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Haiti – Blueprint of a Successful Revolution?

(by Carrie Gibson)

High up in the mountains of Northern Haiti sits a massive fortress facing the Atlantic Coast. Below it, there are hills which surround it like a sea of brown and green waves. This fortress is known as the Citadelle La Ferrière, and it took the hands of some 20,000 men around 15 years to build. It was assembled under the orders of Henri Christophe, who, in 1811 became Haiti’s first and only king. He died the same year his fort was finished, in 1820.

In many respects, the mighty Citadelle is a potent physical reminder of Haiti’s proud past, as are the ruins of what had been Christophe’s lavish and impressive palace of Sans-Souci (‘without worry’), built down the winding road from the fort.

Only a few years earlier, Christophe, who was born a slave, had been fighting in the Haitian Revolution, which ended on 1 January 1804 with the establishment of an independent Haiti. Not only did these former slaves win their emancipation, they also defeated Napoleon Bonaparte and liberated the island from colonial rule.

The world had never seen anything like it. And, yet, although it was by far the most dramatic of the liberation struggles in the Americas, its story was ‘silenced’, as Haitian historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot describes it. But, there sits the Citadelle, itself a silent symbol of Haiti’s determination.

Haiti’s early years were shaky. The island had been divided, which is how Christophe ended up controlling the north. The south of the island was a republic under the rule of Alexander Pétion. The country was finally reunited after the death of both, and consolidated under Jean-Pierre Boyer in 1820.

The odds, however, were always stacked against Haiti. The mere idea of a nation ruled by former slaves was an almost unspeakable outrage to the white-run slave colonies that surrounded it. Trade was restricted, alliances were fragile, and France demanded 150 million francs in exchange for its recognition. Internal tensions were also high – the hero of the revolution, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who led the charge to the finish, was murdered by a group of his enemies in 1806.

Dessalines had also tried to end a longer-running problem when, in the constitution of 1804, he made all Haitians ‘black’, but frictions between some people within the mulatto and darker-skinned communities continued. Despite these internal and external obstacles, Haiti persisted.

So the question is not whether Haiti’s revolution succeeded or not, or whether it met its aims. The fact remains that such a feat was never replicated. Whichever way the independent Haiti was divided, it and its people were still free – and so the aims of the revolution can be said to have been a success. Though, of course, it was never that straightforward. The relationship of the revolution to ideas about emancipation is important to this. There was, in many ways, a second part to the struggle.

Pétion, while in charge of the south of the island from 1807–18, was eager to fight for slave emancipation wherever he could, and he had ample opportunity as independence struggles in Latin America began.

Even as early as 1806 there were reports of the Venezuelan Francisco de Miranda going to Haiti to plan an expedition to liberate his country. He stayed in the port of Jacmel for six weeks, but he did not launch anything from there and was killed in 1811. A crucial link, however, was established. Colonial governments across the region fretted about the ‘Haitian danger’, worrying that the former slaves would spread their revolutionary message throughout the Caribbean.

At the end of 1815, Simon Bolívar arrived in Port-au-Prince looking for assistance, and again Pétion reached out. This time Pétion tried to elicit a guarantee that Bolívar would free the slaves should he be successful. The Venezuelan agreed, and set off with the more than 6,000 rifles and other supplies, as well as money, to try again to ignite an independence struggle. He failed and was forced to go back to Haiti and ‘place myself under the protection of the most generous republican leaders in the New World’.

Bolívar’s next attempt was successful, and he kept his promise – up to a point. He declared ‘there will be no more slaves in Venezuela, except those who wish to remain so’, meaning that the slaves who did not help him were going to remain enslaved. It was not the universal emancipation Pétion had in mind. Indeed, slavery was not technically abolished there until 1854.

The real struggle to spread emancipation, however, came from much closer quarters: Santo Domingo. The former Spanish colony had experienced a bewildering series of events while the Revolution raged next door. To begin with, it had participated in the Revolution, with the governor bringing Toussaint L’Ouverture and others into Spain’s service and promising them their freedom around 1792-93.

