[Marxism] Haiti: The Contagious Revolution

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Dec 1 12:46:29 MST 2019


NY Review of Books, DECEMBER 19, 2019 ISSUE
The Contagious Revolution
David A. Bell

The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution
by Julius S. Scott, with a foreword by Marcus Rediker
Verso, 246 pp., $34.95

Maroon Nation: A History of Revolutionary Haiti
by Johnhenry Gonzalez
Yale University Press, 302 pp., $40.00

Historians have traditionally considered Western Europe the epicenter of 
early modern globalization. But in the late eighteenth century, no place 
had a thicker web of connections to other parts of the globe than the 
French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue—now called Haiti. This small 
but intensely fertile piece of tropical real estate produced 40 percent 
of the sugar and half the coffee consumed in the world, as well as 
enormous quantities of cotton, chocolate, and textile dyes. Its ports 
teemed with ships from Europe, North America, South America, and other 
points in the Caribbean. Some five hundred a year sailed to the United 
States alone, returning laden with American food exports. Sailors from 
dozens of nations made up roughly 15 percent of the people in the 
capital city of Le Cap. And a higher percentage of Saint-Domingue’s 
population was born on a different continent than anywhere else on earth.

This last statistic, however, was no evidence of cosmopolitanism. 
Rather, it reveals the deadly reason for Saint-Domingue’s prosperity: 
perhaps the most horrific system of slavery ever seen in human history. 
French plantation owners literally worked captive African laborers to 
death—over 5 percent of them died every year. Slave traders, however, 
more than met the hideous demand for labor. Between 1740 and 1789, the 
number of the enslaved in the colony more than quadrupled, to well over 
450,000, which meant that a territory roughly the size of Maryland had 
two thirds the number of slaves who lived in the entire United States at 
the time. The enslaved outnumbered the white population by over fifteen 
to one, with a majority of the adults born in Africa. Early 
globalization was powered by captive humans.

Oppressive as it was, the system might have lasted, as similar systems 
did elsewhere in the Caribbean until well into the nineteenth century. 
But the French Revolution of 1789 fatally destabilized the political 
order in Saint-Domingue. It set different groups of white colonists 
against one another and against free people of color who were demanding 
the “rights of man and citizen” proclaimed in France, but apparently for 
whites only. Against this violent background, in 1791 enslaved people in 
Saint-Domingue staged the largest and most successful slave revolt in 
history. There followed, over the next thirteen years, the extraordinary 
series of events that now goes by the name of the Haitian Revolution.

French commissioners in Saint-Domingue, desperate to contain an 
increasingly brutal, multisided conflict, abolished slavery in the 
colony in 1793, and the radical French Republic soon extended abolition 
to the entire French overseas empire. Black forces led by the brilliant, 
charismatic former slave Toussaint Louverture came over to the 
republic’s side, and after several years managed to take effective 
control of Saint-Domingue. Louverture became governor-general, 
supposedly under the French flag but steering an increasingly 
independent course. In response to this, France’s new leader, Napoleon 
Bonaparte, sent a military expedition in 1801 to reassert French 
authority and reestablish slavery. It defeated Louverture (who died in a 
French prison in 1803), but was decimated by an epidemic of yellow 
fever, which allowed black forces to drive it out. On January 1, 1804, 
the new state of Haiti (supposedly the original Amerindian name of the 
island of Hispaniola) came into being.

For a long time, European and North American historians paid little 
attention to these developments. In their view, revolutions in this 
period involved Western, middle-class revolutionaries overthrowing 
aristocratic elites and establishing democratic institutions while 
paving the way for industrial capitalism. Haiti clearly did not fit this 
model, and it did not help that stories of “savage” Haitian blacks 
slaughtering innocent white colonists remained distressingly influential 
many decades into the twentieth century. Over the past generation, 
however, the old model of revolution has lost its appeal, while 
historians have become better attuned both to currents of global history 
and to “subaltern” voices. As a result, they now insist on the 
importance to world economic history of Saint-Domingue’s 
prerevolutionary plantation system (itself, ironically, an example of 
early industrial capitalism) and on the importance to world political 
history of its enslaved people claiming freedom and the rights of 
citizens. The “age of revolution” is no longer limited to Europe and the 
United States.

