David P. Geggus, ed. The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001. xviii + 261 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-57003-416-9.
Reviewed by Kevin D. Roberts (Department of History, New Mexico State University)
Published on H-LatAm (December, 2003)
The Haitian Revolution is one of the most shadowy events in the teaching of Latin American or Atlantic history, as we all recognize its importance but often base our knowledge on general conceptions rather than detailed analysis. Casting light on that shadow, David Geggus's edited collection accomplishes a significant step forward in understanding the role of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic Basin. The product of the 1998 conference held by the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic Studies Program at the College of Charleston, the volume is a must-read for scholars of Latin American and Atlantic history. To Geggus and his contributors' credit, the volume does not shy away from arguing that in some respects, the revolution had less of an impact than many historians surmise. Such a measured analysis helps to make this book an essential component of the burgeoning scholarship on the influence of Haiti's revolution on the Old and New Worlds.
Geggus arranged the book into four sections: "Overview," "Politics," "Resistance," and "Refugees." Implicitly, that organization mirrors the major questions that historians ask about the revolution. Its impact on the politics of slavery and abolition, its spurring a pattern of slave rebellion throughout the hemisphere, and its creation of thousands of Domingan refugees have received the most attention by scholars in the last thirty years. Boiling down what that literature has covered into a handful of major questions, Geggus remarks that the aim of the essays is to take "historians further toward a full understanding of the Haitian Revolution's place in world history" (p. xvi). The volume easily accomplishes that goal, and even pushes that understanding into a more convincing, nuanced appreciation of the revolution's role in other Atlantic events and processes, namely the antislavery movement and, ironically, the simultaneous expansion of the plantation economy.
One of the strengths of the volume is that it contains essays from multiple generations of historians. Mixing the interpretations of historians who are synonymous with Atlantic history with the work of those who are carving out their own claim to influencing this disciplinary subfield gives the book a liveliness that is often lacking in such collections. To set the stage for the productive internal debate within the volume, the "Overview" section contains essays from David Brion Davis, Seymour Drescher, and Robin Blackburn.
With Blackburn arguing for the revolution's significance in accelerating the antislavery movement, Seymour Drescher contends, conversely, that the revolution's impact was "more symbolic than substantive" (p. xv). Davis adopts an intermediary argument that emphasizes Haiti's role in stunting the antislavery movement while also weakening the political position of slaveowners. Aside from the obvious debate among their brief but lively essays, the three authors provide the important context within which the authors of the subsequent essays situate their work.
The section on politics represents Geggus's obvious commitment to define the "Atlantic World" as broadly as possible. Each of the four essays in this section explores the ramifications of Haiti on the political milieu in a particular country. One of them, by Karin Schuller, explores the heretofore unexplained concern over Haiti by politicians and intellectuals in the German states during the mid-nineteenth century. And although Simon P. Newman treads ground that is better known than that of Schuller's chapter--the impact of Haiti on the Jeffersonian Republicans--he shows, using the excellent example of Nathaniel Cutting, the uneasy dichotomy that the Haitian Revolution caused for the fledgling party. On one hand, as Newman says, the Jeffersonians wanted to "project themselves as the party of republican revolution, while yet distancing themselves from foreign social and racial revolutions that threatened the American status quo" (p. 73). Politically, the party, as evidenced by Cutting's writings, had to contort themselves dramatically in order to toe that tough line.
Olwyn Blouet uses the political career of Bryan Edwards, a leading Jamaican planter, to illustrate the intertwined nature of the revolution and antislavery debates in the British Parliament. In 1792 Edwards moved to England, where Blouet argues he was "a crucial voice in countering the abolitionists" (p. 52). Vehemently opposed to abolition because of his belief that the amelioration of slavery would eventually lead to the institution's demise, Edwards contended that the more antislavery activists agitated the issue, the more likely it was that the ongoing rebellion in Saint-Domingue would spur slaves in Jamaica to revolt. Another essay in the section, one on Puerto Rico by Juan R. Gonzalez Mendoza, complements that point, as Mendoza contends that "early Puerto Rican abolitionism was based partly on the intertwined fears of Haiti's proximity and that the racial equilibrium be upset in favor of people of color" (p. 63). Both essays, and the volume as a whole, demonstrate a much larger point: the impact of Haiti was as much in its utility in antislavery debates than in any direct impact on slave or free black populations.
That recurring theme of the volume leads directly to the next section on resistance, a subject on which historians have produced a rich body of scholarship. Working to push the boundaries of that literature, the five essays of this section examine both rumored and real conspiracies that had direct or indirect connections to the events in Haiti. Robert Alderson examines rumors of a slave revolt in Charleston in 1793, which he carefully concludes "were either manufactured by whites or were the reflection of a genuine conspiracy" (p. 106). Given the argument by other contributors regarding the exaggerated reaction by whites toward possible, if not invented, slave conspiracies, however, I would submit that the 1793 rumors in Charleston were a product of the former. Alderson himself seems to suggest this, arguing that the "current of black republicanism in the United States ... was not influenced exclusively by the Haitian Revolution" (p. 106). As with the other essays of the volume, Alderson's, in its measured analysis and conclusions, adds to the rich and excellent scholarship on resistance by people of African descent, both free and enslaved.
