Haiti


"In the sequence of revolutions that remade the Atlantic world between 1776 and 1825, the Haitian Revolution is rarely given its due, yet without it the progressive credentials of the others would be far weaker. The revolutions -- American, French, Haitian and Spanish-American -- should be seen as a chain, each helping to radicalize the next...

"Revolutionary struggles in Haiti, the richest slave colony of the Americas, set the scene for a massive slave uprising in August 1791 and prompted the National Convention's decree of 16 Pluviôse An II (February 4, 1794), which abolished slavery throughout the French colonies. The Convention was spurred to action by delegates from Haiti (then known as Saint Domingue)...

"In Saint Domingue the black army led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, a former slave, deserted its Spanish patron and joined the republican ranks. Withe materiel sent from France, L'Ouverture created a well-armed and disciplined force, which drove the Spanish and the British from the colony in 1798...

"His army included white and colored, as well as black, commanders. He invited émicgré planters to return. In 1802 Napoleon sought to reassert metropolitan power and to re-establish slavery. L'Oouverture was captured, and died in France, but the expeditionary force, commanded by Napoleon's brother-in-law, Gen. Charles Leclerc, was defeated, with a loss of 50,000 men, including Leclerc himself. In 1804 the black generals declared the new Republic of Haiti, with a constitution that outlawed slavery and declared that all citizens were legally black. The name of the new state, a homage to the island's precolonial inhabitants, signaled the break with empire.

"In 1816 Haiti's president, Alexandre Pétion, helped Simón Bolicar mount the invasion that was ultimately to defeat the Spanish empire in the Americas. In return, Bolivar promised to free his own slaves and adopt measures to extinguish slavery in the lands he was to free...

"[The Haitian Revolution] struck a mighty blow against slavery where it was strongest, in the plantation zone. "If we live in a world in which democracy is meant to exclude no one, it is in no small part because of the actions of those slaves in Saint Domingue who insisted that human rights were theirs too"...

"The liberation of Saint Domingue showed that the slave order was highly vulnerable... British and French West Indian planters were to accept emancipation -- with compensation and continuing title to their landed property -- partly because they remembered Haiti...

"Toussant L'Ouverture's epic struggle inspired anti-slavery agitators like William Lloyd Garrison. The very existence of Haiti emboldened African-Americans to reach for freedom, as Frederick Douglass testified...

"...the seductive and romantic notion that slaves were bound to rebel... Resistance has been ubiquitous in slave systems, but it has usually been particularistic -- freedom for a given person or group -- and often frustrated. In fact, the Haitian Revolution is the only successful large-scale revolt known to history...

"[C.L.R.] James was a Pan-African activist and a follower of Leon Trotsky, not an academic. He nevertheless raised the study of the Haitian Revolution to a new level, drawing on a mass of sources in several languages... In recent years his work has helped to inspire a new "Atlantic history," which challenges the imperial narrative and refuses the limits of national historiography...

"...the first written account by a Haitian of the Bois-Caïman ceremony, which launched the revolt of 1791, dates from the 1820s and was written by Hérard Dumesle, a poet steeped in classical authorities... the widespread adoption of the Bois-Caïman legend in Haitian voodoo is itself historically significant. The houngan, or priest, will sometimes echo the cry at Bois-Caïman: Couté la Liberté dan Coeur à nous ("Listen to the Liberty that is in our hearts")...

"The United States did not recognize Haiti until 1862. France did offer recognition, and access to the French market, but at a stiff price -- Haiti was obliged to compensate the former planters for the loss of their estates. The large loan that made this possible in the 1820s saddled Haiti with repayments for decades to come. Aristide called upon France to make restitution of these monies, only to find Paris joining Washington in conspiring to remove him...

"Haiti's misfortune was to have a state and mercantile elite that was strong enough to exploit the small farmers but too ineffective to develop the country...

"Though Haiti is dirt poor, its people are not defined by employment and consumption. In Haiti the legacy of the descendants of slaves and rebels comprises echoes of both a precapitalist past and of a mighty refusal of the first global experiment in labor-intensive outsourcing. Those who have seen Jonathan Demme's tremendous move The Agronomist, will know that Haiti still produces men and women of extraordinary courage, tenacity and spirit, true heirs of those who established the first American state to end slavery" (Robin Blackburn. "Of Human Bondage." The Nation, Oct. 4, 2004: 26-32).


Colby Glass, MLIS