Bongie on Rey, 'The Priest and the Prophetess: Abbé Ouvière, Romaine Rivière, and the Revolutionary Atlantic World'

Terry Rey
Chris Bongie

Terry Rey. The Priest and the Prophetess: Abbé Ouvière, Romaine Rivière, and the Revolutionary Atlantic World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. 344 pp. $74.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-062584-9.

Reviewed by Chris Bongie (Queen's University) Published on H-Haiti (May, 2018) Commissioned by Grégory Pierrot (University of Connecticut at Stamford)

Printable Version:

What you are about to read is excerpted from a much longer review essay on Terry Rey’s The Priest and the Prophetess, which weaves together a detailed, chapter-by-chapter account of the book with some of my own research on the priest in his title, Abbé Ouvière. A full draft of that essay can be consulted on my page. The following three excerpts, it is hoped, convey the gist of the matter: first, by introducing the two main players of Rey’s book, the titular priest and prophetess, Abbé Ouvière and Romaine Rivière; second, by rehearsing Rey’s arguments for religion’s centrality to an understanding of the liberationist energies of the Haitian Revolution; and third, by detailing two examples of the problematic use of archival sources that too often characterizes (especially in its reconstruction of Ouvière’s life) this important if uneven contribution to the burgeoning field of Haitian revolutionary studies.

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1. Strange Bedfellows: Who Were the Priest and the Prophetess?

Félix Alexandre Pascalis Ouvière is the priest in Rey’s title, a Frenchman born in Aix-en-Provence, who immigrated to Saint-Domingue in the summer of 1790 and who, by the end of 1791, had become, notwithstanding or precisely because of his staunchly royalist beliefs, a prominent spokesman for the free colored population in the West Province in their struggle for full civil and civic rights. Given his ostensibly “minor” role in the Haitian Revolution, it is hardly surprising that questions regarding Ouvière have seldom been asked, and never comprehensively addressed until now; and yet, from another perspective, the silences surrounding the abbé’s revolutionary life in Saint-Domingue are puzzling, given the fact that an extensive collection of his private and public papers dating from 1791–92 forms a “major,” extremely visible component of what is surely among the most important resources for anyone interested in the early years of the Haitian Revolution, namely, the DXXV series at the French National Archives in Paris, which consists of well over a hundred boxes of material collected in the 1790s by the revolutionary government’s Colonial Committee. The “Ouvière papers”—many hundreds of documents ranging from personal correspondence to official reports detailing his relations with the free coloreds in Saint-Domingue—take up the bulk of two of these boxes (cartons 110 and 111, in particular dossiers 869–882). If, in Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s words, archives “help select the stories that matter,” then the case of Ouvière’s virtual exclusion from our narratives about the Haitian Revolution amply testifies to the fact that the selection process through which archival power manifests itself may sometimes be in an inverse relation to the quantity of available documentation.[1]

What might well be considered the single most prominent scholarly mention of Ouvière before Rey’s book appeared is made in the short span of one sentence written over sixty years ago by Jean Fouchard. Toward the end of his ground-breaking study of slave literacy in colonial Saint-Domingue, Les marrons du syllabaire (1953), Fouchard drew attention to three letters by an “enigmatic” rebel leader named Romaine Rivière, which he had discovered in “the papers of that Abbé Ouvière, himself so mysterious, even though he was particularly active and in correspondence with [the free colored leader Pierre] Pinchinat ... and served as counselor to Romaine.”[2] This Romaine is, of course, the prophetess of Rey’s title, leader of a 1791–92 insurgency based in Trou Coffy (to the west of Port-au-Prince, in the mountains south of Léogâne and north of Jacmel), a respectable “free black” property owner, who, upon the outbreak of the insurgency in September 1791, took to calling himself the godson of the Virgin Mary and adopted the gender-bending title of la prophétesse. Who was this enigmatic rebel leader and how did he come to exercise a growing influence over sizeable groups of nègres révoltés? Fouchard went no further than to pose this question, while auguring that “Romaine-la-Prophétesse awaits his historian” (p. 7).