Two new books add significantly to this process of reevaluation, in very 
different ways. Julius Scott’s The Common Wind tells the extraordinary 
story of how circuits of commerce and exchange also became circuits of 
information and resistance for enslaved people throughout the Americas, 
both before and during the Haitian Revolution. Johnhenry Gonzalez’s 
Maroon Nation shows what happened after the revolution ended. Even as 
the new country’s rulers tried to revive the plantation system and 
reestablish the old circuits of commerce, Haitians quite successfully 
resisted. The result was to dramatically turn the country from the most 
globally connected place on earth into one of the most disconnected in 
the Western Hemisphere—but not, Gonzalez suggests, altogether unhappily. 
In other words, one book shows how the enslaved used structures largely 
created by their masters against their masters. The other shows how 
former slaves largely escaped these structures.

Scott’s book has a history of its own. He wrote it in the 1980s as his 
Ph.D. dissertation at Duke, but never revised it for publication. 
Nonetheless, the dissertation—first xeroxed, later downloaded—achieved 
levels of readership that most academic authors can only dream of (Scott 
is now retired after a long career teaching at the University of 
Michigan, and did not publish other books). Now, thanks to the efforts 
of the historian Marcus Rediker (who has provided a sprightly preface) 
and Verso, the manuscript has appeared, largely unrevised, between hard 
covers.

There has been a great flourishing of scholarly work on the 
revolutionary Caribbean since its composition, but The Common Wind still 
feels fresh. Scott has listened carefully for the voices—sometimes only 
whispers—that carried radical ideas and information around the 
Caribbean, leaving faint but distinct traces in the archives. He 
brilliantly translates to the Caribbean setting ideas originally 
developed by European historians about “history from below” and the ways 
“masterless,” itinerant men and women could drive political change. His 
prose beautifully evokes bustling ports and markets, remote jungle and 
mountain hideaways, wind-swept ship decks and fetid, cargo-laden hulls. 
At times there is almost a poetic atmosphere to the book, which 
appropriately takes its title from Wordsworth’s ode to Louverture: 
“There’s not a breathing of the common wind/That will forget thee.”

As Scott shows, the common wind of information and ideas proved utterly 
impossible for European colonial authorities to suppress. Black market 
women known as “higglers” traded news along with the fruits and 
vegetables they peddled from town to town throughout the region. Slaves 
passed on news as they accompanied their masters while traveling. And 
then there were the large communities of runaways and their descendants 
known as “maroons.” By the late eighteenth century, tens of thousands of 
them had established permanent settlements in remote regions of the 
larger Caribbean islands, in Jamaica even gaining formal recognition 
from the colonial authorities (although in return they had to agree, 
among other things, to send new fugitives back to slavery). They 
generally remained in regular contact with plantation slaves.

Most important for transmitting news and ideas between islands were 
sailors. Men of African descent, both enslaved and free, made up a 
sizable percentage of ship crews, especially on the small coast-hugging 
vessels known as droggers. Scott tells of a Bermuda-born slave named Joe 
Anderson who escaped his owner in 1779, despite wearing an iron collar 
and shackles, and spent the next fourteen years largely on Caribbean 
ships. And some white sailors, especially those “impressed” against 
their will into Britain’s Royal Navy (one such unfortunate described 
himself as having been sent into service “like a negro to a 
slave-ship”), developed a sense of kinship with slaves. On shore, 
sailors had plentiful contact with slaves. It is no surprise that a 
Jamaican slave owner in 1791 could speculate about “some unknown mode of 
conveying intelligence amongst Negroes.”

As this complaint suggested, information could be inflammatory. Enslaved 
people throughout the Caribbean learned of revolts by their brethren 
elsewhere. They learned of measures passed in other colonies to 
ameliorate the condition of slaves, and to put limits on the unspeakably 
cruel punishments inflicted by masters. They learned about the British 
slave ship Zong, whose crew threw 130 captives overboard in 1781 when 
its drinking water threatened to run out.

And especially, they learned about the Haitian Revolution. Jamaican 
newspapers deliberately did not report on the slave revolt of 1791, but 
within weeks Jamaican slaves knew what had happened and were adding 
stanzas about “the Negroes having made a rebellion at Hispaniola” to 
their traditional songs. The thousands of French colonists who fled 
war-scarred Saint-Domingue for elsewhere in the hemisphere brought along 
more detailed news of the revolution—and so did the slaves they often 
attempted to take with them. Several American states, fearful of the 
spark of rebellion, banned the importation of slaves from 
Saint-Domingue. Soon enough, Louverture’s government was itself actively 
spreading the revolutionary gospel.

