Questions (303/415)

Dieudonné Cédor, Ceremony at Bois Caiman, 1791. No date given.

One of the things I want to emphasize is that our perception of global events, and the knowledge we may lack about other people’s histories, is a function of our position as citizens of the world’s largest empire.

Living in the imperial center means never needing to learn about other countries except when the US invades them, or when they impede the exercise of American power. Haiti claimed its independence in 1804. The US did not recognize this fact diplomatically until 1864. Over the next 150 years Haiti was invaded, occupied, and lost some of its territory as a result of American foreign policy. The 1856 Guano Islands Act allowed the seizure of uninhabited islands such as Navassa. In 1915 the US began an occupation of Haiti that lasted for eighteen years. In 2004 American forces ousted Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Let’s think about our move into Saint-Domingue during the Age of Revolution, roughly 1770-1830. The great bourgeois revolution of US independence, which created a herrenvolk democracy on the margins of a largely unmapped continent. The deeper-reaching French Revolution which overthrew an existing social order and at its most energetic and radical attempted to restructure society as a whole, prising power and wealth from the aristocracy and the Catholic church. The world-changing Industrial Revolution, fueled by the proceeds of slavery and other forms of primitive accumulation. And the Haitian Revolution, as James says history’s only successful slave revolt, which raised up the lowest and toppled the highest.

It’s perhaps difficult to imagine what Haitians thought about their chances of destroying the system of slavery. What do the foot-soldiers, cooks, and camp followers peopling Brecht’s A Worker Reads History know about the events they participate in? Maybe a better way to approach it is to ask how making the Haitian Reovlution differed from the quotidian experience of life on the plantation, at the cane press, burning the stubble, driving the cows, loading the holds, writhing against the lash…. What records are available to us and who wrote them? The educated. Clerks. Genteel diarists. Amateur naturalists. Is most of the archive simply inventories and accounts? What does such non-narrative evidence tell us? To what extent is any effort to represent the Haitian Revolution’s history from below simply a theater for our own fantasies and prejudices? What do those events and the people who lived them have to do with us?

By way of experiment we should place the history of Saint-Domingue and Haiti’s birth at the center of Western modernity. Let’s act as if that space/time/people hold the key to the development of the world into its contemporary condition. The solution to the enigma of our present lies in the plantation factories, the markets and wharves, up in the mountains with the maroons.

What do we have then? The Black Atlantic. Many thousands of captives speaking a panoply of languages, differing markedly in complexion and experience, while sharing in common the trauma of the Middle Passage. Every year, many thousands more die laboring. The average lifespan of an enslaved person in the West Indies was about five years. A constant influx from Africa, including soldiers taken prisoner then sold to Portuguese or English or Dutch traders. Driven for miles in a coffle to the Bight of Benin. Incarcerated in the barraccoons at Elmina Castle. Stacked like firewood in the hold. Three weeks or more at sea, depending on the weather. Fed, washed, and oiled before auction to bring a higher price.

People from different parts of Africa were believed to (and did) possess different skills. Some knew the secrets of rice farming. Others had been hunters and blacksmiths. How did they spend their first nights on the island of Hispaniola? What of third or fourth generation slaves, or those who had once been in bondage but managed to purchase their freedom? What traditions and social conventions developed in this crucible? How intense was their attachment to the stories and symbols of the homeland? How were legends and concepts transformed in the new environment?

The divisions separating the races are more porous in the French colonies than in North America, it is said. The Big Whites, the Little Whites, the Free Coloreds, the Enslaved. There is a whole class of Afro-European people working as artisans or shopkeepers or tailors, stevedores, courtesans. There are mixed-race slave owners. Before he was a general Toussaint worked on a plantation driving slaves. When did individual and communal desire and anger coalesce into revolt? What activated this change? Avoiding the banality of “tipping points” we need to question the composition of revolutionary consciousness. How does boredom and pain become the conviction that things must alter definitively and irrevocably right now?