George Henty.

A Roving Commission: or, Through the Black Insurrection at Hayti

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The mulatto bowed, and at once went over the side and got into his boat, while the two men who had rowed him out were still busy selling fruit to the crew. Nat told Sambo to go and buy some fruit, not because they really wanted it, for a supply had already been bought, but in order that, should any of the negroes in the other boats have noticed the mulatto coming on board, it would be supposed that he had done so in order to persuade the steward to deal with him. The next day four picked men were chosen to accompany Nat. They were to take no muskets with them, but each was to carry, in addition to his cutlass, a pistol in his belt, and another concealed in the bosom of his shirt. The absence of muskets was intended to show the negroes that the party had no fear as to their safety. Nat himself intended to carry only his sword, and a double-barrelled pistol in his belt. At four o'clock on the following morning, he and the four men took their places in the gig, and were rowed ashore to the point agreed on. As they landed a negro came down to meet them.

"Toussaint charged me to tell you, sir, that he has sent twelve men down, and that he has done so lest you should meet other parties of our people who might not know of this safe-conduct that he has given you."

And he handed a document to Nat.

"He has done well," Nat said. "I know that I can rely upon Toussaint, but I myself have thought it possible that we might fall in with men of other bands, and I have therefore brought four of my sailors with me. I am ready to start with you whenever you choose."

"We will go on at once. The hills are very close here, but it is best that we should be well among them before it is daylight, or we might be noticed by someone in the town. They would not concern themselves much with us, but your dress and that of the sailors would be sure to cause talk and excite suspicion among the soldiers."

He went up to some negroes standing a short distance away and gave them an order. They at once started. He himself took his place by Nat, and the sailors followed close behind.

"You talk French very well," Nat said.

"Yes, sir, thanks to Toussaint. You do not remember me, though I should know you were it daylight, for I have seen you several times when you have been over at our plantation with Mademoiselle Duchesne. I was chief helper in Monsieur Bayou's stables. Of an evening Toussaint had a sort of school, and four or five of us always went to him, and I learned to read and write, and to talk French as the whites talk it and not as we do. He is a good man, and we all love him. There are many who think he will one day be king of the island; he knows much more than any of the others. But it may be that he will be killed before that, for Biassou hates him because he does not like his cruel ways and speaks boldly against them, which no one else dare do, not even Fran?ois, whom we all regard as equal in rank to him.

"There have been many quarrels, but Biassou knows well enough that if he were to hurt Toussaint there would be a general outcry, and that he and the men who carried out his orders would assuredly be killed.

For all that no one doubts that he would get Toussaint removed quietly if there was a chance of doing so, but we do not mean to give him the chance. There are twenty of us who keep guard over him. As for Toussaint, he is not like the others, who, when there is nothing else to be done, spend their time in feasting and drinking. He is always busy attending to the wounded who are brought up to him, or the sick, of whom there are many, for the cold air in the mountains has brought down great numbers with the fever, especially those whose plantations lay on the plain, and who were accustomed to sleep in huts. Very many have died, but Toussaint has saved many, and were it needed he could have two hundred for his guard instead of twenty.

"But indeed he thinks not of danger, his whole thoughts are taken up with his work; and he is often without regular sleep for nights together, so great is the need for his services."

The ground at once began to rise rapidly, and before the day fairly broke they were high among the hills. When it became light Nat examined the document Toussaint had sent to him. It ran as follows: —

I, Toussaint, do give notice to all that I have given this safe-conduct and my solemn promise for his safety to Monsieur Glover, a British officer, with whom I desire to converse on matters of importance.

Then followed his signature and a great seal in red wax.

"It was the one Monsieur Bayou used," the negro said. "Toussaint brought it and the wax from his office, and uses it often, so that we may all recognize it when we see it – for, as you know, sir, there are scarcely any of our people who can read."

After three hours' walking the man pointed out a wood near the crest of a high hill a mile distant.

"Toussaint is there," he said. "He accompanied us to that point in order that you should have less distance to travel."

Nat was by no means sorry at the news. The way had been very steep and difficult, and the sun had now gained great power. As they neared the edge of the wood, Toussaint came out to meet him.

