(A review of The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution by Julius S. Scott, first published by www.independentleft.ie)
In early 1790, Vincent Ogé, a charismatic black revolutionary from Paris, sailed to the French Caribbean territory of Saint-Domingue with one aim: to stoke a rebellion that would “overturn the Colony and obtain complete equality between the people of Color and the whites.” In the months that followed, he and his co-conspirators rapidly became acquainted with the force of circumstance, facing capture by neighbouring authorities shortly after a tactical retreat from a military skirmish. In a show of judicial strength – orchestrated to send a message to other potential insurgents intent on making the “diabolical ideas of freedom and equality” a reality in the region – he was later broken on the wheel in public, and decapitated. Their liberatory venture had failed.
Apparently undeterred by such a gruesome spectacle, however, and animated in part by the visions of the vodou priestess, Cécile Fatiman, within six months a self-led army of insurgent slaves did indeed change the course of history. In their tactics and relentless advance, the rebels seemed to recognise, in the words of CLR James, that “the rich” would only “be defeated when running for their lives”: in its early months alone, their uprising levelled “180 sugar plantations and more than 900 other [white-owned] estates” on the island, then the largest producer of sugar and coffee in the world. By freeing themselves, the militants sent shock-waves through the hearts (and bank vaults) of slave traffickers, commercial magnates, imperial administrators, and white supremacists across the globe. The so-called wretched of the earth were seizing their freedom; the Haitian revolution had begun.
Although the aristocratic Ogé was ultimately less successful than the slaves themselves, the spirit of his hoped-for coup no doubt inspired many who participated in the later revolt. Likewise, the sadistic cruelty of his execution remains instructive. Among other things, it serves as a reminder that terror was not invented by guillotine-wielding Thermidoreans in revolutionary France, prodigal though they were, nor by the self-emancipators of Saint-Domingue. Calculated butchery, for the purpose of maintaining collective submission, was deployed with coercive zeal by feudal and colonial regimes spanning Europe, the Americas, and the oceans between. The mutilations inflicted on rebels and enslaved workers in the Caribbean, the unbridled ruthlessness used to disband the United Irish men and women in the same era, the punitive abuse suffered by sailors trapped (through debt or poverty) in maritime service throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, expand and clarify the vista of programmatic violence that conservative commentators have rightly identified with the 1790s, albeit within too narrow a scope.
Edmund Burke – whose statue today overlooks College Green in Dublin – inaugurated this long tradition of elitist moralism, when he condemned the “gross, stupid, ferocious—and at the same time poor and sordid—barbarians” of France's new-formed rebel mass: for him, a “swinish multitude” lacking in both “nobility and religion”. Worst of all, Burke declaimed, was that the “Revolution” would render the “murder of a king, or a queen” as “only common homicide”, no longer the “sacrilege” of times past. The established order of things had been turned upside down.
Questions of liberty and equality, of means and ends, were the subject of urgent, heated debate in this period. According to Burke's “servile reverence for antiquity”, wrote Mary Wollstonecraft in rebuttal, “the slave trade ought never to be abolished”, adding with incisive exasperation: “Security of property! Behold, in a few words, the definition of English liberty.” “He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird”, Thomas Paine similarly concluded, observing in the reproving theatrics of his Anglo-Irish antagonist “[n]ot one glance of compassion, not one commiserating reflection, [for] those who lingered out the most wretched of lives, a life without hope, in the most miserable of prisons.” The Bastille of Paris had been overthrown, and at the hands of a people whose misery was presumed as natural (and ritually worsened) by both monarchy and state.
It is a painful irony – and a parable of revolutionary apostasy – that Toussaint L'Ouverture, one of Saint-Domingue's most famous and effective adaptors of that same radical tradition, should end his days deprived of food and water, a prisoner of the nation that bore “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” as its unofficial motto. In their abolition of slavery, their self-conversion from exploited instruments of capital into agents of social revolution and racial equality, the rebels of Saint-Domingue had set a precedent of successful emancipation from the hierarchies of power that ruled their changing world. Figures like L'Ouverture were as much a threat to the economic affairs of post-revolutionary France and America as to the commercial ambitions of Europe's imperial monarchies. Scott highlights the views of one Pedro Bailly in this regard. A Louisiana militiaman of colour, part of a global community of radicals inspired by the political developments in the Atlantic isle, Bailly understood the world-historical significance of the Haitian example: “We have the title of 'Citizen' in Saint-Domingue”, he said, “All of us being human, there should be no differences: color should not differentiate us.”
