Georges (later known as Jorge) Biassou was a former slave who became a leader of the 1791 slave revolt that resulted in the Haitian Revolution. He was born in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (today Haiti) to two slaves, Carlos and Diana. His mother, Diana, was a slave who worked at Providence Hospital with the Fathers of Charity, in Cap-Français, then the colonial capital. Biassou worked as a slave driver on a Jesuit sugar estate in Haut du Cap, the inland part of Cap-Français.
On August 14, 1791, Biassou, alongside other slave drivers, met at the Lenormand de Mézy Plantation in Haut du Cap to plan a revolt. Eight days later, thousands of slaves in northern Haiti sabotaged their plantations, setting fire to fields and houses. After the death of the leader of the revolt, Boukman Dutty, Biassou and Jean-François took command of the slave army. While Toussaint Louverture is often thought of as the father of the Revolution, Biassou and Jean-François led the army in its initial phase.
After months of fighting, on December 4, 1791, Biassou and his fellow leaders sued Haiti’s Colonial Assembly for peace. Though the revolt was initially designed to gain freedom for plantation slaves, Biassou, Jean-François, and Toussaint offered to return slaves to their plantations as long as they were freed, alongside their families and their fellow officers. The French Assembly rejected their offer, as well as another offer later in December, and the rebellion continued.
In January 1792, Biassou led several raids on Cap-Français, while Jean-François captured the important town of Ouanaminthe on the border with Spanish Santo Domingo (today the Dominican Republic). While the rebellion continued, the abolition movement in France gained steam, and in April the French National Assembly granted the right to vote to free people of color. However, the Colonial Assembly in Haiti continued to maintain unwavering support for slavery.
Events in Haiti changed rapidly following the toppling of the French King Louis XVI in August of 1792. After Louis was executed in October, Spain and England declared war on France. Following this declaration of war, both the Spanish and English reached out to the rebels in the hopes of gaining control of Haiti. In the summer of 1793, Biassou and the other rebel leaders accepted the Spanish alliance. Under the Spanish crown, Biassou and Jean-François continued to struggle against the French. Tension increased between the two rebel leaders as they battled for control over the Spanish troops during the second half of 1793 and the first half of 1794.
In the summer of 1794, following the declaration by the French Assembly abolishing slavery, Toussaint rejected the Spanish and joined the French Republican forces. Biassou and Jean-François remained loyal to Spain. In 1795, Spain and the French Republic signed a peace treaty accepting French control over the western half of Hispaniola (Haiti) and agreeing to disband the black auxiliary troops led by Biassou and Jean-François. On December 31, 1795, the disbanded troops headed for Havana, where Cuban officials refused to allow them to get off the ship.
While Jean-François sailed to Spain, Biassou traveled in January of 1796 to Spanish Florida, settling in St. Augustine along with his wife, her mother and siblings, and seventeen of his former troops and their family members. Biassou immediately clashed with the Spanish governor, who saw him as acting above his station. Biassou’s brother-in-law Juan Jorge Jacobo, his second-in-command, married Rafaela Witten, daughter of Prince Witten, an important soldier who had fought against the French in Florida.
Starting in 1800, the Seminole Indians attacked plantations around St. Augustine, and Biassou helped lead Spanish troops against these raids. It was while taking part in these skirmishes that Biassou became sick and died on July 13, 1801. Biassou was buried in St. Augustine’s Tolomato Cemetery in a large Catholic funeral, accompanied to the graveyard by drummers and an honor guard. In recent years, Florida’s Haitian-American community have sought to bring Biassou’s accomplishments in his time in Florida to the public consciousness, and local government officials have put a placard on his house (which was restored during the 1960s) at 42 St. George Street in St. Augustine commemorating this leader of the 1791 Haitian slave revolt
“Gen. Jorge Biassou, a key local figure,” by Susan R. Parker. St. Augustine Record, September 23, 2009.
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