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Of Human Bondage | The Nation

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Of Human Bondage

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In the sequence of revolutions that remade the Atlantic world between 1776 and 1825, the Haitian Revolution is rarely given its due, yet without it the progressive credentials of the others would be far weaker. The revolutions--American, French, Haitian and Spanish-American--should be seen as a chain, each helping to radicalize the next. The American Revolution launched an idea of popular sovereignty that helped to destroy the French monarchy. The French Revolution, dramatic as its impact on the Old World was, also became a fundamental event in the New--curiously, a more important catalyst than the revolt of the thirteen English colonies of North America, since it undermined empire and slavery throughout the hemisphere. Revolutionary struggles in Haiti, the richest slave colony of the Americas, set the scene for a massive slave uprising in August 1791 and prompted the National Convention's decree of 16 Pluviôse An II (February 4, 1794), which abolished slavery throughout the French colonies. The Convention was spurred to action by delegates from Haiti (then known as Saint Domingue) who argued that, faced with a British invasion and the defection of many royalist planters, only such a radical step could save the Republic by rallying more black insurgents to its side.

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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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The French Revolutionary offensive struck down slave property at a time when the pressure of the sans-culottes on the Convention was at its height. Perhaps only the Jacobins at their most radical could have inaugurated the policy, but, following Robespierre's overthrow in Thermidor, it was to be sustained by the Directory down to the end of the 1790s. Slave insurrections were fostered in the Spanish colonies and English islands. Guadeloupe was liberated by the French revolutionary Victor Hugues, the "Robespierre of the Antilles," with the help of a newly recruited légion de la liberté, comprising "colored" men (free men of mixed race) and former slaves. Among those sent packing was Benedict Arnold, who had joined the British expedition as a war contractor. In Saint Domingue the black army led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, a former slave, deserted its Spanish patron and joined the republican ranks. With matériel sent from France, L'Ouverture created a well-armed and disciplined force, which drove the Spanish and the British from the colony by 1798. Overall, the British, who had to fight hard to regain Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and Grenada, lost 90,000 soldiers in the Caribbean as a whole, a higher total than in Europe.

Toussaint L'Ouverture insisted that Saint Domingue remain French, but he dealt with Britain and the United States like a sovereign power. His army included white and colored, as well as black, commanders. He invited émigré planters to return. In 1802 Napoleon sought to reassert metropolitan power and to re-establish slavery. L'Ouverture was captured, and died in France, but the expeditionary force, commanded by Napoleon's brother-in-law, Gen. Charles Leclerc, was defeated, with a loss of 50,000 men, including Leclerc himself. In 1804 the black generals declared the new Republic of Haiti, with a constitution that outlawed slavery and declared that all citizens were legally black. The name of the new state, a homage to the island's precolonial inhabitants, signaled the break with empire.

In 1816 Haiti's president, Alexandre Pétion, helped Simón Bolívar mount the invasion that was ultimately to defeat the Spanish empire in the Americas. In return, Bolívar promised to free his own slaves and adopt measures to extinguish slavery in the lands he was to free. Many South Americans no doubt recalled this historic act when Hugo Chávez, the president of Venezuela, offered asylum to Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the recently ousted president of Haiti.

Laurent Dubois believes that the events in the former French colony mark a watershed. "They were," he writes in Avengers of the New World, "the most concrete expression of the idea that the rights proclaimed in France's 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen were indeed universal. They could not be quarantined in Europe or prevented from landing in the ports of the colonies, as many had argued they should be. The slave insurrection in Saint Domingue led to the expansion of citizenship beyond racial barriers despite the massive political and economic investment in the slave system at the time." A professor of history at Michigan State University, Dubois sees the revolution in Haiti as a cultural, intellectual and political event, holding out the ideal of a society in which, in principle, people of all colors were granted freedom and citizenship. While this ideal was difficult to achieve in practice, the Haitian Revolution also had a very tangible success. It struck a mighty blow against slavery where it was strongest, in the plantation zone. "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."

These conclusions are more controversial than you might suppose. Some historians think the liberation in Haiti was so bloody and chaotic, and the results so tarnished, that it actually set back a true and deliberate emancipation by several decades. But Dubois's reasoning is compelling. The slavery of this epoch was buttressed by the sacredness of private property and derogatory concepts of race. Planters were well represented in ruling institutions throughout the Atlantic world. Their power was based on guns, cutlasses and whips as well as racial fears, money and political contacts. They would not be swayed simply by appeals to their better nature, nor would they yield without a struggle. Slavery could be successfully challenged only when there was a profound crisis, usually triggered by war, revolution and slave revolt, capable of neutralizing these powerful supports of the slave system. In 1790 there were 450,000 slaves in Saint Domingue, 700,000 in the United States. The awesome scale of the events in Saint Domingue instilled a sort of permanent panic in the minds of slave-owners, leading them to redouble their security and to reach out to potential allies.

