Translation for the Purposes of Indictment: Baron de Vastey in Colonial Jamaica

Battle at San Domingo, January Suchodolski, 1845. Photo: Wikimedia.
Battle at San Domingo, January Suchodolski, 1845. Photo: Wikimedia.

In February 1817, a man named Thomas Strafford returned to Kingston from the Kingdom of Hayti. Shortly afterward he would be accused before and would go on to be convicted by the county of Middlesex Assizes for having published “several wicked, scandalous, malicious, seditions and inflammatory libels.” Strafford was originally from Kingston, but according to the detailed record of indictment, which amounts to about thirty-eight pages in length, he had recently been living in northern Haiti. While in Cap-Henry Strafford had allegedly made the acquaintance of King Henry Christophe, who is referred to in the indictment as the “usurped, accursed […] person called Christopher to wit.” The allegations against Strafford had everything to do with his alleged connection to Christophe. The accused was charged with “being a malicious and ill disposed Person [who] unlawfully, wickedly, and maliciously devis[ed] and intend[ed] to aid further […] the said Christopher in such designs and endeavours to excite disaffection and insubordination […] amongst the Slaves of said Island of Jamaica.” The defendant was, furthermore, accused of having attempted “to disquiet, molest, and destroy tranquility and the good order of the said Island of Jamaica in furtherance and aid of the said Person called Christophe.”1

Portrait of Henri Christophe, King of Haiti, Richard Evans, 1816. Photo: Wikimedia.
Portrait of Henri Christophe, King of Haiti, Richard Evans, 1816. Photo: Wikimedia.

It is not surprising that a person returning from independent Haiti to a colony where slavery still reigned was vulnerable to charges of sedition in connection with anti-slavery activity. In the early nineteenth century, Haiti stood simultaneously as the pinnacle of black sovereignty and the nightmare of colonial rule. What is surprising about this indictment is the particular evidence provided to uphold these charges, and therefore, to justify Strafford’s conviction.

The “seditious” material in question was written by King Henry Christophe’s most important secretary, the political writer and historian Baron de Vastey (1781–1820). We learn from the indictment in overly verbose and repetitive prose that on December 13, 1816, Strafford “unlawfully quit” Haiti, “with the purpose of clandestinely landing in the said Island of Jamaica.” After having arrived in Kingston on January 6, 1817,

the evil, dishonest Strafford did publish and cause to be published a most wicked, scandalous, seditious, and inflammatory libel of and concerning the condition of Slaves and of and concerning the existing state of Slavery, and of and concerning the conduct relation and Sentiments of white Persons towards Slaves, and of and concerning the insurrection and revolt in the said Part of the said Island of Saint Domingo, and which said wicked, scandalous, malicious, seditious, and inflammatory Libel is printed in the French language and purports to have been composed by the Descendant of an African called the Baron de Vastey […] and which said wicked, scandalous, malicious, sedition and inflammatory libel is entitled in the French language, “Reflexions [sic] sur les Noirs et les Blancs […]” […] meaning as these English words follow (that is to say) Reflexions on the Blacks and Whites.” (348–349)

Strafford’s sentence for having published a copy or copies of Baron de Vastey’s Réflexions sur une lettre de Mazère: ex-colon français, adressée à M. J.C.L. Sismonde de Sismondi, sur les noirs et les blancs, la civilisation de l’Afrique, le royaume d’Hayti, etc (1816)2 was recorded as a fine of 500 pounds. Jail time was also mandated. Strafford is to “be and stand committed until such security be given.”

Almost the entire indictment, beginning on page 346 of the register and ending on page 384, is made up of handwritten passages copied from the original French of Vastey’s Réflexions, which appear alongside original translations into English. Although it can hardly be considered a faithful rendition of the Haitian original, this Jamaican translation for the purposes of indictment is noteworthy, if only because it is entirely interventionist and inflected with all the carceral aims of the court. Not only does the translator insert parenthetical asides into the middle of quoted passages (as above), but the translator often prefaces these translations with unequivocal judgment designed to stand as evidence for the charges at hand. The translator prefaces the following translation, for example, by noting that the passage contains “said wicked, scandalous, seditious, and inflammatory words.” Baron de Vastey is then quoted as having written of the logic behind the Haitian Revolution:

Wearied with so many crimes and offenses, we ran to Arms, we measured our strength with our exertions, we fought body to body, Man to Man, with stones, with iron […] to preserve our liberty, our existence, those of our Wives and Children: —After having spilt our Blood in Streams mixed with that of our Tyrants, we remained Masters of the field of Battle. Let Mazères (meaning the said Mazères), that ferocious and treacherous Colonist, who has been […] one of the instigators of the cruelties of all kinds which his Countrymen have exercised upon us, […] let him recollect how many Victims he has caused to be sacrificed or he has massacred with his own hands, then he will see if we have a right to that liberty and independence which we have conquered at the price of so much Blood [….] I am far from wanting to dispute the right that other Nations have had to render themselves independent, but I dare affirm without fear of being contradicted that no people has had more right to liberty and independence than the people of Hayti.”