That is the longstanding invitation that Rey has met in this book, the culmination of a decades-long pursuit of a shadowy figure, who, while receiving far more mentions in the history books than his mysterious “counselor,” has nonetheless been consistently marginalized and dismissed not just by colonial historians but also by radical intellectuals, such as C. L. R. James, who cited the fact that Romaine “fortified [his] authority with divine attributes” as evidence of “the backwardness of the western slaves” when compared with the slave revolt in the North, which “from the very beginning aimed at a social revolution.”[3] Such “intellectual sanctimony,” as Rey terms it (p. 60), can be found even in the work of more recent historians-from-below, such as Carolyn Fick, who felt compelled, when briefly placing the spotlight on Romaine in her influential The Making of Haiti, to specify that his cult “was as dubious as it was bizarre,”[4] an exoticizing appraisal that Rey nicely unravels.

Rey’s efforts at rehabilitating Romaine—at translating la prophétesse from a dubious purveyor of superstitions and instigator of anarchic violence into a devoutly religious figure and a politically savvy actor in the insurgent theater of Saint-Domingue—date back, as he notes, to research conducted in the 1990s “for a doctoral dissertation on Marian devotion in Haiti” (p. 4), and were first articulated in print in a 1998 article that provides much of the present book’s conceptual foundation.[5] Here, amplifying and where necessary correcting his earlier portrait of Romaine,[6] Rey makes the case that Romaine was “one of the most influential insurgent leaders in the Haitian Revolution” (p. 45), viewed from both a military and sociological perspective. In gaining, however briefly, some measure of formal control over the two cities of Léogâne and Jacmel, Romaine and his (free colored, enslaved, and even renegade white) allies made a formidable and singular dent in the Euro-colonial armor; “no other black insurgent leader in the entire colonial history of the Americas,” Rey asserts, “ever conquered and ruled a single coastal city, let alone two of them” (pp. 5–6). But, even more importantly, once we have ceased viewing Romaine as the “murderer, imposter, and charlatan” he has so often been represented as being, and recast him as “a charismatic and prophetic Catholic catechist, spiritual medium, herbalist, and social healer,” someone whose “religiously inspired violence” can be seen as part of a lineage that extends “from the biblical prophet Amos and Joan of Arc, to José María Morelos and Malcolm X,” we gain a new historical appreciation for the extent to which “religion played a central role in inspiring the Haitian Revolution” (pp. 190, 10, 9).

Over the past twenty years, since the publication of his 1998 article, what Rey has come to believe is that to tell Romaine’s story, to become the historian that Fouchard prophesized and draw the prophetess out of the historiographical shadows, this story would have to be doubled by that of the French priest, Ouvière, whose biographical trajectory provides “a fascinating window into the deep interconnections between France, Saint-Domingue, and the United States in the revolutionary Atlantic world” (p. 11). Initially cast as but a supporting actor in a book project that was to have focused on Romaine and the Haitian Revolution alone, the priest now occupies center stage alongside the prophetess, in a monograph that ranges back and forth across the Atlantic, from the Kingdom of Kongo to the colony of Saint-Domingue, from Marseille and Paris to Philadelphia and New York. It is the mysterious relation between these two “strange bedfellows” that forms the book’s central point of interrogation, the hermeneutical challenge from which all else arises (p. 6). What are we to make of their momentary crossing of paths in late December 1791, when Ouvière—tasked by Pinchinat and his inner circle with restoring calm and tranquillity in the Léogâne area—took it upon himself to visit Romaine’s base in Trou Coffy and negotiate a peace treaty that “in effect placed a radical black shaman in formal control of the city of Léogâne and its surrounding plantations” (p. 162)? To answer this question, Rey wagers, is to gain a fundamental insight into “the variegated ways in which Catholicism was perceived by many as a vehicle for biophysical and social therapy and healing in the revolutionary Atlantic world” (p. 11).

