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Research in African Literatures 35.2 (2004) 197-198

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Haitian Revolutionary Studies. By David Patrick Geggus. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2002. 334 pages ISBN 0-253-34104-3 cloth.

In his thoughtful essay "An Unthinkable History, The Haitian Revolution as a Non-event," Michel Rolph Trouillot argues that "[t]he Haitian Revolution [. . .] entered history with the peculiar characteristic of being unthinkable even as it happened" (73). In such a situation where intellectual discourse lags behind actual practice—a condition that afflicted the West as much as the protagonists in the revolution—knowing what actually transpired and the intentions of the participants are particularly difficult. If the Haitian Revolution challenged not only the Western institution of slavery but the every idea of man as it was defined at the time and pushed the radical universalism of the French Revolution to a new extreme, it did so without a narrative framework or ideological conceptualization.

Given the "unthinkable" nature of what occurred in Saint Domingue, It would be too ambitious for David Geggus, one of the foremost historians of the Haitian Revolution, to claim in Haitian Revolutionary Studies that he has torn away the veil of silence or misrepresentation that shrouds the events that took place in Saint Domingue between 1791 and 1804. Rather, he judiciously assesses at the competing claims for representation that surround the Haitian Revolution at the present and points to those overlooked areas in early nineteenth-century Haitian historiography that still need to be explored. His intention is to "construct a more accurate history than is currently available" and so the collection of thirteen essays is enormously useful in reaching beyond romantic simplifications of the past to point to the "richly ambiguous" nature of the Revolution and its impact. Geggus focuses his dispassionate historian's eye on a number of historical ambiguities, for instance, the complex and contradictory demands on the Revolution from the three groups involved: planters, free coloreds and slaves; the striking absence of violent resistance before 1791; the complexity of Toussaint's status and personality; the role of vodou and marronnage in insurrection and the role of that largely understudied group, the "gens de couleur." It would, however, be misleading to see this collection of, for the most part, previously published essays as a disparate one. On the eve of the celebration of two centuries of Haitian independence, Geggus presents himself as a hard-nosed empiricist who sets out to debunk unreliable, overstated accounts of Haiti's revolutionary past.

As he puts it, the "intractable question facing historians of the Haitian Revolution" is "avoiding the twin perils of exoticizing or occidentalizing the slaves." In no [End Page 197] area is this more clearly demonstrated than his discussion of what has been said regarding that founding moment of the Haitian revolution, the ceremony in the Bois Caiman. The need to fill the silence that surrounds that event, assuming it did take place, has spawned various competing accounts of what happened in 1791. Firstly, there is the nationalist, politicized version that reached a manipulative shrillness in Duvalierism that offers an epic story that blends race, religion and resistance into a beguiling myth of glorious origins. Secondly, there is the demystifying skepticism of outside investigators who have invoked documentary evidence that casts doubt on whether the event actually took place. Thirdly, there are those who symbolically represent 1791 as the first postcolonial moment, heralding the movements after World War II to dismantle European colonialism in a definitive way. A disabused skeptic himself, Geggus attempts to strike a balance between documentary evidence and ideological overstatement. After noting the elusive nature of the details of the event, he argues that the revolution may have started earlier in a less melodramatic moment on the Lenormand de Mezy plantation at "an elite meeting of slave-drivers and coachmen" (91). Consequently, Haitians have every right to celebrate 1791 but not as a vodou-inspired, holy war launched by Boukman against the French colonists.

In attempting to correct not only the romantic nationalists but the "occidentalizing" theorists, Geggus challenges the position of Eugene Genovese who has persuasively argued that...


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