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Remembering Haiti during Caribbean History Month

Remembering Haiti during Caribbean History Month

Franklin W. Knight, PhD

(Editor’s Note: This is Part I of IV of a four-part series recognizing Haiti and honoring this Caribbean country’s history-changing role in the hemisphere and the world. This series is written by noted historian Dr. Franklin W. Knight for The Ward Post)

Franklin W. Knight, PhD

(05 June 2021) — In many parts of the USA the Caribbean is especially remembered during the month of June. Aspects of the intrinsic Caribbean contributions to the development of the USA are sometimes noted, as President Biden did in his official proclamation mentioning certain individuals. That is well deserved. After all, Caribbean migration has been important since the early seventeenth century English North American colonization when immigrants from Barbados and other Eastern Caribbean islands  boosted mainland population, and enhanced cultivation and culture, especially in the mid-Atlantic region.

Throughout its history then, the Caribbean has played a major role in every aspect of  the politics, culture and economy of the United States. Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804) from tiny Nevis in the British Leeward Islands helped George Washington (1732-1799) win the War of Independence and created the political and economic system that exists today. The prominent Cuban businessman, Juan de Miralles y Trajon (1713-1780) provided George Washington and Robert Morris with arms and foodstuff until his death and was the first foreigner to be given a state funeral in the USA.  Vicente Martinez Ybor (1818-1896) of Cuba established the cigar business across Florida in the late nineteenth century. Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) from Jamaica formed the largest political organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, in the 1920s. Jamaican-born Claude McKay (1889-1948) was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Barbadian Richard B. Moore (1893-1978) established the internationally known Frederick Douglas Book Center in Harlem.

The list of prominent individual Caribbean residents in the history of the USA is almost endless and encompasses the entire Caribbean region. That is not surprising. But the contribution came not just from migrant individuals but also from the population of entire territories.

That has been the case with Haiti.

Despite a lamentable neglect in the historical literature, with the possible exception of Cuba, no Caribbean territory has played a more important role in  the history of the USA, or  the Atlantic World than Haiti.  That role encompasses the developing political, economic, social and ideological evolution of western societies.

Tiny Haiti, the most productive and important colony anywhere in the eighteenth-century world, became the second independent country established in the Americas in 1804.

That was a genuinely heroic and transcendental achievement.  In doing so, a colony overwhelmingly populated by enslaved Africans and free non-whites defeated its own powerful metropolis, France, as well as combined military invasions from Spain, and England.

The distinguished American historian, Robert Roswell Palmer (1909-2002), described the interesting and convulsive era between 1776 and approximately 1830  in his two-volume history, The Age of  the Democratic Revolution ( Princeton, 1959-1964) as the age of revolutions.  The definition has had a long life-span. Yet, despite the importance of that seminal work, the Haitian Revolution is totally neglected.

Nevertheless, the newly-established independent state of Haiti made an indelible impact that is hard to overlook in the history of the Western World.

The singular importance of the Haitian Revolution

Alongside the American and the French Revolutions, the Haitian Revolution was one of the three great revolutions of the eighteenth century that permanently impacted not only western political development but also western society.

All three revolutions were different, with a pronounced differential impact on politics.

American Independence accomplished in 1783 was a modest political revolution that established the iconic precedent that any government could be artificially engineered and constructed by a social contract between the government and the governed. Representing a small group of emerging local bourgeoisie, it transferred the center of political decision-making from England to the former North American colonies. It also shattered the ancient concept of a divine right to rule. Otherwise, the basic structure of society remained unchanged.

The American Revolution created the basis for a prolonged system of white male privilege in the United States.

The French Revolution and Haitian Revolutions began simultaneously in 1789 with the Haitian Revolution taking a completely different track after 1791. Since they originated in completely different societies it should not be surprising that both had entirely different goals.

The French Revolution reconstituted the nature of sovereignty. It destroyed dynastic government in 1793 by literally executing the king, Louis XVI (1774-1793), for treason. The French Revolution introduced the eighteenth-century principles of the Enlightenment and liberalism to the reconstituted state, creating a secular, military, democratic republic that, under Napoleon Bonaparte  (1769-1821), imposed the Napoleonic Code, nationalized war and tried to impose it across all of Europe. The French Revolution also promulgated  in August 1789, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen drafted by the familiar Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834) who had earlier participated in the American Revolution.

