A large portion of the runaway slaves featured in Les Affiches Américaines are described by their owners as nouveau or “new” – that is, recently arrived in Saint Domingue. This subset of the slave population, born in Africa rather than the New World and still in the process of acclimating to life in the colony, is an interesting demographic to study.
Of the 10,860 advertisements available in the marronnage database, 1,160 advertisements feature descriptions of recently arrived slaves. This count includes the use of the words “nouveau(x)”, “nouvelle(s)”, and “bossale(s)”. Tellingly, the word “nouveau” is used exclusively in the advertisements to indicate the recent arrival date of a slave (save two instances, one in which an owner is described as having new slaves for sale and another identifying the new settlement of Borgne). The term “nouvelle” is featured frequently for other meanings, typically used to request information as part of the phrase “donner les nouvelles.” “Bossal” is an ambiguous term that only appears 17 times in the database, and suggests that the slave was of African origin and in this context likely arrived recently – or perhaps was merely perceived that way. The term suggests that the runaway slave had not adjusted to life in Saint Domingue as fully as the owner would have liked.
The qualifier of newness, then, was not simply offered as a way to connect the individual to the logistical details of their arrival in Saint Domingue; it indicated something about the slave’s inability to fit in. Unsurprisingly, men and women recently arrived from Africa did not readily adapt to enslavement and the colonists expected a certain amount of time to pass before the slaves would acclimate. The slave had to be familiarized with his or her new life, a process expected to take at least a year. At the time, this was assumed to be an indication of moral failings. Writing in 1797, Moreau de Saint-Méry explained: “Les africains devenus habitants de Saint-Domingue y restent en général indolent et paresseux, querelleurs, bavards, menteurs et adonnés au larcin.” Debien describes that the colonists of Saint Domingue saw this period of acclimation as necessary and would designate older slaves, from the same nation if possible, to take care of their health, diet, and training. He cites one slave owner who explained, “Les nègres nouveaux doivent être traités la première année comme des enfants…Il faut au moins un an. Dans le seconde année ils doivent être veillés attentivement et aidés de vivres dès qu’on s’aperçoit qu’ils en manquent. Si on les néglige ils deviennent paresseux, voleurs, à charge aux autres, maltraités, délaissés. Le chagrin et la maladie les conduisent à la dissolution. Il est très difficile de les rétablir quand ils sont dans cet état. Il l’est bien moins de le prévenir.”
One of the first experiences a new slave would encounter was the branding process. Some were marked with their ship’s name before arriving in the colony, while for most their first brand was their owner’s name or label. Slaves would also be given new names, often Westernized, meant to solidify their new identity as property in Saint Domingue. However, these superficial efforts were not able to eradicate an individual’s origins and sense of self.
In the case of the runaway advertisements that can be linked to ship manifests, the average length of time between the arrival of a “negre nouveau” and his or her escape (or the date the marronnage is reported) is 95.07 days, or roughly 3 months. This average includes individuals who are reported missing as quickly as three days as their arrival; there are also slaves who have been in the colony for a year or more and are still described as “nouveau.”