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Haitian Narration

 

Laurent Dubois.  Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005.  384 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-01304-9; $20.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-674-01826-6.

Avengers of the New WorldLaurent Dubois’s Avengers of the New World builds on a body of Caribbean scholarship that has been torn between trying to place Haiti’s independence from France into the larger context of late eighteenth-century transatlantic revolution and giving voice to revolutionaries whose histories are not always captured in the archives.  Dubois credits such figures as C. L. R. James (Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution [1938; repr. 1989]) and Aimé Césaire (Toussaint Louverture: la Révolution française et le problème coloniale [1960]) for providing inspiration for this gripping narrative, which transcends their anti-imperialist political projects.  James’s and Césaire’s works on the Haitian Revolution tend to heroize Toussaint Louverture, often overlooking his fleeting allegiances to both Royalism and the French Revolution, as well as the militaristic brutality he exercised over former slaves in order to ensure the persistence of the plantation system.  Against all odds, “slaves became citizens in the empire that had enslaved them,” and Dubois’s goal for this book is to tell “the story of their dramatic struggle for freedom” (p. 2).  While Dubois’s account of Louverture balances out more overtly politicized narratives of the Haitian Revolution, it is difficult at times to make out clearly articulated arguments.  Readers who seek a traditional historiographic background outlining how this work fits into recent trends in the field may be sorely disappointed; however, Dubois’s gift for artful storytelling and his creative interpretations of French-weighted sources have breathed life into the tales of revolutionary slaves and free coloreds whose histories have been overshadowed in much of the extant work on the Atlantic world.

Beginning with a brief biography of French colonial administrator Médéric-Louis-Elie Moreau de St. Mery, Dubois chronologically takes his readers through seminal developments, such as the 1791 slave insurgency, the British-Spanish-French triangular struggle over the allegiance of both slaves and free coloreds, restricted emancipation, the rise and fall of Louverture, and the improbable defeat of Napoleon’s forces in 1803.  In constructing this narrative, Dubois relies heavily on the writings of Moreau de St. Mery (1796), as well as the French traveler Michel Etienne Descourtiltz’s Voyages d’un naturaliste, et ses observations (1809) and military-related correspondence within Saint Domingue, and between Saint Domingue and France.  Among the major contributions of this work is the foregrounding of African religious practices as a means of resistance, which provided potential resistors with a public space to communicate freely.  Not only did the practice of African religion facilitate the exchange of information between different plantations, but it also allowed for the emergence of slave leaders, such as Hyacinthe, who led bands of slaves from the Western Province during the insurrection in 1791.  Highlighting the impact of the French Revolution on the local context in Saint Domingue, Dubois cites one insurgent who was found with revolutionary pamphlets written in French, African religious “fetishes” for conjuring the help of the gods, and gunpowder — making up what Dubois terms “a potent combination” (pp. 100, 103).  Dubois also goes to great lengths to portray the Haitian Revolution as a complicated story of alliance formation, deception, state- and insurgent-sponsored brutality, and occasional amnesty.  Even Louverture began fighting on the side of the Spanish monarchy; he also defended French revolutionary interests and later commanded rebel forces against Napoleon’s convoys.  Yet while Louverture used the rhetoric of emancipation to garner support, he ran plantations with forced labor using tactics that were so vicious that Napoleon’s general in Saint Domingue “would not have dared propose them himself” (p. 250).

Dubois points out that fighting in Saint Domingue cannot be reduced to simply race or class warfare.  Figures like Louverture, a former slave, and André Rigaud, a free man of color, fought for the same ideals of the French Revolution only to later engage with one another in brutal conflict in Saint Domingue.  Both leaders recruited French whites, free coloreds, and former slaves into their warring armies.  In a rare instance of argumentation over narrative, Dubois claims that the battle between Rigaud and Louverture had more to do with “conflict over territorial and political power” than “racial identity . . . ideology or practice,” and, “in fact, they resembled each other enormously” (p. 232).  Though it appears that factions did not develop purely along racial or class lines, race certainly played a critical role in shaping political propaganda and many atrocities were committed along racial lines.  Dubois seems to be very conscious of the importance of race here, yet it remains unclear exactly what theoretical function his swapping of the term “mulatto” for “gens de couleurs” (which he translates as “free people of color” or “free-coloreds”) serves (p. 6).  While he has successfully avoided essentializing racial groups by demonstrating their varied and circumstantial political differences, he achieves this without, or in spite of, merely exchanging what he appears to use as synonyms.  Dubois may not confront head-on some of the problems with theorizing race in history; however, his compelling narrative has complicated the role of race that many colonial studies tend to simplify.1

