Haitian Independence

In honor of Haiti's independence day (Jan. 1, 1804), these works explore the history and legacy of the world’s first successful slave revolt.

book covers

Chancy, Myriam J. A. From sugar to revolution: women’s visions of Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. Wilfrid Laurier, 2012. 358p ISBN 1554584280, $85.00; ISBN 9781554584284, $85.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE November 2012

Chancy’s multifaceted study examines contemporary Cuban, Haitian, and Dominican women’s use of literary and performance arts to resurrect marginalized and silenced subjects’ memories. Her paradigm for constructing cohesive Caribbean relations is the Haitian Revolution’s broad rejection of the French occupation, Haiti’s reclamation of national sovereignty, freedom from the imposition of Enlightenment logic, and reassertion of collective national memory. Troubling for Chancy’s transformative vision is neighboring nations’ acceptance of imposed rather than original, indigenous cultures, thereby rejecting association with Haiti’s black majority population, by example Dominicans’ blanqueamiento (skin whitening) and Cuba’s erasure of race as a category of discussion. Selected for their feminist commitments and innovative approaches to capturing lost histories are works by Dominicans Julia Alvarez (In the Time of the Butterflies), Angie Cruz (Let It Rain Coffee), and Loida Maritza Pérez (Geographies of Home); Haitian Edwidge Danticat (The Farming of Bones); Cubans Zoé Valdés (Yocandra in the Paradise of Nada), Nancy Morejón (her revolutionary and womanist poetry), Marilyn Bobes (“Somebody Has to Cry”), and Achy Obejas (We Came All the Way from Cuba so You Could Dress Like This?). Chancy also examines the work of performance artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons (“Middle Passage” installations). This book is an incredible read. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above. —J. C. Richards, Park University

Douglas, Rachel. Making The black Jacobins: C. L. R. James and the drama of history. Duke, 2019. 306p bibl index ISBN 9781478004271, $104.95; ISBN 9781478004875 pbk, $27.95; ISBN 9781478005308 ebook, $27.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE April 2020

Many have written about the Haitian Revolution, but the historical antecedent was Trinidad-born historian C. L. R. James. His classic 1938 history of the revolution, The Black Jacobins, began as the 1936 play Toussaint Louverture. Following its publication, James kept reworking the text, editing and revising the history for its 1963 edition (the most well known), which included an epilogue linking the Haitian Revolution and the then freshly minted Cuban Revolution. Even after this, James kept rewriting, reconsidering the impact of Marxism on his history, shaping Marxist historiography from a Caribbean perspective, and shifting the focus of the revolution away from such key actors as Louverture and toward more grassroots actors. This retelling found expression in James’s 1967 play The Black Jacobins. In this addition to “The C. L. R. James Archives” series from Duke, Douglas (Univ. of Glasgow, UK) masterfully recounts this “book history” by delving into previously unexplored versions of James’s manuscripts and interviews about his writing. This study is a must read for scholars interested in Caribbean and world history, particularly those interested in James’s “bottom-up history” and how his constant reworking of political thought found expression in his histories of the Haitian Revolution. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty. —K. R. Shaffer, Penn State University–Berks College

Dubois, Laurent. Avengers of the New World: the story of the Haitian Revolution. Belknap, Harvard, 2004. 357p ISBN 0674013042, $29.95.Reviewed in CHOICE November 2004

In a remarkable year in which the 200th anniversary of Haiti’s independence collided with the undeniable recognition that Haitian politics are still being shaped by outside forces, Harvard Univ. Press has had the prescience to launch a wonderful retelling of the events and individuals who engineered the Haitian Revolution. Although the history of the slave rebellions and the severing of Haiti’s colonial ties with France has been told (and well) several times, this wonderfully readable account is a timely reminder of the perils and sacrifices that marked Haiti’s revolutionary path, resulting in only the second independent nation of this hemisphere. Dubois (Michigan State Univ.) rightfully emphasizes the impact of French revolutionary principles (i.e., the Rights of Man) on the Haitian rebel slaves, as well as the inextricable influence of French politics on the fate of its Caribbean colony, highlighted by the power struggles between Napoleon and Louverture. The author’s insights about the nature of solidarity, trust, and leadership among the slaves, as well as the organization of insurgents across the colony, are well worth recalling, especially in this fateful year. Highest recommendations. Summing Up: Essential. All levels/libraries. —R. M. Delson, American Museum of Natural History

