Week 9 – 3/13 Haitian Revolution

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20 thoughts on “Week 9 – 3/13 Haitian Revolution

  1. taymn March 12, 2013 at 1:07 pm Reply

    Davis says that “…it is impossible to measure public opinion on such matters…” as the “…negative images of Haiti…” (Davis 174). The Haitian Revolution conveyed a different message to different people. Most whites were intimidated. Some treated slaves worse, having heard of the revolt. They also increased their opposition to any ideas of emancipation, fearing the potential “economic disaster” (159) that may come from it. For example, the revolt led to Virginian laws “restricting manumission” and thoughts of deporting blacks (161). Black slaves saw it as hope. If the slaves of Haiti were able to gain emancipation and equality then maybe they could as well. I was personally moved by the words of James Forten, William Watkins and Frederick Douglass. In a time when blacks were thought of as “degraded beings whose servitude was as natural as the force of gravity” (170), they all felt that the Haitian Revolution proved that blacks were not necessarily designed or created for bondage.

    • Christine Shaw March 13, 2013 at 12:56 am Reply

      It seems like the increased fear of revolts after the Haitian Revolution was at least partially justified, since it influenced the Aponte Conspiracy of 1812, Denmark Vesey’s conspiracy in 1822, and the Malê Revolt in Brazil, among others (170). The efforts of some whites to increase oppression of slaves or maintain that they were meant to be in servitude to try to prevent rebellion seems like it could easily backfire, given the hope for liberation and change that the Haitian Revolution represented.

    • William Skidmore March 13, 2013 at 5:46 am Reply

      Hi Taymn, wonderful post. Do you buy Davis’ argument that “it is impossible to measure public opinion on such matters?” Or is this Davis’ way of dodging the issue?

    • Caroline March 13, 2013 at 11:34 am Reply

      I was also interested by the reaction of The United States to the Haitian Revolution. Davis points out that Americans should have seen the Haitian revolution as a warning, but that “fear seldom overcomes greed,” (160) and instead, they continued to expand slavery westward.

    • Gahbrielle Armrdi March 13, 2013 at 12:37 pm Reply

      I like the last sentence and how it pokes holes in the ideology that some people were “meant” to be slaves.

  2. Caroline March 12, 2013 at 5:16 pm Reply

    I think the concept Davis brought up of Haiti as a “city set upon a hill,” (157) was very interesting, especially in the different ways slaves and slave-owners interpreted this example. For slaves, the Haitian revolution inspired several violent revolts, like Jose Antonio Aponte’s rebellion in Cuba in 1812. The Haitian Revolution was more influential though in its “enduring impact on the self-image and nascent national identity of free blacks,” (171). It showed slaves and free blacks that, as James Forten said, they “’could not always be detained in their present bondage,” (171). For slave-owners, the Haitian Revolution enforced the opposite opinion, that Africans were clearly inferior and could never be successful if they were free. The incredibly violent nature of the revolution served to enforce stereotypes of Africans as savage. Further, the political turmoil and poverty in Haiti “reinforced the conviction… that free blacks were incapable of governing themselves in a civilized state,” (174).

    • taymn March 13, 2013 at 1:10 am Reply

      I was, personally, very surprised at the ferocity of their actions that the rebels took. I wonder how much was true and how much was really embellished using the “animal imagery” (160) that Davis described.

    • William Skidmore March 13, 2013 at 5:39 am Reply

      Hi Caroline,

      I enjoyed your post. How do you think the Haitian Revolution influenced abolitionists? What about Latin American slaveholders, who were themselves colonial subjects?

    • Christine Shaw March 13, 2013 at 8:58 am Reply

      In the years after the revolution, the leaders turned back to forced labor in an effort improve the economy, which also contributed to the ideas that “blacks would not work unless coerced” and “slavery was indispensable for progress” (173). It surprised me that Haiti could so quickly turn back to methods closely resembling slavery, when they fought for several years to end it.

  3. Christine Shaw March 12, 2013 at 5:32 pm Reply

    The Haitian Revolution was arguably one of the most successful slave revolts, since it resulted in both the abolition of slavery and the creation of a new country. The readings made me think about what factors led to its success, when so many other slave rebellions ended with failure. Davis mentions the influence of the French Revolution, both in terms of inspiration and since it kept the French from focusing their full attention on their colonies. The fact that the French were fighting Britain and Spain at the same time meant that the slaves could form temporary alliances to gain military support. In addition, the British, Spanish, and French troops were all weakened by diseases to which the slaves were immune. The strength of the rebellion’s leaders also clearly contributed heavily to the success of the rebellion, as did the sheer number of slaves who joined the revolt, despite divisions between the blacks and mulattoes.

