Haiti 1791: the Cradle of African Nationalism and Internationalism

(Recovering the Virtue of Jacobins)

Editor’s Note:  Dr. Wilkinson delivered this paper about Haiti to a colloquium commemorating 40 years of study of African literature at the University of Porto.


Permit me to begin by saying that I am new to African literary studies. My academic training has been in the fields of political science, comparative literature, women’s studies, sociology and pedagogy. I have taught politics and history both at secondary and tertiary levels. However, most of my work has been as a translator and independent scholar. My itinerant career took me to Brazil in 1986, to Berlin in 1989, and to South Africa in 1991. On the one hand I have had numerous opportunities to observe first hand political and social transformations at the end of the 20th century and to study them. On the other as a secondary school teacher in the United States and Germany, I have developed an interest in the transformations that occur in the process of educating maturing young people. As a result my approach to literary studies is not only an appreciation of the craft of writing; I am interested in the complex of written language: reading and writing as political and social activities—as means of production, whether expressed in the cliché “information industry” or understood as “technology for production of consciousness”, to paraphrase the US-American literary scholar Fredric Jameson.1

Hence my reason for beginning to study African literature arose from two basic questions: why does one write? And why does one read? The Austrian satirist, Karl Kraus, whose play Os Ultimos Dias de Humanidade, written a century ago and performed in the Teatro Nacional Sao Joao this week, said: “Why does someone write? Because he lacks the character not to write.”2 That quote was taken by my mentor at the University of South Carolina, Morse Peckham, for the flyleaf of his principal theoretical work, Explanation and Power upon which I will draw for some of my remarks.3 Peckham, a professor of English and Comparative Literature, spent the greater part of his career being misunderstood. In his first major theoretical work, Man’s Rage for Chaos, published in 1965, he tried to write an explanation for why people create art. The famous art historian E H Gombrich wrote in the New York Review of Books with respect but dismissed many of Peckham’s arguments. To which Peckham replied:

… perhaps an ultimate difficulty for Professor Gombrich is that he is interested in art. I am not; I am interested in behaviour.4

In this brief paper I want simply to raise some questions about the importance of Haiti for Africa. I ask them for a similar reason: I am not interested in literature for its own sake. Rather I am interested in the acts of writing and reading—in what people are really doing. In that sense I am not especially interested in the distinction between literature about political themes, political literature and texts produced with no ostensible political interest. These questions have not been perfectly formulated but are the point of departure for research I am only beginning. Let me try to state the questions that lead me to focus on Haiti:

  1. How has revolutionary Haiti survived (or not) in the literature of the African diaspora?
  2. Where does the literature of Africans (in and out of Africa) document or elaborate the history and politics of Africa—both in its national formations and in other forms?
  3. Is there a detectable cultural lineage of African nationalism and Pan-Africanism beyond the French/Haitian revolutions and how does it shape the consciousness of Africa and African nations today?
  4. What does the material condition of the Republic of Haiti mean for the validity or sustainability of African nationalism, Pan-Africanism or any other ideology for organising and sustaining societies in Africa or countries where Africans or the African diaspora predominate?

In 1938, the Trinidadian cricket journalist, scholar and political activist CLR James published The Black Jacobins, an account of the 1791 revolt and revolution of African slaves in the French colony of Saint Dominique, a revolution by which slaves freed themselves of their  masters and founded the only nation in the world based upon a successful slave revolt. Thus Haiti is unique among African nations. Initially the national territory comprised the entirety of Hispaniola/Santo Domingo, a distinct geographical formation that coincided with the country’s sovereign boundaries until the US and Spain collaborated to divide the island by creating the Dominican Republic.

The Republic of Haiti paid dearly for its independence, having to compensate France’s former slaveholders for the “expropriation” of their human property. This debt was only settled by incurring more debt to the United States.

Nonetheless it was an inspiration throughout the Western hemisphere while injecting fear and hatred among the slave-holding class and their descendants. It might be argued that traces of that contempt and animosity can still be found in the countries where the support of slavery and the resistance to equality have been most enduring.

