The Military Hospital of Fort-de-France #2/3 Enslaveds to Serve the Sick (a)

Tanlistwa, gravure représentant des blanchisseuses ou Lavandièresau bord d'une rivière, l'une rince son linge dans la rivière, une autre le frotte au bord de la rivière, une troisième l'étend à sécher dans un arbre, à côté un panier de vannerie contient du linge, un homme ou garçon qui semble être nu est debout dans la rivière de l'eau au niveau des cheville, il tient un baton et porte un chapeau

 Reading time: Around 12 minutes.
–> Lire la version française de cet article  flag-fr-1

A few months ago, I worked for the setting up of an online database with information contained in notarial deeds from the 18th century in Martinique. Among the acts, the one on the annotation of the goods of the Fort-Royal hospital (now Fort-de-France) of 1793 surprised me, as there were 82 slaves working in the structure; as many as on a small sugar plantation! I was intrigued and curious to know what enslaved men and women were doing in such an establishment. In the previous episode, I mentioned the military hospital of Fort-de-France, its project at the end of the 17th century and its laborious construction in the 18th century; today, I am telling you in detail about the enslaved men and women, who served the sick at the end of the 18th century.

The enslaveds people at the Fort-Royal Hospital in 1793

In this research, it all began for me with an French act of annotation of the goods of the hospital of the town of Fort de La République of March 25, 1793. We are in the midst of a revolutionary period, which is why Fort-de-France, called Fort-Royal in the 18th century, bears the unusual name of Fort-de-la-République. But it is not the name of the city that surprises me, it is the number of slaves associated with the act: 82! Not only is there this number, but among them, besides carpenters, laundresses or cooks, I also find nurses, assistant surgeons, apothecaries! In short, we are far from the structure and activities usually imposed on plantation enslaved people. I was challenged by it, so I tried to find out more.

Statistically speaking, the list of enslaved people (to be found in the 3rd episode) is composed of 62% men and 31% women. Only seven of them have no qualifications. These include three young children, as can be guessed from the indication of their mother’s filiation, a woman and a man, crippled, as well as Véronique, the commander’s wife, and Elie, without any indication as to the reason for these two.

On a sugar plantation, there was majority of enslaved people working in the fields -reflecting the function of producing food for export-, but the distribution of enslaved people in the hospital is quite different in order to meet the specific needs of the establishment. Excluding from the calculations the seven persons mentioned above, without any precise function, there are 75 others who are distributed by sector of activity as follows:

Tanlistwa ,Graph of the distribution of enslaved people at the Fort-Royal Hospital in 1793 according to their activity
Graph of the distribution of enslaved people at the Fort-Royal Hospital in 1793 according to their activity

In detail, here’s what it looks like:

  • 17 people worked in the field, including 2 commanders and 1 horned animal keeper, presumably producing some of the daily food.
  • 16 people took care of the linen and bedding: 7 laundresses, 8 seamstresses and 1 man known as a mattress maker.
  • 13 people were directly involved in the care of the hospital’s patients. There were 3 apothecaries, 3 assistant surgeons, 7 nurses. But if we include the servant-nurse woman, the nurse’s domestic man and the pharmacy domestic man, a total of 16 slaves devoted their time to the care of the sick.
  • 10 people were mobilised around food: 6 cooks (including 2 dedicated to the sick), 1 kitchen boy, 1 baker, 1 bottler (in charge of supplying wine and alcohol), 1 domestic cambusier (employee of the caboose in charge of distributing food rations, originally on the boats).
  • 7 people were designated as servant or domestic workers for table service.
  • 4 men were carpenters,
  • Finally, the hospital had 1 carter, 1 officer’s domestic worker, 1 domestiv worker without more precision, 1 hunter’s domestic worker and 1 sailor.

It is of course possible to group the activities in other ways, but this still gives an idea of the diversity of tasks and the specificity of their distribution in a hospital.