"I am glad to see you, Monsieur Glover," he said quietly. "I learned from our people at Cape Fran?ois that you had returned there with Madame Duchesne and her daughter, and I rejoiced indeed at your escape, which seemed to me marvellous, for how you avoided the search made for you I could not tell. They told me that Madame Duchesne was carried down on a litter, which must have greatly added to your difficulties. I hardly thought, monsieur, when I saw you last that we should thus meet again, I as one of the leaders of my people, you as commander of an English ship."

"No; things change quickly, Toussaint."

The negro led the way to a rough hut constructed of boughs and trees in the centre of the clump.

"You must need breakfast, and, as you see, it is ready for you. Your men will be cared for."

The breakfast was rough, but Nat enjoyed it greatly. Toussaint remarked that he himself had breakfasted an hour before, and he talked while his guest ate.

"It is as well," he said, "that you should be down near the spot where you landed before it is dark, for the track is far too rough to travel after dark. I suppose you have ordered your boat to come to fetch you?"

"Yes, I ordered it to be there as soon as it could leave the ship without being seen from the shore; but I hardly thought that I should be able to return this evening, as your messenger told me that your camp was six hours' journey among the hills."

"Yes, my camp is there, and I too would like to return before nightfall. There are many who need my care, and I have already been too long away. Now, Monsieur Glover, as to the subject on which I asked you to come to converse with me. We have heard that some of the planters have sent a deputation to Jamaica asking the governor to send troops to take this island for England. We, as you doubtless know, are not for the republic. We call ourselves the royal army, seeing that the National Assembly of France refuse to do anything for us. It is true that their commissioners at Cape Fran?ois have issued a proclamation offering a free pardon to all who have been concerned in the insurrection, and freedom and equal rights to men of all colour. We do not believe them. The Assembly care nothing for us. They passed a decree giving rights to the mulattoes, but in no way affecting us; and then, directly they found that the mulattoes were exercising their rights, they passed another decree reversing the first. One cannot expect good faith in men like these; they would wait till we had laid down our arms and returned to our plantations, and then they would shoot us down like dogs, just as they are murdering all the best men of their own country and keeping their king a prisoner. Therefore we do not recognize the republic, but are for the king."

"I fear there will soon be no king for you to recognize," Nat said; "everything points to the fact that they are determined to murder him, as they have murdered every noble and every good man in the country."

"I see that," Toussaint said gravely, "but the number of those who know what is passing in France is small. However, we who do know, and are responsible for the mass who trust in us, must consider what is the best thing to do. Do you think there will be a war between France and England?"

"I think that if the king is murdered the indignation in England, which is already intense, will be so great that war is certain."

"So much the better for us," Toussaint said. "The more they fight against each other, the less will they be able to pay attention to Hayti; but on the other hand the more likely will it be that the English will endeavour to obtain possession of this island. Now, between the French and the English we have no great choice. We regard ourselves as French; we speak the French language, and have, ever since the colony was first formed, lived under the French flag. Then, on the other hand, the French have been our masters, and we are determined that they shall never again be so. Now as to your people. In their own islands they have slaves just as the French have here, and we have no intention of changing slavery under one set of masters for slavery under another. Now, sir, do you think that if the English were to come here they would guarantee that slavery should never exist again in the island?"

"That I cannot say," Nat said. "I cannot answer for what the British parliament would do in that matter. The feeling against slavery is growing very fast in England, and I feel convinced that before long a law will be passed putting a stop altogether to the transportation of negroes from Africa; but whether that feeling will, at any rate for a long time, so gain in strength as to cause parliament to pass a law abolishing slavery altogether in British dominions, is more than I can say. It would be a tremendous step to take. It would mean absolute ruin to our islands; for you know as well as I do that your people are not disposed for work, and would never make steady labourers if allowed to live in their own way. Then you see, were slavery abolished altogether in this island, it would be difficult in the extreme to continue it in others."

