Recovering Histories of the Haitian Revolution

By Yue Qiu and Henry Stevens

Haiti, known prior to 1804 as St. Domingue, was once the wealthiest colony in the French empire. African slaves worked the vast sugar plantations to enrich the powerful French Monarchy and Empire. On August 22nd, 1791, slaves on the northern plain of Haiti revolted against their masters, burned the plantations, and thrust themselves into the turmoil of the French Revolution. Out of the slave revolt came an alliance between the self-liberated Black people of Haiti and the revolutionary government of France.[1] The slaves, who were ultimately led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, were betrayed when Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in France and attempted to reinstate slavery in the Caribbean colonies. Despite imprisoning and killing L’Ouverture, while sending 50,000 soldiers to Haiti under his brother-in-law Leclerc, Bonaparte found that freed people would fight to the death to defend their liberty. Leclerc died in the fighting, and his successor Rochambeau retreated from a newly-freed Haiti, which Black leader Dessalines formally declared an independent nation in 1804.

Thirty years after Haitian independence, an American movement against slavery sprang into life. As with France, slave labor enriched the economy of the United States. In 1831, the slave Nat Turner led a revolt against slavery in Virginia, and in the same year, William Lloyd Garrison published the first edition of The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper, which openly declared American abolitionists’ resolution: “I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD.”[2]  From the 1830’s to the end of the Civil War, the Underground Railroad helped Southern slaves escape to the Northern free states where many became radical abolitionists. However, the slaveholding Southern states showed the institution’s resilience by creating slave territories out of the land seized in the Mexican-American war and extending their legal authority in the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which required all citizens of America to assist federal authorities in capturing runaway slaves The height of the tensions between slave-owners and abolitionists came in 1859 when abolitionist John Brown led an unsuccessful raid on Harper’s Ferry in an attempt to ignite a mass slave revolution, signaling an embrace of violence.

Radical American abolitionists, like Brown, drew inspiration from the Haitian Revolution. While the traditional views portrayed the Haitian Revolutionaries as a bloody, barbaric horde, raping, murdering, and pillaging, the Abolitionists looked to Haiti, and Toussaint L’Ouverture in particular, as models of Black Liberation. James McCune Smith called him, “a spirit of peace, the patriot, the father, the benefactor of mankind—”[1]while Wendell Phillips compared him to Napoleon Bonaparte, Oliver Cromwell, and George Washington,  finding L’Ouverture  superior to all of them, a claim that sparked outrage when he delivered it to packed halls on the eve of the American Civil War.[2] John Brown, in explaining his raid on Harper’s Ferry, said that he hoped to distribute arms to the slaves of Virginia and allow them to instigate a second Haitian revolution. He even asked Frederick Douglas to be their “Toussaint L’Ouverture.”[3] Deeply inspired, abolitionists produced numerous histories, speeches, and essays about the Haitian Revolution—important historical documents which ought to be republished and better known.

What the Abolitionists saw in Toussaint and Haiti was a counter-example to the prevailing myth of white supremacy, a myth that prevails amongst many in America to this day. Toussaint was held up as a “great man,” and thus living proof that Africans were not inferior to Europeans. Abolitionists stressed the restraint that slaves showed in sparing prisoners and emphasized the savage violence the British, French, and Spanish armies wrought upon them, as well as the horrific conditions of slavery that the planters inflicted. They analyzed the classes present in Haitian society, dividing them into rich and poor whites, mulattoes and free blacks, and slaves, and even the French government was divided into royalists and Jacobins. Abolitionists frequently used these class distinctions to draw parallels with the America of their day, both direct and indirectly. Their message was clear. Abolitionist Elizur Wright wrote, “Our Federal Government is situated, in regard to our present controversy, very much as France was in St. Domingo,”[4] and William Wells Brown, himself a runaway slave, noted that “Already the slave in his chains, in the rice swamps of Carolina and the cotton fields of Mississippi, burns for revenge.”[5] The Haitian Revolution was seen as an omen of what was to come for the United States.

The masters shaped the mainstream narrative of the Haitian Revolution, keeping the counternarratives crafted by antislavery fighters in obscurity. The primary interpretation of the Haitian Revolution came from the ex-slave-owners themselves, who fled Haiti for the United States and told their tales. Their narrative of barbaric black slaves murdering and creating general anarchy was perpetuated by racists even after the Civil War. It has not been until recent decades that the Haitian Revolution has shaken this characterization. Sociologist Robin Blackburn, writing in 2006, explained that until decolonization in Africa, the seminal work on the Haitian Revolution, Black Jacobins was written by C.L.R. James, a journalist and anticolonial activist.[6] Scholars started paying more attention with decolonization in the 60s, but as Haitian historian and philosopher of history Michel-Rolph Truillot points out, “Universities and university presses are not the only loci of production of the historical narrative.” Truillot finds that Europe and the United States had allowed the Haitian Revolution to be silenced, despite its important links to the rest of the world[7].