Thomas Paine himself was regularly burned to death, in effigy, by pro-slavery mobs across the Carribean in these years: reviled by a class whose financial success depended on those divisions of property and privilege that his writings exposed with such aplomb. “It is time to dismiss all those songs and toasts which are calculated to enslave,” he proclaimed in his defence of the principle of revolutionary self-activity: “On all such subjects men have but to think, and they will neither act wrong nor be misled.” As we have seen, in an effort to contain the spread of such incendiary opinions, governing forces on both sides of the Atlantic asserted their authority through murder, torture, dispossession, and engineered necessity, on a scale both pressingly intimate and increasingly far-reaching. Taken together, untold millions suffered in the name of king, imperium, race, and caste; later, millions more were sacrificed to the poverty and killing labour that accompanied the much-lauded industrial miracles of the nineteenth century.
Such degradations, however, do not convey the whole story, which on closer examination is stippled with glints of life and resistance. To peer through these kaleidoscopic keyholes, as Scott does, is to discover a new history and a new approach. As empires expanded and evolved, as enterprises ravenous for profit and commercial opportunity chased their elusive margins around the world, previously disparate communities responded, often defensively, with re-forged conceptions as to human worth and earthly value, organising themselves into fresh formations of revolutionary consciousness and communication that threatened, at every turn, to up-end the vast ambitions of their supposed masters.
As Scott's ground-breaking research shows, the circulation of these new ideas was dependent, in the main, on the agency and mobility of often downtrodden people, fashioning their own routes of resistance and freedom. In November, 1791, one English plantation owner, tremulously awaiting news of order lost or restored in Saint Domingue, discovered with horror that “his slaves learned of recent developments on the coast before he did”, through word-of-mouth contact with fellow labourers and fugitives. Some months later, a similarly watchful naval commander, cautiously navigating the coast of Saint Domingue, encountered a rowboat “armed with fifty or sixty men of all colors” led by an “Irishman of prodigious size”: a “deserter” from the captain's own vessel, who had “apparently made common cause with the black rebels on land” and now was dedicating himself to raiding “British and American shipping.”
The masters themselves were governed by fear. Populations presumed as invisible and disposable were embracing the most radical elements of contemporary history as their own. In Jamaica, the white minority noted with trepidation “the Ideas of Liberty” that “have sunk so deep in the Minds of all the Negroes”, anticipating “that wherever the greatest Precautions are not taken, they will rise.” By the summer of 1792, likewise, “an air of insolence” was said to be circulating among the black population of Kingston, as ruling officials speculated as to their ability to control a potential outbreak of “the same Phrenzy which rages a few Leagues distant” in Saint-Domingue. Farther afield, a decade after Haiti had been declared an independent republic, in 1811 Charles Deslondes, himself a Haitian, marched with “between 200 and 500 rebel slaves” on New Orleans, “setting fire to plantations on the way”, in what was the largest self-organised slave insurrection in North America. “There's not a breathing of the common wind / That will forget” the Haitian revolutionaries, William Wordsworth had assured the spirit of Toussaint L'Ouverture in his poem dedicated to the captured general: the “exultations” and “agonies” of their struggle for liberty now bore a catalysing relation to human history at large. As Scott argues, time and again, he has been proven right.
Today, as a result of punishing trade agreements, as well as an increasingly entrenched internal culture of upper-class corruption, Haiti has one of the highest rates of child mortality in the world, while a quarter of Haitians live in abject poverty. International conglomerates have consistently sought to capitalise on this economic and social vulnerability, including Digicel, the communications company owned by Irish business tycoon, Denis O'Brien, accused in 2019 of being a “co-conspirator” in a “ruse” to divert funds intended for Haitian education to its own benefit. Were we to look beyond the fortunes of O'Brien and his ilk, we would see that Ireland, itself simmering in the long aftermath of revolutionary defeat, is in many ways a homeless nation, wracked by inequality and corporate shadow-rule: a tax haven serving the needs of the wealthiest and most exploitative interests on earth. To counter and transcend this spectacle of crass, murderous venality, we might begin by recognising the real traditions of Atlantic radicalism and aspiration that shaped our respective regions once, and may do again. The Haitian emancipators were internationalist in their consciousness, local and concerted in their collective actions; they shaped their insurrection to the demands and rights of their communities, and not to the blinkered vision of the status quo that ruled them; they knew the power of their words and mass; they were unafraid to rebel. We owe Scott our gratitude for bringing their revolution back to life, with its whispering grassroots voices and tremoring waves of change. From histories like this a common future can be made: from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.