In James’s first introduction he explained the impetus for his book:

I had had the idea for some time. I was tired of reading and hearing about Africans being persecuted and oppressed in Africa, in the Middle Passage, in the USA and all over the Caribbean. I made up my mind that I would write a book in which Africans or people of African descent instead of constantly being the object of other peoples’ exploitation and ferocity would themselves be taking action on a grand scale and shaping other people to their own needs.5

So James’s explicit purpose “why” he wrote was to present another African history, different from the ones he had been able to find and read until that time. In 1938, most of the Caribbean was still subject to colonial rule. Although an independent nation since 1804, Haiti was occupied by the US Marine Corps from 1915 until 1934. In 1938 it had a brief period of elected government only to be overthrown by the Duvalier family in 1957, a dictatorship supported by the US (and only deposed in 1990). It would be another ten years before de-colonisation in Africa and Asia would begin. Although astute observers could anticipate the world war on the horizon, there were few who could expect the changes which the end of World War II would bring especially to the colonised.

Although the Caribbean James had chosen to write about was a Caribbean revolution, he went on to write:

As will be seen all over and particularly in its last three pages, the book was written not with the Caribbean, but with Africa in mind.

The Caribbean was not only the origin of the first successful slave revolution, but of many of the key intellectual and political figures in the achievement of independence and development within the region, throughout the hemisphere and in Africa itself. For James, Haiti was the epicentre of African independence. One might go so far to say that the history of Haiti has been one of seismic character, both literally and figuratively. It is a brutal reality that Haiti appears today as something quite opposite to the grand nation of Toussaint and Dessalines. Today Haiti, as the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, is a striking contrast to the condition of Saint Dominique/Santo Domingo in 1791—when, as the richest colony in the Caribbean and France’s most valuable colonial possession, its black inhabitants overthrew slavery. Although independent since 1 January 1804, France did not recognise its sovereignty until 1825.

Haiti’s was the first American revolution in the accurate sense of that word. In fact, the war between the British Empire and its North American colonies from 1776 until 1783 was only a separatist conflict with no essential changes in the prevailing political or social system. Haiti on the other hand was created by a war against slavery and enhanced by the French Revolution whose Jacobin ideals and enthusiasm became a source of courage among Africans throughout the Western hemisphere and inspiration for the independence wars fought throughout Latin America. It is probably no coincidence that Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement entered Havana on 1 January, the same date as Haiti’s independence is celebrated.

Haitian sovereignty, although under constant attack by the great colonial powers throughout the 19th century, was the source, if not the model, for African nationalism. Haiti is a nation-state created by Africans even if it was not in Africa itself. It would take until 1957 before Africans were able to found another African nation-state, Ghana.6

CLR James chose to study this 1791 revolution in order to write about Africans and Africa; to write about the great struggles to end colonialism; and to recover the history of successful revolt and social transformation. The Black Jacobins is also about the eloquence and intellect of many who could neither read nor write. In that sense it is an attempt to bridge the gap between written and oral practices to recover the language of struggle, diplomacy, and humanity produced by people whose responses to texts, such as the Declaration of the Rights of Man, were primarily non-verbal—armed struggle against their oppressors.

After citing Toussaint at length, James writes:

Pericles on Democracy, Paine on the Rights of Man, the Declaration of Independence, the Communist Manifesto, these are some of the political documents which, whatever the wisdom of weakness of their analysis, have moved men and will always move them, for the writers some of them in spite of themselves, strike chords and awaken aspirations that sleep in the hearts of the majority of every age. But Pericles, Tom Paine, Jefferson, Marx and Engels, were men of a liberal educations, formed in the traditions of ethics, philosophy, and history. Toussaint was a slave, not six years out of slavery, bearing alone the unaccustomed burden of war and government, dictating his thoughts in the crude words of a broken dialect, written and re-written by his secretaries until their devotion and his will had hammered them into adequate shape. Superficial people have read his career in terms of personal ambition. This letter is their answer. Personal ambition he had. But he accomplished what he did because, superbly gifted, he incarnated the determination of his people never, never to be slaves again.7

Edward Said wrote about The Black Jacobins that:

James’s task is to produce a narrative of the French Revolution that incorporates events in France and overseas, and so for him Toussaint and Napoleon are the two great figures produced by the Revolution… In James’s case, The Black Jacobins bridges an important cultural and political gap between Caribbean, specifically Black, history on the one hand and European history on the other. Yet, it too is fed by more currents and flows in a wider stream than even its rich narrative may suggest. At about the same time James composed A History of Negro Revolt (1938), whose purpose was “to give historical depth to the process of resistance itself” in Walter Rodney’s brilliant description of the work.8

James wrote to uncover the resistance and even unsuccessful struggles in the Caribbean and Africa “that went unrecognized by colonial historians”. As Said noted: “He saw the central pattern of politics and history in linear terms—“from Du Bois to Fanon”, “from Toussaint to Castro”—and his basic metaphor is that of a voyage taken by ideas and people; those who were slaves and subservient classes could first become the immigrants and then the principal intellectuals of a diverse new society.”