* * * * *

In the first of his nine chapters, Rey provides a contextualizing overview of free colored insurgencies in the South and West Provinces at the beginning of the Haitian Revolution, along with an account of the origins of the Trou Coffy insurgency and its reverberations in and around Jacmel from September 1791 to March of the following year. After chronicling the lives of Romaine (chapter 2) and Ouvière (chapter 3) in the years leading up to their brief encounter in Trou Coffy, he then (chapter 4) tells the story of the September–March insurgency a second time, from the perspective now of its other main theater of operations, Léogâne. In his sixth chapter, Rey goes on to provide a detailed reconstruction of Ouvière and Romaine’s encounter in Trou Coffy in late December 1791, and the peace treaty that ensued from it, “an achievement unparalleled in the colonial history of the Americas” (p. 106). Before that, however, Rey pauses, in the middle chapter of his book, “Sacerdotal Subversion in Saint-Domingue,” stepping back from the micro-history of the Trou Coffy rebellion to explore broader questions about the generative role of Catholicism, and more broadly religion, in late colonial and revolutionary Saint-Domingue—a topic that will doubtless provide the main talking points for the general reader of this book, as its back cover blurbs attest.[7]

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2. Sacerdotal Subversion: What Was the Role of Catholicism/Religion in the Haitian Revolution?

In the opening section of chapter 5, Rey examines the Jesuit legacy in revolutionary Saint-Domingue, affirming, in the wake of such historians as Charles Frostin, that, despite their ouster from the colony in 1763, “there nonetheless clearly reverberated a Jesuit spirit in the drama of the Haitian Revolution,” and more particularly, that the Jesuit mission should “be viewed as an important precursor to the Catholic radicalism of Romaine-la-Prophétesse” (pp. 110, 116). Rey devotes the remainder of this chapter to biographical sketches of eight priests who gained a certain notoriety in the early years of the Haitian Revolution, four from the North and four from the South/West. Testing all of them against the gold standard of “sacerdotal subversion,” he cautions against the “romantic temptation to categorically canonize these priests as revolutionary saints or to portray them as prototypical liberation theologians who actualized the social implications of the Gospel out of sincere Catholic piety” (p. 117). The reasonable conclusion he draws is that the work of these priests must be situated on a spectrum (“the Catholic clerical spectrum in revolutionary Saint-Domingue”) that extends from “the violent radicalism” of some, such as Abbé Philémon and Abbé Aubert, to the “racist conservatism” of others, such as Père Blouet, the curé of Jacmel, whose “denunciatory account” of Romaine in a February 1792 report would shape, “either directly or secondarily,” the “similarly inculpative rhetoric” of subsequent representations of this “charlatan” (pp. 136, 59). These case studies have the virtue of drawing attention to the need for fresh archival research on the lives of Catholic priests in colonial and revolutionary Saint-Domingue—research that would supplement (and supplant) the still unavoidable, but erratically documented, work of early to mid-twentieth-century church historians such as Adolphe Cabon and Jean-Marie Jan. In his account of the four priests from the South/West, Rey gives us a glimpse of what that research might look like, drawing effectively on some of the same archival sources he has used for his reconstruction of the Trou Coffy insurgency. By contrast, his sketches of the four priests from the North, almost entirely reliant on secondary sources, cover relatively familiar ground, and not always in as reliable a manner as one might wish, to judge from his handling of the best known among them, Abbé de Lahaye.

Doubtless the most innovative and invigorating feature of Rey’s book is its deployment of a range of concepts that derive from his own disciplinary training as a sociologist of religion, many of which were first introduced in his earlier studies of Romaine, such as the brief discussion in his 2007 book Bourdieu on Religion where he argued that “Bourdieu’s relational model of charisma” can help us understand the ways in which Romaine’s “prophetic charisma was attuned to a distinctively Kongolese religious habitus.”[8] The attention to such Bourdieusian categories as habitus or symbolic capital is very productive, nowhere more so than in his reading in chapter 1 of a document chronicling free colored raids on Les Cayes in the South Province, which zeroes in on the insurgents’ demand that half the city’s cannons be turned over to them and that they “‘be received at a distance of 200 paces from the city by unarmed white citizens, who will give them the osculatorium.’” The insurgents’ insistence as part of their bargaining position on being given this liturgical object, presumably housed in “the Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Les Cayes,” testifies to their perception of it as “a protective and legitimating piece of religious capital.” It is one piece of evidence among many that allows us to reconsider the Haitian Revolution, at least in its earliest years, as an event in which “high-caliber cannons and Catholic ritual paraphernalia went hand-in-hand as weapons of great effect in the struggle for social justice” (p. 22). More broadly, working his way back from Bourdieu to Max Weber’s The Sociology of Religion, Rey identifies “the theodicy of compensation” as the fundamental explanatory tool for understanding “religion’s effective role in the Haitian Revolution” (p. 71). No less than Boukman’s calls for divine justice at the Bois Caïman ceremony, Romaine’s evocations of the Virgin Mary were able to harness the subjugated class’s compensatory need for vengeance; their belief that God’s wrath would eventually overtake the privileged was precisely what allowed him “to rally the Trou Coffy insurgents around the vision of this theodicy realized and his social healing ministry” (p. 72).[9]