One of the elements that does not appear in the previous graph is the gender disparities according to tasks. In the garden, there were no distinction between men and women; the distribution of 62% men / 31% women in the overall groupe is more or less the same. On the other hand, we can see that women were assigned to linen processing, while the care of the sick and feeding was a men affair.

tanlista, Graph of the distribution of enslaved people at the Fort-Royal Hospital in 1793 according to their activity and sex
Graph of the distribution of enslaved people at the Fort-Royal Hospital in 1793 according to their activity and sex

Fort-Royal’s hospital had easier access to enslaved people

I looked for archives to help me better understand what was the daily life and the environment of these enslaved people attached to a hospital in the 18th century; it is the renewal of the contract for the management of the Fort-Royal hospital of 1772, established between the Brothers of Charity and the colonial administration, about which I already told you a little in the previous post, that brought me the most information.

First of all, I discovered that there was an exemption from capitation, drudgery and charges for 30 slaves of the « house of Fort-Royal » of the religious, and even more, the same right for 80 other slaves « whom it is necessary to maintain for the service of the hospitals of the colony » [qu’il est nécessaire d’entretenir pour le service des hôpitaux de la colonie].

Capitation and drudgery were a kind of tax. The first, a form of per capita tax, applied to both free or enslaved people, with rates varying according to status; the capitation of enslaved people was payable by the owner. The drudgery took the form of imposed unpaid work; the slave owners made the slaves available to the colonial administration for a given period of time in order to carry out the works considered necessary for colonial development. Capitation did not apply to children under 14 years of age or to individuals over 60 years of age; thus, even if the ages are not specified in the 1793 list, it is certain that the religious were totally exempted from these taxes for the use of 82 slaves in the hospital establishment.

Exemptions were not limited to the capitation of slaves; the Brothers of Charity were also exempted from collecting fees and tolls for various supplies that were purchased in France to be sent to hospitals in the colonies. In addition, they benefited from « free passage and return » [passage et le retour franc] on the ships for themselves, their employees and their domestics necessary for the services of the hospitals. They could even, under certain conditions, obtain supplies from abroad, whereas the principle of exclusive colonial rights did not normally allow this!

In 1722, Brother Ignace Dubois, Superior of the Religious of Charity in St. Pierre, tried to obtain a larger quota of slaves exempt from capitation. At the time, there was apparently an exemption for only 12 slaves. Obviously, the colonial administration was sensitive to his arguments, since in 1772, the exemption was now valid for 80 enslaved people, just those working at the hospital at Fort-Royal.

But what is especially interesting in Ignace Dubois’ letter is that he provides a description of the number of enslaved people and the tasks performed at the hospital of Saint-Pierre in 1722, in order to argue his claim:

« There are three who remain in the rooms, six negroes who do nothing else but wash the linen from the first of the year to the last, six negroes who go to fetch wood, three in the kitchen, one baker, four negroes who are always mending the linen, two to three who are continually looking for eggs, two in the garden and several who go to fetch water, as well as the other occupations. »
[Il y en a trois qui restent dans les salles, six nègres qui ne font autre chose que de laver le linge depuis le 1er de l’an jusqu’au dernier, six nègres qui vont chercher du bois, trois à la cuisine, un boulanger, quatre négresses qui sont toujours à raccommoder le linge, deux à trois qui font continuellement à rechercher des œufs, deux au jardin et plusieurs qui vont chercher de l’eau, ainsi que les autres occupations.]

About 30 enslaved people were therefore employed at the hospital. At the end of the 18th century, the number of slaves was higher, but the activities of most of them were of the same kind.

The reception capacity and the number of patients

Since 1722, the Fort-Royal establishment had been greatly expanded. In a plan representing the hospital in 1763, we count: 87 beds in the Saint Jean room, as many upstairs in the Saint Louis room, 29 beds in the Saint Marc room, upstairs 17 beds are represented for the individual rooms of the sick officers, 46 beds still in the Saint Côme room at the back of the building. In total, there were about 266 beds available to take care of the sick. A state of management of the hospital of Martinique preserved for the year 1773 confirms the capacity of reception of the site. In these times of peace, we discover the number of soldiers received over the months in the hospital; in January they were only 141, but in September, there were no less than 238. Over the whole year, 1995 soldiers, 125 sailors, 40 officers of the troops and 2 naval officers were treated. On average, 180 people were admitted each month; the soldiers stayed for about 20 days, their officers 27 days, the sailors 18 days. The hospital received primarily the king’s troops, but there must also have been a few workers from the fort, private individuals, and poor people from the neighborhood who were taken care of by the Brothers of Charity and who do not appear in these accounts.

