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Solitude

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.

Read the full, original biography by E. Anthony Hurley in The Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography

View complete story (pdf)

Bibliography

Anthony Hurley, E.. "Solitude." Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography , edited by Ed. Franklin W. Knight. , edited by and Henry Louis Gates Jr.. . Oxford African American Studies Center, http://www.oxfordaasc.com/article/opr/t456/e1993 (accessed Thu Sep 05 12:06:47 EDT 2019).


Corzani, Jacques. La littérature des Antilles-Guyane françaises. Vol. 6. Fort-de-France, Martinique: Désormeaux, 1978.


Gautier, Arlette. Les sœurs de Solitude: La condition féminine dans l’esclavage aux Antilles du xviie au xixe siècle. Paris: Editions Caribéennes, 1985.


Lacour, Auguste. Histoire de la Guadeloupe. Vol. 3: 1798–1803. Basse-Terre: Imprimerie du Gouvernement, 1855.


Lara, Oruno. La Guadeloupe dans l’histoire. Paris: L’Harmattan, 1979.


Moitt, Bernard. Women and Slavery in the French Antilles, 1635–1848. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.


Schwarz-Bart, André. La Mulâtresse Solitude. Paris: Seuil, 1972.


Serbin, Sylvia. Reines d’Afrique et héroïnes de la diaspora noire. Saint-Maur: Sépia, 2004.

Adapted by

James Almeida and Steven J. Niven

Contributing Institutions

Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center.

Key Events

c. 1772

Born, probably in Guadeloupe. Escapes slavery early in life to live alongside her mother as a Maroon

1789

French Revolutionaries issue The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

1794

Based on the principles of the Declaration, the Revolutionary Convention abolishes slavery in the French Empire.

1802

Napoleon Bonaparte reestablishes slavery in the French colonies and sends an expedition of fourteen ships and some 4,000 men under the command of General Antoine Richepance (also spelled Richepanse) to re-enslave blacks and restore order in Guadeloupe. Richepance used Magloire Pélage, an officer of color in the French Republican Army, to secure the compliance of black troops in Guadeloupe, resulting in the disarming and imprisonment of about half of the black troops.

May 8, 1802

Louis Delgrès, a former officer of color in the French Republican Army, leads a black resistance against re-enslavement. Solitude bears arms in the battle, despite being pregnant.

May 12, 1802

Fighting continues. Women on the front lines encourage the fighters, prepare weapons, comfort the wounded, and transport the dead. The freedom fighters are forced to retreat in two groups, with Delgrès taking up a position in Matouba, and Ignace in Dolé. Ignace’s group was finally overwhelmed in an encounter in Baimbridge that left 675 people dead and 250 as prisoners, almost all of whom were executed over the next few days.

May 20, 1802

Bonaparte signs the law formally reinstituting slavery in Guadeloupe.

May 28, 1802

Rather than surrender and be subjected to enslavement, Delgrès blows up himself and his remaining freedom fighters at Matouba. Solitude was apparently a witness. She is wounded at some point in the conflict and is eventually captured.

November 28, 1802

Solitude gives birth to a child

November 29, 1802

Solitude is executed by hanging.

1972

André Schwartz-Bart publishes a novel La Mulâtresse Solitude

1999

A large and striking statue of a pregnant, defiant, Solitude by Jacky Poulier is erected on the Boulevard des Héros in Abymes, Guadeloupe