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When Haiti Shook the World

By Don Jackson Feb 2

Confronting the Black Jacobins: The United States, the Haitian Revolution, and the Origins of the Dominican Republic
Gerald Horne
Monthly Review Press, 2015


By the late 18th century, the colony of Saint-Domingue was the crown jewel of the French empire, producing 40 percent of the sugar consumed by Europe and 60 percent of its coffee. Saint-Domingue’s wealth was extracted with inhuman cruelty from as many as 800,000 enslaved persons of African descent who made up 90 percent of the population. 

The colony’s small white population was sleeping on a volcano. With Jacobin revolutionaries back in France clamoring for “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité,” the volcano erupted in August 1791 as the enslaved rose up across the island against their so-called masters. 

The 13 years of warfare that followed saw the Africans form an army and alternately oppose and ally with the French, the British and the Spanish and ultimately defeat them all. On January 1, 1804, the newly independent nation of Haiti was proclaimed, the first and only country in recorded history to be born of a slave revolt. It was also the first Black republic in the Western Hemisphere and declared slavery illegal within its borders. No other country at the time had such laws guaranteeing the extension of human rights to all its citizens.

Invisible

Compared to other world-shaking revolutions of the modern era, the Haitian Revolution and its impact have largely been invisible to many in the West.

Confronting the Black Jacobins, Gerald Horne’s new book, revisits the revolt and the period immediately after. A historian who has written numerous works about colonialism and slavery, Horne dives deep into the decades after the revolution — up to 1874 in fact, to more clearly demonstrate the far-reaching reverberations of the revolution from the United States to Europe to the formation of the Dominican Republic, with which Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola and a long and troubled history.

Horne argues that the Haitians’ victory over Western imperialists and their practices of white supremacy created a crisis in the system of slavery, leading to its abolition in the Caribbean by the 1830s and ultimately in the United States in 1865. He reminds us that history is not made just from the top down but by the actions and reactions of people at the bottom and in the middle as well.

It was formerly enslaved persons brought from Haiti to Louisiana who led a revolt there in 1811. Denmark Vesey and his fellow conspirators were in contact with Haiti as they planned a massive slave revolt in 1822 in Charleston, South Carolina. Nat Turner’s 1831 revolt in Virginia has been thought by some scholars to have had Haitian fingerprints on it. 

However, history rarely unfolds in a single linear direction. While Haiti’s victory inspired acts of resistance in the United States, historians have also noted that the French defeat in Haiti convinced Napoleon to abandon his dream of extending the French empire into the Mississippi River Valley. Instead, he sold off the vast Louisiana Territory (which would encompass 15 future states) and the strategic Port of New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi River for $15 million in 1803. This set in motion the rapid expansion of slavery in the United States over the coming decades.

The growing evils of slavery helped spur the abolitionist movement into existence during the 1830s. For both sides in battle over slavery, Haiti was a touchstone. For abolitionists, it provided a symbol of defiance and liberation. For an increasingly paranoid Southern slavocracy, it was the ultimate nightmare and would come to be seen as an all-purpose bogeyman and fomenter of subversion. Thomas Jefferson, for example, warned a colleague to “expect pirates from St. Domingo.” 

John Brown and Haiti

John Brown’s failed raid on a government arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in 1859 sent the South into paroxysms of fear and loathing. Brown and his small band of followers had sought to acquire enough arms to launch a slave rebellion/guerrilla war throughout the South. Brown had studied the Haitian Revolution in advance of the raid. Flags were flown at half-mast in Haiti when Brown was executed and to this day John Brown Avenue is one of the main thoroughfares in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. 

Already alarmed by Brown’s brazen plot and the outpouring of public support for him in the North, the South greeted news of Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 election to the presidency by opting to secede from the Union. It would turn out to be a disastrous choice. The North prevailed in the Civil War, with 200,000 Black soldiers in the Union Army and Navy playing a decisive role. In addition, many African-Americans served as spies, scouts and agents for the Union. 

In the United States, as in Haiti, the abolition of slavery was not granted, it was fought for and won.

The version of history we are taught in school very often presents the past as a series of separate and unrelated happenings. No wonder it’s hard to see historic events like the end of slavery in Haiti and its subsequent demise in the United States as being interrelated. But thanks to books such as Confronting the Black Jacobins, we no longer have an excuse for such limited understanding. As Horne puts it, “Africans in particular and the international working class in general owe a massive debt of gratitude to the Black Jacobins of [Haiti].”


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