"But they would not find us as slaves here," Toussaint said. "They would find us a free people, without masters, unattached to any plantation or to any regular toil; we should be like the Caribs in Jamaica. It would be as if they came to a land which foreigners had never visited. They would find a people with arms in their hands, and perfectly capable of defending themselves, but ready to accept the sovereignty of England on the condition that our personal liberty was in no way interfered with."

"There is a great deal in what you say, Toussaint, and to-morrow I shall sail for Jamaica and explain exactly the line you take to the admiral. I may say that in coming to see you I do so in accordance with the orders that I received, to ascertain if possible the views of the leaders of this movement."

"If these terms are refused," Toussaint went on, "and your people invade the island, we shall leave you and the French to fight it out until we perceive which is the stronger, and as soon as we do so, shall aid the weaker. I do not say that we shall stand aloof up to that time, we shall fight against both, they would be equally our enemies; but if one were so far getting the better of it as to be likely to drive the other out, then in self-defence we should unite our forces against it. I may say that although we and the mulattoes are both fighting against the French, the alliance is not likely to be a long one. We all know that if they got the upper hand they would be far more cruel and more tyrannous than the whites have been. They have ever looked down upon us, and have treated us with far greater contempt than have the whites, who, to do them justice, were kindly masters, and especially treated their house servants well. There will therefore be four parties here all hostile to each other. You and the French will be striving for mastery, we for liberty, the mulattoes for the domination of the island and for their personal interest. The way I have pointed out is, in my opinion, the only one that can bring about peace. If your government and people will give us a solemn undertaking that in no case shall slavery ever be re-established, and that all men shall have equal rights, we will join you heart and soul. When I say equal rights I do not mean that they shall have votes. We are at present absolutely unfit to have votes or to exercise political power. I only mean that the law shall be the same for us as for the whites, that we shall be taxed on the same scale in proportion to our means, that the assembly shall have no power to make separate laws concerning us, and that, should they attempt to make such laws, they should be at once dissolved by the white authorities of the island."

"I think your proposal a perfectly fair one, Toussaint, and I have no doubt that any one who has, as I have, a knowledge of the situation here, would not hesitate to accept it. But I doubt whether public opinion at home is ripe for a change that would be denounced by all having an interest in the West Indian Islands, and declared by them to be absolutely destructive to their prosperity. However, you may be assured that I shall represent your offer in the most favourable light. I must ask, however, are you empowered by the other leaders to make it?"

"I have talked the matter with Fran?ois, who is wholly of my opinion," Toussaint said. "It is useless to talk to Biassou; when he is not murdering someone he is drinking; but his opposition would go for little, except among the very worst of our people. He is already regarded with horror and disgust, and you may be assured that his career will ere long come to an end, in which case Fran?ois and I will share the power between us. At the same time I do not blind myself to the possibility that other leaders may arise. The men of one district know but little of the others, and may elect their own chiefs. Still, I think that if I had the authority to say that the proposal I have made to you had been accepted, I could count on the support of the great majority of the men of my colour, for already they are beginning to find that a life of lawless liberty has its drawbacks. Already we have been obliged to order that a certain amount of work shall be done by every man among the plantations beyond the reach of the towns, in order to ensure a supply of food.

"The order has been obeyed, but not very willingly, for there can be no doubt that a portion of the men believed that when they had once got rid of the masters there would be no occasion whatever for any further work, but that they would somehow be supplied with an abundance of all that they required. The sickness that has prevailed has also had its effect. There are few, indeed, here who have any knowledge of medicine, and the poor people have suffered accordingly. When in the plantations they were always well tended in sickness, while here they have had neither shelter nor care. It is all very well to tell them that liberty cannot be obtained without sacrifices, and that it must be a long time before things settle down and each man finds work to do, but the poor people, ignorant as they are, are like children, and think very little of the future. The effect of centuries of slavery will take many years to remedy. For myself, although I believe that we shall finally obtain what we desire, and shall become undisputed masters of the island, I foresee that our troubles are only beginning. We have had no training for self-government. We shall have destroyed the civilization that reigned here, and shall have nothing to take its place, and I dread that instead of progressing we may retrograde until we sink back into the condition in which we lived in Africa."

At this moment a negro ran up.