As Scott might have noted, American newspapers, in part out of concerns 
about the Saint-Domingue trade, reported closely on events in the 
colony. In 1797 a New York City Democratic paper reprinted, in 
translation, a speech in which Louverture promised to “break asunder the 
chains of…our Brethren…still…under the shameful yoke of slavery…and to 
unite mankind into a race of brothers.”1 At the time, slavery was still 
legal in New York, and the idea of a black general in the American army 
was utterly unthinkable (the first black person to attain the rank did 
so in 1940). All this news had an effect. Over the next few years, 
slaves rebelled in many other parts of the Americas, as far away as Coro 
on the coast of Venezuela—although everywhere less successfully than in 
Saint-Domingue.

Had he chosen to revise his dissertation for publication, Scott might 
have included more about Saint-Domingue itself. He relies mostly on 
English- and Spanish-language sources and does not draw on the rich 
French colonial archives. As a result, while he shows definitively how 
circuits of information spread news about the Haitian Revolution through 
the Caribbean, he does not investigate how enslaved people in 
Saint-Domingue itself learned about events elsewhere, and how this 
information might have contributed to the outbreak and development of 
the slave revolt there. Much about the beginnings of this revolt remain 
mysterious, even today, as its leaders left few written records. We can 
only hope that a historian with Scott’s sleuthing skills will use his 
methodologies to illuminate it further. But The Common Wind already does 
an enormous amount to show how enslaved people functioned as active 
participants in the age of revolution.

In Scott’s book, Louverture appears as a largely sympathetic figure 
whose name became a symbol of hope for African-Americans and who had the 
“dream of rebuilding the colony after a decade of war and joining the 
family of nations on an equal basis.” But what did “rebuilding the 
colony” entail? For Louverture and his principal deputies, Jean-Jacques 
Dessalines and Henry Christophe, it meant reestablishing the plantation 
system and bringing exports of cash crops back to prerevolutionary 
levels. And this, in turn, meant reestablishing some version of the 
ferocious discipline needed to run sugar plantations, in particular. 
Louverture vehemently opposed slavery and promised workers a portion of 
plantation revenues, but he also imposed a stringent labor code that 
amounted to a kind of serfdom, prohibiting workers from leaving the land 
they worked. In 1801 he even ordered all citizens to carry 
identification cards to help authorities enforce the code, making 
Saint-Domingue the first country in history to adopt a full-fledged 
national identification system. Louverture, Dessalines, and Christophe 
appropriated some of the wealthiest plantations for their own personal 
property. And while the new plantation overseers did not use whips and 
chains, they beat recalcitrant workers with vines and subdued them with 
rope.

This is where Gonzalez’s pathbreaking Maroon Nation begins. As Gonzalez 
points out, few early leaders of independent Haiti had backgrounds as 
field slaves. Many had been free before the revolution, and 
some—primarily mixed-race descendants of white colonists—had even owned 
plantations and slaves themselves. Others, like Louverture and 
Christophe, had been skilled workers (Louverture gained his freedom in 
the 1770s and briefly owned at least one slave). These leaders most 
likely quite genuinely believed that unless they restored the plantation 
system the country would not have the resources to defend itself against 
possible reconquest and reenslavement. As they knew very well, Napoleon 
did successfully reimpose slavery elsewhere in the Caribbean. But they 
practiced an authoritarian style of rule enforced by a powerful military 
caste, accumulated vast personal wealth, and did not take the desires of 
the plantation workers into account.

These workers had made their desires very clear during the revolution. 
They did not just revolt against their masters in 1791. They burned 
plantations, smashed the hated industrial machinery of sugar production, 
and looked for land where they could grow their own food. By 1796, the 
value of Saint-Domingue’s exports had fallen to just 5 percent of 
prerevolutionary levels. Louverture’s “militarized plantation state” 
made some progress in restoring production, but a new wave of arson 
accompanied the chaos of Napoleon’s invasion, and by 1802 nearly every 
sugar plantation stood in ruins. Gonzalez calls the rebels more 
successful versions of Britain’s Luddite machine-breakers and describes 
the Haitian Revolution itself as “one of history’s most successful acts 
of industrial sabotage.”

