The New York Times Book Review
Haiti: The Aftershocks of Historyby Laurent Dubois
A passionate and insightful account by a leading historian of Haiti that traces the sources of the country's devastating present back to its turbulent and traumatic history
Even before the 2010 earthquake destroyed much of the country, Haiti was known as a benighted place of poverty and corruption. Maligned and misunderstood, the nation has long been/p>/b>
A passionate and insightful account by a leading historian of Haiti that traces the sources of the country's devastating present back to its turbulent and traumatic history
Even before the 2010 earthquake destroyed much of the country, Haiti was known as a benighted place of poverty and corruption. Maligned and misunderstood, the nation has long been blamed by many for its own wretchedness. But as acclaimed historian Laurent Dubois makes clear, Haiti's troubled present can only be understood by examining its complex past. The country's difficulties are inextricably rooted in its founding revolution—the only successful slave revolt in the history of the world; the hostility that this rebellion generated among the colonial powers surrounding the island nation; and the intense struggle within Haiti itself to define its newfound freedom and realize its promise.
Dubois vividly depicts the isolation and impoverishment that followed the 1804 uprising. He details how the crushing indemnity imposed by the former French rulers initiated a devastating cycle of debt, while frequent interventions by the United States—including a twenty-year military occupation—further undermined Haiti's independence. At the same time, Dubois shows, the internal debates about what Haiti should do with its hard-won liberty alienated the nation's leaders from the broader population, setting the stage for enduring political conflict. Yet as Dubois demonstrates, the Haitian people have never given up on their struggle for true democracy, creating a powerful culture insistent on autonomy and equality for all.
Revealing what lies behind the familiar moniker of "the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere," this indispensable book illuminates the foundations on which a new Haiti might yet emerge.
The New York Times Book Review
“Well-written, authoritative history… enriched by careful attention to what Haitian intellectuals have had to say about their country over the last two centuries.” The New York Times Book Review
“A sweeping, passionate history of Haiti... Smart, honest, and utterly compelling, this book is the national biography this country and its people deserve.” Boston Globe
“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.” The Nation
“This excellent, engaging history seeks to strip away centuries of mocking and reductive bias. Dubois's Haiti is a land of ceaseless activity, a ferment of suppression and insurrection exacerbated by the mercenary intrusions of foreign powers--in the past century, chiefly the United States. Dubois also traces a parallel history of bold social experiments on the part of everyday Haitians… Throughout, he makes clear how economic pressures and political crises have left even the county's better leaders hamstrung, without downplaying their failures in fulfilling Haiti's great promise.” The New Yorker
“An admirable chronicle… Reading Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, I was repeatedly struck by the deep and detailed explanations of things that had never quite made sense to me about Haiti. Those ‘aha' moments were some of the most satisfying passages in this engrossing and deeply-researched book.” The Miami Herald
“A vigorous, knowledgeable and empathetic account... A pleasure to add to my collection of writings about Haiti.” San Francisco Chronicle
“Fascinating… For anyone with even a little interest in Haiti, this book is an essential read.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Very few times have I been able to say that I learned something new about a subject with which I am ostensibly familiar. But this is the case on virtually every page of Laurent Dubois's Haiti: The Aftershocks of History. Dubois, the veritable dean of Haitian studies, has produced that rarest of things: a highly entertaining narrative for the general reader, but one deeply satisfying to the scholar as well. This brilliant book, a compelling and colorful saga of the triumph and tragedy of Haitian revolution and freedom, should be required reading for anyone who wonders from whence the ‘curse on Haiti' really emanated.” Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University
“Laurent Dubois is an impeccable scholar and a master storyteller. Haiti: The Aftershocks of History is the new standard work in English on the astounding panorama of Haitian history, from the seismic events of its founding to the earthquake of 2010.” Madison Smartt Bell, author of All Souls' Rising
“Haiti’s history is tragic and noble, worth knowing for its own sake and essential to the country’s future. This book is an admirable synthesis of that historysensible, comprehensive, and gracefully written.” Tracy Kidder, author of Mountains Beyond Mountains
“A masterpiece… For those who, perusing the headlines, sometimes find themselves moved to ask the perennial question ‘Why is Haiti like that?,' Laurent Dubois provides a brilliant and perceptive riposte. Wielding sharp, unsettling anecdotes and a flowing prose style, Dubois plumbs Haiti's rich and singular history--with its unlikely heroes and persuasive demons, its exploiters and its misérables, its compromisers and its intransigents--to teach us important and subtle lessons in revolution, occupation, and liberation. These lessons go well beyond the concerns of Haitianists to encompass the great surge of human history, which may well be bearing us, today, toward another similar age of revolution and upheaval.” Amy Wilentz, author of The Rainy Season
Very few times have I been able to say that I learned something new about a subject with which I am ostensibly familiar. But this is the case on virtually every page of Laurent Dubois's Haiti: The Aftershocks of History. Dubois, the veritable dean of Haitian studies, has produced that rarest of things: a highly entertaining narrative for the general reader, but one deeply satisfying to the scholar as well. This brilliant book, a compelling and colorful saga of the triumph and tragedy of Haitian revolution and freedom, should be required reading for anyone who wonders from whence the 'curse on Haiti' really emanated.
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Read an Excerpt
“In the end,” Jean-Jacques Dessalines announced on January 1, 1804, “we must live independent or die.” Six weeks earlier, Dessalines, the revolutionaries’ general-in-chief, had secured the decisive defeat of the French forces at the Battle of Vertières. Now, surrounded by the main commanders of his army, he called into existence a new nation: Haiti. On the same day, those commanders named him “Governor-General for Life” of the newborn country, making him its first head of state.1
Like the majority of the population he spoke to, Dessalines had once been a slave. The slogan “Liberty or Death,” printed above the official independence decree, had a particularly potent meaning in Haiti. Defeat at the hands of the French would have meant literal death for the revolution’s leaders, and a return to slavery for the rest. In victory, they guaranteed themselves the freedom to build new lives and a new society.
Haiti’s independence had been won at a terrible cost. The new nation’s ports and many of its plantations were in ashes. Combat, hunger, and disease had killed vast numbers of people—as many as 100,000 during 1802–03 alone. As Dessalines surveyed the new country, he saw a land haunted by the dead. “Men and women, girls and boys, let your gaze tend on all parts of this island: look there for your wives, your husbands, your brothers, your sisters … what have they become?” He also invoked the memory of those who had died as slaves on the plantations, their misery the wellspring of the colony’s fabulous wealth. The French “barbarians,” said Dessalines, had “bloodied our land for two centuries,” and their influence would not be easy to throw off. “Le nom français lugubre encore nos contrées,” Dessalines declared—“The French name still glooms our lands.” The unconventional transformation of the adjective “lugubre”—“lugubrious”—into a verb captured just how deeply the history of French colonialism shadowed the newborn country. Against all this loss, the new country’s leader offered an absolute commitment to a liberated future. “We have dared to be free,” he proclaimed; “let us be thus by ourselves and for ourselves.”2
The expulsion of the French seemed to hold out the promise of a completely new system for organizing the Haitian society. But as Dessalines quickly realized, the colonial order could not be exorcised by fiat or decree. The Haitian population and its leaders, after all, inherited a finely tuned plantation machine, a place whose entire mode of being was driven by the production of sugar and coffee for export. That was the initial condition from which the new country had to be built, and it proved inescapable. Colonial Saint-Domingue had been constructed around a hierarchical social order, an autocratic and militarized political system, and an export-oriented economy. From the moment of its founding to the present day, Haiti would find itself burdened by all three.
At the same time, however, the Haitian Revolution was an act of profound—and irreversible—transformation. Few other generations in history have achieved what the Haitian revolutionaries managed to do. If not for their victory, slavery would almost certainly have continued in the colony for at least several decades more, as it did in all the societies that surrounded them. By defeating the French forces, they created a space where former slaves could exercise cultural and social autonomy to a degree unknown anywhere else in the Americas. While Dessalines and other Haitian leaders eloquently articulated a passionate refusal of slavery, it was the people of Haiti who truly gave content to that refusal. Melding traditions and beliefs carried from Africa, the spirit of resistance born on the plantations of Saint-Domingue, and the confidence and knowledge gained from the triumph over the French, they created a new culture and way of life driven by an unceasing emphasis on independence and personal freedom.
