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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."

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