- Race, Rebellion, and the GothicInventing the Haitian Revolution
We have to contemplate the human mind in its utmost deformity: to behold savage man, let loose from restraint, exercising cruelties, of which the bare recital makes the heart recoil, and committing crimes which are hitherto unheard of in history.—Bryan Edwards, An Historical Survey of the French Colony in the Island of St. Domingo (1806)
Just months after tearing the white stripe from the tricolored French flag and declaring Haiti a free and independent black nation, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the former slave and future emperor who rose to power in the wake of the arrest and death of Toussaint Louverture, ordered the massacre of nearly all the new nation's remaining white population.1 The gruesome act concluded [End Page 1] the massive and unprecedented slave revolt that began on the French colony of Saint Domingue in 1791 and led to thirteen years of bloodshed between half a million black slaves, tens of thousands of mulattoes, and French, English, and Spanish settlers and soldiers. News of the black rebellion sent shock-waves throughout the Atlantic world. Those in the United States took special notice of this cataclysm as they followed its progress in printed accounts in newspapers and pamphlets, and through face-to-face conversations with merchants, sailors, and refugees who had seen the revolution firsthand. Americans likewise learned of the Haitian Revolution by reading histories of the rebellion and biographies of its most recognized founding father, Louverture, which were published on both sides of the Atlantic.
This essay considers the flood of historical and biographical narratives of the Haitian Revolution that British, French, Haitian, and American authors published during and in the decades after the revolution. The diverse group of men and women who authored these accounts, which were either read or published in the United States, claimed in their works that they wrote exclusively to influence public opinion and persuade authorities on such important issues of trans-Atlantic concern as commerce, colonization, and the future of slavery. Coincident with the rising trans-Atlantic debate over abolition, these narratives did not want for political effect. Though the narratives had much in common, their substance was bifurcated: each text fell into one of two ideological camps. Proslavery authors warned of a repetition of the "horrors of St. Domingo" wherever abolition took place, as they detailed the atrocities that the colony's massive enslaved black majority committed against white men, women, and children. Abolitionists offered a radically different reading of Haitian history.2 Finding slave owners and white soldiers culpable for the "horrors of St. Domingo," they countered by explicating slaves' motives for rebellion, arguing that whites who brutally enslaved Africans sowed the seeds of their own destruction. Marginalizing the role of Dessalines and other rebel leaders, as well as the nameless and faceless black masses, abolitionists centered Louverture in the narrative of the revolution, offering him as an embodiment of the black republic, a symbol of the character and potential of the [End Page 2] black race. It is clear that these oppositional narratives figured in the public discourse on the abolition of both the Atlantic slave trade and the institution of slavery.
What is less manifest, I believe, is that in addition to serving a didactic purpose, these narratives were commodities that writers intended as a source of entertainment for readers in a crowded and competitive literary market. By borrowing and sampling the conventions of other popular literary genres and blurring the line between fiction and nonfiction, authors startled, titillated, and frightened readers at the same time they informed them of either the benefits or the horrors likely to accompany abolition. The inflated language used to describe the revolution struck one commentator who maintained, "The cruelties said to be daily perpetrated by the French and the Blacks of this island are, for the most part, fabricated." Writers were "very prodigal in their use of fire and sword, hanging and drowning," and would "occasionally, to furnish out a gloomy paper, massacre an army, or scalp a province." There was consequently no reason to "believe one half of the cruelties which are reported."3 What caused the authors of...