African slave, Haitian revolutionary, Spanish general, and Florida's only black caudillo. When Jorge Biassou arrived in St. Augustine in 1796, he was already a legend in his own time.
Jorge (Georges) Biassou
When Jorge Biassou (1741-1801) arrived in St. Augustine in 1796, he was already a legend in his own time. He was the most fiery leader in the Haitian slave revolt against the French. He became a decorated Spanish general, yet did not speak Spanish and was virtually banned from Hispaniola and Havana. He was Florida's only black caudillo (a militant political leader), and came with his own Haitian entourage. He flaunted pagan religious practices, but was buried with full Catholic honors. A hero, a family man, a threat, and a spectacle; this ex-slave demanded respect.
From Slave to Rebel
Jorge Biassou was born "Georges," on the island of Hispaniola. He was the son of slaves in the world's most lucrative colony, French Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). The plantation owners there were notoriously brutal, producing a standard for violence that still lingers there today. In 1791, thousands of abused slaves rose up and poured out their fury on the "great whites." Biassou, now fifty years old, joined them and quickly assumed the rebel leadership with Jean Francois. Biassou commanded 40,000 ex-slaves as they burned plantations and murdered whites. Along the way, he fueled his own and his followers' national spirit through religious practices of their African ancestors.
In four years of warfare, Biassou developed a reputation that became fodder for legends. Historian Thomas Madiou dramatized tales of the revolution fifty years later, writing that Biassou's war tent was "filled with kittens of all shades, with snakes, with dead men's bones, and other African fetishes. At night huge campfires were lit with naked women dancing around them, chanting words understood only on the coast of Africa. When the excitement reached its climax, Biassou would appear with his [priests] to proclaim in the name of God that every slave killed in battle would re-awaken in his homeland of Africa" (Madiou).
From Rebel to General
Biassou proved to be that unique blend of dynamo and diplomat. He and Francois wrote multiple offers to end the slave revolt in exchange for the basic human rights promoted by the French Revolution. Mainland France dismissed those peace offers from Hispaniola; they were too busy declaring war on Spain. Since Spain shared Hispaniola with France, the war found its way to the island. There, Spanish Governor Garcia recruited the rebel slaves. For their assault on the French, the slaves were given weapons, supplies, salaries, and Spanish citizenship. Francois, Biassou, and his aid Toussaint L'Ouverture received gold medals and letters of thanks and confidence from the Spanish government. At that point in 1793, "Georges" became "Jorge" Biassou, a free, French-speaking, Spanish general of his freed rebels, the Black Auxiliaries of Carlos IV.
Loyalty to Spain
Biassou coveted his title and salary. He proved his Spanish loyalty a year later when Toussaint withdrew a portion of the Black Auxiliaries to focus on freeing more slaves. Biassou did not want to risk his newfound independence, and in fact, later owned his own slaves. He and Francois remained loyal to Spain, even though it eventually meant fighting against Toussaint and other rebels. Governor Garcia was grateful for this, and called the Black Auxiliaries "valiant warriors."
Grateful, that is, until Spain's fight with France ended. Then Governor Garcia pondered what to do with his Haitian "wolves." They were armed, skilled, and far more ferocious than Spanish war standards. Jorge Biassou was especially feared. Field reports claimed he had killed all the white patients in a hospital and led a massacre of one thousand French men, women and children.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.