While such general claims about religion’s centrality to the liberationist energies of the Haitian Revolution provide a necessary counterbalance to the secularizing insistence, à la Nick Nesbitt, on a “radical Enlightenment tradition” that supposedly superseded religious motivations,[10] Rey’s specific insistence on the subversive force of Catholicism does place him in an oppositional relation to the many scholars who have acknowledged this centrality, but who associate it primarily with Vodou. In what will surely be among the more hotly debated points made in this book, Rey asserts in his introduction that “much scholarly literature on Haiti overstates the reach of the African-derived religion of Vodou, past and present, and exaggerates the role of Vodou in the Haitian Revolution as a ‘foyer de résistance,’ thereby obscuring or flat out denying the important contribution that Catholicism also made to the abolitionist cause in Saint-Domingue” (p. 7). Noting that in some of his earlier work he himself had “uncritically accepted this position and t[aken] on face value, and in fact cited approvingly, claims about Vodou’s being the key to understanding the outbreak of the Haitian Revolution” (p. 226n22), Rey now rejects such views as both anachronistic and insufficiently attuned to the syncretic realities of late colonial Saint-Domingue.

Vodou, as we understand it today, was, he asserts, a religion that “did not truly crystallize until the first half of the nineteenth century” (p. 64); moreover, its emergent manifestations in the revolutionary period simply cannot be disentangled from the forms of “folk Catholicism” practiced by a charismatic leader such as Romaine. The prophetess of Trou Coffy may reasonably be thought of as “a patriarch of Haitian Vodou, innovatively contributing to the emergence of the religion,” but only once we have identified him as, first and foremost, a “Catholic visionary” (pp. 65, 57), and only once we have acknowledged that a syncretic form of Catholicism was itself, for a good many of Romaine’s Kongolese followers, part of a recognizably African inheritance that had survived the Middle Passage and been reinvigorated in the New World. While occasionally presented in the form of an exasperated polemic with “scholars who have painted an ahistorical diptych” that privileges Vodou over Catholicism, that unproductively pits a “white ‘European’ religion of domination and a colonial imposition” against “the black ‘African’ religion of resistance and the true religion of ‘Haitians,’” Rey’s argument for the most part understandably pursues a more conciliatory, “holistic” approach to the question of religion’s central role in the Haitian Revolution, stressing the contributions of both Catholicism and Vodou, as well as of other religious forms, such as Islam and Protestantism, to “the ideology and actualization of insurgency in Saint-Domingue” (pp. 7, 8). Viewed in relation to this “broader optic of religion,” Romaine’s folk Catholicism can be understood as the invigorating conjunction of particular and universal forces: he occupies a “pioneering place in a most impressive heritage” of both “Haitian Marianism,” in all its particularity, and “a universal legacy of religion’s capacity to inspire and sustain resistance” (pp. 8, 222).

* * * * *

Rey’s heart-of-the-matter investigation of sacerdotal subversion in chapter 5 is followed by a chapter in which, as stated, he details events surrounding the peace treaty that Ouvière and Romaine negotiated in late December 1791. That chapter concludes with an account of how forces loyal to French Civil Commissioner Edmond de Saint-Léger retook control of Léogâne and Trou Coffy in March 1792, which is when the enigmatic Romaine disappears from the historical record. The next two chapters of Rey’s book pick up Ouvière’s fascinating story from that point on. Chapter 7 chronicles his triumphant return to Paris in May 1792 as an official associate of a delegation of free colored deputies to the French Legislative Assembly, and the turn of events that led to his flight from France later that summer, after he was denounced as a counterrevolutionary by none other than the free colored leader in Paris, Julien Raimond. Chapter 8 explores the Abbé Ouvière’s remarkable transformation after his arrival in the United States in 1793, where he would spend the forty remaining years of his life: there, Ouvière, using his maternal surname, refashioned himself as “Doctor Pascalis,” eventually becoming an American citizen, a happily married Episcopalian, and “the world’s leading expert on yellow fever” (p. 185). With Ouvière’s story brought to a close, Rey returns to Romaine in his final chapter, “The Prophetess in Fantasy and Imagination,” where he speculates as to the reasons why this enigmatic revolutionary figure has not, as yet, captured the attention of Haitian visual artists and considers some examples of how writers (notably, the novelists Victor Hugo and Mayra Montero) have misrepresented him in the over two centuries since his disappearance.

