Haiti: The Aftershocks of History

By Laurent Dubois

Metropolitan Books

448 pp. $32.00

January 2012


Reviewed by Madison Smartt Bell



 In its first conception, the 1776 American Revolution was mainly a tax revolt, though accompanied by a declaration of basic human rights: to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  The French Revolution, which in 1789 proclaimed natural rights to liberty, equality, and brotherhood, was from the beginning a genuine class revolution, which the American Revolution was not.  What the two transformed nations continued to have in common was that they both contained slave systems and that neither had any intention of offering the newly declared and ostensibly universal rights to freedom and equality to the black slaves at the bottom of their labor pool.

            The Haitian Revolution began, in 1791, with the decision of the black slaves of Saint Domingue to claim these rights for themselves.  There followed a dozen years of astonishingly violent racial warfare which ended with the independence of Haiti in 1804. By the end of that period, those former slaves, now Haitian citizens (the majority of whom had been born in Africa) had created armies that defeated the best troops that England, Spain, and France (at the apex of Napoleon Bonaparte’s military power) could send against them.  They had produced leaders who could hold their own, politically and diplomatically, with the Old World empires whose slave-holding colonies still surrounded them, as well as with the emerging United States.  They had proved their right to life, liberty, and equality in blood and bone—fulfilling the declared human rights ideology of the American and French Revolutions by purging it, in a fiery catharsis, of its hypocritical exclusions.

            Strangely, in spite of the magnitude of this event and its implications, although it was the only successful slave revolution in the history of the Western world, nobody said much about it for the next two hundred years.  Instead there was a tacit agreement to ignore it, as detailed in Michel Rolph Trouillot’s magisterial work, Silencing the Past.  No other state in the Western Hemisphere thought it was safe to mention the success of an army of African slaves in overthrowing their masters and founding a nation.  With its Revolution having been “disappeared,” an extremely unheroic image of Haiti began to develop.  In our time Haiti is likely to be first identified as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and next as the most poorly governed, backward and primitive country in the region.  The devastating 2010 earthquake did little more than amplify this message, so far as outsiders are concerned.

            A considerable amount of Haitian history has been written in French, much of it by Haitian scholars, beginning in the 19th century with Thomas Madiou and Beaubrun Ardouin.  Anglophone accounts have, until very recently, been scanty (notwithstanding a sonnet by Wordsworth and a truly electrifying oration by the abolitionist Wendell Philips).  For decades the best English history of the Haitian Revolution available was C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins (1938), still a valuable work, though marred by significant errors of fact revealed by subsequent research and by the author’s use of a dogmatic Marxism far less applicable to the Haitian situation than he believed it to be.   Till recently, the only detailed and comprehensive account of the whole panorama of Haitian history from independence to the present was Written In Blood, by Robert, Nancy, and Michael Heinl—still accurate in many respects and, in view of the astonishing complexity of events in this very small place over two centuries, admirable as well, though flawed by its apologetic and untrustworthy coverage of Haiti’s occupation by American Marines (1915-34).  Robert Heinl, the principal author, served with the Marines in Haiti in the early 1960s, and seems inflexible in his adhesion to the motto, Semper Fi.

            Laurent Dubois has appeared to relieve the deficiencies of these two earlier works, first with his own account of the Haitian Revolution, Avengers of the New World, and now with his front-to-back history of the country: Haiti: The Aftershocks of History.  Still a relatively young scholar, Dubois appears at the crest of a nouvelle vague of Haiti-related writing on the North American Continent, prompted by a convergence of the academic vogue for post-colonial studies with the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship and the rise of a democratic movement, called by some the Second Revolution, spearheaded for a time by Jean-Bertrand Aristide.  A more engaging writer than most of his colleagues, Dubois has an eye for the sort of detail that keeps a reader involved with story as well as with history, so that his Aftershocks is as accessible as it is imposing.


