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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

March 25, 2014: Caribbean Connections: The Haitian Revolution

[In this month of spring breaks, lots of young (and not so young) Americans have likely made their way down to the Caribbean. But for this week’s series, I’ll be considering some of the ways in which the US and the Caribbean are connected by far more than just travel itineraries. Add your thoughts and connections in comments, please!]

On a few of our many interconnections with the island neighbor.
I don’t know if this is still true, but back when I was taking high school U.S. history our textbook heavily emphasized one particular stateside impact of the late 18th century Haitian Revolution: that it so significantly changed Napoleon Bonaparte’s New World empire—and perhaps more importantly his perspective on that imperial enterprise—that he was willing to sell most of the rest of the empire to the Jefferson Administration, in the transaction that came to be known as the Louisiana Purchase. Given how much that purchase impacted the new and evolving United States—not only by doubling the nation in size, but also by fundamentally changing our sense of the future and what it might include—it’s certainly fair to say on those grounds alone that Haiti and its revolution were as crucial to America’s fate as any other nation and event have been.
But on the other hand, emphasizing that effect of Haiti’s thirteen-year revolution only perpetuates the kind of US-centric vision of the hemisphere and its histories on which I’m trying to push back in this week’s series. More complex and multi-directional would be an emphasis on the way in which the island’s slave revolution affected the system of slavery in the American South, not only because it heightened (or at least provided an excuse for) regional fears of slave revolts, but also because it (and the independent nation that was its result) revealed the fundamental falsehood at the heart of most justifications for slavery: that slaves and/or African Americans were a lesser species, not fully human, incapable of meaningful collective action and community, much less of self-government. Haiti, that is, didn’t just become the first African-American nation in the new world—it did so through an organized, sustained uprising of slaves and former slaves, a community that fought off multiple waves of European response in order to carve out this new space and possibility.
There’s at least one more meaningful way to connect the Haitian Revolution to the U.S., and it involves the leaders of that uprising. A great deal has been written about the most prominent such leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and rightfully so; he’s one of the most complex, interesting, and inspiring historical figures. But I’m not sure we Americans have sufficiently considered just how precisely parallel L’Ouverture and his colleagues were to our revolutionary leaders and generation. Of course race and slavery represent significant distinctions, but to my mind the similarities are nonetheless more striking: a vastly outnumbered and overpowered small community who pushed back on a dictatorial European empire, weathered a decade of conflict and challenges and setbacks, and with the inspiration of philosophical ideals of equality and liberty succeeded in changing the course of history and producing a new nation on the world’s stage. What would it mean if we could consider our revolution as deeply similar and entirely complementary to Haiti’s? I’d respond: what wouldn’t it?
Next connection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other connections you’d share?

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