Some 300 years after Columbus made landfall in the Caribbean, the Western Hemisphere gained its first states born of colonial ventures but free from European rule. One arose on North America’s eastern shore, where a motley society of British shopkeepers, weary of sending taxes to England’s king, declared their independence. The other emerged further south, in the sugar colony of Saint-Domingue, where enslaved Africans rose en masse in 1791 and burned the plantations that they had made more lucrative for France than the whole of the thirteen Northern colonies had been for England. A half-million Ibo, Fon and Kongo-lese—nearly two-thirds of them African-born—organized themselves into a formidable army, inspired by their shared vodou faith and the Kreyol tongue they’d forged in bondage. Killing their masters and waging sustained guerrilla war, they ended slavery on the island and forced France’s Jacobin government to recognize their leader, Toussaint Louverture, as Saint-Domingue’s head. When Napoleon sent his army to re-enslave Toussaint’s people, they repelled his forces and declaimed the Constitution of a nation where “no white man, regardless of nationality, may set foot…as a master.”
Even in 1804, Haiti’s birth astonished the world. Not only had history’s first—and only—successful slave revolt occurred in the world’s most brutally “advanced” slave society; it had also put a black nation on the world stage. Today, Haiti’s revolution is cited as the true origin of Western culture’s ongoing conversation about universal rights. At the time, Haiti inspired slave uprisings from Jamaica to Virginia and made the prevention of “another Haiti” a priority for white leaders throughout the hemisphere. One of them, Thomas Jefferson, also leveraged Napoleon’s defeat to engineer the Louisiana Purchase—thereby ensuring the United States’ manifest destiny to bestride its continent as an empire.
That Haiti’s founding so aided the rise of the United States is one of the many cruel ironies of how the Americas’ second nation became their poorest. Shunned by its neighbors—the United States didn’t recognize Haitian nationhood until 1862—Haiti found its prospects weakened by crushing foreign debts and justified paranoia about foreign invasion. And having inherited an economy organized around the production of two un-nutritional stimulants—sugar and coffee—for export, Haiti began its life as a third world nation long before the third world existed.
Laurent Dubois is a prolific historian at Duke University, among whose previous books is Avengers of the New World (2004), perhaps the first modern history of the Haitian Revolution to merit a place next to C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins (1938). Now with Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (Metropolitan; $32) Dubois has written a book as welcome as it is timely: a lucid one-volume history of the nation, from Toussaint to the present, anchored in scholarship but rendered as a comprehensive-but-swift narrative for the general reader. Beginning with a terse recap of the Founding, Dubois recounts the dozens of Constitutions, and recurrent cycles of bloodshed and calm, wrought in its aftermath by leaders battling to fulfill the Revolution’s promise. Reading his account of Haiti’s long nineteenth century, one appreciates how the country’s singular origins shaped a singular politics reflected by such terms as politique de doublure (rule by mulatto elites with a black figurehead as head of state) and parenthèse (the period of violent disorder traditionally bridging the fall of one Haitian ruler and the rise of the next). But Dubois offers more than solid political history. Focusing on how plantation slaves sought to build a new society from slavery’s wreckage, he shows how Haiti’s peasantry forged a “counter-plantation” system for securing communal ownership of land and guaranteeing tenure—and how, in turn, they forged a Kreyol-speaking nation often at odds with a governing body in Port-au-Prince that did its business in French and historically served the capital’s merchant-elite.
In 1909 US banks acquired most of Haiti’s foreign debt from France; the Marines arrived six years later. In a nation founded on the principle of never again allowing blan masters ashore, the ensuing nineteen-year US occupation was traumatic. But perhaps no aspect of US involvement in Haitian affairs was as odious as its role in abetting the dictatorship that defined Haiti’s postwar era. Trained in public health at the University of Michigan, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier rose to the presidency in 1957 as the noiriste voice of the black rural masses. He then ruthlessly turned his back on them. Flush with tens of millions of dollars in US aid, he armed his repressive Tontons Macoute and forged the state in his own image before passing power to his loathsome son. In 1983 “Baby Doc” ordered the wholesale slaughter of some 2 million black pigs in the countryside, and—in an episode Dubois paints as symbolic of Duvalierism’s larger betrayals of the nation—replaced those hardy animals, long crucial to Hatians’ lives, with white swine imported from the United States. The delicate white pigs, disastrously unsuited to Haiti’s countryside, never flourished.
In 1986 Duvalier fils was forced from power amid hopes of a new Haitian dawn; the sad quarter-century since has amounted to an extended parenthèse of political and natural disasters. Dubois briefly traces the travails of the charismatic populist Jean-Bertrand Aristide in the 1990s, but not before ending his book exactly where he should: with the insistence that if the task of envisioning how Haitians will build their nation anew has grown difficult, one need look no further than the tale of how, two centuries ago, a half-million slaves were able not only to imagine a new and better world for themselves but also—“with fury, solidarity, and determination”—to create it.