Trouillot’s The Infamous Rosalie & Slavery: A Power Struggle of the Sexes
Disclaimer: This essay was written and was first published on Wattpad in 2020 from my “A Black Opinion” blog. Therefore, it will not acknowledge the current state of the world. Regardless, this essay has an important message that could be a logical step forward for the world to make the changes needed to address the issue of racism. The same issue that has stained our world for far too long.
Évelyne Trouillot’s The Infamous Rosalie is a book of historic fiction that portrays the darkest chapters of Caribbean History. Based on the famous maroon revolt led by the legendary Makandal, the novel transports readers to a time in St. Domingue when sparks of what would later become the first successful slave revolt began. In the book, Trouillot illustrates the physical and physiological impacts of slavery through the perspective of Lisette, a St. Domingue born slave. Throughout the novel, Lisette learns about the horrors of the middle passage; particularly the inhuman abuses her mother, grandmother and godmother all experienced on the ship Rosalie, and the moral choices they all made. As she grows up in this time of strife, death and heartbreak, Lisette comes to understand the true price of freedom upon the news that she was with child.
The novel explores various themes and its implications for a slave society, racism, gender, emancipation, slave law are just a few. Above all, the themes that were beautifully woven into the prose, the themes of freedom and gender were the most pronounced. Trouillot was consistent in keeping the narrative as accurate as possible, while displaying the hardship to achieve freedom. With the main protagonist being the St. Domingue-born Lisette, her perspective is unique, showing the true system that she is thrust into. That system not only has been around before her birth, but will most likely still exist after her death. With that reality, it is easy for any slave to believe there is no hope of being freed. However, since she is the daughter of an African, she is privy to hear tales of her ancestors’ home, and what it really means to be free. On the other hand, as an enslaved woman, Lisette also heard the other how to fight because of slavery. For Lisette though, unlike Makandal, she would choose subtle ways.
Through Lisette’s eyes, Trouillot is able to portray what a woman in a slave society looks like. Unlike European women who were perceived as fragile flowers, an object in a man’s possession who is only to be marveled at, and is incapable of doing certain things, women in slavery were treated differently than their lighter counterparts. They were in a way treated equally to male slaves. While they may have had different tasks, both men and women were punished the same. “But the master ordered 50 lashes of the rigroise for Arcinte, 209 as stipulated in the Code Noir and 21 more to dissuade her from giving in to the desire to run away the 3rd time, She was seven months pregnant,” As this quote demonstrates, female slaves were not treated any differently from the men because of their gender. To Europeans, slaves were not human, they were property. This is why Britain passed laws in the 1830s to restrict whipping female slaves in order to humanize them (Blackburn Struggle for British Emancipation).
Despite that, there were times when slave women were treated as a woman. Many planters took on a slave mistress to satisfy their lustful passions. Sometimes they cornered female slaves to demonstrate their power over them. For example, in the book, Master Fayot would touch Jeannine, not because of pleasure but because of propriety. Another example provided by the book is that masters would examine new slaves. “The master carefully examined the slaves… The master went so far as to feel the women’s buttocks.” In these moments, female slaves kept their mouths shut among themselves about the sexual abuse they faced.
While slavery ended with a fight for human rights, it started as a racist tool implemented by the Spanish in early 1500s. This evolution was on one hand, a harsh reality for the enslaved but a flourishing economic system for the masters. The discovery of sugar in the Caribbean would lead to the formation of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Africans were kidnapped and sold into slavery through the Middle Passage. Trouillot does not go into detail about the horrors that happened on the journey from Africa to St. Domingue like Equiano does in his book, but through the stories Lisette learns about the Rosalie. She and the reader can piece together an image of what it must have been like for the enslaved.
Because of the economic success of sugar, many planters came to the Caribbean to get rich. However, slaves did not live very long due to the harshness of the working on the plantation. The slave trade was only accelerated because of the high rate and saw the migration of millions across the Atlantic, but it was the Planters’ understanding their economic success was tied to the enslaved women. According to the 13th article of Code Noir, it states that if the mother is free, her children are free, but if the mother is a slave, her children are slaves. Regardless if the father is free or not. Planters were familiar with this law, which is why they had many mistresses. One could say for them, female slaves were worth more than male slaves because they carried the future of their business. The more women they impregnated, the more slaves that could work in, and the more money they could make.
