Reading time: Around 11 minutes.
–> Lire la version française de cet article
For the past two years, I have been working with the Domaine de La Pagerie, which contains the remains of an old sugar plantation – I will tell you more about what I did there soon – but for now, I wanted to share a singular story about this place: the trial in June 1806 of Émilie, enslaved, for attempted poisoning of his mistress.
I might as well tell you right away, it doesn’t end well for Émilie.
On Tuesday, June 10, 1806, at 7:30 a.m., Émilie was executed at Fort-Royal (Fort-de-France). The day before, she had been condemned « to be tied by the executor of high justice to a pyre to be set up in the most visible part of the town to be burned alive, her body reduced to ashes and thrown into the wind » for « having formed the desire to poison and kill Madame de La Pagerie by mixing crushed glass into a plate of peas, which was one of the dishes in the meal. »
Émilie’s trial was expeditious. Only a few days elapsed between the accusation and the punishment. It must be said that Émilie had not attempted to poison anyone; enslaved, she was considered the property of Rose des Vergers de Sannois, widow of La Pagerie. Perhaps Émilie saw in this woman only a white Creole woman like any other, a colonist-owner of the plantation where she lived in the south of Martinique; but Madame de La Pagerie was in 1806, the mother of Josephine, Empress of the French, wife of the Emperor Napoleon. Émilie was therefore accused of attacking a member of the imperial family!
There are several archival documents relating to this trial; one of the most important for me is his interrogation, because even if it is reported by the clerk, it indirectly allows the slave’s voice to be heard through the answers given in writing.
Getting a confession
On Saturday 7 June, at 11 o’clock in the morning, Émilie is questioned. On the previous Tuesday, she allegedly tried to kill the widow of La Pagerie by adding crushed glass to her plate of peas. Her interrogation was conducted by the squadron leader commanding the island’s colonial gendarmerie, president of the special court; it took place in the courthouse chamber, in the presence of the members of the court assembled at the request of the imperial prosecutor, assisted by the chief clerk of the court of first instance of the town of Fort-de-France.
Émilie is first questioned about her identity and must state her nickname, age, religion, home and the name of her mistress. She replied that her name was « Émilie, aged about thirty, a Creole from this island, maid to Madame de La Pagerie, of whom she was a slave, and that she professed the Roman Catholic Apostolic religion.«
At first, when the interrogator asked her if she knew the person who put crushed glass in Madame de La Pagerie’s meal, Émilie replied that she did not. The man then asked her which hand had given her the plate with the crushed glass, which had been mixed with the peas. Émile answers « from the hands of Pelage, a negro servant of Madame de Joyeuse, at the door of the dining room itself. »
The questions quickly follow one after the other. Was it she who, after receiving it, brought the plate of peas to Madame de La Pagerie? « Yes« . What did she say to Madame de La Pagerie when she felt something under her teeth that she couldn’t crush? « She told Madame de la Pagerie her mistress that she thought it could only be sand, which Madame de la Pagerie, wanting to verify, saw with astonishment to be crushed glass, which she, too, accused in her presence, agreed to be so. » How did crushed glass, which was not in the dish of peas on the captain-general’s table, end up in the plate of peas which was served by Madame de Joyeuse herself, and which was brought immediately afterwards, by her, accused, to Madame de La Pagerie, his mistress? In order to prove that the crushed glass was not in the dish on the Captain General’s table, the interrogator observes that several people had eaten it and that not one had found crushed glass. After « much denial, much hesitation, after finally feeling that it was impossible for her not to agree that the crushed glass (…) had only been put there as long as she had received the plate to take it to her sick mistress in her room« , Émilie offers an explanation: « it was quite true that, to her knowledge, the glass she had crushed into paper with the handle of a knife to clean (she said) the blade of this knife had been carried by the wind, in the plate of peas presented to Madame de La Pagerie. » The interrogator then asked her why, knowing perfectly well that crushed glass had fallen into the plate of peas, she had replied to Madame de La Pagerie: « Madame, it’s probably sand ». The accused remained silent for any reply.
