Research & References
The main characters and events in this book, including the murder of Plunkett and the planned slave uprising for the Grand’Anse, are fictional, but I used the plantation records of the Fongravier / Mercier family that lived at the Bayardel plantation through the years 1771-1803 to ground my story and develop my characters.
All of the history in this book—events and people—that take place off the Bayardel plantation are based on fact: the slave revolts; the incidents at Jérémie, Les Cayes, and Les Platons; people like Jean Kina; the white female hostages up north; the plans for slave genocide in the Grand’Anse, etc. They are factual, but subject to the limitations and unreliability of eye-witness accounts. The South Province in general, and the Grand’Anse in particular, remain the most unexplored part of the colony with regards to the history of the Haitian Revolution.
Wherever possible, I read all the primary sources I could: letters, wills, inventories, eye-witness accounts, newspapers and legal documents. Some of the more helpful:
I relied heavily on an enormous work by the lawyer Médéric Louis Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry (1750-1819), who travelled the entire island in 1790 and who gave us the best contemporary eye-witness account of Saint Domingue society on the eve of the Revolution. The information in his Description topographique, physique, civile, politique et historique de la partie française de l’isle Saint-Domingue inspired many of the anecdotes in the novel, and I modelled my character Thoreau partially on Moreau de Saint Mery. His works unfortunately haven’t been translated into English, but can be found online here in French.
The Jérémie Papers are a great cache of 18th century notary papers from the town of Jérémie that survived the Revolution, and which informed several key plot points. Held today at the University of Florida, they can be found online here.
Studies on 18th century plantations like this one for the Fouache plantations in the Grand’Anse were helpful.
The Archives Nationales d'Outre-mer, the French National Overseas Archives, hold many primary sources - legal documents, official reports but also personal letters - relating to their colonies and the slave trade. It was here I found a letter in which a French captain writes to his wife about a slave woman who flung herself into the sea to rescue her baby, and his absolute puzzlement at her actions - how could an African possess maternal instinct? A very distressing read and one that formed the basis of a central trope in Apricots.
Gallica, the online French library, has many of the great maps that really gave a good feel for just how developed Saint Domingue was, even the remote Grand’Anse.
The Anne-Louis de Tousard Papers are a collection of letters held by the University of Michigan which detail life in the 1780s on a coffee plantation in Northern Saint Domingue run by a widow (the inspiration for Rose and her troubles) showing the fluctuating pull and push and constant back and forth between the owners and the slaves. They can be found here.
Les Affiches Americains was one of Saint Domingue's main newspapers, published up to 1791 and available and searchable online here.
Facing Racial Revolution: Eyewitness Accounts of the Haitian Insurrection by Jeremy D. Popkin was very helpful and has contemporary eye-witness accounts of what transpired in Jérémie in the later days of the Revolution. Find it here.
The missing piece of these primary sources and the most frustrating is of course the almost complete lack of voices from the enslaved African population. Voices of slaves or freed slaves occasionally come through in court cases (Saint Domingue was a very litigious place) but they are very faint. While there are a few first-hand accounts written by 18th century slaves, they were mostly American or English, and I could find none from Saint Domingue.
Secondary Sources and Novels
There are many of great books on the Haitian Revolution, though detailed and exact information about how the unrest unrolled in the remote Grand’Anse can be frustratingly slim. One general book on the Haitian Revolution I really enjoyed was The Black Jacobins by CLR James, which simply blazes with passion and made the events of 200 years ago feel surprisingly close. You can find it here.
I read very few novels set in the time or place I am writing about, as I don’t want to subconsciously be influenced by them. One extraordinary novel I made an exception for was Babouk: The Story of a Slave by Guy Endore, a fictionalized account of the slave Boukman who led the great uprising in 1791. Wow! I recommend this book so highly. The author spent many years in Haiti and incorporated oral histories of certain events into his depiction of Babouk / Boukman and the revolution.
In October 2017 I made a research trip to the Grand’Anse, so completely off the beaten track that our driver, having never visited such a remote part of his country, was almost as excited to go as we were. I visited the hill where old maps indicate that in 1780 a large house existed on the Bayardel plantation. Today nothing remains of that plantation and that is true of the country in general: more than 8,000 18th century plantations, often with massive stone infrastructure - big houses, wells, aqueducts, mills, granaries, warehouses, basins, drying platforms - have mostly, with very few exceptions, been erased from the landscape by a complex mixture of time, indifference and poverty.
The visit gave me excellent sensory details about the landscape, the food and the weather, but on a more personal level it was such a thrill to walk the hills and the beach, through the little village of Baryadel, and talk with the inhabitants, some of them are surely descended from the slaves who lived there in the 1790s and around whom I had created some of my characters. The experience gave rise to a lot of reflection on just how life has, but also hasn’t changed – the village is perhaps more isolated than it was in the 18th century, and apart from metal roofs on the houses, would look much as it did 200 years ago. A few pictures here.