Heroines of the Haitian Revolution

What is the role of an artist in the face of political repression? What is the place of culture in the midst of injustice and terror? Haitian writer Marie Vieux-Chauvet ...
Linen Market at St. Domingo

What is the role of an artist in the face of political repression? What is the place of culture in the midst of injustice and terror? Haitian writer Marie Vieux-Chauvet (1916–1973), author of powerful novels representing the experience of living under the Duvalier dictatorship, confronted such questions throughout her life.

One of Vieux-Chauvet’s earliest novels, Dance on the Volcano (1957), just published in a new English translation, does so by journeying back to the world of plantation slavery and of the Haitian Revolution. The novel is woven around the life of a real historical figure, Minette, a free woman of African descent who overcame the racial barriers of the time to become a star singer on the colonial stage. It focuses on Minette’s struggle to find both an artistic and a political voice, using her story as a crossroads through which to explore broader questions about art, sexuality, politics, and revolutionary change.

Because of her background, Minette’s presence onstage was always a risk, and her voice a weapon. Born in 1767, she was mentored by a white actress in Port-au-Prince, the colony’s capital. In 1780, Minette performed onstage for the first time. Vieux-Chauvet dramatizes the scene of her debut by imagining the terror the young girl must have felt as she stared out at the crowd: rows and rows of white faces looking up at her, expectantly. As the violin strikes its first chord, Minette opens her mouth but no sound comes out.

Then, however, she looks higher up, to the box seats, which in the segregated theater were reserved for those who in the colony were called “people of color.” “Jammed together and piled on top of one another,” Vieux-Chauvet writes, “they seemed attached to each other in an immense solidarity that suddenly revealed itself to her. They were waiting, too. There was something so distressing in their eyes it made her want to scream.” And as Minette sees them, a “series of images unfurled in her memory at a dizzying pace”: of slaves being whipped, of the sound of lashes, of the voice of a friend telling her that now her voice was her weapon. The violin hits the opening note for the third time, “and this time her voice rang out, crystal clear, warm and so full that a long murmur of admiration ran through the audience.” In that moment, then, Minette understands why she is singing, because she understands whom she is singing for.

Vieux-Chauvet learned about Minette from the work of Haitian scholar Jean Fouchard, who in his 1955 book Le théâtre à Saint-Domingue devoted a chapter to her and her sister, Lise, who was also a performer.1 Vieux-Chauvet emphasized her debt to Fouchard with an author’s note declaring that the “heroines and all the principal characters” in the novel were “real figures.” “The major events of their lives,” she added, “as well as all historical events recounted here, are completely authentic.” Fouchard’s work is itself quite literary, weaving together many voices from the period, including that of François Mesplès, owner of the Port-au-Prince theater where much of the action of Dance takes place.

Fouchard also offered snippets of plays and extracts from his major historical source: advertisements and reviews of plays from the newspapers of Saint-Domingue. Among these, he found advertisements written by Minette herself, in which she explained to her audience why she had decided to perform certain plays. Thus was Fouchard able to weave together a relatively complete narrative of Minette’s life, which Vieux-Chauvet drew on extensively. In the novel, though, Minette’s artistic life is narrated in the context of her own personal and political awakening, as she becomes conscious of the injustice of slavery and participates in the beginnings of the Haitian Revolution.

Outside Haiti, the revolutionary period has long fascinated writers: scholar Marlene Daut has been able to locate over two hundred literary works that include references to or scenes about the Haitian Revolution written in the 19th century alone. In the 20th century, famous works by the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier, the Martinican Édouard Glissant, and the US writer Madison Smartt Bell have brought readers back to this period. In Haiti itself, the revolution is everywhere present in intellectual and political debates, street names, monuments, painting, and music.

Strikingly, however, the revolution is a rare topic in the country’s 20th-century novels. For this reason, Vieux-Chauvet’s novel is a virtually unique and somewhat lonely book in the broader world of Haitian letters. As such, it should serve as a crucial touchstone and referent, highlighting the curious play of presence and absence surrounding the place of Haiti’s founding revolution in its literature.