Confronted by the interrogator with the lack of credibility of her answers, « the accused, after having remained silent for a long time, after having tried in vain to escape the conviction that had reached her, rushed to our knees, imploring forgiveness for her crime, and asking for mercy for her family, her mother, her sisters; she confessed to us the attack she had planned to commit.«
Knowing the reasons
After the confession, the court tries to find out the reasons, to find accomplices. Émilie first of all replied that she had no reason to give, and that she alone was guilty of the crime of which she was accused. The questioner nevertheless insisted, adding that « the servants of the Captain General’s house, and in particular the two white cooks, accused her of having repeatedly made the most offensive and insulting remarks to his mistress; remarks which she had ended with a frightening threat, saying in her own language, ‘yes, snoop, watch out for me, don’t make me upset and angry' ». In the face of insistence, Émile then declared « that she knew very well that his mistress had never loved him, and that although her services were odious to her, they were nevertheless necessary enough for her not to want to do without them, by sending her away from her room, and that desperate not to ever manage to deserve her affection, she had resolved to take revenge for the hatred of Madame de La Pagerie by poisoning her with crushed glass.«
But the interrogator is not only interested in crushed glass. He asked the accused whether she had not put in Madame de La Pagerie’s coffee some ingredients capable of impairing her health. « No« . The man insists again, because out of fifteen cups of coffee only the one taken by Madame La Pagerie was found to be bad and not drinkable. Émilie maintains that she had nothing to do with this. Once again, he tries to find out if she has accomplices or other motives. « No« . Why did she take from a man named Ulric, free mulatto, in the name of Madame de La Pagerie, a blue sheet, canvas for lining, and thread? Émilie explains: « Not relying on her own credit, she had put forward the name of Madame de La Pagerie so as not to be refused, and that all these objects, sheets, canvas and thread, had been sent by her to Noël, negro refiner, a slave of the house of Madame de La Pagerie, the so-called Noël for three weeks, had to send her money to pay for them. » Why had she made her trunks and all her linen from Madame de La Pagerie’s house, which she was not in the habit of doing? « Since Madame de La Pagerie’s previous trip to Fort de France, her trunks and linen had remained at Fort de France. » Why didn’t she tell the truth, when we asked her several times, where were all her herds? Émilie kept silent. Why was her sister’s title of liberty in one of her trunks? Émilie did not know: « If it was there, it was put there by her sister Brigitte herself.«
Then the interrogator asks again who the accomplices in his crime are. Émilie « replied that an old negress from the chain gang, a government barnyard keeper named Thérèse, told him every time she met her ‘why don’t you go out for a walk more often, is it your mistress who is holding you back? If she is, tell me. Moi va ba vous verre pilé pour mette dans manger madama coça va faire li mourir’. » [Me will give you crushed glass to put in eat madam there like that will make her die] Did she use the crushed glass that Thérèse gave her, the same day she put it back in her hand? « Yes, that the crushed glass was given to her last Tuesday at one o’clock, and she used it in her mistress’s lunch on the same day at four o’clock. » Did she take money from a bag that had been stolen from her mistress’s house for about ten moeda? Émilie persisted in answering that she did not take anything from this bag, and that she did not steal from her mistress. Where did she get the money she spent so much money on? « This money came from a small business selling poultry and other items that she made with her sister, and which her sister was going to sell to the Lamentin.«
Finally, the accused is placed in front of the crushed glass « which she recognises« . This is the end of the interrogation. Like most enslaved people, Émilie has no knowledge of writing, so she cannot sign her statement.
Everyday life of Émilie
The second part of the interrogation is interesting for more than one reason. It reveals elements of the daily life of a enslaved woman. Émilie had a mother and sisters, including Brigitte, who lived freely. Émilie belonged to the category of domestic slaves. The sources most often refer to her as a « métive« , in other words a mixed-race woman perceived as light-skinned. She lived in the service of her mistress and accompanied her on her travels. Madame de La Pagerie usually resided at her home in Trois-Îlets, but she occasionally went to the city, to Fort-Royal, and was there at the time of the events. A letter from the governor provides a better understanding of the context; Madame de La Pagerie required treatment (removal of a scirrhus from the face); after the operation, she stayed for her convalescence for a few days in a room at the governor’s house.
As Émilie accompanied Madame de La Pagerie to the city, other enslaved people from the plantation took the opportunity to ask her to make purchases. Noël, for whom Émilie bought textile and thread, is listed in an 1815 inventory of the La Pagerie plantation, aged 48; he was still a refiner at that time. We also discover that Émilie had a small poultry business with one of her sisters, without it being known whether it was with Brigitte who was free or another. In theory, the status of slave did not allow enslaved people to own property, everything belonged to their masters. However, in reality, the records show that enslaved people, by selling a few vegetables from their food-garden or by performing some tasks during the time that was not dedicated to the plantation, allowed them to acquire some goods to improve the ordinary. Mary Prince‘s autobiographical account, for example, recounts how this former enslaved woman from the English-speaking Caribbean bought and then sold a pig for a profit in the hope of buying back her freedom.
Other elements of the trial and the judgment
On the same day, a little later in the afternoon at 4 p.m., it was this time Thérèse, accused of having given Émilie the crushing glass, who was interrogated by the same man. As you may have noticed earlier, the words she allegedly said to Émilie were reported in Creole, the language of daily communication between the slaves. Thérèse was a Creole woman of about 66 years of age, a native of François. She had been placed in the galleys of the town of Fort-Royal and had been employed at the time of the events in the barnyard for about four years.
Which slaves do she encounter? Thérèse only came across slaves who passed through the barnyard: « the negroes of the stable, namely Jean Louis, Lubin and Agnelle« . Doesn’t she keep silent about a mulattress who sometimes came to see her? Thérèse persists in answering that she « only knew of a mulattress Marie and Solange, mother and daughter, the mulattress of Madame de Sancé« . Did she know a métive named Émilie, slave of Madame La Pagerie? « She replied that she knows her, and that it was because she had forgotten, that she did not name her, since she saw her twice in the barnyard and said hello and good evening to her as she passed by. » Does she remember the most recent day she saw him pass by? « About a month and a half ago, she passed by with a jar full of milk, and since that day she hasn’t seen her. » The questioning stops there.
