- “Focal Point of the Caribbean”Haiti in the Work of Édouard Glissant
Haiti and Martinique, Convergences and Divergences
The relationship between Haiti and Martinique is one of shared history and yet also of radical divergence. Each country has allowed the other, over the past two centuries, to reflect conjecturally—with, depending on the circumstances, varying degrees of regret and relief—on what might have been had the impact of the age of revolutions on the French Caribbean turned out differently. Both locations were also subject to initial European contact within a decade of each other in the late-fifteenth and early-sixteenth centuries (Santo Domingo in 1492, Martinique in 1502), after which it is possible to track across almost 300 years parallel processes of exploitation and appropriation as these so-called vieilles colonies, in processes ranging from rapid annihilation of the indigenous population to the implementation of slavery and a plantation system, were transformed into important centers of income generation for France itself. In one of the opening texts of Le Discours antillais, Édouard Glissant describes substantial overlaps and exchanges between social groups, and the solidarity on which these processes depended. A primary example he cites is that of Louis Delgrès, a French officer of Martinican origin whose self-immolation in Guadeloupe during the struggle against the French re-imposition of slavery in 1802 was a major inspiration for Jean-Jacques Dessalines in Haiti (24). Evoking, in this idea of limited but persistent “displacements” and interconnections, some of the entangled histories and interrelationships that he had already staged two decades before in his play Monsieur Toussaint, Glissant nevertheless proceeds to underline the ways in which any coherent circum-Caribbean narrative cracks, in the age of Atlantic revolutions:
With Haiti free but cut off from the rest of the world (international aid did not exist, and neither did socialist countries, Third World nations, or the UN), the movement and exchanges that might have created the Caribbean dried up. Slave revolt, suppressed in the smaller islands, was reduced to a series of uprisings without wider support and without the possibility of becoming established or of extending any further; without expression or repercussions.(Le Discours antillais 24)1 [End Page 949]
Glissant refers here to the historically precocious nature of Haiti’s revolution and independence, but highlights also the extent to which these historical events created—as Nick Nesbitt has stated—the first example of a situation that is at once postcolonial and neo-colonial, related to a context moreover devoid of the formal support mechanisms and structures of solidarity that would characterize more globally the post-independence period in the second half of the twentieth century. At the same time, an emphasis on regional exceptionalism and international ostracism underlines the difference of Haiti from the other parts of the French Caribbean (located in the Lesser Antilles). As Glissant suggests, given its relative size, Martinique always played a lesser role than Haiti in the region’s slavery-based plantation economy, acting as staging post for ships travelling to the larger colony and also as a residence for a number of owners of Haitian plantations. Martinique’s size, and in particular its lack of a hinterland, also meant that marronage (marooning) was a less evident phenomenon there, with the result that when slave revolt broke out in the 1790s it was much less likely to be sustainable and to be transformable into revolution. The Haitian Revolution itself could not ultimately be brought under control, but with the re-imposition of slavery in 1802, the parallel processes in Martinique and Guadeloupe could be trivialized and provincialized—and their role in wider Atlantic processes accordingly eclipsed.
Given the necessary emphases in Le Discours antillais on Martinique, its author’s home island, the parallels and differences that such a trans-Caribbean comparison implies are not made explicit in Glissant’s detailed discussion of the “sections and periods” of Martinican history in this text (269). The allusions elsewhere in this collection to Haitian exceptionalism (of which more below) make clear, nevertheless, the inevitable differences between the locations included under the umbrella term of the “French West Indies”—and the tensions in particular between, on...