Each essay in this section is especially well researched and well argued, making it the strongest of a strong collection. Matt Childs's essay on the 1812 Aponte rebellion in Cuba, in addition to illustrating the importance of Haitian images to Jose Antonio Aponte and his co-conspirators, is situated well in the scholarship on slave resistance. Following a pithy recounting of the literature that is beneficial to practically any reader, Childs demonstrates how the Haitian Revolution had the varied, multifarious impact in Cuba that it had throughout the Atlantic World: "For Cuban elites and colonial officials, the Aponte Rebellion served to confirm their deepest apprehensions of a Haitian-style revolt, whereas for slaves and free people of color, the Haitian Revolution inspired pride and gave shape to their own movement" (p. 150). The essay by Laurent DuBois on Haiti's impact on the abolition and reestablishment of slavery in Guadeloupe shows a significant connection between events in Saint-Domingue and France, and how they played out in Guadeloupe. Aline Helg's chapter demonstrates a similar direct effect of Saint-Domingue on a 1799 slave revolt in Maracaibo, Venezuela, but also argues that demographic factors, especially ethnic differences, prevented a Haitian-style revolt from occurring in Cartagena, where Spanish officials feared repercussions from the conspiracy to the east. By 1820s, however, as Marixa Lasso argues, images of the Haitian Revolution's leaders became important icons for people of color embroiled in the series of racial conflicts during the period. Given the proximity of the locations studied by the authors in this section, readers searching for more tangible Haitian influences beyond the island will enjoy these compelling essays.
The final section, on refugees from Haiti, is placed well within the volume, as the essays in it examine the Saint Domingan diaspora created by the revolution. David Geggus's chapter on the famous Caradeux family of refugees accents the section by exploring the revolution in the memory of subsequent generations of Caradeux family members. The other two chapters adopt a different, but equally compelling, perspective, using social and cultural history methods to explore how extensively large numbers of Domingan refugees became matriculated into the existing population. For example, Susan Branson and Leslie Patrick explore the plight of 3,000 Domingan refugees of color in Philadelphia, where they migrated in the 1790s. Those refugees found little brotherly love from the city's large and well-established free black population. In fact, the authors conclude that Philadelphia's free people of color "did not immediately or openly embrace the masses of African-descended people who arrived from the island or the revolt that sent them abroad"(204).
Contrary to the example of Philadelphia, refugees to Louisiana, as Paul Lachance shows, were so numerically overwhelming to New Orleans and its surrounding area that their influence was pronounced and long-lasting. Continuing his compelling work on these 9,000 refugees, Lachance's essay contains updated research on Catholic Church records and New Orleans city archives. Lachance also touches upon an issue that needed more attention by the volume, perhaps in the form of an entire essay: that the arrival of the Domingan "refugees reinforced the institution of slavery" in Louisiana (p. 224). Even for some places to which refugees did not migrate, the Haitian Revolution sparked a shift in the geography of sugar production that warranted more attention than the book dedicates.
Though it is somewhat unfair for a reviewer of an edited collection to plead for more chapters, I will do precisely that, because the addition of two or three chapters would have made it even stronger and more comprehensive. I found it curious that a book on the Haitian Revolution's impact did not have a chapter on the revolution itself. To be sure, a handful of chapters summarize events of the revolution, but in thinking about how one might use this book in the classroom, or how it might open new avenues of research, I could not escape the need for an entire chapter on the actual revolution. Less importantly, but still notable, is the absence of a chapter on the impact the revolution had on the trans-Atlantic slave trade. As with the issues mentioned above, a few essays discuss the slave trade debate in the United States and in Britain, but the addition of a full-fledged analysis that examines how the trade was altered by the deletion of Saint-Domingue as a market would have meshed well with the existing articles.
But such proposals are not intended to mar what is a significant accomplishment. Even in the absence of those chapters this collection is a well-conceived, comprehensive analysis of the impact--and, in some instances, lack thereof--of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic Basin. To determine more clearly how the revolution impacted the Atlantic World, Geggus offers in the epilogue "a brief balance sheet of the influence of the Haitian Revolution beyond its frontiers" (p. 247). He isolates six categories in which the event's consequences can be measured: the revolution's impact on ending slavery in the Atlantic World; on the reform of race relations; on geopolitics; on the expansion of plantation production; on the creation of the Saint-Domingue Diaspora; and on decolonization. Considering the arguments of the volume's contributors, Geggus assesses that the revolution's influence in most of these categories was, in his words, "diverse," "ambiguous," and even "contradictory." His ultimate conclusion that "the repercussions of Haiti's revolution were thus richly complex and varied" (p. 250) may seem tentative or even convoluted to some. But reading the volume gives one a new appreciation for how difficult it is to ascertain the clear impact of the revolution that only general knowledge provides. What David Geggus and each of his contributors have succeeded in doing is isolating those impacts and non-impacts according to geography, time, social category, and politics.
While it is nearly impossible to get a group of historians to reach a consensus on such a complex event, the value of this volume is in its charting how scholars might stake their own claim to the productive disagreement over Haiti's revolution. The book is, therefore, a significant contribution, and one with which every scholar of Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Atlantic should be familiar.
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Kevin D. Roberts. Review of Geggus, David P., ed., The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World.
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