The French colony of Saint Domingue had a substantial agricultural economy featuring sugar, coffee, indigo and tobacco. The island was a huge importer of African slaves, at one point comprising a third of the entire trade in the Western hemisphere, with approximately 685,000 men, women and children arriving brought into the colony during the 18th century. By 1789, there were over 465,000 slaves in the colony (roughly 90% of the entire population). Both the slave ship and the plantation were spaces of incredible violence, hardship and disease, resulting in a high mortality rate and a constant demand by slave owners for more African slaves. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the practice of running away – marronnage – was widespread in the colony.
Many of les marrons were reported missing by their owners in the weekly newspaper, Les Affiches Américaines. Les Affiches were published by Charles Mozard and featured international and local news, shipping information and items for sale. In these advertisements, owners would typically include as much details as possible about their missing property in hopes of expediting their return. Details such as name, age, height, appearance, African nation of origin, special skills, language abilities and physical injuries were frequently taken into account.
Notably, these advertisements are often the only time in the historical record that an individual slave is described with any amount of attention or detail. Individual identities were frequently reduced to a single number on ship manifests or planation logs. Only when a slave considered valuable went missing was personal information entered into the historical record.
It is difficult to overstate the horrors of the slave system in colonial Saint Domingue. Many runaway slave advertisements describe individuals with whip lashes, broken limbs, scars, burn marks, and various injuries attributable to poor conditions and lack of medical attention.