The smell of putrefying vegetables hurled at bodies mingled with the metallic odor of blood. Onlookers waited for the public executions with the soles of their shoes or bare feet sticking to the darkened stones. No one spoke for fear of being misheard and accused of Revolution. Slavery had just been reinstituted on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, and the heads of those who opposed it would be removed in the town square.
This is just the way France looked, Europeans mused, during our Revolution. Except Black.
Rebel slaves were tortured in scores, but one in particular stood out. It was November 29, 1802, and a rain cloud draped itself over the crowd, insulating the onlookers as she was led out in a gown stained with breast milk. The frizz of her hair is the biggest thing on her, thought the crowd as the hooded executioner prodded her toward the scaffold.
The woman’s name was Solitude. Historian Laurent Dubois writes that she was born into slavery through the rape of her enslaved mother in about 1772. Many of the stories about Solitude note that she had two different colored eyes, and that her skin was light. In her childhood, she enjoyed the preferential treatment that lighter-skinned slaves received. She may have been the barefoot playmate of the white girls in the big house, yet at some point she was still sent to work in the cane field, which suited her just as well. Her muscle memory propelled her forward even as she dreamed while awake, her eyes unfocused as her wiry arm swung a machete as heavy as she was.
These details are all somewhat unclear because the story of Solitude comes mostly from oral histories passed down through the generations. Solitude was born to an enslaved woman, and enslaved people were largely forbidden to read or write, even if they knew how. The era’s winners wrote down Guadeloupe’s histories, and at the time her story was not important to the winners. Yet her legend has survived.
Dubois states that “the existing facts about [Solitude] all go back to a single paragraph in Auguste Lacour’s 19th-century Histoire de la Guadeloup. … [That] short, hostile reference to Solitude ultimately lay the foundation for her monumentalization as a hero of courage and resistance, [and it] illustrates the complex ways in which the confrontation with the past in the French Caribbean has depended on oral history written into historical texts, and the work of historical evocation practiced by novelists.”
So much information is lost when it is not written down, when lives are considered so void of value that they are not documented. What you read here is a quilting together of facts written much later, referencing oral histories and the stories of those who entered Solitude’s world.
The fields are where the legend of Solitude begins.
Some oral histories noted by the writer André Schwarz-Bart speculate that, while enslaved, Solitude became a zombie, not living or dead but somewhere in between. Not the reanimated corpse of 20th century popular culture, but the “zombie” of Caribbean mythology: A priest cursed the human body into supernatural slavery, with the sentient mind a mere passenger to the priest’s orders. It is the kind of belief born of an enslaved people: What could be worse than slavery? Solitude’s enslavement, according to these stories, was so complete that her soul was merely a dormant passenger in a body that was controlled by outside command.
In reality, perhaps she had merely learned how to disassociate her mind while her body worked on, as Schwarz-Bart hypothesizes. In his retelling of the legend, Solitude learned to dissociate by focusing solely on one thing at time. Such is how she may have occupied her thoughts even as her arm felt like it would dislocate at the shoulder with the next machete chop; as her hands became two large blisters, broke and then roughened; as her spine and feet throbbed under the labor — her mind was not there.
As in many Caribbean colonies, Guadeloupe’s lucrative agrarian economy was hugely dependent upon slave labor. During the French Revolution of the late 1780s, Guadeloupe’s government became unstable, and the British seized the opportunity to add the island to their own list of colonies. When the British attacked the chaotic French government in Guadeloupe, France sent an expeditionary mission headed by Victor Hugues to defend its territory. He arrived with a slave emancipation decree from France in hand. The newly liberated slaves took up arms with the French and took back the island together. The French government effectively exercised the rule of reciprocity: They freed the slaves so that they would help maintain French control of the island.
When she was suddenly granted freedom, Solitude, like the other enslaved people of Guadeloupe, had few belongings or provisions of her own. We know that she left the estate where she had been enslaved, probably venturing into the forest on the edge of the farm, as so many runaways before her had done. Gabriel Debien writes in Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas that the forest was often where enslaved people went when they wanted to never be seen again. The forest was home to what were known as “maroon colonies” — maroons being people who had escaped slavery. Debien describes maroon camps as places where “fugitive slaves were living together in the forest, where they had cleared land, constructed dwellings, and planted crops.”
Solitude made her way to one of these colonies, which is where she lived for eight years, according to several histories. That period of her story is not well documented, whether because she was surrounded by people who by law were largely illiterate, or because they simply kept no records. When she did resurface in history, her enemies certainly took note.
Little is known about what happened in Solitude’s eight years in the maroon colony, but we know that when the First French Empire, led by Napoleon Bonaparte, cruelly reversed the act of emancipation, effectively re-enslaving all people of color who had been freed just eight years earlier, Solitude was heavy with child. (It is not known whether she had a spouse or other children.)
The French had quickly learned that without a free labor force the colony of Guadeloupe was much less profitable. Eight years had been plenty of time to unravel the master/slave dynamic in Guadeloupe though. Nearly every maroon in the camp had stolen their own freedom well before the official emancipation declaration by Hugues, and nearly every maroon also took up arms to defend their freedom, hand to hand against Bonaparte’s proxies.
Freed slaves like Solitude who had made it to these colonies were now faced with an ultimatum: Return to the plantations or fight to the death. She chose death.
