Historiography of the Haitian Revolution: The Curse of Complexity

There is no doubt that the Haitian Revolution was a landmark historical event. In an extraordinary course of events, slaves in the French colony of Saint-Domingue launched a violent revolt that eventually established the independent nation of Haiti. It was the most successful slave rebellion in history and a major shock to the slave owning powers of the world. It is in this shock at such a unique event that much nuance is lost. The Haitian Revolution was long, brutal, and above all, complicated. There were many different factions, political conflicts, outside interventions, and disagreements among the sides of the conflict. It was far, far more complicated than “slaves vs. slave owners”, and in this binary lots of experiences and realities of the conflict are silenced. The Haitian Revolution can be looked at through many lenses of different focus, touching on lesser-known subjects like women’s role in the revolution, the importance of the French Revolution, the transmission of ideas, the conflicting goals of the slaves and their leaders, and much more. It is through the complexity of the revolution that so much can be explored. However, this makes it very difficult to paint a holistic picture, as so much has to be accounted for with unfortunately, so little. Histories of the Haitian Revolution suffer from a chronic lack of sources. This is especially true regarding the slaves and rebels, making it very difficult to discern a lot about their perspectives. For these reasons, histories of the Haitian Revolution inevitably have some shortcomings. How glaring these are depends on the skill and conclusions of the authors, and certainly does not prevent the making of good, compelling points. The complexity and source material of the Haitian Revolution allows historians to make many unique points and explore diverse topics, but also hampers complete and holistic conclusions.

Three influential pieces by Carolyn Fick, Laurent Dubois, and Philippe Girard embody this dynamic perfectly. Their articles focus on different subjects within the Revolution and using various methods, rarely having any ideological overlap. This exhibits the large scope of the Revolution well and the diversity of topics and subjects that can be found in it. Each article makes solid points and a coherent conclusion, but still leave the reader feeling that something is missing. The sheer length and complexity of the Revolution leads to authors having to take a narrow focus and not supporting their sweeping conclusions or trying to cover too much and not having enough backing to cover their connections. With that being said, these articles contain a lot of quality analysis and interesting conclusions, even if there are some shortcomings.

Carolyn’s Fick’s article “Emancipation in Haiti: From plantation labour to peasant proprietorship” is a quality look at the motives, results, and process of the Haitian Revolution. Fick questions the linear process of the Revolution as taught in typical narratives, in which black slaves revolted against white masters and established a freer society for themselves. Fick reveals that there were divisions within the cause of the black cause, and that the idea of freedom was not equal to just emancipation. Fick’s thesis comes in two parts, the first in which she explains that there were differing goals among the “free coloureds” and slaves, while the white planters were not always the main antagonist: “it was a revolution that resulted, rather than merely a contained or narrowly focused set of rebellions by the colony’s three contending groups — the white planters, the free coloureds and the slaves.”[1] This struggle was a long revolutionary period of change, not just inter-group warfare between the three mentioned groups. The second part of the thesis explains in large part why the revolution was not over with the freeing of the slaves and gives a look inside the psychology of the slaves and what they wanted out of the revolution: “Freedom for the mass of insurgent slaves, if it was to be realized at all, was fundamentally intertwined with an independent claim to land.”[2]

One of Fick’s crucial points is that emancipation did not immediately fulfill all participants’ goals for the revolution. She goes into how French government officials tried to balance economic requirements with revolutionary (both French and Haitian) goals of emancipation and freedom, as well as how the Haitian state became a new oppressor of former slaves. Economic concerns and military realities became as much and more important than political concerns, halting former slaves’ goals of land ownership and the formation of a peasant class: The new Haitian state created “unbridgeable gap between the state structure, which was a military one, and the rural agrarian base of the nation.”[3] The revolution continued into the early formation of the Haitian state, where the former “free coloured” class of landowners vied with the military brass for rights over land and eventually formed a separate state. Former slaves were initially left behind and still part of the plantation system for the time being until they eventually won greater rights of land ownership at the expense of economic prosperity.