Despite its drama and historic importance, many of the most important aspects of Haiti’s revolution are startlingly difficult to document. We know much about its leaders, who left plentiful records of their actions and perspectives; we know far less about the experiences and the views of the masses of slaves who so dramatically changed the world in which they lived. Yet it was the culture of these masses, forged in bondage—the Kreyòl language, the Vodou religion, the focus on community, dignity, and self-sufficiency—that ultimately enabled them to destroy slavery and produce something new in its place.
* * *
Haiti has had many names. When the Atlantic currents brought Columbus to its shores on his first voyage, he baptized the island La Española, which in English became Hispaniola. The small outpost that Columbus set up on the northern coast of Hispaniola was the first European settlement in the Americas, though an ill-fated one: by the time he returned, all the settlers had been killed by indigenous inhabitants. The Spanish soon built a new settlement on the southeastern coast of the island, however, which they dubbed Santo Domingo, after the revered founder of the Dominican order. The town gave its name to the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo, which, centuries later, would become the Dominican Republic. French colonists, arriving on the western half of the island in the late seventeenth century, took the Spanish name and translated it, giving the title of Saint-Domingue to what would soon become their most precious American territory. Of course, long before the Europeans appeared, the indigenous inhabitants had their own names for the land. Among them, as early Spanish chroniclers noted, was Ayiti—“land of mountains.” It was this name that the founders of Haiti reached back to in 1804, seeking to connect their struggle for freedom from slavery with the earlier battles of indigenous peoples against Spanish invaders.3
The island of Hispaniola was the starting point for European conquest of the Americas. By the middle of the sixteenth century, Hispaniola’s indigenous population of perhaps 500,000 to 750,000 people was almost completely eliminated through war, forced labor, and disease. Santo Domingo became America’s first colonial city, with a cathedral and university, and the Spanish imported African slaves to work on sugar plantations. As Spain conquered vast territories on the mainland of South America, however, Santo Domingo lost its importance, becoming mainly a stopover point for Spanish ships on their way to Europe. The ships’ cargoes of silver drew English and French pirates to the region, and the Spanish government, unable to protect settlements on the western half of Hispaniola against pirate raids, removed them altogether. Soon French settlers from the famous pirate haven of Tortuga, just north of Hispaniola, moved in on the Spanish territory and began building plantations on the island’s northwest coast. For a few decades they remained essentially illegal squatters, but in 1697 Spain officially ceded the territory to France.
By the late seventeenth century, the English and French empires in the Americas were increasingly fixated on growing one particular crop: sugar. The geographical fault lines that lie under Haiti and the rest of the Caribbean created a series of islands that turned out to be the perfect place for the cultivation of sugarcane. Haiti had the region’s highest mountains, which sent water down to a series of large, flat plains. These abutted well-protected bays, ideal for anchoring ships. The island, furthermore, is situated right at the end of a highway crossing the Atlantic: a strong current flows from Europe directly toward it. Another set of currents lead from Africa straight to Haiti as well. The territory became one of the key points in the “triangle trade” that created the Atlantic economy of the eighteenth century: manufactured goods were brought from Europe to Africa, slaves from Africa to the Americas, and slave-produced crops from the Caribbean back to Europe.
French Saint-Domingue grew to become the most profitable colony in the world. By the late eighteenth century, it was the world’s largest producer of sugar, exporting more of it than the colonies of Jamaica, Cuba, and Brazil combined. At the same time, Saint-Domingue also grew fully half of the world’s coffee. It was a small territory, covering only about 10,600 square miles—about the size of Massachusetts. Yet it was more valuable to France than all the thirteen colonies of North America were to England.
An official estimate of the colony’s population in 1789 reported that Saint-Domingue contained 55,000 free people and 450,000 slaves. But because slaves were taxed, they were also broadly undercounted; in all likelihood there were at least half a million of them. The slaves outnumbered the free population by ten to one in the colony overall, and by a much higher proportion on many of the plantations. In the parish of Acul, where the 1791 insurrection began, there were 3,500 slaves surrounding 130 free people.4
The free population was also deeply segmented and divided. It included fabulously wealthy white planters and powerful officials; poor white migrants managing slave gangs or working in the ports; and what were known as “free people of color,” men and women of African descent who were not slaves and who indeed often owned slaves and plantations themselves.* According to official estimates, the colony’s free population was divided more or less evenly between whites and people of color. Notably, the free men of color made up a large portion of the local police as well as of the colonial militia. The major task of that militia force, in Saint-Domingue, was not to defend the colony from external threats but to protect the territory from its potentially overwhelming enemy within: the slave majority.5
Although the colony produced some cotton, indigo, and a great deal of coffee, most of the slaves toiled on sugar plantations. Harvesting cane is backbreaking work, made risky by the razor-sharp spines of the tall stalks and the insects and snakes nested in the fields. Once cut, cane has to be processed quickly, so enslaved workers—usually women—worked day and night feeding the cane stalks into large stone mills, where it was all too easy for hands and arms to be pulled in and crushed. Other slaves supervised vats of boiling cane juice that produced the sugar crystals. A small number of slaves also worked as artisans, constructing barrels and buildings, or as domestics in the opulent plantation homes. A privileged few occupied positions as commandeurs, slave drivers transmitting instructions from masters and managers to field hands and making sure that these orders were followed. The drivers were viewed with both respect and fear—they were the ones who whipped any slaves who disobeyed—and were informal leaders within the plantation. It was a well-ordered system, a combination of “field and factory,” in the terms of anthropologist Sidney Mintz, that brought together advanced technology and carefully designed labor management. But it also exhausted the soil through one cane harvest after another, and began a process of deforestation as swaths of trees were cut down to build plantation houses and the thriving port towns.6
Although masters controlled slaves in part through the promise of material rewards—extra food, better work, and sometimes even freedom—they depended most of all on terror. Slaves were branded with their masters’ initials (often after having been already branded once by slave traders in Africa) and quickly learned that any resistance would be met with whipping or worse. Each plantation in Saint-Domingue had a post ready for public punishments, which were carried out in front of the assembled workforce. Some contemporaries described brutally creative tortures devised by particularly sadistic masters, such as cutting off arms and legs, or burying slaves up to their necks and leaving them to be attacked by biting insects.
Slaves died in stunning numbers in the colony; each year, between 5 and 10 percent of the slave population succumbed to overwork and disease. Death outpaced births, and only a constant stream of imports sustained the laboring population. Some contemporaries were dismayed by the brutality and inefficiency of the system. They proposed reforms they hoped would increase the locally born slave population: a few weeks of rest from field labor for pregnant women, and rewards for those who had several children. But it was cheaper to let slaves die and buy more from Africa, so that is what the planters did.