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3. An “Angry” Letter and an Ailing “Wife”: Why Should One Proceed with Caution When Reading This Book?

In the extended account of Rey’s book from which this review is excerpted, I devote a good deal of attention to Rey’s erratic use of archival sources, a highly problematic aspect of this book that will be particularly evident for anyone familiar with the Ouvière papers in the French National Archives. My final excerpt thus provides a detailed discussion of two examples of Rey’s (mis)handling of these sources: the first being a “micro” example, centered on a paragraph from chapter 7 in which he conveys the contents of a letter to Ouvière from the free colored leader Pinchinat; and the second a “macro” example, focused on an entire section from that same chapter where Rey describes the priest’s relations with a young woman who he wrongly claims was Ouvière’s wife.

The paragraph of Rey’s that we are now going to close read comes from the beginning of chapter 7, as he picks up the story of Ouvière in the months before his departure for Paris in April 1792 in the company of the free colored delegation to the Legislative Assembly. The paragraph in question begins with the following statement: “For reasons that are unclear, the priest left Croix-des-Bouquets early in 1792 and took up residence on the Foucault plantation, located roughly 40 miles west-southwest of Léogâne.” “On January 26,” Rey continues, the free colored leader “Pinchinat wrote to summon the priest from Foucault to either Mirebalais or Croix-des-Bouquets to ‘give you some important things.’” The tone of this letter, we are told, “was urgent, and Pinchinat warned that he would be ‘very angry’ if the priest did not come within the following few days and especially if he left for France without at least once more meeting with him.” Pinchinat, we learn, apprised Ouvière of the fact that he had been “urged by a one Monsieur Savary to prepare a ‘mémoire circonstancié’ (a report of recent events), and being himself a self-professed man of ‘little talent,’ he needed the priest to assist him with its research and composition.” We are then informed that Pinchinat also shared with the abbé “‘very satisfying’ news” of his “recent meeting with Edmond de Saint-Léger,” and the paragraph concludes as follows: “Though encouraged by Saint-Léger’s achievements during the commissioner’s adventurous five months in the colony, above all the defeat of the Trou Coffy insurgency, Pinchinat still cautiously rued, ‘but when will we finally have peace? God only knows’” (p. 162). A footnote reference then directs us to “Lettre de Pierre Pinchinat à Monsieur Abbé Ouvière, Croix de Bouquets, 26 janvier 1792. AN DXXV 110 887” (p. 271n3).

The idea of Pinchinat reflecting on the “defeat of the Trou Coffy insurgency” in a letter written in late January would raise the eyebrow of any reader at this point, given that chapter 6 had concluded with a lively account of Saint-Léger’s defeat of Romaine in late March. How, the reader must ask, could Pinchinat be reflecting with satisfaction on this event in late January, or on Saint-Léger’s five months in the colony, given that, as Rey has already established, the commissioner arrived there in November? This could, of course, be nothing more than a simple infelicity, careless writing, of the sort that had earlier allowed Rey to defy the realities of transatlantic travel in the eighteenth century by introducing a letter of Ouvière’s written in Saint-Domingue on September 7, 1790, with a reference to “the day when he fled France in late August or early September of that year” (p. 80, emphasis added). But what happens if, troubled by the telescoped reference to March 1792 in the summary of a letter from January of that year, we return to the Ouvière papers, and consult the letter in question?

