Racism & the Destruction of The Haiti Revolution’s Historical Narrative

Disclaimer: This essay was written and was first published on Wattpad in 2020 from my “A Black Opinion” blog. Therefore, it will not acknowledge the current state of the world. Regardless, this essay has an important message that could be a logical step forward for the world to make the changes needed to address the issue of racism. The same issue that has stained our world for far too long.

Photo by Robin Canfield on Unsplash

In today’s modern world, Canadian High School students take world history courses hoping to learn about their world and to discover new narratives and cultures within a particular time frame. However, what they end up studying is limited to the European experience and point of view. Hardly do they get a chance to expand their horizons to learn about Asian or African countries and their history, and then even if they do get a glimpse, it is only from the point that a European presence reached that part of the world. An example of this is seen in the case of the history of the Caribbean. This region’s written narrative begins with Columbus’ discovery of Hispaniola in the early 15th century, disregarding any Indigenous oral history that came before. Flash forward to the Age of the Revolutions, Canadian students learn about both the American and French Revolutions. However, the Haiti Revolution which happened during the same period as its French counterpart is not referenced. If seen at all, it would probably be viewed as a bloody rebellion or its significance is disregarded as courses have only so much time allotted and there is hardly space to cover all four revolutions, the fourth being Cuban.

It is not until students attend University that are allowed to learn about Caribbean History. Still, the general public is widely ignorant of the Haitian Revolution or any Caribbean history. According to The Washington Post’s SSRS poll conducted in August 2019, only 50% of Americans were aware that slavery existed in the Thirteen Colonies. Last January, Canadian Prime minister, Trudeau celebrated Haiti’s Independence Day, which is also New Year’s Day. However, he failed to mention the abuse of slavery or of Haiti’s Revolution. He neglected to highlight that this Revolution was what actually made Haiti the first nation to be a slave-free state.
Even President Trump in 2018 had the audacity to call Haiti a crappy place.” not understanding it’s history.
These three examples illustrate how the historic narrative of the Haitian Revolution has essentially disappeared. This is strange considering that when the Revolution ended in 1804, it was all writers of the day could talk about.

Clearly there is a disconnect between what happened in 19th and 21st centuries. To understand why the general population today is unaware of the significance of the Haitian Revolution, this paper examines the impact of the revolution on Haiti and its neighbors, and analyses colonial works before slavery was abolished in Haiti. After conducting in-depth research on the revolution’s impact and understanding how the culture was at the time and its historical influences, it appears that there was a negative reception of the Haitian Revolution by European, American and Caribbean planters. Further research points to biased narratives as responsible for this negative reception. As a result of this opposition, many nations with slave societies began to target and eventually destroy this slave-free nation, using discriminatory laws that led to the economic downfall. From the “Pearl of the Antilles” before the revolution, to what it is today, one of the poorest in the hemisphere.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Historiography has been the preferred way of recording historic events because of its ability to remain beyond the year it was written. Consequently, the history of the Caribbean before the 15th century is missing, as the native communities at the time recorded their history orally. Only recent archaeological digs at historic sites allow historians to piece together what the societies at the time were like before the arrival of Europeans. Unfortunately, this means that the main historiography consists only of European writings. This leads to the historiography to become a product of European preconceptions and biases and prevents other narratives to tell their side of the story.

Good examples can be found in early colonial works of the 15th and 16th century, such as Columbus’s journal and Las Casas A Short Account of the Destruction of the West Indies. When Columbus discovered Hispaniola, he encountered natives, who were called “Tainos”. His journal is one of the early accounts that describes the nature of the aboriginal peoples of the Greater Antilles. This created grounds for one of the myths that the Indigenous Caribbean was made up of only two distinct groups, the Tainos, and the Caribs. In one of his October entries he states:

“It appeared to me to be a race of people poor in everything. They go naked as their mothers bore them…..I showed them swords, and they took them by the blade and cut themselves through ignorance…I saw some marks and wounds on their bodies, and made signs to ask what it was, and they gave me to understand that the people from other adjacent islands came with the intention of seizing them, and they defended themselves.”