Of the half-million slaves in Saint-Domingue on the eve of the 1791 revolt, about 330,000 had been born and raised in Africa. Most of them were quite recent arrivals; more than 40,000 had stepped off the slave ships just the previous year. Their African background—as well as their experience of the Middle Passage and plantation labor—shaped their politics, their practices, and their hopes for what life after slavery should be like. Though they were at the bottom of the social pyramid, they profoundly influenced the society’s culture and therefore its future.7
The largest number of slaves in the colony came from the central African region broadly known as the Kongo. Captured by slave raiders or in battle, they were shipped to Africa’s Atlantic coast and then loaded onto slave ships for the weeks-long voyage to Saint-Domingue. Arriving in Saint-Domingue, they found themselves in a cosmopolitan world, a mélange of different languages and cultures. None of them would likely have defined themselves as “Africans,” but rather as members of particular groups or kingdoms: Kongo, Ibo, Fon, Poulards. And the newcomers were immediately mixed with enslaved people who were “creoles,” born in the colony itself. Creoles and African-born slaves had very different perspectives, to be sure, but at the same time they also shared a great deal. Most creole slaves, after all, had African parents, while the African arrivals necessarily became creolized, part of a New World culture in formation. “I’m a Creole-Kongo,” a Vodou song declares.8
As they suffered together through the trauma of plantation life, Africans and creoles developed their own rituals of healing, mourning, and worship. Such ceremonies, along with dances and communal meals held on the margins of plantations, carved out a place where the enslaved could temporarily escape the order that saw them only as chattel property. The rituals combined religious practices from a wide variety of African traditions, including Christianity: the royalty of the Kongo had converted to Catholicism in the sixteenth century, and that religion was widely practiced in the region. Over time, the hybrid form of worship became known by the West African name of Vodou. It was an extremely open and fluid religion, welcoming new arrivals. Contemporary Vodou bears the traces of this openness: its pantheon includes many different lwa, or gods, who share certain rituals but also retain their distinctiveness. The different nanchons—nations—of lwa bear signs of their varied origins in different parts of Africa, and Vodou songs often emphasize the way in which many groups came together to create one common tradition of worship. One, called “Sou Lan Mè”—“On the Ocean”—uses the experience of the Middle Passage as a metaphor for the broader creation of a new life in Haiti. In the hold of the ship, on the turbulent waters of the Atlantic, it announces, “we all became one.” Sung within Vodou ceremonies, the song is another reminder of the way in which the new culture was born out of a common experience of captivity, exile, and ultimately resistance.9
Saint-Domingue also gave birth to a new language: Kreyòl. What began as a rough-hewn form of communication for the linguistically diverse population of the colony—speakers of French, dialects such as Breton, and different African languages—became the native tongue of most children in the colony, slave and free alike, who developed and solidified the language. By the mid-eighteenth century, Kreyòl was spoken by almost everyone in Saint-Domingue, from wealthy masters to African-born slaves. It was the lingua franca of the plantations and the towns alike, and poetry, songs, and plays were written and performed in Kreyòl.10
Born in the harsh world of the plantations, these cultural achievements turned out to be potent political weapons. Masters and officials had always tried to contain the slave majority as much as possible. Colonial laws restricted the movement of slaves, mostly keeping them under constant surveillance on the plantation, and severely punishing any runaways, known as maroons. But slaves nonetheless found opportunities to circulate and thereby build connections with slaves from other plantations. The development of Kreyòl and Vodou facilitated such connections, creating communities of trust that stretched between different plantations and into the towns. These communities were what made it ultimately possible for the conspirators of 1791 to organize a coordinated assault on masters, sugar, and slavery.
The 1791 uprising also drew on a particularly useful skill that many of the recently arrived slaves had brought across the Atlantic. The slaves who arrived in Saint-Domingue from central Africa in the late eighteenth century came from a region torn apart by civil wars. Many were former soldiers, sold to European slavers after being captured in battle. They were well versed in the use of firearms and experienced in military tactics involving small, mobile, autonomous units. The governors and masters of Saint-Domingue had seen only living merchandise stepping off the African ships docked in their harbors, and they were confident that their methods for controlling these slaves would work as they always had in colonies throughout the Americas. What the masters didn’t see was that the boats had brought literally thousands of soldiers to their shores. The new arrivals carried in their minds all the tactics and experience required to start—and win—a war. All they needed were weapons and an opportunity.11
* * *
In the middle of 1789, news of the French Revolution began arriving in Saint-Domingue from across the Atlantic. The upheaval in France sent shock waves throughout the world, but it created a particularly significant opening in Saint-Domingue. It weakened the French empire’s central government and its system of colonial rule. At the same time, the revolution produced and sent into circulation a new, radical language of rights that could be put to use in contesting the existing social order. Among the first to take advantage of this new situation were Saint-Domingue’s free people of color, who saw an opportunity to remedy their exclusion from the colony’s political life. It was their initiative that launched what can be considered the first stage of the Haitian Revolution—though no one at the time would likely have predicted that these events would lead to the end of slavery, and eventually of the colony itself.
In the prospering territory of Saint-Domingue, many free people of color had become quite wealthy. White planters who fathered children with their slaves rarely acknowledged the mixed-race offspring officially, but it was relatively common practice to free them and give them land. By the time of the revolution, some families of color had been free for two or three generations. They bought their own plantations and slaves, and they became particularly involved in the colony’s lesser crops: indigo, cotton, and especially coffee. The plains that were best for cultivating sugar were mostly controlled by French colonists, but even in the mid-eighteenth century there was still plenty of land to be had in the mountains of Saint-Domingue, and these plots were ideal for coffee growing. Some free people of color who got into the coffee boom early made fortunes as a result; others invested in waterfront property in Port-au-Prince and ended up perfectly positioned to become successful merchants in the port town. Since there were almost no schools in the colony, such families often sent their children to France, where they received elite educations.12
Of course, not all free people of color were wealthy; some of them led a very modest existence on the margins of free society. And not all were creoles: the group also included African-born men and women who had managed to gain their freedom. But rich or poor, light-skinned or not, all the free people of color were discriminated against by a set of laws which constantly reminded them that, simply because they were not white, they were a step below in the colonial hierarchy. They were prevented from practicing law and medicine, from holding local administrative positions, even from buying luxury clothes and furniture. Starting in 1784, an activist named Julien Raimond repeatedly petitioned the royal government to strike down these laws, but to no avail. After 1789, leading free people of color in the colony took advantage of the new political context to again demand equality with whites. They didn’t attack the institution of slavery itself—after all, wealth in Saint-Domingue was rooted in slavery, and many of them were slaveholders themselves—but they insisted that there should no longer be racial distinctions between free people in the colonies.
Despite the French Revolution’s egalitarian rhetoric, the Saint-Domingue planters and the French government refused to make any serious concessions to the free people of color. As a few lucid observers at the time realized, this was a major strategic mistake. When pamphlets and lobbying in Paris failed, free men of color took up arms in their cause. They had long made up the majority of the militia and police in the colony and thus had ready access to weapons. Their first uprising, led by a man named Vincent Ogé, was crushed, and in 1790 Ogé was captured and publicly broken on the wheel. After this defeat, some of Ogé’s companions proposed increasing the size of their forces by arming their plantation slaves. As skirmishes erupted throughout the colony, free men of color began leading their slaves into battle. Whites responded in kind. Soon, slaves everywhere were being given weapons and asked to fight on one side or another of a steadily expanding conflict.
Suddenly, what had begun as an intense but contained struggle over social privileges among the free population of Saint-Domingue had expanded to involve the other nine-tenths of the population. The colony, where the slaves vastly outnumbered their owners, had long been a tinderbox, and the French Revolution had now tossed a match into it. Within a few months, the slaves would no longer be fighting on behalf of their masters, but for themselves.
At a religious ceremony held in August 1791, slave conspirators in the north of Haiti finalized their plans for insurrection. Among those who oversaw the ceremony was an enslaved man named Boukman, who emerged as the movement’s main early leader. He and his network of conspirators organized the uprising brilliantly, and when a few days later the slaves rose up simultaneously on sugar plantations throughout the north, they took the colonial power structure by surprise. As the insurgents swept across the plain setting fire to cane fields, their terrorized masters fled to the port town of Le Cap. Boukman was killed in an engagement with French forces, but his fellow fighters pressed on, and one by one the world’s most profitable plantations became military camps for a new army of insurgent slaves.
The insurrection’s leaders knew that the odds were massively against them. Slave revolts had broken out constantly in plantation societies, but they had been essentially suicide missions. The rebels knew that slavery was everywhere: behind any one group of masters or troop of soldiers there was always another. If they were to succeed, they would need strong allies.
