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Of Human Bondage | The Nation

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Of Human Bondage

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The failure of well-armed British, French and Spanish forces in Saint Domingue testified to the former slaves' deep aversion to slavery, whatever the disappointments of freedom. But at what point did the mass of rebels adopt the ideal of a generalized liberty? As Dubois points out, the first written account by a Haitian of the Bois-Caïman ceremony, which launched the revolt of 1791, dates from the 1820s and was written by Hérard Dumesle, a poet steeped in classical authorities. Herodotus put suitable eve-of-battle speeches into the mouths of barbarian chiefs--"let us die fighting rather than live on our knees"--just as he did with Roman generals. So was the commitment to liberty cited by Dumesle a faithful record of the oral tradition, or was it a classical trope? We cannot know for sure, but Dubois argues that the widespread adoption of the Bois-Caïman legend in Haitian voodoo is itself historically significant. The houngan, or priest, will sometimes echo the cry at Bois-Caïman: Couté la Liberté dan Coeur à nous ("Listen to the Liberty that is in our hearts").

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Robin Blackburn
Robin Blackburn, distinguished visiting professor at the New School for Social Research and former editor of New Left...

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In the aftermath of the great revolt of August 1791, the main black leaders negotiated a deal with the Republican Commissioners that would have freed only themselves and 400 followers. James branded this an abominable betrayal. Maroon leaders had often reached similar agreements, and even helped to suppress other revolts, so this is harsh. But perhaps the criteria had changed; French documents report general demands for liberty as early as September 1791. However, it was not until August 29, 1793, that rival leaders--Sonthonax, the Republican Commissioner, and L'Ouverture, still a Spanish general--issued unambiguous proclamations calling for a complete end to slavery. We don't know whether this really was a coincidence, or whether one of them tactically backdated his declaration, so they share the honor.

The slaves' conquest of freedom was to test a cherished abolitionist conviction. The new political economy of the late eighteenth century had encouraged anti-slavery thinking by insisting that free workers were more productive than slaves. But Napoleon was not the only one to doubt this. The former slaves of Saint Domingue and Guadeloupe abandoned plantation toil whenever they could, instead devoting themselves to subsistence cultivation. They lived better but brought much less to market. Both Toussaint L'Ouverture in Haiti and Victor Hugues in Guadeloupe sought to impose heavy labor obligations on the former slaves, though not with complete success. Dubois cites several attempts to grapple with the problem of devising a postslavery plantation regime. When Julien Raimond, a leading man of color, was appointed a Revolutionary Commissioner he appealed to the newly liberated in the following terms: "It is necessary that you continue to work after acquiring your liberty not only to procure all the things necessary for your new state but further to acquire property that will protect you in your later years from want and misery." He added that they would soon discover other obligations: "In order to be equal to the free you will have to work...to procure all the objects of luxury and convenience that distinguish the free from the slave."

The former slaves were deaf to such appeals--they appreciated the luxury of free time and the convenience of meeting their own needs through their own efforts. Only force, not unreliable offers of pay, kept some at work. In Saint Domingue the new peasants preferred to clear some space in the forest than to return to the harsh and badly paid work of the plantations. Eventually coffee cultivation, based on small-holder production, did recover. In the 1820s Haiti was again one of the leading producers in the Americas. But as the demand for coffee grew by leaps and bounds in later decades, it was the slave-owning planters of Brazil who proved capable of doubling their crop each decade. In an increasingly free market, slave labor proved far more effective than free at mobilizing plantation labor throughout the Americas, whether it was for coffee, cotton or sugar.

The more radical abolitionists were not discouraged by evidence that slavery could be profitable, since their indictment focused on the inhumanity and immorality of slave-holding. Whether white or colored, they still found confirmation of their beliefs in the history of Saint Domingue/Haiti, which showed both that slavery would breed violence and that the former slaves would never tolerate a return to their former condition. Under slavery the population of African descent increased only because of slave imports. In the half-century after emancipation, the population roughly doubled. The best years of the new republic coincided with President Jean-Pierre Boyer's rule from the 1820s to the 1840s, but it still faced ostracism from the main Atlantic powers. The United States did not recognize Haiti until 1862. France did offer recognition, and access to the French market, but at a stiff price--Haiti was obliged to compensate the former planters for the loss of their estates. The large loan that made this possible in the 1820s saddled Haiti with repayments for decades to come. Aristide called upon France to make restitution of these monies, only to find Paris joining Washington in conspiring to remove him.

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