While awaiting trial, Émilie, Thérèse and Joseph were detained in the prison. In addition to the orders of June 7 allowing for the arrest and interrogation of Thérèse and Émilie, orders were issued on the same day to draw up a report and verify the materials, drugs and ingredients found and prepared by the two women. As for Joseph, he was interrogated on 9 June, the day of the judgment, but I have not seen in the archives consulted his interrogation. At the time of the judgment, the court based itself on the legislation which stipulated that « the crime of poisoning and that of set fire shall be punishable by death (Article 34 of the decree of 24 Vendémiaire year 12)« , just as acts and « preparations tending to poison or set fire to shall be punishable by the same penalty« . Joseph was discharged from all charges. More information was requested for Thérèse. Émiliewas executed within twenty-four hours.
Poisoning in the Caribbean
Émilie’s act, although it created fear among the colonists because of the target of the poisoning, was nothing exceptional as a form of resistance. In his book Histoire de la Martinique…, Sidney Daney offers a review of the sentences handed down by the special court on the crime of poisoning in the early 19th century. It had been hoped that the existence of this court, created in 1803 by the governor of Martinique at the time, would help to curb this proven or supposed practice. In 1802, 6 slaves were executed, 4 others were condemned to another sentence for poisoning on Mr Eyma’s plantation in Le Lamentin; 4 slaves were executed and 4 others condemned on the Duhaumont plantation in Le Marigot in 1804, 1 executed and 2 others condemned on the Courcilly plantation in Sainte-Marie in 1805… Between 1802 and 1810, no less than 26 judgments were handed down. The punishments were commensurate with the fear inspired: 67 slaves (including Émilie) lost their lives. The chart also shows the fate of Thérèse, described as « a slave of M. Pichery des Gazons, a resident of Rivière-Pilote« , she was suspected but not convicted.
Today, I have shared Émilie’s story specifically, but if you are interested in the subject, I spoke more broadly about the crime of poisoning in the French Caribbean in a French blog article for Manioc published in 2019. And you, did you know about this « horrible attack that made the colony tremble » in 1806? Do you have other cases in mind?
- Afua Cooper, The Hanging of Angélique, The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montréal, HarperCollins, 2006.
- Dominique Rogers (dir.), Voix d’esclaves : Antilles, Guyane et Louisiane françaises, XVIIIe-XIXe siècles, Paris : Karthala : CIRESC ; Fort-de-France : SAA, 2015.
Based on the analysis and commentary of judicial and administrative sources dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, the fears, humiliations and thirst for life and action of enslaved men and women are revealed.
Archives territoriales de Martinique
- Fonds Robert Rose-Rosette, 14J, Interrogatoire d’Émilie, accusée de tentative d’empoisonnement sur la personne de sa maîtresse Mme de La Pagerie. (copie)
- Fonds Robert Rose-Rosette, 14J, Interrogatoire de Thérèse, accusée d’avoir remis du verre pilé. (copie)
Archives nationales outre-mer
- Correspondance C8A, FR ANOM COL C8A 114 f°165 (ou 172) 7 juin 1806, Interrogatoire de la métive Émilie, accusée de tentative d’empoisonnement sur la personne de sa maîtresse Mme de La Pagerie. (en photocopie dans le fond Robert Rose-Rosette aux Archives de la Martinique)
- Correspondance C8A, FR ANOM COL C8A 112 f°210 9 juin 1806, Copie d’un jugement rendu par le tribunal spécial de la Martinique condamnant à être brûlée vive la négresse Émilie, accusée de tentative d’empoisonnement sur la personne de Mme de La Pagerie, mère de l’impératrice Joséphine (9 juin 1806),
- Correspondance C8A, FR ANOM COL C8A 114 f°174 9 juin 1806, Copie du jugement rendu contre la métive Émilie, accusée de tentative d’empoisonnement sur la personne de sa maîtresse Mme de La Pagerie (9 juin 1806)
- Correspondance C8A, FR ANOM COL C8A f°219 15 juin 1806, Capitaine général Villaret de Joyeuse, Tentative d’empoisonnement contre Mme de La Pagerie,
- Correspondance C8A, FR ANOM COL C8A 114 f°163 10 juillet 1806, 10 juillet 1806 , Procureur général Bence de Sainte-Catherine, Tentative d’empoisonnement sur la personne de Mme de La Pagerie,
- Daney de Marcillac, Sidney, Histoire de la Martinique depuis la colonisation jusqu’en 1815. Tome 6, Fort Royal : E. Ruelle, Imprimeur du Gouvernement, 1846.
- Manioc ; Birthplace of Josephine, Année de publication : 1880 , Extrait de : Camps in the Caribbes : the adventures of a naturalist in the lesser Antilles (Page 302)
- Manioc ; Tardieu, Jean-Baptiste Pierre, Femme Quarteronnée, esclave à Surinam, XVIIIe siècle.