The French Revolution subordinated class privilege to general national priorities.

But France had an empire and the United States did not. So, the French Revolution could not escape its imperial implications. Indeed, the reality of empire introduced novel elements to the definition of citizenship – the principal preoccupation of the French revolutionaries – that most Europeans found difficult to understand.

The Haitian Revolution – the result of the actions of the French colonists in Saint Domingue —  was far more extensive and far more transformative than either the American or French Revolutions.

To begin, the Haitian Revolution was the only successful slave revolt in modern history.

That alone would make it singularly distinctive. But the Haitian Revolution was much larger and more important than a simple successful slave revolt. Haiti not only initiated the abolition of slavery in the Western Hemisphere, it accelerated the process of disintegration of the entire Atlantic slave system. Haiti doomed enslavement as a viable labor organizational system. Haiti tried to establish a truly democratic society by dissolving distinctions of race, color, gender and occupations and asserting equality before the law for all citizens. It also pioneered the concept of general human rights almost 140 years before the founding of the United Nations. Moreover, by destroying the most experienced French troops between 1802 and 1804, Haiti weakened France in ways that affected its performance in the Peninsula Wars and might even have influenced the outcome of the battle of Waterloo in  1815. Haiti changed the physical shape and size of the United States of America, when Napoleon sold the vast Louisiana Territory to the USA. And Haiti single-handedly saved Simon Bolivar (1783-1830) when his war for the independence of Spanish America stalled in 1815.

So, to properly remember Haiti, one should take the long view from its early colonial and independent era to the tragic present. In other words, we must not only look at contemporary Haiti but also at Haiti during the glory years from 1760 through 1861. In 1760 Haiti was the richest colony in the world. In 1861 Haiti had a higher per capita income than the USA. The Haitian experience during that crucial century provides important lessons for understanding historical change anywhere.

Modern history, at least the history of the world since 1700, simply cannot be contemplated or written without strong reference to the exceedingly important role of  Saint-Domingue/Haiti in the making of the modern world.

The opportunities provided by the tempestuous period produced a long list of heroic individuals who discarded the anonymity of their birth and station and rose to the occasion in dramatic fashion to serve their larger community. It is time that we all remember those genuine heroes like Georges Biassou (1741-1801), Toussaint Louverture (1743-1803), Vincent Ogė (1755-1791), Andre Rigaud (1761-1811), Alexandre Petion (1770-1818), Henri Christophe (1767-1820), and Jean Pierre Boyer (1776-1850). They changed their country and they changed the world. And in so doing they served all people everywhere.

So now is as good a time as any for us to reflect a little on Haiti. We can begin with the most glorious phase of Haitian history, the challenging period between 1760 and 1861.

© 2021 The Ward Post/Franklin W. Knight

About the author

Franklin Knight, PhD

Franklin W. Knight is currently Leonard and Helen R Stulman Professor Emeritus and Academy Professor at the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore where he taught for 43 years. Born in Jamaica, he attended Calabar High School, the University of the West Indies, Mona (BA Hons., 1964), and the University of Wisconsin, Madison (MA (1965), PhD. (1969). He has published widely on the social, cultural, economic and political dimensions of Latin America and the Caribbean as well as slave systems in a global perspective. His publications include 13 books, 108 professional articles, and 184 refereed reviews in professional journals.

In addition, he has made more than 304 presentations at national and international professional meetings. At Johns Hopkins he directed the Program in Latin American Studies (1998-2010) and the Center for Africana Studies (2011-2014). He served as president of the Latin American Studies Association between 1998 and 2000 and as president of the Historical Society, [USA] between 2006 and 2008. Between 2000 and 2014 he wrote a bi-weekly column for the Jamaica Observer. He has been honored by the Academy of Letters of Bahia, Brazil (2001); the Dominican Academy of History in the Dominican Republic (2006); the University of the West Indies (2007); The National Research Council of the National Academies (2008); the Asociación de Historiadores de América Latina y del Caribe (ADHILAC) (2011); the Cuban Academy of History (2012); the Asociación de la Historia Económica del Caribe (AHEC), as well as the Institute of Jamaica (2013), the Fundación Fernando Ortiz (2016), and the State of Maryland (2019).

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