Breaking the Silence: The Historiography of the Haitian Revolution

“Why am I just now learning about the Haitian Revolution, especially in a modern European history course? Is it really that significant?” She was a young student. Although I cannot fully remember, I think she was a freshman. I stared back at her desperately trying to pretend that I was not frantically searching my brain for a clear answer. The problem was not a lack of answers; on the contrary, the problem was an overflow of ideas. It was my first semester working as a teaching assistant for a course on the history of modern Europe. At this stage, I still thought that as the instructor, I was supposed to know everything and anything at any given moment. In these early days, my discussion sections felt like twice-weekly pop quizzes.

Returning to the young student, I cleared my throat, broke my silence, and insecurely delivered what I prayed was a satisfactory answer. Gazing at her inquisitive eyes and feeling the other student’s predatory stares, I explained how the Haitian Revolution is significant to our understanding of the French Revolution.[1] I continued: “The Haitian Revolution reveals the inconsistencies within the French Revolution.” Gaining a little bit more confidence, I turned the question back to my class exclaiming, “The Haitian Revolution makes us ask, ‘was the French Revolution about liberty and equality, or was it about private property?” I finished: “It makes us question the nature of revolutionary movements.”

Realizing I was getting a little carried away with my own thoughts, I turned back to the student. She seemed satisfied since she now had some discussion points on the Haitian Revolution to include in her midterm exam. While my student was satisfied, I was not. In all honestly, this was the first time I had actually studied the Haitian Revolution and I began to wonder why its history appeared to be such an obscure topic.

The Haitian Revolution, which began during the French Revolution in 1791, was a successful anti-slavery and anti-colonial rebellion carried out by self-liberated slaves. Its end in 1804, resulted in the former French colony’s independence. All in all, the Haitian Revolution led to the creation of a state that was free from slavery and ruled by non-whites and former enslaved persons. SO, why isn’t this remarkable event more prevalent in history textbooks and mainstream historical narratives?

In “An Unthinkable History,” anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot provides an interesting answer to my query. The history of the Haitian Revolution, Trouillot contends, has been silenced among the public because the event was “unthinkable even as it happened.” Trouillot continues: “If some events cannot be accepted even as they occur, how can they be assessed later…how does one write a history of the impossible?”[2] In an analysis that appears to echo Dipesh Chakrabarty’s theories on the potent euro-centrism embedded in our modern educational paradigm, Trouillot argues that the Haitian Revolution complicates Western discourse and its intellectual framework.[3] From elementary school to high school, our classrooms are built around a single premise: the West is the world’s beacon of liberty and equality. How, then, do we understand the Haitian Revolution? How do we understand an event that had Haitian slaves as the forward-looking freedom fighters and their white counterparts as the backward tyrants who clung to the inhumane institution of slavery?[4]

Although the history of Haitian Revolution remains an often-overlooked topic in most history classes, the subject has not been free from scholarly examination. In fact, generations of scholars have attempted to develop an understanding of the revolution’s historical significance. Lothrop Stoddard, for example, produced the first major work on the Haitian Revolution with his 1914 text, The French Revolution in San Domingo. In his work, Stoddard offers an unapologetically racist assessment of the revolution.[5] For Stoddard, the revolution was a significant historical tragedy in which the island’s economic prosperity plummeted because unruly former slaves overthrew their superior white masters.[6] “Race equality,” Stoddard argues, “erased the finest of European colonies from the map of the white world.”[7] Ultimately, in Stoddard’s view, radical French revolutionary ideas of equality led to the upside-down world of the Haitian Revolution. Most importantly, Stoddard suggests that the revolution was a disastrous byproduct of another, and in his mind more, important event: the French Revolution. While Stoddard’s racial slurs and assumptions of racial inequality are highly offensive, his work still underscores two trends that have continued to permeate other works on Haiti: the function of racial ideas and the role of the French Revolution in shaping the revolution’s events.

