Sans-culottes, for sure.

In 1723 in the French colony of Saint Domingue (now Haiti), citizens were outraged by exclusive trade privileges granted to the Company of the Indies. A crowd of a hundred women attacked the company’s local headquarters, the Maison d’Afrique. Having trashed the building, they chased company officials to a nearby house, where their leader, a publican and former actress named Sagona, held a gun to one official’s head before he was rescued.

The next night a larger crowd assembled and burned a plantation owned by a Company official.  This time, they included armed men dressed as women and women wearing false mustaches or covered in flour.  The revolt continued for some time, led mostly by whites of modest means, though some wealthier people joined in.

I take this story from Laurent Dubois’ Avengers of the New World: The story of the Haitian Revolution.  Here is the page on Google books:

Dubois cites the incident as background to the later war of independence / slave rebellion of 1791-1803, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, which was probably the most successful slave uprising in history.  It forms the backdrop of Alejo Carpentier’s The Kingdom of This World, a weird and fascinating novel and, as much as any book, the founding document of magic realism.

But Dubois doesn’t say anything about what I’d really like to know: why was the 1723 uprising led by women?  Why the drag thing? Why, why the flour?  Was there something special about this group of people and their culture?  The non-wealthy white people of Saint Domingue would, I suppose, be either immigrants from France who had failed to hop on the sugar/tobacco gravy train or descendants of the pre-plantation settlers, who were mostly pirates (some of them made a living hunting feral cattle, smoking the meat via a process called boucan, and selling it in the ports–they became known as boucaniers, i.e. buccaneers).  I have no idea whether this tradition of transgression influenced the nature of the riots, but it makes you wonder.

I suppose that the male and female drag might have been an attempt at anonymity, like the “Mohawk” costume adopted by the craven terrorists who conducted the Boston Tea Party.  Still, fake mustaches seem like more of a meaningful gesture–I mean, these women probably owned veils and stuff like that, it was 1723.

Any ideas?

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4 Responses to Sans-culottes, for sure.

  1. Ann Foxen says:

    So were they men dressed as women and women wearing fake mustaches? Your conjecture about anonymity seems like the probable explanation. And were the people covered in flour dressing up as “white” people? The passage says the uprising was led by poor whites, but maybe anyone and everyone could participate. That was a witty bunch of troublemakers.

    • Roy says:

      Yes, I believe the people with the fake mustaches were women. The disguise thing doesn’t explain why the first riot consisted of women, or (to me) why the disguises in the second were carried out in trans-gender style, though having an actress in charge suggests a theatrical quality to the whole thing.

  2. Ann Foxen says:

    What I was really wondering was why they assumed that the people dressed as women on the first night were all women. Was there a strip search?

    And I was interested to read that a novel by Alejo Carpentier was considered the founding document of magical realism. I would have thought it would be something by Borges.

    • Roy says:

      Well, I suppose some of them might have been really accomplished buccaneer drag queens…that would only add to the overall mystery.

      Ah, I did say “as much as any book.” I think it depends on what aspects you’re emphasizing. Carpentier shows a world where the supposed order of European civilization in America is just a facade covering up both an underlying world of magic and an underlying world of violence and decay. This seems to me closer to the magical/political universe of Cortazar and Garcia Marquez than the dazzling abstract labyrinths of Borges (which happen to be closer to my own heart, fwiw).

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