The Haitian Revolution

From Julia Gaffield in the Washington Post (hat tip: Dan Franke):

Five Myths About the Haitian Revolution

This month marks the 230th anniversary of the beginning of the Haitian Revolution. In August 1791, enslaved people in the French colony of Saint-Domingue revolted, and eventually abolished slavery and created Haiti, the second independent country in the Americas. Recent media efforts to contextualize the assassination of Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, on July 7 have often relied on myths that undermine the country’s leadership in world history and the racist repercussions that it faced during and after its fight for freedom and independence.

Myth No. 1: The French Revolution inspired the Haitian uprising

In his famous account of the Haitian Revolution, “The Black Jacobins,” C.L.R. James wrote that enslaved men and women in Saint-Domingue in 1791 “had caught the spirit of the thing. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” This perceived link between the French Revolution and events in the colony implies that French revolutionary ideals inspired enslaved people to revolt. Similarly, historian Paul Cheney calls the Haitian Revolution “the French Revolution in Saint-Domingue.” Taking a cue from such interpretations, PBS’s “Africans in America” resource page mistakenly asserts that the French “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” inspired the abolition of slavery in the country now known as Haiti.

The claims of inspiration suggest that France held power over its colony even in revolt, and that it alone was equipped to benevolently bestow freedom on the enslaved. But France had constructed one of the most violent and extractive colonies in the world, and its revolution neither pushed back against that system nor worked to improve it. Though France would go on to abolish slavery, it did not do so until 1794, years after the Haitian Revolution began — and only because of Haiti’s uprising.

In practice, the French Revolution did not provide inspiration for revolt in the colony so much as opportunity. With a divided ruling class, enslaved men and women coordinated an uprising that led to military victories and eventual freedom. The myth of French inspiration also overlooks the fact that France was the only nation to reestablish slavery after its abolition.

Four more myths at the link.