Review of A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution by Jeremy D. Popkin Blackwell Publishing
The Age of Revolutions – beginning in 1775 by dissatisfied American colonials subjects and ending in the defeat of liberal European revolutionaries in 1848 – is an era of world-change sweeping in the Modern Era. Anchoring this time is the French Revolution with its dismantling of the Ancien Regime. Taught in every Western Civilization survey course in secondary schools and colleges, this era has been analyzed from multiple historical perspectives. Yet, the most radical revolution within those 73 tumultuous years happened not in France but in its colony of St. Domingue.
The Haitian Revolution, which started in 1791 and ended in1804, is the only slave revolt in history which inverted the social order when enslaved men and women overthrew their colonial masters and created an independent state-only the second free nation in the New World. This world significant event usually merits a page at best in most history textbooks. Even Eric Hobsbam’s masterful study of the Age of Revolutions shockingly only mentions the Haitian Revolution three times in its 300+ pages. With the exception of C.L.R. James’ seminal work, The Black Jacobins, (1938), studies of the Haitian Revolution have been relegated to the narrow confines of the academy-usually inaccessible to the layman or the general student of history.
Fortunately, we now have Jeremy Popkin’s A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution, which closes the information gap with a highly readable, 200-page comprehensive account of the complex series of events that lead to the creation of the independent black nation of Haiti in 1804- governed by her former slaves.
Popkin begins his study by situating the island of Hispaniola in the larger context of Europe and its imperial reshaping of the New World. The island of Hispaniola, initially settled by the Spanish but later ignored for more lucrative colonies on the American main-land, became host to a rogue’s gallery of fortune-seeking Europeans, including French Boucaniers. The French authorities sent a governor to administer over the lawless island outpost in 1665 and in 1697 the Spanish officially ceded the western 1/3 of the island to the French, who then added its new colony of St. Domingue to their small group of New World holdings.
St. Domingue very quickly became the most valuable colony in the French overseas possessions. The geography of Hispaniola was ideal for growing the lucrative crops of sugar, coffee, cotton and indigo. The labor needed to work these plantations was provided by increasingly larger groups of captured Africans forced into slavery. According to Popkin, late eighteenth century St Domingue was the epitome of a New World “slave society” (14). This society was composed of three groups: white colonials, slaves and free people of color. In 1789, there were 32,000 whites to the almost 250,000 slaves and 28,000 free people of color. Popkin illustrates the brutal system of servitude that resulted in the average slave living for only 7-10 years on the island. Like most white slave owners elsewhere in the New World, the French planter class was so confident of its vise-like grip on its slaves that the idea of slave rebellion was thought an impossibility. But as Popkin deftly illustrates, beginning in 1789, liberal ideas about freedom and the “rights of man” would cross the Atlantic inspiring groups of men and women in various forms of bondage to take action and carve out a path to personal and national freedom.
The strength of Popkin’s book is his concise sequencing of the events that led to a black governed independent Haiti in 1804. Popkin divides the thirteen year revolution into four discrete phases between 1791-1804. During those thirteen tumultuous years, power shifted between a roving cast of white setters, French government officials, French troops, foreign invaders including the British and Spanish, and most importantly, slaves and free people (mostly men) of color. The tension and interplay between these last two groups, who ostensibly should have had similar goals, is a fascinating component of the book.
The free men of color were typically the product of white colonial fathers and slave mothers and were often born into freedom due to their white patrimony. This mixed-race group was able to inherit land and own slaves. Yet these men were caught in a conflicting world of competing interests: the colonials often used free blacks to manage and police the slaves, but white settlers and colonial officials were worried about giving free men of color political agency. Much like the white bourgeois members of the Third Estate across the Atlantic, this disenfranchised group was looking for a greater share of political and economic power. The very important and complex role this group assumed during the revolution is a fascinating thread that Popkin weaves throughout his narrative.
Another of Popkin’s strengths is his detailed telling of the revolution’s most famous actor-Toussaint Louverture. Louverture was a slave who managed to buy his freedom and then skillfully navigated to assume the leadership of the Revolution in 1798. Louverture was an effective soldier, leader and rhetorician who had a complex persona with contradictory impulses. While promising to build a multi-cultural society, he waged war against the free men of color. Publicly adhering to the liberal principles of the French Revolution, he imposed a strict code of Catholic morality on his subjects. While paying homage to the new found democratic sentiments of the era, he declared himself ruler for life. He was able to deftly negotiate a trade agreement with the United States but he also invaded the adjoining Spanish colony of Santo Domingo. It was the strong-willed and independent minded Louverture who angered Napoleon enough that he sent over 20,000 seasoned troops to counter Louverture and his armies and attempt to reclaim the island in 1802. Over the next year -into 1803- the revolution entered its most violent phase.
Popkin expertly sets the stage for the denouement of the revolution. After Louverture’s arrest and exile in Europe, leadership of the revolution will be taken over by Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Resistance to Napoleon’s forces entered a new more intense phase. Motivated by the defeat of Louverture, Napoleon officially re-instituted slavery in St. Domingue as well as in the rest of the French New World colonies. In addition, French troops now were carrying out near genocidal massacres on St. Domingue. In one especially brutal attack, French forces killed 1200 black troops-many by drowning in the harbor.
Dessalines recognized the need for strength amongst the often divided black and mixed-race soldiers and skillfully united them for the first time in the conflict into an organized fighting force dedicated to defeating the French troops and white settlers. This move proved effective as the French, whose troops were decimated by yellow fever, started to suffer losses from which they were not able to recover. In 1803, the French negotiated surrender of their most lucrative colony and the new nation of Haiti was born.
Unfortunately, this new nation had very little time to celebrate its monumental achievement: it needed to negotiate its place among nations in the early 19th century. Popkin here illuminates the challenges that faced a new nation governed and populated by black men and women. With very little support from the surrounding slave-owning societies of the Americas, the Haitians found very little international aid. France recognized Haiti in 1825 –but only after forcing the Haitians to commit to paying an onerous indemnity of millions of francs that hung like a yoke around this new nation until 1883. In addition, the slave holding Southern states of the United States, fearful of the example of a free black nation, successfully kept the US government from recognizing Haiti un
Popkin’s short history wraps up with a very interesting discussion on the impact of the revolution on other slave societies, as well as a short section on the historiography of the revolution. It was saddening to read that the revolution –while ostensibly an inspirational tale – actually did not directly lead to any other enslaved people breaking free of slavery of their own volition. The bonds of slavery were too strong to overthrow, especially in North America. Other slave societies like Jamaica decided not to follow the Haitian example of aggressive engagement but rather opted for measured negotiation.
While the historical legacy of the Haitian legacy can be debated, Popkin’s concise account of the revolution has themes that resonate in today’s history class room, whether in high school or university. Colonialism, racism, economic imperialism, human bondage, and Eurocentricsm, have sadly not been resigned to the history books. Popkin’s analysis of a disenfranchised minority beating a hegemonic world power is an inspirational and powerful account that hopefully will one day lead to Haiti achieving its rightful place next to America and France as one of the most important social and political revolutions of the modern era.
Reviewed by Serge Avery, Brooklyn Technical High School
Edited by Tracy C. Barrett
(c) 2014 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 8, Spring, 2014. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]