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The Haitian Revolution conference notes – Day One

Long day of very interesting discussion. I’ll post my notes here – very rough and barely edited.

Session I

Saint-Domingue on the Eve of Revolution: Politics and Economics
Chair: Philip P. Boucher, Univ of Alabama in Huntsville Jacques de Cauna, Bordeaux: “Apercus sur le systeme des habitations a SD a partir des vestiges subsistant en Haiti” (read by David Bell) David Geggus, Univ of Florida: “The Colony of SD on the Eve of Revolution Gene Ogle, John Cabot Univ (Rome): “Colonial Absolutism: Politics in Principle and Practice in Old Regime SD”
Commentator: David A Bell, Johns Hopkins Univ

David Bell
Read the presentation of Jacques de Cauna, who could not be here in person. The paper, accompanied by slides, described the plantations of Saint Domingue. To all appearances, the plantation was like a small town, with numerous workshops and workers with many specialized skills.
Next to the main house, a belfry was built; the bell called the slaves to work. A dungeon existed for recalcitrant workers.
Sugar can was boiled, the raw sugar separated and dried in stacked casks for two weeks before being shipped off for sale. The scum was drained off and fermented to make rum.
Slave huts were set off from the big house [with a savanna between?].

David Geggus
Haiti’s revolution was important because of where it took place & because of the colony’s wealth & importance to France.
Slaveowners “walked on barrels of gunpowder” – there was some awareness that the slaves would rise up. (Rare prognostications)
Slaveownsers were also seen as a threat to break from France.
Still, the revolution was unexpected.
Saint Domingue did not see very many insurrections between 1700 & 1791. Partly because many could escape to the mountains or to spanish side. When it became harder to become a maroon in 1780, the stage was set for revolution.
Few who took up arms in 1791 had been marrons, and only one general had been – Jean Francois.
Demography of the slave trade offers compelling pointers to the insurrection, yet the surge of slaves went mostly to the coffee plantations inthe mountains, and these areas were drawn most slowly into the war.
Number of police did not increase commensurate with slave growth – remaining at about 200.
Possibility for manumission declined dramatically.
Fertility rates in the North were drastically low prior to the revolution. (few years before); could be related to overwork and to food shortages.
It is extremely difficult to point to any particular pressure which spawned the revolution.

Gene Ogle
The French kings though of themselves as absolute rulers, and their absolute rule extended to the colonies. How was this possible?
The fleur de lis (the symbol of the French monarchy) was everywhere – even burned into the flesh of convicts. Ogle suggests that the slaves rose under the flag of the French king because (some) slaves were used to a similar absolutist rule, and the king’s symbol could stand for many different things.
Absolutism in Colonial rule… Bureaucrats fought over the symbols of power. There was a complex heirarchical structure
There was an imperial sphere and a colonial sphere, the former concerned with matters of state and the latter with theatre, culture, etc.

David Bell
Haiti is complex, as revolutions are complex. Warn against unwarranted simplification (volcano, etc). Resist Simplicity!
Some (many?) of the reasons for the French Revolution can be translated into the origins of the revolution in Saint Domingue.
Colonies can be laboratories, in effect, where the pure ideas of the policy makers can be given form without obstruction.

h3. Session II

Chair Philip Morgan, Johns Hopkins Univ John D. Garrigus, Jacksonville Univ: “Saint Domingue’s Free People of Color and the Tools of Revolution” Stewart R. King, Mt. Angel Seminary (Oregon): “Free People of Color in the Northern Province of Saint Domingue” Dominique Rogers, Universite des Antilles et de la Guyane, Martinique: “On the Road to Citizenship: The Complex Paths toward the Integration of Free People of Colour in the Two Capitals of Saint Domingue”
Commentator: Jane Landers, Vanderbilt Univ.

John Garrigus
Free blacks in Saint Domingue were quite walthy.
Free colored planters were established creole colonists who had grown up inside the French colony. They were “redefined” at some point as affranchis – freed slaves – which they were not.
Garrigus refers to the “failed revolution” of 1769, which caused the colonists to reassess their understanding of themselves as colonialists.
Saint Domingue’s (black) colonists who served in Savannah, GA, during the American Revolution returned to SD, were conscripted into colonial defense, then disbanded as a unit.