"Doctor," he said, "there are a large number of our people close at hand, and I think I can make out Biassou among them."

"I fear that we may have some trouble, Monsieur Glover," Toussaint said quietly, "but be assured that I and those with me will maintain my safe-conduct with our lives. Biassou must have arrived at my camp after I left, and he must have heard there that I was going to meet an English officer, and has followed me. He was present when Fran?ois and I arranged to send a messenger to propose a meeting to you, and he then assented, but as often as not he forgets in the morning what he has agreed to overnight."

He went apart and spoke to his men. Twenty of them had accompanied him from his camp, and with the twelve who had formed the escort, and Nat and the sailors, there were in all thirty-eight, and from the quiet way in which they took up their arms Nat had little doubt that they would, if necessary, make a stout fight against Biassou's savages.

These arrived in two or three minutes. They had evidently travelled at the top of their speed, for their breath came fast, and they were bathed in sweat. Their aspect was savage in the extreme. Most of them wore some garment or other the spoil of murdered victims, some of them broad Panama-hats, others had women's shawls wrapped round their waists as sashes, some had jackets that were once white, others were naked to the waist. A few had guns, the rest either axes or pikes, and all carried long knives. Conspicuous among them was Biassou himself, a negro of almost gigantic stature and immense strength, to which he owed no small part of his supremacy among his friends. He came on shouting "Treachery! treachery!" words that were re-echoed in a hoarse chorus by his followers, who numbered about a hundred and fifty.

At the threatening aspect of the new-comers, Toussaint's men closed up round him, but he signed them to stand back, and quietly awaited the coming of Biassou. The calmness of Toussaint had its effect on Biassou. Instead of rushing at him with his axe, as it had seemed was his intention, he paused and again shouted "Treachery!"

"What nonsense are you talking, Biassou?" Toussaint said. "I am carrying out the arrangement to which you and Fran?ois agreed the other night, and am having an interview with this British officer."

"When did I agree to such a thing?" the great negro roared.

"Last Friday night we agreed that it was well that we should learn the intentions of the English, and that we should ascertain the position in which we should stand were they to come here."

"I remember nothing about it, Toussaint."

"That is possible enough," the latter replied. "You know that it is no uncommon thing for you to forget in the morning what was arranged overnight. This officer has come here on my invitation and under my safe-conduct, and no man shall touch him while I live."

"It is agreed," Biassou said, "and all have sworn to it, that no white who falls into our hands shall be spared. Such is the case, is it not?" he said to his followers; and they answered with a loud shout and began to press forward.

"These men have not fallen into our hands," Toussaint said, "they have come here on our invitation, and, as I have told you, with our safeguard."

"It is all very well for you to talk, Toussaint; I know you. You pretend to be with us, but your heart is with the whites, and you are here to conspire with them against us," and he raised his axe as if about to rush forward.

"This is madness, Biassou," Toussaint said sternly. "Have we not enough enemies now that we should quarrel among ourselves? You have done enough harm to our cause already by your horrible cruelties, for which every coloured man who falls into the hands of the whites has to suffer severely. Beware how you commence a conflict; you may be more numerous than we are, but we are better armed, and even if you overpowered us in the end, you would suffer heavily before you did so."

"I wish you no harm, Toussaint, but for the last time I demand that these white men shall be given up to me."

"And for the last time I refuse," Toussaint said; and his men without orders moved up close to him.

Biassou stood for a moment irresolute, and then, with a shout to his men to follow him, sprang forward. In an instant Nat threw himself before Toussaint, and when Biassou was within a couple of yards of him threw up his arm and levelled his pistol between the negro's eyes.

"Drop that axe," he shouted, "or you are a dead man!"

The negro stood like a black statue for an instant. The pistol was but a foot from his face, and he knew that before his uplifted axe could fall he would be a dead man.

"Drop it!" Nat repeated. "If you don't before I count three, I fire. One – two – " and the negro's axe fell to the ground. "Stand where you are!" Nat exclaimed, "the slightest movement and I fire! Come up here, men!"

The four sailors came up, cutlass in one hand and pistol in the other.

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