In spite of Dubois’s stated goal of telling the “dramatic” story of Domingan slaves’ “dramatic struggle for freedom,” the limited availability of sources leads to a tale filtered through the lens of powerful and literate actors.  Indeed, slave combatants played pivotal roles throughout the Haitian Revolution, from the “Swiss Confederates” (slaves recruited by free coloreds to battle white planters) of the 1791 insurgency to the members of the “indigenous army” of 1802-1803 who fought to retain emancipation under the command of Jean-Jacques Dessalines against the French General Charles Victor Emmanuel Leclerc (pp. 119-120, 293).  In addition to Louverture, Dubois succeeds in bringing to life the stories of former slaves and military heroes, such as Moïse — a one-time general under Louverture who later faced execution for rebelling in 1801 against Louverture’s brutal enforcement of plantation cultivation by former slaves — and Henri Christophe, who fought both with and against Louverture, submitted to and then betrayed the French, and eventually declared himself king of the north of Saint Domingue.  Dubois’s efforts to highlight their participation are laudatory, especially given the creativity necessary to retrieve their stories from secondhand accounts.  Yet much of this narrative — perhaps for good reason — revolves around the thoughts and actions of white French planters and administrators, the political stand-off between planter representatives and abolitionist members of the National Assembly in Paris, and the difficulties of enforcing policies and strategies in Saint Domingue that were crafted in the metropole.  While the insurgents’ stories are certainly not lost in Dubois’s account of the revolution, it is also somewhat difficult to pinpoint the real protagonists of this narrative.

The center of action in Avengers of the New Worldis Saint Domingue, but Dubois should be commended for demonstrating how events in the United States, France, Britain, Spain, and Cuba helped shaped the political landscape of the Haitian Revolution, and how the revolution transformed the histories of these interconnected regions.2  For example, temporary peace between Britain and France enabled Napoleon to focus attention on military efforts to suppress insurgents in Saint Domingue.  And later “the victory of the black troops paved the way for the Louisiana purchase” since Napoleon no longer needed Louisiana to supply plantations in Saint Domingue (p. 304).  This, in turn, also contributed to the rapid development of sugar plantation societies in neighboring Cuba as production levels fell in Saint Domingue after emancipation.  What stands out in Dubois’s work is the continued relevance of the Haitian Revolution for postcolonial studies.  It is no accident that James, seeking independence for Trinidad, commemorated the Haitian Revolution in 1938, or that Césaire celebrated Louverture at the height of pan-Africanism in 1960.  As Dubois demonstrates, colonial powers often grappled with opposing agendas between elites in the metropole and powerful colonists, as well as with defining how universal policies at home would translate to the varied colonies abroad.  He also shows how the violence of the revolution by both insurgents and state representatives can rupture society, blurring the lines between victim and perpetrator and inflicting deep societal wounds that cannot heal with independence alone.

It is remarkable how the postindependence social, political, and economic struggles of nineteenth-century Haiti — which resulted in perpetual debt to France for reparations exchanged for national recognition — are echoed in so many twentieth-century postcolonial societies that achieved independence in largely different historical contexts.  Dubois’s accessible narrative is a must-read for students and scholars of Caribbean studies, modern Europe, and any number of regional foci in colonial and postcolonial studies.  After reading this work it comes as no surprise that Dubois was the recipient of awards from the Los Angeles Times for Best Non-Fiction Book of 2004 and the Christian Science Monitor‘s Notable Book of 2004.

Notes

1  Though he admits that his sources are skewed to represent largely the perceptions of French whites, see Jeremy D. Popkin’s Facing Racial Revolution: Eyewitness Accounts of the Haitian Insurrection (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).  For a notable exception, see Sue Peabody and Tyler Stovall, eds., The Color of Liberty, Histories of Race in France (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), in which Dubois also submitted a notable essay.

2  For an excellent synthesis of the politics of the transatlantic world in this period from a Marxist perspective, see Robin Blackburn’s The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848 (London and New York: Verso, 1988).


Burleigh Hendrickson, Northeastern University.  This review was first published by H-French-Colonial (September 2009) under a Creative Commons license.


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