The Saint-Domingue insurgents found such allies in the colony’s free people of color, many of whom decided that joining the slave revolt was their best chance for gaining equal rights from the French government. The alliance was a potent one, bringing together the military skills of enslaved Africans with those of colonial soldiers and police. At first, the rebelling slaves had mainly used the tools of their labor—machetes and cane knives—as weapons, though they also found some pistols and rifles on the plantations. Free people of color, however, brought rifles and even cannon into the insurgent camps.
Many of the revolutionaries were intent on vengeance, and one infamous leader named Jeannot ordered the whites whom he captured to be whipped and tortured. But other slaves understood that such actions were a political liability. They ordered Jeannot to stop and, when he didn’t, executed him. In fact, many white prisoners found that, while they were certainly threatened by their captors, they were treated relatively well. Several were recruited as secretaries, writing letters for the insurgent leaders.
One of the most prominent advocates for humane treatment of whites was Toussaint Bréda, who, early in the conflict, had taken on a new and soon legendary last name: Louverture. Like many of those who became leaders in the revolution, he had known life in several different strata of the colonial society in Saint-Domingue. Born a slave, he had served as a coachman on a large sugar plantation in the north of the colony. He received some education from his godfather—a free man of color—and was given his freedom as a relatively young man. He did well for himself, managing a small plantation near Le Cap and briefly owning his own slave. At the beginning of the insurrection, he helped his white former masters to safety before joining the rebels, an act that earned him valuable trust among local planters and for which he was long lauded by his biographers. Louverture was a consummate tactician and a tireless negotiator, whose brilliant military and political strategies shaped the insurrection into a powerful, even unstoppable force. One of the most dramatic figures in the history of the modern world, he was at once frightening and fascinating to his contemporaries.13
Louverture astutely made use of the geopolitical conflicts of the moment. European empires shared a common commitment to slavery, but they also coveted one another’s Caribbean territories and had fought unceasingly over them for centuries. When the slave uprising began in 1791, England and Spain both saw it as a marvelous opportunity to take over the coveted colony of Saint-Domingue. The Spanish, working from across the border in Santo Domingo, reached out to the slave insurgents, offering to give them weapons and commissions as Spanish officers if they would help secure the colony for Spain. Louverture took advantage of the proffered weaponry, which turned his army into a powerful military force. Later, when he no longer needed the Spanish, he unceremoniously turned on them and drove them from the colony.
The English unwittingly assisted the insurgents in their own way. In their bid for control of the colony they reached out to French planters, who by 1792 were increasingly suspicious of the French state—now in the hands of the radicals, some of them prominent abolitionists. Several of the planters made it clear that they would be willing to support England’s ambitions for Saint-Domingue in order to preserve slavery in the colony. Dealing with France’s enemy, however, created a significant new opening for the slave insurgents. The isolated French governors of the island, facing the possibility of mass treason among white planters, found they had no one to turn to for preventing the loss of the colony except the revolutionaries themselves.
In June 1793, two French Republican commissioners—Léger Félicité Sonthonax and Étienne Polverel—made a stunning decision. Reaching out to the armies of slave insurgents that surrounded Le Cap, the commissioners promised that if these rebels fought for the French Republic, they would be granted freedom and citizenship. The first to respond were a group of rebels led by an elderly Kongo-born man named Pierrot. He became an officer in the French army, his troops Republican soldiers. Other insurgents soon followed, shoring up the vulnerable position of the French commissioners. Understanding their power, the insurgents pressed for their families to be freed as well, and Sonthonax and Polverel agreed to do so, steadily expanding their offer. Still, many rebels, including Toussaint Louverture, remained aloof and kept fighting on the side of the Spanish and against the French. Under pressure from the insurgents and desperate to secure the loyalty of the population of Saint-Domingue, Sonthonax and Polverel took an even more radical step in August 1793: they abolished all slavery in the colony outright.14
A delegation of elected representatives from Saint-Domingue, including the African-born Jean-Baptiste Belley, traveled to Paris and presented the news to the National Convention. They argued forcefully that emancipation was both morally right and strategically vital. While white planters had happily consorted with England, France’s enemy, the black former slaves in the colony had made themselves the Republic’s most valuable and steadfast defenders in the Caribbean. The delegates were so persuasive that in February 1794, the Convention decreed slavery abolished not just in Saint-Domingue but throughout the former French empire. They extended the rights of French citizenship to “all men, of all colors,” creating the legal foundations for the first multiracial democracy in the New World.
It was a remarkable victory for the revolutionaries of the Caribbean. By crafting an alliance with progressive forces in France, they had managed to convert to their cause the government of one of the most powerful empires on earth, whose fortunes had been built on the foundation of slavery. It was an action without precedent, and without preparation. No one in France, not even the more radical abolitionists, had envisioned that slavery would be abolished as suddenly as it was in Saint-Domingue. None had imagined that the former slaves would gain not just freedom but also the rights of citizenship. France’s abolition of slavery did not grow out of French abolitionists’ plans and deliberations; rather, it was the direct result of the 1791 slave uprising and the successful military campaign waged over the course of two years by an army of determined insurgents.
But the dramatic victory also created major problems. What would the economy of Saint-Domingue look like after slavery? How would the plantation system work? Broadly united in a common struggle for liberation, the coalition that won freedom in 1793 would find itself deeply divided over precisely what that freedom should mean.
* * *
How do you get from slavery to freedom? Throughout the nineteenth century, the question haunted and challenged many political leaders. But it initially arose in all its complexity in Saint-Domingue, where it fell to Toussaint Louverture to manage the first large-scale emancipation process in the Americas. As soon as he heard that the National Convention had abolished slavery throughout the empire, Louverture rapidly rallied to the French side. Having established himself as the main leader of the insurrection, he now became a French general. Within a few years, he was named the governor general of the colony by the French government.
After their initial slavery-abolishing proclamations in 1793, Sonthonax and Polverel had hurriedly issued a series of decrees that sought to contain the economic and social impact of emancipation. According to these regulations, former slaves were obligated to remain on their plantations. No longer slaves but not fully free either, they were called “cultivators,” and in return for their labor they received a quarter of what was produced on the plantation, to be divided among themselves. Rapidly put together in a moment of crisis, these regulations ended up having a remarkably long-term impact on the territory. They became the foundation not only for Louverture’s administration, but also for many of the laws enacted by Haitian leaders after independence.
Both the French commissioners and Louverture might, of course, have chosen another solution: breaking up the plantations and giving the land to the slaves. After all, as at least one commentator noted during the revolution, the slaves had worked for no pay for a long time. People who fled from France or its territories after 1791 were officially considered traitors by the French government, and the state took over their property. In Saint-Domingue, that meant that the military regime led by Toussaint Louverture was now in control of estates abandoned by the planters and could dispose of them as it saw fit.
Louverture never really considered breaking up the plantations, however. He saw the continuation of the plantation system as the only viable choice for his people. How else, after all, could the economy of an export-oriented colony function? During his time as leader of Saint-Domingue, Louverture steadfastly defended the plantation system, telling the ex-slaves that they had to prove to the world that it was possible to produce sugar and coffee without slavery. He argued fervently that in order to preserve their hard-won freedom, the ex-slaves of Saint-Domingue had to accept the restrictions that would keep plantations going.
In practice, this meant that Louverture offered up the sequestered land for rent. Those who leased the plantations paid the ex-slave cultivators a quarter of what was produced and gave another quarter to the state. The rest was theirs. It was a very lucrative proposition, and the people who were best placed to take advantage of this opportunity were members of Louverture’s regime—especially the army’s higher-ranking officers and generals. Their military power allowed them to dominate the state, and that in turn gave them access to valuable properties in the colony. This equation, established over the course of the revolution, would long haunt independent Haiti.15
For the plantation laborers, the process must have seemed particularly cynical. Louverture was the one who insisted on the maintenance of agricultural policies, set up by Sonthonax and Polverel, that forced ex-slaves to keep working as “cultivators”; and his generals doubled as agricultural administrators, using the armed forces to police the plantations and punish anyone who sought to run away from them. Saint-Domingue’s social hierarchy was no longer based on race or on chattel bondage; like the overall population, the army was comprised mostly of ex-slaves, many of them African-born. But with the military hierarchy offering the only definitive escape from plantation toil, the path to power in the colony was still closed off to all but a small group of men.