So, it was that the first English translation of Vastey’s Réflexions sur une lettre de Mazères was commissioned solely in order to put Strafford in prison.

It will not be difficult for the modern reader to imagine what was perceived to be so dangerous and threatening to the colonial government in Jamaica about Vastey’s rather singular and in some ways exceptionally violent claim to sovereignty on Haiti’s behalf. Baron de Vastey was a black-identified writer from a sovereign black state that sat in the middle of a decidedly non-sovereign Caribbean archipelago. This was a space controlled almost entirely by four white empires: Spain, France, England, and the Netherlands. The act of the self-identified descendant of an “African” defending the sovereignty of a (black) postcolonial nation was always going to be perceived by (white) colonial ruling powers as seditious, dangerous, and even malicious. Moreover, at the time Vastey published his Réflexions, Haitian independence had not been officially recognized by any other nation. But Vastey’s Réflexions sur une lettre de Mazères was as much a defense of Haiti’s sovereignty as it was evidence that Haiti was actually sovereign and independent from France anyway. If Haitian sovereignty represented a continuation of the Haitian Revolution’s threat to the Atlantic World, (black) Haitian writing was the proof.

Destruction of Roehampton Estate, St. James, Jamaica, 1832. Photo: National Library of Jamaica.
Destruction of Roehampton Estate, St. James, Jamaica, 1832. Photo: National Library of Jamaica.

Despite the indictment’s inflammatory characterization of Vastey’s defense of black humanity and Haitian sovereignty, the vast majority of contemporary Anglophone reviews of his writings were exceedingly positive. One laudatory example comes from Moses Thomas’s Philadelphia-based Analectic Magazine, which would publish the following praise for the very publication of Vastey’s that Strafford stood accused of having used to incite slave rebellion in Jamaica. The reviewer not only recognizes Haitian sovereignty through Vastey’s book, but makes the case that England, the United States, and the other world powers should do so formally as well. Vastey’s writing, according to the review, “cannot but leave a favourable impression on the minds of our readers relative to . . . the state of the people in Hayti [and] the most cogent arguments which his Majesty [of Haiti] could urge, in favour of such a recognition [of Haitian independence], would be, to present the other powers with a copy of le Baron de Vastey’s Reflections.”3

The décalage is quite large between the interpretation of Vastey’s work (and by extension Haitian independence) in the Strafford indictment as “wicked” and “seditious” and the interpretation of his work in the Analectic Magazine as the best argument for Haitian sovereignty. This difference can serve as the impetus for understanding how unofficial arguments for black sovereignty in the nineteenth-century Anglo-European world were channeled to a large extent through the official writings of Baron de Vastey. After the first full-length English translation of Réflexions sur une lettre de Mazères was published in Liverpool in March 1817, Baron de Vastey gained an international reputation in anti-slavery circles not only as the foremost defender of Haiti’s sovereignty, but as the foremost defender of (black) human rights. The same damning critiques of slavery, colonialism, and color prejudice that appeared threatening to colonial authorities in Jamaica would simultaneously help to cement Vastey’s image as, in one nineteenth-century natural historian’s terms, “a practical demonstration of what the negro is capable of doing” after having “gained and maintained their liberty by striking manfully with the sword.”4

In the end, perhaps what is most pressing about all of these nineteenth-century references to Haitian independence is the way in which they unwittingly acknowledge what Vastey called the “fatal truth” of Haitian sovereignty. It is in some ways ironic that when Haiti actually had sovereignty in the early nineteenth century, no other nation was willing to recognize it. While today’s Haiti appears to be sovereign, it remains under the colonial yoke in so many ways.

  1.  “Strafford Indictment.” Middlesex Assizes Register, 1804-1819. Manuscript held by Jamaica National Archives. February 1817. 1A/7/4/3, Pleas of the Crown, Middlesex.
  2. Vastey’s Réflexions was directed toward a publication that appeared in France in 1814 under the title De l’Utilité des colonies, which was signed “M. Mazeres, colon.”
  3.  “Article V—Reflexions sur une Lettre de Mezeres {sic}, Ex-Colon français, addressee à M.J.C.L. Sismonde de Sismondi, etc.” The Analectic Magazine 9, May 1817: 403.
  4.  Ewcorstart, John K. “The Negro—not a distinct species.” Medical and Surgical Reporter II (1858): 272.

Marlene L. Daut

Marlene L. Daut is an Associate Professor of African Diaspora Studies at the University of Virginia. She is the author of Tropics of Haiti: Race and the Literary History of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World. Her forthcoming book, Baron de Vastey and the Origins of Black Atlantic Humanism, will be coming out in October 2017 with Palgrave Macmillan. Follow her on Twitter @FictionsofHaiti.

Comments on “Translation for the Purposes of Indictment: Baron de Vastey in Colonial Jamaica

  • Professor Daut
    Thank you for you important contribution toward understanding Haitian history. I look forward to learning more.
    Edwin

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