Commonly remembered in Guadeloupe as “la mulâtresse Solitude” (“Solitude the Mulatto Woman”), Solitude has become a legendary figure in the antislavery struggles of Caribbean blacks in the early nineteenth century. Her extreme courage made her legendary and prompted whites to caricature her as mad.
While details about Solitude’s life are few, her existence has been authenticated in historical accounts of the abolition and re-establishment of slavery in the French Empire during the 1790s and 1800s. Speculation places Solitude’s birth around 1772, possibly the product of the rape of her African mother by a white sailor on a ship bound for Guadeloupe.
At the time of her birth, Guadeloupe was a French colony reliant on enslaved African labor. Solitude is thought to have escaped slavery with her mother (who died when she was eight) and lived as a Maroon during her adolescence.
The news of the 1794 proclamation of the abolition of slavery in the French empire soon reached the colonies, and slaves left plantations in droves. In the early months of 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte answered planter complaints by sending a large military expedition to restore order and reimpose slavery. A number of officers of color in the French Republican Army, including Louis Delgrès and Joseph Ignace, rejected the official French decision and led a vigorous resistance against the re-imposition of slavery in Guadeloupe.
Solitude played an active role in the armed resistance, bearing arms in the battle of May 8, 1802. Women participated as combatants and also inspired the men to greater feats of resistance and valor. Though pregnant, Solitude participated in all the battles in the Dolé post. She was particularly prone to expressing her rage against prisoners taken by the resistance fighters. Solitude kept rabbits and once caught one that escaped, speared it with a skewer, and showed it to the prisoners, saying “Look, this is how I’m going to treat you when the time comes.”
On May 22, 1802, a furious attack forced the black resistance troops in Fort Saint-Charles to retreat. Solitude was wounded in the ensuing conflict and eventually captured and condemned to death along with a band of insurgents. However, because of her pregnancy, Solitude’s execution was delayed until she gave birth. On November 29, 1802, the day after she delivered her child, Solitude was hanged. Solitude’s key role in the fight against slavery has been commemorated in Guadeloupean memory through fiction and the construction of two statues.
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James Almeida and Steven J. Niven
Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center.