This quote exemplifies how Europeans viewed the natives, as savage and uncivilized creatures, the formation of the myth of the “Tainos” and “Caribs,” and displays how Europeans at the time viewed them themselves as superior. Looking at Las Casas’ account, the same preconception is shown. His account of the “Tainos” is written in a way to portray weakness and that they are in dire need of protection. Unknown to both Columbus and Las Casas, the Caribbean was actually a diverse place a various native community who had their own ways of life and different languages. This truth was discovered much later once archaeologists discovered different artifacts such as potteryand human remains that gave historians an understanding that there were more groups than the “Taino” and the Caribs.

Looking at more recent colonial works, the St. Domingue newspapers during 1766 and 1790 provide a clear window into how society viewed slaves at the time. Université de Sherbrooke’s -Matronage Project by Jean-Pierre Le Glaunec is a collection of colonial newspapers. On the project’s main page it states that “slave” newspapers written by planters for planters were: “A racist and disparaging source that refers to slaves as mere lost objects or stray animals.” These beliefs about slaves were commonplace at the time, even though unfounded. For the system of slavery to work, Africans were treated not as human, just because of their skin not because of any outstanding features they supposedly had. In the 19th century, there were two types of newspapers, abolitionist, and newspapers that supported slavery. One newspaper was the New York City Paper Emancipator. On April 26, 1838, they published an article about the revolution through a Christian lens. As an abolitionist newspaper, they argue against the planter’s beliefs that “slavery is not a sin,” that it was an immoral act to commit, since all men are seen as equal under God’s eyes. In this article the racial biases of the planters, and other pro-slavery persons is brought to light.

With these examples, it is easy to understand what Michel-Rolph Trouillot meant in his book, Silencing the Past: The Production of History. In the first chapter, entitled “The Power in the Story”, Trouillot explains the danger of one-sided stories that are created by the “heroes” of history. It leads to the destruction, or as he says the “silencing” of certain historic narratives. Because history is generally written by the victors, and the conquerors, it reduces the chances for other narratives from the suppressed side to tell the alternate history; to tell what “really” happened. Therefore, it can be concluded that the Haitian Revolution’s disappearing narrative is a result of the “whiteness” of Haiti’s Historiography. Europeans wrote about the Haitian Revolution in a way that downplayed its impact and legitimacy or did not mention it at all.

Britiana.com

“Has the time come to write on the colonial revolution? I think not, “said Moreau, a famous 18th century writer. After the revolution took place, Moreau took it upon himself to write about St. Domingue’s rich history as the “Pearl of the Antilles” as he feared that the violence of the revolution would prevent others from knowing of its past splendor. Even though Moreau is referencing St. Domingue’s past splendor being its enslaved society, there is some truth to his words. Because the conditions the slaves were in were extreme, there was need for an extreme response. As a result, the revolution was very violent. By 1792, 100,000 blacks and 24,000 of the whites were killed.

Jeremy Popkin’s The First Days of the Slave Insurrection, a collection of first person narratives, perfectly encapsulates the violence of the Revolution. “[T]he blacks had already taken over all the paths around the grand’ case [the plantation owner’s house]. I jumped out of my bed and shouted: “Who goes there?” A voice like thunder answered me: “It is death!” At the same time, I heard a considerable number of gunshots and the voice of a horde of blacks who filled the house with these terrible words: “Kill, kill.”

The violence of the revolution was a popular image used by writers and artists of the age. In Louis Sebastien Mercier’s 1771 futuristic tale, L’An 2440, rêves’ilenfut jamais, he imagines waking up in the future in a free society and mentions the violence needed to do so. He had “broken the chains of his compatriots” and transformed those “oppressed by the most odious slavery” into heroes. In an “instant” they had “spilled the blood of their tyrants.”

The violence was just as radical as it was shocking. Prior to the revolution, Planters thought that slaves were unable to rise against them. According to Trouillot’s From Planters’ Journals to Academia: The Haitian Revolution as Unthinkable History, he states that first acts of rebellion were often assumed to be acts of strong emotion rather than a politically planned revolt. “Slave A ran away because he was mistreated by his master, slave X killed herself in a fatal tantrum.” The popular thought was that revolutions required a sense of intelligence and political planning, not just rage and beastly emotion. Therefore, when the slaves successfully revolted, it shocked the whole world, and even caused many American Federalist to retreat from supporting the French.

