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History from Hell

Tom Hennigan

The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution, by Julius S Scott, Verso Books, 272 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1788732475

Though you wouldn’t know it from watching the Pirates of the Caribbean films, the sea of the title was by the eighteenth century the hinge of a vast chain of racially operated gulags strung right across the New World, stretching from Virginia to São Paulo.

It is of course somewhat ridiculous to expect much historical verisimilitude from a Disney franchise that started life as an amusement park ride. But the Pirates films speak to a much broader and deeper bleaching of the horrors of the Caribbean slave system from Western culture. The slave trade, a core element in the Northern Atlantic’s rise to global supremacy, has been marginalised and minimised in the public memory of Europe’s enslaving nations, principally Portugal, Britain, Spain, France and the Netherlands.

The popular cultures of these societies remain transfixed by the perversity of Nazi evil but largely choose to look away from the record of their own ancestors. It was these European “planters” who, once relocated to the tropics, invented such practices as Derby’s dose. A torture meted out for “crimes” like attempted escape, this involved forcing one slave to defecate into the offending slave’s mouth, which was then wired shut for several hours. It is just one from a long list of “cruel and unusual” punishments that reveal how slavery unleashed something depraved in Western Europeans who otherwise thought themselves civilised. And if not quite industrial, the scale of this system should nevertheless make us pause and reconsider how we think about the past.

While left and right still debate which of the twentieth century’s totalitarian systems was history’s most murderous, few consider the claims of the Western European slave system. But it bares comparison with Stalin’s gulag, though infinitely fewer ever managed to return home. Though racially based, it was nevertheless a system of forced labour in which the human inputs were considered expendable, to be worked to death before they aged in the knowledge that profits generated in Europe by tobacco, cotton, coffee, indigo and ‑ most lucratively of all ‑ sugar would provide the capital to buy replacement labour in Africa. But this system lasted for centuries not decades, and its murderous destruction of stolen souls was so great that by 1850 ‑ still several decades before slavery’s end ‑ demographers calculate that Africa’s population of 50 million was roughly half what it would have been without the impact of slavery. Arab slavers certainly played their part in this demographic calamity but transatlantic ‑ that is Western European ‑ slavery had the most significant role in terms of numbers and duration in a system whose legacy negatively impacts Africa to this day and helps explain why so many of its human development indicators lag behind those on other continents.

In the New World there is a similar demographic gap. Mortality rates were so high and birth rates so low among slaves that they could not reproduce themselves. With the exception of the United States, the New World’s African population should be larger than it is today given the number of captives who survived the Middle Passage (at least two million did not). Overwork, the whip, other tortures, malnutrition, skewered gender ratios rooted in the demands of production and resistance in the form of infanticide, suicide and mass poisonings explain this. So much for the civilising mission of empire. No wonder Western Europe is reluctant to dwell much on the period.

By the eighteenth century the Caribbean was at the cutting edge of the Atlantic slave economy. Jamaica was at mid-century richer than any of the British colonies that would within decades break away to form the United States. It is calculated that Saint-Domingue, the French portion of the island of Hispaniola, was outproducing all of Spain’s possessions in the Americas. It was possibly the most lucrative colony in the world and trade with it is calculated to have provided a living to fully one in eight people back in France. This success spurred efforts elsewhere at imitation. In the 1780s Spain was laying the groundwork to copy the French example on its Caribbean islands, principally Cuba and Trinidad. With the Caribbean generating such vast wealth the slave trade reached its zenith between 1780 and 1790, when 80,000 slaves made the Middle Passage each year.