Vieux-Chauvet’s novel does something few histories of the Haitian Revolution do: it centers the story on women.

For Anglophone readers and students, Dance is an ideal way to enter the world of colonial Saint-Domingue and the Haitian Revolution. The novel does not focus on the uprising of the enslaved in Saint-Domingue’s Northern Province, depicted in Carpentier’s well-known The Kingdom of This World. Instead, it focuses on Port-au-Prince and the colony’s Western Province, where planters battling one another first armed their slaves. Vieux-Chauvet brings this complex and swirling political and military conflict to vivid life, with many key revolutionary figures, including Vincent Ogé and Alexandre Petion, appearing as characters in the novel.

Narratives of the Haitian Revolution all too often depend on a play of racial categories as forms of explanation. Vieux-Chauvet’s novel instead provides portraits of diverse individuals—free people of African descent, enslaved people, white slave owners and white actors, parents and children. Through scenes of dialogue and debate among free people of African descent who have divergent ideas about whether to accept and navigate the racial order or struggle against it, she complicates the meaning of racial categories and highlights the contradictions and fissures among the community of colonists. Even minor characters are richly drawn, illustrating the diversity of responses to the colonial situation with sympathy and humanity.

Vieux-Chauvet’s novel also does something few histories of the Haitian Revolution do: it centers the story on women. The evocation of the ways in which women sought out space, autonomy, and futures for themselves and their families in the colonial order makes the book particularly powerful. As historians have shown, many women of color owned real estate in Port-au-Prince, and one among them owned Vauxhall, a fashionable venue offering food, performances, and dancing.2

Vieux-Chauvet offers a striking portrait of the world of colonial Port-au-Prince from the perspective of women of color, and seeks to reconstruct their interior lives. Minette’s mother, Jasmine, is haunted by memories of her previous life and remains sympathetic to those still enslaved, aware of the ongoing resistance to slavery among Maroons in the hills, but remaining in the town as she realizes that there were others “more suited than she for battle and for vengeance.” She sees a future of freedom in her two daughters, Minette and Lise. When she hears them sing, “the beaten and debased former slave held her head high, forgot about the past, smiled at the future.” And yet this is a “brief feeling of joy that lasted only as long as her daughters sang,” tied to the moment itself, shadowed by all that still lurks around her and threatens to crush their voices.

Minette ultimately triumphed onstage, becoming perhaps the most important performing artist in the colony. By that time there was a thriving theatrical life in the colony, with theaters not just in the major towns of Port-au-Prince and Le Cap but also in smaller port towns as well, including Les Cayes and Jacmel. There were also playwrights in the colony, some writing plays in Creole—the first literary works produced in the language. Jeannot et Thérèse, for instance, reworked Rousseau’s blockbuster romantic opera Le devin du village. The village became a plantation, the villagers became enslaved and free people of African descent, and the magician who helps reunite the lovers became an African-born healer named Papa Simon. First performed in 1758, it was a favorite among theatergoers in the colony for decades. In fact, on the evening Minette first performed a full-length opera role, the other play performed was Jeannot et Thérèse, in which Minette’s white mentors performed the lead roles—in blackface.3

Minette, interestingly, refused to perform in plays written in the colony, preferring the European repertoire. Fouchard situates Minette’s rejection of local plays in a tradition of elite Haitian rejection of the Creole language and popular culture.4 Vieux-Chauvet, however, suggests that Minette disliked how those plays depicted slaves as comic figures, without serving some “greater purpose.” She sees Minette as having wanted a more political theater, one through which the enslaved themselves could speak in their “own language,” expressing “their sufferings and their desire for freedom!”