The liberation in Saint Domingue showed that the slave order was highly vulnerable in plantation colonies, where 80 percent of the population was enslaved. British and French West Indian planters were to accept emancipation--with compensation and continuing title to their landed property--partly because they remembered Haiti. Where slaves were not a majority--the United States, Cuba and Brazil--slaveowners had hope so long as they could count on the support of the state and the great majority of free citizens. In Brazil and Cuba the planters cleaved loyally to monarchy. In the United States, Thomas Jefferson's anti-Federalist campaign and "revolution of 1800" can be seen as a bold response to the plumes of smoke rising from the plantations in Saint Domingue. Democratic Republicanism offered enhanced rights and status to white citizens and, in so doing, helped to build what Alexander Saxton has called the White Republic, itself a recycling of the compact of "American slavery and American freedom" that Edmund Morgan has identified as a hallmark of the colonial period. Though not socially radical, the revolution of 1800 was the first time in history that all free men voted and that a partisan clash led to a change of government. Before this the gentry in each section had given leadership to the people of their own colony or state but not embroiled themselves in the popular politics of other regions. Ignoring this unwritten rule, Jefferson appealed directly to the discontented in New York and Pennsylvania, and in so doing helped to construct a barrier to sectional strife. Jefferson never uttered the word slavery, but Southern Bourbons, like Charles Pinckney of South Carolina, knew that the slaveholder was their man. The risk was that the newly enfranchised might not be long-term friends of slavery; the insurance was that, according to the Jeffersonian doctrine, each state had a right to nullify federal laws they found inimical.

In registering the impact the smoldering plantations of Saint Domingue had on North America, we should remember that many refugee planters, with their slave retinues, sought haven in Philadelphia and New York. The belated phasing out of slavery in New York (1799) and New Jersey (1804)--freeing the children born to slave mothers when they reached adulthood--discouraged such unwelcome guests in those states. In 1807, in a further prudential step, both Britain and the United States ended legal participation in the Atlantic slave trade. The formula of the white man's republic was quite compatible with setting limits on slavery and the slave trade, just as it was with establishing a cordon sanitaire around Haiti.

While new compromises secured an extra term for slavery in the Americas, the institution was still haunted by what had happened in Saint Domingue. Toussaint L'Ouverture's epic struggle inspired anti-slavery agitators like William Lloyd Garrison. The very existence of Haiti emboldened African-Americans to reach for freedom, as Frederick Douglass testified.

Understanding of the Haitian Revolution is not enhanced by the seductive and romantic notion that slaves were bound to rebel, bound to champion a general emancipation and bound to triumph. Resistance has been ubiquitous in slave systems, but it has usually been particularistic--freedom for a given person or group--and often frustrated. In fact, the Haitian Revolution is the only successful large-scale slave revolt known to history.

We should also bear in mind that the slavery encountered in Saint Domingue and throughout the New World had been invented by planters and colonial officials, using European legal notions. Much slave resistance in Saint Domingue in the 1790s took the form of a demand for three free days a week (instead of one), or the right to choose one's overseer. While some freed themselves simply by running away, others remained, unwilling to leave provision grounds that they saw as rightfully theirs. Only those of African descent were enslaved, but the racial logic was complicated by the fact that free colored masters owned about a quarter of the slaves in the French colony. The colored proprietors, unlike the whites, lived in the colony. While born a slave, L'Ouverture had been a freedman and slaveowner. He was to sympathize with the planters' desire for an obedient labor force.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of books about the Haitian Revolution, but only a handful are indispensable. Avengers of the New World joins that select company. A powerful narrative informed by the latest research, it digs beneath ready-made notions--whether of purely heroic rebels or of implacable caste hatreds--to bring to light the forging of new identities and new ideals. While Avengers concentrates on the tangle of events that ended in the founding of Haiti, Dubois's other new book, A Colony of Citizens, focuses on the much less well known events in Guadeloupe. Previously, English readers who wanted to learn about the extraordinary saga of Victor Hugues had to consult the informative novel Explosion in a Cathedral (originally published as El Siglo de las Luces) by Alejo Carpentier, the Cuban inventor of magic realism. A Colony of Citizens, based on much original research, at last enables us to assess the true importance of battles in the Eastern Caribbean, which help to explain the outcome in Saint Domingue. This book also provides an excellent account of the wider Caribbean and metropolitan context. Particularly valuable is its discussion of how French abolitionism and republicanism were tested in the New World--and how they yielded new conclusions when adopted by former slaves and the partisans of black liberation.

Dubois acknowledges a debt to The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James, the Trinidadian writer. A notable achievement of that book, published in 1938, was to capture the momentum of the liberation struggle without ignoring its extraordinary complexity. Another achievement was his skill in registering the persistent, and ultimately triumphant, strivings of a myriad of local leaders who refused to give up, even at times when L'Ouverture and the other famous chiefs had capitulated.

