In the American South, slaves were typically dispersed among large populations of armed and vigilant whites. As a result, American slave rebellions failed to achieve their goals. This was not the case in the West Indies, where plantation owners remained at home in Europe and left overseers in charge of large populations of slaves. In 1791, a revolution began on the island of St. Domingo (Hispaniola, the home of Haiti and the Dominican Republic). In 1804, after years of fighting, the Republic of Haiti, a black republic composed of former slaves, freed itself from France. News of the Haitian revolution was an inspiration for American slaves but a source of severe anxiety for their masters. The arrival of Haitian refugees—black, white, and mulatto—in American port cities, including Charleston, increased masters’ fear that the black revolution would spread to the United States. Slaveowners cracked down, jumpily interpreting every transgression as an uprising in the making.
Extract of a letter from Charleston, dated November 21th:
“On Saturday last a plot was discovered, which may have saved some lives and some property. Seventeen French negroes intended to set fire to the town in different places, kill the whites, and probably take possession of the pow[d]er magazine and the arms; but luckily one of them turned states evidence. Five have been apprehended, two hung, and the others have escaped into the country.”
From the Charleston State Gazette of the 22d ultimo.
On Tuesday, the 14th inst. the Intendant received certain information of a Conspiracy of several French negroes to fire the city, and to act here as they had formerly done at S. Domingo—as the discovery did not implicate more than ten or fifteen persons, and as the information first given was not so complete as to charge all the ringleaders, the Intendant delayed taking any measures for their apprehension until the plan should be more matured, and their guilt more closely ascertained; but the plot having been communicated to persons, on whose secrecy the city magistrates could not depend, they found themselves obliged on Saturday last to apprehend a number of negroes, and among others the following, charged (together with another not yet taken) as the ring-leaders, viz.—Figaro, the property of Mr. Robinett; Jean Louis, the property of Mr. Langstaff; Figaro the younger, the property of Mr. Delaire; and Capelle. . . .
On examination they all at first positively denied their knowledge or concern in the plot; but the younger Figaro, after some time, made a partial confession, and was admitted an evidence on the part of the state. The others were on Monday brought to trial, in the City Hall, before as respectable a court and jury as we ever remember to have been convened. A number of witnesses were examined, and fully proved the guilt of the prisoners; and the court, on mature consideration, unanimously condemned Figaro, Sen. and Jean Louis, to be hung, and Capelle and Figaro the younger to be transported. The rest who were apprehended are under confinement, for further examination.
After the condemnation of Jean Louis, he turned to the two Figaros and said, “I do not blame the whites, though I suffer, they have done right, but it is you who have brought me to this trouble.”
Figaro and Jean Louis were yesterday executed in pursuance of their sentence.
Source: The Pennsylvania Gazette, December 13, 1797.