Kleist’s impossible romance in the middle of a race war (1811)

The German author Heinrich von Kleist was renowned for mysterious and intense stories that explored the complicated nature of the individual, ambiguous motives, and the depths of corruption within. In his 1811 novella The Betrothal in Santo Domingo (Die Verlobung in Santo Domingo), he tells the tale of a romance doomed by the racial tensions unleashed by the Haitian revolution.

Kleist is not interested in the complicated course of events, setting the story in “the time when the blacks were murdering the whites,” the period in 1803-4 when General Dessalines had ordered the massacre of French settlers on the island. The story centers on the household of the ludicrously named Congo Hoango. Congo Hoango was a “terrible old negro” who did not appreciate how well he had been treated by his master. When the revolution came, he not only burned his master’s plantation to the ground but also murdered the entire household and dedicated himself to the capture and murder of every white person he encountered. He enlists his common law wife Babekan, a “mulatto,” and her fifteen-year-old “mestiza” daughter Toni in this mission. Their role was to detain any white refugees, using Toni as a sexual lure, until Congo Hoango could amass forces to murder them. They carry out their mission with enthusiasm until a Swiss visitor named Gustav von der Ried arrives. He comes seeking provisions for his family, who remain hidden in the woods, so they can make their escape to a French fortress. He and Toni fall in love and consummate their relationship, and Toni then works to undermine her mother’s plot. The only way she can save her beloved’s life, however, is to pretend to betray him even as she calls the family in from the woods to save them both. She accomplishes her task, but Gustav shoots Toni before she can explain her deception. Her death drives Gustav to such despair that he “blew his brains out,” and his family is forced to travel on without them. They bury the couple in the woods and, upon returning safely to Europe, they erect a monument to their memory.

Kleist’s use of race is as fascinating as it is contradictory. He attributes the murderous rage of Congo Hoango and Babekan, which Gustav suggests far outweighs the harms done under slavery, to their “negro” blood as well as their personal experiences. He also shows how the women use their partial “white” ancestry to play on the sympathies of their targets. He even goes out of his way to turn Toni from a mestiza into a fully-fledged white woman; despite her “yellowish” complexion, which disgusts Gustav at one point, she insists at the end that “I am white.” Denying her murderous mother and planning to travel as Gustav’s wife to Europe requires her to reject any Blackness. 

Insofar as it denigrates Blackness and valorizes whiteness, the story clearly reifies racial categories being defined in Enlightenment-era debates over human difference and slavery. At the same time, the manipulations of race throughout the story also point to the fiction of such racial categories. Kleist plays with this ambiguity, using the fiction of race to introduce uncertainty and dramatic tension. 

Jeff Bowersox


Once they have successfully drawn Gustav into their house, Babekan and Toni try to convince him that they are on his side. Babekan insists that they, too, are innocents persecuted on account of their white ancestry. Babekan, as the daughter of a white Cuban, and Toni, born in Europe from her mother’s relationship with a white Frenchman, have to use their wits to keep the ravaging Blacks at bay. Congo Hoango oppresses them because they disapprove of his venemous hatred and try to help white refugees. Gustav is naive enough to be drawn in by their story, but it will be his solitary interactions with Toni that convince him to let his guard down. In showing us how the women lure white men to their doom, Kleist also gives us a picture of race as an unstable, easily manipulated feature.

‘The bitterness is indeed terrible,’ replied the hypocritical old woman. ‘It is as if one hand were fighting the other, or all the teeth in one’s mouth were fighting the other, or all the teeth in one’s mouth were raging against each other just because each one is different. What can I do about the flicker of whiteness that shows through my skin when the sun shines on it, just because my father came form Santiago, on the island of Cuba? And how can my daughter, who was conceived and born in Europe, help showing in her complexion the paleness that belongs to that continent?’

‘What?’ cried the officer. ‘Do you mean that although you look like a mulatto of African origin, you and the charming young girl who opened the door to me in fact share the fate of us Europeans?’

‘In Heaven’s name!’ exclaimed the woman, lifting the spectacles from her nose, ‘Can’t you imagine that the few possessions we have painfully striven to make our own over these ill-starred years are a source of attraction to those vicious marauding mobs? Only through cunning and by employing the whole range of stratagems given to the weak for them to defend themselves, have we been able to keep out of their clutches, for the fact that facial resemblances suggest there is a relationship between us and them is no protections, I can assure you.’

