- Baron de Vastey and the Origins of Black Atlantic Humanism by Marlene L. Daut
Marlene Daut’s study details the life and work of Baron de Vastey, a key, under-appreciated founding figure of Black Atlantic humanism, anti-slavery, and postcolonial thought. Daut, with Chris Bongie the leading scholar of Vastey’s life and work, has here produced a capacious account both of Vastey’s brief life and of the astounding variety of writings he managed to produce as the secretary of King Henry Christophe in the years following Haitian independence in 1804, until his violent death at the time of Christophe’s overthrow in 1820. An introductory chapter places ‘Baron de Vastey in (Haitian) Revolutionary Context’, surveying the primary themes and arguments of Vastey’s writings. In Daut’s reading, Vastey emerges as a ‘vindicationist’ author engaged in an ‘active dismantling [of] Enlightenment theories of race’ (p. 2). Daut places Vastey’s writings in the context of contemporary writers from Saint-Domingue and Haiti, such as Julien Raimond, Toussaint Louverture, Boisrond-Tonnerre, and André Rigaud, in her elaboration of a critique of anti-African racism and its ideological manipulation towards the justification of slavery. Chapter 2 enquires into the current state of scholarly knowledge of Vastey’s archive and biography, a subject on which Daut writes with great authority. Here, Daut pursues the archival work in which she had initially (in her crucial article, ‘From Classical French Poet to Militant Haitian Statesman: The Early Years and Poetry of the Baron de Vastey’, Research in African Literatures, 43 (2012), 35–57) identified the [End Page 503] Haitian Vastey as the author of (French) revolutionary poetry, now presenting new archival evidence that in fact refutes and further complicates this picture. Among the conclusions she draws from this archival work is a further nuancing of the dominant image of Vastey as Christophe’s scribe, and an underscoring of the humanist autonomy of the many works he published before taking on his professional functions in the Northern Kingdom. Chapter 3 counters the derisive stigmatization of Vastey that followed his death, in order to survey the lesser-known positive reception and the powerful impact of Vastey’s work among a range of nineteenth-century abolitionist writers. For Daut, these texts became ‘the signs and symbols of the promise of black sovereignty in the Atlantic World’ (p. 68). Chapter 4 questions the lenses of reception that have determined our understanding of Vastey into the present, arguing that his rhetorical strategies initiate a mode of historico-literary interrogation that calls for judgement of the atrocities of slavery in the absence of actual legal recourse in the slave-holding, colonialist Atlantic world after 1804. Chapter 5 then concludes in a survey of the various literary and theatrical treatments of Vastey by authors such as Aimé Césaire and Derek Walcott, to argue that these have tended to erase the internationalist, universalist dimension of his anti-slavery and anti-colonialist discourse. This is a richly documented study of this key figure in the invention of the radical anti-slavery movement and anti-colonialism, and will be essential reading for scholars and students of Haitian Revolutionary studies and postcolonial theory.