June 2017

Ferray vs. Pompeyo the Free Black: Fear and Black Masculinity in the Era of the Haitian Revolution

In this climate of hostility towards assertive black men, the court would have viewed all of Pompeyo’s actions as crimes against the natural order of society, rather than merely a dispute between two individuals.

by Sarah Senette

According to witness testimony, Pompeyo warned Don Ferray that he was “going to punch him in the face,” just before he did so.[1] Ferray promptly returned the punch, but the fight was soon over. While a few blows traded in a tavern may seem to merit little attention, in the context of New Orleans’ socio-racial hierarchy in the years surrounding the Haitian Revolution, Pompeyo’s status as a free man of color meant that a barroom brawl quickly escalated in to a legal battle. On August 7, 1795, both Pompeyo and black masculinity were on trial in Ferray vs. Pompeyo the free black. Rather than being judged as an individual, with individual relationships, the colonial New Orleans judiciary tried Pompeyo as a violent threat to their social order—one in which honor and manhood were for white men only.[2]

In 1791, four years prior to Ferray vs. Pompeyo the free black, enslaved men and women on the French colony of Saint Domingue (now Haiti) rebelled against the brutal system of slavery on the wealthy sugar island. The most notably successful slave rebellion in history, the Haitian Revolution spread ideas of black liberty and equality throughout the Atlantic world and most especially the Caribbean.[3] Consequently, the New Orleans governmental body, called the Cabildo, began to conflate Caribbean blackness with revolutionary ideology.[4] For example, just one month after the Haitian Revolution, síndico procurador general Juan Bautista Poeyfarré reported to the Cabildo that “in the outskirts and within the city limits there [were] several bands of savage negroes disturbing the public tranquility.” To assure that the Cabildo made the connection between these ‘negroes’ and those of Saint Domingue, Poeyfarré stressed that, “such evil in the current state of affairs might bring terrible consequences.”[5] Raucous men of color might incite a revolt. In light of New Orleans’s racial conflicts via the Haitian Revolution and the focus of the local government at containing the possibility of  revolutionary blackness, the presiding judge’s incredulous query to Pompeyo during his trial makes sense: “did [he] not know that it is a crime to raise a hand, especially from a man of color to a white and swear at him?”[6] From the judge’s perspective, this was not a case about a barroom fight. Pompeyo’s swing was a revolutionary act.

In this image of the Haitian Revolution, African male violence plays a pivotal role in creating social chaos and summarizes white male fears about the spread of social disruption. In the center of the image an African man chases a white family with his saber bared. The exposed breast of the white female and the phallic symbolism inherent in the saber indicate sexual underpinnings in this scene of social chaos. The implication is that social disorder will lead to the sexual ‘disorder’ of procreation far outside of the established socio-racial caste. The link between social and sexual disordering would not have helped Pompeyo procure justice. Incendie du Cap. Révolte générale des Nègres. Massacre des Blancs.  Lithograph, Frontispiece from the book Saint-Domingue, ou Histoire de Ses Révolutions, 1815, Paris: Chez Tiger.

According to Ferray, Pompeyo and his friends had been gambling in Ferray’s tavern. When they finished, Pompeyo’s friends left the building and Ferray ordered Pompeyo to pay the two and one half reales that he owed for the game of pool. Ferray then asserted that Pompeyo “told him some impudence and slanderous words and took off his jacket and became upset. He then said to the deponent ‘I don’t know what you are telling me I am going to give you a slap’ and effectively hit him in the face.”[7] By ordering that Pompeyo pay then and there, Ferray suggests that Pompeyo could not, or would not, agree to pay later. In the context of colonial New Orleans, credit functioned not only as a practical replacement for difficult to obtain gold and silver currency (specie), it also served a mechanism for demonstrating social standing and personal honor—two key elements in colonial manhood. Thus when Ferray suggested that Pompeyo would not pay, he also slighted Pompeyo’s public reputation and insulted his integrity. This interpretation of these events becomes more probable when, after Pompeyo promised to get the money, Ferray “did not wish to wait as he, [Pompeyo] had many tricks.”[8] With his friends nearby and his honor in question, Pompeyo reasserted his manhood in the only way he could likely think of: he punched Ferray in the face.

When Pompeyo “mistreated [Ferray] and talked [to him] with words of inferiority,” it was no longer a matter of interpersonal conflict, but a much larger issue wherein Pompeyo had stepped far outside the socially prescribed bounds.

