Remembering a shared and tortured history 

Charleston and Haiti

History has tossed the City of Charleston and the tiny Caribbean nation of Haiti together many times in the past two centuries. Most recently, we have witnessed American survivors of the Jan. 12 earthquake arriving here, Charleston residents leaving to do volunteer work in the devastated country, and the local organization Water Missions International sending life-saving technology to Haiti to purify drinking water for the local population.

Today, the city and the island nation enjoy a benign and humanitarian bond. It was not always so.

The United States and Haiti were both born out of revolutions against European powers in the 18th century; they were the first and second independent republics in the Western Hemisphere. Beyond that, the two nations have little in common.

The huge African slave population of Santo Domingo — as Haiti was then called — rose up against its French masters in 1791, sparking a brutal slave war which lasted until 1804. French refugees from the island started arriving in Charleston in 1793, drawn by the city's prosperity and proximity, and the fact that Charleston had historically given refuge to the Huguenot French.

The city opened its gates to the refugees from Santo Domingo. Among them were a large number of musicians and actors who brightened and elevated the cultural scene in Charleston for years to come. They became performers and teachers of the arts; they opened schools to teach French and European etiquette to the children of Charleston's aristocracy.

But they brought baggage besides their talents and their culture. They brought memories of the savage rebellion, and they brought their slaves who had also witnessed the uprising.

White Charlestonians had lived in terror of a slave rebellion for a few generations. Surely there were still some who remembered the Stono Rebellion of 1739, in which dozens of whites and blacks died in a day of bloodletting. Now there was in the Caribbean — on the very doorstep of the Holy City — a slave uprising of Spartacan magnitude, which seemed determined to kill or expel every white from the island. As historian Walter J. Fraser wrote, the Santo Domingo rebellion "haunted Charleston for three generations."

After first welcoming refugees and their slaves, official policy changed. Local officials searched incoming vessels to stop slaves who might be arriving from Santo Domingo. A mob ransacked the home of a free black man looking for suspected weapons, and the state legislature required all able-bodied white males between the ages of 18 and 45 to enroll in a militia company. Rumors ran wild, from Virginia to South Carolina, that Santo Domingo slaves were sowing seeds of insurrection throughout the countryside. In 1797, authorities broke up an alleged conspiracy to burn the City of Charleston. Between 10 and 15 "French Negroes" were arrested. Their three ringleaders were hanged.

In a Charleston newspaper in 1794, a Holy City man writing under the pseudonym "Rusticus" said this about the Santo Domingo slaves who had been brought into the city: "The circumstances which occassion'd their introduction gave new ideas to our slaves which the opportunities of conversation with the newcomers could not fail to ripen into mischief."

In 1822 the memory of Santo Domingo was still quite vivid when the Denmark Vesey conspiracy was uncovered. According to the charges against this free black man, he was in contact with the Haitian government and was seeking military assistance from the island nation to help him with his plan to capture the city, slaughter the white population, and carry all the slaves away to Haiti. There is no evidence that such a conspiracy existed except for the records of the white men who convicted Vesey and 34 other blacks and sentenced them to death. Did Vesey actually hatch such a harebrained, delusional plot? Or was this all the machination of a politically ambitious clique who wanted to terrorize the black population with a mass execution and keep whites in line with allusions to the great Santo Domingo massacre?

All we can know for sure is that whites lived in fear of another Santo Domingo until slavery was abolished. Southern fear of the tiny nation was so rabid that the federal government did not recognize the Haitian government until 1862 — after the South was out of the Union. There is much bad history and bad blood that needs to be put to rest between Charleston and Haiti.

One more thing: When the Santo Domingo refugees were pouring into the city in the 1790s, there were a number of concerts by the St. Cecilia Society to raise money for their relief. Perhaps it's time that Charleston's elite held another concert to raise money for the relief of those Haitian whose lives were devastated in last month's earthquake.

See Will Moredock's blog at


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