Plantation laborers knew that their condition had changed for the better, but they also resented the many continuities between the old regime and the new. Some of them put up resistance reminiscent of what slaves had done before the revolution: running away to the mountains or the towns, or even turning to violent rebellion. (Louverture decisively crushed such revolts, including one led by his adopted nephew Moïse.) Others fought back in more subtle ways, taking advantage of provisions in Sonthonax and Polverel’s 1793 decrees that set up democratic assemblies on the plantations. These assemblies, in which laborers could vote on details of their work routine, elect their own leaders, and discuss problems or complaints, were clearly cherished by the cultivators. The laborers quickly put the assemblies to good use in lively debates, making choices that often frustrated plantation managers and officials.
Women were especially active in these assemblies. Because they could not join the army, and because mothers with young children found it more difficult to simply run away from the plantation, in many areas women came to make up the bulk of the labor force. Accordingly, they had a particularly powerful interest in shaping the structure of labor on the plantations, and they frequently took the lead in the debates. They complained about the fact that while they did essentially the same work as men, they were paid less. And they pushed for the cultivators to spend less time working in the sugarcane fields and more time developing the small plots of land that they depended on to feed themselves and their families—plots whose history and significance stretched back to the days of slavery.16
In Saint-Domingue as in most other slave societies, masters trying to figure out how to feed a large slave population had settled upon a kind of compromise. Instead of purchasing expensive provisions, they allowed the slaves to farm scattered plots of land for themselves or else to work collectively on provision grounds for the whole plantation. The plots given over to the slaves were often difficult to cultivate: all the best land was kept for growing sugar, coffee, or cotton. Still, slaves took full advantage of the opportunity, developing productive gardens, planting fruit trees, and raising livestock in tiny spaces. What they didn’t consume themselves they sold in local markets. (These markets also provided a place for slaves from different plantations to meet and talk, connect and conspire.) The garden plots were so productive, in fact, that by the late eighteenth century they produced most of the food eaten in the colony by slaves and masters alike. From a tiny, self-serving concession by the owners, the slaves had carved out a measure of autonomy. Over time they came to consider the plots of land essentially theirs.17
After the insurrection began on the northern plantations, masters and managers throughout the colony found that the increasingly hard-to-control slaves were turning away from field labor and toward expanding their individual plots or the collective provision grounds. Sugar and coffee were not particularly useful to them, the slaves made clear; potatoes, livestock, and fruit were. It was a quiet, nonviolent revolt, but no less emphatic for all that.
Under Louverture’s regime, the little garden plots assumed even greater importance. Working on the same plantations for meager wages seemed a poor recompense for the costs of insurrection. Having survived the brutality of the slave system and then the violence of the revolution, the ex-slaves strongly believed that the land should be theirs; land ownership would give freedom its full and true meaning. Through their emphasis on self-sufficient agriculture, they built what Haitian sociologist Jean Casimir dubs a “counter-plantation” system, one based on a steadfast resistance to plantation labor in all its forms.18
Louverture never yielded to the counter-plantation resistance. Indeed, his use of force against unwilling plantation laborers led to persistent rumors that he was in league with the white planters and was planning to reestablish slavery. Thousands of planters had fled the island during the insurrection, heading to Jamaica and to U.S. cities such as Philadelphia, Charleston, and New York, but there were plenty who stayed in the colony, and Louverture developed an uneasy but stable compromise with them. They found that, while they had lost their direct ownership and immediate control of the laboring population, they could still survive, and in some cases even thrive, under Louverture’s regime. Indeed, he did so well by the remaining planters that many of those who had fled in the midst of war between 1791 and 1793 soon returned, attracted by the relative stability and the prospect of regaining control of their plantations.* For a few years during the late 1790s, two groups of landowners—some of them former masters, others former slaves—broadly cooperated in running the colony.20
In 1801, a commission composed almost entirely of white planters wrote a constitution for the territory of Saint-Domingue that made Louverture governor-for-life of the colony and gave him broad political powers. At the same time, the constitution established even more draconian agricultural provisions, solidifying and expanding regulations that forced laborers to continue working on the plantations. It was, in effect, a charter for a new colonial order, one in which slavery and racial hierarchy were dismantled but plantation production—and even white ownership of many plantations—was preserved.21
In the short term, this regime was an economic success. Under Louverture, coffee production reached nearly the levels it had achieved before the insurrection of 1791, while sugar production—severely affected by the widespread destruction of sugar processing machinery during the uprising—was steadily increasing. In the long run, however, the Haitian population’s hunger for land ownership and autonomy meant that the plantation system was doomed. Although the governments that came in the wake of Louverture would, like him, attempt to maintain and rebuild the plantation system—at times with tentative success—they could never truly reverse the process that began with the revolution of 1791 and the emancipation of the slaves two years later. The people of Saint-Domingue were determined to take control of their lives, and they would build their society around that resolve.
* * *
Although Saint-Domingue was still a French colony, Louverture often acted like the head of an independent state. Besides trading with the United States, for instance, he established a series of trade agreements with England—even though England and France were at war. And while Louverture always professed loyalty to France, he clearly didn’t fully trust the country’s commitment to emancipation. He made sure to keep his army well supplied with guns and ammunition, largely purchased from the United States, ready to work with France but also to fight it if necessary. He had reason to be concerned. Over the preceding years, many Frenchmen had attacked Louverture’s regime, painting damning portraits of a “despotic” governor and plantations overrun by lazy and violent ex-slaves. As long as there was a strong parliamentary system in France, Louverture had eloquent defenders who managed to hold back such challenges. But he knew how rapidly the situation might change.22
In November 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte carried out a coup in France, naming himself first consul. With the help of his brother-in-law, Victor Emmanuel Leclerc, he eliminated the parliament, silenced public debate, and centralized power in his own hands. Napoleon’s approach to colonial policy was shaped by a small group of advisers, several of whom were convinced that it was time for the experiment in emancipation to come to an end. Napoleon was particularly incensed by Louverture’s 1801 constitution, which he considered an inexcusable attack on his authority. He also knew that the timing was right for a strike: the French had begun peace negotiations with the British, and Napoleon had received assurances that any ships he sent to Saint-Domingue could travel unmolested across the Atlantic. He decided to act.
In late 1801, Napoleon placed Leclerc in charge of a massive military expedition to Saint-Domingue. Publicly, he proclaimed his commitment to liberty in the colonies and announced that the troops had an innocuous mission: to help buttress the defenses of the territory and keep order there. But he gave his brother-in-law detailed secret instructions: Leclerc was to either co-opt or destroy the black generals and prepare the way for the reestablishment of the old colonial order. “Rid us of these gilded negroes,” Napoleon pleaded, “and we will have nothing more to wish for.”23
When Louverture saw Leclerc’s armada hovering off the shores of Saint-Domingue, he decided to stage a tactical retreat. Realizing that he wouldn’t be able to hold the port towns, he ordered his officers to burn them to the ground, leaving nothing behind for the French. One of Louverture’s highest-ranking generals, Henry Christophe, who was in command of Cap Français when the French troops arrived, set his own mansion there alight before proceeding to the rest of the town. Dessalines, then the commander at Gonaïves, did the same. Christophe and Dessalines then led their troops into the mountains to begin the campaign of resistance against the French.24
Not everyone in the colony was united behind Louverture, however. Back in 1798, a rival general, André Rigaud, had refused to serve under Louverture’s authority and had created his own autonomous regime in the south of Saint-Domingue. Louverture soon crushed the uprising, and Rigaud fled to France, along with two prominent officers who had supported him: Alexandre Pétion and Jean-Pierre Boyer. Now, Napoleon invited Pétion and Boyer to be part of the Leclerc expedition. He also sent along Louverture’s two sons, who had been studying in France, with a personal letter from the emperor to their father. The presence of all these familiar figures from the colony in the French armada reassured many people in Saint-Domingue that Leclerc had in fact come only to assist the colony’s armed forces and help assure internal stability. So while Christophe and Dessalines followed Louverture’s orders, some of his other top generals welcomed the French troops and gave their support to Leclerc.