As insulting as getting punched in the face was for Ferray, it appears that he was equally affronted by the “slanderous” insults Pompeyo “made reference [to] before his boys.”[9] Far from an abstracted ideal, honor and credit helped structure community relationships and maintain social order.[10] Within Spanish New Orleans, issues of honor were frequently played out in court as men and women of all racial designations sought to negotiate their social standing.[11] Nor was it different in the case of Ferray vs. Pompeyo the free black. When Pompeyo “mistreated [Ferray] and talked [to him] with words of inferiority,” it was no longer a matter of interpersonal conflict, but a much larger issue wherein Pompeyo had stepped far outside the socially prescribed bounds.[12]

Besides crossing socioeconomic boundaries, the fight itself spread across social and racial lines. Sometime after the initial altercation, Ferray, Pompeyo, and “the Negro George” exited Ferray’s establishment.[13] Once outside, the fight escalated. Pompeyo attempted to pay Ferray with currency deemed insufficient by Ferray, which quickly resulted in the two parties screaming at one another. Intervening, George offered “to go exchange the peso.”[14] Likely hearing the yelling, a “white youth of the name of Bernardo” came out of his courtyard inquiring about the incident.[15] Pompeyo protested and said that he had only asked to exchange his money and that if given leave, he would go, exchange the money, and return. Bernardo, apparently unmoved by Pompeyo’s assertion and wanting him to leave the vicinity immediately, “stood in anger asked for the penitent to leave.”[16] Not moving quickly enough, “Bernardo grabbed him by the collar, gave [Pompeyo] a punch in the face and left with a cue of the billiard” after hitting Pompeyo with it two or three times on his head.[17] Then, “stained with blood, damaged and bleeding, they brought [Pompeyo] to the house of Don Francis Merieult superintendent of police” and had him arrested, despite the fact that Pompeyo denied any wrongdoing.[18] Within a very short time, the altercation between Pompeyo and Ferray multiplied to include other free people of color and whites. This violent escalation between various racial and social groups was exactly what the Cabildo sought to avoid in the wake of the Haitian Revolution. Racial violence once ignited, they feared, could spread rapidly.

Pompeyo also appeared threatening to the court in another way: he lived with a white woman named Polly Lee.

Pompeyo also appeared threatening to the court in another way: he lived with a white woman named Polly Lee. Little is known about Lee, other than that she was white, born in England, and a maid. The particulars about Lee, however, would not have concerned the court; they would only care that she was white and lived with a black man during a period when that was becoming increasingly taboo. Despite the frequency of interracial relationships between white men and women of color, white women rarely had publicly sanctioned relationships with men of color in the latter part of the eighteenth century. Yet, Pompeyo “had in his possession a white English maid” and “lived gracelessly” with Lee for “his happiness.”[19] The use of the word ‘graceless’ could mean one of two things in this context. It could connote the social awkwardness of a white woman living with a black man, or it could suggest that they lived without God’s grace—or in sin. The word ‘possession’ also implies that Lee was with Pompeyo against her will. Regardless, neither interpretation suggests that the court approved of his relationship and the fact that it happened for ‘his happiness’ indicates that they blamed Pompeyo, once again, for transgressing social mores.[20]

Pompeyo’s relationship with Lee negatively affected his case for several reasons. First it threatened the court officials’ own manhood. According to historian Lawrence Powell, white men demonstrated a preference for women of color even after New Orleans’ demography balanced because they had more freedom by entering into relationships with a woman of color than they had when they married, especially if they were already propertied enough not to need the social prestige of ‘legitimate’ marriage.[21] Sex across the color line was a sign of status and was supposed to be the purveyance of affluent white men. Yet, it was also the duty of white men to protect the chastity of white women in their care. As officials of the city, Polly Lee was technically under the protection of the Cabildo. Thus, Pompeyo threatened their manhood on two fronts. In having an interracial relationship, he must have appeared to parody the sexual privileges enjoyed by his socio-racial superiors. Furthermore, he demonstrated the court’s inability to protect the sexual virtue of white women in their care. More generally, systems of patriarchy, such as those that ordered Spanish New Orleans, necessitated the participation of social inferiors to uphold the power of white men. In his relationship with Lee, Pompeyo fundamentally refused to endorse the system that validated the court’s own white manhood.[22]

Pompeyo represented the ostensibly bestial nature of black men—especially in relationship to white womanhood.