The conflicts did not cease after independence, even as the country 
lurched from political crisis to crisis. Dessalines, who proclaimed 
himself emperor in imitation of Napoleon, continued Louverture’s 
policies and tried to prevent workers from leaving the plantations for 
small farms, but with little success. His assassination in 1806 led to 
Haiti’s partition into a northern state ruled by Christophe (who crowned 
himself its king in 1811) and a southern republic led by the mixed-race 
Alexandre Pétion. Christophe pursued Louverture’s policies forcefully, 
but his unpopular regime fell apart, and he committed suicide in 1820.

Pétion did more to accommodate the former slaves, issuing land grants to 
former soldiers and giving citizens title to land they farmed, on the 
condition that they start to raise cash crops. For these concessions, he 
won the nickname “Papa bon Coeur.” But he too kept trying to revive the 
plantation economy, as did his successor, Jean-Pierre Boyer, who 
reunited Haiti after Christophe’s death. In 1826 Boyer issued a 
repressive “rural code” to keep ordinary Haitians from moving into 
subsistence farming by punishing those who left their plantations. His 
efforts, like those of his predecessors, failed. By the 1820s, Haitians 
were actually buying sugar from Cuba, while as early as 1813, a country 
that had once needed to import food staples to feed its captive labor 
force had begun to export grain.

Ordinary Haitians used a variety of strategies, mostly derived from the 
experience of maroons before the revolution, to resist the attempts to 
put them back onto plantations. They organized into secret societies, 
many of which had African roots (for instance the Bizango, who traced 
their origins to the Bissagos Islands off the coast of Guinea-Bissau). 
They practiced the syncretic, African-derived religion of Vodou. 
Successive Haitian governments tried to stamp out these forms of what 
Gonzalez calls “counterinstitutionality,” but to no avail.

Most importantly, Haitians moved into remote areas of the country, out 
of reach of the authorities, and began to practice subsistence farming. 
Sometimes they simply squatted. Other times they purchased land, which 
had become plentiful and cheap, in part because the revolution had 
decimated the Haitian population (it almost certainly fell below 400,000 
from above 500,000). Gonzalez estimates that a 3.2 acre plot probably 
cost the equivalent of 80 bottles of milk or 480 eggs. And the land, 
blessed with abundant sunshine and rain, proved as intensely fertile for 
subsistence farming as it had for sugar production. Haitians grew corn, 
beans, rice, millet, bananas, sweet potatoes, manioc, yams, pumpkins, 
and much else, often mixing crops together on the same small plots.

This resistance succeeded and had long-lasting effects. Gonzalez writes, 
“No other society in the Americas experienced such a widespread 
transition to small-scale freeholding, and no other witnessed more than 
two centuries of total breakdown in formal, elite-directed systems of 
landownership.” Even a nineteen-year occupation by the US Marine Corps 
in the early twentieth century did not result in a restoration of the 
plantation system. Haiti never cut itself off entirely from networks of 
global commerce. It continued to export coffee, which required less 
intensive methods of production than sugar. It also became an important 
producer of such goods as tortoiseshell, beeswax, mahogany, and dyewood. 
The profits allowed the country’s small elite to pay their soldiers and 
purchase luxuries from abroad. But the ruins of the sugar plantations 
quickly rotted in the tropical climate, and the large majority of 
Haitians lived as a “maroon nation”—well enough that in the century 
after independence, the population grew more than sixfold, to roughly 
2.5 million people.

Gonzalez is still cautious about how well maroon resistance ultimately 
served the Haitians. Nineteenth-century Haitian society was “neither 
egalitarian nor democratic,” he writes. Most Haitians remained very poor 
and subject to abuses and exploitation by successive military dictators, 
whose rule several times collapsed into bouts of civil war. Of course, 
the fault hardly lay with Haitian elites alone. The Western powers 
shunned Haiti, with the United States extending diplomatic recognition 
only in 1862. France did the same in 1825, in return for crippling 
reparations for lost colonial property, including human property (Haiti 
did not fully pay off its debt until 1947). In agreeing to the deal, 
Gonzalez comments acidly, President Boyer “signed away his country’s 
future.”

In general, Gonzalez has little sympathy for the ruling elites. His work 
sits uneasily with recent scholarship that treats Dessalines and 
Christophe relatively favorably, although he in no sense endorses older 
interpretations of them as brutal buffoons.2 His views of Louverture 
recall biographies by French historians that have emphasized the man’s 
acquisitiveness and authoritarianism, rather than recent 
English-language works that are far more admiring.3 Louverture was a 
highly complex, imperfect leader, but he had an implacable commitment to 
liberating his people from slavery, and arguably pursued the policies he 
did because he believed they were the only way to make Saint-Domingue 
strong enough to preserve its freedom.