What one finds, first and foremost, is that Rey has misdated Pinchinat’s letter, which was in fact written on February 26,[11] still too early, of course, for him to be registering any satisfaction with regard to the commissioner’s military triumph in March, but in line with the fact that late February was indeed when Saint-Léger met with Pinchinat and other leaders of the free colored Confederacy. Moreover, we find that the letter’s destination has been mislocated: if one looks at the address Pinchinat has written on the last page of this folded quarto sheet, one sees that it was delivered to the Foucault plantation at Boucassin (“l’han Foucault, au Boucassin”), in the parish of Arcahaye to the northeast of Léogâne, between Croix-des-Bouquets and Saint-Marc—a much more likely place for Ouvière to be staying than somewhere in the vicinity of Aquin in the South Province! One does not, of course, need to consult Pinchinat’s actual letter to locate the Habitation Foucault in the vicinity of Boucassin, for this fact is mentioned in the very mémoire that Pinchinat was writing, and that would eventually be published in Paris with Ouvière’s help—a text that Rey actually cites at various points in his book, including in a footnote where he doubles down on the idea that the plantation “was located some 40 miles west of Léogâne” (p. 270n82, emphasis added).[12] Finally, alongside these examples of misdating and mislocating, we find that the very tone of the letter has been profoundly misrepresented in Rey’s rendering of it. As one might suspect from the tender sentiments expressed in the letter’s opening sentence (“J’ai reçu, cher abbé, votre lettre du 23 courant, et je n’ai pu le lire sans attendrissement”), there is no question here of Pinchinat’s “anger” or “ire” at the abbé: it is a letter tinged with regret, where Pinchinat apologizes for having neglected to let Ouvière know about his departure from Croix-des-Bouquets some weeks back (presumably to meet with the civil commissioners in Mirebalais), and expresses a wish to see him and consult with him in Croix-des-Bouquets in the coming days, before the abbé’s planned return to France (“cela me procurera le plaisir de vous voir, de vous embrasser, et de conférer avec vous sur des choses importantes”). Of that upcoming transatlantic voyage, Pinchinat states that he would be very sorry were it to happen before he had the pleasure of seeing the abbé again (“je serois bien fâché qu’il s’effectuât sans que j’eusse le plaisir de vous voir auparavant”): the elementary mistranslation here of bien fâché allows Rey to construe a polite, subjunctive-laden sentence as an angry “warning.”     

Returning to Pinchinat’s original letter of February 26 thus provides us with useful insight into the misrepresentation of archival material that is an all too frequent characteristic of this book, especially when it comes to documenting Ouvière’s life in Saint-Domingue from 1791 to 1792 and, as we will now see in our “macro” example, his brief return to Paris in the summer of 1792. As Rey notes, Ouvière fled Paris at some point in late August 1792, his immediate destination being London. As shown by the abandonment of his personal correspondence and manuscripts (whence the rich trove of archival materials that have come to be known as the “Ouvière papers”), he left in a hurry, doubtless with the authorities at his heels, and, according to Rey, without having had a chance to reunite, over the course of almost three months in his native land, with “the wife he had left behind in 1790” (p. 164), a woman in Marseille whose letters to Ouvière form the focus of a brief section in chapter 7 titled “The Abbé’s Ailing Wife.” Having earlier affirmed that there is “unambiguous evidence” for this marriage, Rey here proceeds to back up his claim that in 1790, “in what can only be seen as an astonishing twist of events, prior to leaving the priesthood altogether, Abbé Ouvière had gotten married” (pp. 79, 164). Such a marriage, which is absolutely central to Rey’s characterological understanding of his renegade priest, would indeed have been an astonishing twist, but the evidence in question—three letters to Ouvière from his supposed “wife,” all dating from the month of July 1792—quite simply does not support, indeed contradicts, Rey’s untenably authoritative claims, testifying yet again to his untrustworthy handling of archival materials.

The first warning sign here is Rey’s assertion that only three of the numerous letters to Ouvière that “are preserved in his papers in the Archives Nationales in Paris were written to him by his ailing wife in Marseille” (pp. 164–165). In fact, of the fifty or so letters to Ouvière that are contained in that particular dossier, there are eight from the woman in question, which cover the entire range of Ouvière’s time in Paris (from late May to early August 1792).[13] There is no doubting, on the basis of these difficult-to-decipher, erratically spelled letters that the woman who wrote them, a certain Adélaïde, had been in an emotionally intense relationship with the abbé for over a year preceding his departure for Saint-Domingue in the summer of 1790.[14] One can even go so far as to speculate that the relationship was physically consummated (notwithstanding that at one point she seemingly attributes his having “left” her to the fact that she had chosen the path of “modesty and virtue” in her relations with him).[15] But there is plentiful evidence in these letters that definitively rules out Rey’s marital scenario.

