“Each Following His Own Destiny”: The Formation of the “African Battalion” in Unification-Era Santo Domingo

Friday, January 5, 2018: 9:10 AM
Virginia Suite A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Andrew Walker, University of Michigan
Following the declaration of emancipation and unification across Hispaniola in February 1822, Haitian president Jean-Pierre Boyer created three new units of the post-revolutionary army to be stationed in the territory of the former Spanish colony of Santo Domingo. The first, Regiment 31, was built on the framework of the batallón de morenos (the colonial-era company of free soldiers of color) under the leadership of colonel Pablo Alí, a formerly enslaved veteran of the Haitian Revolution who had long acted as a power broker in the east. Meanwhile, Regiments 32 and 33 were made up of so-called libertos de la palma, citizens who had gained juridical freedom at the moment of unification, from the Santo Domingo capital region and the northern department of the Cibao respectively. Collectively described by contemporary observers and later historians as the “African Battalion,” these three regiments symbolized the promise (and to some, the threat) of a rapid restructuring of social hierarchies after slavery in Haitian Santo Domingo. Scholars of post-revolutionary Haiti have argued that the nascent state’s militarized approach to governance circumscribed the lived experiences of Haitian freedom through conscription, forced labor, and the exclusion of women from full citizenship rights. Yet military service took on distinct meanings in the east, where citizens of color voluntarily enlisted in large numbers. Drawing on notarial and judicial records from the Santo Domingo capital region between 1822 and 1844, this paper explores the backgrounds of the recruits from both sides of the island (and beyond), their property acquisitions, and the legal charges brought against them. Membership in the battalion offered citizens of African descent new opportunities for island-wide mobility and political mobilization, even as it made them a frequent target of former slaveowners, established landowners, and ex-colonial officials within the Haitian civil administration.
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