Fick’s method of presenting her information is overall straightforward, and almost strictly chronological. She begins by outlining the main groups in the story and the situation at hand in order to provide context for the events and outline the main aspects of the time period. Fick’s work is certainly not entirely elite-focused, but it is not tremendously deep in its areas of focus either. Nearly everyone in Saint Domingue and Haiti is grouped into white planters, “free coloureds” or slaves. This morphs into generals, mulatto landowners, and plantation workers over the years. There are rarely times when Fick addresses people outside of this structure or explores many characteristics of peoples in these groups. Fick seems to largely subscribe to a Von Rankean, straightforward, streamlined approach to the events of the story, jumping from one to the next and explaining their effects in largely political terms. She also emphasizes the roles of “great men” in shaping the events of the time period, such as L’Overture, Pétion, Dessalines, and the French commissioners. The slaves, and later former slaves, are generally at the mercy of these men’s decisions, and only exercise agency when their grip on them loosens. Fick also places high importance on economic performance on the island, sometimes calling back to traditional quantitative methods. This especially applies to her consistent references to crop production figures, which are seen as representing the island’s economy, and on a larger scale the performance of the government.

Where Fick shines the most is in her interpretations of the motives of the slaves before and after they were freed. While this is not very deeply explored, her narrative makes lot of sense when the actions of the slaves and plantation workers are applied to it. This is especially apparent when she describes how former slaves reacted to the plantation system immediately after emancipation with blatant disrespect and disaffection, and how L’Overture’s government had to utilize extreme disciplinary measures to put them back into a subjugated position. The connection between land ownership and individual sovereignty and the former slaves’ peace and contentment are solidly established and backed up by the events that Fick describes. There is a backdrop of transnational history through this article, as revolutionary ideals and occurrences across the ocean impact events in Saint Domingue. Fick’s description of an underclass, its thought process and desires, and how it reacted to war, oppression, and sweeping change resembles Edward Thompson’s work, and more Marxist work in general. The former slaves, or the proletariat in this case, moved from being a landed, enslaved class to being independent peasants. The end of slavery and change in the economy from L’Overture’s rule to later decades showed a change in the means of production, and much more ownership of the means of production on the part of the proletariat.

Fick’s article is overall solid and covers quite a bit of ground. It is the only article of the three to cover the entire Haitian Revolution, and even goes into the period after. This requires Fick to use a more streamlined, Von Rankean timeline and not get too deep into areas outside of her immediate thesis regarding the slaves and the land. There is simply not enough room to go outside this scope considering the amount of time the revolution lasted, and her mission to show ideological consistency and the circumstances of the slaves achieving their goal. This makes the reader miss a lot of context on things like the slaves’ other goals, the different factions within the slaves, and economic structure and complexities outside of the plantation and some facts and figures. Laurent Dubois takes a much different approach, which leads to a semi-related set of conclusions, smaller area of study, and contrasting shortcomings.

Laurent Dubois’ article “’Our Three Colors’: The King, the Republic and the Political Culture of Slave Revolution in Saint-Domingue” provides a look into what shaped the desires and beliefs of the slaves who revolted in Haiti. Dubois explores how the scope of the Haitian Revolution evolved from small, localized uprisings into the full-blown slave rebellion that the revolution is known for. Dubois focus is on the slaves alone, and largely neglects all of the other groups involved in the revolution, in contrast to Fick. His focus is on the slaves “political culture”, the political influences, ideas, and disputes which led to the slaves taking the actions they did. Much of the article discusses where the slaves’ ideas of freedom and liberty came from and how these interacted with the French in their ongoing, separate revolution. Dubois asserts, “[The slaves’] political culture was rooted in the Atlantic plantation economy; developed through the daily experiences of accommodation, negotiation and resistance on the plantations and the towns they supported; and created through the intersection and adaptation of African, European and Atlantic political practice.”[4]