Then on August 23rd, 1791 in Saint-Domingue, the most dazzlingly wealthy of all the slaveocracies, the African captives rose up in the greatest and most successful slave revolt of them all. The Haitian Revolution was under way. Since its conclusion in 1804 with the emergence of an independent Haiti there has been something of a conspiracy of silence surrounding what was understood at the time to be an event world-historic in its impact. France, Spain and Britain are little interested in recalling now the huge amounts of blood and treasure they spent on trying to crush the Haitians’ struggle to free themselves. The revolution was the sum of all the enslavers’ worst fears. Despite the efforts of authorities, it inspired revolts elsewhere, including the Louisiana uprising of 1811, the largest rebellion of slaves on the North American continent, one of whose principal leaders was later identified as a “free mulatto from St. Domingo” as Haiti was still then often referred to. For many, the universal values of the Haitian Revolution were more relevant to their own condition than those of the earlier American one that saw fit to declare “all men are created equal” while keeping them in bondage.

Haiti helped shatter slavery’s “moral” and philosophical underpinnings. Though the institution would survive for almost another century until Brazil’s abolition law of 1888, stealing another three or four million souls from Africa, it never regained the confidence and vigour it displayed in the decade before Saint-Domingue erupted in revolt. Not for nothing has the UN declared August 23rd International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and Its Abolition.

The immense history of the Haitian Revolution is still best recounted by the Trinidadian historian CLR James in his ground-breaking The Black Jacobins. First published in 1938, it remains a seminal text for students of the Caribbean, slavery and revolution. It challenged Europe’s silence about its Caribbean past. Most importantly it placed slaves at the centre of their own story at a time when historians of the subject were more focused on the likes of the great, but gradualist and white, reformer William Wilberforce. In its wake has come a huge wave of research into slavery, the lives of slaves themselves and their struggle for freedom, even if much of this work has encountered difficulty in penetrating the wider Western culture.

Now eighty years after The Black Jacobins first appeared and over three decades since it was written a brilliant companion to James’s study has finally been published. Finished in 1986, The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution by Julius S Scott is a groundbreaking work which illuminates something that long perplexed slaveholders, namely what one of them called the “unknown mode of conveying intelligence amongst the Negroes.” In doing so Scott has transformed this intelligence network into a window through which we can see slavery and revolution in entirely new ways. He allows us to understand better what the slaveocracies worked so hard to crush, namely slave resistance to bondage and how this sparked a revolution once this “unknown mode of conveying intelligence” brought news of the French Revolution to the Caribbean. 

Taking its title from Wordsworth’s sonnet to the Great Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture, The Common Wind has long enjoyed cult status among the period’s historians. Dog-eared photocopies of the unpublished document, Scott’s doctoral dissertation, circulated like samizdat among fellow academics. Lucky undergraduates were turned on to it by their professors, birthing the next generation of admirers, who would in due course go on to organise conferences on a survey that has opened doors to multiple new lines of historical inquiry.

It wasn’t that Scott wanted for offers to publish his thesis. But his priority was to round out his research, an ambition that was cruelly undermined by long bouts of ill-health. Now finally it is available to the general reader, Verso having produced an elegant edition that deserves a wide readership. The book has a noble academic lineage. There is James obviously. Its regional sweep is modelled on Fernand Braudel’s masterpiece on the Mediterranean. It draws on the work of another great French historian, Georges Lefebvre, retooling his insights on how rumour became a driver of social and political action during the French Revolution for the Caribbean. It was Lefebvre who invented the phrase “history from below” and Scott cites two of its great British exponents, Christopher Hill and EP Thompson, in his first two footnotes, though he has arguably achieved something even more impressive, writing a history from the very bottom, indeed from a place that in the eighteenth century resembled hell on earth.

He has done so by an astonishingly extensive trawl through the region’s primary sources for the period, but reverse engineering them to discover in these records of the oppressors how the oppressed communicated among themselves. This was necessary because slaves on the whole had illiteracy imposed on them as a means of control. Their culture was almost exclusively oral, a particular challenge to the historian. Fortunately for our understanding of the period, slaveholders were for obvious strategic reasons obsessed with control and with the facility with which slaves, despite their condition, managed to transmit information, and not just among plantations in a given parish but across the New World. As future US president John Adams noted in his diary in 1775 after two Georgia delegates to the Continental Congress warned him that the impending revolution was raising expectations of imminent freedom among the state’s slaves: “The negroes have a wonderful art of communicating intelligence among themselves ... It will run several hundred miles in a week or fortnight.”