    • Eric March 13, 2013 at 12:41 pm Reply

      I feel like the bias Europeans had against the Haitian slaves really undermined any success they had, though. When the slaves had to work to produce food, slavery advocates used this evidence to support the claim that “blacks would not work unless coerced” (172), an idea which they somehow saw as a negative aspect of African mentality.

    • Gahbrielle Armrdi March 13, 2013 at 12:44 pm Reply

      Although Haiti successfully gained independence, post-revolution Haiti still struggled economically.

  4. Eric March 12, 2013 at 11:57 pm Reply

    We see in this week’s reading that slaves, although they were very tough, incredibly ready to fight for their freedom, and able to organize themselves when the time called for it, they were never able to go toe to toe with any European civilization. When former slaves in Guadalupe would not allow the French to re-enslave them, they were able to fight them off for a time, but the British demolished any force they had with a simple blockade in 1803. In Haiti, although slaves did gain and hold their freedom, their country suffered greatly because European nations refused to trade with them, and then scoffed at the inferiority evident in how the country lingered along without a proper economy. The slaves could hardly have a true victory without some support.

    • taymn March 13, 2013 at 1:20 am Reply

      This makes sense. After all, the slaves were probably not as equipped as the “civilized” communities that they took on.

    • William Skidmore March 13, 2013 at 5:50 am Reply

      Hi Eric, good post! I have a question about your assessment. You argue that slaves could never go toe to toe with any European Civilization. That being said, what about Spartacus and the Third Servile War? Or Haiti (they defeated Britain, France, and Spain)? Or the Maroons in Jamaica?

    • Caroline March 13, 2013 at 11:27 am Reply

      I agree that the the slaves in Haiti probably had little to no chance of not falling in to poverty after gaining their freedom because they had no support. This reminds me of a lot of the slaves Kevin Bales talked about, especially in India, who were being freed, but had idea how to get a job or feed their families on their own. They needed continuing help in order to be successful.

  5. dpl32013 March 13, 2013 at 4:38 am Reply

    I thought the chapter presented a thought-provoking perspective with regards to the Haitian revolution. At the 1893 world’s fair, black abolitionist Frederick Douglass contrasted the Haitian revolution with America’s own. Davis writes “Whereas the American revolution had been led by what Douglass termed “the ruling race of the world who had the knowledge and character naturally inherited from long years of personal and political freedom, … [Haiti’s freedom] was not given as a boon, but conquered as a right!” (Davis 159). For example, the U.S. may have finally won her “freedom” through war with Great Britain, yet asserted it long before the fact of the matter in a Declaration of Independence. Explicitly stating their understanding that all (at least white) men had been created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, the founding fathers clearly saw themselves immersed in a struggle to defend rather than obtain these rights. In this context his distinction is interesting – the Haitians saw themselves as not defending but rather winning/obtaining such rights.
    Davis’ discussion of Haitian history up to the point of the revolution both supports and complicates this point. Of course, like in other western slave societies at the time, blacks were seen as inherently inferior and unable to possess such aforementioned rights, a racial distinction which blacks and abolitionists united against. Prior to the Haitian revolution, however, several Haitian blacks managed to purchase their freedom and became slaveholders, resulting in racial contradictions and even a separate mulattoe class. These were not freed as the result of any ideological revolution, but presumably by a mixture of hard work, luck, and economics. Though this breach of the racial barrier undoubtedly provided some foundation for those still enslaved to reject their own condition, such (partial) prenatal removal of the racial barrier before the revolution in my opinion may have weakened the Haitian cause. While freed blacks proved the possibility of freedom, I feel like a potential ideological victory regarding what it meant to be free had been partially preempted by an economic/power based one – Haitians “conquered” freedom rather than reaffirmed it.

  6. William Skidmore March 13, 2013 at 5:36 am Reply

    Hi everyone,

    My name is Wes Skidmore and I’m another of Ben Wright’s colleagues in the history department.

    I have to say that everyone did a tremendous job of working through the events and implications of the Haitian Revolution. I will try and expand on your ideas, while also offering a few other insights.

    First some historiographical background on how historians have approached the Haitian Revolution. Until the bicentennial celebration of Haitian Independence (2004), historians have largely ignored Haiti’s place in the “Age of Revolution.” Robert Palmer’s two-volume study (rough 1,000 pages) Age of the Democratic Revolution (1959), for example, does not make a single reference to the Haitian Revolution. Like most other scholars, he focused on the usual suspects (the American and French Revolutions), while also briefly illustrating smaller democratic uprisings in Switzerland and the Low Countries.

