Details on the life of Romaine-la-Prophétesse (Romaine Rivière), a late eighteenth-century insurgent leader during the early stages of the Haitian Revolution, are sparse. The most reliable contemporary source describes him as a "free black," although most scholarly accounts generally, and perhaps uncritically, identify him as a griffe, which in the French plantation colony of Saint Domingue (1697–1804) designated someone who was three-fourths black and one-fourth white. Either way, good reasons exist to believe that Romaine was born in the Kingdom of Kongo; these include the nature of his military and religious leadership, which each suggest strong Kongolese influences. It is more certain that at the time of the Haitian Revolution's outbreak in 1791, he was a landowner who was married with two children.
Romaine rose to prominence as an insurgent leader in the southern part of the colony around the same time that slave uprisings in Bois Caiman, led by Boukman Dutty and Cecile Fatiman, and in Plaine-du-Nord sparked the widespread rebellion that mushroomed into history's only successful national slave revolt. By September 1791 Romaine had established a base camp in the mountains near Leogane in the rural hamlet of Trou-Coffy. There he occupied a Catholic shrine, administered the sacraments, and inspired his troops to raids of legendary violence on plantations, which he led on horseback with his trademark "magic" rooster tied to his horse's saddle. Calling himself "the godson of the Virgin Mary," he would say mass in the Trou-Coffy shrine beneath an inverted cross with a saber in his hand. At the height of these syncretic communal rituals, Roman the Prophetess (as his name translates literally from the French) would find written messages from the Virgin Mary in the tabernacle, which would instruct him to liberate slaves and declare to them that the king had set them free. Slaves who remained loyal to their white masters were, like their masters, usually slaughtered by Romaine's troops.
Romaine's military activity ranged from Jacmel to Leogane, covering an impressive expanse of mountains and plains. His troops took part, for instance, in the massive November 1791 assault on Jacmel, in which a total of thirteen thousand slaves (up to four thousand of whom could have been under Romaine's direct command) conquered the city. But his greatest conquest was the port city of Leogane, which he ruled for several months. At least one successful act of nautical piracy had allowed Romaine's forces to attack this city in October 1791 from both sea and land. The conquest of Leogane also relied on an informal alliance that Romaine had made with the city's mulatto elite; they would later come to regret this alliance, however, because of Romaine's increasing religious and royalist fanaticism (one source indicates that his ultimate objective was to rule the entire island of Saint-Domingue as its king). Firmly in control of the city by later that year, on New Year's Eve 1791 Romaine summoned all the white and mulatto residents and prisoners to a meeting, where he made them sign a treaty that recognized him as the "commander of all assembled citizens" in Leogane.
By early 1792 it was apparent that Napoleon's regime had a full-scale revolution on its hands in its most lucrative colony. To quell the revolt in the south of Saint Domingue, Civil Commissioner Saint-Léger was dispatched with a large battalion to retake Leogane and to disband Romaine's highly troublesome band of rebel Maroons. Bringing an end to the protracted guerilla struggle, Saint-Léger's forces finally defeated Romaine's in March 1792. One perhaps legendary contemporary account of the attempted capture of Romaine has survived: Disarmed and surrounded, the Virgin's godson threw his wife into his would-be captors' arms and vanished into thin air, much as the prototypical Dominguean Maroon rebel, Makandal, is said to have done when he turned into a fly to escape his execution.
Romaine-la-Prophétesse is commonly referred to as a Vodou priest, although this title is perhaps anachronistic, because he rose to prominence at precisely the time when Vodou was just emerging as a religion. Other issues pertaining to his identity are likewise shrouded in mystery. Why, for instance, did he choose to refer to himself at one and the same time as the Virgin Mary's godson and as a prophetess? Extant letters written or dictated by Romaine and addressed to a French abbot of Les Amis des Noirs in Paris indicate that he was literate and thus deliberately chose a feminine title for himself. Whatever his true identity, it is clear that Romaine-la-Prophétesse had as great an impact as any of the more celebrated religiously inspired Maroon raiders during the early phase of the Haitian Revolution.
See also Haitian Revolution
Fick, Carolyn E.. The Making of Haiti: The Saint-Domingue Revolution from Below. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1990.
Rey, Terry. "The Virgin Mary and Revolution in Saint-Domingue: The Charisma of Romaine-la-Prophétesse." Journal of Historical Sociology 11, no. 3 (1998): 341–369.
terry rey (2005)