Slave housing

After the earthquake of 1771, the hospital, badly damaged, underwent new construction. I don’t know what it looked exactly for the hospital in which the slaves from the 1793 list lived; but you can see many modifications between the 1763 plan (left) and the 1808 plan (right) – for the most curious, compare the original unframed documents, in link, you will see that the course of the Levassor River has been altered!

In the 1763 plan, next to the kitchens and laundries, three rooms represent « the Negro cabins » [case à nègres] (framed in red on the plan below). In 1808, they no longer slept in the permanent building; they were now separated and lived in a long building made of light material with about twenty rooms called « for the servants » [pour les domestiques]. As with the other dwellings I have been able to study, an average of four slaves shared each small space at the beginning of the 19th century.

Tanlistwa, Extraits des plans de l'hôpital de Fort-Royal de 1763 et 1808. Les rectangles rouges signalent les espaces dédiés au logement des esclaves.
Details of the Fort-Royal Hospital plans of 1763 and 1808. The red rectangles indicate the spaces dedicated to the housing of the slaves.

Enslaved laundresses, seamstresses and mattress maker at the Fort-Royal Hospital

The 1772 contract stipulated that the hospital be « supplied with 3 pairs of sheets for each bed, 6 shirts, 6 canvas bonnets » [fourni de 3 paires de draps pour chaque lit, 6 chemises, 6 bonnets de toile], as well as a dressing gown for 20 patients.

Beds for officers had to be:
« made up of a good mattress, from a straw mattress millet, banana or other ordinary & customary material in the country, a wool or cotton blanket, a feather bolster, a pillow, bed linen textile white and clean. »
[composés d’un bon matelas, d’une paillasse de mil, bananier ou autre matière ordinaire & d’usage dans le pays, d’une couverture de laine ou de coton, d’un traversin de plume, d’un oreiller, de draps de toile blanche et propre]

Those of the other patients:
« a bunk strapped or lined with a straw mattress, a mattress of horsehair or wool, a bolster of feather, banana or millet straw, & a blanket of wool or other equivalent material ».
[d’une couchette sanglée ou garnie d’une paillasse, d’un matelas de crin ou de laine, d’un traversin de plume, paille de bananier ou de mil, & d’une couverture de laine ou autre matière équivalente]

You multiply all this by 266 beds: 798 sheets, 1596 shirts, 1596 bonnets, a dozen dressing gowns, 266 bolsters, 266 blankets. You now have an idea of the scope of the work for Jeanne Claire, Geneviève, Berthe, Louisanne, Elisabeth, Dedenne, Marie Françoise and Lisette, the eight seamstresses, whether to make certain pieces or to do some darning. Similarly, it is not difficult to imagine the workload of Elisabeth, Marie Ursule, Marie Rose, Agathe, Marceline, Rosette and Marie, all seven laundresses (or washerwomen), in other words devoting their entire day to washing clothes.

Mattresses and straw beds were regularly filled and stuffed. Moïse, the mattress maker, had his work cut out for the 266 beds. The mattresses and the wool he used were kept in a store (nos. 12 and 17) that can be seen on the 1808 plan.

Tanlistwa, blanchisseuses ou Lavandières, Extrait de : Les Français peints par eux-mêmes : le Nègre (Page 328), 1842
[Lavandières], extrait de : Les Français peints par eux-mêmes : le Nègre (Page 328), 1842

Enslaved garden employees, commanders and animal guards at the Fort-Royal hospital

The 1772 market contains a section devoted to the supplies delivered and the service provided to the sick; this is an indirect way of understanding the importance of the task for the enslaved. Nevertheless, nothing is shown about those who were employed in the garden: Olive, Thomas, André, Jérôme, Charles, Joseph, Adélaïde, Angélique, Claire, Didine, Catherine, Marie Magdelaine, Antoine, Boissille. It is among them that we find the only person clearly identified as having recently arrived in the West Indies: Antoine is said to be « from the miner’s land » [de terre mine].

