This year’s Black History Month theme, “Saluting Our Sisters”, encourages us to delve into the remarkable women who resisted the entrenched dominance of white colonial power, their stories often overlooked in western historical narratives.
Marie-Jeanne Lamartinière is one such figure. Lamartinière was part of the Haitian army during the Haitian Revolution under the leadership of black militant Toussaint Louverture, and was instrumental during the long defence of Crête-à-Pierrot fort.
You can learn more about Marie-Jeanne Lamartinière and other influential Black leaders in our British Empire Series.
Why did Haiti revolt?
Haiti is an island in the Caribbean which was originally colonised by the Spanish, who enslaved the local population to mine for gold. The conditions were so bad, however, that not many survived.
The French took over ownership of the island in the 17th century and imported slaves from Africa, calling their colony Saint-Domingue. They imported so many enslaved people that people of colour outnumbered white people by 11:1.
Using their numbers to their advantage, a slave rebellion in the French colony began in 1791. The enslaved population was more than 460,000, compared to a white population of only about 30,000. The rebels were led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, a self-freed Haitian General.
After many years of violent resistance, the Haitian Revolution ended in 1804; the colony of Saint-Domingue was renamed Haiti and given full independence. The Haitian revolution is the only known slave insurrection in world history to have concluded in the formation of a new state governed by the previously enslaved population.
This first Black republic shattered racial hierarchies and served as a symbol of Black resistance in slave communities that impacted the abolition movement on a global scale. Formerly enslaved women played an indelible role in the leadership of the revolution, such as at the Battle of Crête-à-Pierrot.
The Battle of Crête-à-Pierrot
Marie-Jeanne Lamartinière is considered by many to be Haiti’s Joan of Arc. Little is known about her life, but her bravery and heroism at the Battle of Crête-à-Pierrot in 1802 has become part of national legend as she turned the tides of the siege and the revolution as a whole.
The battle took place at the Crête-à-Pierrot fort. The French wanted to gain control of this strategically important fort which controlled access to the Cahos Mountains.
Marie-Jeanne Lamartinière fought alongside her husband, Louis Daure Lamartinière, who commanded the garrison at the fort. She acted in a supportive role to her husband as a washerwoman and aide-de-camp, but also acted as a soldier in her own right.
She has been described as wearing a steel belt around her waist from which hung a sabre, with a rifle slung over her shoulder. She took an active role in the fighting, reportedly loading the cannons and distributing cartridges, and, most importantly, encouraging her fellow soldiers.
When the fighting got lively, Lamartinière joined those on the front line of fighting and used her rifle with deadly accuracy.
The French managed to besiege the fort, but that evening, the besieged rebels – including Lamartiniére – fought their way back through over 10,000 French troops, turning the tide in their favour.
The British Empire in Haiti
The British Prime Minister William Pitt sent a ‘Great Push’ to Haiti an attempt to put down the rebellion and restore slavery, claiming the colony of Saint Domingue, but this failed dramatically.
The revolution threatened the Empire in a number of ways. Pitt was concerned that the Haitian Revolution would inspire other slave communities in the Caribbean to revolt against their oppressors, potentially taking over these colonies.
Pitt was also concerned by the impact of the revolution on the wider anti-slavery movement, and wanted to prevent any further development of the abolitionist movement in Britain.
By sending troops to quell the Haitian Rebellion, Pitt hoped to simultaneously quell any brewing revolts in British Caribbean territories, suppress the British abolitionist movement, and retain the economic benefits wrought by the colonial hierarchy on the island.
Pitt’s involvement failed to bring about colonial success, as the campaign cost the British £4 million and too many casualties to justify. Pitt removed his forces from Haiti in 1798.
Lamartinière’s bravery and heroism during the battle of Crête-à-Pierrot led her to be described as the symbol of the female soldier in Haiti. Not much is known about her life after the battle, but she played a significant role in resisting French attack, and eventually the emancipation and creation of the independent state of Haiti.
Lamartinière was part of the Haitian army when the British attempted to take independent Haiti for themselves, successfully preventing the British from re-enslaving the population.
Many other women were involved in the Haitian revolution, including heroines such as Sanité Belair, Dédée Bazile, and Victoria Montou. The slave rebellion allowed for the crossing of both class and gender boundaries, allowing enslaved women to have a place in this historical narrative.
You can learn more about teaching Black History Month with History Bombs here!
Watch Marie-Jeanne Lamartinière in action in our video lesson, ‘How did the British Empire Develop?‘.