The Haitian Revolution : Symbol and Heritage

Over the course of more than two centuries, the events now recognized as “the Haitian Revolution” have meant many different things to different people.  To the enslaved black population of the French colony of Saint-Domingue who rose up against their exploiters in 1791, the uprising was a chance to win their freedom and, potentially, to create a racially egalitarian society.  To the white colonists at the time, the “disasters of Saint-Domingue” were a threat to the island’s social order and a challenge to their confidence in their superior racial status.  To the dominant groups in other slave societies of the Americas, the Saint-Domingue uprising represented a danger, but also an opportunity.  Plantation-owners in rival colonies hoped to replace their French rivals as the main source of Europe’s sugar and coffee; American merchants were eager to sell Saint-Domingue the flour and other foodstuffs that it normally imported from France.
In revolutionary France, rival factions seized on the news from Saint-Domingue to denounce their ideological opponents.  Supporters of the colonial lobby blamed “philanthropists” like the members of the Society of the Friends of the Blacks for having recklessly proclaimed the equality of all men without considering the consequences for the colonies.  Reformers like Jacques-Pierre Brissot and Henri Grégoire responded that the plantation-owners were “aristocrats of the skin” whose harsh treatment of the blacks had driven them to revolt. 
When their desperate situation drove the two “Brissotin” civil commissioners Léger-Félicité Sonthonax and Étienne Polverel to proclaim the emancipation of the slaves in the summer of 1793, they radically altered the situation on both sides of the Atlantic.  In Saint-Domingue, the black population were now recognized as French citizens, and the way was open for the talented black commander Toussaint Louverture to make himself the leader of the French forces.  In France, the seating of representatives from Saint-Domingue as members of the National Convention at the beginning of 1794 led that body to pass its historic decree of 16 pluviôse An II (4 February 1794), abolishing slavery throughout the French colonial empire. The slave revolt that had begun in one region of Saint-Domingue in 1791 had now become a force driving the French revolutionaries to fulfill the universalistic promises of their “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.”
Napoleon, who overthrew the republican regime in 1799, could not accept the idea of France’s most valuable colony being ruled by Blacks who “didn’t even know what a colony was, or what France was.”  The crushing defeat of the military expedition he launched in 1802 forced him to abandon his dream of building a great French empire in the Americas; by selling the Louisiana Territory to the United States in 1803, he opened the way to the new republic’s continental expansion and to the growth of a “cotton kingdom” based on slavery that would eclipse the Caribbean colonies in economic importance. Unable to prevent the declaration of Haiti’s independence in 1804, France succeeded in keeping other countries from recognizing the new Black-ruled nation until 1825, when the restored Bourbon monarchy grudgingly accepted this fait accompli in exchange for compensation to the former white property-owners.  The United States, under the influence of politicians from its southern states, refused to recognize Haiti until 1862.  In the meantime, British leaders cited the need to forestall slave rebellions to justify their decision to abolish the slave trade in 1807.  
Despite its precarious status, Haiti was an important symbol to Blacks throughout the world.  The Haitian Revolution inspired slave uprisings elsewhere, such as the Aponte rebellion in Cuba in 1812 and Denmark Vesey’s conspiracy in South Carolina in 1822, and it influenced Simon Bolivar and other leaders of the independence movements in Latin America, although slavery was not immediately abolished in these countries..  The Baron de Vastey, a Haitian publicist, wrote that Haiti’s example was inspiring “five hundred million men, black, yellow and brown, spread over the surface of the globe,” to reclaim “the rights and privileges which they have received from the author of nature,” and in 1829 David Walker, the African-American author recognized as the first theorist of pan-Africanism, called Haiti “the glory of the Blacks and the terror of tyrants.”  The pseudo-scientific racist literature that became increasingly widespread in Europe and the United States in the nineteenth century, however, gave a very different meaning to Haiti.  Arthur Gobineau proclaimed that “the history of independent Haiti is nothing but a long series of massacres… the savage instincts of the population reign supreme.”
During the “age of imperialism” around 1900, Haiti appeared as an anomaly.  American troops occupied the country from 1915 to 1934, importing their racial prejudices and imposing a heavy financial indemnity on the government.  In reaction, Haitian authors like Jean Price-Mars contributed to the négritude movement that developed in the 1920s, and African-American intellectuals associated with the “Harlem Renaissance” took inspiration from Haitian history.  The Caribbean historian C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins, first published in 1938, accorded the Haitian uprising a central place in narratives of world history, but the poverty-stricken and politically unstable country remained on the margins of the decolonization movement of the 1950s and 1960s.  The brutal dictatorship of François Duvalier and his son (1957-86) did not improve Haiti’s image in the world.
The fall of the Duvalier regime coincided with an important revival of interest in the Haitian Revolution.  In 1998, Unesco made the 23rd of August the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition.  Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s eloquent essay, Silencing the Past (1995) denounced historians’ neglect of the 1791 revolt as a symptom of a wider dismissal of non-Western populations’ contributions to the making of the modern world.  Yves Benot’s La Révolution française et la fin des colonies (1987) underlined the ways in which the slave uprising had exposed the limitations of the French revolutionaries’ commitment to universal human rights. For the first time, the phrase “the Haitian Revolution” became widely used, and the subject was incorporated into many university courses, especially in the United States.  
Even as the Haitian Revolution has acquired the status of a world-historical event, the increasingly extensive historiography of the subject has complicated efforts to define its meaning.  The 1791 uprising was certainly a revolt against slavery, but its leaders did not initially imagine that slavery could be completely overthrown in Saint-Domingue, let alone that their revolt could lead to the extinction of slavery throughout the Atlantic world.  Toussaint Louverture, the central figure of the Revolution, rose to power by identifying himself with revolutionary France; although he often defied the instructions of the distant metropolitan government, he never explicitly committed himself to the creation of an independent nation.  Louverture’s successor Jean-Jacques Dessalines led the successful struggle against Napoleon’s forces, but the dictatorial regime he imposed can hardly be seen as a democracy.  In spite of the success of the Haitian Revolution, slavery continued to expand throughout the first half of the 19th century; it would not be abolished in the United States until 1863, in Cuba in 1886, and in Brazil in 1888.  Even as the Haitian Revolution has entered modern consciousness as a milestone in the struggle for human freedom, the complexity of its historic reality has become increasingly evident.
Published in december 2022
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