Different from the slave owners’ narratives, many scholars of decolonization integrated the Haitian Revolution into a broader Black internationalism. Aimé Césaire, founder of the Negritude movement, described  the Haitian Revolution as  “our first independence,” “the first Negro epic of the New World,” and “[when] Negritude stood on its feet for the first time.” Césaire points out the Haitian Revolution infused black radical tradition into the reconstruction of a Black identity. With the Haitian Revolution as the first rupture in the dependent relationship between Black people and Europeans.

Those links are the core of our research. Reexaminations of the Haitian Revolution are already underway in topics such as the role Haiti played in the French Revolution and the ties between the United States and the island, but the ways the Haitian Revolution shaped abolitionist history writing is less well known. Our work is about uncovering, transcribing, and publishing lesser known speeches by Abolitionists that indicate a clear connection between the overthrow of slave systems in Haiti and America. But on a deeper level, our work seeks to understand the Abolitionists’ own goals and the state of their society. Why were abolitionists interested in revolutionary methods for ending slavery? Why were they so inspired by an event that most other Americans saw as ugly and evil? Why did Abolitionists spend so much time exploring the castes and classes of pre-revolution St. Domingue? Why were Toussaint L’Ouverture’s sophisticated lifestyle and nuclear family so important to them? Why did these speakers and writers sometimes brush over L’Ouverture’s tenure in power or play down other leaders like Christophe and Dessalines? The answers to these types of questions show an American society not too far removed from the modern day.

We were hired a few weeks after DKU closed the campus out of concerns regarding COVID-19, and have been meeting virtually. Working together in the time of COVID-19 has not been easy. Yue was hopping from Azerbaijan to Georgia before she finally went home to Zhejiang Province. Henry, living in southern Virginia, had unreliable internet connection and a rising number of people who refused to wear a mask. Even Professor Olsavsky, working in Kolkata, India, experienced difficulty as the virus has bloomed there. We have discussed the most important texts through Zoom.

In the first two months, Prof. Olsavsky assigned readings on various topics related to the project. Truillot’s Silencing The Past (from whence comes his arguments on Haiti’s history being silenced) was the one of the first readings. Prof. Olsavsky explained that Truillot formed a framework for why we were researching. He also assigned an article he had written to familiarize us with his writing style,[8] before we turned to focus on competing historical accounts. The Abolitionists were not the only, nor the most accurate, historians of Haiti. Blackburn[9]and Matthew Clavin [10] were assigned to show the state of current scholarship. It was a sharp contrast to the next assignments: W.E.B. Du Bois, a Pan-African activist[11]and Lothrop Stoddard, a white-supremacist thinker,[12] who each agreed on the connections between Haiti and France, but who argued oppositely which revolution caused the other. Stoddard and Du Bois actually met to debate once over whether black people should seek cultural equality with white people in the Jim Crow-era, a debate from which Stoddard was laughed out. In case there were any questions about the cause of the Civil War, Prof. Olsavsky assigned a reading from Herbert Aptheker.[13]

With a solid base to understand the work, we were sent to the online archives for several Abolitionist newspapers, hoping to find primary sources. Henry searched through Pine and Palm, edited by James Redpath, National Anti-Slavery Standard, edited by Lydia Maria Child and David Lee Child, and the Anti-Slavery Bugle, edited by James Barnaby, while Yue took on the Liberator by Garrison, the North Star by Frederick Douglass, and Pennsylvania Freeman by J. Miller McKim. Different from mainstream newspapers of the time, with advertisements for selling slaves and plantations, advertisements in abolitionist newspapers include the promotion of abolitionists’ lectures and books, which shows the distinct contrasts between the ideology of abolitionists and the slaveholders.