A few cows were kept by Alexander, perhaps in the savannah shown on the 1808 plan; there were probably also fruit trees on the site, as suggested by the figures of well-arranged trees in the 1763 plan or the courtyard of orange trees and the avenue of tamarind trees on the 1808 plan; the garden may also have provided some medicinal plants. The presence of two commanders, Bonaventure and Montauban, is surprising for so few slaves; I suppose that there were two work sites, one team working in the hospital garden and another on another piece of land belonging to the Brothers of Charity.

Enslaved hunter, sailor, carter at the Fort-Royal Hospital

There is nothing in the contract about the activities of Alexis, the hunter servant, or Cupidon, the sailor; but by the nature of their work, they were brought out of the hospital and were probably the two enslaved people with the most freedom of movement. Joseph, the cartman (cart driver) who had to get out of the hospital to carry various items, could also be reached, but his journeys from one place to another were surely less free than those of his two companions in misfortune.

Enslaved cooks, kitchen boy, baker, bottler, cambusier at the Fort-Royal Hospital

According to the hospital attendance reported in 1773, an average of 120 patients a day had to be fed. The officers received:
« one and a half pounds of butcher’s meat, & a hen of four in four, when one of them is willing & able to eat grilled or roasted meat, it will be deducted from the above mentioned quantities. »
[une livre & demie de viande de boucherie, & une poule de quatre en quatre, lorsque l’un deux voudra & sera en état de manger de la viande grillée ou rôtie, elle sera prise en déduction des quantités ci-dessus mentionnées.]

The other soldiers, sailors or workmen, who made up the bulk of the patients, received:
« one pound, pound of marc, of butcher’s meat, with one bird per ten sick, or in the absence of butcher’s meat, twenty ounces of white bread, well baked, fresh, and made from the best quality flour, a pint of good quality, Bordeaux vintage, measured of Paris wine. »
[une livre, poids de marc, de viande de boucherie, avec une volaille par dix malades, ou à défaut de la viande de boucherie, vingt onces de pain blancs bien cuit, frais et fait de la meilleur qualité de farine une chopine de vin mesure de paris de bonne qualité, crû de Bordeaux.]

 The contract added that:
« Those who need a moderate diet, will have eggs, breadsticks, rice, prunes, local jams, wine & other things they may need for their recovery. »
[Ceux qui auront besoin d’un régime modéré, auront des œufs, des panades, du riz, des pruneaux, des confitures du pays, du vin & autres choses qui pourront leur être nécessaire pour leur rétablissement.]

The meals were organized in three courses: a soup at 7 a.m., a soup with meat, bread and wine at 11 a.m., and the same thing at 5 p.m. Finally, the patient was given « half a pound of bread and a little wine » [une demie livre de pain et un peu de vin] on the day he was discharged from the hospital. For an ordinary day, it was necessary to prepare at least 59 kilos of meat, 12 poultries, 86 kilos of bread and serve 57 litres of wine to feed 120 sick soldiers!

On the 1808 plan, the engineer represented a main kitchen and 2 other kitchens located in the same space (n° 25 to 27), but we also notice a separate kitchen, that of the director (n°18). In these spaces dedicated to the preparation of meals were Édouard, Joseph, Lindor, Toussaint, Fortuné and Gros Pital, the 6 cooks, and Leopard, the hospital’s kitchen boy. Fortuné and Gros Pital, in particular, devoted themselves to preparing food for the sick; but they also had to feed the religious and the slaves themselves. Opposite the main block of kitchens was the room dedicated to the distribution of rations (n°34), it was there that Joseph, the cambusier servant, was most often to work. The bottler, Celetu, who was in charge of the distribution of the wine and its good conservation, had to go often to the dedicated store (n°7). Finally, we can see right next to the director’s kitchen (n°18), the oven (n°19) where Louis, the baker, was hard working.

tanlistwa, Detail of the 1808 plan highlighting the spaces where some enslaved people worked according to the type of activities.
Detail of the 1808 plan highlighting the spaces where some enslaved people worked according to the type of activities.

