Diaspora

The Jesuits' complicated past in Haiti: From owning plantations to serving the Black community – America: The Jesuit Review

As the enslaved woman handed her newborn daughter to her master, she could not look him in the eye. It was hot (it was always hot), and she had to get back to the cane field that afternoon. But her manner had nothing to do with her duties.
The man took the girl, turned and walked to the baptismal font. He always moved confidently—his confidence was typical of the grand blancs in the Haitian colony. The enslaved persons he trusted were there, along with his wife and children. His family had begrudgingly accompanied him from France to the remote island. They all saw the colony the same way: just another step toward a lucrative return to the motherland and a château on the Loire.
The grand blanc held the child over the font, waiting for the Priest of the Blacks to start the ceremony. In his Roman collar, the Jesuit’s poise nearly matched the master’s. Having supplanted the Capuchins in northern Saint-Domingue in 1704, the Society of Jesus knew what it took to maintain its ecclesiastical rights and position in the colony. Despite many financial and civil obstacles, it had built a substantial missionary enterprise, preaching and teaching on an island where survival and profits were the order of the day. God had formed servants from the soil, but the Society had to get its hands dirtier to return humanity to God’s service. It had five plantations on the island with many enslaved Africans to fund its mission.
The priest smiled at the baby girl, then looked sternly at the supposed owner of this tiny image of God. Her skin was unlike that of her siblings—much lighter in tone. The Jesuit noted the downcast look on the mother’s face.
“I see,” said the Jesuit, searching for the next words. The grand blanc’s “confidence” was well known in Cap-Français, but before now its consequences had been confined to the mother’s downtrodden expression and the walls of the confessional. Gathering himself and glancing around quickly to see if any government officials were among those attending the baptism, he looked gravely at the master. “What is your relationship with this little girl?”
My research on the Society of Jesus in Saint-Domingue began about two years ago as I looked for stories that my seminary students could tell their congregations about Catholicism and slavery. In contrast to a narrative that reflects antebellum anxieties of white American Protestant slavers about the dangers of revolution, I wanted to find stories of Catholic agency—the good, the bad and the ugly. The writings of Médéric Louis Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry, from which I drew the story above, became my window into this history.
Saint-Méry was a French lawyer, writer and political moderate who propped up French colonial governments through his writings. He wrote a decidedly pro-French account of the history of Hispaniola and compiled six volumes of French colonial government documents that were published less than a decade before the French Revolution. His perspective in these writings is hardly hidden. Like many in French Enlightenment society, he demonstrates skepticism toward authoritarian religion and was no friend of the enslaved persons (making it very difficult to retrieve sympathetic stories of enslaved Catholic persons from his work). Much of this material has not appeared in English, yet his work provides one of the clearest analogues for English-speaking Catholics regarding Catholic involvement in American slavery.
Catholicism was the established religion of colonial Haiti, the site of one of the largest populations of enslaved peoples in the Americas—over 150,000 enslaved persons in the Jesuit region alone by 1743. The Black Code of French colonialism (first promulgated in 1685) manufactured a highly stratified society in the colony. In 1791, the resentment that this system produced led to the most successful revolt by enslaved peoples in human history—modeled on the French Revolution.
The pastoral role of “the Priest of the Blacks [curé des negres]” was held by at least two Jesuits in the early Haitian colony over a period of 59 years. The history of this pastoral office provides American Catholics today with a unique window into the church’s troubled historical relationship with slavery and racism. When the “slavery question” boiled over in the United States in 1860, it pushed aside public consciousness of the “Catholic question”: How can a historically Protestant nation welcome and support a huge influx of Roman Catholic immigrants?
Catholicism was the established religion of colonial Haiti, the site of one of the largest populations of enslaved peoples in the Americas—over 150,000 enslaved persons in the Jesuit region alone by 1743.
In that context, U.S. Catholics might, with some justification, look at the “slavery question” and suspect that it was really a “Protestant problem.” But reflecting on the Jesuits’ work in Haiti dispels that myth.
For American Catholics seeking a path through today’s troubled racial climate in the United States, the Jesuits’ Priest of the Blacks offers a degree of moral clarity and a unique example for reflection and imitation. Saint-Méry’s accounts of his actions are hardly more sympathetic than are Saint-Méry’s accounts of enslaved persons, yet the position of the Priest of the Blacks—as a ministry set out in the founding documents for the Society of Jesus in Haiti—made it impossible for the colonial government to ignore or immediately silence him.
