“Citizen Darfour went to the House of Commons and presented a brief intended to destroy our institutions and upset the state …”
—Le Télégraphe, gazette officielle extraordinaire, 1 September 1822
It is in these unfavorable terms that the Haitian government’s official newspaper, Le Télégraphe, presented its dossier on journalist and thinker Félix Darfour. Everything we know about him comes from his political and ideological adversaries: opposition historians like Beaubrun Ardouin, Thomas Madiou, Jonathas Granville, Joseph Courtois, and other Haitian intellectuals who supported authoritarian president Jean-Pierre Boyer. If Félix Darfour is an atypical, singular, and eminently interesting case, this is inevitably because his execution by the Boyer regime raises questions that disturb intellectuals of all political persuasions, whether opponents or supporters of succeeding Haitian regimes. Indeed, Darfour was a true accuser of the post-independence Haitian republic, exposing its failed promises to protect and serve the people in whose name Haitian liberty was proclaimed in 1804.
The state-sanctioned execution of a Black journalist in Haiti has much to tell us about the characteristics of the Haitian state at that time. During the revolutionary period and all the way up to 1843—when Boyer was overthrown in a coup d’état and sent into exile—the leaders of maroon communities, who were generally Black Africans, were systematically attacked and executed. This was precisely because they, like Darfour, were considered enemies of the state for demanding a different model of society. In the case of Saint-Dominguan maroons from the colonial era, they demanded a life free of slavery; and in the case of maroons from the Haitian state, they demanded a life outside the constrictions and demands of state power, or what Jean Casimir has called the “counter-plantation.”
Some supported Darfour’s efforts to expose corruption, especially when he denounced the monopoly of foreign traders and the presidential despotism of Jean-Pierre Boyer’s government. Yet when he questioned the country’s social organization structured around the ideology of color, and in particular “mulâtrisme,” he was hissed at, abandoned, and betrayed by the very same people who once cheered his criticism of the foreign commercial monopoly controlling Haiti’s economic interests. For his part, Darfour paid the price for attacking the foundations of the Haitian state with his life. Like the Haitian maroons, powerful elites smeared Darfour as a foreign and French agent intent on sowing division among Haitians by interrogating the question of color.
By challenging racial-social structuring and the distribution of power between social classes, the fate of the Black journalist set a precedent: any opposition to the established social order would be punished with death. The right to shoot in the name of upholding the rule of law became Haitian law, respected and applied to the letter during this period.
Little is known for certain about Darfour’s early life. What we do know is that a French general, who was participating in the Egypt Expedition (1798–1801), reportedly fell in love with a young Black child from Sudan whom he viewed as gifted with prodigious intelligence. Predicting a radiant future for this Black child, the French general allegedly took him to France to receive a proper European education. The child was given the name of his hometown, Darfour, and a new, Frenchified first name, Félix, whose Latin origin means “happy.” Darfour’s French benefactor described him as endearing, affectionate, and disarmingly kind.
After studying law and mathematics, Félix Darfour, now a young lawyer, kept abreast of global political events. He followed and observed developments in the new Haitian state, too, where all Blacks were recognized as citizens with full rights and privileges. Still in France, he befriended French citizens whom he knew were interested in and had knowledge of Haitian society. Particularly consequential was Darfour’s fortuitous meeting with a former French army battalion commander, Jacques René Laurent Ardouin (alias Ardouin aîné), the uncle of the famous Ardouin intellectuals (the historians Beaubrun Ardouin and Céligny Ardouin and their brother the poet Coriolan Ardouin), which further motivated him to visit Haiti in person.
After more than forty years in France, battalion commander Ardouin aîné decided in 1818 to return to his home country. Félix Darfour and his white, French wife accompanied him, with the aim of settling permanently in the country. The Haitian government paid their passage from Le Havre, France, to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in accordance with a legal policy under the Boyer regime that encouraged Black immigration from abroad. Because Ardouin aîné’s family enjoyed great social status and privileges among the Haitian government leaders, the Darfours quickly made the acquaintance of the capital’s elites and immediately entered prestigious social and intellectual circles. The couple even resided temporarily with Alexis Antoine Ardouin, the elder Ardouin’s brother and the father of the Ardouin intellectuals, who was at that time a government adviser and head guard of the national store. In the company of the Ardouins, Darfour became intimately acquainted with upper-class Haitian society, its ideology, and its political, economic, cultural, and social practices. In the process, he discovered the intractability and pervasiveness of the color question, reflected in the preponderance of “mulattoes” (a pseudoscientific term for people of mixed race or with light skin) into high government positions and the rejection of Blacks into subordinate positions.
Despite his growing discomfort with Haiti’s racial hierarchy, Darfour benefited from Haitian nationality by virtue of his skin color, and he took advantage of his extensive connections with the country’s elite to be admitted to the Port-au-Prince bar. He was then successively appointed surveyor and public defender.1 Soon after, he applied to the established authorities for permission to publish a newspaper, which he initially printed at public expense by using the government printing works, then run by his host, Alexis Antoine Ardouin, and the young Beaubrun Ardouin. Under the premonitory title Eclaireur haïtien ou le Parfait patriote, Darfour’s first newspaper was a fortnightly political, commercial, and literary review whose orientation, principles, and arguments often displeased the government as well as sectors of the Haitian elite.
The state-sanctioned execution of a Black journalist in Haiti has much to tell us about the characteristics of the Haitian state during the revolutionary period and all the way up to 1843.
