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  • Maroon Nation: A History of Revolutionary Haiti by Johnhenry Gonzalez
  • Ruma Chopra
Maroon Nation: A History of Revolutionary Haiti. By Johnhenry Gonzalez (New Haven, Yale University Press , 2019) 320 pp. $40.00

Gonzalez' ambitious work demands the attention of scholars who study Atlantic revolutions, environmental history, and those interested in the growing field of global history. At the most general level, Maroon Nation widens the category of Maroons to include ex-slaves who defied oppressive, but disunited, military elites even after the abolition of slavery. Hundreds resisted a return to plantation work by running away. Others [End Page 625] launched rebellions, setting fire to slave huts, sugar mills, and other essential components of the plantation infrastructure. The majority, however, sought escape in rural hillsides to stay independent of the new military state, depending primarily on their households and neighbors for subsistence. Some claimed land by squatting; some bought land; and others were gifted land for military loyalty. Villagers depended on West African Vodou and secret societies to satisfy spiritual needs and to establish new hierarchies. Indeed, in their patterns of settlement and culture, they may have recreated a New World iteration of a West African world.

Wholescale agricultural escape was possible in Haiti because the exslave population was small, and available land was nearby, plentiful, affordable, and productive. "Tropical sunshine" was free (232). The ex-slaves could grow and gather not only sugar but also coffee, corn, and other produce without heavy expense in labor or infrastructure; they could even export those crops. The terrain in Haiti mattered: It allowed cultivated land to remain "hidden" in forested areas, not readily discoverable, and therefore protected from elites who were determined to drive laborers back onto plantations. An island-wide "cryptoculture" emerged, consisting of shifting systems of farms intentionally designed to conceal settlement from outsiders (236).

Gonzalez credits the Haitian "masses" for destroying the repressive regime of plantations and persisting as revolutionaries beyond the military years. The willful escape of thousands of ex-slave families into the hillsides denied elites such as Toussaint L'Ouverture much-needed workers and shattered the plantation structure. The Haitian runaway peasantry achieved an independence free from direct labor exploitation that was not possible anywhere else for ex-slaves in the early nineteenth-century Americas. Gonzalez stops short of presenting this time as a "golden era" for ex-slaves; he acknowledges that self-sufficient farms or the ex-slaves "strategic nonparticipation" in plantation life led to nothing like a democratic society (200). Rural communities remained poor, illiterate, and without access to education, finances, or other institutional mechanisms to participate in a modernizing world.

The analytical ambition of this project requires Gonzalez to go beyond traditional archival and oral sources. For a work of this kind, the sources are often songs and proverbs as well as military correspondence, but the range of concepts that Gonzalez distills from a diverse secondary literature are unusual and, indeed, inspiring. Gonzalez asks what it meant for Haitian slaves to be emancipated in a world where the "ideology of free labor, wage relations and contractual arrangements" was not yet widespread (127). Drawing from James C. Scott's The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Anarchist Southeast Asia (New Haven, 2009), he depicts Haiti's ex-slaves as practicing a "deliberate and reactive statelessness" (237). Gonzalez likens ex-slaves to Luddites in their refusal to work in the plantation-industrial complex. He compares the Haitian state's attempts to track peasants using a surveillance system to an early [End Page 626] passport scheme. Gonzalez even considers Haitian peasants' similarities to Native Americans, another group who maintained their distance for generations despite aggressive encroachment.

Most of Gonzalez' work focuses on the period between 1791 and 1820s. In the last chapter, he surges forward to the present to argue that the Haitian state today owes some of its characteristics, its complexity, and its volatility to the ex-slaves' agricultural revolution of the early nineteenth century. Migration into the cities in the twentieth century, for instance, did not modernize rural people as it did in other parts of the world; it "ruralized" the cities instead. Port-au-Prince, he insists, is as...


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