- Facing Racial Revolution: Eyewitness Accounts of the Haitian Insurrection
As one of the signal moments in the history of the Atlantic World, the Haitian Revolution has enjoyed renewed scholarly interest as evidenced by recent works published by David Geggus, Laurent Dubois, John Garrigus, and Doris Garraway. In the past six years alone, ten major works have appeared, including primary source collections, edited volumes of original essays, and monographs. In the midst of this crowded field, Jeremy Popkin makes an important contribution with the publication of first-hand accounts of Saint-Domingue on the eve of, during, and after the only successful slave revolt in the history of the Western Hemisphere. These eyewitness narratives, written largely by slave-holding refugees who eventually escaped to mainland North America, other Western Hemisphere locales, or Europe, offer limited—though useful—insights into white reactions to the revolt, views of race and status, and harrowing accounts of capture, escape, and survival in the context of social upheaval and inversion.
The presence of French émigrés in the US, the enslaved Africans they brought with them, and the narratives these eyewitnesses wrote about the Haitian Revolution probably contributed to fears of arsonist plots and slave insurrections in North American urban regions including Albany, Philadelphia, Richmond, Charleston, and New Orleans between the 1790s and 1820s. Though Popkin does not entertain or discuss the full geopolitical scope of the narratives he uncovered, this pioneering work may lead to additional scholarly efforts on the connections between the transformation of Saint-Domingue into Haiti after 1791 and the reverberations of this movement felt throughout the wider Atlantic World.
Popkin, a specialist in Modern European History and the French Revolution, misses opportunities to further complicate his analyses of the narratives he uncovered. For example, Vodou is reduced to a “cult” or a “superstition” in the text by Popkin as opposed to the dynamic amalgam of at least three long-standing religious traditions—Yoruba Ifá divination, Fon Vodu, and Central African/Kongo Catholicism—which, among other factors, elevates Vodou to the level of a religious system (xii, 270). In another instance, his training as a Europeanist and his particular historical interest in the Holocaust clouds Popkin’s interpretive judgment in his otherwise insightful introduction and in the introductory comments to the selections. On this note, Popkin cannot seem to resist the urge to draw frequent and sometimes odd parallels between the massacres of whites during the Haitian Revolution and the Holocaust.
Given these small quibbles, Popkin offers scholars a valuable text that complements much of the existing works on the Haitian Revolution. The sixteen short and lengthy personal narratives, which collectively cover information for the full thirteen-year period of the revolution, reveal first-hand descriptions and accounts of Boukman, Toussaint Louverture, and Jean-Jacques Dessalines. The collection also offers remarkably detailed narratives that illustrate the battle tactics and [End Page 164] efforts at diplomacy on the part of the revolutionaries, the destruction of Cap Fran¸ais, and the massacres of the remaining whites in Haiti ordered by Dessalines in 1804. Finally, as a compilation of narratives by white witnesses and survivors of the revolt, some of the works included in Popkin’s collection reveal rare glimpses of how ideas about race were forming, reforming, and informing in the context of this unprecedented social revolution. One lengthy poem, an “avowedly fictional” unpublished play (244), and several illustrations round out the collection. In sum, Popkin offers a valuable compilation of translated primary sources related to the Haitian Revolution that will serve as a foundation for further historical inquiry.