Saturday, April 09, 2016

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2016, April 9: The Haitian Revolution, again

Returning to Gerald Horne's article on the antislavery revolution in Haiti (1791-1804) "The Haitian Revolution and the Central Question of African American History" Journal of African American History 100:1 Winter 2015. Britain didn't have domestic slavery, though obviously it allowed it in its colonies.

But after the Haitian Revolution began, the British government saw how it could use the dilemma the United States faced over its Peculiar Institution against its North American rival, still a minor power in the world. Horne explains:

... London, which bad been ousted from its prime slave trading market in NorthAmerica in any case, prompted by the Haitian Revolution, was busily seizing the moral high ground by turning against this global flesh peddling, placing its erstwhile mainland colony on the defensive and, not coincidentally, winning numerous African adherents, particularly in the United States itself. Certainly, 1791 gave an immeasurable boost to abolitionism.21 The influential Londoner James Stephen declaimed portentously in 1807, as Britain was turning decisively against the international slave trade, "The West Indies have probably cost us more money since 1792 than all our military operations on the continent," jeopardizing national security in the face of France's stiff challenge. Redcoats were futilely seeking to suppress Haiti and slave colonies yearning to be free at an enormous cost of blood and treasure, while a surer path would involve conciliating Africans, which would at once provide a cudgel with which to bludgeon its ascending republican enemy. "[O]ur [ opprobrious] adherence to this [ slave] traffic," Stephen added persuasively, "has added much to the popular prejudice against us. ..."
It would not be the first time a good cause was assisted in some way by old-fashioned international rivalries. And certainly not the last. The King of France had been happy to assist the democratic revolution in the US against Britain during the Revolutionary War. And France had no interest in a democratic revolution at home, or any desire to lose its own colonies.

US leaders in the new Washington Administration, having successfully played this difficult international game against the British, also assumed that the British might encourage an invasion of the US by the Haitian army:

... it was during this turbulent time that Edward Stevens, the U.S. consul on the island, argued that the paramount revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture---commanded an "army" of "55,000 men," while the "largest force" his U.S. commander-in-chief "had ever commanded had not exceeded 20,000. ..." 23 lt was Stevens who in 1799, when control of the island remained unclear, reported that a plan bad been hatched on the island to "invade both the Southern States of America & the Island of Jamaica," a design that was to be bruited repeatedly in coming years.
But it was not only British power politics that the US had to worry about:

A few years after Stevens spoke, Thomas Jefferson observed, "[the inflamed Caribbean] appears to have given a considerable impulse to the minds of the slaves in different parts of the U.S." itself, contributing to a "great disposition to insurgency" that "manifested itself' in his own Virginia in an "actual insurrection." As early as 1793, as terror raged in Paris, [then Secretary of State] Jefferson warned that two reputed Frenchmen - "a small dark mulatto" and a "quarteron"- were headed to Charleston "with a design to excite an insurrection among the Negroes." This was a Parisian plan, he told the governor, "the first branch of which has been carried into execution at St. Domingo ....
And he refers to these events:

But it was not just London that was scrambling to avoid being overtaken by events. In Venezuela in 1795 an enslaved African, Jose Chirino, who had visited Hispaniola, returned with militant demands for imposition of "the law of the French." A few years later another revolt shook the northern coast of South America, as militia leader Francisco Xavier Pirela was said to be in touch with crews of ships from Hispaniola. Then the "Revolt of the Tailors" in Bahia, Brazil, raised the provocative issue of racial equality as well as independence. Even the rebellion in Mexico in 1810 was said to have featured the now ubiquitous hand of Haiti.
Here's where one wishes for specifics. To what extent were the fears just mentioned realistic? How much were they due to caution, suspicion or slaveowners' paranoia and guilty imaginations? How much the result of disinformation efforts by Britain, France or other powers?

No doubt that example of the Haitian slave revolt and successful liberation spurred on antislavery aspirations elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere. So did the victorious American Revolution against Britain and the liberal ideals by which they justified it. So did the French Revolution. But what was there in Jefferson's suspicions of a French plan to promote slave insurrection in the US? Was there a "dark mulatto" and a "quarteron" promoting slave revolt in Charleston in 1793? What does it mean that the obscure "militia leader Francisco Xavier Pirela was said to be in touch with crews of ships from Hispaniola"? How much influence in the real world did anyone from Haiti have on the Mexican Revolution of 1810?