Stewart King – author of Blue Coat or Powdered Wig
Saint Domingue is really three distinct colonies – North, South, and West.
Free coloreds led the revolution.
Cap Francais, as many 18th Century cities, was not a healthy place, so many young children actually lived with relatives in the country.
Bossales – African born slaves.

Dominique Rogers
In the ancien regime, only the elite imperial class could claim responsibility for shaping society – this was not the concern of the citizens. The citizens were merely to enjoy the benefits and responsibilities of society.
She describes the inequities between the blancs and the libertes de savanne. Punishments against the latter were much harsher. Especially after the Mackandal revolutions, the free blacks were ever more feared and repressed.

Jane Landers
Slaves bore the mark of slavery on their foreheads.
French and Spanish Bourbonnes created military units of free blacks.
The trouble-stirrers in the colony may haved been the New French, who were competing with the Free People of Color for jobs, etc.
In the late 17th Century in Cuba (& Mexico), slaves included Muslims, Indians, white Spanish criminals sentenced to lives of slavery, etc. Slavery was only “racialized” later.

King: With higher wealth and class, there was more pressure for integration. These people had family ties which encouraged integration.
Rogers: There were African-born free blacks, too, who managed to acquire wealth and status and pressured for equal treatment.
Rogers: There was no segregation in SD society. All races lived close together. In fact, the houses were square with a central well and oven. Many races were therefore living together and sharing facilities.

Session III

Unfolding of the Slave Revolution: Part One
Chair: David Geggus, Univ. of Florida Yves Benot, Paris: “The Slaves Uprising: What Were they thinking? Malick Ghachem, Stanford Univ.: “The Colonial Vendee” Elizabeth Colwill, San Diego State: “Fetes de l’hymen, fetes de la liberte: Matrimony, Emancipation, and the Creation of ‘New Men’”
Commentator: Christopher Leslie Brown, Rutgers Univ.

Yves Benot
Slaves weren’t fighting for independence – at least not to their understanding.
There was even in August 1791, a split between the ideals of the leaders and the ideals of the mass of insurgents.
Popular thought is that slave liberation was the first reason for fighting, and later political independence. However, the insurgents waned to destroy the whites (except for the priests) and to take over the country and live with their brothers, the colored citizens. They also wanted an extra day to tend to their gardens. They were also aware of the Rights of Man declaration, and wanted to force the observance of that document. They also claimed to be fighting for the king, the freedom to “live free or die.” [In other words, there were lots of reasons the slaves were fighting.]
Insurgents had an idea of independence and not much idea of state power. Jean Pierre & Biassou got rid of Jeannot becaus of his brutality and because he could get in the way of negotiations with the whites. [White means settler, colonist, not “of white color.”]
The liberators (insurgent leadership) understood that the blacks would still have to work hard.

Malick Ghachem
The Colonial Vendee – (from the Vendee -The counter-revolutionary peasant rebellion, the pacification of which resulted in 20K – 50K casualties)
The memory of this had much to do with the French response to the Revolution.
There was, in pre-revolutionary debate, a comparison of the slaves with the peasants. Slaves were believed to be more susceptible to control from “above.”

Elizabeth Colwill
Looks at three small stories which demonstrate different perspectives on the effects of the rebellion. [The talk was very interesting but went by very fast, so I didn’t really take any cogent notes for this one.]

Christopher Brown
Benot – What were the slaves thinking? Many things.
Ghachem – The French experience of the Vendee affected the response to the insurrection in Haiti.
Colwill – What gender meant in these tumultuous months.

Are impulses for revolution more internal or external?
Benot: Slaves weren’t thinking in abstract terms. They wanted to be liberated from the whip.
Benot: Practically speaking, if the slaves had managed to take Le Cap – which they tried to do for three weeks – what would have remained of the French control?
Ghachem: Toussaint compared the whites in France to the pacifiers of the Vendee.
Ghachem: The view of Vendee at the time was like our view of Vietnam – it shaped the military response and political justifications to the insurrection.

Featured Address

Madison Bell gave the evening address. He read from his book The Stone the Builder Refused, the soon-to-be-published third novel in his Haitian historical trilogy. I felt like such an extremely minor talent after he finished with his performance. He has obviously wrapped his head around this huge, complex time period and sorted it out on paper. He is also quite obviously emotionally attached – in a good way. I only took a couple of notes:
Of the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions, only the latter truly offered equality to all citizens, and it cost them dearly.
Sans Souci was tricked by Christophe and killed by him.