National Opinions

Five myths about the Haitian revolution

Julia Gaffield is associate professor of history at Georgia State University and is the author of “Haitian Connections in the Atlantic World: Recognition after Revolution” (UNC Press, 2015).

This month marks the 230th anniversary of the beginning of the Haitian Revolution. In August 1791, enslaved people in the French colony of Saint-Domingue revolted, and eventually abolished slavery and created Haiti, the second independent country in the Americas. Recent media efforts to contextualize the assassination of Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, on July 7 have often relied on myths that undermine the country’s leadership in world history and the racist repercussions that it faced during and after its fight for freedom and independence.

Myth No. 1: The French Revolution inspired the Haitian uprising.

In his famous account of the Haitian Revolution, “The Black Jacobins,” C.L.R. James wrote that enslaved men and women in Saint-Domingue in 1791 “had caught the spirit of the thing. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” This perceived link between the French Revolution and events in the colony implies that French revolutionary ideals inspired enslaved people to revolt. Similarly, historian Paul Cheney calls the Haitian Revolution “the French Revolution in Saint-Domingue.” Taking a cue from such interpretations, PBS’s “Africans in America” resource page mistakenly asserts that the French “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” inspired the abolition of slavery in the country now known as Haiti.

The claims of inspiration suggest that France held power over its colony even in revolt, and that it alone was equipped to benevolently bestow freedom on the enslaved. But France had constructed one of the most violent and extractive colonies in the world, and its revolution neither pushed back against that system nor worked to improve it. Though France would go on to abolish slavery, it did not do so until 1794,years after the Haitian Revolution began - and only because of Haiti’s uprising.

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In practice, the French Revolution did not provide inspiration for revolt in the colony so much as opportunity. With a divided ruling class, enslaved men and women coordinated an uprising that led to military victories and eventual freedom. The myth of French inspiration also overlooks the fact that France was the only nation to re-establish slavery after its abolition.

Myth No. 2: Mosquitoes defeated Napoleon’s army.

In 1802, a massive French expedition of 30,000 soldiers arrived in Saint-Domingue with the goal of wresting control of the colony from the revolutionary leaders. Within two years, a Haitian army led by Jean-Jacques Dessalines defeated the French forces. Some attribute the Haitians’ success to yellow fever. Historian David Bell, for example, argued in the New York Review of Books that the French military expedition “was decimated by an epidemic of yellow fever, which allowed black forces to drive it out.” Nathan Hale’s graphic novel “Blades of Freedom” makes a mosquito one of the main characters in its telling of the revolution, symbolizing the role that yellow fever played in the devastation of French troops.

While yellow fever indeed killed many French soldiers, their defeat was primarily due to the effectiveness of the Haitian forces. The Black revolutionaries waited for the rainy season to battle the French, and they strategically pushed the foreign troops into the hot and humid cities while they retreated inland to the cooler mountains. The revolutionary army also beat the French outright on the battlefield, forcing their evacuation in late 1803.

Myth No. 3: Dessalines committed ‘white genocide.’

In a 2005 article titled “Caribbean genocide,” historian Philippe Girard argued that during the first four months of 1804, “on Dessalines’s orders, soldiers rounded up white planters, their families, French soldiers and the urban poor known as petits blancs, and killed them. Neither women nor children were spared.” Drawing heavily on Girard’s claims, podcaster Mike Duncan, in Season 4 of “Revolutions,” offers a sensationalized account of what he calls the “genocidal massacres” of 1804. He alleges that Haitian soldiers raped all the White women and concludes that Dessalines committed a “heinous crime.”

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Did Dessalines execute French soldiers and colonists? Yes. But this fact has been exaggerated and taken out of historical context.

When the French evacuated in late 1803, they did not concede defeat. Instead, a small contingent of troops relocated to the city of Santo Domingo and began threatening to reinvade and “annihilate” the Black population. Dessalines soon learned of these plans. He also learned about support among White colonists for the recent French expedition. In this context, he ordered the execution of people who had “taken an active part in the different massacres and assassinations” by the French army. But, rather than targeted executions for the defense of the country, terrified colonists claimed to have witnessed the “massacre” of all the White people.

Historical documents reveal, however, that many White people remained in Haiti after this alleged genocide. For example, a partial census from October 1804 lists more than 600 White people in the district of Gros Morne alone. That same month - after all the White people were allegedly killed - a British captain claimed that 200 White women were in imminent danger of being “massacred” in Cap Haitien.

Claiming that Dessalines targeted civilians is also misleading. Many of those he executed fought in the colonial National Guard - militia units of male planters and merchants - which supported the French military expedition. Such claims also downplay the violence of colonialism. Settlers were enslavers, and as historian Vincent Brown has shown, slavery was war. Anti-colonialism is not genocide.

Myth No. 4: Haiti became a republic in 1804.

The Age of Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries created what historian Caitlin Fitz calls a hemisphere “teeming with republics” in reference to the Latin American independence movements. The ascendancy of republicanism has created the false assumption that all new American nations established republics as the only legitimate form of progress. “In January 1804,” a book review in the Guardian claims, “the West Indian island of Saint-Domingue became the world’s first black republic.” Similarly, historian Annette Gordon-Reed recently wrote in the New York Times that after the revolutionaries defeated the French, they “went on to form an independent republic that they renamed Haiti.”

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In fact, Haiti did not become a republic when the colony declared its independence from France in 1804. Instead, it became the “state of Haiti,” led by Dessalines, whom the generals named governor-general for life. Later that year, Dessalines and his supporters created the Empire of Haiti. When Haiti did establish a republic in 1806, the result was civil war, what literary scholar Chelsea Stieber calls the Republican Revolution. The northern part of the country rejected this political reconfiguration and re-established the “state of Haiti” and, a few years later, a kingdom.

Myth No. 5: Haiti was isolated after it declared independence.

“Haiti was immediately quarantined and pauperized into the forced dysfunction of a postcolonial state,” literary scholar Nick Nesbitt has written, “hamstrung by the terrified slave-holding powers that then controlled the globe.” Attempting to contextualize the assassination of President Moïse, Open Democracy claimed that, “after slaves wrested independence from France in 1804, the slave-owning United States isolated Haiti for several decades for fear of the threat to its own economic interests.”

Foreign nations certainly did withhold formal diplomatic recognition of Haiti until 1825 or later. But this official nonrecognition should not overshadow nonofficial interactions such as trade and migration. Haitians also engaged the broader world in intellectual debates about colonialism and racial equality. Haitian sovereignty was not directly tied to official diplomatic recognition, nor was the country isolated from the rest of the world.

The presumption of isolation distracts attention from the damaging policies that foreign states implemented before and after diplomatic recognition. The refusal of any nation to recognize Haitian independence set the stage for France to force its former colony to pay an indemnity for its economic losses tied to the end of slavery and the loss of the colony, in exchange for diplomatic recognition.The damaging social, economic and cultural impact of paying this indemnity for more than a century endures today.

Five Myths is a weekly feature from The Washington Post.

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