Take, for instance, Adélaïde’s letter of June 27, which begins frostily, with her passing along a seemingly well founded rumor she heard the day before that he had married while in Paris, an occurrence, she feels, that would help explain the fact he had not written to her in almost three weeks. Perhaps his new wife had forbidden him from writing, she ventures, with a certain sarcasm that quickly transforms into an incredulous lamentation, just as her frosty use of the formal mode of address (vous) at the outset soon gives way to the more usual intimacy of the second-person singular (tu). Indeed, in her next letter, which Rey believes to be “her initial letter” (p. 272n10), Adélaïde makes another anxious reference to these rumors of his recent marriage—a reference, not surprisingly, that Rey elides in his highly selective rendering of this letter’s contents. Rey is understandably drawn in this particular letter to the fact that Adélaïde at several points refers to her dear Félix as “mon époux,” but his literal-minded reading fails to register the rhetorical nature of this epithet, that it is merely one in a chain of metaphorical equivalents (“mon ange, mon bien-aimé, ma vie, mon époux, enfin, mon tout”). That Adélaïde wishes she were Félix’s wife is unquestionable, but her laying claim to that status is, as she herself acknowledges, purely volitional: after noting, “I am in need of your advice, dear husband,” she immediately clarifies, “I call you by this name because you alone will be it,”[16] a specification that Rey, again, has to pass over in order to keep his misreading of the situation afloat.

Rey’s “Madame Ouvière” and the Adélaïde of these eight passionate letters certainly do have much in common: the one, no less than the other, has suffered from the two-year absence of a man whose sudden reappearance in her life has given her new hope for the future. The important difference between these two women, however, is that only one of them is real....

* * * * *

As the ellipses at the end of my final excerpt suggest, there is more to be said about Adélaïde, whose penultimate letter to Ouvière (July 29), which Rey treats as if it were her last, makes for very painful reading: it is, as Rey notes, “a most heartbreaking letter, one that surely gave Abbé Ouvière the strong impression that his distant wife was dying” (p. 166), and that certainly justifies Rey’s choice of the adjective ailing in the title for the section that he devotes to her.[17] Contrary to Rey’s claim that there is “no indication ... that she ever recovered,” however, a week later, as reported in her (my) “last” letter (August 7), she is up and about, making specific plans to go and join her beloved Félix and press him against her breast, as she puts it. Given the precipitous nature of Ouvière’s departure from France in the ensuing weeks, it is safe to say that these plans were not realized, but this more upbeat letter nonetheless opens up the possibility of another future for Adélaïde than the one contemplated in Rey’s book. New evidence or the same old evidence presented in a different way can transform the seeming foundations of a particular story one has been trying to tell: this is a banal reflection, to be sure, but one that I feel compelled to make, here at the end, by way of drawing the reader’s attention to the much longer document from which the present review is excerpted. The pointed story I have told here, with its three bold-faced takeaways, diverges in a great many respects from the more expansively structured (and lavishly footnoted) piece of work that I initially produced, nowhere more obviously than in the case of that other story’s unexpected conclusion, where I engage in some highly speculative reflections about how the sociological approach Rey takes to the role of religion—and more particularly Catholicism—in revolutionary Saint-Domingue might prove inspirational to scholars interested in understanding the “social origins” of the Haitian literary field in the early years of the revolution. For any readers curious about how the story they have just finished reading might be told otherwise, in a decidedly less pointed manner and with greater attention to many fascinating details of the story Rey himself tells, I would remind them (you) one last time that this piece is available on my page, and wish you, in the words with which Rey concludes the introduction to his lively and engaging book, “Bonne lecture!”


[1]. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 52.

[2]. Jean Fouchard, Les marrons du syllabaire: Quelques aspects du problème de l’instruction et de l’éducation des esclaves et affranchis de Saint-Domingue (Port-au-Prince: Henri Deschamps, 1988), 115.

[3]. C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2001), 88.

[4]. Carolyn Fick, The Making of Haiti: The Saint-Domingue Revolution from Below (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990), 127.