There were two distinct groups of Guadeloupe residents who took up arms to fight the French. One was made up of former soldiers who had once fought alongside their new enemies, and the other consisted of former slaves from the maroon colonies. Solitude joined a “small band of rebels coalesced in the hills east of the capital town of Basse-Terre,” according to Dubois, who states that this “group was composed of ex-slaves and led by a man named Palerme. They used tactics that contrasted sharply with those of the trained soldiers, led primarily by officers from the class of les gens de couleur (free coloreds), who formed the backbone of the resistance against the French. The soldiers avoided attacks against civilians and assured local whites their safety.”
The rebel group of former slaves that Palerme led, of which Solitude was now a part, offered no such assurances. Freedom was worth fighting for and worth dying for, and rather than assure the former slave-owning class of their safety, they took the opposite tack.
Palerme and his rebels held an important post at Dolé, a town full of narrow, winding roads that connected the two wings of the butterfly-shaped island. The legend, according to Bernard Moitt in Caribbean Slavery in the Atlantic World, is that upon hearing news of the reestablishment of slavery, Solitude tied a cloth tight around her belly, lit a torch, and led a group of rebels to pillage and set fire to many former slave-owning plantations. Auguste Lacour recounts in his Histoire de Guadeloupe that Solitude and the others rounded up white women and children by force and incarcerated them in makeshift camps.
In one of the few specific scenes of Solitude’s life captured in these histories, only her eyes moved as she watched a rabbit hop in front of her bound prisoners. As if possessed by a predator, Solitude pounced on the rabbit and held it aloft by its hind legs while her captives watched. From the scarf around her belly, she produced a knife and cut the rabbit’s throat. Lacour writes that Solitude sneered in French, her voice much lower than her slight form belied, “Here is how I will treat you when the time comes.” With her hands still red with blood, she squatted and cleaned the rabbit in the grass in front of them.
In the wake of raids, burned farms and captive landowners, French troops pursued Palerme’s rebel band and others. Soon, in a consolidated effort, Palerme’s group joined that of the legendary battalion chief and commander of the Basse-Terre, Louis Delgrès.
Though Delgrès was initially hesitant to join the rebels “during a soldier’s uprising,” his radicalism increased throughout the fateful year of 1802. In May, before Solitude and Palerme joined forces with Delgrès, he signed a call to insurrection entitled “The Last Cry of Innocence and Despair,” which was addressed “To the Entire Universe.” There are no surviving copies of the letter, but Dubois writes that nonetheless it remains “one of the most famous documents in Guadeloupean history.” In it, Delgrès called upon all of the people of Guadeloupe to rise up against slavery.
One detail Lacour relates from oral histories as well is the rebels’ defeat at the Fort at Basse-Terre, now the island’s capital. Solitude may have been among the most vicious of the rebel army, but she was in good company. Lacour relates that “When a bullet whistled above [the women’s] heads or a bomb exploded near them, they sang loudly, holding hands while making their hellish rounds interrupted by the chant: ‘Vive la mort!’” Long live death! As this feminine chant rose around him, Louis Delgrès stood on the ramparts in his French boots, playing his violin while shells exploded around him.
One of the reasons that so few of us know of Solitude and Delgrès is that their rebellion ultimately failed. Though the inside details of the battle cannot be known, its end is a well-told tale: When Delgrès realized that they would lose the battle, he did not surrender. Instead, he and his aide piled all of their remaining explosives on a plantation in the greenery of Matouba. Nearly all of the other rebels gathered there as well, and the wick was lit, causing a mass suicide by explosion.
Solitude and some of her fellow fighters, however, did not die during this self-immolation, nor did they take their own lives. Instead, she and other wounded rebels were taken prisoner and convicted of treason. The commission militaire sentenced Solitude, who had been captured among the insurgents at the fort, to suppliciée, which likely meant torture by flogging and shackles, then death.
Because she was pregnant, writes Moitt, “the execution had to be postponed. She was executed on November 29, after her delivery.” When she was finally brought out, the onlookers must have marveled at her thinness — to have given birth only yesterday, and now proudly standing, walking to her torture like so many before her, but in that stained gown that made her look more naked than if she had been stripped. Had she tried to delay the birth? Where was the child now? Was she disgusted by the scene in front of her? Would she vomit like so many others had before lying on the planks and staring up at the bright sky above the blade?
Some believe that the sentence could not be carried out until she gave birth because it would be unnecessarily cruel to end two lives rather than one. This may well have been the case, but others’ explanation that the French army “awaited the birth of the child so that it would have a slave in due time,” as Moitt puts it, is equally plausible. All of the stories say that she was led childless to the scaffold, and that she died laughing. Oral histories that Moitt references tell us that her corpse was displayed in public for 24 hours, along with those of the other executed rebels.
The fight for freedom was unmistakably lost. Slavery was officially reinstituted. Full, permanent emancipation was not proclaimed until 1848.
Despite rarely being written down, despite the cruel winners controlling the narrative, the legend of Solitude has been passed down for two centuries. In recent years, there have been significant efforts to unearth Solitude’s legacy. You can see her renegade likeness in a memorial statue erected in 1999 in Pointe-à-Pitre, the island’s largest city. In the statue, the woman named Solitude stares in defiance, hands on hips.