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Humanity’s Zenith? The Haitian Revolution in History and Today

The overthrow of the French slave regime in Haiti from 1791-1804 is one of the most significant and overlooked events of modern history, writes Connor Woodman.

Figure 1: The Battle of Vertières, Nov. 18, 1803, one of the final defeats of the French in the 13 year revolution. Painting by Auguste Raffet.
Figure 1: The Battle of Vertières, Nov. 18, 1803, one of the final defeats of the French in the 13 year revolution. Painting by Auguste Raffet.

“The race of the Negroes … can be educated but only as servants (slaves)”

Immanuel Kant1

“I was born a slave, but nature gave me a soul of a free man”

Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution

“We have in Europe a false idea of the country in which we fight and the men whom we fight against”

Charles Leclerc, Napoleon’s brother-in-law and French general2

The tale of the “entry of the black diaspora into modern history”, as Stuart Hall put it,3 is a tale with the potential to uproot centuries of Western epistemology.

This tale shatters our conceptions of liberalism; subverts our notion of modernity’s nucleus; topples the edifice of European progress. It is a tale of the emergence of the first independent black republic outside of Africa, of the near-triumph of the ideals of the ‘Age of Revolution’, and of the only successful slave revolt in history.

The most complete revolution in history

Toussaint Louverture. This image forms the basis for the logo of the American socialist magazine, The Jacobin.

Toussaint Louverture. This image forms the basis for the logo of the American socialist magazine, The Jacobin.

The Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804 was a “historical turning point in the western and Atlantic worlds”.4 What India was to the British, Saint-Domingue – as it was then known – was to the French. Producing over half the world’s coffee in the 1780s, Saint-Domingue accounted for around 40% of France’s foreign trade.5 In 13 years, a revolution was carried out under ex-slave Toussaint Louverture which utterly inverted the colony’s entire class structure. Where once the island needed a steady stream of enslaved Africans to replace those who died on the plantations, a republic governed by ex-slaves emerged: the black republic of Haiti.

The army of the previously enslaved fought against, and on occasion with, the armies of revolutionary France, imperial Britain, Spain, and finally, Napoleon. The latter, engaged in military confrontations with the monarchies of Europe and wielding the most advanced army Europe had ever seen, in late 1801 despatched 60,000 troops to subdue the rebellious colony and re-establish slavery in the French Caribbean – the largest overseas military expedition of his rule.6 Nearly a decade ago the black inhabitants of Saint-Domingue had shed their shackles – now, Napoleon, the military pioneer and visionary who represents one of the most important moments in European history, moved to re-impose the most hierarchical and oppressive economic system ever known to man in France’s Caribbean possessions. Only in Haiti did he fail. Of his 60,000 troops, nearly all perished by 1803, and the iron hand of slavery was thrust off to the backdrop of an island literally and metaphorically burning to the ground in the furnace of a race war.

A 1806 representation of Dessalines, who in 1804 declared the independence of Haiti and ordered the slaughter of much of the remaining white population.

A 1806 representation of Dessalines, who in 1804 declared the independence of Haiti and ordered the slaughter of much of the remaining white population.

Before the end, the European desperation to once again own and control the colony led to a policy of attempted genocide. Africans were thrown into the hull of ships and suffocated with ignited sulphur, or buried up to their necks and left near swarms of insects.7 Tactics included “[h]anging, drowning, burning, man-hunting dogs and crucifixion”.8 Wife and child were drowned in front of the rebellious native – Napoleon’s brother-in-law, who led the initial expedition in 1803, declared a “war of extermination”.9 Writing to the soon-to-be Emperor of France, Leclerc declared:

We must destroy all the blacks in the mountains – men and women – and spare only the children under 12 years of age. We must destroy half of those in the plains and must not leave a single colored person in the colony who has worn an epaulette.”

Those who had contracted the virus of revolutionary beliefs – by this point nearly the entire black and mixed-race population – would have to be eliminated, replaced with a new generation of freshly enslaved persons from the West African coast. Only then could European tranquillity be restored.

Little surprise then, that when the French were finally forced to evacuate the island, the new Emperor of Haiti, Dessalines – who took control of the revolution after Toussaint was kidnapped and left to die in a French cell – ordered the extermination of most remaining whites. That task was duly carried out, and the rule of the plantation class was forever consigned to history. The bodies of genocide victims have long decayed into the earth of Haiti, from the native victims of Spanish colonisation, to the generations of Africans worked to death on sugar plantations. This time, the subject of the act was the white population.

A European civilisation which could not accept the presence of an independent, black nation state, understood little other than the rule of force. Only a power struggle could protect Haiti from re-enslavement, and that struggle played out in the most absolute terms.

Historiography, Silence, and the Paradox of Liberalism

The memory of this event has been a similarly conflicted terrain in the two centuries since Dessalines declared Haitian independence. Any mention of it evoked “a moment of alarm and terror in the minds of slaveholders throughout the hemisphere”.10 For the black diaspora it signalled the height of black liberation, a demonstration of the latent power within the African population. From anti-slavery campaigners like Frederick Douglass, to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s,11 to British rappers in the 21st century, the story of the massive slave insurrection has inspired resistance, and provided a counter-argument to the tropes often levied by defenders of the racial status quo.

