- Maroon Nation: A History of Revolutionary Haiti by Johnhenry Gonzalez
Despite growing attention, Haiti’s nineteenth century remains neglected compared to the frequently studied revolution that created it out of French Saint-Domingue. Johnhenry Gonzalez’s first book is “an introduction to early Haitian history” (x) that bridges the two periods and focuses on the emergent peasantry, land reform, public markets, and religious secret societies down to the 1840s, instead of the political issues that have occupied most historians. Chapter 1 lays out the author’s “Maroon Nation Thesis.” A brief overview of the revolution of 1791–1804 follows, and then come chapters on forced labor under Jean-Jacques Dessalines’s government, and on the civil wars that ended in 1820. The last two chapters, on the land question and the rural economy, form the heart of the book.
The Maroon Nation Thesis asserts that the plantation sector’s destruction was due essentially to the desertion of its black workers, who were relentlessly determined to become independent subsistence farmers. Among them were both slaves on French-owned estates and emancipated cultivateurs under the forced labor system that replaced slavery during the Revolution and early national period. As this is fairly uncontroversial, Gonzalez’s claim that scholars “usually” (18) fail to recognize this [End Page 488] struggle seems strained. Further, the transition to a peasant economy requires attention to more factors than he discusses. Gonzalez also sees Haiti as a maroon nation in a second, metaphorical sense, not quite a pariah but, partly by choice, not fully integrated into the Atlantic World.
Gonzalez strongly condemns the selfishness of the military elite that arose from the Revolution. The sprinkling of new sources he has uncovered illustrate its rounding up of plantation fugitives and military deserters. He convincingly argues that civil war forced land reform on the state. His linking of modern secret societies with marronage and the Revolution is less successful; it relies on one very unreliable source. The account of colonial society and the Revolution contains numerous errors. Like some other modern historians, but quite incomprehensibly, Gonzalez believes that Saint-Domingue’s agriculture was “based on sugar” (8) and that the Haitian Revolution “attack[ed] a single commodity” (15). Although Saint- Domingue dominated the world coffee market to a far greater extent than that for sugar, Gonzalez scarcely mentions coffee cultivation before the Revolution. Nor does he mention indigo or cotton, which together employed almost twice as many slaves as sugar. By 1789, after 50 years of expansion, mountain-grown coffee rivaled or had surpassed the colony’s sugar sector by most criteria (labor deployment, land use, export value).
Political historians of the Revolution have been able to get away with such inattention to basic economic facts, but they considerably harm Gonzalez’s thesis, which states that the Revolution “opened” the mountains to “settlement” (19). Yet, land concessions already covered the mountains (including Pic Macaya and the frontier zone that Gonzalez evokes), and the highlands were producing abundant cash crops and probably more food than the plains. They were not “lands largely uninhabited during the colonial era” (129).
Another surprising oversight is the individual provision grounds on which plantation slaves grew their own food and which supplied the towns. As is well known, slaves had become “peasants” one day a week long before the demise of the plantations. Gonzalez scarcely mentions the system, and more importantly, the way (ex-)slaves in the plains and mountains expanded these activities while abandoning fieldwork during the Revolution when whites fled the countryside. The author is so committed to the frequently reiterated maroon thesis that he fails to consider that the main shift to autonomous peasant production probably occurred on the plantations themselves and involved no movement at all.
The sparse sources Gonzalez uses shed little light on this or other key issues like the relative importance of sharecropping, tenancy, freehold, and squatting; the survival of a landlord class; inheritance practices; and who grew the coffee on which Haiti depended. Romantic allusions to farmers who “clung to the remote mountain...