Haiti’s war of independence thus felt to its combatants more like a civil war, creating profound divisions within the population and pitting different parts of the Saint-Domingue military against one another. After all, for most of the previous decade, Louverture and his troops had all served under the French flag, fighting for the Republic. They had successfully defended the colony against Spanish incursions and a large-scale English invasion. Leclerc’s forces fighting in Saint-Domingue in 1802 were bewildered to find, during one battle, that their opponents were singing French revolutionary songs. The two armies had the same anthems.
Even with only partial support from his army, Louverture held the French at bay, drawing Leclerc’s troops into a series of exhausting engagements in the interior of the colony. He knew that if he could last long enough, the rainy season would bring yellow fever to the unacclimated French forces, weakening them enough that he might be able to triumph. But after a few months of fighting, Louverture realized he was in a precarious situation, his troops exhausted and stretched too thin to hold out. In April 1802, Henry Christophe surrendered to the French, and Louverture and Dessalines followed soon afterward. The three of them made a deal: if they could keep their rank and privilege as generals, they would help the French destroy the vestiges of resistance in the colony. Having distinguished themselves in battle against Leclerc, Dessalines and Christophe now used their considerable military talents fighting fiercely for the French.
Louverture was not with them. Suspecting that his submission was only a temporary ruse and that he was just waiting for an opportune moment to attack the French again, Leclerc reneged on the deal, arrested Louverture, and deported him to France. On leaving the island, Louverture famously declared: “In overthrowing me, you have cut down only the trunk of the tree of liberty of the blacks; it will grow back from the roots, because they are deep and numerous.” Leclerc warned the French government, “You cannot hold Toussaint far enough from the ocean or put him in a prison that is too strong.” They locked him in the Fort de Joux prison in the Jura mountains, where he grew ill in his cold cell and died in April 1803, months before Haiti’s declaration of independence. Until his last days, he repeatedly wrote to Napoleon insisting on his loyalty and asking for a chance to defend himself against Leclerc’s accusations. He got no response. When Louverture’s jailers discovered his corpse, they found a piece of paper tucked into the bandanna wrapped around his head. On it Louverture complained one last time of being arbitrarily arrested and sent off “as naked as an earthworm,” with no chance to respond to the charges against him: “Is it not to cut off someone’s legs and order him to walk? Is it not to cut out his tongue and tell him to talk? Is it not to bury a man alive?”25
Napoleon and his advisers were convinced that once the leadership in Saint-Domingue was firmly under their control, the French could proceed comfortably to the reestablishment of slavery in the colony. They remained blind to a reality that a few observers outside of France saw quite clearly: the revolution in Saint-Domingue had transformed its entire population. Despite all the limits that Louverture had placed on liberty to keep the plantations going, the former slaves had begun to construct a new social order of their own, and many of them were ready to die rather than go back to slavery. So even after all the major leaders in the colony had gone over to the French side, the resistance didn’t stop. Plantation laborers everywhere kept fighting Leclerc’s forces, organizing themselves into small bands that took refuge in the mountains. They were relentless and resourceful. One group sent a riderless horse in front of the French line, enticing soldiers to come out and capture it, and then gunned them down. A group of women attacked the French troops while wearing mattresses to protect themselves from musket fire. As one early account of the war put it, “everywhere the land harbored enemies, in the woods, behind a rock; liberty gave birth to them.”26
In August of 1802 the rainy season began, and, as Louverture had predicted, the French troops fell prey to yellow fever. As more and more of them died from combat and disease, Leclerc found his mission increasingly hampered by its own contradictions. With few French soldiers left at his disposal, the only way to fight the rebels in the mountains was to depend fully on the very same “gilded negroes” that Napoleon wanted to eliminate from the colony. And in order to maintain their loyalty, he had to keep convincing them—and the population at large—of France’s good intentions. But the longer Leclerc stayed in Saint-Domingue, the more he found it impossible to hide what he had really been sent to do. Some of Leclerc’s officers were openly contemptuous of blacks, and after Napoleon reopened the French slave trade, a few had started buying and selling slaves. In desperation, Leclerc even asked Napoleon to censor French newspapers: they had been publishing racist jokes, and infuriated residents of Saint-Domingue took this as further proof that France had turned against emancipation.27
Dessalines, Christophe, and other officers who had switched sides now faced a choice. The French were losing the war, and continuing to fight on their behalf might well be suicidal: if the rebels won, they were not going to be gentle with black officers in the uniforms of the French. In October 1802, Dessalines secretly met with Alexandre Pétion, who was guarding Le Cap for the French. Pétion and Dessalines had fought against each other a few years before, during Rigaud’s rebellion, and they came from different sectors of Saint-Domingue’s society: Dessalines a former plantation slave, Pétion a free man of color. The two of them agreed, however, to take their troops and join the rebels in the mountains. Christophe and his soldiers followed soon after. Dessalines sent a simple parting message to the French: they should “return to Europe.”28
Facing increasingly steadfast and unified resistance, Leclerc recommended a “war of extermination” against the population of the colony. “Here is my opinion of this country,” he wrote to Napoleon in October 1802 after the defection of Dessalines. “We must destroy all the blacks of the mountains—men and women—and spare only children under twelve years of age.” He conceded that some of the blacks who lived in the plains of the colony, where its sugar plantations once thrived, might be salvageable. The French needed to kill only half of them.29
Leclerc died of yellow fever not long afterward, and as the French found their erstwhile comrades turning against them, they responded with growing paranoia. Fearing that the ever-decreasing number of black troops who remained loyal to France might join the insurrection, Leclerc’s successor, General Donatien Rochambeau, began executing them, dumping them into the harbor with weights around their necks. He also gassed prisoners, locking them in the holds of ships and asphyxiating them with burning sulphur. But Rochambeau’s tactics only succeeded in solidifying and unifying the opposition, sending black soldiers who might have remained with the French into the arms of the rebels.* The insurgents gained other converts as well: several units of Polish troops, who had been enlisted in the French army after the occupation of their own land, now defected to Dessalines, who welcomed them.
For a decade, France had been an ally and indeed guarantor of emancipation. Now it had become the enemy of an entire people. In May 1803, Dessalines gathered the rebel generals together at the Congress of Arcahaye, and they vowed to destroy the French presence on the island. To symbolize their oath, Dessalines created a new flag for his army. Taking the French tricolor, with its bars of red, white, and blue, he ripped the white out of the middle of it and tossed it away. The remaining red and blue bars were sewn together to make the new flag of the revolutionary movement, which would soon become the flag of independent Haiti. Over the next few months Dessalines managed to lead a diverse and fragmented army to victory, uniting the entire nation for a brief but crucial moment in the pursuit of one common goal.