But it was not always this way. According to The Impact of the Revolution at the beginning of the revolution age, the image of revolution brought hope, independence and freedom. After the American Revolution, there was great celebration. When the French Revolution began, Americans joined in the celebration of their ally’s fight against the old regime. But, as the revolution descended into a rein of terror and bloodshed, Americans became divided, some wanted to support the French while others were tired of the blood. However, it was not until the Haitian Revolution and its bloodshed that would force Americans, especially Federalists. who were supporting the spirit of revolutions, to shy away from the radical violence.

But the shock factor can not be compared to the fear it produced and the racism that came afterwards. Legendary Maroon leader Makandal started this fear-generating poison on the planters. He knew that poison’s ghostly nature gave slaves the power to rise against their slave owners. It was not long afterwards when masters who were used to controlling their slaves, began to tremble before them. Many planters fled, fearing for their lives, while some brave ones were willing to take their chances and reclaim their control. According to Before Haiti, none of the planters wanted their slaves to be as “patriotic” as the Americans. A successful revolt would mean the abolition of slavery, the destruction of the plantations the revengeful slaughtering of the whites. However, these fears were realized when Dessalines declared St. Domingue’s independence in 1804. The young nation became the first slave-free nation, ruled by a former slave. This event debunked many of the myths and preconceptions the world had about slaves. As Albert Hume states: “[T[he young negro state of Haiti proves that a flat nose and thick lips do not prevent men like Toussaint, Dessalines and Christophe who have shown that a black frizzy head of a negro can shelter a great mind as any other.”

The revolution also put Haiti on the map. According to Ada Ferrer’s Free Soil, unlike planters who saw Haiti as a nation that was against everything they stood for, slaves saw the island as a safe place. Article 44 of the 1816 Haitian Constitution, granted Africans, Indians and their descendants who moved to Haiti to be become free and citizens of the republic. It is this article that drew many slaves to the nation.

In her journal, Ferrer gives the example of the seven Jamaicans slaves who escaped, sailed to the island and were welcomed and protected by Alexandre Pe’tion, this posed a significant threat to the British and French empires at the time. Before, runaway slaves who fled to another island were guaranteed to be caught and were either sent back to their ordained master or were taken by a local planter. However, Haiti’s very existence undermined the entire system, and provided slaves a sanctuary.

The Haitian Revolution was not just an attack on the nation’s slave plantations, it was an attack on the global slave system. Back in the 19th century, slavery was what supported various empires. If other slaves from different plantations in the Caribbean and Americas, started their own revolts and were successful, these empires would fall apart. This fear quickly turned into racism and the installation of systems to regulate Blacks. After the Seven Years war, St. Domingue segregated the blacks, mulattos from the whites. United States put up a ban of foreign slaves from entering the country four years after the revolution. In 1793 the state of South Carolina issued a proclamation that forced all foreign blacks that moved in less than a year ago were to be deported. Later, France, Britain and America placed an embargo on Haiti, preventing Haiti to trade with other nations. With the addition of France forcing Haiti to pay them back for their independence, Haiti eventually economically declined.

To conclude, the story of the victorious Haiti Revolution of 1804 has “disappeared” over time due to the “whiteness” of Caribbean historiography. From Columbus’ journal to American and European newspapers, the history of the Caribbean and specifically Haiti has been told mostly by newcomers, and later, non-slaves; in articles, journals, personal accounts and stories filled with their biases and racism. These preconceptions determine the popular one-sided narratives about slaves and the revolution, that it was a blood bath, a revengeful rebellion, not a carefully planned revolution. Regardless, this event produced widespread fear as it went directly against a system that gave many wealth and success, while oppressing Africans in the process. As a result, the fear quickly manifested into systematic racism. American states like Louisiana banned entry of foreign slaves and deported those who recently moved to the state. As was mentioned, France forced Haiti to pay them back for their independence, and an embargo was placed on Haiti, preventing them from trading with other countries. This paper shows the impact of racism, and how one-sided narratives can influence how events in history are viewed, cause them lose significance and to even disappear.

In 2010, Haiti experienced one of the worse earthquakes in history. A quake of 7.0 magnitude, destroyed famous landmark, and took more than 220,000 lives. Everyone was talking about this disaster, creating the narrative of pity, and that first world nations like America needed to help this poor third world nation, without realizing these points of view were belittling, perpetuating the very notions that lead to the downfall of Haiti.