Dun, James Alexander. Dangerous neighbors: making the Haitian revolution in early America. Pennsylvania, 2016. 342p bibl index afp ISBN 9780812248319, $45.00; ISBN 9780812292978 ebook, $45.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE February 2017

This volume enriches the vibrant scholarship of recent decades exploring the significance of the Haitian Revolution in the context of world history. As source of half the world’s coffee by 1789 and 40 percent of its sugar, the French colony “was the most successful European holding in the West Indies.” Historian Dun (Princeton Univ.) locates Philadelphia as the entrepȏt through which news of an increasingly antislavery revolution reached anxious reading audiences locally, regionally, and globally. Seven richly footnoted chapters discuss how the enslaved population of San Domingue (Haiti) ignited Latin America’s anticolonial struggle, defeated modern European armies, and, despite the capture and death of their leader, Toussaint Louverture, successfully modeled a revolutionary means to emancipation. While African Americans commemorated Haiti’s January 1, 1804, independence proclamation, most white Americans tended to disassociate the self-liberating acts of the Haitians from the revolutionary principles of their own independence struggle. Other nations involved in the slave trade had similar reactions. Consequently, the thought of enslaved populations overthrowing their masters fueled the concept of and planning for the dangerous “French negro” [sic] prototype, complete with draconian laws enacted to preserve the status quo in the US and elsewhere. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries. —J. E. Johnson, Public Historian

Garrigus, John D. Before Haiti: race and citizenship in French Saint-Domingue. Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. 396p ISBN 1403971404, $75.00; ISBN 9781403971401, $75.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE December 2006

This important contribution to Haitian and Caribbean history demonstrates that the ferment that led to the Haitian Revolution was heightened by the racist manner in which French colonists after the Seven Years’ War reconfigured their own white identity versus the hitherto undifferentiated identity of freeborn families of mixed descent, some of whom were as wealthy and as “French” as the colonists themselves. Few scholars before Garrigus (Univ. of Texas, Arlington) have so thoroughly investigated the place of Creoles in prerevolutionary Haiti and in the French Caribbean more generally. At a time when Saint-Domingue was among the wealthiest of European colonial outposts, the comparatively sizable Creole community contributed significantly to French wealth and the wealth of the sugar outpost. But their very prosperity made these largely indigenous persons of color a concern for purely French planters. Garrigus spells out what all of these battles over primacy and difference meant to Saint-Domingue and to postrevolutionary Haiti. Toward the end of his excellent book, he explores the experience of free coloreds in the colony’s southern peninsula, and specifically how that experience influenced the origins and course of the Haitian uprising of the 1790s and beyond. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above. —R. I. Rotberg, Harvard University

Geggus, David. The Haitian Revolution: a documentary history, ed., tr., and introd. by David Geggus. Hackett, 2014. 212p bibl index afp ISBN 9780872208667, $45.00; ISBN 9780872208650 pbk, $15.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE April 2015

This extraordinary collection of primary-source documents, introduced, translated, and edited by a prominent scholar of the Haitian Revolution, offers a fascinating window into the slave uprising that began in Saint-Domingue in 1791 and culminated with the emergence of an independent black Haiti in 1803.  Geggus (Univ. of Florida) has carefully selected rarely seen documents from multiple international archives, ranging from eyewitness accounts of slave trading, racial discrimination, and insurrection to contemporary descriptions of Toussaint Louverture, his government, and varied overseas reactions to Haitian independence.  It offers more detailed coverage than Laurent Dubois and John D. Garrigus’s Slave Revolution in the Caribbean, 1789–1804: A Brief History with Documents (2006) by providing twice the number of primary documents.  The introduction is crisp and concise and concludes with a helpful time line of important events.  Each of the ten chronologically and thematically arranged chapters includes a succinct introductory section and primary source extracts preceded by a brief explanatory note.  Serious readers of Caribbean history will benefit from the insights this rich collection offers.  A must for all academic and public libraries. Summing Up: Essential. Undergraduates through researchers/faculty; general readers. —B. N. Newman, Virginia Commonwealth University

