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  • The Ontology of Freedom: The Unthinkable Miracle of Haiti
  • Greg Beckett

It is because of this element of the “miraculous” present in all reality that events, no matter how well anticipated in fear or hope, strike us with a shock of surprise once they have come to pass. The very impact of the event is never wholly explicable; its factuality transcends in principle all anticipation.

Hannah Arendt, “What is Freedom?”

The events that shook up Saint-Domingue from 1791 to 1804 constituted a sequence for which not even the extreme political left in France or England had a conceptual frame of reference. They were “unthinkable” facts in the framework of Western thought.

Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past

Sometimes events happen that exceed the limits of our concepts and categories. For Hannah Arendt, the capacity to perform such “miracles”—to bring something truly new into the world through our action—is a defining feature of the human condition.1 And yet these seemingly improbable events are not always heralded as miracles by those who witness them. Sometimes the improbable is so foreign to our frame of reference that it challenges the epistemological foundations upon which our understanding of the world is based. In those cases, the improbable remains imponderable.

Perhaps no other region of the world is home to more imponderable miracles than the Caribbean. It was in the Caribbean that European colonialism first took root, and no place has been more fully transformed by colonization. It was in the Caribbean that the plantation system emerged, helping to give rise, in turn, to the industrial factory and the modern working class. And it was in the Caribbean that, in the midst of centuries of terror and brutality, slaves wrenched from Africa built [End Page 54] whole new worlds. Unable to reproduce their own cultures, languages, and religions, Caribbean peoples had no choice but to invent new ones. They made syncretic religions, creole languages, provision gardens, and much more besides, all despite the natal alienation and social death of the slave-plantation system.2 It was also in the Caribbean that slaves found ways to escape their social death by suicide, small acts of resistance, maroonage, or, as was the case in Haiti, by a collective uprising that eventually became a struggle for national independence.

The new worlds that emerged from Caribbean slave societies were truly miraculous in a double sense. They were miraculous in Arendt’s sense of being a novel invention, and thus an act of human creativity and agency. But they were also miraculous in the sense of taking place in a context that seemed wholly opposed to the very possibility of such actions. For the founding condition of these societies was slavery, and the basic principle of slavery is that the slave is not a human and therefore lacks the capacity for action or creativity. As Arendt notes, “Slavery’s fundamental offense against human rights was not that it took liberty away (which can happen in many situations), but that it excluded a certain category of people even from the possibility of fighting for freedom.”3 The greatest crime of slavery was thus the naturalization of the reification of human beings; it was through this process that the institution of slavery gave birth to a world in which some humans were born free while other humans were deemed to lack such rights. In such a context, it is a miracle indeed that slaves acted without accord to the fiction of their thinghood and rose up to proclaim their own freedom.

But freedom in a world predicated on slavery is problematic. No historical event—no miracle—better illustrates this problem than the Haitian Revolution. By all rights, the revolution ought to be considered a key part of what Eric Hobsbawm called the Age of Revolution.4 It was, after all, an event of “global significance,” since the French colony of Saint Domingue “represented the apogee of the European colonizing process.”5 Before the revolution, Saint Domingue was the wealthiest colony in the world. It was the most important consumer of slaves in the Atlantic trade and it was the most important producer of European export goods like sugar...


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pp. 54-74
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