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From the time Girard started his own trading enterprise, the West Indies had been a regular stop on his voyages. As the trade restrictions against American vessels increased, Stephen and his brother managed to make the changes work for them. When it was profitable for them to be an American partner in San Domingo, they flew an American flag. When the local trade barriers were set up against American goods, out came the tricolors of France. When caught with the wrong flag and a prohibited cargo, Girard’s captain would claim that their destination was not San Domingo at all but some distant port. In 1790, the two brothers managed a profitable business—Stephen in Philadelphia analyzing market trends and deciding what goods to ship out and John in San Domingo buying those goods that would bring the greatest profit for the ship’s return to America.
The catalyst for the slave uprising in the West Indies in 1791 could have been mitigated by the French slave owners had they not been so sure of their methods of controlling the slaves and had they not been so blinded by greed.
Conditions were terrible for the African slaves and might have continued unchanged had word of the French Revolution not given impetus to the uprising in the West Indies. San Domingo was controlled by the French and had the largest enslaved population in the Caribbean. It had a booming sugar industry that had created the world's richest colony, with half a million enslaved Africans. It produced more than 30% of the world's sugar and more than half its coffee.
From our perspective in time, slavery is a horrible manifestation of human behavior. In the eighteenth century, however, it was still an acceptable business practice. Slavery in the West Indies was especially harsh. Enslaved Africans had to live in windowless huts and were over-worked and often underfed. Some owners put tin masks on the slaves, to keep them from chewing sugar cane in the fields which could provide them with energy. Enslaved Africans were whipped regularly and salt, pepper and even hot ashes were poured onto bleeding wounds. When the uprising began, hundreds of whites fled to the waterfront to escape the onslaught of angry slaves who indiscriminately slaughtered men, women and children— all white people. Not having a guillotine, they used their machetes to decapitate their victims. Girard had been alerted in a letter from his brother John that the slaves were beginning to rebel. The blacks stormed the city, plundering and setting fire to property and killing many whites. The governor fled for his life alongside hundreds of new penniless refugees. Much later, a Frenchman who had managed to escape wrote: “When the trouble began, we found that our own servants, who were numerous, would join forces with the brigands and set fire to our houses.”
Girard’s agent Jacques Aubert attempted to save the jewelry and other valuables belonging to the fleeing slave owners. Escaping with his family by ship, Aubert had taken as many refugees as possible and hidden all of the passengers' valuable possessions in barrels of coffee, to protect them if the ship should be boarded. And boarded it was by the privateer Sally (taken earlier by the British). The captain and his crew almost demolished the brigantine in search of valuables. They found the entire treasure and took everything. Girard’s ship Polly was in San Domingo at the time under Captain Edger. Girard told Edger to take any refugees needing to leave.
On October 7th, the Polly was allowed to sail after paying heavy duties assessed by the Colonial Assembly and undergoing a rigorous inspection. "The rigorous inspection of American vessels practiced by officials on land, as well as by men-of-war, obliges them to truly declare their cargoes.
The rebellion lasted less than two months but not before more than two thousand whites had been killed. Many of the French families went to the Philadelphia where Girard provided them with financial assistance and housing. Girard's slaves had always been treated humanely with care given to their health, nourishment and well being.
At the beginning of 1793, two years after the uprising, John Girard wrote pessimistically about conditions in San Domingo: "The country is in a deplorable condition. The law has no force.”
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