Forever on her own, she escaped, alone, she was taken again, by herself, she knew the chains, the spiked collar, the red-hot poker, the leg irons, and the crown. . . .




“She died at the age of twenty, within the walls of the fort sugar mill in Leogane, a western province in present-day Haiti. Only a bit of her first name is known: Zabeth. No one knew whose womb pushed her into this world. No ritual marks on her body divulged whether she came from Africa as a child or whether she was born a Creole. The only mark on her was a fleur-de-lis on her left cheekbone.

She spoke a simple language some have called “banana talk.” Just as the other sweet water enslaves, she did not have a saltwater accent. Her skin was very dark, but nothing in the proud way she held her head or in her broad lips and her round dreamy eyes, lalowed one to pin her down to one area in Africa. The only hint as to her origins is a Mandingo song she probably learned from her mother, which she sang under very specific and difficult circumstances: the chain, the collar, the red-hot poker, the leg irons, or the crown.”

Here are the first words of the song, adapted from an old Spanish translation:

But let me be, Dear Dyambere!

In a long robe you have dressed yourself,

Let me sing about the birds,

The birds that listen to a princess as she goes away

The birds that gather up the last of her secrets.


Zabeth was about tens years old when she went missing for the first time. She belonged to the group of children used in the fields to take care of minor tasks appropriate for their size and age.

One can be astonished by the fact that she was sent to the fields so early (if they know nothing of the history of race-based slavery), but, she was sent out to work at such an early age because she was a slave, whether she would have been put in the fields, or put in the slave master’s house. She was probably judged inadequate for house work, if one goes by a report that describes her as a “thief and a Maroon from an early age” (Letter from Parison, manager of the fort sugar mill to its owner, Madame Galbot, March 6, 1768). Then again, as to the theft accusation, it would not be theft to take food that you needed for your body when all the while a theiving hateful slave master was committing theft against you as a slave. Filling one’s body up with sustenance would not qualify as theft, even for one so young as Zabeth, when all around you, slave masters and slave mistresses were the world’s biggest and most filthiest of thieves.

But, I digress.

Later that evening, Zabeth was found asleep in a thicket. She was taken to the sugar mill’s hospital, or rather to the place used as an infirmary, a prison, and an orphanage. The child was released the next day with a kind word, which showed how little attention was paid to this incident. Barely back into the fields, she slid between two ridges of soil, before disappearing for the second time in forty-eight hours.

A week later, she was found wandering in the woods. She was brought back by the scruff of her neck, like a wet kitten, hanging by her hair from an overseer’s fist. The overseer threw her at the feet of Madame Parison. Zabeth pleaded with him. He told the slave mistress not to listern to Zabeth’s pleas, as she had been “eaten by the rash”—the rash of rebelling and escaping—the Maroon rash. Madame Parison could not understand why little Zabeth wanted to run away, as she like so many slave owners thought that their good and kind treatment of enslaves should make a slave happy and contented with their lot in life, and could not comprehend why an enslave would want to escape such a life. The overseer is said to have stated, “Don’t ask why, just use the whip.”

Because of lack of evidence, it isdifficult to establish the various steps Zabeth took from her first infantile escapades to reach her final escape, the one that took her definitively out of her master’s reach.

“After a few years of silence, her traces reappeared during the 1770 earthquake that turned Port-au-Prince and all the villages of the western province to shambles. Zabeth had been shackled to a mill, behind a couple of mules that were pulling the central wheel. Then the catclysm broke apart the walls, freeing her chains from their moorings. She ran away trailing the iron shackles that she somehow managed—no one knows—to rid herself of in the woods. She was only found six months later. She had been living off the goods from nearby plantations, snatching them in the night: a hen here, a  goat there. Until then, she had only been known for escapdes. But six months of absence made her liable to be judged and punished by the tribunal of Port-au-Prince, which condemned her to a public whipping to the sound of a brass band. Six months later, to the day, Zabeth was back at the fort sugar mill.

It seems strange that she never thought of joining a group of  Maroons who survived, here and there, between the mountains and the sea, in the French part of Santo Domingo (Haiti).

The answer to that question is a mystery.

Zabeth always escaped alone and was always alone each time she was caught. She knew the chains, the collar, the red-hot poker, the legs irons, all on her own.

For a long time, they tried to make Zabeth a mother, hoping to create a tie to cement her to her chains. She resisted with all her might and threatened the men with the most bitter vengeance. Her young body was already battered, so the male slaves did not insist. One night, at Christmas, while eveyone on the plantation was busy singing carols, the overseer gave her to a group of slaves under the influence of rum and Zabeth became pregnant. She gave birth to a little boy and motherhood made her as supple and obedient as a glove.

The child grew up and Zabeth returned to her fieldwork. Because of the usual precautions, her feet were shackled, tying her to her son, who dragged himself behind her in the sun.

The child died at the age of six. . . .and in no time, Zabeth was back in the woods. Soon after she was brought back, she ran away again. The records of the notaries listed eighteen escape attempts. At the mill, she slid between the rolling stones, but they stopped the machine in time and she was back at the hospital, indifferent to her three missing fingers. More than ever, she sang this strange Mandingo song, a tune that seemed to pierce the very walls of the hutches and even the solid stone of the slave master’s big house. She was told to keep quiet but still she sang.

Later that night in the hospital, Zabeth sneaked out through a loose clapboard and ran away one last time. Although she had lost a lot of blood, she was chained to the mill where the mules were driven by the whip. The old Mandingo song rose up in the middle of the night with a slight, airy accent, so that the old saltwater blacks said that the woman was already on her way back, about to reach the banks of Africa:

But let me be, Dear Dyambere!

In a long robe you have dressed yourself,

Let me sing about the birds,


In the middle of the night, the song suddenly stopped, and Zabeth’s body was found trampled by the mules. A great many enslaves kept hearing that song float in the air, day after day, over the cane fields and the roof of the old mill, like a call sent to the most secret part of their being. . . .

And it was Zabeth’s song that they still heard a few years later, mingled with the booms of cannons, when the armed enslaves descended on Port-au-Prince. . . .”  (1-a)

San Domingo.jpg


1 (a).   “In Praise of Black Women: Heroines of the Slavery Era,”, by Simone Schwarz-Bart.

“Slave Resistence: A Revolution in Haiti“:














Slave Women in Caribbean Society, 1650-1838 by Barbara Bush (Paperback – Aug 1, 2008)
5.0 out of 5 stars (1)


Women and Slavery in the French Antilles, 1635-1848 by Bernard Moitt (Paperback – Nov 15, 2001)
5.0 out of 5 stars (1)


Historical Study of Women in Jamaica, 1655-1844 (Caribbean History) by Lucille Mathurin Mair, Hilary McD Beckles, and Verene A. Shepherd (Paperback – Jan 31, 2007)


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  1. On the occasion of “International Mother Language Day” on 21st February, you may be interested in the contribution, made by the World Esperanto Association, to UNESCO’s campaign for the protection of endangered languages.

    The following declaration was made in favour of Esperanto, by UNESCO at its Paris HQ in December 2008.

    The commitment to the campaign to save endangered languages was made, by the World Esperanto Association at the United Nations’ Geneva HQ in September. or

  2. Pingback: the rasx() context » Blog Archive » “Keeping violent media away from boys could be a bad idea” and other links…

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