Girard, Philippe R. The slaves who defeated Napoleon: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian War of Independence, 1801-1804. Alabama, 2011. 444p ISBN 9780817317324, $45.00; ISBN 9780817385408 ebook, $36.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE June 2012

Although dozens of authors have attempted to capture the meaning of and explain how Haiti won its independence from France, this fast-paced narrative is an excellent modern treatment that offers a welcome micro-examination of the day-to-day events that turned Toussaint Louverture from a loyal French governor into a formidable independence leader. But the author’s claim to pathbreaking innovation is his argument that the Haitian War of Independence was as much about greed as about winning freedom for slaves. In fact, France abolished slavery in what is now Haiti in the very early years of the struggle in order to retain its grip on wealth from sugar. Saint-Domingue was then the richest colony in the world, and a prize consummately worth fighting for. That in part accounts, Girard (McNeese State Univ.) suggests, for the oft-compromised behavior of nearly all of the key actors in Haiti’s independence struggle. Toussaint and Jean-Jacques Dessalines were consummate opportunists, the latter fighting both against and for slaves, the former having been a sometime slave-owner. Fortunately, Girard supports his striking claims by extensive archival research in at least four of the relevant languages. He also looks beyond Saint-Domingue to the wider international components of the war and how it was almost lost, and then won. Summing Up: Essential. All levels/libraries. —R. I. Rotberg, Harvard University

Horne, Gerald. Confronting black Jacobins: the United States, the Haitian Revolution, and the origins of the Dominican Republic. Monthly Review, 2015. 423p index afp ISBN 9781583675632, $89.00; ISBN 9781583675625 pbk, $29.00; ISBN 9781583675656 ebook, $25.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE May 2016

Connectivity of people of African descent in the Caribbean and the mainland, inspiration of the black Jacobins to them, and the strategic importance of the 1791 black Jacobins slave revolt in Saint-Domingue feed into Horne’s recognition of the failed trajectory of chattel slavery in the world of modern nation states.  Besides providing a needed focus on the salience of international/economic relations in domestic race relations, Horne (Univ. of Houston) uses an array of primary sources to effectively focus on a less-evaluated factor—the presence of a self-governing sovereign territory—as a catalyst of the African American struggle to freedom and self-determination.  The blatant and consistent self-interest of the major European powers toward Haiti and the latter’s relations with the US in the 80 or so years after the 1791 revolt are justly recognized as a pivotal point of leverage for Haiti, as well as for African Americans, thrusting Haiti into a well-deserved prominence not usually asserted.  Haiti’s importance related to such events as diverse as the Louisiana Purchase, the struggle for abolition in Britain and the US, education and exposure to a legion of scholars and activists of African descent, the Dominican struggle for independence, and the near annexation of the Dominican Republic to the US all make Horne’s work a must for serious scholars. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above. —W. J. Nelson, Shaw University

Poetry of Haitian independence, ed. by Doris Y. Kadish and Deborah Jenson; tr. by Norman R. Shapiro. Yale, 2015. 301p bibl index afp ISBN 9780300195590, $40.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE November 2015

Numerous studies have delved into the history and political ramifications of the Haitian Revolution.  But heretofore none has looked at the literature produced in its aftermath.  The publication of Poetry of Haitian Independence is fortuitous, therefore, for readers interested in Haiti’s long-ignored literary tradition.  This unique study is the first comprehensive, bilingual compilation of the poetry written in Haiti from 1804 through the 1840s.  To compile the volume, Kadish (Univ. of Georgia) and Jenson (Duke Univ.) painstakingly researched and located rare literary works from 19th-century newspapers and journals.  The volume opens with an insightful essay by Edwidge Danticat stressing the crucial role poetry and poets have played in the nation.  The introduction provides a historical background and also examines the connection well-known and anonymous neoclassic and Romantic poets had with the revolution and its leaders.  The poems pay homage to Haiti’s past and the nation’s struggles for justice and to the beauty of Haiti’s people and landscape.  The volume includes more than 30 poems in their original French alongside Shapiro’s carefully crafted English translations.  In sum, a valuable contribution to the fields of Caribbean studies and French and Francophone literature. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers. —Y. Fuentes, Nova Southeastern University