Even so, Gonzalez’s work superbly illuminates the condition of ordinary 
Haitians, and how their views and interests could differ from those of 
their rulers. It shows how African ideas and practices continued to 
shape Haitian society, and how these ideas and practices differed from 
those of the self-consciously Europeanized, French-speaking elites. It 
reminds us once again that revolution and capitalist economic 
development did not necessarily go hand in hand in the age of 
revolution. And it demonstrates forcefully that “globalization” has not 
always moved inexorably forward. It has had its reverses, its low tides, 
its eddies.

The Haitian story that Gonzalez recounts has an intriguing parallel 
elsewhere in the history of French colonialism. Before its annexation by 
Britain in 1763, French Canada was a remarkably cosmopolitan, 
economically advanced place, drawing ambitious migrants hoping to make 
fortunes from fur or fish and then to return to Europe. But after the 
annexation (to which France agreed, after losing the Seven Years’ War, 
in return for keeping the far more profitable Caribbean colonies), trade 
quickly passed into the hands of British merchants. French settlers, cut 
off from Europe, moved from trapping and trade to subsistence 
agriculture. Their community, increasingly dominated by the Catholic 
clergy, turned in on itself. As the historian Leslie Choquette argued in 
her aptly titled book Frenchmen into Peasants (1997), the most 
outward-looking and mobile French-speaking community in the world soon 
became the most closed-off and sedentary.4 Here too, then, globalization 
was reversed. And here, too, by one elementary measure the reversal 
proved amazingly beneficial. In the century and a half after 1763, the 
French-speaking population of the province may have grown as much as 
thirtyfold, to roughly two million.

In the twentieth century, of course, the fates of Haitians and French 
Canadians diverged radically. By 1900, the Haitian population had 
reached the limits of what subsistence farming could support, putting it 
under renewed strain. Unlike French Canadians, Haitians had few 
technological resources to increase agricultural productivity, and no 
industrial economy to migrate into (French Canadians particularly 
flocked to the mills of New England). The Haitian state remained little 
more than an army and a tax-collecting system, while the US occupation 
and successive dictatorships gave ordinary Haitians few opportunities to 
take control of their own destinies in the way French Canadians did in 
Quebec’s “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960s (which led to provincial 
autonomy and strong protection for the French language, among other 
things). In Haiti, natural disasters such as the 2010 earthquake, which 
took at least 100,000 lives, have only added to the misery.

But this immiseration can hardly be blamed on the country’s turn away 
from the plantation system, and it is hard to imagine that Haiti would 
have fared any better if its elites had succeeded in rebuilding that 
system. The maroon nation was always, in the eyes of the Western powers, 
a pariah nation, feared as an example of slave rebellion and black 
empowerment. These countries were not going to help it return to its 
previous levels of prosperity. And in the nineteenth century, at least, 
Gonzalez argues persuasively, “maroon” strategies served Haiti 
relatively well. “For black people in the nineteenth century,” he 
writes, Haiti “was the closest thing to a free country that existed 
anywhere in the New World.” It was not the sort of freedom toward which 
revolutionaries strove in Europe and North America, but it was a 
significant form of freedom nonetheless. It lacked, however, access to a 
“common wind,” based in circuits of commerce, to bring news of it to 
other shores.

1
Greenleaf’s New-York Journal and Patriotic Register, June 17, 1797, p. 2. ↩

2
For an interesting take on Christophe, see Doris L. Garraway, “Empire of 
Liberty, Kingdom of Civilization: Henry Christophe, the Baron de Vastey, 
and the Paradoxes of Universalism in Postrevolutionary Haiti,” Small 
Axe, Vol. 16, No. 3 (November 2012). On Dessalines, see Julia Gaffield, 
Haitian Connections in the Atlantic World: Recognition After Revolution 
(University of North Carolina Press, 2015).  ↩

3
Contrast, for instance, Pierre Pluchon, Toussaint Louverture: Un 
révolutionnaire noir d’Ancien Régime (Paris: Fayard, 1989) with Nick 
Nesbitt, Universal Emancipation: The Haitian Revolution and the Radical 
Enlightenment (University of Virginia Press, 2008). ↩

4
Leslie Choquette, Frenchmen into Peasants: Modernity and Tradition in 
the Peopling of French Canada (Harvard University Press, 1997). ↩




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