Intellectually, the preceding colonial period had given rise to opposing theological currents. As Portugal’s interest in West Africa grew during the 15th century, Pope Nicholas V addressed this colonial expansion in a pair of bulls in the 1450s that endorsed the “perpetual servitude” of West African “pagans” as a necessary part of the church’s evangelical mission.
Such papal statements reflected the influence of the Curse of Ham, an explicitly racist theological framework: West Africans, with their unique inclination to violence and hypersexuality, must be physically subdued if they are to embrace (as much as possible) Christian truth and faith. A contrary approach to slavery was found in Pope Eugene IV’s writings (already from the 1430s) and developed by Pope Paul III in 1537. These popes argued that evangelization and slavery were opposed to one another, and they worked to diminish the role of slavery among newly encountered peoples.
After Columbus’s first journey, Pope Alexander IV granted control of Hispaniola to Spain (comprising modern Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in hopes that Spain would spread Christianity on the island. As various French outcasts settled in the western portion of the island throughout the 17th century, Spanish presence there diminished and the resulting French colony came to be known as Saint-Domingue.
Among the religious orders that came to Saint-Domingue in those times, the Jesuits appear to have demonstrated the greatest evangelical fervor—though not without contradictions all too typical of the time.
The western Spanish diocese had already been absorbed back into the eastern diocese in 1527. The western French portion reverted to mission territory and remained effectively without a bishop for more than 300 years. In 1697, the Treaty of Ryswick officially placed France in control of Saint-Domingue, solidifying the colony as a center of enslaved labor on the French plantations. Most of the enslaved people were brought from West Africa, where a variety of indigenous religious traditions existed, including at least one monotheistic group with religious symbolism and devotional practices centered on non-venomous serpents.
Among the religious orders that came to Saint-Domingue in those times, the Jesuits appear to have demonstrated the greatest evangelical fervor—though not without contradictions all too typical of the time. Rather than seek to study the enslaved persons’ pre-existing religious traditions, Jesuit missionaries preferred to believe that enslaved Africans simply had no religion whatsoever. Even when colonists had to acknowledge the existence of West African religion, the role of serpents in those traditions surely led to negative theological assessments among Christians, who tended to view serpents in a very different (indeed, demonic) religious context. Most grievously, however, the Jesuits became owners of plantations and enslaved persons as the mission encountered persistent challenges in funding. Between the enslaved persons and the other colonial French slaveowners, the Jesuits positioned themselves (oxymoronically) as “good slave owners.”
Despite these serious errors in their missionary vision and witness, surviving evidence from the island shows that the Jesuits approached their missionary work more seriously than other orders of the day. As opposed to the Capuchins, the Jesuits required education in the faith prior to baptism and removed customary sacramental fees for enslaved individuals since they were usually not able to pay such fees.
Under Jesuit influence, laws were passed that illegalized work by enslaved persons on Sundays and that permitted enslaved persons to attend Mass, receive baptism and marry. The Jesuits were put in charge of all missionary efforts in the north of the colony in 1704 and oversaw the construction or maintenance of 12 parish churches by 1726. They worked to convert fugitives and had contact as missionaries with an enslaved population that numbered perhaps 25,000 in the early years of the mission.
The Jesuits’ ministry to the Black population—free, fugitive and enslaved—was a cause for concern among other slave owners in Haiti. Their missionary efforts were viewed as disruptive to the slave owners’ livelihood and even a threat to their safety. In the 17th century, some Jesuit theologians had speculated that under certain circumstances, regicide might be considered morally permissible. In the context of the slave society of Haiti, such speculation was viewed as tantamount to encouraging revolution against slave owners.
It is hard not to ask, in retrospect, whether the Jesuits as a whole did enough to liberate enslaved persons.
Near the climax of the dispute in the 1760s, the colonial government passed laws banning any Jesuit texts that discussed regicide.
It is hard not to ask, in retrospect, whether the Jesuits as a whole did enough to liberate enslaved persons. Undeniably, many of them did not view the situation with adequate moral clarity. Still, hindsight does provide some grounds for sympathy with their advocacy, however limited it was. On Nov. 24, 1763, the civil authorities determined that enough was enough; they decreed the expulsion of the Jesuits from the colony. In light of that expulsion, one can see the practical limitations that circumscribed their options. To act more “radically” on behalf of enslaved persons might only have hastened their departure from the island, to be replaced by more sycophantic missionaries. This local suppression fed into the global suppression of the Society of Jesus 10 years later.