Dubois asserts that French republicanism played a huge role in determining and dividing the slaves’ political culture. Slaves began to feel entitled to the rights that the revolutionary French state had guaranteed its people and began to cite them back to planters and French officials who sought to keep them in check. Particularly important among these was the Declaration of Rights of Man, which is present in multiple anecdotes discussed in which slaves asserted their right to freedom. Dubois only focuses on the time period between the outbreak of revolt and emancipation, which allows him to take a deeper look at how the slaves’ political culture changed over time. He touches on how the slaves’ cause gradually grew from reform to full abolition, and how divisions sprung up in this time period, especially between the mass of slave soldiers and their leaders. The increasing radicalism of the French revolutionaries and military victories helped to push the slaves’ goals to full abolition and expand their definition of freedom. This adaptation of Enlightenment ideals by an oppressed class leads Dubois to proclaim the incredible importance of the Haitian revolution on democracy and ideas of liberty in the Western Hemisphere. Also noteworthy is the presence of monarchical symbols and adulation among the slaves, though this was not universal. Dubois makes several different cases as to why this existed and why it was not completely antithetical to republican ideals of liberty and the final goal of emancipation. These include contact and alliances with the Spanish crown, previous attempts at reform by Louis XVI, emulation of European and African political traditions, and to distinguish leaders of the rebellion.

Dubois’ evidence for this is hamstrung by the lack of written accounts and perspectives by slaves, something he frequently mentions. This leaves his points looking weak and bare in some places. He does not seem to have the backing for the broad and sweeping assertions he makes, such as his idea that the Haitian revolution was essential to ideas of democracy and liberty in the Western Hemisphere. Not only does he not provide much in the way of proving this by showing the effect of the Haitian revolution on later history, he does not even touch on the entire revolution and how it eventually turned out. It is a very tall order to understand Haitian slaves’ political culture and its impact on the future when the reader only gets to look into a small window of time and barely has any sources from the slaves themselves. If Dubois kept his focus more localized on the subject matter he did have and avoided these sweeping conclusions, his article would feel much more substantive and complete.

Dubois’ approach is a near-pure “history of ideas”, focusing far less on immediate actions or group divisions and instead homing in on ideological influences and the culture of knowledge that set the events in motion and shaped their participants. Dubois mirrors Fick in attributing the slaves’ specific vision of liberty to their experiences in the plantation economy, but is far less concerned with dates, events and individuals. He takes a much narrower view, focusing on a smaller period of time and staying in the political sphere, possibly due to a lack of sources. Dubois is clearly more concerned with the ideas that formed the crux of the revolution than the course of the revolution itself. Therefore, he stops his focus at emancipation, albeit mentioning the alliance between the slaves and French republicans which would persist for a time. It is clear that Dubois’ work is a work of transnational history. This is evident in his thesis, in which he explains the different origins of ideas that impacted and formed the slaves’ political culture. Dubois’ exploration of these different ideas and how they shaped political aims, conflicted and overlapped with each other, and set a course of events in motion shows how important the transfer of ideas is. It also is a testament to how even centuries ago, the world was interconnected enough for ideas from multiple sources to intersect at a certain node and be so impactful. This also counteracts the narrative of the Haitian Revolution as a simple slave revolt and shows the differences and diverse sources of Haitian rebels’ political thought.

As discussed, Dubois’ article is hampered by its limited source material, which comes down to the narrow time period and area of focus it explores. This is the opposite of Fick’s problem: she streamlined and simplified history to cover a long time period but provided rock-solid justification for her argument. Dubois tries to extrapolate far too much from a short period of time and does not have the material to back up his original point, which requires more justification than Fick’s. Philippe Girard’s piece diverges from a focus on specifically the slave class into women’s history in general. This would be far too much to cover over the entire revolution, so Girard takes from Dubois’ approach and also focuses on a smaller two-year period.

