Two hundred and thirty years on, the Haitian Revolution continues to inspire

The 22nd of August marks 230 years since the start of the Haitian Revolution, the only slave revolt to succeed in establishing a nation.

Inspired by the same Enlightenment ideals that animated revolutionaries in France and America, the revolution galvanised global anti-slavery sentiment and stands out as a remarkable story of triumph against brutality, tyranny and ire of the world.

Many historians of the period, including Trinidadian writer C.L.R James, whose book Black Jacobins is still considered indispensable, believed the Haitian Revolution better embodied the values of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ than the French Revolution which inspired it. Although France did abolish slavery in 1794, Napoleon would try and violently reinstate it after 1802.

Professor Mimi Sheller, dean of the Global School at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Massachusetts, and an authority on Caribbean sociology and history elaborated; “I agree with an entire trajectory of Caribbean historiography and political thought which says that our greatest values of democratisation and equality and liberty come from the Haitian Revolution and from the struggle of enslaved people for emancipation.”

The revolution has resonated long after Haiti gained independence in 1804, particularly for the ancestors of slavery. Sheller explained that “the Harlem Renaissance in the U.S. and in the Caribbean what were called the Négritude movements were about a rediscovery of a cultural pride, and the Haitian Revolution was part of that story […] that all built towards all the subsequent movements of pan-Africanism and African nationalism and the Civil Rights movement.”

Yet today when Haiti appears in the news it is seldom for good reasons. The last hundred years have seen the country suffer a brutal U.S. occupation, the long and terrible reign of the Duvalier family and humanitarian disasters like the 2010 Haiti Earthquake which killed as many as 250,000 people. This year saw the assassination of the Haitian president and another earthquake, the survivors and victims of which are still being lifted from the rubble. It is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.

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Some of Haiti’s problems date from the revolution. The fledgling republic was coerced into paying France reparations, to the tune of 150 million francs, for the damages which Haiti’s liberated slaves had incurred against their former masters and tormentors. This is the equivalent of $21 billion today.

However, Haiti’s problems are not inevitable, and many are not as long-standing as they might appear. Sheller explained “there were very important trade relations and economic successes in Haiti and that gets erased again when we rush to say it’s a failed state or its economy never went anywhere.”

She cited the fact that post-revolutionary Haiti enjoyed lucrative trade with parts of the U.S., and became a large exporter of coffee and wood.

“The problems in a way come from external pressures like the U.S. occupation (1915-1934), the creation of dictatorships, the creation of an economy of very small elite families who control the Haitian economy”. She also cited the structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s which ended Haiti’s agricultural self-sufficiency, destroying their farming sector with imports of subsidized American rice and chicken. This resulted in the emigration of families from the countryside to cities, which had no infrastructure to care for them.

Yet ultimately when asked if Haitian history, in light of the aspirations of the revolution, has been tragic, Sheller disagreed.

“I try very hard not to think of Haitian history as tragic. I think of Haitian history in many was as inspiring and I think of the situation it finds itself in as tragic […] The Haitian Revolution and Haitian history, and the Haitian culture and Haitian people, are actually what give me hope that there may be a way out of this. That there are fundamental ways of thinking and retelling the story of the West and of modernity and of progress and of things like that which could actually be re-grounded again in the story of this incredible self-emancipation project.”

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