In the 1938 text, Black Jacobins, C. L.R. James develops a radically different conclusion on the Haitian Revolution from Stoddard’s analysis. From James’s standpoint, the Haitian Revolution was a historical triumph for progressive ideals, because it was the most successful slave revolt in history. As James puts it, “The transformation of slaves, trembling in hundreds before a single white man, into a people able to organize themselves and defeat the most powerful European nations of their day is one of the great epics of revolutionary struggle and achievement.”[8] James also argues that class rather than race was the primary historical force that shaped the contours of the revolution. To support this claim, James points to the role of mulatto persons in the revolution. As James explains, mulattos, who were usually free and land owners, aligned with whatever group was winning in order to maintain their social standing. For this purpose, they supported slave owners and the French establishment when it looked like they were winning, but when former enslaved persons started to gain ground, mulattos shifted their support in order to benefit from the reorganized social structure.[9] Even though James recognizes the importance of racism, he maintains that economic forces were more influential than racial boundaries for determining the flow of the conflict. [10]

Stoddard looks to race and James to class; however, other scholars have pointed to even broader historical trends for understanding the revolution’s significance. In From Rebellion to Revolution, for instance, Eugene Genovese argues that the Haitian Revolution, especially evidenced by the rule of Toussaint Louverture, signals a turning point in the resistance to slave-politics. Like Stoddard and James before him, Genovese maintains that Haitian Revolutionaries adopted the ideologies of the French Revolution. Because of their adoption of French Revolutionary beliefs, Genovese argues that enslaved persons throughout the Americas turned away from “restorationist” rebellions and moved towards “bourgeois-democratic” revolutions. For the first time, according to Genovese, enslaved persons sought to eradicate the institution of slavery altogether.[11] Robin Blackburn also explores a more global contextual framework for the Haitian Revolution in The Overthrow of Colonial Slvaery: 1776-1848. While Blackburn agrees with Genovese on the importance of the French Revolution, he primarily calls attention to the role of the Western World as a whole. In particular, Blackburn situates the Haitian Revolution among what he sees as a broader process reverberating throughout the Western World in which the rising middle class gave way to a flourishing emphasis on the merits of “free labor.”[12]

Still, other scholars have cautioned against the tendency to overlook the role of local forces and the indigenous context for the Haitian Revolution. Carolyn Fick, for instance, argues that the Haitian Revolution was not simply about revolutionary ideals flowing from France and encouraging slaves to rebel. “Even if,” Fick insists, “news and propaganda about liberty and equality fell upon receptive ears, many slaves hardly needed to be convinced of the validity of their freedom.”[13] In particular, Fick contends that the notion of liberty espoused by French revolutionaries was not the same notion of liberty that the Haitian revolutionaries were fighting for. As Fick explains, the concept of freedom supported by the French “maritime bourgeoisie” and (white) Haitian planters advocated for free trade and open markets. In contrast, Haitian revolutionaries were fighting for “outright freedom” and absolute equality.[14] Furthermore, Fick contends that Haitian revolutionaries ideological goals “had far more to do with the African origins of the vast majority of the Saint Domingue blacks than with revolutionary notions of bourgeois democratic egalitarianism .”[15] In the end, Fick concludes that Haitian revolutionaries made the concepts of liberty, equality, and freedom their own, as the local customs and culture inspired their rebellion.

Similar to Fick, John Thornton also calls attention to the non-European context of the Haitian Revolution in order to underscore the historical agency of the Haitian slaves. Through an exploration of the African origins of Haitian slaves, Thornton first points out that numerous African slaves in Haiti came from a central part of Africa known as the Kongo. Because of their African origins, Thornton argues that many of the rebelling slaves came to Haiti with extensive military experience, as the Kingdom of Kongo was in the midst of a long, devastating civil war during the height of the transatlantic slave trade. Thus, Thornton concludes that when rebellion broke out, African-Haitian slaves were already experienced and ready to fight for their freedom.[16]

A more recent trend in the scholarship on the Haitian Revolution has pushed the narrative of revolution outward once again. In a similar vein to the previous studies of Genovese and Blackburn, Lynn Hunt argues that Haitian Revolution brought the ideologies of the French Revolution to the forefront of the Western World.[17] In her work Inventing Human Rights, Hunt contends that the freedom fighters of Haiti took up the revolutionary torch that France was unable to maintain. While Hunt claims that the ideals of equality and liberty originated in France, she concludes that Haiti revolutionaries pushed these ideals to the fullest extent. Analogous to Hunt, Laurent Dubois also describes the Haitian Revolution as a pivotal moment in World history. Unlike his earlier monograph Colony of Citizens, Dubois offers a synthesis of secondary materials in his text Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. [18] “By creating a society,” Dubois explains, “in which all people, of all colors, were granted freedom and citizenship, the Haitian Revolution forever transformed the world.” In all, Dubois contends that the Haitian Revolution played a central role in the destruction of slavery in the Americas. As such, he concludes that it marked a crucial moment in the history of democracy and the struggle for human rights.[19]

