As Spain, France and England all fought over Saint-Domingue, the freedom fighters switched their allegiances among the European powers. The new French Republic had abolished slavery across all of its colonies, but later Napoleon would reinstate it in an attempt to appease the merchant bourgeoisie at home and the planters who relied on slave labor in the sugar, coffee and tobacco plantations.
Overlooked in documented history, there were as many women as there were men who played key roles in Haiti’s complicated "istwa"* and its struggle for self-rule (*a Haitian Creole word meaning history or story, like the French word histoire).
To celebrate Women’s History Month and le mois de la francophonie we spotlight just a few of these heroines.
Victoria MontouVictoria Montou, also known as "Gran Toya" and "Adbaraya Toya" is regarded as one of the founding mothers of the Republic of Haiti. Freedom fighter and healer, Victoria was abducted from her native Dahomey Empire (a West-African empire that existed between the 17th and early 20th century, now modern-day Benin). It is believed that “Gran Toya” belonged to the all-female elite army of the Empire, before her enslavement. They were dubbed the Dahomey Amazons by the invading European colonists and explorers who were terrified of them, comparing them to the mythological Greek Amazons, for their bravery and for their fierce, often brutal, protection of the king.
Toya met Jean-Jacques Dessalines when he was a child; they were enslaved in the same plantation. She taught him, trained him in combat and fought alongside him in the slave rebellions which became the Haitian Revolution.
Did you see the movie ‘’Black Panther’’? The fictional Dora Milaje, all-female army, was inspired by the Dahomey Amazons.
Marie-Jeanne LamartinièreMarie-Jeanne Lamartinière, another freedom fighter, was renowned for her bravery and skill during the battle of Crête-à-Pierrot, defending the fort against Napoleon’s troops. “Marie-Jeanne’’ fought in uniform alongside her husband, Louis Daure Lamartinière, as part of Jean-Jacques Dessalines’ army.
Lieutenant Suzanne “Sanité’’ BélairLieutenant Suzanne “Sanité’’ Bélair was an ‘’affranchie’’, an emancipated slave. Known as the fighting “Tigress”, Sanité was a sergeant in Toussaint Louverture’s army. A leader in her own right, Sanité and her husband General Charles Bélair were taken prisoner by the French and executed as martyrs of the struggle for freedom in 1802.
Cécile FatimanCécile Fatiman was not a soldier, but a voodoo priestess or “mambo”. In August 1791, together with Dutty Boukman, she presided over a religious ceremony at Bois-Caïman to instill courage in the rebel slaves who had already gained momentum in their fight for freedom. This ceremony is celebrated as the spark that ignited the slave revolt to such an extent that revolution was inevitable.
Here at the French Library, we promote the beautiful French language and love to share our passion for it with our community, especially in March, le mois de la francophonie. We acknowledge that the reach and diversity of those that speak French is a result of the long history of exploration, colonization and exploitation by the European empires. French became the ‘’official’’ language of the colonies and while the people of the colonies may speak French, they also speak their own Creole and other indigenous languages making for a tremendously rich linguistic and cultural heritage.
Rather than being documented by historians, many stories about women and their role as freedom fighters and warriors were handed down through the oral tradition from grandmother to granddaughter.
Are you familiar with their istwa? Is there a warrior woman or heroine whose story you have learned from your grandparents and would like to share with us?
For more reading about Haiti’s history, the significance of the Haitian Revolution and its heroines:
The Haitian Revolutionary Women Series - Philip Thomas Tucker, PH.D
Martyred Lieutenant Sanité Bélair
Gran Toya: Founding Mother of Haiti - Freedom Fighter Victoria “Toya” Montou
Brown University: The History of Haiti, 1492 -1805
Time Magazine: There’s a True Story Behind Black Panther’s Strong Women. Here’s Why That Matters. By Arica L. Coleman
BBC.com: The Legend of Benin’s Fearless Female Warriors By Fleur MacDonald.
Adbaraya Toya, Victoria “‘Toya’’ Montou. Wikimedia.org Wikipedia Commons - Tante Toya - March 2021
Marie-Jeanne Lamartinère - 1954 Stamp commemorating the 150th anniversary of Haitian independence featuring Marie-Jeanne and her husband. Printed by Waterlow & Sons. Public domain. Wikimedia.org.
Sanité Bélair. Government of Haiti - The 2004 Haitian Bicentennial edition of the 10 gourde bank note. Source: http://www.banknote.ws/COLLECTION/countries/AME/HAI/HAI0272co.jpg
Cécile Fatiman - Historical image. Artist unknown.
Liz grew up in England and spent many summers traveling in France with her family, which sparked a lifelong love of languages and travel. She has a degree in modern languages and international studies for which she also studied in France and Spain. Working in international sports marketing while living in Hong Kong and London meant extensive travel, particularly in Asia. A new chapter began after moving to New York and then settling in the Boston area. Liz enjoys traveling, experiencing different cultures and spending time with friends and family.See All Liz's Posts