When it became clear that Spain was not interested in emancipation, and it was being offered to slaves in Haiti who fought for Republic France, L’Ouverture switched sides. Then, in 1795 Santo Domingo had found itself unexpectedly traded to France under the Treaty of Basle, in exchange for peace between the two nations along their Pyrenees border. Despite the official change, Santo Domingo limped on for a while with little alteration.

However, in January 1801, with L’Ouverture now firmly in charge of the island as Bonaparte’s commander-in-chief, he notified officials in Santo Domingo that it would now be under French jurisdiction. He proved this point by marching in and making the handover official by 22 January. Crucially, by doing so, he extended emancipation. Although the slave population in Santo Domingo hovered around 30,000 when Saint-Domingue’s was around 500,000, L’Ouverture made it clear in his 1801 constitution that ‘all men are born, live and die free and French’.

This move angered Napoleon when he heard about it, and he feared L’Ouverture was gaining too much power. While the final years of the Revolution were played out, people from Santo Domingo fled the island. What is little known is how those 30,000 slaves responded to their freedom. What few archival records remain from this period are mostly concerned with the efforts of wealthy creoles who could afford to leave, and not about the people who stayed – including former slaves and free people of colour – and what their expectations were for life under L’Ouverture’s rule.

The situation became even more confused for Santo Domingo. When Haiti was established, it was only within the old boundaries of Saint-Domingue. Santo Domingo stayed under French rule, and thus slavery was re-introduced there. Then, in 1808, the Spanish and creoles who lived there heard about Napoleon putting his brother on Spain’s throne. That triggered a loyalist insurrection to not only throw off France, but to re-join Spain at a time when it was under French occupation, and Spain’s other colonies in the Americans were debating independence from colonial rule all together.

Watching this from the other side of the border, Jean-Pierre Boyer decided Santo Domingo was a liability. Haiti was only recently reunited, and its existence was fragile. Santo Domingo’s willingness to work with European nations, allowing them into their ports, was too much of a threat. The only way to ensure Haiti’s survival, thought Boyer, was to put the island under his rule.

Boyer had around 12,000 troops and could outfight Santo Domingo, and knowing this the eastern side ceded itself in 1822, and it stayed under Haitian rule until 1844. Yet relations between the two sides never fared well – there was much irritation at successive attempts to change land use, and the linguistic and perceived cultural differences chafed.

By 1844, a small group of plotters managed to make the Spanish-speaking side of the island independent, this time naming it the Dominican Republic. By the 20th century, under the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo from 1930–61, there had been a public disavowing of the island’s Haitian past, with whiteness and Hispanic culture lauded and blackness pushed aside.

So, it is here where, perhaps, the revolution did fail. There are many possible reasons. Perhaps it failed because Santo Domingo had never been as overwhelmingly a slave society as Saint-Domingue had and continued to have a large group of free elite who identified with Spain. Or, perhaps the reason was the anger and bitterness over land use and other economic matters. Perhaps, it was a cultural estrangement that never healed. But, the effects are still there.

Impoverished Haitians go to the Dominican Republic to cut cane for pitiful pay, or work in other low-paid jobs. In 2013 an enormous legal row erupted over the citizenship rights of children born to illegal Haitian workers, backdated to include anyone born after 1929, which means tens of thousands of people who think of themselves as Dominican were told they might not be after all. And while Haitians garnered so much global public sympathy in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, many face discrimination and deportation when they leave the island to find much-needed work elsewhere.

Viewed from this angle, where Haitians are too often greeted with racism and injustice – especially at any sort of state or institutional level – the revolution may just be an unfinished one, and seems likely to remain that way as long as such oppression persists.

Carrie Gibson is author of Empire’s Crossroads: A History of the Caribbean from Columbus to the Present Day (Pan Macmillan)



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