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Introduction

The French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) was one of the most brutal – as well as one of the most lucrative – of the Caribbean slave colonies in the eighteenth century. Alongside the shocking abuses of the system of slavery on which the colony’s economy was based sat the most vibrant theatrical tradition of the region, but one that, despite the excellent work of a number of researchers, remains little known today. Without overlooking the extraordinary violence and cruelty of contemporary Saint-Dominguan society, this database seeks to make known the rich and varied culture of public theatre that existed in the colony from 1764 to 1791 and to promote further research in this area. Between these dates, a series of local newspapers document theatrical performances in Saint-Domingue from their ad hoc beginnings, to the establishment of a series of local troupes, the building of several public playhouses, to the heyday of public theatre in the 1780s and up to the eve of the slave revolts of August 1791 that would lead to the Haitian Revolution and, eventually, to the establishment of the independent republic of Haiti in 1804.

Most of our information comes from the Saint-Dominguan newspaper known as the Affiches américaines (and its variants), which is available for consultation online at the Digital Library of the Caribbean: http://www.dloc.com. Additional newspapers are drawn on in relation to the beginning and end of the period under consideration, and these were consulted at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. Our sources feature regular announcements detailing upcoming theatrical performances in local venues, usually the local playhouse, of a host of plays, ballets and operas, the majority of them brought over from France, often only a few months after their première in Paris or elsewhere. A small but significant number of works listed are by local authors. A typical theatrical event in Saint-Domingue featured two named works and often some additional dance or music, sometimes followed by fireworks and/or a ball. We document all known performances involving named dramatic works and note the inclusion of additional music and dance, fireworks and balls on the record cards for that day. Entertainments, such as standalone firework displays or concerts, that do not include any named dramatic works are excluded. It is possible that what is documented represents only a small percentage of what was actually performed in Saint-Domingue since it would appear that many regular subscription performances were not advertised individually in the newspapers. Nonetheless, what we have gives a strong sense of the richness and variety of theatre production in colonial Saint-Domingue. It opens up the history of colonial theatre and also that of a burgeoning créole theatre tradition.