* * *
“Dessalines is leaving the North / Come see what he is bringing,” a traditional Haitian song invites us. The song narrates the final triumph of Dessalines over the French. What is the secret to Dessalines’s victory? A ouanga nouveau, the song tells us—a kind of “new magic.” A ouanga, in Haitian Vodou, is an object that concentrates and transmits power, and it can take many forms. According to the song, Dessalines’s magic took one form in particular: as he marched to defeat the French, his power came in the shape of muskets, bullets, and “cannons to chase away the whites.”31
And chase them away he did. Dessalines’s stunning victory in November 1803 effectively ended the French campaign in Saint-Domingue, enabling Haiti to declare its independence a few weeks later. Of the tens of thousands of French soldiers and sailors sent to the colony between 1801 and 1803, only a few thousand survived the conflict. Having set out to tame the insufficiently respectful colony, Napoleon wound up losing it altogether. Haitians understood how remarkable their victory was, and the first years of independence were filled with joyous, almost unbelieving celebrations. Officers and their wives, decked out in jewels and clothes of silk and Indian madras, went out to the countryside for barbecues set at long tables in alleys of mango trees. Young Haitians performed plays dramatizing the great moments in the war for independence. One of Dessalines’s officers always attended the shows in a large hat upon which was written, in red letters, “Haiti, the tomb of the French.”32
Outside Haiti, however, Dessalines is usually remembered not for his heroics against the French but for his attacks on the white planters who chose to remain in the new country. His call for an end to French influence certainly had an ominous undercurrent; and while Dessalines declared “peace to our neighbors,” seeking to reassure the empires with slave colonies in the Caribbean that he had no intention of spreading insurrection, he remained (like Louverture) deeply suspicious of the French. In February 1804 he accused the planters who had stayed in Haiti of conspiring against the new regime and working to facilitate a French return. He also produced a letter from 1802, signed by many of the planters still in the country, in which they declared their support for the brutal tactics of Rochambeau. In the course of the next few weeks, roving groups of soldiers and residents acting under orders from Dessalines carried out mass killings of most of the French whites who still lived in Haiti—perhaps as many as several thousand people. In a famous proclamation, he presented the killings as both an act of self-defense and a justified act of revenge for the crimes of the past. “Yes, we have paid back these true cannibals crime for crime, outrage for outrage,” he announced. “I have saved my country. I have avenged America.”33
These killings were not, as is often said, indiscriminate massacres of all the whites in Haiti. Indeed, white North American merchants traded in Haiti undisturbed during this period; one of them even hosted a large dinner party attended by Haitian officers while the massacres were under way. Dessalines also placed some French whites whom he considered to be allies of Haiti, as well as the Polish defectors from the French army, under his protection. They had, after all, embraced the cause of independence from France. Indeed, one Frenchman—nicknamed “the good white”—was among those who signed the Haitian declaration of independence.34
In newly independent Haiti, these protected whites became Haitian citizens, and several of them even ended up serving in high-ranking military positions under the new regime. Officially, they also stopped being white: in his 1805 constitution, Dessalines decreed that all Haitians would “henceforth only be known generically as blacks.” In so doing, he made blackness not so much an issue of color as of allegiance to the project of freedom and independence. The same constitution, however, made it clear that while some approved whites could become part of Haitian society, new ones would face severe restrictions: “No white man, regardless of nationality, may set foot in this territory as a master or landowner, nor will he ever be able to acquire any property.” In a country where most of the population had once been the literal property of whites, this stipulation—maintained almost without exception until the U.S. occupation of the country in the early twentieth century—was meant as a shield against the return of the past.35
In his proclamations—which were disseminated throughout the Americas and translated and published in many U.S. newspapers—Dessalines wrote eloquently of the determination of Haiti’s people to create a radically new order. Haiti was going to be a beacon for the oppressed everywhere, he promised, carrying out vengeance for the brutalities of colonial rule and offering a social structure in which blacks were not only free but politically and economically empowered. The proclamations established the idea that Haiti offered a home for people of color throughout the Americas who longed for freedom and citizenship.36
While carrying on this remarkable international media campaign, Dessalines also made diplomatic overtures to the Americans and the British in nearby Jamaica. These were the nearest and most powerful merchant powers, and the obvious entities to approach as outlets for Haiti’s agricultural products. He ran into some resistance: Britain and the United States were both committed slaveholding powers, and officials in both countries passed laws preventing Haitian merchants and sailors from visiting their shores. They feared what their slaves might learn from the Haitians and were intent on limiting the impact of what Haiti had achieved. At the same time, however, the United States and Britain were eager to profit from Caribbean commerce, and although Dessalines was unable to gain official recognition of Haitian independence from either country, he did develop trade relations with both. These were crucial for Dessalines’s regime, since the goods he acquired included large quantities of weapons and ammunition.37
Aware of Haiti’s vulnerability and marginal status, Dessalines was determined to provide Haiti with a powerful military infrastructure that could stand up to any new invasion. Empires in the Caribbean had traditionally focused primarily on repelling naval assault, but Dessalines knew that Haiti had no navy to speak of, and little hope of building one that could face the massive armadas of the European empires. Moreover, Haiti’s military had its roots in slave insurrection and guerrilla warfare, and throughout the revolutionary wars, the insurgents had always drawn strength from their redoubts in the mountains. Even when they lost control of the towns and the plains, they were never wholly defeated in the heights, and they had beaten the French largely by successfully drawing their enemies into a series of devastating engagements in the interior. Dessalines had lived through—indeed, had led—many of these military successes. To defend Haiti, therefore, he created a string of fortifications on the mountaintops and in the interior of the country, expanding a few existing forts and building new ones. Some of these forts were placed to defend the country from incursions from Spanish Santo Domingo, then occupied by a French general with a few thousand soldiers who encouraged his troops to capture Haitians and sell them into slavery. But the forts were also meant to provide the Haitian army with a place to retreat to and withstand a siege by the French.38
While such military projects were driven by understandable fears, they did divert a huge portion of Haiti’s already strained resources. The money, of course, could have done much good elsewhere: in the construction of schools, in the rebuilding of towns or agricultural infrastructure. The large-scale irrigation projects that had sustained Saint-Domingue’s flourishing colonial economy lay in ruins after years of warfare, and hopes of reviving sugar production required mills and boiling houses. Instead, Haiti got a string of forts that, in the end, were never used against a foreign enemy at any time in the nineteenth century. (Much later, they did briefly serve as redoubts for insurgents fighting a different foe: the United States Marines.)
This early phase of defensive militarization also had political consequences, helping to solidify an order in which military leaders came to both embody and control the Haitian state. There was a long history to this political formation. War, after all, had brought freedom to the population in 1793, and had preserved that freedom when it was threatened in 1804. Toussaint Louverture had ruled the colony simultaneously as its top general and its political head, and Dessalines and the country’s other founders had also served as army officers. Military leaders, they believed, were the only ones capable of guiding and protecting the fragile new nation.
Named Haiti’s head of state by an assembly of generals, Dessalines organized his new government around military structures. He justified the concentration of power in his hands by presenting himself as a symbol and guarantor of the liberty of Haiti. Indeed, the country’s independence declaration itself had been written as a message from Dessalines to his countrymen: “Remember that I sacrificed everything to rally to your defense,” he commanded, “family, children, fortune, and now am rich only in your liberty.” He emphasized that he had struck fear into the hearts of slave owners everywhere: “My name has become a horror to all those who want slavery. Despots and tyrants curse the day I was born.” But in the same breath he also warned the people of Haiti that those who refused the laws “which the spirit guarding your fate dictates to me for your own good” would deserve, and receive, the treatment that was appropriate for an “ungrateful people.” The first document of Haitian independence thus contained a kind of threat, an assertion that the leader (aided by higher powers) knew best what the people needed and that they must submit to the new order or suffer the consequences. In 1805, Dessalines, seeking to secure respect from European nations, crowned himself emperor of Haiti and issued an imperial constitution that concentrated all political power in his own hands. His state council was made up of army generals, and his decrees and legislation were written by a small group of secretaries who were likewise drawn from the military staff.39
In retrospect these developments might seem inevitable, the result of both institutional inertia and external pressures. But Haiti’s early leaders could have chosen a different path, organizing a constitutional convention and an election rather than simply creating a state out of the military. It would certainly have been difficult—in part because, unlike the British colonies in North America, French Saint-Domingue possessed few institutions that could serve as foundations for a democratic order. The slaves, of course, had had no say in how the plantations were run, and even the tiny minority of free people had little input into the governance of the colony: almost all the power was concentrated in the hands of officials appointed by the king. Still, Dessalines and other postindependence leaders could have drawn inspiration from the Haitian Revolution, which had been a profoundly democratic social movement. Insurgent bands had met, debated, and organized, and starting in 1793 there were several elections that sent representatives to serve in the French parliament. Thanks to these and to the plantation assemblies that were so popular under Louverture, many ex-slaves thus already had at least some experience with democratic processes before Dessalines came to power.