‘It hardly seems possible,’ he exclaimed. ‘Who is it that is persecuting you?’

‘The owner of this house,’ she answered: ‘Congo Hoango, the black man! Since the death of Monsieur Guillaume, who used to own this place and whom Hoango savagely murdered at the beginning of the rebellion, we, his relatives, have been running the plantation for him and been utterly at the mercy of his violent outbursts. He curses us and punishes us if, as an act of humanity, we give a drink or a crust of bread to any white refugee who happens to pass by. Nothing does he desire more than to whip up the negroes to avenge themselves on the white man and on us Creole curs, as he calls us, partly in order to get rid of us for criticising his savagery towards the white man and partly so as to get his hands on the few possessions we would leave behind.’

‘You unhappy, wretched people!’ murmured the officer.

As Babekan and Toni try to win Gustav’s trust, they ask him about his experiences, and he tells them of the treachery that he and his family barely escaped. When Toni asks why the whites are so despised, Gustav weighs the righteousness of the former slaves’ outrage. He acknowledges the immorality of slavery but also describes criticizes the desire for freedom as a madness that has driven people to unjustifiable vindictiveness. Here Kleist shows Toni beginning to question her past deeds and presents, through Gustav, a fervent critique of the violence against whites. But in the end Gustav is troubled and sees a rebuke where none exists. Is Kleist suggesting how hollow this argument sounds or merely pointing to Gustav’s fear of a conspiracy?

Toni asked how it had come about that the white man had made himself so hated. Startled, he replied: ‘Because of the relationship which, as masters of the island, they had to the natives, a relationship I will not venture to defend but which had existed in this form for hundreds of years. The mad desire for freedom which took hold of all these plantations drove the negroes and the Creoles to cast off the chains that bound them and seek revenge for all the atrocities that a handful of evil white men had inflicted upon them.’

After pausing for a while, he resumed: ‘I recall in particular a dreadful deed perpetrated by a young negro woman. At the time the rebellion broke out she was suffering from the yellow fever which held the town in its grip and made the general misery even worse. Three years earlier she had been the slave of a white planter who, irritated that she would not yield to his desires, treated her harshly and sold her to a Creole planter. When, on the day the revolt began, she learned that her former white master was being pursued by the natives and was hiding in a nearby barn, she remembered her cruel treatment and sent her brother to him at the break of day with an invitation to spend the night with her. Not knowing either that the girl was sick or what disease she was suffering from, he came to her and embraced her in gratitude, thinking he had been rescued. But after he had spent barely half-an-hour fondling and caressing her in bed, she sat up with an expression of cold, savage rage in her face and said: ‘You have been embracing a woman infected with the fever and living under the shadow of death. Go – and spread the disease to the rest of your kind!’

While the old woman gave vent to her horror at this story, the officer asked Toni whether she would be capable of ever behaving like that. ‘Of course not!’ replied Toni, lowering her eyes in confusion.

He knew in the depth of his heart, he went on, that acts of tyranny and degradation. It infringed the vengeance of Heaven, he continued, in a passionate outburst, rising to his feet: the angels, in their wrath, would take part of those who were in the wrong and act in their own way to preserve both human and divine order.

As he spoke these words, he went across to the window for a moment and looked out into the night. Storm-clouds were scurrying across the sky, obscuring the moon and the stars. He suddenly had a feeling that the mother and her daughter were exchanging glances, although he had not noticed them motion to each other, and he felt a sense of irritation and annoyance. Turning round again, he asked them to show him a room where he could sleep.

Gustav is unsettled by his attraction to Toni, which is undermining his innate disgust and suspicion of his hosts. He wonders if her apparent feelings for him are sincere, so he presses her, literally and metaphorically, and he is won over by her sweet innocence. We also learn, as she explains why she had turned down a marriage proposal from a prosperous Black neighbour, that she is drawn to Gustav in part because he is a white man.

‘Then why did you turn him down?’ the officer asked, gently brushing the hair from her forehead. ‘Didn’t you like him?’

She tossed her head and laughed. When he whispered playfully in her ear that maybe she was waiting for a white man on whom to bestow her favours, she hesitated pensively for a moment; a delicate blush came over her dark features, then she quickly leaned her body against him. Touched by her winsome charm, he called her his sweetheart and took her in his arms as though all cares had been miraculously lifted from his shoulders. He could not conceive that all the gestures she had made towards him were nothing but signs of base, cold-blooded treachery, and the worries that had preyed on his mind like a dark, ominous cloud now dissolved. He reproached himself for ever having doubted her feelings, and as he rocked her to and fro on his knee and drank in her sweet breath, he pressed his lips to her forehead as a mark of reconciliation and forgiveness.

