheridan, Doctors and Slaves, p. 211.

77. CAOM FM SG Mart. Corr. 143, sessions of February 24, April 23 and June 13, 1823, in which the governing council recognized the urgency of the widespread problem of malnutrition. See also Dessalles, La Vie d'un colon, I. pp. 61; 75, letters of July 15, 1822, and Dec. 30, 1822. Rufz de Lavison, "Recherches sur les Empoisonnements," 31: p. 429. Debien, Les Esclaves aux Antilles, pp. 195, 317. Cf. Sheridan, Doctors and Slaves, pp. 211-218; and Higman, Slave Populations, pp. 298-302.

78. Dessalles, La Vie d'un colon, pp. 116; 143, letters of July 12, 1824 and Feb. 18, 1825.

79. For example, Dessalles bickered with his neighbor Lassale over whether disease or poison had struck his livestock. La Vie d'un colon, pp. 117-122, letters of July 12 and 18, 1824. See also the case of Cesaire, letter of July 26, 1823.

80. This idea may be considered in tandem with David Geggus's argument that slave revolts increased in proportion to economic slowdowns in slave societies. See "The Causation of Slave Rebellions" in Haitian Revolutionary Studies (Bloomington, 2002), p. 60. See also Yvan Debbasch, "Le Marronage: Essai sur la desertion de l'esclave antillais" L'Annee Sociologique (1961), p. 135n.

81. Cf. Mullin, Africa in America, p. 217.

82. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint, pp. 630-1.

83. Mullin notes that obeah practices were sometimes seen as only being effective within extended kinship communities; Africa in America, p. 178. On the social dimensions of obeah, see also Barros, "'Setting Things Right,'" p. 33.

84. Handler, "Slave Medicine and Obeah," p. 81. This change over time has likely contributed to the confusion over the meanings of obeah, including the idea that Myalism was often (incorrectly) thought to be the "positive form" of obeah; see Barros, "'Setting Things Right,'" p. 40.

85. Lynn Mollenauer, "The Politics of Poison: Courtiers and Criminals in the Affair of the Poisons, 1679-1682" (Ph.D. Diss, Northwestern University, 1999), ch. 3. The ultimate parricide of the 19th century, the killing of Napoleon, may well have been carried out by means of poison, see Jean-Francois Lemaire, et al., Autour de "l'empoisonnement" de Napoleon (Paris, 2002).

86. Cf. Srinivas Aravamudan, Tropicopolitans: Colonialism and Agency, 1688-1804 (Durham, 1999), pp. 319-323.

87. Vincent Brown, "Spiritual Terror and Sacred Authority in Jamaican Slave Society," Slavery and Abolition 24:1 (2003), pp. 46-47.

88. Annales du Conseil I, 1: pp. 495-496.

89. Dhormoys, Sous les tropiques, p. 138.

90. Annales du Conseil I: 497; see also Debbasch, "Le Crime d'empoisonnement," pp. 169-171. On the use of black diviners by whites, see also Barros, "'Setting Things 'Right,'" p. 36.

91. CAOM FM SG Mart. 123/1101, letter of Sept. 9, 1822.

92. CAOM FM SG Mart. 52/431, Memoire Riviere, 1829.

93. Jerome Handler argues that African slaves could succumb to psychogenic illness when they believed they had been struck by poison, but his analysis of psychosomatic processes seems limited to slaves, and does not extend to whites. Handler, "Slave Medicine and Obeah," pp. 76-77.

94. Moreau de Jonnes, Tableau du climat, p. 27.

95. "Rapport du procureur general," July 1, 1842, cited in Expose ... du patronage, p. 114.

96. CAOM FM SG 42/346, Request of Feb. 10, 1830.

97. Geggus, "Causation of Slave Rebellions," p. 59. On the idea that petty resentments could be a cause of poisoning or denunciations of poisoning, see Dessalles, La Vie d'un colon, I: p. 94; Barros, "'Setting Things Right,'" pp. 43-44; Chambers, Murder in Montpelier, p. 63; Mullin, Africa in America, p. 177. On resistance as a theoretical problem, contrast Sherry Ortner, "Resistance and the Problem of Ethnographic Refusal," in Terrence McDonald, ed., The Historic Turn in the Human Sciences (Ann Arbor, 1996), pp. 281-304, with Michael Craton, "Forms of Resistance to Slavery," in Franklin Knight, ed. The Slave Societies of the Caribbean (Hong Kong, 1997), pp. 222-270.

