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. 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.
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.
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."
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.