            Haiti had been independent for over a hundred years when U.S. Marines landed in 1915, on the pretext of the recent assassination of President Guillaume Sam (torn limb from limb by a mob of angry Haitians)[i] and with a background concern that German U-boats might begin to use Haiti’s deepwater port, Môle Saint Nicolas, which controls the Windward Passage[ii].  Dubois’ account of the occupation has not been heard before in this country.  U.S. forces installed Philippe Dartiguenave as a puppet president,[iii] took over the Haitian army as well as the customs houses and state treasury,[iv] established martial law, silenced the Haitian press,[v] and announced that future appointments to important Haitian offices must be approved by the President of the United States.[vi]  The Marines used a “corvée” system to draft labor for roads and other infrastructure, rounding up men wherever they could find them (often breaking into their homes) and taking them to work in coffles, like Stateside penal chain gangs.[vii]  The occupation persecuted practitioners of Vodou, then and now the majority Haitian religion;[viii] meanwhile “…one marine later wrote, ‘rape, I believe, implies a lack of consent.  I never heard of a case where consent was lacking in Haiti’s black belt.”[ix]

            What’s most shocking now is to be reminded that such atrocious racism was normal in the U.S. too at the time; importing it to Haiti, where blacks had not answered to whites for a century, provoked years of resistance from guerillas called Cacos, finally  halted by the Marines’ assassination of Charlemagne Peralte in 1919;[x] Haitians enshrined the Caco leader in the pantheon of Revolutionary heroes and martyrs first erected in 1804.  After another ten years of paternalistic oppression, a nonviolent protest movement initiated by students finally shamed the Americans out,[xi] but as Dubois notes, the occupation had gone well beyond humiliation, “smashing the political and economic order that had emerged during the nineteenth century and deepening the poverty of the countryside.  It had centralized and strengthened the government’s authority, giving the country’s leaders more power than they had ever had to control the masses and suppress dissent.”[xii]  That is, the U.S. presence had paved the way for François Duvalier and the dictatorship he was to found in 1957.

            The Haitian state was not immune to dictatorial practices before the U.S. reminded them how the thing was done by white masters.  Toussaint Louverture, the 1790s leader who shaped a chaotic insurrection into a nation-creating revolution, installed in his constitution permanent military dictatorship and rulership for life, two pernicious features persisting in many Haitian governments to follow.  Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Toussaint’s successor, led the army Toussaint had built to the permanent expulsion of the French; then founded an extremely short-lived empire.  After Dessalines’ assassination in 1806, another of Toussaint’s generals, Henri Christophe, established an Anglophone monarchy in the north of the country; soon overthrown by Haitian peasants reacting against Christophe’s compulsory labor policies.

            Labor in Haiti has been a vexatious issue from the overthrow of slavery well into the twentieth century.  Toussaint had restored the plantation system, briefly but successfully, in order to fund his military and prepare to defeat the invasion Napoleon sent in 1801 to restore white rule and return the blacks to slavery.  But the newly freed slaves would not willingly return to plantation work, so Toussaint had to enforce their labor with his military.  Emperor Dessalines and King Christophe each reenacted the same vicious circle.  Seeing their overthrow, the next ruler of Haiti,  Alexandre Pétion (1807-1818) and his successor Jean-Pierre Boyer (1818-1843), decided to let the plantation system go, and to let the former slaves go their own way.

            From this decision, two cultures evolved in the country: a large rural peasantry and a small urban elite.  Saint Domingue’s French sugar planters had found it most economical to work their slaves to death and replace them.  In 1791, more than half of Saint Domingue’s slaves had been born in Africa, and nearly a third had arrived in the last two or three years.  Post-Revolution, they had no difficulty reverting to African folkways in the countryside.  Their language was Kreyol, an improvisational fusion of French vocabulary with African syntax, and their religion was Vodou, an amalgam of various African ancestor-worship traditions, lightly syncretized with Catholicism.  Dubois follows Haitian scholar Jean Casimir in his analysis of the “counter-plantation” system by which this people lived.  Under the ancien régime, the sole justification of a slave’s existence had been to produce (till he dropped dead) for an export economy.[xiii]  Haiti’s freedmen would never entertain this idea of productivity again.  Instead they practiced subsistence agriculture, in extended-family compounds called lakou (each with its tutelary ancestral spirits) growing what they needed to eat and just enough export products to pay for imported clothes and tools they might need.[xiv]   Taxation of these exchanges financed both the state and the urban elite; “customs duties became the only source of wealth in the society.”[xv]