Vieux-Chauvet presents a powerful narrative of the beginnings of the Haitian Revolution. The uprisings of the enslaved that began in 1791 have long been represented, particularly outside the country, as a cataclysm—a story of buildings and cities turned to ash, of corpses and of blood. This tradition began with the Jamaican planter Bryan Edwards’s influential account from the 1790s and in some ways continues all the way to the infamous description by Pat Robertson in the wake of the 2010 earthquake, where he described the launching of the Haitian Revolution as a “pact with the devil” that has led to the country’s suffering.


View of the Town of Cap Français on Fire, June 21, 1793. Colored engraved print of painting by J.-L. Boquet

But there have always been powerful counter-narratives that offer a vision of the Haitian Revolution as one of the most generative events in modern history. This was the perspective of early Haitian writers and historians, such as Baron de Vastey, and was taken up by African American figures such as Frederick Douglass (who served for a time as a US diplomat in Haiti), and C. L. R. James, in his 1938 book The Black Jacobins.

Yet this revolution, perhaps more than others, often seems to exceed our grasp, our sense of how to generate meaning through narrative. That difficulty is visible in Dance, a text at times disconcertingly unstable, veering from moments of pure joy to moments of terror and horror. We can see Vieux-Chauvet struggling to grapple with the contradictions of colonial Saint-Domingue, a booming and dynamic society with a rich cultural and urban life that was at the same time held together by death and violence.

In the translation by Kaiama Glover, a scholar who has also written about the author, the twists and turns of Vieux-Chauvet’s prose—as she moves from town to stage to plantation and brings to life a multiplicity of characters—are rendered beautifully into English.5 In the swirling passages about the revolution itself we see Haiti’s people “trying to forget the dead and regain their taste for the living” in the “still-smoking ruins of the town,” and find Minette, taking in the destruction but also the possibilities emerging from it, concluding simply: “In the end, it deserved to be lived, this life.” The novel reads easily, but the intricate layers and resonances of Vieux-Chauvet’s stylistic choices are all here for readers to grapple with and explore.

Minette’s experience of the revolution as narrated in Dance departs from Fouchard’s historical account. He was unable to find any trace of her in the archives after a performance in 1789, and hypothesized that she likely died during the massacres of people of color carried out by whites in Port-au-Prince in late 1791. Vieux-Chauvet, however, carries the story forward to 1793, when the French commissioner Sonthonax abolished slavery, and ends her book—and Minette’s life—at the moment freedom finally comes.

There are, however, traces of Minette’s life that neither Fouchard nor Vieux-Chauvet knew about. They offer us a happier ending. About a decade ago, I was researching the history of theater in New Orleans when I came across an advertisement for a performance from November 1806: a benefit for a “former artist” named Minette Ferrand.6 In Saint-Domingue, Minette had occasionally organized similar benefit performances, and she turned to this tactic years later in New Orleans, in a time of need—the advertisement notes that she had suffered from a long illness and was “responsible for a large family.” She chose a play called Euphrosine, ou Le tyran corrigé, a popular French romantic opera set in medieval Provence.

This find was one among a series of traces that have now been brought together by musicologist Bernard Camier, whose work offers us a fuller portrait of Minette’s life. His discoveries allow us to see her as granddaughter, daughter, and mother. In Dance, Minette’s mother is depicted as a former slave, but Camier has found that her mother was in fact free, as was her grandmother, a woman named Elizabeth Dougé. Both were present at Minette’s baptism in 1767. Camier also learned that Minette had three children in the 1780s: a boy and two girls. She may have had more children later, notably during her time in New Orleans, where she died in January 1807.7

We still have no trace of Minette between 1789 and 1806. Where did she live during these years? Did she continue to perform? Did she teach others to sing? We do know, however, that she lived through the entire revolutionary period, and saw the country of Haiti born in 1804. And we know that she and her family became part of the history of New Orleans—and therefore of this country’s history as well as that of Haiti.

