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Guide to the Marquis de Sercey papers

MSN/EA 0512


Collection Summary

Title: Marquis de Sercey papers
Dates: 1793
Collection No.: MSN/EA 0512
Creator: Sercey, Pierre César Charles Guillaume, Marquis de, 1753-1836
Extent: 4 folders; 4 items
Language: Collection material in French
Repository: University of Notre Dame. Hesburgh Libraries, Department of Special Collections. 102 Hesburgh Library, Notre Dame, IN 46556
Abstract: Four manuscript documents relating to the battle at Cap Français in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, 20-23 June 1793. All the documents are written by or to the Marquis de Sercey, a French rear admiral, aboard Éole in Cap Français harbor.

Selected Search Terms

Haiti -- History -- Revolution, 1791-1804.
France -- History, Naval -- 18th century.
Caribbean Area -- History -- To 1810.
Sercey, Pierre César Charles Guillaume, Marquis de (1753-1836).

Administrative Information

Restrictions: There are no access restrictions on this collection

Preferred Citation: [Identification of item], Marquis de Sercey papers, [Collection and folder no.], Rare Books and Special Collections, Hesburgh Libraries of Notre Dame.

Acquisition and Processing Note: The Marquis de Sercey collection was purchased by the Hesburgh Libraries of Notre Dame in 2017, from Michael Brown Rare Books (list 138, item 23). Arranged, described, and finding aid by Kathryn Rose Sawyer, 2017.

Biographical Note

Pierre César Charles Guillaume, Marquis de Sercey was born at the château du Jeu near Autun in east-central France on 26 April 1753. He went to sea at age 13, serving aboard ship in the Caribbean and in the Indian Ocean, and with the gardes de la marine on Mauritius. Sercey participated in the expedition that discovered the Kerguelen Islands in the southern Indian Ocean in 1772. After gaining the rank of ensign in 1777, he fought in a number of battles in the European and American theaters of the American Revolutionary War, including the siege of Pensacola. He was captured by the British in June 1780 and exchanged in October of the same year. From 1787 to 1792 he served in the West Indies. He gained the rank of capitaine de vaisseau in 1792 and contre-amiral (rear admiral) in January 1793. That year, aboard Éole, he commanded a division of four frigates based at the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue. He was arrested on his return to France in November 1793 because of his aristocratic background, but regained his rank with the institution of the Directory in 1795. He then was sent to Mauritius to command a French division in the Indian Ocean. His time there ended in 1799 when the last of his ships was destroyed by the British. He returned briefly to France in 1802 but political pressure drove him back to Mauritius after his retirement in August 1805. He married there and lived as a planter until the island was taken by the British in 1810. He returned to France and to military service, and was made a vice-admiral in 1814 and a peer in 1832. He died in Paris on 10 August 1836. His name is engraved on the western face of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

Scope and Content Note

The documents in this collection relate to a particular episode: the burning of Cap Français (now Cap Haïtien) in June 1793, during the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804). The most substantial item, from 2 August 1793, is a sixteen-page description by Rear Admiral Sercey of the events of late spring and summer that culminated in the burning of the city and the flight of several thousand white colonists from the island. The other items are related to this incident, including a letter from Sercey to General Galbaud about the difficulties he faced in finding a military ship appropriately equipped to act as an escort for a supply ship out of the harbor; a petition from forty merchant ship captains and officers to Sercey asking for his assistance in leaving the harbor with goods and refugees from the city; and a draft of a letter from Sercey to the colonial commission describing his report of the events at Cap Français along with notes for the same report.

The Battle at Cap Français

The battle at Cap Français in June 1793 marked a turning point in the racial dynamics of the Haitian Revolution. The free black population of the colony had lent their support to the French Republican government following a declaration from Paris (4 April 1792) that granted full political rights to free blacks in Saint-Domingue, while many of the white colonists had turned against the Republicans. The battle at Cap Français the following year set white Republicans and free blacks against the white colonists who were fearful of the ramifications of racial equality in the colony. During the course of the fighting the Republicans formed an alliance with black slaves on the promise of freedom for the slaves, and the white colonists were defeated. The violence resulted in the flight of thousands of white colonists to the United States.

The tensions that resulted in the battle at the Cap began with the arrival in the spring of 1793 of François-Thomas Galbaud du Fort (1743-1801), a French general and absentee landowner initially sent to defend Saint-Domingue. Galbaud arrived while the French commissioners Léger Félicité Sonthonax (1763-1818) and Étienne Polverel (1742-1795) were in Port-au-Prince attempting to enforce the decree of 4 April, and Galbaud immediately installed himself as governor of the town with his brother as deputy. He was hostile to the idea of racial equality among whites and free-coloreds, as were many of the white colonists in the town. When Sonthonax and Polverel returned to the Cap they had Galbaud imprisoned on a ship in the harbor for spreading sedition. The sailors as well as the prisoners aboard ship were hostile to the Republican commissioners and their free black supporters, and Galbaud devised a plan to attack the city from the harbor and depose the commissioners. Sercey describes this episode in his report of 2 August. On 20 June, Galbaud's supporters stormed the city of Cap Français, but were driven back to their ships after several hours of fighting. They attacked again the following day and captured the town's arsenal. The commissioners fled the town as it descended into chaos. The violence continued, prisons were opened, and imprisoned slaves were set free, some of whom gathered weapons and joined the fight against Galbaud's troops. The city was soon ablaze though it is unclear who started the fires. The commissioners offered the black slaves freedom in exchange for fighting on their side, and with these new reinforcements Galbaud's forces were outnumbered and driven back to their ships. Many white citizens fled to the ships as well to escape the fires and violence, and when the ships finally set sail they had several thousand white refugees aboard, along with their belongings and sometimes their slaves. Lacking adequate supplies to travel as far as Europe, the ships made their way up the eastern seaboard of the U. S., stopping in ports in Virginia and New York to drop their passengers. Sercey did not return to France until November, after having travelled as far as New York.