Philippe Girard, in his article “Rebelles with a Cause: Women in the Haitian War of Independence,” explores the typically neglected role of women in times of war. While narratives of war are typically male-dominated and underrepresent the role of women, Girard focuses in on the late Haitian Revolution because women had a disproportionate effect on it compared to most other conflicts of the era. This was particularly true of Haitian women, although Girard does give some of the spotlight to French women, especially the wives of the officers. Girard goes over how the warfare in this stage of the revolution involved women more in all aspects. He focuses on how womanhood intersected with the incredibly contentious divides of class, race, and political ideology. This made being a woman a much less defining trait than it was in previous years and different places, making women temporarily more equal in some senses, but losing the protection they traditionally enjoyed in European warfare. Women played an important role in warfare and power balances, and in some cases paid a very heavy price for it. Girard explores some of the agency, both very visible and more subtle, that they could make use of in an unprecedented period of warfare. Girard says “in Saint-Domingue, where women held no military or administrative office, yet played a significant role in the sentimental rivalries that paralleled the colony’s power struggles… A woman’s various affiliations were not either/or categories but instead simultaneous identities that together defined an individual’s actions and treatment.”[5]

Girard explores the issues of sex, soldiery, and victimhood in order to answer his questions of women’s roles, identities, power, and agency during this period. Girard, accordingly, breaks his essay up into three parts based on the issues he found the most important. The first focuses on women in sexual relations, a realm which, due to an unequal sex ration, women had more power than normal in. Girard uses evidence of Saint-Domingue’s reputation for promiscuity to show how important sex was in the minds of those on the island, and views of women innately sliding into promiscuity. He includes stories of how extramarital affairs and mistresses were common, giving women some access into the inner circles of power. More importantly, he asserts that sex was often used as a transaction or a gateway into securing advantages, especially by black women. Girard really struggles to provide quality evidence of women securing these advantages in general and seems to counteract his own point by mostly writing about how women were “bargaining chips”[6] in many scenarios. He then moves into how women, again predominantly among the black population, were often vital combatants and parts of the war effort. This is far more well-developed, as Girard is deft in his understanding of military affairs, and he provides clear evidence for women’s contributions through accounts of bravery and their fierce dedication to the cause of freedom. Especially impactful are his accounts of women in espionage, of which there are plenty of examples, and stories of Haitian women’s fierceness in combat. This section shows well how these were not just anecdotes, and women also played a vital role in cultivation and the provisioning of the army. Girard’s last section is accurately titled “equal-opportunity victims” and provides compelling evidence that the changes in the gender divide in this period was a double-edged sword. Race-based violence abounded, and this two-year period turned into a war of extermination in which women saw the same violence as men. Race became the primary driver of violence, but womanhood offered no protection, as evidenced by the numerous massacres in which populations were executed wholesale. As Haitian women were more involved in the war effort, they began to receive the treatment soldiers did. On the other side, white women were also seen as oppressors in the plantation slavery system and the rebels did not spare them the reprisals their husbands received.

Girard’s article is a classic example of women’s history, with a healthy dose of military history to put it in context. Girard’s point, that womanhood interacted with the various identities of this period of war and women played a huge role in this period, is solid. Girard focuses on the condition of women and goes for a relatively holistic view in the context of the war around them, showing how divisions race, class, and politics became more important than gender and allowed women to enjoy some unique advantages. He also does a great job in showing how women’s greater power and participation could have great consequences in how they were treated in the context of a brutal war.