 The various lakou cooperated in a non-hierarchical cellular structure, with its own conflict resolution systems: “an egalitarian system without a state.”[xvi]   Consistently, this population refused “to trade its liberty for money.”[xvii]  The counter-plantation system worked extremely well until the mid-1960s, when burgeoning population and the shrinkage of endlessly subdivided plots began to make subsistence agriculture unsustainable.

            The Haitian state, owned and operated by a small French-speaking elite whose pre-Revolutionary forebears had mostly been born in the colony, generally ignored the rural majority, referred to somewhat derisively as moun andeyo, outsiders.[xviii]  To say, as foreign observers tend to do, that Haiti’s ruling class consists of lighter-skinned people descended from French colonists is a half-truth, at best.  Haiti’s answer to the question of race may be more radical than its Revolution. 

 In 1799, Dessalines (on Toussaint’s orders) led the newly freed blacks to victory in a savage civil war against the faction of mixed European and African descent, called mulâtres, or gens de couleur, and recognized in the French slave system as a third race.  In 1804, shortly following Haiti’s declaration of independence, Dessalines ordered the execution of all the white people remaining in the country, by which he meant white French people of the slave-owning class; American and British were not molested, and any French white men Dessalines thought could be useful to the new society he spared by the simple expedient of reclassifying them as black.  This idea was formalized in Dessalines’ constitution of 1805:  “Any exception of color among children of one and the same family, whose father is the head of State, must necessarily cease, Haitians will henceforward be known only under the general denomination of Blacks.”[xix]  With this stroke of his pen, Dessalines hoped to eliminate rancor between black and colored people, while erasing the very idea of white people, at least within Haiti’s borders.

Can racism really be cured by canceling the language which expresses it?   In Haiti, the issue of class has at least been uncoupled from the issue of pigmentation.  In the mid-nineteenth century a Haitian populist put it this way: “A rich black who knows how to read and write, that’s a mulâtre; a poor mulâtre who doesn’t know how to write or write is black.”[xx]  Meanwhile, President Boyer is supposed to have said, “to sow education is to sow revolution.”[xxi]  Only the elite enjoyed the education system of the French Enlightenment—perfectly crystallized since 1804.  This foundation, combined with graduate studies elsewhere, has made Haitian intellectuals some of the most redoubtable in the world, though too many, too often, have been forced into exile by the state.

            Haitian state power has almost always been absolute in theory, and in practice concentrated in a single individual.   “The most complete personification of authority we had ever known,” a mid-nineteenth century memoirist writes of Boyer, “this president of the Republic was a king.”[xxii]  Boyer’s unilateral power was such that in 1825, under pressure from French gunboats, he could make an agreement to indemnify France for the loss of the colony, which crippled Haiti economically for the next hundred years, without consulting a single one of his countrymen.[xxiii]  Populist or democratic movements tend to be corrupted or nipped in the bud; a long view of Haitian history shows periods of chaotic instability interspersed with oppressive foreign intervention (the U.S. occupation) or dictatorships à la Duvalier. 