Following the flight of the ships from the harbor, Sonthonax and Polverel returned to Cap Français, where they restored their power, now with the force of a black Republican army behind them. Their decision to offer freedom to slaves in return for military service soon led to the abolition of slavery in the colony, a decision that was ratified in Paris in 1794.

Arrangement Note

The collection is in four folders, with one item per folder.

Container List

  • Marquis de Sercey, aboard Éole in Cap Français harbor, to François-Thomas Galbaud de Fort, Cap Français, Haiti, 1793 June 2. Folder 1 (MSN/EA 0512-01)
    ALS, 3 pages on 1 folded sheet. Retained copy.
    Sercey details the difficulties he is having in finding a ship properly equipped to escort the one carrying supplies to Fort Dauphin according to Galbaud's orders; they all lack either personnel or good repair. He recommends returning to the original plan of having Gracieuse go to Fort Dauphin and then to Port Depaix; if they are unable to conscript a crew for her he can give some of his crew but then he is concerned that he will be unable to fulfill his mission. A PS adds that they have found all the sick who had disembarked since they have been in this harbor, some of whom are in a very bad state. Sercey is concerned about the spread of contagious disease on the ship.
    • Petition from Delisle(?) Thibaut and 39 others, Cap Français harbor, to Marquis de Sercey, aboard Éole, in Cap Français harbor, Haiti, 1793 June 23. Folder 2 (MSN/EA 0512-02)
      AMsS, 2 pages on one folded sheet.
      A petition from the captains and officers of the merchant ships in Cap Français harbor, requesting help from Sercey. They have aboard their vessels the inhabitants of the Cap who have fled the fire and destruction of the city. The ships lack adequate supplies for the refugees and their crew. They wish to set sail for New England before continuing on to Europe, but they are unable to escape and they fear for their lives. Forty signatures follow the petition.
      • Marquis de Sercey, aboard the ship Éole, at New York. Report to Jean Dalbarade, Minister of the Navy, on the events surrounding the battle at Cap Français, 1793 August 2. Folder 3 (MSN/EA 0512-03)
        MsS, 33.5 cm., 16 pages, written primarily in a clerical hand with paragraphs appended on the last page in Sercey's hand. Retained copy.
        Sercey composes a report to Jean Dalbarade (1743-1819, Minister of the Navy and Colonies 1793-1795) detailing the events before, during, and after the battle at Cap Français on 20-23 June 1793. Sercey aims to exonerate himself for the delay in leaving the harbor despite growing danger and diminishing supplies, and for the disastrous state of the ships once they did leave. Instead he stresses throughout that the civil commissioners of the city (Léger Félicité Sonthonax (1763-1818) and Étienne Polverel (1742-1795)) refused him permission to fulfill his mission of escorting merchant ships out of the harbor, and he was bound by the law to obey their orders. The report covers events from February to August 1793.

        Sercey describes events from his perspective in the harbor, where he and Rear Admiral Cambis (Joseph de Cambis, 1748-1825) waited to escort merchant ships away from the colony in a convoy. Sercey describes in detail the political and naval maneuvers leading up to the fighting, including tensions between the white colonists and the free blacks ("citoyens de couleur"), and the widespread support among those in the harbor for General Galbaud (François-Thomas Galbaud du Fort (1743-1801)). He also describes in detail the spread of violence and fire in the city between 20 and 23 June that killed those white colonists who had not fled to the ships. He is critical of the civil commissioners throughout, noting that despite the growing danger and the readiness of the merchant ships to leave, they forbade the ships from leaving the port until they received a "station" from France, which caused the merchant ships to lose their cargo and profits. The petition in folder 2 of this collection dates from this delay. Sercey also complains that the civil commissioners did not stop the citoyens de couleur from harassing and threatening the sailors both of the merchant marine and navy, appearing to authorize this harassment by their silence. He ultimately blames the outbreak of fighting on the commissioners' lack of leadership and timely intervention, and their abuse of their powers.

        The ships in Sercey's convoy finally left the harbor of Cap Français on 29 June with thousands of refugees aboard. The final pages of the report describe the route of the convoy up the east coast of the United States, where one by one the ships, lacking supplies for those aboard, stopped off in the harbors of Virginia and New York.

        Sercey viewed his report as only one of several that the Minster of the Navy would receive, and in many places he declines further detail because he expects that Dalbarade will hear the story from the implicated parties directly.
        • Marquis de Sercey. Draft of a letter to the colonial commission, and draft notes for a report on the burning and evacuation of Cap Français, ca. 1793 August 2. Folder 4 (MSN/EA 0512-04)
          AMs, 5 pages on one folded sheet and one sheet.
          Partial draft of a letter from Sercey to the commission describing his report of the burning and evacuation of Cap Français held in Folder 3, and draft notes for the same report.