Additionally, we were each issued texts to transcribe. These texts were written by a diverse group of American abolitionists. Some were women, though most were men. Some were white, some African American. Some were freeborn, but others, like William Wells Brown, were runaway slaves who became antislavery intellectuals. Yue transcribed William Wells Brown’s St. Domingo: Its Revolution and It’s Patriots, Lydia Maria Child’s excerpts about L’Ouverture in The Freedmen’s Book, and C. W. Elliot’ St. Domingo: Its Revolution and It’s Hero, Toussaint L’Ouverture. Henry transcribed James McCune Smith’s A Lecture on the Haytien Revolutions; with a Sketch of the Character of Toussaint L’Ouverture, Wendell Phillips’ “Toussaint L’Ouverture”, and Elizur Wright’s The Lesson of St. Domingo: How to Make the War Short and the Peace Righteous. Prof. Olsavsky transcribed excerpts from William Wells Brown’s The Blackman  and Joshua Coffin’s Slave Insurrections. These texts were digitized original manuscripts, poorly formatted and in dire need of transcription. Prof. Olsavsky sometimes warned them that there could be no imprecision. Under this motto, we sometimes consulted French classmates for unclear French words in the manuscripts, searched other online resources to find the texts concealed by ink mark, and downloaded newspaper clippings that showed myriad ways Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution inspired and epitomized the antislavery cause.

This summer, Professor Olsavsky issued another round of recommended readings.  We read W.E.B. Dubois’s Black Reconstruction[14] and Cedric J. Robinson’s Black Movements in America during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in America, and through these books, we gained deeper understandings of the historical roots of racism in the US and of Black people’s role in gaining their own freedom. We also read C.L.R. James’s Black Jacobins, which lays out in explicit detail the conditions of life in Haiti and places the enslaved population squarely in line with the radical Jacobin party (hence the title) while going as far as to claim that without Haiti, the bourgeoisie who led the French Revolution would not have amassed the fortunes they had.[15]

As we come into the new semester, we will return to the texts we had been transcribing, this time with the aim of contextualizing the pieces. We will find archaic spellings, references to specific locations in Haiti, alternative names, and other things that a reader with no background might misunderstand and add explanatory footnotes. We will also return to the archives, this time stretching beyond Toussaint and Haiti to find other articles, such as those related to Christophe, Dessalines, Rigaud, and other spellings of Haiti as “Hayti”. By next Spring, we will be writing short biographies of our authors, and by next summer, it will be time to write the introduction to the work, where our research in the newspaper archives will bear fruit.

This project has taught us a lot about the worlds we live in, the work we do, and about how scholarship happens. We are fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with Prof. Olsavsky, especially in a moment in history when the world is isolating itself from a deadly disease and relationships between three countries very important to us, China, the United States, and India, are growing tense. Henry is an American studying American history in China. Yue is a Chinese studying Indian history in China. Prof. Olsavsky is an American studying decolonization and anti-slavery movements while living in India. For us, the project has been a welcome example of solidarity and camaraderie.

[1] C.L.R. James, Black Jacobins (New York: Vintage Books, 1989).

[2] “The Abolitionists – Part 1 – Alexander Street, a ProQuest Company,” accessed August 16, 2020,

[3] James McCune Smith, A Lecture of the Haytien Revolutions; with a Sketch of the Character of Toussaint L’ Ouverture (New York: Daniel Fanshaw, 1841), Delivered at the Stuyvesant Institute, p.28.

[4] Wendell Phillips, Speeches, Lectures, and Letters (Lee and Shepard, 1878).

[5] Matthew Clavin, “A Second Haitian Revolution: John Brown, Toussaint Louverture, and the Making of the American Civil War,” Civil War History 54, no. 2 (May 30, 2008): 117–45,.

[6] Elizur Wright, The Lesson of St. Domingo: How to Make the War Short and the Peace Righteous (A. Williams & Company, 1861), p.20.

[7] William Wells Brown, St. Domingo: Its Revolutions and Its Patriots;: A Lecture Delivered Before the Metropolitan Athenaeum, London, May 16, and at St. Thomas’ Church, Philadelphia, December 20, 1854 (Rhistoric Publications, 1855), p.4.

[8] Robin Blackburn, “Haiti, Slavery, and the Age of the Democratic Revolution” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 63, No. 4 (Oct., 2006), pp. 643-674

[9] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Beacon Press, 2015).

[10] Jesse Olsavsky, “Runaway Slaves, Vigilance Committees, and the Pedagogy of Revolutionary Abolitionism, 1835–1863”

[11] Robin Blackburn, “Haiti, Slavery, and the Age of the Democratic Revolution”

[12] Clavin Toussaint, “A second Haitian revolution: John Brown, Toussaint Louverture, and the making of the American Civil War”

[13] W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Negro in the French Revolution” (Lagos (Nigeria): Freedomways Associates, 1962).

[14] Lothrop Stoddard, “The French Revolution in San Domingue”(Boston and New York: Houghton Mtfflin Company, 1914)

[15] Herbert Aptheker, Herbert Aptheker on Race and Democracy “The American Civil War: A Centenary Article”(Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press)

[16] W.E.B. du Bois Black Reconstruction in America (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1935)

[17] C.L.R. James, Black Jacobins (New York: Vintage Books, 1989).