About the Campaign
One could be forgiven for thinking that Chris Ofili was celestially inspired when he started painting a card board cut out of parang figures at lopinot and ended up revealing the painful and deep-seated contradiction between the estate’s past and its present.
Like many of Chris Ofili’s works Iscariot Blues 2006 is open to a wide array of contradictory meanings but for our purposes we would like to go back to an interview in the bomb magazine where Peter Doig asks Chris, about the stylized yet quite harrowing hanging figure. “Where did you find that figure? Why did you choose it?” he asks, and Chris says “I started the painting without any hanging figure but for some reason I kept putting it back.”
Iscariot blues 2006 continues Chris ofili’s stylistic tradition of bridging the gap between the sacred and the profane going behind the mask to expose a hidden truth a darker undercurrent in a theme. The Cross Rhodes Freedom Project is grateful that an artist of his genius and renown has granted us the use of his work for the Save the lopinot estate campaign which seeks to secure the space as point of memory for the people of Trinidad and Tobago and the wider Caribbean.
Charles Joseph Count de Loppinot (1738-1819)
Charles Joseph Count de Loppinot was an aristocratic Frenchman who became a wealthy enslaver and government official in Saint Domingue/Haiti. Legend has it that Loppinot’s former “slaves” smuggled him out of Haiti during the Haitian Revolution around 1796 to save his life. Thus begins a narrative created to portray him as a “good master”. Even if this story of his escape were true, there is no historical evidence to suggest that it was because he was indeed benevolent. This is how C.L.R. James’ description in The Black Jacobins describes the persistent violence and tyrannical savagery that Loppinot and his class engaged in to enrich themselves:
“For the least fault the slaves received the harshest punishment…The slaves received the whip with more certainty and regularity than food…irons on the hands and feet, blocks of wood to drag behind wherever they went, the tin-plate mask to prevent them from eating sugar cane, the iron collar. Whipping was interrupted in order to pass a piece of hot wood on the buttocks of the victim; salt, pepper, citron, cinders, aloes, and hot ashes were poured on the bleeding wounds. Mutilations were common, limbs, ears, and sometimes the private parts. The masters poured burning wax on their arms and hands and shoulders, emptied the boiling cane sugar over their heads, burned them alive, roasted them on slow fires, filled them with gun powder and blew them up with a match; buried them up to their neck and smeared their heads with sugar that flies might devour them; fastened them near to nests of ants or wasps; made them eat their excrement, drink their urine, and lick the saliva of other slaves.”
In 1804, Haiti became the first republic in the Americas where all humans, regardless of race, were truly free and equal, but Loppinot would have hated that experiment in universal freedom, believing that Africans were only fit to be the slaves of white men. He enlisted in the British army, when it invaded Haiti in 1793 to preserve slavery. Later, in 1814, Loppinot appealed to the French king to invade independent Haiti and restore slavery on the false premise that Haitians would “prefer slavery under a benign king to freedom under a black tyrant” (Henri Christophe). After failing to secure an invasion, Loppinot joined with other Frenchmen to pressure the French government to impose a burdensome indemnity of 150 million French franks on Haiti, which permanently crippled the nation’s development.
It must be noted that the French government had abolished slavery in all its colonies in 1794. Napoleon repealed the emancipation decree in 1802, and successfully restored slavery in all colonies except Haiti. It is, therefore, a fact that the Africans who fled Haiti in the company of Loppinot were not his slaves, but free people. Furthermore, it goes without saying that when Loppinot arrived in Trinidad in 1800, French emancipation was still in effect. Loppinot, therefore, brought about 100 legally free men, women and children to Trinidad and re-enslaved them on his estate, protected by English slave laws.
Again, apologists like French Creole historian P.G.L. Borde have painted a paternalistic picture of Loppinot. Borde claims that slavery under French planters like Loppinot—including Borde’s own ancestors—was extremely lenient because of the Code Noir (French slave code of 1685) and the ideals of the French Revolution. He claimed that they “treated their slaves like children entrusted to their care, and that the slaves reciprocated with a lifelong attachment to their masters and their families” (Brereton, A History of Modern Trinidad).
Brereton describes this narrative as a useful myth for the French planters. She affirms, “We have no evidence that slavery in Trinidad…was ‘milder’ than anywhere else in the Caribbean.” Speaking of the period when they were clearing the forests and establishing new plantations like the Loppinot estate, Brereton describes what she calls an “extremely high mortality rate caused by overwork, malnutrition, disease and the absence of any medical care for the enslaved.” The enslaved Africans, she says, “were literally worked to death” (Brereton, History).
According to Brereton, instead of being lenient and benevolent, the French planters had “brought with them the conventions and customs of the French slave colonies where the practice of slavery was extremely harsh” (Brereton, History).
Brereton goes one step further to show how the French planters influenced the entire society to become more brutal toward its enslaved population. She claims that it was under the influence of aristocratic Frenchmen like Count Loppinot, Baron de Montalambert and St Hilaire Begorat that Governor Picton issued a slave code in 1800 that allowed harsher punishment for offending slaves than the amelioration model followed by other colonial Governors. Picton, she says, “allowed them to introduce into Trinidad all the savage customs and rituals of the French West Indian slave owners.” This included barbaric, public, mass executions accompanied by flogging, mutilation, torture, dismemberment, hanging; in some instances men and women were burnt alive for the most spurious and unsubstantiated accusations. There is a large tree in the middle of Loppinot’s estate where people were hanged, that still stands as a constant reminder of this tyranny.
In addition to being a major slave owner, Loppinot was also the chief slave-catcher in Trinidad, by virtue of his position as Brigadier-General of the Militia, which was used to hunt down Maroons using man-eating bloodhounds imported from Cuba.
The heritage site called Lopinot today (formerly la Reconnaissance estate) should tell this story. It should speak to the truth of the men, women and children who were betrayed by Count de Loppinot in Haiti and re-enslaved in Trinidad to make him one of the wealthiest planters in the new colony. Instead, the current narrative describes this brutal “slave master” and his wife as “illustrious” and the Africans they worked until death as “loyal.”
Brereton, Bridget. A History of Modern Trinidad 1783-1962. Heinemann, 1981.
James, C.L.R. The Black Jacobins. Random House, 1963.