Pompeyo’s relationship with Lee also evoked whites’ fear of slave rebellion and virile black masculinity in the era of the Haitian Revolution because it questioned their ability to protect the chastity of white women from the assault of black men.[23] According to trial testimony, Pompeyo “mistreated” Lee and “punished her” during their time together.[24] Whether or not Pompeyo actually mistreated Lee is not knowable. What is significant, however, is that in mistreating Lee, Pompeyo represented the ostensibly bestial nature of black men—especially in relationship to white womanhood.[25] Ideas of black masculinity as fundamentally animalistic may have been influenced by the sheer preponderance of enslaved men in Spanish New Orleans in 1795. However, news concerning the Haitian Revolution almost certainly skewed the court’s perception of Pompeyo. Gruesome accounts detailing the revolution circulated throughout the Atlantic and Caribbean after 1791 and many highlighted the mutilation of helpless white women and children by black men. For instance, an account by Joseph Francois Lacroix asserted that “girls with their breast torn asunder looked as if they were begging for their mothers; mothers, with their pierced arms held the slaughtered children at their bosom.” [26] The threat to white women in this passage is clearly sexual because of the repetition and description of women’s breasts. The women themselves also echo the stereotypes of white female asexuality as they are described either as ‘girls’ or ‘mothers.’ Accounts such as these directly challenged white manhood. They demonstrated that men were unable to protect the honor of their women in the face of black violence, and they certainly would have influenced the court’s treatment of Pompeyo upon learning that he lived with, and potentially mistreated, a white woman.[27]

Visual images of threatening black masculinity also circulated throughout the Atlantic and Caribbean in the years surrounding the Haitian Revolution. In an engraving of General Jean Jacques Dessalines, a revolutionary leader, the threat of black masculinity would have been quite apparent to white audiences at the time. Sex and black violence were the centerpiece of Dessalines. In a strong diagonal line which nearly bisects the images, the engraver creates a visual argument perfectly attuned to white men’s anxiety over white female chastity. In the top left hand corner of the line is Dessalines’s saber, which he powerfully raises above his head, making it the uppermost image in the engraving. Next, at the midpoint, is Dessalines darkly leering face. Finally, in Dessalines right hand is the severed and still bleeding head of a young white woman. In both Dessalines leer and his phallic saber, the engraver suggests that Dessalines, or another black man, raped this young woman prior to her murder. In suggesting the young girl’s violation prior to death, the engraver evokes fears of race mixing and symbolically renders white men impotent by suggesting that they are unable to protect the sexual virtue of white women. Dessalines, 1805 engraved by Manuel L. Lopez, Vida de J. J. Dessalines Gefe de los Negros de Santo Domingo; Con Notas muy Circunstanciadas sobre el Origen, Carácter y Atrocidades de los Principales Gefes de Aquellos Rebeldes desde el Principio de la Insurreccion en 1791 (Madrid: La Imprenta real, 1805).

In this climate of hostility towards assertive black men, the court would have viewed all of Pompeyo’s actions as crimes against the natural order of society, rather than merely a dispute between two individuals. Unsurprisingly, they found Pompeyo guilty of assaulting a white man and slander, and deported him to Havana. The court claimed “[Pompeyo] must not remain in this city because of . . . his arrogant temper and insolence to white people in general.”[28] The distinction that Pompeyo’s temper is a threat to whites ‘in general,’ and not to any specific white person suggests they treated Pompeyo, not as an individual, but a symbol of black masculinity. In addition to his ‘insolence’ Pompeyo was deported “also because of the inappropriate and scandalous life that he held.”[29] Given the number of taverns and pool halls in New Orleans during the late eighteenth century, it is probable is that the court was scandalized by Pompeyo’s cohabitation with Polly Lee rather than his gambling.[30] Unfortunately for Pompeyo, he embodied an almost perfect confluence of social, racial, and sexual offenses in the eyes of the court. Charged with the difficult task of maintaining their social order in the era of the Haitian Revolution, the Court attempted to remove the threat by removing Pompeyo.

Although it is easy to see Pompeyo as the embodiment of white fears in an age of unrest, he should not be stripped of his humanity or agency. Despite being railroaded by influential white men, Pompeyo never admitted to criminal activity and would not sign the confession. In his last documented statement during the trial, Pompeyo affirmed that he understood the charges, but said “he did not do it and . . .  declared [his] truth under oath.”[31] With the benefit of historical hindsight, Pompeyo’s verdict seems to foretell Louisiana’s continued fear of black men. Yet to his friends and relatives, Pompeyo’s place within revolutionary currents likely mattered far less than the fact that they would almost certainly never see him again.

senette photo 2Sarah Senette is a Ph.D. candidate at Tulane University in New Orleans. She specializes in early American history, Louisiana history, and gender studies. Her research focuses on free people of color in colonial Louisiana, specifically in the rural southwest and their connection to New Orleans and the Atlantic World.

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[1] Louis Listau translator for Ferray vs. Pompeyo, August, 1795, pg 7, trans. Sarah Senette and Alix Rivere, Judiciary Court Records, Louisiana Historical Center, Old US Mint, New Orleans, Louisiana.

[2] I am using the term manhood despite the fact that this study is about masculinity to draw a distinction between colonial ideas of whiteness and manhood, and blackness and masculinity. The latter would have more animalistic connotations. In this I lean heavily on Gail Bergman’s Manliness and Civilization.

[3] Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World (Harvard University Press, 2005), 6.

