Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (3 page)

BOOK: Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution

were indeed universal. They could not be quarantined in Europe or pre-

vented from landing in the ports of the colonies, as many had argued they

should be. The slave insurrection of Saint-Domingue led to the expansion

of citizenship beyond racial barriers despite the massive political and eco-

nomic investment in the slave system at the time. 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 goal of the slave insurgents during this first phase of the Haitian

Revolution was not to break away from France. Indeed, at the time it was

slave owners, not slaves, who clamored most for autonomy and even for in-

dependence. And along the way the slave rebels became the allies of impe-

rial power and helped preserve the colony against France’s enemies, gain-

ing freedom and citizenship in the process. What one writer called “the

worst catastrophe ever to befall an empire” was in fact a dramatic chal-

p r o l o g u e


lenge to what empires had been and, for a brief time, a model for a differ-

ent kind of imperial relationship. Only in the early nineteenth century did

a true war of national liberation begin in Saint-Domingue. Ultimately,

while emancipation had been won through an alliance with the French Re-

public in 1794, it was preserved by the defeat of the French army in 1804.

The people of the new nation of Haiti avoided the tragic fate of those on

another French island, Guadeloupe, where most of the population was

reenslaved in 1803.5

The period between these two moments of dramatic transformation

was dominated by the legendary leader Toussaint Louverture. Serving the

French Republic as the highest-ranking general in the colony, he defended

Saint-Domingue from foreign invasion. By the end of the decade, as the

central military and political leader in the colony, he began crafting an au-

tonomous domestic and international policy, laying the foundation for the

struggle for independence that followed his capture and death in 1802.

During these years he confronted the major dilemmas that would haunt

both his successors in independent Haiti and nationalist leaders elsewhere

in the Caribbean. (In a 1963 afterword to his book, C. L. R. James com-

pared him to Fidel Castro.) To preserve emancipation, Louverture de-

cided that he must preserve the plantation economy and encourage the

return of white planters who had fled. Locked in conflict with ex-slaves

who had a very different vision of what freedom should mean, he main-

tained and perfected a coercive system that sought to keep them working

on plantations.

Historians of “postemancipation” societies have explored how the end

of slavery led to new conflicts, and new forms of oppression, in plantation

societies such as Jamaica, Cuba, and the United States. Revolutionary

Saint-Domingue was the first such society in the Americas, and what hap-

pened there became a touchstone in subsequent debates about how best

to move from slavery to freedom. Abolition in Saint-Domingue took place

abruptly, with no period of transition of the kind that was then under

way in the northern United States, and which most abolitionists advo-

cated. Faced with a dramatically new situation, administrators in Saint-

Domingue had to invent a regime for containing and channeling the

impact of emancipation. Within a few years, those who were overseeing

the new regimes of labor that replaced slavery were black, and often ex-

slaves. Still, the struggle that developed between managers and plantation


av e n g e r s o f t h e n e w w o r l d

workers over the terms of freedom was similar in many ways to the struggle

that would shape later processes of emancipation. Placing the Haitian Rev-

olution in this context helps us make sense of the complex social conflicts

that defined it.6

The Haitian Revolution was a uniquely transcultural movement. The

population of Saint-Domingue in the eighteenth century was not just ma-

jority slave; it was also majority African. These slaves had come from many

different regions and political, social, and religious contexts, and they

shaped the revolution with what they brought with them. James recog-

nized decades ago that the Haitian Revolution was a precursor to the

struggles for African decolonization. Now we are increasingly coming to

understand that it was itself in many ways an African revolution. But as Da-

vid Geggus has recently noted, the question of how to avoid “the twin

perils of exoticizing or occidentalizing the slaves” in order to “imagine the attitudes and beliefs of those Africans and children of Africans of two centuries ago” remains “the most intractable question facing historians of the

Haitian Revolution.”7

Since the moment slaves rose up in Saint-Domingue in 1791, accounts

of the revolution have focused a great deal on its violence. The fact that

some of the atrocities in the Haitian Revolution were committed by insur-

gent slaves, and later by black officers and troops, has made them the ob-

ject of fascination and intensive debate. Many writers have felt the need to

answer for the violence of one or another party. Did one side commit hor-

rors first, and others only in retaliation? Were the atrocities of the slave insurgents merely responses to those of the slave owners? Political violence

was a major feature of the Haitian Revolution, as it was of all other revolu-

tions before and since. The Haitian Revolution deserves a reading that

places the violence in context, acknowledges its complexity, and does not

use it as a way to avoid confronting the ideological and political significance of the ideals and ideas it generated.

