A Tale of Two Revolutions in the Atlantic World
Updated: Sep 11
By: Donald V. Watkins
©Copyrighted and Published on November 15, 2019
On January 1, 1804, Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared the independence of Haiti. This proclamation brought to an end the only successful slave revolution in history and transformed the French colony into the second independent state in the Western Hemisphere behind the United States (which declared its independence from Great Britain in 1776). With this act, Haiti arose as a symbol of humanity, liberty, and dignity for peoples of African descent, and it changed the course of world history.
The momentousness of the Haitian revolution was matched only by the speed and efficacy with which it was marginalized and "forgotten" by the Western world. The exceptional nature of the revolution in a slaveholding world was surpassed only by the interest the colonial powers of Europe and the Americas had in suppressing the memory of it from public discourse, written and oral history, and news accounts following the declaration of Haiti's independence.
The Haitian revolution was distinct for being the only one led by the subalterns and the human "property." In contrast, the American revolution decades earlier was led by white men who were property owners in a British colony.
Hence, the Haitian revolution required an unusual degree of mass mobilization, as compared to the American independence struggle. When viewed through the lens of history in the Atlantic world, the revolution launched by the Haitians against colonialism, slavery, and the ideology of white supremacy has to be considered remarkable.
As refugees of all colors flowed into North America from the 1790s into the early nineteenth century, the fear engendered in whites by a successful black slave revolution so close to its shores was remembered for generations in the United States. This is particularly true in the Antebellum South where it was held up as evidence that "race war would be the only result of the universal emancipation of the slaves."
As a result, the Haitian revolution was suppressed in literature, political discourse, and French and American history books. All discussion about the revolution was "silenced." By March 2000, French president Jacques Chirac made a public statement that "Haiti was not, properly speaking, a French colony."
Tragically, the French did not stop at this "silencing" treatment. Two decades after Haiti declared its independence, France forced Haiti into signing a trade treaty that obligated Haiti to pay a massive indemnity to France. The treaty is still in effect and has contributed greatly to the country's poverty.
From 1804 through 1934, the United States, Spain, Great Britain, and France carried out a sustained campaign of commercial and political interference with the internal affairs of Haiti. These countries raped and pillaged Haiti's natural resources and financial assets and exploited its national economy.
In 1915, the United States Army invaded Haiti, seized its national capitol, and took the gold from the country's national treasury. After 111 years of independence, Haitians no longer had a voice in the administration of their national affairs. The U.S. Army's armed occupation of Haiti ended on August 21, 1934.
Fast-forward to February 28, 2004, 200 hundred years after Haiti declared its independence: French, Canadian, and U.S. forces backed an armed insurgency against the fledgling government of Haiti's first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Described as a "humanitarian intervention," the armed overthrow of Aristide is one more example of the triumph of neo-colonialism over the political choice of a majority of the Haitian people.
Unlike the white colonists in America, Haitians were never allowed to thrive in their nation. America and European nations recognized that a successful revolt by slaves and the indigenous people of Haiti had to be minimized and marginalized in the Western Hemisphere at all cost and at all times.
At the end of the day, race has always made a difference in what is perceived as "good" and "bad" in the Atlantic and European Worlds.
[Editor's Note: For more information about the cultural legacies of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World, read Tree of Liberty, edited by Northwestern University Professor of French and noted author, Dr. Doris L. Garraway, University of Virginia Press, 2008.]