- A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution by Jeremy D. Popkin
Writing a concise history of an event like the Haitian Revolution is hard work. Simply getting the narrative down right, in a format that non-specialist readers can understand, is no small feat. In the case of Haiti’s revolution, figuring out how to situate these events vis-à-vis the contemporaneous complexities of the French Revolution, with which it was so closely linked, aggravates the difficulty at hand. Jeremy Popkin has risen splendidly to the challenge in his new “concise” history of the Haitian Revolution: a book that not only gives readers a highly reliable introduction to the revolutionary era, but provides a nuanced analysis of some of the main interpretive debates that have featured in the historiography of this subject.
This book confirms that Popkin is a master of the introductory synthesis. Already known for his accomplished short history of the French Revolution, Popkin has in recent years expanded his impressive repertoire of metropolitan revolutionary scholarship to become one of the leading English-language scholars of the Haitian Revolution. His first book in this field, Facing Racial Revolution, was a collection and analysis of eyewitness accounts of the Haitian slave revolt (one of which, by the young white doctor Michel-Etienne Descourtilz, is put to particularly informative use here). In 2011, Popkin came out with “You Are All Free,” which focused on the critical events of the summer and fall of 1793 in Saint-Domingue, when the French civil commissioners Sonthonax moved to abolish slavery in the colony (a decision later ratified by the French National Convention, in February 1794). Popkin has a palpable commitment to this subject that is reflected both in his prolific contributions to the study of the Haitian Revolution and the depth of understanding that these writings reveal.
This introductory narrative of the Haitian Revolution is designed primarily for undergraduate students, to be used in courses that bear on the Atlantic revolutionary era. It is not quite as “concise” as its title suggests. At 180 or so tightly packed pages of expository text, this is rather more than one week’s reading for an undergraduate student. But in that space, Popkin has managed to span a remarkably rich and fascinating period of history extending from the arrival of Columbus in Hispaniola in 1492 to the middle of the nineteenth century. The opening discussion of the colonial and pre-revolutionary eras is solid, even if it does not match the depth and richness that Popkin brings to his surefooted handling of the revolutionary years between 1789 and 1804, which are covered in four core (and superb) chapters.
How best to break out the story of the revolution into its major component phases and themes is a tricky question, one that Popkin, to my mind, resolves about as well as any other existing account. The breakthrough comes in the late summer of 1791, when the slaves of the northern province of Saint-Domingue, perhaps inspired by divisions between white colonists and free people of color that had become apparent during the first two years of the French Revolution, organized a massive attack on the heart of the colony’s sugar plantation complex. The period of republican emancipation, from 1793 to 1798, extends from the aforementioned proclamations of Sonthonax and Polverel through the long years of British and Spanish occupation and the dramatic rise to power of Toussaint [End Page 467] Louverture. Louverture’s consolidation of a relatively autonomous black freedom movement, which he sought self-consciously to manage in such a way as to leave space for both the white and free colored planter elite, takes up the years from 1798 to 1801. The relationship between Louverture’s vision of black freedom and his turn to dictatorial rule at the turn of the century is handled with sensitivity and intelligence. An excellent and very moving account of the brutal war of independence in 1802–1803, triggered by Napoleon’s catastrophic decision to seek the subjugation of the black...