Scott reveals a subversive underground stretching all along the Western Atlantic seaboard in which slaves had access to and passed on information relevant to their situation, often garbled, sometimes little more than rumour, but spread rapidly across great distances. The quayside, sea and sail played a central role in these networks, plugging the world of plantation slave quarters into a hemispheric exchange of information that spanned as far as the metropolitan centres in Europe, to where “domestics” would accompany their masters and bring back the latest intelligence on the emerging campaigns to improve their lot.

Sailors in particular were key transmitters of news, their mobility giving them both greater access to and then the means of spreading information. They shared a natural affinity with slaves, both often mingling together as fugitives, both at sea and in the Caribbean’s racially mixed ports, which provided a measure of anonymity for those who had fled a plantation or jumped ship. In the age of press gangs and the whip as a means of onboard discipline nothing perhaps resembled slavery so much as life at sea. In Saint-Domingue, African women referred to each other as “sailors” as a means of confirming their solidarity. Former slaves or freeborn blacks were another channel of communication. They in particular shared common concerns with slaves, being closer to them even than sailors. Because of the colour of their skin, members of this free if marginalised class were always at risk of being enslaved or re-enslaved. This ensured that news of possible greater racial equality was a matter of intense interest to them, as well as to their brothers and sisters in bondage.

In detailing how these networks ‑ The Common Wind – operated, Scott has given us a breathtaking portrait of an entire region in constant flux over the course of a century. He effortlessly shifts from the broad sweep to a sudden focus on individual lives of history’s forgotten people. People like Bermudan slave Joe Anderson who eluded his owner by jumping aboard a ship at Port Antonio in 1779 despite being shackled with “an iron collar, rivetted, and about 5 or 6 links of chain” and who evaded recapture while working as a sailor until we glimpse him again, in 1793, a legend who haunted Kingston’s harbour bars, still being pursued by his “owner”.

It would have been a major feat of scholarship had Scott restricted himself to detailing how these networks functioned, but he goes on to demonstrate the way they then helped shape history in the age of revolution. The great uprising in Saint-Domingue did not take place in a vacuum. Slave riots and rebellions were common across the region. But in the years before 1791 news passing along the slavery grapevine had the Caribbean’s captives in a state of heightened expectation. “Of all the types of information which arrived either on the printed page or by word of mouth in Afro-American societies,” he writes, “none was more eagerly anticipated or potentially explosive than news which fueled hopes of black emancipation.” And in the years before Haiti began there was plenty of such news circulating.

We have already seen how the American Revolution had (falsely as it turned out) raised the hopes of slaves in Georgia. But even as these hopes faded word of new events arrived to keep Afro-American expectations alive while the slave trade traversed its peak. The Spanish Bourbon reforms designed to place legal restraints on the absolute power of slaveholders, though actually envisaged as a prerequisite for the planned expansion of Spain’s slave economy, sparked fevered speculation across the region, with planters complaining of the disruption caused by the garbling of the news as it spread among the captives.

So did word from Britain that the long debate which eventually ended in its parliament outlawing the slave trade (if not slavery) in 1807 had got under way. The planters immediately understood the problems this would create. “Your Lordship may depend on it,” wrote Stephen Fuller, the agent for Jamaica to Lord Sydney in 1788, “that during the time this business is agitated in Parliament, the slaves will be minutely acquainted with all the proceedings.” By 1790 there was a slave uprising on the British-held island of Tortola. Subsequent inquiries found it “proceeded from a Report that has prevailed among the Slaves that there is already in the Island an Act sent out from England by Government for the Purpose of abolishing Slavery but that it is suppressed at the Instance of the Inhabitants.” In 1791, three thousand slaves gathered in Jamaica’s Westmoreland parish to celebrate Wilberforce’s birthday, proof a local resident wrote of “how greatly Mr. W___’s intentions are misrepresented to the Slaves.”

