On the Haitian Revolution

This is from Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and Production of History:

The Haitian revolution therefore entered history with the peculiar characteristic of being unthinkable even as it happened. Official debates and publications of the times, including the long list of pamphlets on Saint-Domingue published in France from 1790 to 1804, reveal the incapacity of most contemporaries to understand the ongoing revolution on its own terms. They could read the news only with their ready-made categories, and these categories were incompatible with the idea of a slave revolution [p. 73]

The discursive context within which news from San-Domingue was discussed as it happened has important consequences for the historiography of Saint-Domingue/Haiti. If some events cannot be accepted even as they occur, how can they be assessed later? In other words, can historical narratives convey plots that are unthinkable in the world within which these narratives take place? How does one write a history of the impossible?

As the power of Louverture grew, every other party struggled to convince itself and its counterparts that the achievements of black leadership would ultimately benefit someone else. The new black elite had to be, willingly or not, the pawn of a “major” international power. Or else, the colony would fall apart and a legitimate international state would pick up the pieces. Theories assuming chaos under black leadership continued even after Louverture and his closest lieutenants fully secured the military, political, and civil apparatus of the colony….. [p. 94]

I read Silencing the Past right after reading C. L. R. James’ The Black Jacobins, and strongly recommend reading both together.

As I read both books I couldn’t help but wonder why my high school history had nothing on the Haitian revolution (which proves Trouillot’s point). It seems like the Haitian revolution, even if in sanitized form, would have been a good fit with the sanitized versions of the Mau Mau insurgency and the Algerian and Malaya wars that I was exposed to as a teenager.

More broadly, it seems like the teaching of decolonization in Kenya could benefit from more Haiti and Fanon, side by side with Mandela, Gandhi, and MLK. It is not a stretch to imagine that the threat of violence made the successes of the Mandelas of history more likely. To talk about the ANC without mentioning Umhonto we Sizwe is to stick one’s head in the sand.

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