Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 July 2017
Médéric Louis Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry, Description Topographique et Politique de la partie espagnole de l'Isle Saint-Domingue (1796) and Description Topographique, Physique, Civile, Politique et Historique de la partie française de l'Isle Saint-Domingue (1797)
The contradictory dynamics engendered by the presence of a colonial frontier in Hispaniola are carefully highlighted in the work of Médéric Louis Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry, which concerns itself with pre-revolutionary French Saint Domingue and Spanish Santo Domingo. A prominent member of the white creole elite born in Martinique in 1750, Saint-Méry is the author of a monumental work which set out to describe Hispaniola in its entirety but within the framework of its geopolitical colonial division. The Description Topographique et Politique de la partie espagnole de l'Isle Saint-Domingue was published in Philadelphia in 1796 and followed, a year later, by the Description Topographique, Physique, Civile, Politique et Historique de la partie française de l'Isle Saint-Domingue. With its neat two-fold division, Saint-Méry's work is organized in a way that invites readers to take for granted the partition of the island between Spain and France and betrays Saint-Méry's determination to contribute to the consolidation of what Muir would call a ‘vertical interface.’
Saint-Méry's Description of the partie française has received more attention from historians and scholars, particularly because it contains his well-known detailed racial taxonomies and offers precious information on pre-revolutionary Saint Domingue. What matters here, however, is that, back in the eighteenth century, Saint-Méry had fully realized that, in order to be fully understood, the island of Hispaniola has to be approached in its entirety. While being ultimately committed to the (re)inscription of the colonial frontier, both Saint-Méry's Descriptions intriguingly oscillate between its erasure and its reinforcement. Moreover, as determined as he might have been to contribute to the consolidation of the colonial border, which, at the time of writing, had only very recently been officially sanctioned, Saint-Méry also reveals the existence of horizontal dimensions and dynamics which transcend and traverse this vertical interface.
Smuggling and illicit trade between the two parts of the island were an open secret; for a long time the two colonies were prevented from trading with one another by their respective mother countries but did so all the same, out of necessity and mutual advantage.