[4] The Cabildo was composed of two levels of judicial officers called regidors and alcaldes. The alcaldes covered the general jurisdiction in New Orleans and were selected by the regidors. The latter of whom obtained their offices by purchase. If the case was considered minor, the alcaldes issued the final judgments. Conversely, a three-judge court of two regidors and the trial alcalde hear appeals. Outside of New Orleans, each parish had military judges, aided by syndics (formerly French commandant) who held general trial powers. The final authority, however, was held by the Governor-Intendant. For a brief description on the transition from the French Superior Council to the Cabildo, see: H. Ward Fontenot, “The Louisiana Judicial System and the Fusion of Cultures,” Louisiana Law Review 63, no. 4 (2003): 1053-1055.

[5] Don Francisco de Riaño to Cabildo, May 27, 1791, in Acts and Deliberations of the Cabildo (English translations), Public Library, New Orleans, Louisiana. With racial tensions already high, the attempted slave revolt at Pointe Coupee, Louisiana, 1795, made a volatile situation worse.

[6] Ferray vs. Pompeyo, October 1, 1795, pg 23 Judiciary Court Records, Louisiana.

[7] Ferray vs. Pompeyo, October 1, 1795, pg 7 Judiciary Court Records, Louisiana. It should likewise be noted that this line is unclear and could also be translated as ‘he threw his beer at him.’ This idea of escalating conflict and insult to manhood, though, remains the same.

[8] Ibid., 10.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Scott K. Taylor, Honor and Violence in Golden Age Spain (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 7.

[11] Derek Noel Kerr, Petty felony, Slave Defiance, and Frontier VillainyCrime and Criminal Justice in Spanish Louisiana, 1770-1803 (New York: Garland Publishing, 1993), 235-260.

[12] Ferray v. Pompeyo, October 1, 1795, pg 15 Judiciary Court Records, Louisiana.

[13]Ferray vs. Pompeyo, October 1, 1795, pg 21, Judiciary Court Records, Louisiana.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 22.

[19] Ferray vs. Pompeyo, October 1, 1795, pg 17, Judiciary Court Records, Louisiana

[20] Owens and Mangan, Women of the Iberian Atlantic, 40-42; Lawrence N. Powell, The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 287, 288, 290, 291, 294-295; Kenneth R. Aslakson, Making Race in the Courtroom: The Legal Construction of Three Races in Early New Orleans (New York University Press, 2014), 6.

[21] Powell, The Accidental City, 288.

[22] I am also using Laura Edwards “Enslaved Women and the Law: Paradoxes of Subordination in the Post-Revolutionary Carolinas,” Slavery & Abolition 26, no. 2 (August 1, 2005): 305–323, for the idea that patriarchy occurs in levels that must be supported by social inferiors.

[23] In contrast to the idea of manhood, I am using the term masculinity to convey a sense of physical power and not necessarily social dominance. Again, I am extrapolating this idea from Gail Bergman’s Manliness and Civilization.

[24] Ferray vs. Pompeyo, October 1, 1795, pg 17, Judiciary Court Records, Louisiana.

[25] It should be noted that nowhere in the trial transcript does the court use this exact language. I am making this argument assuming that discourse would have some effect on their perception of Pompeyo.

[26] Joseph Francois Pamphile vicomte de Lacroix, trans., Sarah Senette, La Révolution de Haïti (Paris 1819, reprint Karthla ed., 1995), 328.

[27] The horrible irony in this argument is that the converse would have been true for men of color. Women of color, particularly enslaved women of color, were frequently the victims of sexual assault and black men would have had little recourse and certainly not expectation to protect their sexual honor.

[28] Ferray vs. Pompeyo, October 1, 1795, pg 24, Judiciary Court Records, Louisiana.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Jack Holmes, “The Spanish Regulation of Taverns and the Liquor Trade in the Mississippi Valley” in The Spanish in the Mississippi Valley 1762-1803, ed. John McDermont. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974, 158-9; Din and Harkins, The New Orleans Cabildo, 16.

[31] Ferray vs. Pompeyo, October 1, 1795, pg 23, Judiciary Court Records, Louisiana; I have also chosen to add the italics to emphasize the adamancy that I believe Pompeyo would have used due to his frequent denial of the charges.

3 comments on “Ferray vs. Pompeyo the Free Black: Fear and Black Masculinity in the Era of the Haitian Revolution

  1. I really enjoyed reading this case study. As a non-historian educational researcher, I continue to be amazed by how clearly the line can be drawn from historical legal codes to our current discriminatory disciplinary policies and practices in public schools here in New Orleans and at large.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Anderson Runs for Mayor to Stop the Painful Violence – The Activist History Review

  3. Pingback: Lindsay Hendrix fights myths to tackle hunger – The Activist History Review

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