            The exception was supposed to be the rise of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whose party Lavalas represented a flood-like movement of moun andeyo toward real participation in Haitian government.   By the time he came to power, though, Aristide faced truly overwhelming problems, one of which had helped bring down the Duvalier regime: Haiti is about the size of Vermont, and the 800,000 slaves present in 1791 were already a population bomb in the making.    In the late twentieth century, major reforms were needed to restore agricultural self-sufficiency, but nothing viable resulted from either the Duvalier or Aristide regimes (despite some authentic effort from the latter).  And none of the surrounding powers had ever wanted Haiti to be self-sufficient.  From independence to the mid-nineteenth century, the very success of Haiti’s slave-driven Revolution made it a pariah state.  Thereafter, Haiti was generally seen by outside powers as a source of cheap labor, but the deeply ingrained resistance of the Haitian majority to such exploitation made that almost impossible to actualize.  Neoliberal globalization thinking requires countries like Haiti to export labor and import food and other necessities.  The two Aristide administrations’ resistance to such requirements moved the American right to semi-secretly abet the violent overthrow of one of Haiti’s very few democratically elected heads of state, both in 1991 and 2004… though it must be admitted that by the time of Aristide’s second expulsion, most pro-democracy voices in Haiti were speaking against him too.[xxiv]

            The 2010 earthquake shattered a foundation for what briefly looked like genuine progress, carefully laid by cooperation between Haitian President Rene Préval and former U.S. President Bill Clinton, the latter in a special position to deliver constructive assistance from the United States.  Today, as the Haitian state struggles to rebuild not only its institutions but the structures that housed them, a well-meaning but incoherent foreign intervention wanders the wreckage.   In 2010 this situation was denounced by (of all people) the head of the Organization of American States mission in Haiti: Ricardo Seitenfus, who argued that foreign efforts to stabilize the country “resolve nothing, and only make things worse….   We want to make Haiti a capitalist country, a platform for export to the U.S. market.  It’s absurd.”[xxv]  As for the hundreds of NGOs stepping all over each other in their effort to save Haiti, Seitenfus thinks they are merely indulging themselves in missionary tourism.  No effort to remake Haiti in some other image has ever succeeded or ever will.  “Two hundred years ago, Haiti illuminated the history of humanity and of human rights.  Now we must give Haitians the chance to confirm their vision.”[xxvi]

            What that would look like we don’t know, but might owe it to ourselves to find out.  The usual spokespersons for the First World are steadily losing their credibility in telling Third World countries how to strive and succeed.  The United States and the French Republic were each founded on conscious applications of Enlightenment principles.   Both systems worked very well for two hundred years; both have been quite evidently in trouble, at least since the turn of the 21st Century.  Enlightenment ideas shaped only the surface of the Haitian Revolution, having no way to penetrate to the majority of the African-born.  “Generation after generation,” Dubois reminds us, “they have demonstrated their ability to resist, escape, and at times transform the oppressive regimes they have faced….  They have kept their political imagination alive, and the story of how they have done that should spur us on to a still unwritten future.”[xxvii]  Somewhere, preserved in Haitian Revolutionary amber, may be the living seed of a third way.





[i] Dubois 210

[ii] Dubois 211

[iii] Dubois 217

[iv] Dubois 218

[v] Dubois 219

[vi] Dubois 218

[vii] Dubois 239

[viii] Dubois 234

[ix] Dubois 236

[x] Dubois 263

[xi] Dubois 265 ff

[xii] Dubois 267

[xiii] Casimir Pa Bliyé 1804,  p.51

[xiv] Dubois 107

[xv] Dubois 118

[xvi] Dubois 108

[xvii] Dubois 109

[xviii] Dubois 105

[xix] http://www.haiti-reference.com/histoire/constitutions/const_1805.php

[xx] Dubois 127

[xxi] Dubois 96

[xxii] J.D. Delorme, 1843 au Cap: Tremblement de Terre (Port au Prince: Kopivit-Laksyon Sosyal, 2012) p. 39

[xxiii] Dubois 100

[xxiv] Dubois 364; see also Christophe Wargny, Apre Bal, Tanbou Lou for 1991 events; “Mixed U.S. Signals Helped Tilt Haiti Toward Chaos” New York Times, January 29, 2006 (authors Walt Bogdanich and Jenny Nordberg) for events in 2004.  The divorce between Aristide and  the Haitian democracy movement is exhaustively covered by Michael Deibert, The Last Testament (Seven Stories, 2005)

[xxv] Dubois 367

[xxvi] Dubois 368

[xxvii] Dubois 369