Understanding the Haitian Revolution also requires avoiding using ra-

cial designations—white, mulatto, black—as categories that can generate

explanations rather than as social artifacts that demand them. Interpreta-

tions of individual and collective action during the revolution that are

based primarily on racial or class categories often fail to provide a complete or coherent picture of how and why people acted as they did. The communities of African descent who were not enslaved, for instance, were enor-

p r o l o g u e


mously diverse, both socially and politically. While many within them were

of mixed European and African ancestry, not all were, and the common

use of the term “mulatto” to describe them is misleading. (For this reason

I have avoided using the term, which racializes and simplifies a complex

reality, in favor of the term
gens de couleur,
which I translate as “free people of color” or “free-coloreds.” This term was favored by many politically

active members of this group in the late eighteenth century.) Clearly, racial identification was a crucial part of the revolution and, along with economic, social, and cultural factors, influenced how individuals and groups acted

and responded to one another. At the same time, complicated ideological

and political forces often divided groups that we might be tempted to

see as unified by “race.” The most useful approach is to focus on the politi-

cal projects that emerged at the different stages of the revolution, and on

the ways they were shaped by and in turn shaped the individuals and

groups that articulated them. Though I do of necessity use racial terminol-

ogy throughout this work, my intent is to avoid essentializing differences

and instead to highlight their mutability and shifting political and social


Many of the central protagonists of the Haitian Revolution, unlike

those of the other Atlantic revolutions of the period, left behind few writ-

ten traces of their political thought. (The major exception is Toussaint

Louverture.) Most of what we know about their actions and ideals comes

from the writings of (often quite hostile) witnesses, whose views about

slavery and slaves profoundly influenced what they wrote. Those who pro-

vided details about the words and actions of rebelling slaves, for instance,

generally did so with the purpose of convincing their readers that one

group or another was responsible for the insurrection. Many later histori-

ans have read such sources “against the grain” to tell eloquent stories of

the silenced and the marginalized. Their work is an inspiration for my

own attempt here to grasp a fleeting moment that is in many ways be-

yond us, to spur the imagination as well as to invite response and revi-

sion. This is a story that deserves—and indeed demands—to be told and


The impact of the Haitian Revolution was enormous. As a unique exam-

ple of successful black revolution, it became a crucial part of the political, philosophical, and cultural currents of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By creating a society in which all people, of all colors, were granted 6

av e n g e r s o f t h e n e w w o r l d

freedom and citizenship, the Haitian Revolution forever transformed the

world. It was a central part of the destruction of slavery in the Americas,

and therefore a crucial moment in the history of democracy, one that laid

the foundation for the continuing struggles for human rights everywhere.

In this sense we are all descendants of the Haitian Revolution, and respon-

sible to these ancestors.

p r o l o g u e


c h a p t e r o n e

Specters of Saint-Domingue


of revolution, was teeming with exiles driven from their homes by a

cycle of revolution sweeping the Atlantic world. Some came from

France, victims of one or another political purge. But many more had

come from the Caribbean, particularly Saint-Domingue, fleeing slave revo-

lution. There were white masters and merchants, previously rich and now

reduced to dependence on former trading partners or charity. There were

free people of color whose presence in Philadelphia became the subject of

some controversy. And there were many slaves, brought as property from

colonies where slavery no longer existed, treated as property in a city

where the institution was only slowly being extinguished.

Among these exiles was a man named Médéric-Louis-Elie Moreau de

St. Méry, a lawyer, writer, and onetime resident of Saint-Domingue. Like

many exiles, he had arrived carrying almost nothing. He was in fact lucky to

be alive: a warrant for his arrest had been issued in Paris just as he escaped the port of Le Havre in 1793. In his haste he had left behind an irreplace-able possession: a set of boxes filled with notes and documents he had col-

lected over a decade of research for books he was writing on French Saint-

Domingue and Spanish Santo Domingo. Friends promised to send the es-

sential notes after him. But in the midst of war and revolution there was little certainty. Would the boxes find him? Had they been burned as fuel on a

ship or thrown overboard for want of room? Had they sunk to the bottom

of the sea during a storm or an attack? By great good fortune, the boxes

reached Moreau in Philadelphia. “It is one of the joys in life I savored the

most,” he wrote. He at once resumed working on a book that had been

[To view this image, refer to

the print version of this title.]

An engraving of Moreau de St. Méry done in Paris, 1789.

tesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

near completion when, as he put it, the revolution “made me powerless to

accomplish my project.”1

Moreau was a citizen of the Atlantic. Born of an important creole fam-

ily in Martinique in 1750, he left for Paris at nineteen to study law. He

received his degree two years later and took up a prestigious position

at the Paris Parlement, the most important court in the nation. In 1774

he suddenly resigned and left for the Caribbean, where he settled in Saint-

Domingue. He established himself as a lawyer, married into a well-

connected family in 1781, and gradually became an important figure.

Moreau was also a freemason, and in one of the lodges of Le Cap, of which

he later became president, he rubbed elbows with many of the leading

15.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Chasing Shadow (Shadow Puppeteer) by Christina E. Rundle
Curves for the Alpha Wolf by Caroline Knox
Traitor Angels by Anne Blankman
West End Girls by Lena Scott
The Butterfly Effect by Julie McLaren
The Mystery Horse by Gertrude Chandler Warner