The Crawdad Hole

March 7, 2011

We Are All Free

For a little under a decade at the turn of the nineteenth century, there was one republic in the world where blacks, whites, and people of mixed race lived together as free citizens with representatives in the legislature and equal rights under the law. Even the newborn United States of America, land of the free and the brave, did not harbor such universal freedom at that time. But the situation was short-lived. Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti), formerly one of the most brutal and oppressive slave colonies in the world, survived eight years of this unprecedented emancipation before Napoleon invaded the colony. Sadly, even after Napoleon lost control of Saint-Domingue, the genocide carried out by the victorious rebel leaders destroyed the hope of a peaceful multiracial future.

We Are All Free is a historical work built around the events of June 20, 1793—the day when the representatives of the French government declared the abolition of slavery in Saint-Domingue. The author, Jeremy Popkin, engagingly describes what led to that surprising decision and the effects along both sides of the Atlantic.

The Haitian revolution was incredibly complex, as Popkin notes:

For understandable and entirely justified reasons, historians have been urged to give full credit to the role of Saint-Domingue’s black population in challenging slavery, but this has sometimes resulted in a reductionist account of these events. The events of the 1790s are often read through the lens of a binary opposition between whites and blacks, a way of looking at race and slavery that comes easily to historians from the United States but that profoundly distorts the nature of Saint-Dominguan society, whose tri-racial system created a radically different set of conflicts and possible alliances.

Popkin gives careful attention to the political movements that were in play during that time and concludes that the unprecedented emancipation proclamation of June 1793 was due more to the interactions of a few key characters under extreme pressure than to some systematic revolutionary progress of history. He writes,

It is misleading even to speak of an abolitionist movement in revolutionary France or in Saint-Domingue, on the model of those that existed in Britain or the northern United States, during those years. The abolition decrees of 1793 and 1794 … resulted from the unplanned and uncoordinated actions of individuals who were often motivated less by dedication to principles than by the pressure of unforeseen circumstances, particularly those created by the unanticipated crisis of June 20, 1793 in Cap Français.

For a work on a specialized topic, with footnotes on every page, I found this book highly readable, indeed gripping. The author takes for granted a certain familiarity with the features of colonial Saint-Domingue and with contemporary historical events in France. This book has appeal not only for aficionados of Haitian history but also for those interested in the history of slavery or in the nature of abolitionist thought during the French Revolution. There is even a chapter that deals with the events in the United States after the June 20 crisis—a time of significant diplomatic intrigue for our fledgling nation.

For an introduction to the Haitian revolution, I recommend (to anyone who has a strong stomach) Madison Smartt Bell’s trilogy of historical novels that begins with All Souls’ Rising. He does an admirable job of walking you through the events of that tumultuous period from the perspective of characters who represent the different social groups in the colony. Once you have finished those three books, Popkin’s book could be, as it was for me, a helpful amplification of the global perspective on the same events and a clarification of some of the popular myths surrounding the Haitian Revolution.

As a Toussaint Louverture fan, I was slightly disappointed that he played such a minor role in Popkin’s book. Popkin is dealing with events that happened before Toussaint became really important, so it wouldn’t make sense to focus on him, but you also get the sense from Popkin that Toussaint was more of a normal kind of guy who happened to be in the right place at the right time than the purposeful, heroic freedom-fighter you grow to admire in Bell’s books.

That is not to say Popkin’s book is dry or grim. I loved encountering the fully fleshed-out Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, whose name you can’t help admiring but who remains a shadowy figure in Bell’s books. Governor Galbaud is deliciously ridiculous. Also ridiculous are the communication difficulties that made the French colony of Saint-Domingue practically impossible to govern from afar. The political landscape in France was upheaving rapidly at the same time Saint-Domingue was undergoing fast and furious disasters, and messages became constantly crossed due to the six-month travel time across the Atlantic. This created quite a few ironic and sometimes tragic situations.

I enjoyed this book very much and would gladly read more of Popkin’s writing if I come across it.


1 Comment »

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