Even though slave women were treated horribly, and were used a sex tool to bring in more money for their masters, female slaves were powerful in slave societies. As the book displays, women knew that they were being used to produce more slaves. Because of that, they took it upon themselves to kill their newborns to prevent them from living a life as a slave. This choice is symbolized by Bridget’s cord that represents the 70 babies she killed. Throughout the book, Lisette is constantly reminded of this moral choice, by influential figures like Ma Augustine, Grandma Charlotte, and Gracieuse until she makes her decision at the very end of the book. “May I find the courage to honour my promise: creole child who still lives in me, you will be born free and rebellious, or you will not be born at all.” Unlike the example of Bridget where she killed children to prevent them from living a life as a slave, in Lisette’s quote it provides more weight to the ultimate choice: the desire for freedom.
In this system, freedom was tied to the conditions of one’s birth, as stated in the Code Noir. In addition to that freedom was sold and bought as it had a price. Manumission was the most common form of granting freedom to slaves. It was based on certain conditions outlined by the master and could appear in the form of money or number of years. However, it was difficult for slaves to reach the amount of money needed to pay for their freedom, or to live long enough to become free. Unless the master was a former slave himself or had relations with the slaves he bought, then it was common for them to free them using manumission. However, if slaves did not have that relationship with their masters, they would resort to selling information. In the book, Clarisse is revealed to be the “Eye of the Big House,” a spy for Fayot. As Lisette comes to learn, Fayot promises Clarisse freedom if she exposes who are the conspirators.
There were many routes that slaves could take to reach freedom, unfortunately most of them had many loopholes where masters could keep their slaves in their grasp. This leads to the most common route slaves took. Many slaves would run away into the mountains and join Maroon societies. Most female slaves could not, as they were often having children, making it difficult to trek into the mountain alone. However, they had their own form of rebellion, killing their children was one of them, another was poison. According to Katherine Paugh’s article Yaws, Syphilis, Sexuality, and the Circulation of Medical Knowledge in the British Caribbean and the Atlantic World, in many African communities it was the woman who was considered the healer. They were the ones who were the most knowledgeable about certain herbs and medical practices. So when they traveled to the Caribbean, they shared that knowledge with other women, making them both useful and dangerous. As Paugh continues to explain, during the time of Yaws and Syphilis, Planters and European Doctors came to these women to learn from them and adopted these medical practices as they did not know how to cure and or treat these illnesses. In these circumstances, the power was removed from the Planters and was placed in the hands of the female slaves. So women like Bridget could heal their masters and their families better than the European doctors, but with one quick move, they could swiftly kill them if they wished.
It did not take long for rebels like Makandal to use this powerful knowledge to his advantage. Since poison back then was hard to trace, it was a perfect weapon to use against their masters. In the first few pages, Trouillot illustrates the impact of poison in the following quote: “We are in the midst of a reign of terror that is convulsing the northern part of the big island. Blacks, Whites, Slaves and Masters alike, everybody trembles with fear, barely daring to touch the food they are served.” With this chaos, it marks the beginning of what will be the end of Slavery in St. Domingue.
To conclude, slavery was more than an economic institution that abused the people who were forced into the system. It was also a system about the power of the sexes. As Trouillot’s book goes on to highlight, slave women were just as integral to the making of the system as they were to the dismantling of it. On one hand, slaves, especially women, were victims of this harsh reality. They were flogged, branded, sold and were worked to death. On the other hand, it was the bush medicinal knowledge that slave women held, and the painful decisions they made that allowed all slaves to retaliate and to cause fear and panic in their master’s hearts.
Turner, Sasha. “Home-grown Slaves: Women, Reproduction, and the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Jamaica 1788–1807.” Journal of Women’s History 23, no. 3 (2011): 39–62..
Trouillot, Évelyne. The Infamous Rosalie . 2nd ed. University of Nebraska Press, 2003.
Trouillot, Évelyne. The Infamous Rosalie . 2nd ed. University of Nebraska Press, 2003, 10
Trouillot, Évelyne. The Infamous Rosalie . 2nd ed. University of Nebraska Press, 2003, 129
Trouillot, Évelyne. The Infamous Rosalie . 2nd ed. University of Nebraska Press, 2003,120
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Paugh, Katherine. “Yaws, Syphilis, Sexuality, and the Circulation of Medical Knowledge in the British Caribbean and the Atlantic World.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine88, no. 2 (2014): 225–52. https://doi.org/10.1353/bhm.2014.0029.
Évelyne Trouillot, The Infamous Rosalie , 2nd ed. (University of Nebraska Press, 2003, 18
Évelyne Trouillot, The Infamous Rosalie , 2nd ed. (University of Nebraska Press, 2003, 35
Évelyne Trouillot, The Infamous Rosalie , 2nd ed. (University of Nebraska Press, 2003, 46
Equiano, OLaudah, and Paul Edwards. “PDF.” Harlow, UK, March 3, 1997.