Showing posts with label Haitian Revolutionary Studies. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Haitian Revolutionary Studies. Show all posts

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Review of A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution by Katia Laurent-Joseph

Jeremy D. Popkin. A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution. New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.  978-1405198219. 212 Pp.
Reviewed by Katia Laurent-Joseph

In August 1971, in the French colony of Saint Domingue, a slave revolt began. This revolt gave birth to the Republic of Haiti in 1804. The Haitian Revolution started in 1791 and ended in 1804 is the only successful slave revolt in the world. Enslaved men and women overthrew the colonial power and created the second free nation in the world after the United States of America.

In his book, A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution, Jeremy D. Popkin, a Professor of History in University of Kentucky provides a brief history of the complex events that lead to the Haitian Revolution and its aftermath.

Popkin’s book begins with a history of the formation of the Island of Hispaniola in the context of European imperialism in the New World. The Spaniards were the first European settlers in the island. The latter abandoned the Island and shifted their focus on Mexico and other countries in the Americas. The French took control of the island by sending a governor in 1665 to govern over Buccaneers and other fortune-seekers from Europe.

Saint Domingue rapidly developed into a profitable colony for the French empire.  Its location in the Caribbean makes it the ideal place to grow sugar, coffee, indigo, and cotton. Workers were in need to work in the colony; as a result, many blacks were imported from the African continent to work in plantations. Their living condition in the colony were harsh, brutal, and inhuman.  The abused of the slaves in the colony is one of the factors why the author concludes that Saint Domingue was the true definition of a “slave society” (14). The colony population was composed of whites, slaves, and free people of color. Popkin surveys how various conditions, and other factors gave rise to the general slave revolt in August 1791. He also examines the relationship between white owners with the free people of color. The latter own slaves and land. He situates the revolution in the French island, Saint Domingue, in the context with other world events; for instance, he conveys that, in 1789, liberal ideas of freedom and human rights crossed the Atlantic and inspired many who were oppressed in the colony to seek freedom and their “rights of man.”

One of the strengths of the book is the way the author recapitulates the events leading up to the successful uprising of the slaves that eventually gave birth to the first black nation in the Western world. Between the years of the revolution (1791-1804), the colony underwent from different power structures—shifting between the French, British, Spanish, slaves, and free men of color. The latter classes were the most oppressed in the colony but could not find unity to govern the colony amongst them.

Another important key in Popkin’s book is the intervention and contribution of Toussaint Louverture to the Haitian Revolution.  Toussaint was born in slavery, but purchased in freedom. He played an important role of leadership in the Revolution in 1798. Toussaint was a great leader, soldier, and has a contradictory personality. He proclaimed himself self-ruler while promoting democracy. He wanted to create a multi-cultural society in Saint Domingue while raging war with the free men of color. He was very stubborn and his action by freeing all the slaves in the colony angered Napoleon Bonaparte and forced him to send a fully-resourced army in 1802, under the command of Charles Leclerc, to reconquer the colony and reestablish slavery. Napoleon’s action turned the slave revolt into a war for liberty.

Leclerc died of yellow fever. Subsequently, Vicomte the Rochambeau assumed the leadership of the French army. He was very brutal in his military campaign. He was heartless and fearless. From 1802 to 1803, the Haitian Revolution entered its most violent phase. Toussaint was arrested and exiled in Fort-de-Joux. After his death, Jean Jacques Dessalines took over the leadership of the Revolution.  Under his command, free men and color and former slaves joined force to defeat the French army and other colonial powers that were ready to take the island away from France.

The book does not end with the Declaration of Independence of 1804. It discusses the Constitution of 1805 that establishes Dessalines the first head of state of postcolonial Haiti. The newly- created nation of Haiti did not have the chance to celebrate its independence. Other nations refused to recognize its independence until 1825. Haiti did not find any help or support from other slave owning countries in the Americas.  France did finally recognize Haiti’s independence, after the Haitian government agreed to pay an indemnity to France. This debt was paid in full in 1883, and the United States of America did not acknowledge Haiti’s freedom until 1862. According to Popkin, all those factors crippled Haiti’s economy still today, including the devastating earthquake of 2010. 

The book not only demonstrates the impact of the Haitian Revolution on Haiti’s politics and economics, but also its impact on the whole world. The author provides important endnotes and a bibliography that are helpful for further research on the topic.

A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution is a very important book that could be used as an introductory text in college to study the Haitian Revolution, slave revolt, French Revolution, and Caribbean studies.  Furthermore, it teaches the impact and the historical legacy of the Haitian Revolution against colonialism, imperialism, racism, slavery, and eurocentrism. My hope in one day the Haitian Revolution will not be silenced by the neo-colonial powers and will find its place as one of the most influential Revolution in the world.