December 02, 2006


The Revolutions of the latter quarter of the eighteenth century, American, French and the associated spreading of the ideas of the enlightenment in both the Western and Eastern hemispheres served for a long time and still serve as inspiration to radicals of any hue throughout the globe. Less recognised is the third major revolution of that period, in the 1790s in Haiti, where black slaves seized their freedom and maintained it through armed warfare against both British and French forces. In the week that Tony Blair almost apologised for slavery, and the week of the bicentennial anniversary of its abolition, its worth looking back at this first slave rebellion. Haiti proved to be an inspiration to both American and British abolitionists during the ensuing decades- black emancipators like Frederick Douglas and British emancipators like William Wilberforce looked to Haiti for inspiration.

Darcus Howe in the New Statesman this week overstates the point when he says that Blacks liberated themselves and owed nothing to the efforts of Wilberforce and reformist British MPs like William Pitt the younger, but that overstatement contains a truth. The abolition of slavery was a cause embraced at Westminster by the Wilberforces and Pitts, but the events in Haiti gave them increased leverage. As Robin Blackburn shows in an article in this year's William and Mary Quarterly the revolution in Haiti established the idea that black slaves were entitled to the privilege of men with rights in their own nation, as opposed to chattles of other nations.

Blackburn's article though establishes the history of Haiti and its place within the global instability resulting from the two other major revolutions and also the sweeping changes in world politics brought in by the seven year's war. From India to the West Indies, the last half of the eighteenth century saw continued instability, it was one might think the end of an era. Haiti's ability to survive as a weak island state, its ability to make what Blackburn calls the only successful slave rebellion in history, rested largely upon mutual antagonisms between the three major powers- Britain, the new United States and France- that surrounded it. It survived because of major regime changes in France- given a breathing space by Robespierre, because of American paranoia about British and French intentions in the Carribean and ultimately because Thomas Jefferson valued the Louisiana purchase over the actions of a couple of slaves.

If Haiti led to the abolition of slavery, it was merely one factor. The change of ideological climate throughout the world, the spread of the meme of the rights of man which Chris Bayly in his recent study of the 19th Century chronicles, the rise of evangelical sentiment in the United Kingdom and the disintegration of the old order around the slaves in Haiti should not be underrated. Haiti performed the role of an exempla for the end of slavery, but just as its revolution came into a vacuum and fifty years before or after circumstances would have been less benign, so its importance as an example rested upon the benign nature of the moment- the readiness of Wilberforce, Wordsworth and others to take it up.

Darcus Howe and Robin Blackburn would after all do well to remember some Roman history- the slave revolt of Spartacus in many ways might be compared to Haiti- it for a brief moment swept away slavery and united slaves against their masters. Yet we know almost nothing about it, because in the end superior forces from a united elite destroyed it and ideologically it remained unimportant. Haiti's revolt occured when the great powers were divided and reeling, in an age of geopolitical instability, where many within the contemporary elites were waiting to find an inspiration.

We shouldn't overestimate the importance of the Black Jacobins- but neither should we forget their importance. If Howe for one overstates their importance, the overstatement should be assessed in the context of an almost universal forgetfulness about this important moment in the history of the idea of universal values. The bravery and universality of their statements about liberty for all white, black and mullatto men shouldn't be forgotten- even in the circumstances were benign, it required exceptional bravery to seize the moment and found a state which unified African religion, European technology and the rights of man.


james higham said...

You have this knack of presenting topics which we probably haven't thought about and should have. They take a lot of digestion and there's not a lot to add because we simply don't know.

I would gues that your visitor stats would be much better than your number of commenters. Difficult to comment when you are learning. This is a learning site.

Gracchi said...

Thank you- a very complimentary comment from a man who runs a good blog himself. Thanks very much.

David B. Wildgoose said...

I would hardly describe the Haito Rebellion as issuing in respect for all - whites, blacks and mulatto. After all, if memory serves every single man, woman, child and baby with white skin or even "too white" skin was murdered in cold blood...

Gracchi said...

I expressed myself quite carefully about 'statements about the equality of all citizens'. My evidence for that statement rests upon the evidence the article I cited from a refereed journal lays out, briefly that
a all colours of men served in the Haitan forces
b that Haiti decreed that officially all citizens were black even Mulatto and White citizens
c that Haiti extended citizenship to many soldiers who fled from the French army including white Germans
d that the term blanc in Haiti ended up having no racial significance but meant just foreigner and that racial epithets lost their power.

Now none of that means that there weren't massacres of whites and mullattos- indeed some of those statements were made specifically to forestall those kinds of tensions. Massacres happened I'm sure, but it doesn't mean that Blackburn's ultimate conclusion about the revolt- that its ideology was racially neutral is incorrect. History is often too confusing to fit into simple categories- in the context of a simple remark about the rhetoric of the revolt, I think I have justification in saying that there were statements of racial equality made.

The larger point anyway was about the place of Haiti within the confluence of international events after 1776 and that is the one that I am really keen to defend- the racial point is merely derivative- the point about the international gap if you like is the point that is really mine.