One potential obstacle to democratic participation was the fact that only a small minority of Haitians could read and write, and most of them spoke only Kreyòl rather than French, the language of the government ever since the founding of Saint-Domingue. But Haiti wasn’t the only place in which much of the population was illiterate in this period, and there were ways around the problem. Indeed, throughout the revolution, French administrators—starting with Sonthonax and Polverel—had issued proclamations in Kreyòl, which could be posted and read aloud by a literate individual to others. The leaders of independent Haiti could have opted for a similar strategy for mobilizing popular participation, but they chose not to do what even Napoleon had done for the population: translate official government announcements into the language of the governed. Perhaps they felt they didn’t need to, confident that Haitians would trust them to defend their best interests. Perhaps they believed that the larger population was simply incapable of participating in an election, or that—given the massive problems faced by the new country—there was simply no time to set one up. Whatever their reasoning, the early years of independence represented a lost opportunity to channel the mass engagement of the revolution into a truly democratic order.
Widespread political participation, of course, would have opened the way for a profound challenge to the agricultural policies set up by Louverture and largely maintained by Dessalines. At the moment of independence, after all, most of the population was already clearly invested in the “counter-plantation” model, while Dessalines and other members of the elite were determined to keep the plantations alive. Like Louverture before him, Dessalines used the army to enforce his agricultural policies, preventing laborers from leaving the plantations. For most Haitians, his regime represented continuity with the oppressive labor practices of the past rather than a significant break with them.
Dessalines also followed Louverture’s lead when it came to dealing with issues of land. Haiti was full of abandoned plantations; and while some Haitians who were related to departed French planters tried to use these family ties to assert ownership over the planters’ old holdings, special commissions set up by Dessalines to examine the applications rejected most such claims. Instead, the commissions placed the estates in the hands of the militarily controlled state, helping make it the country’s largest landowner. Dessalines could thus have carried out a distribution of land to the general population, fulfilling the broad yearning for a full dismantling of the plantation system. But although there are hints that near the end of his regime he was considering some such experiment with land reform, during his time in power he never embarked on that path. Like Louverture before him, Dessalines seems to have been convinced that keeping large properties intact was essential for maintaining the export-oriented agricultural system—an ideology that put him on the same side as the wealthy landowners, who also wanted to retain and expand their sizable holdings. The debate, such as it was, revolved only around the question of which group of elites would profit from Haiti’s new order—not what that order would look like.40
* * *
Today, Dessalines is widely and justifiably venerated for his role in leading Haiti to independence. But the mythology surrounding him tends to obscure the internal conflicts within the revolutionary movement. The victory of 1804, after all, had been possible only because some fighters—unlike Dessalines—had never joined the French but had continued to resist even at the lowest point of the conflict. Dessalines and his defenders argued that his time fighting for the French was just a necessary ploy, providing him with the opportunity to gather weapons and soldiers for the final push for independence. Still, some of the insurgents—including Sans-Souci, an African-born officer who had held much of the north in 1802 against French attacks led by Dessalines and Christophe—were not sure why they should suddenly take orders from these fickle generals. Eventually, Christophe summoned Sans-Souci to a meeting, saying they needed to discuss the matter. It was an ambush: Sans-Souci was killed, and his troops were brought under Christophe’s command. Though in many ways Sans-Souci was one of the crucial heroes of the Haitian Revolution, he remains largely forgotten to this day.41
In fact, the African-born majority of the new nation would largely find themselves marginalized. In his declaration of independence, Dessalines announced his determination to “forever ensure liberty’s reign in the country of our birth.” But most Haitians hearing him in 1804 were not born in Haiti; they had grown up in Africa and been brought to the colony as slaves. Perhaps Dessalines was speaking in symbolic terms, of Haiti as the country that gave birth to the Haitian people regardless of their individual origins. Still, whether deliberately exclusionary or merely careless, Dessalines’s phrasing foreshadowed the second-class treatment that his regime and those that followed would often mete out to the African-born majority.42
Dessalines had managed a political miracle by creating a broad coalition of insurgents and leading them to victory in 1804. But after independence, the sense of unity did not last: the tensions surrounding land ownership and the distribution of power were simply too strong. Caught between competing social forces, he was unable to count on support from either the Haitian oligarchy or the masses of laborers, and his regime rapidly unraveled. Even the soldiers in his army became increasingly disenchanted with his rule, depriving him of his most essential source of support.43
Dessalines faced particularly strong resistance in the south, where he had once led Louverture’s troops against Rigaud. Touring the region in 1806, he was infuriated to find piles of dyewood being readied for shipment overseas: he had outlawed any export of wood because of worries about the consequences of widespread logging. Now he punished the merchants who were flouting the law, outraging them by burning the harvest they were preparing to sell. After a series of similar provocations, military leaders decided it was time to act. The imperial regime left little room for political opposition, but the people of Haiti were quite familiar with another mechanism for creating a change in government: armed revolt. Town by town, garrisons rose up against Dessalines, swearing to fight to the death against the emperor. Away from Port-au-Prince when he heard the news, Dessalines rushed back toward the capital, not realizing that many of his top generals had already turned against him. As he arrived at Pont-Rouge, north of the city, he was ambushed by a group of officers and unceremoniously gunned down. His reign as ruler of Haiti had lasted less than three years.44
Over the years, Dessalines’s assassination at Pont-Rouge has become a legendary historical moment, a tragic testament to the way that Haiti’s glorious independence so rapidly collapsed into violence. Dessalines was apparently ripped to pieces by an angry crowd after he was killed, and it fell to a woman named Défilée—who had been a camp follower in Dessalines’s army units since the early days of the revolution—to make sure he got a proper burial. She is said to have gathered the pieces of his body in a bag and brought them to a cemetery, where he was buried in an unmarked grave. Early chroniclers of the event described Défilée as a madwoman, but over time she has come to seem like the only sane one in the midst of madness. In a 1967 play about the assassination, Haitian historian and playwright Hénock Trouillot has Défilée issue a powerful rebuke to those who assassinated Dessalines: “What the French could not accomplish, have they really done it, these monsters?… The father of our country? What will they say about us tomorrow?”45
In time, Dessalines’s simple grave got a marker, and there are now many monuments and statues of him in Haiti, as well as streets and shops bearing his name. But perhaps the most vital and complex remembrance he receives takes place in Haitian Vodou, where Dessalines has gained the status of a lwa, or god, in the form of Ogou Dessalines, and where he is the subject of many songs that recount his deeds and channel his memory. Ogou is the god of war, and represents both sides of what soldiers have long meant in Haiti: forces of liberation, they can all too easily clash with the very people they are meant to defend.46
For Haiti’s later leaders, Dessalines’s short reign offered a cautionary tale: he had led the country to independence, but rapidly fell prey to social conflicts over what that independence should mean. After his death, it would be up to others to confront the challenge of turning the freedom that Haiti had gained into something meaningful, and sustainable, for its people.
Copyright © 2012 by Laurent Dubois
Meet the Author
Laurent Dubois is the author of Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution, a Los Angeles Times Best Book of 2004. The Marcello Lotti Professor of Romance Studies and History at Duke University, Dubois has written on Haiti for the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, and the New Yorker Web site, among other publications, and is the codirector of the Haiti Lab at the Franklin Humanities Institute. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.
Laurent Dubois (PhD. University of Michigan) is associate professor of history at Michigan State University. His book A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787–1804 (2004) won the American Historical Association Prize in Atlantic History and the John Edwin Fagg Award. He is also the author of Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (2004), which was a Christian Science Monitor Noteworthy Book of 2004 and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of 2004, and Les esclaves de la République: l'histoire oubliée de la première emancipation, 1787–1794 (1998).
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A brilliant and comprehensive study of a reality historically misunderstood or biased! For us, haitians, it is a joy to discover and read this nook! Chapeau bas Monsieur Dubois
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