From the outset of their official missionary endeavors, Jesuit ministry among the Black population planted the seeds that would lead to their eventual expulsion from the colony. Their ministry repeatedly roused the ire of the colonial government.
Beginning in 1705, Father Pierre-Louis Boutin served in the northern city of Cap-Français as the first Priest of the Blacks. Because all records of Boutin’s advocacy come to us second-hand (either through the colonial laws that condemned his activities or later Jesuit accounts), we have no direct insight into his personal moral views. We do not know, for instance, whether Boutin objected to Jesuit ownership of enslaved persons. Nor do we know whether he, in the model of the fourth-century bishop and saint Gregory of Nyssa, considered slavery itself to be immoral.
The official account of his actions preserved by Saint-Méry often intentionally obscures the nature of the dispute between the Priest of the Blacks and others in the colony. In such a context, one must read the sources with skepticism and a piercing eye to determine the priest’s own intentions. Conjecture and imagination are unavoidable when confronted with documentary sources explicitly dedicated to upholding an unjust social order.
In 1737, the death of two individuals in the Haitian colony—a white man and a Black woman—caused a stir. One Jesuit priest was called to give last rites to a white man, a Mr. Olivier, who had fallen ill. Upon arriving, the man refused the priest’s offer to hear his confession. That night, Mr. Olivier died. The Jesuits refused to give him a Christian burial, on the grounds that he demonstrated an obstinate rejection of the faith.
His decision to treat her death in this way was clearly an exculpation of the woman and simultaneously a rebuke to her killer.
Around that time, a Black woman was beaten and hanged. No other circumstances related to the woman’s death are preserved, not even her name. But it may be likely that a white slave owner had beaten and hanged one of his female enslaved persons. While the Black Code imposed fines on owners who beat their slaves, beatings remained common; further, the record commonly preserved aggravating factors for the death of Black persons. The lack of further recorded details may thus point to a “legitimate” white slave owner disciplining his “property.” Further, Boutin heard of the woman’s death and made an effort to bring closure and healing for the Black community: He performed her burial, as described in the official record, with “a sort of solemnity.”
One can imagine the family of the beaten woman gathered either for a funerary High Mass or at the grave while Boutin tried to offer some words that could make any kind of sense of her murder. His decision to treat her death in this way was clearly an exculpation of the woman and simultaneously a rebuke to her killer. The response of the colonial government recognized these implications: “The actions of this Religious cannot be approved…the Superior of the Jesuits ought to forbid that anything similar should happen again.”
At the same time, the government continued to insist that Mr. Olivier, who had been embalmed while the dispute was being resolved, be given a Christian burial. After seven months of refusals, the Jesuits ultimately complied.
Boutin served the Black community of Haiti for over 35 years until his death on the island in 1742. A posthumous Jesuit biography of his life speaks of him in highly saintly terms, acknowledging his service to the Black population as well as his intense personal piety. After his death, at least one other Jesuit served as “Priest of the Blacks” until the expulsion of the society in 1763. Neither colonial nor Jesuit records clearly state the identity of this successor. But his actions were called out on Feb. 21, 1761 when an official reprimand of his actions was issued. The reprimand acknowledged the priest’s “undoubtedly praiseworthy” intentions, but it is left to the reader to discern what those intentions were. From the record, it appears that this Priest of the Blacks worked to build bonds of charity and mutual respect in the highly stratified society of colonial Haiti.
“…the Priest of the Blacks appointed Black lay catechists to preach the Gospel among the Black population of the colony.”
Recognizing the large number of free and enslaved members of the Black community, the Priest of the Blacks appointed Black lay catechists to preach the Gospel among the Black population of the colony. At a time when so many social roles were closed to the Black community, he worked to appoint Black sacristans, church wardens and cantors in Cap-Français.
Though gatherings of the Black community on the island were severely restricted, he celebrated Mass for exclusively Black congregations and allowed them to gather in the church when he was not present. In such gatherings, they sang songs and one Black layman became accustomed to preaching to the congregation. The government saw such gatherings of Blacks on the island as a threat. Rather than simply acknowledging their social anxieties, however, the same record that chastises the priest also accuses him of theological error: the priest is said to harm the integrity of the Catholic faith by hinting to the Blacks that they formed a separate community from the white population of the colony. Ignoring the innumerable ways that Haitian racial stratification denied the unity and catholicity of the Christian community, the government argued that it was the very act of allowing Blacks to worship by themselves in culturally familiar ways that attacked the unity of the church.