After Gustav and Toni have consummated their relationship, Toni is deeply unsettled. She is ashamed of her transgression with Gustav but also comes to question her participation in Congo Hoango’s plots. She challenges the racial animus that has driven them to murder, and Babekan, suspicious, will wait for Congo Hoango to return and carry out the deed.

‘I mean it!’ replied Toni, lowering her voice. ‘What harm has this young man – not even a Frenchman but a Swiss, as we have seen – ever done to us, that we should attack him like robbers, kill him and pillage his possessions? Do our complaints against the planters also apply to the part of the island from which he comes? Does not everything suggest rather that he is the noblest of men and is in no way responsible for the injustices of which the natives accuse his race?’

As she listened to her daughter’s remarkable outburst, Babekan could only stammer her astonishment, her lips quivering. What offences, she then asked her daughter, had the young Portugese traveller perpetrated whom they had recently clubbed senseless to the ground? What crimes had the two Dutchmen committed whom the negroes had shot in front of the gateway three weeks ago? And what, she demanded finally, had the three Frenchmen and the numerous other white men been accused of who had been shot or stabbed to death in the house since the outbreak of the uprising?

‘By all the saints!’ cried Toni, springing to her feet in anger. ‘It is unjust of you to remind me of those atrocities! I have  long been horrified by the barbaric acts in which you have forced me to take part. And I swear to you that, to make my peace with the vengeance of God for all that has happened, I would rather die ten times over than allow a single hair on the head of this young man to be harmed as long as he is in our midst!

‘In that case,’ said the old woman, leering as though prepared to give way to her daughter, ‘let him go. But when Congo Hoango returns and finds out that a white man has spent the night under our roof, mark well that you will have to answer to him for the soft-heartedness that led you to break our rule and let him get away.’ With this she rose to her feet and left the room.

After Gustav’s family (the Strömlis) has successfully routed the forces of Congo Hoango and captured both him and Babekan, Toni is  distraught at the thought of leaving them and tries to depart on good terms. Babekan’s spite pushes Toni to reject their racial animus and stand on the side of the whites. Babekan also foreshadows Toni’s tragic fate.

When Toni, filled with an emotion she could not contain, made to take her leave of Babekan and giver her her hand, Babekan pushed her roughly away, called her a vile, deceitful creature and, twisting her body as she lay on the floor, tied to the table leg, threatened that the revenge of the Lord would overtake her before she could enjoy the fruits of her evil deed.

‘I am no traitor,’ retorted Toni. ‘I am a white woman, betrothed to the young man you are holding captive, and a member of the race on whom you have declared war. I shall be able to account to God, when the time comes, for having gone over to their side.’

In the end, the love of Gustav and Toni was doomed by the very circumstances that brought them together. While they rest together in an unmarked grave in Haiti, Gustav’s family escape and erect a monument to them in Switzerland. Kleist’s ending leaves unanswered the question of how their relationship would have worked in Europe.

They found the remainder of the family waiting by the lake and dug a grave there, weeping as they did so. After exchanging the rings which the two had been wearing, they breathed a silent prayer and bequeathed the bodies to the real of eternal peace.

Five days later Herr Strömli, with his wife and his children, succeeded in reaching Santa Lucia, where, as he had promised, he released the two native boys. He arrived at Port au Prince shortly before the siege began and took his place on the ramparts in the defence of the white man’s cause. When, after stubborn resistance, the town surrendered to General Dessalines, he fled with the French army to the safety of the English fleet, then set sail with his family for Europe, arriving in his native Switzerland without further incident. With the remainder of his modest capital he bought himself a house near the Rigi, and in 1807, by the bushes in his garden, the monument could still be seen that he had put up to the memory of his nephew Gustav and the faithful Toni, to whom he had been betrothed.

Source: Heinrich von Kleist, “The Betrothal in Santo Domingo,” in Six German Romantic Tales: Heinrich von Kleist, Ludwig Tieck, E.T.A. Hoffmann,” translated by Ronald Taylor (London: Angel Books, 1985), 71-103. ©Ronald Taylor 1985.

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