Le Vieux Salomon (Old Solomon) is a vehemently antislavery novel published in 1872 by French-born Creole activist Charles Testut. I stumbled across an original copy in the Northwestern University library when I was in graduate school, and I have been working with this all-but-forgotten text ever since. There is no published English translation of Old Solomon, though I have been doing my best to find a publisher for mine. Several excerpts from my translation were published in PMLA‘s May 2010 issue along with my article introducing the text. Link here (requires subscription or pay per article).
Set in Guadeloupe, New Orleans, the surrounding Louisiana plantations, and briefly in other areas of the South, this is a key text of the history of slavery in Louisiana and the Deep South. (Another one is Solomon Northrup’s narrative Twelve Years a Slave, currently being turned into a feature film by Steve McQueen with Chiwetel Ejiofor, Brad Pitt, and Michael Fassbender.)
There is obviously a difference between memoirs and novels in terms of perception and claims to nonfiction. However, in U.S. antislavery literature, both usually attempted to appeal to the same white mainstream readership (with the exception in this case of Testut’s audience being French-speaking and largely Catholic). Most claimed realism; even novels asserted that they depicted events that had happened or were familiar, even if the characters were fictional. The authenticity of both was constantly under attack; Harriet Beecher Stowe even put out a nonfiction book called A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in order to address claims of inauthenticity. Various conventions such as the ‘tragic mulatta,’ a beautiful, sentimentally appealing mixed-race woman who was abused and exploited by white men, appeared in both genres.
From my article in PMLA:
“The novel, heavily influenced by American sentimental fiction and the Romantic fiction of Alexandre Dumas père, follows the adventures of a married couple of Guadeloupean slaves illegally imported to the United States in 1843 (the federal ban on importation was in 1808). Advised by the local sage, Old Solomon, who had been a king in Africa and is now a freeman, Casimir and Rose choose to risk slavery in the United States rather than escape to the maroon (runaway slave) camps in the forests of Guadeloupe. In Louisiana, they first find a relatively light slavery but then suffer under a sadistic master, aptly named Roque, who sends Casimir to the fields and drugs and rapes Rose. Casimir kills this master and is saved from hanging by a quasi-Masonic international brotherhood, which sends the slaves and their child home to Guadeloupe, free at last. The novel ends with the announcement of emancipation in 1848, and old Solomon’s dying words exhort the United States to follow France’s example.”
“…Testut’s daring explicitness takes him to territory where mainstream sentimentality cannot venture. Out-Dumasing Dumas, as it were, violence and sex are shown, not implied and closed off with an apostrophe as in Stowe. Rose’s rape, beatings, and public punishment are all vividly described. Unlike Prue or Rosa in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, whose “shameful correction” happens offstage, we see Rose drugged and raped, then later stripped and lashed. One such scene, included in the excerpts here, depicts Roque unmistakably in the throes of sexual excitement as he first watches a female slave beat Rose and then takes the whip himself. Among the other evils of a slave society—greed, hypocrisy, political corruption—that all hit hardest on the legally powerless slave, Testut foregrounds repressed or mischanneled sexual desire.”
Put simply: it comes from a completely different head space from that of the New England abolitionist; it’s violent, it’s rabidly political (including a lot of debate about Christianity), it’s sexually explicit, and it’s also intensely historically detailed. Testut describes the landscapes, material culture, and especially the punishment of enslaved people in minute detail, an excerpt of which is below. He was a Romantic in the biggest sense, melodramatic, idealistic, passionate, and dark.
EXCERPT from Le Vieux Salomon (also published in PMLA):
Monsieur Roque called a servant and ordered her to take Rosine to the nursery. Then, turning to Rose, he said loudly, “So there you are! Madame la princesse…. What did you do during your twenty months of maroon life, miserable girl? Did you sell yourself to live on, after having fled to”—he lowered his voice –“play the virtuous lady? Come in here,” he added, in a hard tone.
And he entered in his room, where Rose followed him. He closed the door and locked it. There was a negress in the room, a large and strong woman, with a physiognomy stupid rather than mean, a true machine of passive obedience, such as all despots need to have.
“Adelaide,” said the planter to this negress, “go get the canes on the bed in the other room. Come back when I call for you.”
“You,” he said then to Rose, “I want to leave you till tomorrow before ruining your skin; I have my reasons! Then, if tomorrow, before noon, you have not told me yourself that you consent to what I want, you will get a quatre-piquets§ that you will remember all your life! This beating will be the reward for your flight,” he added, with a maliciously victorious smile.
