When I first started this blog in the summer of 2015, there was one theme that prevailed above all others. That theme was freedom. I talked about how working in corporate had stifled that freedom, how quitting corporate had liberated me, and how travelling more had offered an excellent opportunity to spread my wings.
These days, freedom is just as important as it ever was to me—perhaps more. I spend many of my waking hours thinking about freedom not just as a concept, but in the ways it manifests itself in my life. Not surprisingly, then, while working on the novel earlier this year, freedom weaved its way into the story as a central theme.
While I navigated First World thoughts of freedom, like buying a car or travelling abroad, our ancestors once fought much more difficult battles against slavery, segregation, misogyny, and even genocide.
It is my belief that there was no time in history when the fight for freedom was more prevalent than during the 18th and 19th centuries when three major revolutions shook the world in three of the then most powerful corners of the globe.
- The French Revolution of 1789 – 1799 in France
- The Haitian Revolution of 1791 – 1804 in Saint-Domingue
- The Industrial Revolution of circa 1760 – 1840 in Britain
For this reason, I chose these eras as the setting for my book. The novel begins in pre-revolutionary Saint-Domingue and ends in post-revolutionary France, with some scenes in Britain and Italy. This allowed me to explore the injustice of slavery, the racial prejudice that followed emancipation, the struggle for women to gain an education or hold on to their own inheritance, and the plight of the poor.
The French Revolution began in 1789 when the rising price of bread mingled with enlightenment and economic and social disparities between the haves and have-nots. This led to the storming of the Bastille. In that instant, the poor, finally realising the strength in numbers, overthrew the nobility, established a republic, and declared the famous Rights of Man. These rights, however, did not extend to women.
Madeleine Moreau laments this, when she replies to Sir Jacob’s profession of love and his admiration for female strength with the words:
“You must excuse my cynicism, Sir Jacob, for I am the birth-child of a country which had the good sense to declare the Rights of Man, but then the audacity to turn and say, ‘Oh, but not you, women; and not you, Blacks!’”
Throughout the novel, the Moreau women are either admired or despised for their strength and their open rebellion against social norms. This strength is what inevitably makes them a target for men who believe they have lost sight of their place, one such man being the husband of Lady Charlotte Moreau.
Madeleine was not the only one to see the hypocrisy in making the Rights of Man only applicable to White men. Toussaint L’Ouverture, the father of the Haitian Revolution, also shared her views as it applied to Black men. When news of the revolution came to then Saint-Domingue via Vincent Ogé—a wealthy Mulatto who happened to be in Paris when the revolution broke out—Toussaint took the bold move of pushing Napoleon to extend those freedoms to Saint-Domingue.
So bent was he on this purpose that when Napoleon betrayed Toussaint and sent his brother-in-law to recapture what was then the richest island in the West Indies, it is said the French soldiers’ spirits were often broken by the the Black rebels singing French revolutionary songs of liberte, egalite, fraternite from the walls and hills and on the battle fields, forcing the French soldiers to face their hypocrisy.
In the novel, the head of Madeleine’s household staff, Regina, who was a child during the Haitian Revolution, shares the tale of the fight for freedom and what it cost them.
“At the end of the war, we found that we had bought our freedom at a heavy price. All ‘round me, my people died of sickness and starvation. I will never forget the smell. That sad, sickening scent of death and smoke that lingered in the air wherever we went.
“In truth, we presided over ruin. The roads had been torn up, and the rotting cadavers of men and horses had been thrown into the rivers and wells to poison them, for when the French made their final stand, neither Toussaint nor Dessalines would suffer the earth, bathed with the sweat of slaves who had toiled to build the Pearl of the Antilles, to furnish our enemies with the refreshments they needed to put us once more into bondage.
“Most of us still believed freedom at any cost meant the freedom to die with dignity and respect, and without chains. We believed what Toussaint believed, that having confronted danger to obtain our liberty, we would not balk at confronting death to keep it!”
While France and Haiti were torn apart by political and socio-economic turmoil, a less violent revolution was taking place in Britain. This revolution would later spread to the rest of the world, bringing us machines that moved trains and blackened skies.
During this time, London grew to a population of 1 million by the start of the 19th century and had reached more than 6 million by the end of it. The 19th century also saw a woman take her seat upon the British throne, followed by an increasing tendency for women to rebel against social norms. You may remember a few such women from my article, Three Victorian Women Who Were No Fragile Damsels in Distress.
At the very end of this dynamic period is when The Moreau Witches novel is set, beginning in the fall of 1839 and ending in the spring of 1840. Unfortunately, for all its great advancements in transportation, manufacturing, politics, and culture, Britain was no less prejudiced, further setting a perfect stage to explore socio-political injustices under the guise of fiction.
This scene explores how Eli is treated as a Creole Frenchman who easily passes for White, in contrast to his cousin, Betha, who does not.
The driver cast a suspicious look at Betha. “Is the coloured one coming, too?”
“She goes where I go, but if you object, I am sure there is a driver who would far more appreciate a day’s wages for a morning’s work,” Eli replied.
“Oh no, not me, m’lord! Would never object, I wouldn’t. Just wanted to make sure she was coming with you, is all!” He set his brush down and opened the door for Betha to enter. Eli helped her in, and then followed after.
“I tire of their prejudice,” Eli said in Kreyol.
“We don’t all have the privilege of passing for White, cousin,” Betha answered, though she very nearly did herself. She was a few shades too dark, to be sure, but all other features she bore were strikingly Caucasian: from her grey eyes to her freckled nose and strawberry-blonde hair.
“One should have no need to pass for White to be treated with common decency.”
Last week, I shared that the best symbol of loyalty in the novel was the blackened castle walls of Château de Lamoreaux. When it comes to freedom, however, that place of honour is held by soup joumou.
Soup Joumou was a rich pumpkin soup enjoyed by slave-owners on Saint-Domingue. According to Haitian stories, the grand blancs believed the soup was too rich for the slaves and forbid them from eating it. When Saint-Domingue declared independence from France on January 1, 1804, it not only declared its political freedom, but the emancipation of its people from slavery.
It is said that for this reason soup joumou is traditionally eaten on January 1, 1804 to celebrate.
Price of Freedom
When we covered the Haitian Revolution in high school, we had mixed feelings about the Revolution. On one hand, we were proud to learn about how our second-closest neighbours had defeated not one, not two, but three of the world’s greatest armies in its time: the French, the British, and the Spanish.
We did, however, question the wisdom in the poisoning of water wells, burning of the plantations, and tearing up of roads. While these very things secured Haiti’s emancipation from the French, it nonetheless enslaved them to poverty for centuries to come.
It is a cruel and poignant reminder that freedom is not free. What price would you put on freedom?
The British editor completed her edits on the novel earlier this week. I will do my read-through and then the book goes to Tristan to catch any typos we may have missed. This will be the final edit. I have also purchased my ISBNs and barcodes and sent the rough back cover design to the graphic designer. We are still on track for publishing by October 31st, Halloween.
Please share this post on social media to help me spread the news of my upcoming novel. For ongoing updates, check out the #MoreauWitches hash tag on Twitter, where I often tweet in real-time, while working on the novel. If you would like to help with funding, please grab an item from my store! 😁
Activist, Writer. Explorer.