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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 438

The title of The Engagement in Santo Domingo has a double meaning. It concerns an engagement for marriage and an encounter such as a military battle. Thus the title encapsulates the romantic and adversarial relations among the characters and, more broadly, within the French colony on Santo Domingo (the modern...

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The title of The Engagement in Santo Domingo has a double meaning. It concerns an engagement for marriage and an encounter such as a military battle. Thus the title encapsulates the romantic and adversarial relations among the characters and, more broadly, within the French colony on Santo Domingo (the modern country of Haiti).

The background to the story’s incidents is France’s changing political and legal position in regard to the status of African and African-heritage people in this colony, especially the 1794 law that declared its enslaved persons to be free. Widespread rebellion among the black people threatened the colony’s status for several years. In this story, one rebel leader has taken over the plantation where he had been enslaved, killing the master and his family and living in the house. This bitter old man, originally from West Africa, is named Kongo Hoango.

The plot centers on the ruses that this man, his wife, and other rebels in the area use to lure and then kill white colonists. Believing the house to be a refuge, white people arrive but never leave. The plantation also serves as the rebel’s base for local offensives.

The central incident, which lends the love-related aspect of the title, is the romance between Kongo Hoango’s daughter, Toni, and a Swiss man who comes seeking help. Gustav is a soldier who is trying to reach the capital with his servants and family members. Stranded in the nearby woods, he reaches the house and asks for provisions. When Babekan, one of the rebels who is Toni’s mother, tricks him into staying overnight, he and Toni are smitten with each other. She decides she cannot support the rebels’ plan and decides to rescue him instead. Gustav’s love quickly deepens after they have sex, and they decide to get married. Believing that Kongo Hoango, who is away, will return with support, Gustav agrees to stay another night.

Toni, who has secretly sent word to his comrades about the plot, meanwhile uses some delaying tactics to forestall suspicion. Realizing that her father has returned, she ties Gustav to the bed while he is asleep. Unfortunately, her efforts at deception backfire, and Gustav thinks she has betrayed him. Gustav’s comrades arrive and fight to free him—the other engagement of the title. As soon as he is untied, Gustav grabs a pistol and shoots her dead. Upon realizing his error, however, he shoots himself through the head.

In the final scenes, Gustav’s people place rings on the deceased pair’s fingers and, once back home in Switzerland, erect a monument to them.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 959

As a consequence of the French Revolution, in 1794 the French National Convention declared freedom and equality for black slaves in the colonies, including the French part of the Caribbean island of Santo Domingo. Kongo Hoango, an old West African who faithfully served his white master for years, rebelled with his fellow blacks, massacred the planter and his entire family, and took over the plantation as his base of marauding operations to help drive the French from the island. Kongo Hoango makes it his practice to have his wife, Babekan, and her daughter, Toni, offer sanctuary to fugitive whites during his absence on raiding expeditions, allowing their unsuspecting guests to believe themselves safe from the rebels until Kongo Hoango returns and brutally executes them.

One night in the year 1803, a desperate white man comes to the house asking for assistance for himself, his family, and several of their household servants. They have narrowly escaped death at the rebels’ hands in the town of Fort Dauphin and are fleeing on foot and under cover of darkness in the hope of reaching Port-au-Prince, the sole remaining French stronghold, in time to leave the island for Europe. The man identifies himself as Gustav von der Ried, a Swiss officer who was in the French service at Fort Dauphin. The rest of his party, he tells them, is in hiding some distance away until he can return with fresh provisions for their journey. Gustav cannot understand why his family, Swiss citizens, should be as much threatened by the rebels as the French colonists, but he realizes now that it is their race, not their nationality, which puts their lives in peril. Babekan tells him that she and Toni also suffer cruelties at the hands of the blacks because both women betray their mixed blood by their lighter-colored skin.

It is decided that Gustav should spend the night at the plantation and send for his family the following day. Toni brings supper for their guest, and Gustav is struck by the charms of the girl, who has, after all, been taught to use them in beguiling those unfortunate enough to stray into Kongo Hoango’s trap. In the course of the conversation at table, Gustav tells the story of a white planter from Fort Dauphin and a black slave girl whom the landowner had sought favors of and later abused. The girl had her revenge, however, when she became ill with yellow fever and sent word that she would offer the besieged man a hiding place during the rebellion. Only after taking him into her bed did she confront him spitefully with the fact of her deadly contagion. Gustav asks Toni if she would ever be capable of such a vicious deed, and she insists that she would not.

When it is time for Gustav to retire, Toni goes to prepare the room and a footbath for him. In the course of the preparations, he again finds himself enchanted by the girl’s beauty, engages her in conversation about her marriage plans, and draws her tenderly into his arms. Toni is torn between her sense of duty to the rebel cause and the rising desire within herself. Gustav confides that he had a fiancé in France and that the young woman sacrificed her own life to spare him execution as an enemy of the revolution. Toni is moved to sympathy for his grief, and the embrace that follows ends in the consummation of their love.

The next morning Toni protests to her mother the unjust cruelty of plotting Gustav’s murder, and Babekan questions her loyalty to the rebellion. Thus, Toni must gain time by pretending to cooperate in the deadly plan, at the same time contriving to put off Gustav’s impatience to announce their “engagement” without arousing his suspicions. Babekan intends to keep Gustav in the house until Kongo Hoango’s return, when a detachment can be sent to surprise and destroy the group in their hiding place as well. However, Toni manages to send word for the others to come to the plantation, certain that then she can defy her mother and leave with her betrothed for Europe.

That night she steals back to Gustav’s room, determined to reveal the truth to him and finds him asleep in his bed. In his sleep, Gustav murmurs her name. At that moment noises are heard in the yard; Kongo Hoango’s contingent is back. Toni ties the still sleeping Gustav down in his bed, a trick to convince Babekan and Kongo Hoango that she is faithful to them, and the desperate ploy works. Once the commotion has finally died down and all have gone to bed, Toni goes to meet the Swiss fugitives, by now on their way to the plantation, warns them of the danger threatening Gustav and awaiting them, and leads them into the house, where they overpower the surprised rebels. When they cut Gustav free of the ropes on his bed, however, he seizes his pistol, accuses Toni of being a whore and betraying him, and shoots her through the chest. The others tell him how terribly he has misjudged her, whereupon he turns the weapon on himself and puts a bullet through his head.

The remaining members of the family must still think of their own survival. They bury the bodies of Toni and Gustav, having exchanged the rings on the hands of the two lovers, and finish their journey to Port-au-Prince and then home to Europe. Gustav’s uncle settles in Switzerland again, “and even in the year 1807 one could still see, amid the shrubbery of his garden, the monument he had erected to the memory of his nephew, Gustav, and the latter’s bride, the faithful Toni.”

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