Sarah Parker Remond Centre


Transcript: An Anthology of Haitian Revolutionary Fictions (Age of Slavery)

Speaker: Marlene L. Daut, Professor of African Diaspora Studies in the Carter G. Woodson Institute and the Program in American Studies at the University of Virginia

Paul Gilroy

Hi, I'm Paul Gilroy, Director of the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the study of Racism and Racialisation here at UCL. Our latest Short Take is provided by Professor Marlene Daut, who teaches at University of Virginia and has been recently the author of two extremely influential and important books. The first, Baron de Vastey and the Origins of Black Atlantic Humanism, published in 2017; and before that Tropics of Haiti: Race and the Literary History of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World1789-1865. Professor Daut is known, above all, as a historian of Haiti; an important voice in the burgeoning historical archive, and a really valuable interpreter of neglected political and cultural dynamics of the Haitian revolution, whose aftershocks continue to this day.  And we're really grateful to Professor Daut for providing us with this Short Take.

Marlene L. Daut

I am a literary critic by training, who came to historical study via literary history, which is how I began to work on the Haitian Revolution. My first book was published in 2015, Tropics of Haiti: Race and the Literary History of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World, 1789–1865, and since then I’ve written and researched on a number of topics including 19th century Caribbean intellectual history and post-independence Haiti — which I discuss at length in my 2017 book, Baron de Vastey and the Origins of Black Atlantic Humanism. Today, I’m going to talk about a forthcoming anthology that I co-edited with Grégory Pierrot of the University of Connecticut, Stamford, and Marion Rohrleitner, of the University of Texas, El Paso. It’s titled An Anthology of Haitian Revolutionary Fictions (Age of Slavery). I started researching for what became the table of contents for the anthology back when I was writing Tropics of Haiti. In that book, I utilise a very broad definition of the 'literary', one that encompasses fictional, historical, legal, scientific, as well as epistolary writing, as a way to think about how the Haitian Revolution was understood, broadly speaking, as it unfolded and for about 60 years after its conclusion. In so doing, I began to note the frequency with which writers of fiction — including those who published novels, short stories, poetry, and plays — referred to, referenced, or tried to represent the Haitian Revolution. The number of works of this nature quickly grew to more than 200, and so I developed a bibliography to keep track of them, which I later published over at my website: haitianrevolutionaryfictions.com

The works listed on the initial bibliography spanned the geography of the Americas and the Atlantic World. Because this corpus of writing also stretched to far beyond the few famous 19th century writings on the Revolution — Alphonse de Lamartine’s Toussaint Louverture (1850), Victor Hugo’s Bug-Jargal (1826), Heinrich von Kleist’s Betrothal in Saint-Domingue (1809) — I had the idea to create the very first anthology of Haitian revolutionary fictions, so that other people might have access to these writings too.

The anthology, which is forthcoming in spring 2021 with the University of Virginia Press, is a compilation in one volume of these transnational and multilingual fictional writings related to the events that we now call the Haitian Revolution. Our collection includes over 200 excerpts (in translation, where applicable) from novels, poetry, and plays published in a long 19th century that spans from 1787 to 1899 and that were written in English, French, Haitian Creole, German, Spanish, and Brazilian Portuguese. We have been guided in the inclusion of such a capacious time span — one that locates the first fiction of the Haitian Revolution before its formal beginnings in 1791 in a short story called Le Makandal (1787) — by the exigencies of these works themselves. The writings in this volume detail some of the most grandiose, as well as some of the most seemingly minute events that led up to and then followed the onset of the Haitian Revolution. Many authors around the world, for example, were compelled to associate Haiti’s struggle for independence with the Cacique Henri’s early 16th century war with Spanish invaders, or everyday slave resistance, including Makandal’s famous poisonings in the 1750s, with the petitions of free people of colour for equal rights in 1789 and 1790, or Charles X and Jean-Pierre Boyer’s 1825 indemnity agreement with the ceremony at Bois Caïman. This made it very clear that a much longer history of both anti-slavery resistance and the fight for freedom and equality in Saint-Domingue, Haiti, would be needed to understand the relationship between the literary imagination and the Haitian Revolution. The timeline, thus, begins with writings by two French authors published in 1787 and 1789 (Le Makandal and Le Nègre comme il y a peu de blancs), respectively, both of which describe enslaved resistance in Saint-Domingue, but that were published before the formally understood beginning of the Revolution in August 1791; and perhaps most fittingly, this volume ends in 1899 with a poem by Haitian writer Alcibiade Pommayrac, which lyrically narrates the last days of Toussaint Louverture.