It was into this cauldron of expectation that news of the French Revolution then arrived. “Though British abolitionism and Spanish reformism challenged the future of colonial slavery in the late 1780s, only the French Revolution exerted the overwhelming social and ideological pressure which would lead eventually to black freedom in the Americas,” Scott writes. With its promise of liberté, égalité and fraternité, this was always likely to pose an existential threat to the slave system and the planter class immediately saw it as such. Its French cohort quickly organised to lobby the national assembly against anything so rash as extending liberty to their slaves. Scott’s book provides us with a reminder than it was not just Burkean defenders of tradition who were early critics of the French Revolution but the pioneers of the burgeoning Caribbean slave system, men who had been made depraved by their market-driven greed.

British and Spanish possessions had sought to close themselves off from contact with their French neighbours. And the paranoia was well-founded. Boukmann, one of the original ringleaders of the Saint-Domingue uprising, was a captive from Africa who had run away from enslavement in Jamaica. In the context of revolution, mobile blacks were to be considered more dangerous than ever. In 1793 Jamaican planters burnt effigies of Wilberforce and Tom Paine. Shortly afterwards four recently captured “French negroes” were interrogated in Spanish Town. One of them gave his name as “John Paine”.

Despite attempts to construct a cordon sanitaire, the Haitian Revolution exerted too great an influence. Though Jamaican whites maintained a strategic silence about events in nearby Saint-Domingue, within weeks of the revolt their slaves had added new stanzas to their songs, describing “the Negroes having made a rebellion at Hispaniola.” As one white Jamaican resident lamented, news from Saint-Domingue had made black workers “so different a people from what they were”, warning that “the Ideas of Liberty have sunk so deep in the Minds of all the Negroes, that wherever the greatest Precautions are not taken, they will rise.”

And rise they did. Haiti went on to inspire less successful uprisings in neighbouring British, Spanish and Dutch possessions. The spread of news about events on Saint-Domingue was aided by the flood of refugees who fled the violence there, many taking their slaves with them. Among those who took them in, sympathy for fellow planters was tempered by fear of what ideas their “property” might now harbour after exposure to revolutionary ideals. Contamination was also spread by the housing of prisoners of war captured during the Spanish and British invasions of the French territory. Black revolutionaries held in Caracas exerted a great fascination over the city’s people of colour, at least one of whom would later preach sermons “full of the most detestable of liberty and equality”.

Haiti is the only example of a slave uprising leading to the successful creation of a free nation. The cost of doing so in terms of lives and property was horrific and for decades afterwards the new state was punished and preyed on by European powers and the US. Largely elided over today is the responsibility Western powers share for Haiti’s position as the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere. Yet despite the huge cost of its own war of liberation it still managed to lend support to the struggle to free Spanish-speaking America. “Should I not let it be known to later generations that Alexander Pétion is the true liberator of my country?” wrote Simón Bolívar to the first president of Haiti. Pétion twice took Bolívar in when he was on the run from Spain, providing his rebel band with sanctuary, arms and supplies on the condition he abolish slavery in the territories he liberated (a promise he proved unable to keep).

Decades after its revolution concluded with independence Haiti would continue to serve as an inspiration across Afro-America. It was the greatest victory won during generations of black resistance to the iniquities of slavery. The central nervous system of that resistance has now been revealed by Scott. He has produced for us a brilliant mosaic of events during one of the great turning points in history, expertly assembled using multiple small vignettes rescued from obscurity. Like the slaves on plantations in Jamaica singing of the fight for freedom of their brothers across the Jamaica Channel ‑ songs of communication, celebration and resistance ‑ these rescued voices, however fleetingly caught, linger with the reader. With the struggle for full black equality still ongoing across the Americas this is history that carries an extra charge.


Tom Hennigan is the South America correspondent for The Irish Times and is based in São Paulo, Brazil.