James was a Pan-African activist and a follower of Leon Trotsky, not an academic. He nevertheless raised the study of the Haitian Revolution to a new level, drawing on a mass of sources in several languages. He was equally familiar with events in the metropolis and in the colony. Above all, he conveyed the nature of revolutionary upheavals with powerful understanding and in stirring prose. In recent years his work has helped to inspire a new "Atlantic history," which challenges the imperial narrative and refuses the limits of national historiography. (Another work of Jamesian inspiration, Carolyn Fick's 1990 study The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution From Below, showed slave insurgency to have been even more widespread than James supposed.)

Laurent Dubois's two books further the Jamesian perspective not only by conveying the creativity of the slave rebels but also by capturing the multiple, overlapping conflicts of rich and poor, slaves and masters, colonists and imperialists, whites and people of color, free people of color and enslaved blacks. It has always been too easy to see every clash as, at bottom, about race. But those with a stake in empire, or committed to the defense of the republic, could insist that citizenship trumped race. And despite clashes between black and colored leaders, both were eventually united against the restoration of a slave regime that degraded free people of color.

The title Black Jacobins challenged both the idea that emancipation had been a gift bestowed by the Republic and the idea that slave revolt was its own program. The black Jacobins found something in the ideology of the French Revolution that helped them to elevate and generalize their struggle. At the same time, they radicalized the ideas they appropriated and eventually defended them against France itself. The travail of Africa's sons and daughters in the New World plantations gave their own specific sense to the freedom they claimed.

Why did Napoleon allow the other Atlantic powers to draw him into a disastrous attempt to restore slavery? Dubois cites a note from the British prime minister on peace negotiations with France, in which he explains: "[The] interests of the two governments is [sic] exactly the same--to destroy Jacobinism, especially that of the Blacks." It is easy to see why Britain, the United States and Spain, with their valuable slave plantations, would welcome the destruction of the new black power; it is more difficult to see why Napoleon allowed himself to become their instrument. The revolutionary policy in the Caribbean had been a success, inflicting huge losses on France's main enemy, the British. The attempt to restore slavery was bound to make it far more difficult to regain control in Saint Domingue. The British baited their trap by offering to return Martinique. When the British occupied this French island they insulated it from revolutionary emancipation, so their offer to return it with slavery intact was as compromising as it was tempting. Jefferson's envoys were also happy to encourage Napoleon in a course of action that would yield advantage whatever the outcome--weakening or destroying either Toussaint or Napoleon, or both--and would facilitate a deal over Louisiana.

Napoleon later blamed the advice of émigré "colonists and capitalists"-- many of them his wife's friends and relatives. They played skillfully on his lust for empire. He saw the plantations of the New World as a glittering prize and wished to see the specter of revolution banished from them. It was not just some Caribbean islands that were at stake. He dreamt of being able easily to subordinate Spain and Portugal, together with their valuable colonies.

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").

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.

Dubois's books appear at a quite different moment from James's classic. Whereas The Black Jacobins heralded the dawn of anticolonialism, Dubois's studies appear at a time when the false romance and real misery of empire are being rediscovered in Baghdad and, once again, in Port-au-Prince. In Iraq the Anglo-American coalition unleashed further havoc by dismantling the Iraqi Army. In Haiti the occupying forces of the Organization of American States are contending with the legacy of a previous US occupation, nearly a decade ago, that restored Aristide without an army, and on condition that he impose an austerity package. At the time of an earlier US occupation a Haitian critic noted the failure to let the country's people learn their own lessons, quoting the local saying: Tambour prêté pas fait bon danse ("The borrowed drum doesn't make a good dance").

In earlier times the Haitian people were both protected and burdened by an army that barred the way to conquest and recolonization. Napoleon instructed Leclerc to remove every "colored person...who has worn an epaulette." The people of Haiti needed to be able to defend their newly won liberty in a still hostile environment, but the new republic struggled to meet the cost of a standing army and of foreign loans. The army might have done more to earn its keep if it had restricted the overworking of the land, prevented the destruction of forests and rehabilitated the irrigation system, established by French military engineers, which had boosted the fertility of colonial Saint Domingue. Haiti's misfortune was to have a state and mercantile elite that was strong enough to exploit the small farmers but too ineffective to develop the country. The indigenous elite has presided over the country's immiseration along with foreign powers.

Dubois suggests that the soul of Haiti is found in a religious ceremony, not in a declaration of independence, a Constitution or a Panthéon. The spirit of the revolution lives on in the people but not yet--despite the efforts of such reformist leaders as Anténor Firmin, Jean Price-Mars or Aristide--in the formal trappings of the state. Though Haiti is dirt poor, its people are not defined by employment and consumption. In Haiti the legacy of the descendants of slaves and rebels comprises echoes of both a precapitalist past and of a mighty refusal of the first global experiment in labor-intensive outsourcing. Those who have seen Jonathan Demme's tremendous movie The Agronomist, will know that Haiti still produces men and women of extraordinary courage, tenacity and spirit, true heirs of those who established the first American state to end slavery.

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