Still, there are many shortcomings in how Girard writes this piece. Curiously, Girard highlights many powerful men in the essay and talks at length about them, which is important to the overall narrative but risks making them the main characters. Men like L’Overture and Rochambeau are present through the entire essay while most women in it only receive fleeting mentions and are often left anonymous. Girard’s section on sex is messy enough to mar an otherwise decent piece. This section does nothing to show how women’s situation was different from the subordinate, passive position they occupied in Europe. He even refers to them verbatim as bargaining chips multiple times. If this was Girard’s point it would make sense, but Girard seems to be pushing the idea that women were using sex for their own advantage and then providing many examples of their sexuality being used for men’s advantage or in men’s affairs. The worst contradiction is when Girard cites that through sex “a mulatresse obtained her mother’s release from a [prison] ship in Cap Francais’s harbour”[7] before the prisoners were set to be drowned. Does this really show leverage or agency on the woman’s part? The far more likely scenario is that this woman was coerced into sex out of desperation to save her loved one from certain death. Other glaring examples of this contradiction are his frankly absurd inclusions of mistresses being a status symbol for men and the dispute between Judge Ludor and Judge Minuty. These simply reinforce the traditional view that women were seen as sex objects and trophies in this time period. Again, these seemingly strange decisions on Girard’s part are likely due to a lack of source material. Girard is evidently reaching for anecdotes to support his points in this area, and it seems that all he can find are stories relating in some way to women but completely unrelated to the intended message of the section. Still, Girard does recover in the excellent next two sections on women as warriors and the equality of victimhood. The piece overall does suffer from a lack of sources, but Girard does the best he can to extract conclusions and provide evidence of extraordinary difference in traditional gender roles in the latter two sections. Girard’s piece has some solid points and an interesting narrative but falls flat when at some crucial points.

It is evident that all three of these works are made by skilled historians, doing what they can to add new perspectives and conclusions to the historical field and better understand a very complex event. As discussed, this monumental task is made even more strenuous by a lack of sources. Fick lacks the sources to provide greater context on people and events, Dubois lacks the sources to justify his sweeping conclusions, and Girard is so devoid of meaningful sources that the ones he includes sometimes contradict his points instead of supporting them. With this acknowledged, it is clear which article of the three is the best despite the challenges the authors faced. Carolyn Fick writes the most engaging, most substantive, and best supported of the articles. It doubles as both a useful, albeit simple history of the revolution and the agrarian system on the island, and a deep look into the slaves’ vision of what freedom was. While Fick does not explore the complexities of the agrarian system or the slaves’ ideologies very deeply, her thesis is the most well-supported. She has the best sources and justifications to connect the slaves and the land, the two elements in the thesis. Girard and Dubois not only do not have as clear or justifiable of theses, but they also lack source material far more acutely than Fick. Fick also has the most balance in historical methods, not explicitly subscribing to one historical school and taking tenets from many different approaches.

The Haitian Revolution is a historical victim of its own complexity. The entire period of the revolution simply cannot be fully understood or accurately analyzed because of how much was happening, the sheer number of people involved and the differences between them, and the lack of sources to draw on. A truly multidimensional work about the Haitian Revolution with well-supported conclusions would have to be a book of considerable length and is only achievable by the most skilled historians or with the discovery of more sources. Fick, Dubois, and Girard had to fit their conclusions and points into a single article, making the amount they accomplished admirable if not immune to criticism. While the complexity of the Haitian Revolution can cause historians to struggle, it also provides a great number of topics for historians to study and lots of room for new perspectives and conclusions. The messages, ideas, and ultimate victory of the Haitian Revolution resonate to this day and continue to be a fascinating object of historical study.

Works Cited

Dubois, Laurent. “”Our Three Colors”: The King, the Republic and the Political Culture of Slave Revolution in Saint-Domingue.” Historical Reflections 29, no. 1 (Spring, 2003): 83–102.

Fick, Carolyn. “Emancipation in Haiti: From Plantation Labour to Peasant Proprietorship.” Slavery and Abolition 21, no. 2 (2000): 11–40.

Girard, Philippe. “Rebelles with a Cause: Women in the Haitian War of Independence, 1802–04.” Gender & History 21, no. 1 (April, 2009): 60–85.

[1] Fick, “Emancipation in Haiti,” 11.

[2] Fick, “Emancipation in Haiti,” 15.

[3] Fick, “Emancipation in Haiti,” 23.

[4] Dubois, “Our Three Colors,” 84.

[5] Girard, “Rebelles with a Cause,” 62–63.

[6] Girard, “Rebelles with a Cause,” 66.

[7] Girard, “Rebelles with a Cause,” 67–68.

A place for my best work regarding history, international affairs, and more. All written since early 2019.

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Clay Hallee

A place for my best work regarding history, international affairs, and more. All written since early 2019.