Finally, though meaningful relationships between enslaved persons and whites were largely discouraged, this Jesuit sought to form non-exploitative bonds between these populations by encouraging, in some circumstances, white godparents for Black and mixed-race children. In all these instances, the priest empowered and raised up Black voices and forced whites on the island to see the humanity of the people they were exploiting for financial gain.
In the official record, the most enigmatic reprimand that this successor Priest of the Blacks received was specifically related to his conduct at baptisms of mixed-race children. The circumspection and evasiveness with which the document addresses the situation clouds the reader’s comprehension. We are told that the priest sometimes objected to white godparents of such children. The Jesuit “discussed the conduct” of the white godparent in a way that fell on the white godparent as “a kind of insult” and led to delays in the administration of the sacrament.
The behavior of the priest and his objections are recorded as “bizarre and unknown in the rest of Christendom.” But it is possible to glimpse through this tangle of words a perfectly reasonable reconstruction of the priest’s objection. Since the ninth century, the church had not permitted a child’s parent to act as a godparent. By seeking conformity with the church’s rules for baptism, the Priest of the Blacks exposed the sexual exploitation of enslaved persons—to the embarrassment of the slave owners or other white perpetrators.
There is further evidence in the official record that indicates a systemic effort to suppress such a terrible secret. On Nov 14, 1755, the authorities forbade parish priests from recording the names of free men on baptismal certificates of “illegitimate” children. A similar rule was passed for public notaries in September 1761. But the most perverse element of this cover-up appears in the 1761 reprimand of the Priest of the Blacks, where the authorities raised theological arguments against his efforts. They chided the priest for failing to recognize the importance of infant baptism, leaving children in a state of original sin until the dispute could be resolved. They reminded him that even lay people can baptize in an emergency. They pointed out that godparents are not even strictly necessary for a valid baptism—why quibble over their conduct?
The Priest of the Blacks used theology to call attention to grave moral evil and raise up the weak and vulnerable.
Hiding behind a disingenuous concern for the salvation of the infant’s soul (the law mentions no immediate threat to the health or life of the babies in question), the civil authorities masked their true intention: avoiding the embarrassment of white perpetrators who had sexually exploited enslaved persons or free Black women. The authorities’ solution was to make it illegal for a priest to refuse a godparent on the basis of their conduct, so long as the godparent called themselves Catholic. No more uncomfortable questions.
Both the government and the Priest of the Blacks were technically correct, as far as each side goes, in the arguments they made about baptism. But the ends to which they deployed that theology were drastically different.
The Priest of the Blacks used theology to call attention to grave moral evil and raise up the weak and vulnerable. The civil authorities used theology to obscure injustice, erase evil from the public record and perpetuate slavery. Accurate propositional content alone did not guarantee that their thinking about God would promote the true good of all peoples.

The priest’s actions came at a high cost to him and to the Society. The document that expelled the Jesuits from Haiti in 1763 recounts the actions of the Priest of the Blacks as the principal evidence from within the colony for the suppression of the Jesuits.
Understood in that way, the story of the Priest of the Blacks sheds some light on what John Henry Newman called “one of the most mysterious matters in the history of the Church.” While there were undoubtedly many factors that led to the global suppression of the Jesuits in 1773, we can say with some certainty that their suppression in Haiti was a consequence of the Society’s advocacy on behalf of the Black population of the colony.
At the level of personal action, Boutin’s successor offers us a valuable path to follow. Rather than a paternalistic insistence on controlling the message of the Gospel, this Jesuit allowed the Black population of Haiti to make the Gospel their own and speak it in their own words. He opened new paths for them to express their faith and worship God in ways familiar to their cultural heritage. When he saw evidence of the sexual abuse of enslaved persons, he refused to keep silent. He saw that even high-order theological reflection could have serious practical ramifications (both positive and ruinous) for the church and its faithful. He knew that cultural diversity of worship practices was not an innate threat to the unity of the church but rather an expression of its unity in conjunction with its catholicity. He persistently articulated the truths of the faith to create a more just society and promote the flourishing of all those in his spiritual care.
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