The archive therefore reminds us that, while many people died during the Haitian Revolution, many more survived—and built new lives. As Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley notes, there are also plenty of futures left unwritten among the women we meet in Vieux-Chauvet’s novel. Tinsley writes of two characters, Fleurette and Roseline, who escape slavery: “My own fantasy continues their story into marronage—where they use their massage skills on each other’s tired, beautiful feet, backs, and scalps, enjoying the revolutionary desire of loving themselves, loving each other, and resting.”8

“History,” writes Mimi Sheller, “is a kind of listening for traces of other lives beneath the frequency of the present.” That past, “the grounding of the now,” is sometimes hard to hear—“often the volume is turned too low, and those who are living are too loud.” But, she argues, in listening to that history we can locate and revive “an alternative Caribbean ideology of freedom, one grounded in the living sensual body as a more fully rounded, relationally connected, erotic, and spiritual potential.”9 This project of finding realms of possibility within horrors past and present was at the core of Vieux-Chauvet’s work. The novel—and this lucid new translation—is an invitation to keep returning to Haiti’s history, examining its traces, thinking through its meanings, and relearning how to retell it.

Dance on the Volcano, like Vieux-Chauvet’s other works, disrupts and disturbs, in part because of the counterpoint between moments of softness and of harshness, possibility and terror, dreams of change and the reality of a system that closes in and traps us. At the center of the stories she tells in Dance, and in all of her novels, is the idea that art is a way of refusing the silencing, cruelty, and destruction of life at the heart of any social order based on exclusion and violence. Dance, like Vieux-Chauvet’s life itself, therefore carries lessons that continue to be as necessary as ever. icon

  1. Jean Fouchard, Le théâtre à Saint-Domingue (Imprimerie de l’État, 1955).
  2. See Trevor Burnard and John Garrigus, The Plantation Machine: Atlantic Capitalism in French Saint-Domingue and British Jamaica (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), p. 235; Dominique Rogers and Stewart King, “Housekeepers, Merchants, Rentieres: Free Women of Color in the Port Cities of Colonial Saint-Domingue, 1750–1790,” in Women in Port: Gendering Communities, Economies, and Social Networks in Atlantic Port Cities, 1500–1800, edited by Douglas Catterall and Jodi Campbell (Brill, 2012), p. 362.
  3. See Bernard Camier and Laurent Dubois, “Voltaire et Zaïre, ou le théâtre des Lumières dans l’aire atlantique française,” Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine, vol. 54, no. 4 (2007), pp. 39–69; Fouchard, Le théâtre, p. 258.
  4. Fouchard, Théâtre, p. 284.
  5. See Kaiama L. Glover, “The Woman’s Place Is in … The Unhomely as Social Critique in Marie Chauvet’s Fille d’Haïti,” in Revisiting Marie Vieux Chauvet: Paradoxes of the Postcolonial Feminine, edited by Glover and Alessandra Benedicty-Kokken, a special issue of Yale French Studies, no. 128, (2015).
  6. The last name was that of her white father, who had never formally recognized her. She didn’t use his name in the 1780s in Saint-Domingue, but by the time she was in this new context had claimed it as her own. For a story of another woman’s migration to New Orleans that interestingly parallels that of Minette, see Rebecca J. Scott, Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation (Harvard University Press, 2012).
  7. This material is presented in an article in progress called “Minette, artiste de couleur à Saint-Domingue à la fin du XVIIIè siècle,” which Bernard Camier kindly shared with me. For an earlier article presenting some of this material, see “Minette, artiste de couleur à Saint-Domingue,” Revue de la société haïtienne d’Histoire et de Géographie, no. 205 (October–December 2000), pp. 1–11.
  8. Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, “Femmes of Color, Femmes de Couleur: Theorizing Black Queer Femininity through Chauvet’s La danse sur le volcan,” in Glover and Benedicty-Kokken, Revisiting Marie Vieux Chauvet, p. 143.
  9. Mimi Sheller, Citizenship from Below: Erotic Agency and Caribbean Freedom (Duke University Press, 2012), p. 23.
Featured image: The Linen Market at St. Domingo. Engraved print of painting by Agostino Brunias, published by John P. Thompson (London), October 6, 1804.