As one could see, the master had a cause and a pretext. The cause was for himself; the pretext was for the rest of the world, inasmuch as a slaveowner must worry about the world’s opinion. Rose did not respond.
“While waiting, stubborn statue!” he continued, “you will be caned, and well caned! After just this little correction, you will have a choice between the quatre-piquets and mercy. The canes will spoil nothing–that’s what I want, for the future arrangement.”
Then he called Adelaide, who came back into the room, armed with the canes.
“You will,” he said, “beat this mulatta until I say enough. Don’t go easy on her, or else you will take her place. You, maroon!” he said to Rose, “start by taking off your skirt and your neck-handkerchief… then go lie down on that settee!”
Rose, frozen but impassive, obeyed mechanically, and soon she had nothing more on than her chemise and a slip. The chemise, hanging loose, fell entirely off her shoulders, but the mulatta held it up to her throat and crossed her arms to hide her nudity. She advanced thus towards the settee, on which she lay down, trembling, but without saying a single word. M. Roque took a chair and seated himself.
“Take off all that, Adelaide!” he said, waving towards all that still covered the mulatta. “One does not apply canes on linen!”
“Oh, my God!” cried Rose in a voice of profound distress.
“Shut up, madame! (lit. pretentious woman) You will see what I can do to your body!”
He signaled the negress, and the canes lashed the unhappy Rose—with all the vigor of a strong and stupid arm.
“Go more slowly!” said the master to the female executioner. “so she will have time to enjoy the pleasure!”
Rose emitted some cries, muffled with all the courage she could summon. The face of Roque was now pale, now red; his eyes were opened to their widest extent, his mouth quivered, and his entire chest was shaking. What was happening to this man?
“Casimir! Casimir!!” called the poor woman in a distressed voice.
“Ah! You call Casimir!” cried the planter, simultaneously furious with jealousy and drunk with the sight of the torture. “Wait!”
And, taking the canes from the hands of Adelaide, he in turn beat Rose with all of his strength. From the yellow of pure gold, the skin of the mulatta turned purplish red. She received thus more than a hundred strokes of long, thin, flexible rods, without asking for mercy and without promising anything! After which the master stopped the beating, gave the canes back to the negress, and went out, prey to a mysterious delirium.
One hour later he came back, looking calm, and found Rose dressed. She was kneeling next to the sofa, in an attitude of prayer. Hearing the door shut, she got up, and looking her master in the face, she said to him in the voice of Jacques Molay* in the fire,
“Monsieur Roque… God will punish you!”
The sugar-planter sniggered.
“She is really beautiful,” he said, “in that majestic pose! Come on, my girl,” he added with brazen cynicism, “I think I’ve seen enough of you, and had enough of you, for you to stop being so prudish with me! Another man, in my place, would have had done with this caprice already, but I am constant in love, and I want you more than ever! Look what I have become, thanks to you! I’m nothing but skin and bone! I’ve had to sell one of my two plantations! I’m half ruined and half dead! but it doesn’t matter—I feel this devouring fire burning in me, and because you lit it, you will extinguish it! Now, if you want to, go see your dear husband, from noon to two o’clock, and be sure to leave the door of the cabin open. Don’t try to run away; you’ll be watched. If tomorrow, before noon, you have not come to tell me yourself that you give in, you will get your quatre-piquets in front of the whole plantation.”
“God will punish you, monsieur!” repeated Rose, moving away from him.
§Literally, four pickets or four posts. A form of punishment in which each limb was tied to a post. so that the slave could not move during the beating.
* Jacques de Molay, Grand Master of the Knights Templar, burned alive in France in 1314 for heresy. His dying words reportedly summoned his enemies, Philip IV of France and Pope Clement V, to meet him at God’s tribunal within a year. Both men actually did die within a year.
Sheri Abel wrote a critical book on the novel, which has some good historical information and analysis.
UNC Online version of Solomon Northrup, Twelve Years a Slave. There are many electronic and print editions.
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin in multiple formats courtesy of my favorite non-UNC provider, Project Gutenberg. Also many print editions.
For comparison with Le Vieux Salomon, I recommend also trying non-U.S. narratives, like Dumas’ novel Georges (French) and Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda’s novel Sab (Cuban).