98. Dessalles, La Vie d'un colon, I, pp. 121; 123, letters of July 24, 28 and Aug. 12, 1824.

99. The present article does not address the occasional involvement of petits blancs in slave crimes. I have focused on the responses of planters, though I do not mean to depict all whites as acting en bloc. On the complex nature of white creole identity, see Rebecca Hartkopf-Schloss, "'The Distance between the Color White and all Others': The struggle over White Identity in the French Colony of Martinique, 1802-1848" Ph.D. dissertation, Duke University, 2003; and Georges Mauvois, Un Complot d'Esclaves: Martinique, 1831 (Grenoble, 1998).

100. On slaves' use of abortifacients, see Londa Schiebinger, Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World (Cambridge, MA, 2004), p. 149; Barbara Bush-Slimani, "Hard Labour: Women, Childbirth and Resistance in British Caribbean Slave Societies" History Workshop Journal 36 (1992): p. 92.

101. "Rapport du substitut du procureur du Roi de Ft. Royal," Jan. 28, 1843, cited in Expose du patronage, p. 115. Cf. Ann Laura Stoller's discussion of "genealogies of the intimate" in Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (Los Angeles, 2002). On the role of gender in master slave relations see, for example, Kathleen Brown, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender Race and Power in Colonial Virginia (Chapel Hill, 1996); Marli Weiner, Mistresses and Slaves: Plantation Women in South Carolina, 1830-1880 (Chicago, 1998).

102. CAOM FM SG Mart. 52/430, anonymous letter of September 14, 1823.

103. CAOM FM SG Mart. 52/430, letter of April 9, 1827.

104. Schoelcher, Colonies Francaises: Abolition immediate de l'esclavage (Paris, 1842), pp. 121-2.

105. Huc, Les colonies en 1842 (1842), p. 58.

106. Cf. Geschiere, Modernity of Witchcraft, ch. 1.

107. Joan Dayan, Haiti, History and the Gods (Los Angeles, 1995), ch. 3.

108. Rufz de Lavison, "Recherches sur les empoisonnements," 31: pp. 412-13.

By John Savage

Lehigh University
"Le poison est une force morale:
  l'esclave a droit d'empoisonner.
  Si j'etais esclave, et que j'eusse perdu
  force et courage dans les hontes de la
  servitude, je le declare tres haut, je me
  rejouirais d'avoir trouve le poison, et je
  m'en servirais ..."
  --Victor Schoelcher

I have felt the effect of his hatred, since nothing prospers with me.
  He declared himself my enemy because he says my uncle Francois
  denounced him as a poisoner. No matter how hard I work, I succeed at
  nothing; my manioc has no roots, and it's the same with any land he
  sprinkles. He is the enemy of [the white planter] M. Manuelle
  Laserre ...; he told me he would reduce this landowner to carrying his
  water. [Laserre] has in fact lost animals ... (28)

We had some corn that dogs were eating. Auguste told me to make a
  callalou de Brinvilliers in which I put some ground up glass, codfish
  bones and pieces of fish, to put it in this plot of corn and that that
  would get rid of the dogs. It didn't work. After awhile I went to the
  river to throw away this composition, and it became known; it took no
  more than this to have us become known as poisoners. (31)

[Slaves] control their poisons so as to work only on those intended,
  with no effects on others: they poison by knocking on or touching
  something with their hands or a stick; sometimes by stealthily dipping
  their fingernail, under which their poison is hidden, in a drink; but
  more often they bury the poison either at the entrance or in some
  location within a shack or in a field, and all a man or beast has to
  do is pass over or near it to be struck down dead, either slowly or
  quickly, according to the wishes of the poisoner. (88)
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