The US historian Gerald Horne returned to James’s work in his recent book, Confronting Black Jacobins. He writes:

A spectre was haunting the slave-holding republic—the spectre of an invading army of vengeful Africans.

‘Lamentable!’ cried George Washington in response to what he described in 1791 as the ‘unfortunate insurrection of the Negroes in Hispaniola.’ The president of the fledgling nation was anxious. This is understandable, particularly given the huge population of restive enslaved Africans that inhabited his own nation and the propensity of these bonded workers to unite across borders.”

What came to be called the Haitian Revolution, 1791 – 1804, was one of those rare transformative social, political and economic detonations made all the more remarkable in that it took place in not only the richest and most productive colony of the French Empire but of any empire. But it also implicated the slave-holding republic in that Paris spent heavily in backing North American rebels opposing their seemingly eternal enemy across the channel, which contributed to the crisis in Paris that sparked a transforming revolt in 1789, and this correspondingly contributed mightily to the radicalization of the island.9

In fact, the history of African struggle against slavery in the Western hemisphere transcended national boundaries as well as shaping them. The cliché of tribalism as an obstacle to African unity obscures the links that have bound the peoples of Africa wherever they had been displaced by European colonialism or chattel slavery.

Malcolm X explicitly acknowledged the significance of the age in which African colonies were achieving their independence.10 Without explicit reference to Haiti he asserted that it was nationalism that was changing the face of Africa. It was also the initial successes of those nationalist movements without which the so-called Civil Rights movement in the US could not have attained its limited successes. While battling communism and the Soviet Union, the US government was still forced—as long as European colonial regimes were in retreat—to make concessions at home. The struggle reached its pinnacle when Malcolm X insisted that the condition of Blacks in the US was not a civil rights (domestic) problem but an issue of human rights—when the national status of Black Americans was to become an international issue before the United Nations. The United Nations condemned apartheid in South Africa but not its progenitor, Jim Crow in the US.11

The post-World War II era gave the colonised the reasonable, officially sanctioned expectation of national sovereignty enshrined in the UN Charter. The fig leaf for conquest of the Central Powers and absorption of their colonies — the League of Nation Mandate System — was abolished, with the exception of the lame Trusteeship Council.12 This meant too that nationalism, as a kind of minimum ideology of independence and de-colonisation, could be — and was — seized across race and class lines to promote state formations throughout Africa and Asia. At the same time these various national ideologies were often incoherent or at least contradictory—such as the Afrikaner nationalism of South Africa and its grand apartheid strategy of synthetic nationalism for the so-called Bantustans.

Pan-Africanism, whether in the form propagated by Kwame Nkrumah or that found in the Black Consciousness Movement, should be seen as a feature of internationalism that was not — as the National Party in South Africa saw it — an expression of communism, that is some derivative of Marxism. It arose from the internationalism in the early and constant resistance to slavery and the slave trade — which as Walter Rodney so carefully argued — was the primary cause of underdevelopment in Africa and hence the starting point for any serious reconstruction whether in national or pan-African constellations.13

Horne has suggested that part of the permanent stigma attached to Blacks in the US even today, arises from their original opposition to American independence—which many slaves rightly saw as a war to perpetuate their slavery. Escaped slaves waged war against the slave-holding republic in regiments armed by both the British and Spanish, raiding from Florida until it became part of the US.14

I believe it is reasonable to say that a fair amount of African literary history, at least in the European languages, is inseparable from the intellectual and literary production of the Caribbean and the slave-holding states of North and South America. That intellectual and literary production was certainly conditioned by the history of slavery and its singular overthrow in Haiti. The contradictions in social, economic and political development persisted after the abolition of slavery in the British colonies. The responses to those contradictions have been transmitted both in written and oral forms.