Enslaved domestics or servants for table service and other domestics at the Fort-Royal Hospital

The 1772 contract called for the provision of « one black or white servant for every fifteen patients » [un domestique noir ou blanc pour quinze malades] and for officers to have « one black servant for every six » [un domestique noir de six en six]. 25 persons were generally qualified as domestic for men or servant for women; the proportion was thus largely respected for the hospital’s capacity, at least if we stick to the appellation. In addition to the hunter’s domestic, the laundry servants, the seamstresses’ servants or the domestic cambusier… there was also the category of servants or domestic helpers, responsible for providing table service. Clément, Alexis, Jean Laurent, Petit Baptiste, Charlotte, Caroline and Magdelonaite were the seven enslaved people in this position.

Among the other servants were Modeste, who was the only servant whose destination is not specified, and Tonton, the domestic of the officers. In the 1763 plan, 17 rooms and as many beds were intended for the officers; but this was probably more than necessary, as the 1808 plan shows a new configuration. Not only were the rooms put elsewhere, but they were also reduced to 5 rooms (no. 15). Tonton’s presence was thus sufficient to comply with the rule of one black domestic for every six officers.

Enslaved carpenters at the Fort-Royal Hospital

Laurent, Baptiste, Joachim and Balthazar, the 4 carpenters of the hospital normally produced and repaired wooden furniture and small furnishings: chairs, bed, table, door, shutter… Perhaps they also did some cooperage and cut the wood needed to feed the baker’s oven, the potagers (space for cooking food) in the kitchens, as well as the boiler for the baths.

All these people, with slave status, were at the service of the sick and helped to run the hospital on a daily basis, but there is still one category that I want to talk to you about in more detail, that of enslaved apothecaries, surgeons’ assistants and nurses who took care of the sick. This will be the subject of the next post!

Read the other episodes:

Archives nationales outre-mer, Correspondance série C8A

Archives nationales outre-mer, Cartes et plans du Dépôt des fortifications et des colonies


  • Manioc, [Lavandières], Extrait de : Les français peints par eux-mêmes : le Nègre (Page 328), 1842

3 réflexions sur “The Military Hospital of Fort-de-France #2/3 Enslaveds to Serve the Sick (a)

  1. Thank you for this fascinating look inside of the military hospital at Fort de France in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The documentation shines a light on the numerous ways that slave labor was used to meet the medical needs of the colonial/military administration. I have read some on the civilian hospital in early 19th century Saint Louis, Senegal and how the Sisters of Saint Joseph de Cluny relied on slave labor sometimes rented from local owners and sometimes slaves or engages who were confided to work in the hospital. In one case there were Martiniquais placed in the civilian hospital in Senegal in the early 1830s. I learned about a squadron of Antillais soldiers in the employ of the French during the Haitian Revolution who were sent to Senegal when Napoleon took control and reinstated slavery. I am looking for more documentation on this episode. Apparently Napoleon’s regime did not want the group to disembark in France or in the islands for fear of their reaction to the re-imposition of slavery. Have you come across any information on this event?

    Aimé par 1 personne

    1. Thank you for your message and for sharing your knowledge about the St. Louis Civil Hospital. I did not see in the archival material any information about the Antillean soldiers sent to Senegal, but I did not search either! I’m not surprised that Napoleon’s regime feared their possible action on their home territory, a fear that was also found in the 18th century around the movement of enslaved as free people of colour between the kingdom and the colonies. If I see anything, I’ll let you know.


      1. Thank you for your reply. Yes, that moment of the reinstatement of slavery was fascinating on many levels. It truly shows the contradictions of revolutionary ideology, empire, and slavery. I would love to know if you every come across anything related to les Antilles et le Senegal before 1848. A plus.

        Aimé par 1 personne

Votre commentaire

Entrez vos coordonnées ci-dessous ou cliquez sur une icône pour vous connecter:


Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Déconnexion /  Changer )

Photo Facebook

Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Facebook. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Connexion à %s

Ce site utilise Akismet pour réduire les indésirables. En savoir plus sur la façon dont les données de vos commentaires sont traitées.