For more information:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2018/01/12/this-is-how-ignorant-you-have-to-be-to-call-haiti-a-shithole/

“Our Unruly Neighbors.” Tucson Citizen (Tucson, Arizona) XXXVII, no. 244, August 2, 1902: Page Two. Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers. https://infoweb-newsbank-com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/apps/readex/doc?p=EANX&docref=image/v2%3A1192685C54666980%40EANX-11C1B5FC05316C08%402415964-11C1B5FC10F10D28%401-11C1B5FC4997E308%40Our%2BUnruly%2BNeighbors.

“The Haiti Earthquake: 10 Years Later.” UNICEF. Accessed March 20, 2020. https://www.unicef.org/stories/haiti-earthquake-10-years-later.

Bartolome de las Casas, Nigel Griffin ed, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, London: Penguin Books, 1992, 15

Columbus, Christopher. “PDF.” Wisconsin, 2003. 156–180

Dubois, Laurent. Avengers of the New World: the Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005.

Ferrer, Ada. “Haiti, Free Soil, and Antislavery in the Revolutionary Atlantic.” The American Historical Review117, no. 1 (2012): 40–66. https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr.117.1.40.

From Planters’ Journals to Academia: The Haitian Revolution as Unthinkable History

Garrigus, J. Before Haiti: Race and Citizenship in French Saint-Domingue: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Geggus, David Patrick. The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World. Columbia (S.C.): University of South Carolina, 2001.

James, C. L. R., and James Walvin. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint LOuverture and the San Domingo Revolution. London: Penguin Books, 2001.

Popkin, Jeremy D. Facing Racial Revolution: Eyewitness Accounts of the Haitian Insurrection. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Public Health Agency of Canada. “Government of Canada.” Canada.ca. Government of Canada, January 20, 2020. .

Statement by the Prime Minister on Haiti’s Independence Day, Justin Trudeau, Government of Canada, January 1, 2019, https://pm.gc.ca/en/news/statements/2019/01/01/statement-prime-minister-haitis-independence-day

The Washington Post. “PDF.” Washington DC, August 28, 2019.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph The Journal of Caribbean History; Jan 1, 1991; 25, 1; ProQuest pg. 8

White, Ashli. The Limits of Fear: The Saint Dominguan Challenge to Slave Trade Abolition in the United States. Philadelphia, PA, 2004.

The Washington Post, “PDF” (Washington DC, August 28, 2019)

Statement by the Prime Minister on Haiti’s Independence Day, Justin Trudeau (Government of Canada, January 1, 2019)

Columbus, Christopher. “PDF.” Wisconsin, 2003. 156–180

Dubois, Laurent. Avengers of the New World: the Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005. 11

Claudia Sutherland, “Haitian Revolution (1791–1804),” Welcome to Blackpast •, October 24, 2019, https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/haitian-revolution-1791-1804

Popkin, Jeremy D. Facing Racial Revolution: Eyewitness Accounts of the Haitian Insurrection. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Dubois, Laurent. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005. 57

From Planters’ Journals to Academia: The Haitian Revolution as Unthinkable History

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph The Journal of Caribbean History; Jan 1, 1991; 25, 1; ProQuest pg. 81

Geggus, David Patrick. The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World. Columbia (S.C.): University of South Carolina, 2001.73

Dubois, Laurent. Avengers of the New World: the Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005. 55

Geggus, David Patrick. The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World. Columbia (S.C.): University of South Carolina, 2001. 55

Garrigus, J. Before Haiti: Race and Citizenship in French Saint-Domingue: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. 103

Geggus, David Patrick. The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World. Columbia (S.C.): University of South Carolina, 2001.29

Ferrer, Ada. “Haiti, Free Soil, and Antislavery in the Revolutionary Atlantic.” The American Historical Review117, no. 1 (2012): 40–66. https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr.117.1.40.

Geggus, David Patrick. The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World. Columbia (S.C.): University of South Carolina, 2001. 99

“The Haiti Earthquake: 10 Years Later.” UNICEF. Accessed March 20, 2020. https://www.unicef.org/stories/haiti-earthquake-10-years-later.

Other than writing serials, Amelia also writes novels, poetry, essays and blogs. ameliaarrows.wordpress.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store