restricted access Haiti: The Aftershocks of History by Laurent Dubois (review)
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Haiti: The Aftershocks of History. By Laurent Dubois. New York, New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012. 434 pp. $19.04 hardcover.

Historian Laurent Dubois’s Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (2012) is an important intervention on the discourses surrounding Haiti following the earthquake of 2010 and an overview of history in general. Unlike Haiti Rising: Haitian History, Culture and the Earthquake of 2010 (2010) edited by Martin Munro, who one reviewer has argued is already out of date,1 Dubois’s work will stand the test of time in offering a critical lens into the Haiti that the world watched crumble on that fateful afternoon and the human disaster that followed. The book is not so much about the earthquake as it is about the centuries of internal and external obstacles [End Page 307] to autonomy and freedom of Haitian people from the time of the Haitian Revolution.

As the author states, the true causes of Haiti’s poverty and instability are not mysterious—the result of some secret pact with the Devil as televangelist Pat Robertson argued or the “influences of the voodoo religion” as journalist David Brooks proposed. Nor can it be attributed to some inherent shortcoming on the part of Haitians. “Rather, Haiti’s present is the product of its history: of the nation’s founding by enslaved people who overthrew their masters and freed themselves; of the hostility that this revolution generated among the colonial powers surrounding the country; and of the intense struggle within Haiti to define that freedom and realize its promise”(4). A big hindrance to the realization of the dream of freedom rests precisely in the country’s emergence out of slavery and being led by men who had known an economy that was driven by export. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, like Toussaint Louverture before him, saw the continuation of the plantation system as the only viable choice for sustaining the economy even as the masses who had fought to be free resisted a continuation of the system and instead conceived of what sociologist Jean Casimir calls a “counter-plantation” system (33). But this is just one example of the processes that led to Haiti becoming a country that is meant to serve a small, elite segment of the population. It is through such examples both from within the country and in its dealings with the international community that rallied against the first black republic in the Western hemisphere that Dubois traces how the foundation for the current exclusionary political and economic system was laid and sustained over the centuries.

What emerges is a complex, beautifully rendered text that accounts for the well-rehearsed narratives about Haiti as well as the not-so-well-known. For example, while it is pretty common knowledge amongst Haitians and Haiti-philes that France demanded an indemnity from Haiti to pay for the loss of the colony, it is not so well-known that President Alexandre Pétion actually offered to pay the indemnity to France in exchange for recognition years before the demand was made on Jean-Pierre Boyer (79). Also, rather than the one-dimensional buffoon that King Henri Christophe is regularly portrayed as, Dubois reveals a man who developed an extensive public education infrastructure (72) and supported the arts (63). Another example of little-known history is Britain and France’s settling of their diplomatic conflict at the Congress of Vienna over the body of Haiti by making a secret agreement that Britain would not interfere if France decided to invade the country and France would look the other way while Britain opened trade relations (76). Haiti was practically treated like a prostitute [End Page 308] or a hidden-away concubine before it was finally recognized by France, willing as the French were to trade with Haiti but not allowing the latter’s merchants into their colonies’ ports nor extending Haiti’s representatives “the formalities extended to other diplomats” (71).

Dubois takes the reader through several key moments in Haitian history, strategically focusing on those events and conditions that have had a direct impact on the way that Haiti looks today. He does so always with an eye toward developments...