    Fortunately David Brion Davis, along with several other scholars, has corrected this oversight, and placed Haiti amongst the Pantheon of revolutionary history. As all of you noted, the Haitian Revolution marked a critical juncture in the “Age of Revolution.” This revolution signaled the emergence of Afro-America onto the international political scene. It was the first anticolonial race war, and it was also the first and only slave revolt to result in the creation of a modern independent state. Unlike previous abolitionists, the Haitian rebels, under the leadership of Léger-Félicité Sonthonax and Toussaint L’Ouverture, were willing to abolish slavery immediately, without compensation. One question I raise is how did the goals of the Haitian Revolution change over time? How did Haitians’ push for freedom and liberty ultimately transform into a movement for Independence? When did this happen?

    Historians have often characterized the Haitian Revolution as a “quasi-genocidal war” (see Drescher Abolition and Geggus ‘The Caribbean in the Age of Revolution’). I found it interesting that many of you mentioned the violence associated with the Haitian Revolution (mostly Haitian insurgents killing Europeans). Ironically, however, the majority of violent deaths during the Haitian Revolution came from Europeans killing Haitian insurgents (rough 150,000 Haitian Americans were killed during the revolution). Almost two-thirds of European deaths, however, came from disease. In the Haitian Constitution of 1801, moreover, Toussaint included a brief apology for “the cruelty of a few soldiers and cultivators too much blinded by memories of past sufferings.” Do these statistics change our understanding of the violence associated with Haitian Revolution? Was it “quasi-genocidal war?” Why do you think Toussaint felt the need to apologize for Haitian revolutionaries’ actions?

    Another topic that a few of you mentioned in your blogs, I believe it was Christine and Taymn, deals with the backlash and fear created by the Haitian Revolution. I concur with Davis on these aspects, but I also want to reiterate the positive influences Haiti had on the movement towards universal emancipation. Although some abolitionists recoiled in horror at the bloody consequences of the revolution, other acknowledged it as a necessary “means to an end.” Up until the Haitian Revolution, moreover, British abolitionism had only made modest gains. Haiti, in my opinion, changed this. Following this bloody independence movement, Britain revived its crusade (which had been quelled by the French Revolution) and presented abolition as an act of sound moral policy. In other words, they argued that abolish slavery would prevent “another Haiti.”

    Although scholars often argue about the effects of the Haitian Revolution, it should also be noted that Haiti, as an independent state, continued to influence emancipation movements throughout the nineteenth century. In 1816, for example, Haiti’s President Alexandre Pétion aided Simón Bolívar with his invasion against the Spanish Empire in Latin America. Pétion agreed to provide Bolívar with los franceses (Haitian freedom fighters), arms, and ammunition. In return, Bolívar agreed to abolish slavery in the lands that he would liberate. This raises an interesting question about Davis’ argument. He mentions that his study deals with the Atlantic World, but does he really engage with Latin America and its independence movements? Moreover, did Haiti influence other regions outside of the Atlantic World?

    I also wanted to raise the question about how the Haitian Revolution influenced modern human rights. In the 1801 Haitian Constitution, Articles 3 through 5 state:

    Art. 3.
    There cannot exist slaves on this territory, servitude is therein forever abolished. All men are born, live and die free and French.
    Art. 4.
    All men, regardless of color, are eligible to all employment.
    Art. 5.
    There shall exist no distinction other than those based on virtue and talent, and other superiority afforded by law in the exercise of a public function. The law is the same for all whether in punishment or in protection.

    After reading Kevin Bales’ book on modern slavery, where does Haiti fit into the narrative of modern human rights? How significant are these three Articles to our understanding of modern human rights? Was it ultimately Haiti, not France of America, which fulfilled the democratic promises of the “Age of Revolution?” If westerners continue to celebrate the idea of universal human rights as one of their major contributions to modern civilization, should part of the credit not go to Haiti and its revolutionaries?

  7. Gahbrielle Armrdi March 13, 2013 at 12:27 pm Reply

    I found it interesting how education can open someone’s mind to new ideas and change. Two well-educated white men, Abraham Bishop and Theodore Dwight supported the ideas behind the Haitian Revolution. Bishop and Dwight correlated causes of the Haitian Revolution with that of the American Revolution. Although these men tried to convince American’s to aid the black slaves in Haiti the president rejected their ideas. However, there were also less educated lower-caste whites “who loved to flaunt their racial superiority over coloreds who were both wealthier and better educated than themselves” (pg 162). In a sense those of the lower caste were less open to change especially since such change would cause them to lose superiority over blacks.

    • Eric March 13, 2013 at 12:44 pm Reply

      This is true in any situation, though, those in power will almost always refuse to give it up if they can do anything to stop it. For whites, this was simply embracing racial stereotypes and inferiority.

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