Félix Darfour directed his criticisms specifically at the government in power. He sharply accused Haiti’s leaders of formulating economic policy that handed the country over to foreigners and claimed that the republic did not do enough to support its people. Specifically, he accused the Haitian government of favoring foreign traders over local merchants in their national treaties and agreements. Darfour contended that the recurring strategy of successive Haitian governments was to seek the diplomatic tutelage of slave-owning powers, that is to say, Western Europe and the United States, which in turn dangerously compromised the economic progress of the Haitian state. He thus accused the Haitian state of excessive liberalism, which he argued actually worked in favor of foreigners who amassed fortunes in Haiti and then returned home with money that enriched their own country’s development. Darfour presciently identified this process as a new colonial form of mercantilism. When in 1818, President Boyer appointed a commission to draw up the Haitian Civil Code, which included a handful of Haitian intellectuals, Darfour commented in his newspaper: “If we weren’t careful, it [the commission] could deliver the Haitians hand and foot to France.”2
Ideologically and politically opposed to Darfour, Beaubrun Ardouin took every opportunity to roll back the services his family had rendered to the Black lawyer and journalist, who, in Beaubrun Ardouin’s opinion, did not show enough gratitude toward the Haitian elites. Surprisingly, historian Thomas Madiou concurred with his rival Beaubrun when it came to sullying Félix Darfour’s image and newspaper. Under Madiou’s pen, Darfour the intellectual became a vile citizen, ungrateful for the services he received from the Haitian president he criticized. For Madiou, Darfour’s newspaper was as “without interest” as the man himself.3
Other publications joined in the smearing of Darfour, often using racialized language to do so. The newspaper L’Abeille haytienne, a semimonthly literary and political review founded in Port-au-Prince as an organ of the southern republic led by Boyer’s predecessor Alexandre Pétion, immediately declared its opposition to Darfour and his newspaper. Founders Jules Solime Milscent and Noël Colombel, likely speaking directly for the government, evoked old discriminations against people bearing African ethnicity in their critique. From then on, Darfour was no longer considered an enlightened citizen of Haiti but a foreign Black African who bore the infamous marks of his continent.
While an intellectual pariah among Haitian elites, Darfour enjoyed the support of some members of the Haitian senate and the House of Representatives,4 who espoused his ideas of political change and respect for the independence of the powers making up the state. He also garnered the support of a fraction of Haitian merchants who, long plagued by a hegemony of foreign traders, desired social reorganization without having to raise the thorny issue of “mulatto” domination.
The Haitian government considered Darfour’s revolutionary ideas dangerous to the maintenance of the social state and forced him to stop delivery of his newspaper. But it reappeared the same year under an even more provocative title, the Avertisseur haïtien, or the Haitian advertiser. Darfour’s agitation against the Haitian government’s neocolonial governance had only just begun.
On January 1, 1819, Haitian independence day, Darfour took the opportunity to present a free printed address, “Aux citoyens vénérables chefs de la République d’Haïti” (To the venerable citizens and leaders of the Republic of Haiti).5 He had only been in Haiti for six months. In his address, he positioned himself as the defender and spokesperson for those marginalized and excluded by the state, especially foreign merchants. This gratified Haitian merchants and political opponents of the Boyer regime. But Darfour’s ideas did not stop at structural and economic reforms. He raised the issue of the presence of the Black majority, who were exploited by the “mulatto” minority at the helm of the state. Later that year, on August 30, 1822, Darfour addressed a plea to the House of Representatives, in which he further articulated his ideas for economic and political reform. He denounced Haiti’s poor governance and power structure, reiterated his commitment to combating the hegemony of foreign merchants, and expressed his desire to institute an equitable and inclusive social system to put an end to the preponderance of “mulattos” and promote the integration of Blacks.
Because he had a network of supporters who partly shared his ideas, Darfour’s plea reached the Haitian senate, which he saw as the institution best suited to bring about reforms in the Haitian state. Darfour addressed his petition to the president of the House of Commons, Jacques Sylvain Hyppolite, as a plea for social and political change. One member of the chamber publicly argued that the envelope should be opened and read before the assembly. Another member argued the opposite, averring the envelope should be returned to sender, since the chamber was putatively not authorized to receive petitions from individuals. The question was put to the vote, and a relative majority voted in favor of admitting and reading the contents of the envelope in open session.
Abandoned by his elite friends because of the questions he raised about color ideology, Darfour was subsequently arrested and brought before a military commission for his address. He was sentenced to death, and the Haitian state executed him on September 2, 1822, in the public square of Port-au-Prince. Those who had aligned themselves with Darfour faced backlash but received far less disastrous fates, with some getting arrested and thrown in prison. Many were condemned and stripped of their office as deputies and replaced by substitutes.
The Darfour epic is symptomatic of the climate of intolerance that prevailed in Haiti during the first half of the 19th century. The movement of popular liberal demands led by educated young people gained momentum with Darfour’s execution. Darfour embodied the radical axis of the liberal movement, which finally came to power in 1844. But these ideas of progress for all, unequivocal access to the democratic process, and universal access to knowledge were unfortunately not achieved when the direct beneficiaries of Darfour’s movement came to political power either. The Darfour affair thus remains a lesson and a warning for understanding the origins of Haiti’s problems today.
- He was commissioned as a public defender on June 5, 1820, and sworn in on June 10 of the same year. ↩
- Beaubrun Ardouin, Etudes sur l’histoire d’Haïti, vol. 8, p. 381. ↩
- Thomas Madiou, Histoire d’Haïti, 1811–1818, vol. 5 (Editions Henry Deschamps, 1988), p. 497. ↩
- Joseph Balthazar Inginac, Mémoires de Joseph Balthazar Inginac … op. cit. p. 66. ↩
- Ibid., p. 390. ↩