Modern European culture still derives (or contrives) its mythic legitimacy from the ideal of Ancient Greece. Supposedly this was where the original forms of political organisation and social thought were spawned. They swam to the sea to mature and centuries later returned like salmon to their breeding ponds, bringing modern democracy with them. Occasionally we are reminded that the Greek polis was a slave-holding society and the demos constituted a tiny minority. Yet this has not diminished the admiration, whether genuine or sentimental, for ancient Greek philosophy, ethics, and political concepts.

Modern Africa certainly has many roots. After World War II, de-colonisation did not result in a plethora of communist states subsidiary to the Soviet Union—despite attempts to portray the new regimes in such light. The primary, if not sole, source of modern African nationalism and pan-Africanism was not the Russian Revolution but the revolution in Haiti. The failure or refusal to acknowledge this during the independence struggles and during the Cold War can certainly be explained by the enduring antipathy toward that revolution — not to mention a tradition — largely Anglo-American — that identifies the French Revolution entirely with the Terror. One of the tasks of the African literature in the Caribbean has been to preserve this revolutionary legacy. That is certainly the significance of writers like James, Williams, and Rodney. I find it difficult to imagine that this was not an essential part of Frantz Fanon’s view, coming as he did from Martinique.

Perhaps if we accept the myth of Greece for Europe — with all its obvious contradictions — then we ought to consider Haiti for modern Africa. This would force us to examine the country as it is today with a new respect that has been denied to it for over a century.

Today in the European Union there are intense economic, social and political conflicts that divide it not only along class and race lines but have created an invisible but tangible border between the North and the South. The European Union and its supporters — in whatever form — constantly refer to the values of democracy and humanism they attribute to Greece, at the same time treating this “cradle of democracy” like a “failed state”. Ironically the ostensible roots of European culture lie in countries on the brink of bankruptcy, indebted to the great nations of the North that draw on these ancient countries for their ideological legitimacy. Of course, the modern history of Greece is just as rarely discussed, leaving the causes of its malaise unexplained, the sole fault of the Greeks. In a similar manner — only more extreme — the Haitian people are blamed for the abysmal circumstances of their country and catastrophic living conditions of the majority.

Where is the real history of modern Africa to be found? By that I mean the history from which any people derive their consciousness and the ability to act upon their own lives and shape their country’s destiny. I think one of the important places for that history is in literature, in the writing people produce as a response to their concrete historical conditions. Another, of course, is in the act of reading, the reconstruction of those recorded verbal responses to human experience. So for me the political question for literature, as a political scientist, is what makes someone write? But this is only half the question, the other half being — what makes someone read? Karl Kraus said someone writes because he lacks the character not to write. I would say that someone writes and reads (because these belong together) in order to develop that character to which she or he aspires.

  1. Fredric Jameson once referred to the novel as “a psychic technology for the reproduction of bourgeois consciousness.” []
  2. Karl Kraus, Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (1919); “Warum schreibt mancher? Weil er nicht genug Charakter hat, nicht zu schreiben.” []
  3. Morse Peckham, Explanation and Power: The Control of Human Behavior, 1978 []
  4. Morse Peckham, “Art or Behavior”, New York Review of Books (17 November 1966). []
  5. CLR James, The Black Jacobins (1938) p. xv []
  6. The Republic of Liberia was founded in 1847 (officially recognised only in 1862) by the American Colonization Society. The descendants of colonial families of US origin have ruled the country since its establishment. This domination has been a continuing source of conflict between the country’s elite and the majority of the population. []
  7. CLR James, p. 161. []
  8. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, 1994, pp. 252–53 []
  9. Gerald Horne, Confronting Black Jacobins (2015) pp. 7–8. []
  10. Malcolm X on Nationalism []
  11. UN Resolution GA 395 (V) of 2 December 1950, followed a decade later by  SC 134, 1 April 1960 adoped by the Security Council after the Sharpville massacre. []
  12. The Trusteeship Council had been founded to deal with the types of non-governing territories after WWII that had been “mandates” under the League of Nations. On 1 November 1994, it suspended its activities one month after the last trust territory, Palau, became independent. []
  13. Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1982 []
  14. Gerald Horne, The Counter-Revolution of 1776 (2014). []
Dr T.P. Wilkinson writes, teaches History and English, directs theatre and coaches cricket between the cradles of Heine and Saramago. He is also the author of Church Clothes, Land, Mission and the End of Apartheid in South Africa (Maisonneuve Press, 2003). Read other articles by T.P..