As this body of work suggests, scholars have provided several frameworks for understanding the Haitian Revolution. T. Lothrop Stoddard, for example, looks to race while C.L.R. James points to class dynamics in order to explain the events of the revolution. Eugene Genovese and Robin Blackburn also highlight broader contextual structures, whether French revolutionary political ideologies or rising commercial ethics, while Carolyn Fick and John Thornton bring attention to the circumstances on the ground to argue for the significance of the revolution’s non-European foundations. In more recent works, the Haitian Revolution is increasingly portrayed as a pivotal moment in World history. Lynn Hunt and Laurent Dubois, for instance, insist that the revolution championed the struggle for racial equality and human rights. In all these interpretations, the Haitian Revolution is either a byproduct of the French Revolution, an effort to rebel against French authority, or a pivotal moment for “modern” Western society.

Do any of these scholars successfully break the silence? In a word, No. While there is a range of frameworks, the history of the Haitian Revolution remains silent. This is not to say these works do not offer valuable contributions. Fick’s work, for instance, offers an impressive analysis of the local aspects of the revolution, which resists the tendency to portray the revolutionaries as merely passive recipients of French revolutionary ideals. In the process, Fick’s work is able to capture the historical agency of Haitian revolutionaries. Still, we must be cautious about adopting arguments that focus solely on one factor, whether it is local or broader contextual elements. To say the least, a revolution is a complicated process; directing our attention to one element over others, tends to “hero-ize” that aspect of the past.

Maybe the problem, then, is value judgments. Whether it is Stoddard’s earlier work or the more recent “triumphalist” texts, the scholarly narratives on Haiti are infused with value judgments. Perhaps, recent historians are conducting their own “Truth and Reconciliation” commission with regards to Haiti. Guilt ridden by the historical silence, it seems that recent scholars are intent on glorifying the revolution. Whether it was triumphant or tragic in nature, as historians we should not consider these simplistic binaries to be sufficient descriptions. In an effort to obtain some sort of objectivity, we should seek analyses of the revolution that embrace its moral complexities; we should not dilute the revolution with mere good versus evil assessments. Doing that will only perpetuate the silence. Simply put, our writings should not dictate the past; rather, the past should dictate our writings. In the end, the Haitian Revolution needs to be conceptualized to the fullest extent possible as an event with historical significance in and of itself. Only in this manner can we begin to think the “unthinkable” and break the silence.

[1] Some call the Haitian Revolution, the Saint Domingue Revolution. For clarity, I will use the term Haitian Revolution throughout this post.

[2] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, “An Unthinkable History: The Haitian Revolution as a Non-Event,” in Silencing the Past: Power, and the Production of History (Boston, 1995), 73.

[3] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000). Sounding especially like Charakbarty, Trouillot writes “The world of the West basks in what Francois Furet calls the second illusion of truth: what happened is what must have happened. How many of us can thing of any non-European population without the background of a global domination that now looks preordained? And how can Haiti, or slavery, or racism be more than distracting footnotes within that narrative of order?” Trouillot,107.

[4] Trouillot, 106.

[5] T. Lothrop Stoddard, The French Revolution in San Domingo (New York: Kessinger Publishing, 1914), x.

[6] Ibid., viii.

[7] Ibid., ix.

[8] C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, 2nd ed. (New York: Vintage Press, 1989), X.

[9] Ibid., 88-90, 165-167.

[10] Ibid.,166.

[11] Eugene Genovese, From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Resistance in the making of the Modern World (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979).

[12] Robin Blackburn, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848 (London: Verso, 1989), 27 Ibid., 27-31.

[13] Carolyn Fick, “The French Revolution in Saint Domingue: A Triumph or a Failure?” in A Turbulent Time: The French Revolution in the Greater Caribbean, ed. David Gaspar and David Geggus (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), 46.

[14] Ibid., 54.

[15] Ibid., 70.

[16] John Thornton, “I Am the Subject of the King of Congo’: African Political Ideology and
the Haitian Revolution,” Journal of World History 4, no. 2 (1993): 181-214.

[17] Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights: A History (New York: Norton, 2007), 162.

[18] Laurent Dubois, A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Salve Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004); Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004).

[19] Dubois, Avengers, 6-7.

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