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From Hispaniola to Florida

The Black Auxiliaries were disbanded and shipped out of Hispaniola so quickly Biassou didn't have time to sell his property or find his mother. He stopped at the Caribbean control center of Havana to receive his new orders, but was forbidden to leave the ship. When his orders brought him to St. Augustine, with over a third of its population slaves and ex-slaves, Governor Quesada did his best to keep the black role model looking like a loyal soldier rather than a rebel.

Biassou at Salcedo House in St. Augustine.

Biassou and family in front of his house on St. George Street. Painting by Alexandra Barbot.

A Spectacle for St. Augustine

He looked more like a king, parading into town with his wife and twenty-three Haitian followers. General Biassou wore gold-trimmed clothes, a silver saber, and an ivory dagger. He called the followers his "family" because of their loyalty and dependence on him. On their arrival, Governor Quesada provided a French-Spanish interpreter and two nights' dinner for Biassou's immediate family. Through the interpreter, Biassou sent thanks, but complained that he wasn't invited to eat at Government House. The governor was stunned.

Biassou lived in the Salcedo House, which is now Whetstone's chocolate	store.

Biassou lived in the Salcedo House at 42 St. George Street. The house is now Whetstone's chocolate store.

Taming the Caudillo

In the first few weeks, St. Augustine locals hung around outside Biassou's rented house on St. George Street to stare at the "family." Biassou complained again. This time, the governor agreed and put a stop to it. As it turned out, Biassou liked attention on his own terms. He hosted a festival for the town's black community to celebrate the Catholic Day of Kings with an African flair. The Spanish Catholics were stunned.

Biassou's life in Florida was like a retirement compared to the bloodbath of Saint-Domingue. He chose to spend his impressive income on impressive hospitality. But even though his salary was second only to the governor, it fell short of what Havana promised him because of St. Augustine's frequent inability to cover payroll. The shortage made sense to city officials, because the general was now commanding a small black militia out of Fort Matanzas, not an army of thousands. Not to mention, shortages were just a part of life in St. Augustine. But no one wanted to tell General Biassou his pay was cut; it just came up short again and again.

The Black Platoon of Jorge Biassou at Fort	Matanzas.

The black platoon of Jorge Biassou at Fort Matanzas. Painting by Alexandra Barbot.

He requested the shortage in the form of expense reimbursement, hoping the money could be found in some other budget category. Biassou submitted petitions for additional compensation to support his "family" of twenty-five who had fought for Spain at his side. He sought government funding to retrieve his mother and other followers from war-torn Saint-Domingue, and to support a second home for his wife when she moved to Havana for her health. His attempt at developing a plantation for the family lost money borrowed against the promised, higher pay rate. Biassou never adjusted to the economic chasm between Saint-Domingue and St. Augustine.

Fort Matanzas, now owned by the National Parks Service.

Fort Matanzas, now owned by the National Parks Service.

Nor had Biassou adjusted to the loss of respect in his transition from war general to border patrol. As with the French, his professionally-delivered attempts to work with a bureaucracy were disregarded. Frustrated, he violated chain of command and petitioned Havana for correction of St. Augustine's Governer Quesada and even dismissal of Santo Domingo's Governer Garcia, who had built him up then dropped him like a hot potato. In turn, the governors complained to Havana constantly, frustrated at Biassou's audacity. Yet, upsetting this charismatic general might trigger a slave revolt in St. Augustine. So while tattle-tale letters sailed back and forth to Cuba, the local governors kept the face-to-face communication respectful.

Honor for a Spanish Officer

Despite the tension and ever-deepening debt, Jorge Biassou served St. Augustine's military well for five years. He died in 1801 at the age of sixty; he had achieved ten years of freedom. The Treasurer liquidated Biassou's assets, pension, and even his gold medal to pay off the general's debts. His wife and sisters managed to get subsidies from Spanish authorities in Havana.

In St. Augustine, recognition for General Biassou's position as a decorated officer of Spain took center stage, even superceding current racial distinctions. Father O'Reilly honored him with a Catholic mass that included singing, tolling bells, candles and incense. Governor White accompanied the funeral procession to the church graveyard with drummers and a black honor guard. St. Augustine's public notary recorded that "every effort was made to accord him the decency due an officer Spain had recognized for military heroism."

Jorge (Georges) Biassou honored by Haitian Ambassador Raymond Joseph and others.

Jorge (Georges) Biassou honored by Haitian Ambassador Raymond Joseph and others.

Jorge Biassou is buried in the Tolomato Cemetery, where most of the grave markers were wooden and have long since disappeared. The exact location of his gravesite is unknown. In August 2009, the U.S. Ambassador to Haiti, Raymond Joseph, visited St. Augustine to raise awareness for Haitian-American heritage. The entourage of Haitians and Americans traveled to Biassou's home, fort, and cemetery. Ambassador Joseph and Senator Tony Hill placed a wreath in front of the chapel in Tolomato Cemetery to honor our powerful black chieftain.

Further Reading

These and many more details about Jorge Biassou are readily available thanks to the extensive research conducted by Vanderbilt professor Jane Landers.

Thomas Madiou's Histoire d'Haiti, 1847.
Jane Landers' "Jorge Biassou, Black Chieftain" in Clash Between Cultures, El Escribano, 1988.
Jane Landers' Black Society in Spanish Florida, 1999.
Jane Landers' Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions, 2010.



Written by Amy Howard. Last modified 1-20-2010.


 
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