- Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution by Ada Ferrer
If a recent ambition of early North American historians is to pay closer attention to other areas around the globe, then Ada Ferrer’s Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution is essential reading for helping to realize that goal. Not only does the author illustrate how the Haitian Revolution shaped the Spanish Caribbean, she also emphasizes themes—slavery, freedom, trade—that resonate with North American scholarship in important ways. In sum, Ferrer offers us an opportunity to scrutinize the U.S. Republic through, to extend her metaphor, the mirrors of Haiti and Cuba.
Ferrer reconsiders a central and terrible irony of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Caribbean history: as former slaves in Saint Domingue emerged victorious from their campaign against slavery and colonialism, Cuban planters pursued an aggressive escalation of the slave-based sugar economy. Scholars have long recognized the rise of sugar in Cuba as an unintended consequence of the Haitian Revolution, much like the Louisiana Purchase and the subsequent expansion of slavery into the U.S. West. But Ferrer analyzes the intricacies of how this process worked on the ground in Haiti and Cuba in the 1790s and early 1800s. Seeking to move beyond the tendency in Cuban historiography to see Haiti merely as a spectral presence, she demonstrates “the quotidian links—material and symbolic” (11) between the two islands. The result is “a story of freedom and slavery being made and unmade, simultaneously and each almost within view of the other” (13).
To show this process of making and unmaking, Freedom’s Mirror is divided into two parts, with the first focusing on the connections between Saint Domingue and Cuba during the Haitian Revolution and the second on the immediate postindependence era. Ferrer begins by detailing Cuba’s rapid transformation. Though slavery had existed in the colony since the sixteenth century, only with the advent of the Haitian Revolution did the institution become a dominant feature of Cuban society and its economy. As the author makes clear, the nature of this slavery was deeply informed by how residents understood and experienced events in the neighboring French colony. Elites attempted to eliminate specific threats, which, in their view, had sparked rebellion in Saint Domingue. Invoking a language of “contagion” (8), they tried to ban the entry of dangerous “negros franceses” (60), to keep closer tabs on the movements of free people of color, [End Page 540] and to track maroons. Despite these efforts, the very ships that brought enslaved Africans also carried news and people from Saint Domingue and consequently spread word among Cuban slaves about the nearby liberation movement. Nevertheless, when incidents of revolutionary activity increased among the enslaved, Cuban planters blamed outside agitators, stepped up surveillance, and continued to pursue their ambitions for a sugar economy.
These interpretations will sound familiar to early Americanists. As several studies have shown, Americans, white and black, reacted in a similar variety of ways when confronted with news from revolutionary Saint Domingue and the arrival of migrants from the island.1 Given that evidence from U.S. merchants and newspapers figures in other aspects of Ferrer’s work, it would have been useful had this book weighed in on these connections. That said, Ferrer draws on a broad array of Spanish-language sources—including court records, administrative correspondence, personal papers, treatises, and images—which illuminate aspects of the Cuban encounter with the Haitian Revolution that differ markedly from the U.S. case and that invite interesting avenues of comparison. The third chapter follows Cuban soldiers sent to Santo Domingo in the early 1790s to protect the colony for the Spanish Empire. On the one hand, Spanish officials worried that the rebellion on the French side of the island would spread east to Santo Domingo, and on the other, the disruption caused by insurrection presented the possibility of expanding Spanish dominion on Hispaniola. Both...