- An Historical Account of the Black Empire of Hayti by Marcus Rainsford
The publication of Marcus Rainsford’s 1805 history of the Haitian Revolution in this newly edited edition is a key contribution to the field that will allow scholars at all levels to better understand the world’s only successful slave revolution. Paul Youngquist and Grégory Pierrot’s thoughtful and well-researched introduction and editorial footnotes provide crucial details that shed light on Rainsford’s writing, experiences, and goals. The introduction also contextualizes the publication, providing details on British investment in the Caribbean and highlighting how the British undertook their most ardent support of slavery during their occupation of the south and west of Saint-Domingue after the abolition of slavery by the French. Youngquist and Pierrot argue that the expansion of slavery by the British, in the very midst of abolitionist opposition, is one of the key reasons that the black revolutionaries in Haiti became for Rainsford the “true heir[s] to a British freedom that for the moment even Britain had forsaken, but that this British bard does his best to sing.” They add: “It’s a neat trick, this Britishization of the Black Empire” (p. xxxix).
Rainsford, a career officer in the British military, spent over a year in Saint-Domingue in 1797 and 1798 on two separate visits. During the second, while passing as an American merchant, he spent time in the north where he met Toussaint Louverture, the governor-general of the island appointed by the French. Later, Rainsford would bring Louverture to life in his account, with stories of his own interactions with him on the island. As soon as his true identity became known, Rainsford was condemned to death but then spared by Louverture, who simply banished him from the island. Upon his return to Europe, Youngquist and Pierrot tell us, Rainsford entertained London’s elite who were captivated by his stories of adventure in the West Indies. This success undoubtedly inspired him to publish his historical account.
Rainsford’s account is narrative in style but—despite claims to the contrary—he clearly has a political agenda as well as a descriptive one. He traces the history of the colony from Columbus to independence but then focuses on the Revolution. He spends a significant amount of time on the British occupation of the south and west of Saint-Domingue, which he admits was a complete failure while offering a caveat that the alternative might have been worse. The British are often given the benefit of the doubt in Rainsford’s account, while the French are consistently condemned for their inexcusable violence and their political differences. In addition to including translations of letters and proclamations throughout the text and in the appendix, Rainsford draws on the work of other contemporary authors, especially the pro-British planter Venault de Charmilly of Saint-Domingue and the Jamaican planter Bryan Edwards. He also offers his own observations of social life in Cap Français, describing scenes of cultural richness and intellectual sophistication. Dominguan high society under Louverture, Rainsford suggests, could rival that of Europe. [End Page 758]
The final pages of Rainsford’s account clearly articulate his political agenda. He warned that no foreign nation had at the present moment the power to defeat the Haitian army but at the same time assured his readers that they should not expect any disruption to the rest of the West Indies. Rainsford’s version of this crucial period can be re-examined from fresh perspectives in light of the recent research documenting the fact that the British Empire was the only foreign power to explicitly allow and regulate trade with Haiti and to send an official government emissary to Haiti after the Declaration of Independence in 1804, making the British central to Haiti’s ability to remain independent.
Looking back more than two centuries later, it is timely that the Duke University Press has refocused attention on Rainsford...