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Jorge (Georges) Biassou


When Jorge Biassou (1741-1801) arrived in St. Augustine in 1796, he was already a legend in his own time. He was the most fiery leader in the Haitian slave revolt against the French. He became a decorated Spanish general, yet did not speak Spanish and was virtually banned from Hispaniola and Havana. He was Florida's only black caudillo (a militant political leader), and came with his own Haitian entourage. He flaunted pagan religious practices, but was buried with full Catholic honors. A hero, a family man, a threat, and a spectacle; this ex-slave demanded respect.

Jorge (Georges) Biassou portrait by Alexandra Barbot

Jorge (Georges) Biassou. Painting by Alexandra Barbot.

From Slave to Rebel

Jorge Biassou was born "Georges," on the island of Hispaniola. He was the son of slaves in the world's most lucrative colony, French Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). The plantation owners there were notoriously brutal, producing a standard for violence that still lingers there today. In 1791, thousands of abused slaves rose up and poured out their fury on the "great whites." Biassou, now fifty years old, joined them and quickly assumed the rebel leadership with Jean Francois. Biassou commanded 40,000 ex-slaves as they burned plantations and murdered whites. Along the way, he fueled his own and his followers' national spirit through religious practices of their African ancestors.

In four years of warfare, Biassou developed a reputation that became fodder for legends. Historian Thomas Madiou dramatized tales of the revolution fifty years later, writing that Biassou's war tent was "filled with kittens of all shades, with snakes, with dead men's bones, and other African fetishes. At night huge campfires were lit with naked women dancing around them, chanting words understood only on the coast of Africa. When the excitement reached its climax, Biassou would appear with his [priests] to proclaim in the name of God that every slave killed in battle would re-awaken in his homeland of Africa" (Madiou).

The Haitian Revolution began with a slave revolt in 1791.

The Haitian Revolution began with a slave revolt in 1791.

From Rebel to General

Biassou proved to be that unique blend of dynamo and diplomat. He and Francois wrote multiple offers to end the slave revolt in exchange for the basic human rights promoted by the French Revolution. Mainland France dismissed those peace offers from Hispaniola; they were too busy declaring war on Spain. Since Spain shared Hispaniola with France, the war found its way to the island. There, Spanish Governor Garcia recruited the rebel slaves. For their assault on the French, the slaves were given weapons, supplies, salaries, and Spanish citizenship. Francois, Biassou, and his aid Toussaint L'Ouverture received gold medals and letters of thanks and confidence from the Spanish government. At that point in 1793, "Georges" became "Jorge" Biassou, a free, French-speaking, Spanish general of his freed rebels, the Black Auxiliaries of Carlos IV.

Hispaniola was divided into French and Spanish territories.

The island of Hispaniola was divided into French and Spanish territories. The French side became Haiti after the slaves won their revolution.

Loyalty to Spain

Biassou coveted his title and salary. He proved his Spanish loyalty a year later when Toussaint withdrew a portion of the Black Auxiliaries to focus on freeing more slaves. Biassou did not want to risk his newfound independence, and in fact, later owned his own slaves. He and Francois remained loyal to Spain, even though it eventually meant fighting against Toussaint and other rebels. Governor Garcia was grateful for this, and called the Black Auxiliaries "valiant warriors."

Toussaint L'Ouverture, led	the Haitian Revolution to success.

Biassou's former aid, Toussaint L'Ouverture, led the Haitian Revolution to success. Painting by Alexandra Barbot.

Grateful, that is, until Spain's fight with France ended. Then Governor Garcia pondered what to do with his Haitian "wolves." They were armed, skilled, and far more ferocious than Spanish war standards. Jorge Biassou was especially feared. Field reports claimed he had killed all the white patients in a hospital and led a massacre of one thousand French men, women and children.


 
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