In Western academia, however, the event has been treated with a near-uniform “silence”, to quote Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s famous article.12 The magnum opus of Marxist historian of Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Revolutions, manages two dismissive mentions.13 French philosopher Pierre Rosanvallon’s new book, Society of Equals, describes the Haitian Revolution as integral to the development of the idea of equality in its opening pages – an event of equal stature to the French and American revolutions. The book then never refers to it again, as Warwick Professor Gurminder Bhambra has noted.14

The silence is all the more remarkable when one considers the historical gravity of the ignored event. The Haitian Revolution explicitly and permanently abolished slavery; a height ultimately fallen well short of by its French and American counterparts. The revolt ended Napoleonic rule in the Americas, leading France to sell Louisiana to the United States and thus commence the expansion of the U.S. from “sea to shining sea”.

The Haitian Monument in Georgia, where a Haitian regiment fought against the British during the American Revolution. Many later fought in the Haitian Revolution, including Henri Christophe (drummer) who became King of Haiti. Greg Holland .

The Haitian Monument in Georgia, where a Haitian regiment fought against the British during the American Revolution. Many later fought in the Haitian Revolution, including Henri Christophe (drummer) who became King of Haiti. Image: Greg Holland .

The cognitive dissonance caused by the thought of the uprising was too great for Europeans to bear. The 19th century saw the triumph of “scientific racism”, the high water mark of global European domination, and the peak of the Western superiority complex. To look at Haiti would have been to lay bare what Domenico Losurdo has called the “paradox of liberalism” shot through the mind of the Enlightenment.15 The triumph of liberal ideals in the imperial metropolis coincided with the rise of the most categorical and racialised forms of slavery, conquest, and genocide in the colonies. Pronouncements of the innate rights of man existed, often uncritically, alongside their own enacted antitheses.

France, for example, the radical heart of European progress, blockaded the colony it had enslaved and destroyed, relenting only once Haiti agreed to pay reparations to France equal to around ten times the county’s annual revenues. The reparations, intended for former French slavers who had lost their “property”, were only completed in the mid-20th century. Such facts cannot easily coexist with any moral or philosophical tradition in the Enlightenment canon.

To look at Haiti would have been to decentre Europe as the heart of modernity and progress. The French defeat “turned the white cosmos upside down”,16 and to examine its record would have required European thinkers to reckon with the actual consequences of their professed ideals.

The urgency of this point remains today – there is a reason why, despite several major films on slavery in the American South, the only successful slave revolt in history still awaits its Hollywood treatment. The historic reality of mass collective uprisings in the European domains remains “unthinkable” for liberals and conservatives alike. Instead, we are subjected to leading liberal commentator David Brookes’ absurdities in the New York Times in 2010, where he described Haitian culture “progress-resistant” – a claim derided as “ludicrous” by top scholar of Haiti, Benjamin Hebblethwaite.17 Such mindless gibberish betrays the continued presence of historical illiteracy, white superiority, and imperial hubris. Examining Haiti from 1791-1804 provides a necessary antidote to such destructive currents that, sadly, remain with us today.

Connor Woodman is the Warwick Globalist’s Editor-in-Chief, and in the final year of his PPE degree. He can be contacted @ConnorDWoodman on Twitter, or at editor@warwickglobalist.com.

Notes:

  1. Eze, E. C. (1997), ‘The Color of Reason: The Idea of “Race” in Kant’s Anthropology’, in (ed.) Eze., Postcolonial African Philosophy: A Critical Reader, Blackwell: Massachusetts, p.116.
  2. James, C. L. R. (2001[1938]), The Black Jacobins, Penguin Books: London, p.285.
  3. Interview with Stuart Hall by Bill Schwarz (1998), ‘Breaking Bread with History: C. L. R. James and The Black Jacobins’, History Workshop Journal, 46, p.26.
  4. Fick, C. (1998), ‘Dilemmas of Emancipation: From the Saint Domingue Insurrections of 1791 to the Emerging Haitian State’, History Workshop Journal, 46, 1998, p.2.
  5. Davis, D. B. (2006), Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World, Oxford University Press: New York, p.161.
  6. James, Black Jacobins, p.298.
  7. Ibid, p.290.
  8. Girard, P. R. (2013), ‘French atrocities during the Haitian War of Independence’, Journal of Genocide Research, 15(2), p.133.
  9. Ibid, p.282.
  10. Davis, Inhuman Bondage, p.159.
  11. Interview with Stuart Hall, ‘Breaking Bread with History’, p.18.
  12. Trouillot, M. (1991), ‘From Planters’ Journals to Academia: The Haitian Revolution as Unthinkable History’, The Journal of Caribbean History, 25(1), pp.81-99.
  13. Hobsbawm, E. (1988), Age of Revolutions, Abacus.
  14. Bhambra, G. (2015), ‘On the Haitian Revolution and the Society of Equals’, Theory, Culture & Society, 1(32), pp.267–274.
  15. Losurdo, D. (2011), Liberalism: A Counter-History, Verso: London.
  16. Davis, Inhuman Bondage, p.168.
  17. Hebblethwaite, B. (2014), ‘The Scapegoating of Haitian Vodou Religion: David Brooks’s (2010) Claim That “Voodoo” Is a “Progress-Resistant” Cultural Influence’, Journal of Black Studies, 46(1), p.17.

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