During my « Transatlantic Fellowship for Caribbean-based applicants » to Warwick University, I had the opportunity to reach collections of newspapers of the Caribbean, it is the reason why I am going to speak to you about a press article which particularly marked me. It would be nowadays tidied up in the sections news stories of France-Antilles; it is nothing more and nothing less only the narrative of a femicide in the 18th century.
It caught my attention because it echoed a recent post, I read on the French FEMEN Facebook page, which analysed how the femicides are dealt with in the current media. The post among other things notes how the language used in the media focuses on the conjugal tragedy, passional crime and especially on the depressive state of the killer, when it comes to a man, whereas the words « femicide, violence, crime » are almost never used despite these propitious contexts.
But let us return to our archives case. It is the Bermuda Gazette, and Weekly Advertiser that tells the story in its edition of the 25th of September 1784.
The « fatal passion« . Is it from so far that we inherit this vocabulary which euphemise the murder of women by their partners in the press? Benoît Garnot, historian, explains that the expression « passional crime » was born in the nineteenth century written by journalists, but, of course, the reality of these crimes linked to the feeling of love and the idea of flouted honour is much older.
However if the case was relayed in the columns of the Bermuda Gazette, some 2000 kilometres from the place of the murder, it was probably because it must have caused great scandal! I therefore sought in the French archives if I found traces of them. And I did it! I found in the E series of the Archives nationales Outre-Mer the file of a certain Élie Pascal. He is listed following his (rejected) request for dismissal of a judgement of the Superior Council of Port-au-Prince in Santo Domingo. But after the folios dealing with « maritime commerce interests » there is a letter: that of the crime committed by Pascal Elie.
Written on July the 24th, 1784, the letter of the administrators of the Martinican colony related, « the murder committed by the called Pascal, a merchant, in the person of a mustee* slave ». Have you noticed that the version diverges a bit from the one evoked by the Bermuda Gazette? The woman would be a slave and not a free woman. A quick look in the parish registers of the free people of Saint-Pierre confirms this second version, because the burial of the woman does not appear.
The crime remains the same. The man, « born in Provence, lived with a mustee* slave; having thought her unfaithful, after having quarrelled her for two or three days, in a fit of jealousy, went to her house, called her from outside, as if inviting him to make peace, this girl was not rather returned within the house he pulled out of his pocket two pistols of one he pierced the breast of this girl who just die after three days, on the other he hurt his neck; But because this weapon did not have the effect he expected of it, he used a razor, which he had in his pocket and cut his throat. » As for 80% of cases at least and certainly more, the murder is premeditated.
The letter continues explaining the legal measures taken.
« This affair was a big case; Justice went immediately to this girl; seized the culprit, who was taken to the jail, and sentenced to the wheel. (…) in a case so atrocious where this unhappy man played in his answers all the principles that tie society, and was only sensible to the dishonour of his wife and children who are in Marseille. It seemed to us proper that example should closely follow the offence; Consequently, we have assembled the Council extraordinarily at St. Pierre, (…) the sentence confirmed and the culprit executed this very evening, we flatter ourselves that the promptness which justice has put to this execution will impress upon the villains of this kind ».
(in French) « Cette affaire a fait beaucoup de bruit ; la justice s’est transportée sur-le-champ chez cette fille ; on s’est saisi du coupable qui a été porté à la geôle, décrété et condamné à la roue. (…) dans un cas aussi atroce où ce malheureux s’est joué dans ses réponses de tous les principes qui lient la société, et n’a été sensible qu’au déshonneur de sa femme et de ses enfants qui sont à Marseille, il nous a paru convenable que l’exemple suivît de près le délit ; en conséquence nous avons assemblé le Conseil extraordinairement à Saint-Pierre, (…) la sentence confirmée et le coupable exécuté ce soir même, nous nous flattons que la célérité que la justice a mise à cette exécution en imprimera aux scélérats de cette espèce».
That same year, 1784, in France, another case caused impression. In Provence, the Marquis d’Entrecasteaux was also committing a murder. On the 8th of May, ten weeks before our affair, Angélique Pulchérie de Castellane Saint-Yves was found dead in her blood, her throat cut with a razor, killed by her husband, in love with another woman. She had already escaped two attempts at poisoning.
Less well-known, but equally awful, The case of Madelaine Rouff found dead drowned in Montagny in a creek of the countryside, on March the 25th, 1784. Probably pregnant and for this reason she was killed by her lover Guairy who beat her with a stick and finished her by drowning it in the creek.
In France, statistics say that every 2 to 3 days a woman dies, killed by her partner or an ex-partner. As journalist Titiou Lecoq notes in a recent article on femicide in 2017, the victims are of all ages and from all walks of life, as well the murderers. Often, as for our Martinican slave, it is a tragedy of separation. Men « deny these women their rights as free human beings. In this, they join the crimes of discrimination« .
How many women in 1784 died as Angelica, Madeleine and this Martinican woman never named?
And you, you know stories of femicides perpetuated in the Caribbean in the eighteenth century?
* Mustee (mestive or métive in French): the word in Martinique describes a second-generation mixed blood people, from a mulatto.ress with a white.
(All in French)
Bermuda Gazette, and Weekly Advertiser, St. George’s, Bermuda, Sept. 25, 1784, p. 4.
Dossier de Pascal Elie, négociant à Saint-Marc, à Saint-Domingue, contre les sieurs Cazes et Ferrand 1782/1784
To know more
Benoît Garnot, Une histoire du crime passionnel. Mythe et archives, Paris, Belin, 2014.
Podcast : le crime passionnel dans “La Fabrique de l’Histoire” (XIXe-XXe siècles)