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The Coffee Planter of Saint Domingo (London, 1798)


Here Pierre Joseph Laborie provides the perspective of the planter. He gives a detailed description of the organization of enslaved labor in the production of coffee. Although he shared quite negative views of the African enslaved people, he was candid about the extreme brutality that they faced and admitted that it diminished their capacity to work.

“The Coffee Planter of Saint Domingo (London, 1798),” 1798, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity


When one speaks of any class of description whatsoever of the human race, it must be understood that he speaks in general terms, which admit of various and numerous exceptions. It is in those deceptions, that great accomplishments and great defects, that great virtues and great vices, are only found.

Thus, generally speaking, the negroe is not perhaps the worst species of the human race. He is an animal rational in a middle degree; tolerably good, because he is docile and timid, and because he never thinks of a better condition than what he actually enjoys, unless the thought, as well as the means of attaining, is forced upon his observation. He is little capable of actual gratitude and solid attachment; but he is endowed with a general vague notion of right and wrong; and, as he is exceedingly jealous of what he supposes to be his due, chiefly of what has been promised to him, he is pretty well inclined to do what he knows to be his duty. Besides, he has all the defects of people of the lowest class; he perverts every thing to gratify his sloth, lust and gluttony, and, under these predicaments, he will be found an impudent liar. He is exceedingly attentive, and has sufficient skill to lay hold of every remission of discipline, to turn to his own advantage the weaknesses and examples of his matter. He is imitative and apish, as the rest of the human race; and, as such, rather exerts himself to attain the evil, which presents more present and palpable enjoyments, than the good, the benefits of which are, unfortunately, almost always more abstruse and remote.

In a physical view, he is strong and robust, bears fatigue with hardiness, is little liable to distempers, as he is calculated by nature, and improved by habit to be the inhabitant of a warm climate.

Such, nearly and in a general view, is that creature whom we are forced to keep in his natural state of thraldom, in order to obtain from him the requisite services; because it is now proved by experience, more decisively than by speculative reasonings, that, under a different condition, he would not labour, unless to remove actual wants, which are few and small in the West Indies. Here, let the philanthropic imprudent speculator view the present situation of things, correct his system, and profess contrition for the incalculable mischief he has done, in the republican parts of St. Domingo. But no more of this subject.

It is necessary, then, to turn this our property to the best account. We must exact from the negroe all the work he can reasonably perform, and use every means to prolong his life. If interest directs the first, humanity enjoins the second, and here they both go hand in hand. Happy accord! the consciousness of which forms the whole philosophical and political system of the planter; all the magic of the supreme power of one chief, and of that entire submission of the many, which would still have submitted unimpaired in this island, had not the fatal French revolution introduced principles, incompatible with the condition of the country (a).

In order to make the best of the powers of the negro, and to keep him in subjection, chastisement is unfortunately sometimes necessary. Such also is the case with soldiers, with sailors, and with all servile classes of men. But, that his life may be prolonged as long as possible, the planter must not forget that chastisement ought to be neither too severe at a time, nor too often repeated; that the negroe stands in need of quiet, of relaxation, of comforts during health; and of tender and attentive assistance in times of sickness; that he must have always homely, but wholesome and abundant fare and cloaths and lodgings suiting to the climate. The planter has been sensible that humanity, as well as interest, calculated on the surest grounds, directs all those things; he has not been deaf to these suggestions. Nay, who knows but gratitude must be occasionally felt. Upon recollection, the negroe will be found to do for the planter more than the planter does, and is bound to do for him.

I should prefer, in many respects, to form a gang of young Guinea Negroes of the best choice; and even when there is a sufficient number of men full grown for the labour, I would advise to purchase only boys and girls of fourteen and fifteen. Guinea negroes require, in the beginning, to be gently worked and well attended. Some may be lost in the seasoning to climate; but to counterbalance this, they are formed and disciplined according to the master's own ideas, and it is the surest means make a good and beautiful gang.

In the Choice of Guinea negroes, the planter ought to attend to the following circumstances: youth, an open cheerful countenance, a clean and lively eye, fresh lips, sound teeth, a strong neck, a broad and open chest, sinewy arms, dry and large hands, a flat belly, strong loins and haunches, round thighs, dry knees, muscular calves, lean ankles, high feet and lean; an easy and free movement of the limbs; and a middling stature, or rather small.

The Congo, Arada, and Thiamba, are the best nations. Women, in general, do not admit of so much nicety of choice in this respect, because, all over the coast of Guinea, women are accustomed to work for the men. A gang ought to be, as much as possible, composed of the same nation. I preferred the Congos. They are docile, and work pretty well, provided they are well fed.

As soon as Guinea negroes are purchased, the first Care is to have them well bathed with warm water, in order to take off the palm oil, with which they are rubbed on ship-board. This is necessary, as it intercepts perspiration. They must next be clothed as the climate requires (b). It is likewise extremely necessary to cause them to drink for the space of a fortnight, a sudorifick potion (as the dock water) to forward the eruption of cutaneous distempers, which the ship surgeons have often barbarously repressed, and which produce fatal consequences. If direct suspicion of this is entertained, it is better to reproduce the itch, and then to cure it methodically. They ought to be christened also as soon as possible. Some planters stand godfathers for all their negroes, to keep them free from the superstitious and abusive power of godfathers and mothers of their own colour.

I prefer setting negroes to work as soon as they arrive, but this must be done by degrees, avoiding exposure at first to cold rains and dews, because the climate to which they have been accustomed, is different from that of the mountains of St. Domingo; for the same reason, I should advise to purchase Guinea negroes only in the spring. They require also to be particularly watched by the drivers, on account of their distempers.

Both religion and good manners enjoin that the negroes be united in lawful wedlock. But wedlock ill agrees with the natural levity and fickleness of this class of people. Nay, experience has shown that regular marriage would be the means of converting peaceable concubinage into adultery, discords, and deadly feuds. Some evils are unavoidable, and his Holiness himself is obliged to license brothels at Rome, however repugnant to his character of sanctity.

It is necessary, as much as is possible, to procure an equal number of men and women. Intercourse of the sexes should be prevented, as much as can be done, between the neighbouring plantations; matches should be promoted by small benefits and encouragements; concord maintained between man and wife, without pretending altogether to fetter inconstancy. Here only gentle means must be used; for the natural affections and passions of men are seldom restricted by open force. The women ought to be rewarded in their pregnant state, or while rearing, more especially if the fathers are among themselves.

(a) It is particularly remarkable, that while almost all the Dutch and British colonies have suffered, one time or other, the shock of local insurrections of negroes, the French colonies have never felt any thing of that kind. I can see no better reason for this, but the difference of their respective constitutions. Ours left the strength and power of the multitude a hidden mystery. The whole sway was, visibly at least, in the hands of a single man, both here and in the mother-country; and this is the exact pattern and example of the power of the matter on his own estate. This is only a hint of a very extensive idea, which, it further explained, would be found to be beyond contradiction.

(b) I cannot omit the unpleasing but necessary practice of stamping them.


P. J. Labourie, The Coffee Planter of Saint-Domingo (London, 1798), 157–70.

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