- Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution
The English-language historiography on the Haitian revolution has long been inadequate at best. Many early accounts portrayed the rebellious black slaves as barbarians, while other works, written by Haitians and African Americans, glossed over the horrors of the Haitian revolution in order to describe its participants as heroes of the black race. Tellingly, many modern scholars still rely on C. L. R. James' Black Jacobins: Toussaint l'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938) and Wenda Parkinson's "This Gilded African": Toussaint l'Ouverture (1978), both of which were short on footnotes and long on political passion. Works by Pierre Pluchon and Beaubrun Ardouin are of a higher caliber, but they are available to francophone readers only. In this context, Avengers of the New World is a welcome contribution to the field. It is balanced, readable, and concise, and should offer the general reader a comprehensive look at the Haitian revolution; it is published in the year that Haiti has celebrated the bicentennial of its independence. The main criticism, however, is that Dubois stopped short of an ambitious, archive-based account of the revolution, choosing to rely primarily on French- and English-language secondary sources and published documents instead. [End Page 138]
The book opens with a classic, but necessary, description of colonial society before the slave revolt of 1791. Black slaves were the most prominent victims of oppression, but as the century unfolded, even free people of color (many of them the product of illegitimate unions between masters and slaves) became second-class citizens who suffered from a variety of discriminatory laws. Finally, the French mercantilist laws, or exclusif, convinced many planters that they, too, should support a war of independence. Greed, cruelty, depravity, but also wealth and culture combined to create a situation akin to that of a barrel of gunpowder waiting to explode, a situation that contemporaries fully understood, yet, strangely, did nothing to address.
Like many of his predecessors, Dubois describes the horrors of slavery (56), but he also argues that the ideals of the French Revolution, by opening a debate on the racism prevalent in France's Caribbean colonies, helped bring a revolt to Saint-Domingue (77, 105). In other words, Haiti's revolutionaries were not primitive Africans who believed that they would awaken in Guinea if killed in combat; they were followers of Condorcet and Diderot who understood the principles of the Declaration of the Rights of Man better than many of its supporters. Dubois's argument is convincing when it applies to white Jacobins and free mulattoes (whom he calls "free-coloreds"). Endless debates agitated the French National Assembly as radical revolutionaries and free-coloreds clashed with the planter lobby intent on maintaining racial discrimination, and Dubois is able to draw on a rich historical record.
Dubois's assertion that the Haitian revolution was the daughter of the French one becomes weaker, however, when he moves on to the slave population. He is plagued by a problem familiar to all historians of marginal, oppressed groups: sources are so rare that describing what went through the slaves' minds is, by necessity, conjectural. Even such famous events as the Bois-Caïman voodoo ceremony, where slaves allegedly planned a general uprising, are known only through legends and through the writings of a white author who did not attend the ceremony (99-102). Many slave leaders (Toussaint l'Ouverture included) were partly or totally illiterate, and relied on white secretaries to conduct their correspondence.
Dubois studies the revolution in chronological order, covering the Ogé revolt (1790), the slave uprising (1791), the Spanish-British invasion (1793), the War of the South (1799), and the Leclerc expedition (1802) in great detail. As he does so, Dubois is careful not to oversimplify the issues. For example, he argues that the brutal War of the South, which pitted Toussaint l'Ouverture against André Rigaud, was more than a race-based, black-mulatto conflict, as there were...