[5]. Terry Rey, “The Virgin Mary and Revolution in Saint-Domingue: The Charisma of Romaine-la-Prophétesse,” Journal of Historical Sociology 11, no. 3 (1998): 341–369. See also Terry Rey, Our Lady of Class Struggle: The Cult of the Virgin Mary in Haiti (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1999), 138–148.

[6]. For instance, where he had once speculated that there was an “at least fifty/fifty” possibility that Romaine was born in Africa (Rey, “Virgin Mary,” 360), he now expresses virtual certainty that Romaine was “a free black from the Spanish side of the island of Hispaniola,” born around 1750, and active in the Trou Coffy region “as early as 1772” (pp. 51, 47).

[7]. “Rey illuminates a key moment in the religious history of Haiti and the Afro-Atlantic world” (Laurent Dubois); “Rey brilliantly illuminates the role of popular Catholicism as an intellectual force in the revolutionary Atlantic world” (James H. Sweet); and “Rey provides important insights into the role of Catholicism in the ideology of the Revolution” (John Thornton), all from the back cover.

[8]. Terry Rey, Bourdieu on Religion: Imposing Faith and Legitimacy (London: Equinox, 2007), 117.

[9]. Rey’s Weberian emphasis on a “theodicy of compensation” as “the essence of religion’s effectiveness in the revolution” dates at least as far back as his 1998 article; see Rey, “Virgin Mary,” 353, 361.

[10]. In one of the bare handful of mentions of religion in his Universal Emancipation: The Haitian Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008), Nesbitt affirms, symptomatically, that “Toussaint’s Catholicism, though an essential dimension of his character, was always superseded in political decisions regarding slavery by the Radical Enlightenment tradition that defended human rights universally and immediately” (p. 43, emphasis added).

[11]. Pinchinat to Ouvière, Croix-des-Bouquets, February 26, 1792, Archives Nationales de France, Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, DXXV 110 879. Rey’s specific dossier references, it must be said, are wrong far more often than they are right when it comes to the Ouvière papers: for instance, documents from dossier 879, such as this letter from Pinchinat, are consistently mislocated in either dossier 887, as here, or 819. Neither of these two dossiers contains Ouvière-related material.

[12]. See Mémoire historique des dernières révolutions des provinces de l’Ouest et du Sud de la partie françoise de Saint-Domingue (Paris: Imprimerie du Patriote François, 1792), 114.

[13]. “Adélaïde” to Ouvière, Marseille, May 31, June 7, June 18, June 27, July 8, July 24, July 29, and August 7, 1792, Archives Nationales de France, Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, DXXV 110 878. I would like to thank Laurence L. Bongie for many lively discussions regarding the contents of these letters.

[14]. Although her signature is illegible, Adélaïde refers to herself in the third person at one point in her letter of June 18, when she imagines a future scenario in which her beloved Félix will be able to say “Adélaïde is mine forever” (fol. 3; “Adélaide est à moi pour toujours”).

[15]. “Adélaïde” to Ouvière, June 18 (fol. 1; “Quel crime avais-je donc commis, que t’avais-je fait pour me quitter? Je ne crois pas avoir fait du mal quand on s’est livré à la pudeur et la vertu”; or, to give readers a necessarily approximate idea of Adélaïde’s own French, “quel crime aveje dont commis que taveje fais pour me quite je ne crois pas avoir fais du mal quand ont set livré a la pudeur et la vertu”).

[16]. “Adélaïde” to Ouvière, July 8 (fol. 1; “J’ai besoin de tes conseils, cher époux. Je t’appelle de ce nom parce que toi seul le seras”). Rey provides a date of July 4 for this letter.

[17]. Adélaïde asserts in this letter, for instance, “If I get worse, I will make out my will to you. Farewell, dear heart” (fol. 2; “Si je suis plus mal, je ferai mon testament à ta faveur. Adieu mon cœur.”)—a statement that Rey translates, nonsensically, as “If I get worse I will be the testament to you, my heart” (p. 166).

Citation: Chris Bongie. Review of Rey, Terry, The Priest and the Prophetess: Abbé Ouvière, Romaine Rivière, and the Revolutionary Atlantic World. H-Haiti, H-Net Reviews. May, 2018. URL:

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