- Haitian Connections: Recognition after Revolution in the Atlantic World by Julia Gaffield
Since Julius Scott's 1986 dissertation "A Common Wind: Currents of Afro-American Communication in the Era of the Haitian Revolution," scholars have recognized and highlighted the complicated web of connections that existed among the various empires, nations, and colonies of the Atlantic World in the late eighteenth century.1 Scott's original argument was that ships traversing the Caribbean transported more than just agricultural products and manufactured goods. The workers on these ships, many of whom were of African descent, carried ideas, news, and rumors of equality and liberation from port to port and created a Caribbean sense of identity. This eventually contributed to slave rebellions in plantation societies throughout the Atlantic. Countless books have adopted this interpretation of Caribbean history and used it as a lens through which to view the era and the region, but none until now have tested the usefulness of the "common wind" interpretation for understanding Haiti's early diplomatic history. In fact, the story of Haiti after independence usually emphasizes the opposite of interconnectedness; it is often characterized as a nation of isolation. Julia Gaffield's new book Haitian Connections: Recognition after Revolution in the Atlantic World acknowledges Scott's influence and pushes beyond Haiti's 1804 declaration of independence to examine how the connections around the Atlantic shaped the diplomatic realities of the new Haitian nation. Her book provides an interpretation characterized by nuance and careful detail as she examines the ways that Haiti's leaders interacted with European powers, neighboring slave colonies, and the newly independent United States of America. Their efforts, while not entirely successful, were able to minimize Haiti's isolation to a certain degree.
In order to build her argument, Gaffield focuses on the ways that Haiti asserted its independence and the methods that Atlantic powers adopted in order to control the region. Prior to the revolution, Saint-Domingue's ports represented a major hub for Caribbean trade. In spite of the revolution's disruption of the colony's plantation economy, Atlantic nations saw great economic value in restoring trade networks between their ports and those of Haiti. Ideological and diplomatic concerns complicated these efforts, however. Haiti was the first Black republic, and granting official recognition indicated tacit support of both slave insurrection and colonial revolt. US and British officials were understandably reluctant [End Page 183] on one or both counts. Drawing on the work of Lauren Benton, Gaffield finds evidence to underscore "the complicated and layered process through which decisions were made," arguing that the outcomes that resulted "did not always add up coherently" (125–126). At multiple times throughout the country's first twenty years of independence, Haitian leaders negotiated trade relationships with various ports but failed to convince anyone to award them full recognition until after 1825. It was not until the American Civil War that the United States did so. Still, such trade opportunities from those who withheld official diplomatic relationships helped to sustain Haiti through the difficult first years of independence, and it was through these connections with Atlantic powers that Haiti made a case for acceptance.
When General Charles Victoire Emmanuel Leclerc and his troops exited Haiti in 1803, they did so without surrendering. Intending to reinvade their former colony once the fighting in Europe subsided, French leaders were unwilling to admit that rebel fighters had in fact defeated the metropole. They believed that regaining control of their colony was essential since the wealth of the nation was largely dependent on the production of its Caribbean plantations. Admitting defeat at the hands of formerly enslaved people would have ended any hope of restoring imperial control and would have raised the possibility that other colonial holdings might seek independence.
Even with French troops out of Haiti, threats of reinvasion remained. Jean-Louis Ferrand, the Frenchman in command of a small contingent of French soldiers on the eastern end of Hispaniola, continually challenged Haitian independence...