100 Refutations: The Interrogation of Assam

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On September 27th, 1757, a woman was questioned for the suspicious deaths of two other slaves.

“ASKED to state her name, age, status and residence.”

The record of her interrogation is a flat stone slab of a document. Paraphrased bureaucracy and repetition, pages made of gray gravel and pale pumice stone carved inside a Haitian prison cell. “ASKED” it says, “SHE SAID THAT,” it replies. Yet the white spaces bloom red because the interrogation of a slave, at the time, “generally meant the use of torture.” There are fists swinging and lashes landing between every paragraph, between every line. Three men forcing wounds open with their fingers as they pour lemon juice and ash. 

“Her name is Assam.”

But stone crumbles and people crack—pumice swallowing blood until it swells and a man is left with a fistful of pink dust.

“[She is a] slave of Sieur Valette…”

We don’t know much about Assam.

“[She] does not know her age… [and] declared that she does not know how to sign her name.”

We do know that she was not the only one. By 1750, the northern part of the country had become a well of poison. Slave owners trembled as they watched silver platters circle their dinner tables like the sterling edge of shark fins in the waves. “Mackandal,” they would say under their breath. “It’s all Mackandal’s fault.” Trembling at the name of the former slave turned guerrilla leader, who mashed leaves and plucked roots from an enslaved island so he could poison the owner’s feed and feed the poisoned owners back to the island they’d enslaved.

“An herb that [Jean, the poison maker] calls sage […] which is milky and has white flowers.”

It was not uncommon to poison the master’s white sons before his death. But then, it is not uncommon to want to prevent your family from being divvied up like marbles at the end of recess, pulled apart like wishbones at the end of dinner, torn apart like a body tied to four foreign horses pulling in four foreign directions.

“The [poison maker…took] Blue verbena, wild raspberry, and pois puants with their roots… mixed [in with] an egg yolk […], along with some boiler scrapings, and made it all into a ball as fat as his finger was black…”

Not uncommon, not unimaginable, to want to hasten the owner’s death.

“[The poison maker] told her that the whites only granted [freedom] when they were ready to die…”

In her testimony Assam said that she had never poisoned Sieur Valette, for,

“She had breastfed three of her owner’s sons, [and] surely he would grant her her freedom.”

Three children breastfed on the milk of her own flesh, which she was told was not her own but, already, theirs. A court clerk drags his quill across the page, “SHE SAID THAT… SHE SAID THAT…” while a hot-iron chisel keeps another record on her skin, “THEY DID THIS… THEY DID THIS…”

“We Sebastian Jacque Courtin, […] accompanied by the crown prosecutor, seconded by the court clerk… arrived at the prison of this city to effect an inspection and report on the state of said prison […there] we found […] one […] accused of poison, […] one […] accused of distributing poison, […] one […] and one […] both accused of distributing poison […]one […] accused of having induced […] Assam, to poison her master… as well [we found], in a small cabinet […] eight [female] slaves, […] one of whom was with her child.”

The description of the death of the two slaves Assam poisoned is difficult to read—a man and a young girl reduced to fever and feebleness, weak limbs and abdomens distended as if full of dirt clods and brown rot.

“The little [slave girl], Victoire […] became stiff, […] began frothing at the nose, and she suddenly died.”

We don’t know much about Assam, and we know even less about Victoire. Except that even stone cracks and people crumble; that Assam had a daughter, too; that Victoire means victory; that she collapsed upon sun-stroked dirt; and that when

“[Assam saw] the little [girl] vomiting worms […she thought…] it would finally help her.”

While she was imprisoned, a Jesuit priest visited Assam, and as I read the documents I try to imagine it: a man in black robes sitting across from a woman with her hands tied behind her back, begging her not to say a word. “Please,” he pleads with her, “Please, don’t.” Clasping the image of a tortured god and staring at the fresh blisters on the woman’s skin, “Please, don’t give them any names.” Trying to protect a poison rebellion, “Assam,” trying to convince her to lay herself willingly across the stone slab, “This can’t go on, they must be stopped.”

Skin bubbling like boiled water, pustules, poison, and pus. A woman in a cell who understood the unfastened flesh of the man hanging from the cross better than the priest who preached him. “Don’t tell them about Mackandal.” It was not uncommon, despite the law, for slaves to be beaten and whipped to death. And, by then, Assam would have likely witnessed this, likely more than once. “Do not suffer the fire twice,” the priest finally says, promising her divine absolution—promising heaven itself, if only, “You don’t speak their names. You don’t say a word.” But of course, the reason we know about the priest is because his visit is logged in the record of Assam’s interrogation, along with the names of fifty other conspirators including Mackandal himself.

“A TWO HOUR BREAK.”

And two tortured days. One woman in a cell alone with a host of voices telling her that she is less than human, telling her she must endure more than most humans could. White space, white sons, white flowers, and white milk spilling from an herb the poison maker called sage.

“[Assam] said that every word she’d uttered was true.”

In a letter, a slave owner wrote that, “The hatred which slavery aroused in them against us has given rise to extraordinary thoughts of vengeance.” As if there were nothing at all about slavery that could drive an ordinary person to extraordinary measures.

“[Assam] said her master [had] lost many slaves whose bodies had become swollen…”

But a stone slab is not a tabula rasa. After two days and two nights of torture, the French authorities gathered names like loose teeth off the ground, like worms from a cold pool of poisoned vomit. Mackandal was burnt alive months later in Port au-Prince, and, in a letter written shortly after the execution, a plantation owner wrote that, “What alarms us further is to see how little these unfortunates are touched by the fate of those that are executed and how little an impression their punishment makes upon them.” And I imagine this man at his desk, specks of blood on the cuff of his shirt, pumice dust on the heel of his boot and the scent of burnt flesh lingering on clothes. Un-poisoned, un-harmed, un-aware, and alarmingly un-touched by the plague of chains spreading like ivy over a screaming forest of scorched-earth flesh.

 “[After the poison was made [the poison maker] used a piece of a glass bottle [and] drew a few drops of blood [from Assam’s shoulder…] then [he] rubbed her shoulder with black powder […] which made her bleed a little more…”

Lina M. Ferreira C.-V.

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To help more directly, please visit:

Hispanic Federation: http://hispanicfederation.org

Hope for Haiti: https://hopeforhaiti.com

Salvadoran American Humanitarian Foundation: https://www.sahf.org

Bios

Lina M. Ferreira C.-V.

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Lina M. Ferreira C.-V.

Lina M. Ferreira C.-V. (100 Refutations translator and editor) earned MFAs in creative nonfiction writing and literary translation from The University of Iowa. She is the author of Drown Sever Sing from Anomalous Press and Don’t Come Back from Mad River Books, as well as editor, with Sarah Viren, of the forthcoming anthology Essaying the Americas. Her fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and translation work has been featured in journals including Bellingham ReviewChicago ReviewFourth GenreBrevityPoets & Writers, and The Sunday Rumpus, among others. She won Best of the Net and Iron Horse Review’s Discovered Voices Award, has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, and is a Rona Jaffe fellow. She moved from Colombia to China to Columbus, Ohio to Richmond, Virginia, where she works as an assistant professor for Virginia Commonwealth University. Visit www.linawritesessays.com. ******************************************************************** Amanda Dambrink (100 Refutations co-editor) works as an editor for the University of Wisconsin's Continuing Education, Outreach & E-Learning program in Madison, Wisconsin. She also holds an MA in creative nonfiction from Ohio University, and her previous work has appeared in Prairie Margins and The Normal School, among others.

Copyright (c) Lina M. Ferreira C.-V., 2018.