Female Bodies and Capitalist Drive: Leonora Sansay's Secret History in Transoceanic Context

Document Type


Publication Date



University of Nebraska Press


In this article I turn to another novel set on this same island, a novel that until recently languished in near obscurity since its publication almost exactly two hundred years before Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Written by Leonora Sansay and published in 1808, Secret History; or, the Horrors of St. Domingo is an epistolary novel set in the French colony of Saint Domingue following the slave revolution that erupted there in 1791. Saint Domingue was a spectacularly profitable French sugar colony that occupied the western portion of the island and that was given its indigenous name, Haiti, following its independence from France in 1804. The eastern portion of the island—now the Dominican Republic—was in Sansay’s time the Spanish colony whose name, Santo Domingo, was then used also to designate the entire island.3 The novel takes place in the years 1802 and 1803, when the slave revolution in Saint Domingue transitioned into a war for independence from France. I begin this consideration of Sansay’s novel with Díaz’s brief history because Secret History recognizes and plays out precisely the violent spin and repeating whirl of colonial violence described in his passage above. It does so by plotting onto each other the intimate domestic dynamics of sexual desire and the transcontinental economic relations of capitalist drive by superimposing erotic and economic triangles.4 Much recent scholarship on Secret History has read the novel in the context of the Atlantic world; it was written, however, during a period when Atlantic trade routes were being aggressively extended through exploration and commerce into the Pacific. The many narratives of these Pacific voyages that circulated throughout Europe and the United States during this period presented an image of a lucrative and exotic Pacific world that recalls the frequent pairing of wealth and sexuality in some of the earliest European accounts of the Americas. I situate Secret History in this transoceanic commercial and literary context and argue that the bodies of women repeatedly function in this novel as a kind of switch that exposes the dynamic interrelation between individual desire and capitalist drive.