Although this anthology ends in 1899, by no means did fictions of the Haitian Revolution stop being published then. In fact, US African American and Caribbean authors like Langston Hughes, C.L.R. James, May Miller, Aimé Césaire, and Derek Walcott, among many others, breathed new life into performances of the Haitian Revolution in the 20th century. Toussaint Louverture even makes a cameo appearance in Ntozake Shange’s 1975 choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide. Turning our attention to 19th century fictions of the Haitian Revolution, however, exposes the enormous gulf between the kinds of inspiration 20th century black diasporic writers found in the lives of the radical figures of the Revolution — from Toussaint Louverture to Sanite Bélair, from Jean-Jacques Dessalines to Alexandre Pétion, from Boukman Dutty to Henry Christophe, and from André Rigaud to Georges Biassou — and the kinds of fear, horror, and disgust that the majority of 19th century fiction writers instilled in Atlantic readers with their depictions of crowds of enraged African slaves parading the bloody heads of white babies on pikes. Nearly all fictions of the Haitian Revolution published during the first half of the 19th century, which make up the majority of writings in this volume, not only appear to be anti- the Haitian Revolution in this way, but were written in either overt or implicit support of slavery.

The period of time in which these works were published has often been referred to as the Age of Revolutions, but after reading these writings, it might also be dubbed an Age of Slavery. The American hemisphere had been the scene of multiple contests for freedom and sovereignty since chattel slavery was imposed by European conquistadors during the conquest of the Americas in the 15th century. While opposition to their encroachment existed from the beginning of European arrival in the so-called New World, the Americas of the long 19th century was a place dominated by the achingly mundane fact of everyday enslavement, not the momentousness of the Atlantic revolutions. Although the Haitian Revolution, in particular, certainly helped encourage Great Britain’s abolition of the international slave trade in 1807, and it undoubtedly inspired slave revolts and rebellions around the world, perhaps paradoxically, it also led to an increase in the trafficking of captive Africans, and, as the writings in this volume show, to the entrenchment of pro-slavery attitudes in much of Europe and North America. Such perspectives were not inconsequential. They had everything to do with the long continuation of slavery, the tortures of which were not mitigated nor lessened for the vast majority of enslaved peoples in the Americas by the epic heroics of Atlantic World revolutions.

Slavery remained a dreary and ubiquitous fact of life for captive Africans and their descendants in the Americas for nearly four centuries. Although slavery permanently ended in French-controlled Saint-Domingue in 1804 with Haitian independence, it continued until 1822 in Santo Domingo (present day Dominican Republic) when Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer reunited both sides of the island into one government; the next time the wholesale abolition of slavery would occur in the Caribbean would be in 1833-1834 in the colonies of Great Britain; France would wait until 1848 to try to wash away the sin of slavery for good; the Dutch did not abolish slavery in their colonies until 1863; while the United States only picked up the rear in 1865 after a long and bloody Civil War; finally, slavery ended in Puerto Rico in 1873, in Cuba in 1886, and at last in Brazil in 1888. The goal of bringing together for the first time in one anthology the vast and varied — and quite understudied — multitude of specifically fictional stories that circulated about the Haitian Revolution in a world of slavery is exactly to probe what this immense body of writing might tell us about the relationship between slavery and revolution, on the one hand, and for what ends the Haitian Revolution was put to use in its own era and in the century or so after its conclusion, on the other. 

Most importantly, we hope to stress that narrations, references to, and depictions of the Revolution must be read contrapuntally with the ongoing fact of slavery, even if descriptions of the depredations of slavery seem to be outweighed by the larger narratives of freedom within which they appear. Haitian revolutionary fictions were not only a unique and critical part of the Age of Revolutions, but they also emerged in the heart of a much longer Age of Slavery.