The Mexican Revolution of which Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla was the most famous leader had an awful lot to do with events in the Iberian Peninsula. Napoleon invaded Spain and made the Spanish king Fernando VII (1784-1833) his prisoner until 1814. During the interim Napoleon installed his brother Joseph Bonaparte (1768-1844) as King Jose I Bonaparte from 1808 to 1813. The Spanish War of Independence against France was famously brutal, as . From 1810, it was led by the Cortes of Cádiz, a council loyal to Fernando VII. This gave Spanish New World colonies the opportunity to declare independence of the Spain of Jose I in the name of loyalty to the imprisoned Fernando VII. And while the example of Haiti was not doubt some influence on Mexican ideas, there was no Cortes of Cádiz in Haiti. Nor did Haitian armies wage a revolutionary war in Mexico on the model of the French wars after the 1789 revolution.

Horne's article unfortunately leaves the reader wondering in places whether we're talking about actual significant political influence by Haiti or Haitians, or whether we're dealing with speculation or just fear.

For the American slaveowners, the fear was highly significant in itself, whether or not it was based on a realistic evaluation of events. Still, a meaningful evaluation of the international influence of the Haitian Revolution requires understanding the factual basis for these fears. It makes a difference whether the real existing Haiti was presenting actual threats or whether it was white Americans' image of "Haiti" that was at work. Horne's references to white refugees from Haiti influencing American attitudes about slavery are more clear:

[T]he European refugees [from Haiti], fleeing in fear from the island and recoiling at the violence inflicted upon so many of them, served to bolster a pre-existing conservatism within the republic, buttressing slavery at a time when abolitionism was rising. Contradictorily, there were other French nationals who had a sense of revulsion upon encountering the pestiferous racism that pockmarked the slaveholding republic. The fire-breathing southerner Edmund Ruffin did not see the gens du couleur [people of color] abandoning the island, at times with human property under their control, as comrades since, he said, "it was not the slaves of St. Domingo but the wealthy and educated class of free mulattoes that commenced the insurrection"; and who was to say they would not seek to do the same on the mainland? The point is there was a regnant worry in slave societies that the lighter skinned and/or "free Negroes" (who often overlapped) would ally with the darker skinned enslaved against the ruling elite, with Haiti cited as exhibit A. Often in Spanish and Portuguese America concessions were made to the lighter skinned persons to win their allegiance to slavery, whereas the United States, buoyed with hardline refugees from Hispaniola, begged to differ, and the tendency was to marginalize mixed-race people too. [my emphasis]
For instance, the following passage would leave the impression with the reader that some Haitian connection was highly likely in the Nat Turner revolt of 1831 (my emphasis):

One of the first scholarly explorations of the epochal Virginia slave revolt, led by Nat Turner in 1831, declared that Haitian fingerprints were everywhere to be found. Given the frequent commerce between the island and the mainland, which preceded 1776 and continued thereafter, said William Sidney Drewry of Johns Hopkins, mainland Africans "had traveled to and from many of the [island] seaports and had ample means of communication with cooks and other servants of the vessels plying between the United States and the West Indies." Moreover, some of the "refugees from St. Domingo settled in Southampton, having brought their Negroes with them" and "recollections of St. Domingo were still vivid in 1831." lt was "probable" that the "reports of this catastrophe"- Africans who "murdered their masters"- were freely available. Like others before and since, he observed further that the conspirators led by Denmark Vesey in Charleston in 1822 "were detected in active communication with St. Domingo .... "
Footnote 72 to that passage reads (my emphasis in bold):

William Sidney Drewry, The Southampton Jnsurrection (Washington, DC, 1900), 121- 123. He wrote that "recollections of St. Domingo were still vivid in 1831" and points to an enslaved African named "Philip" who "may have had communication with some of those who were in ringleaders" in Turner's revolt: he "'came from St. Domingo' before arriving in the commonwealth. The judge presiding in the trial of the conspirators had similar ties to the island via marriage and Africans owned by this family came from the island .... " See also Jackson, "The Origins of Pan-African Nationalism," 127- 128: "Fragmentary evidence ... suggested the Nat Turner rebellion may have been influenced by the Haitian Revolution. Many Haitian refugees and their African slaves settled in the Southampton area." Apparently following the revolt, an African named - impressively - "Nero" came to this still-shaken area and told slaveholders there of his plan to "educate blacks, to spy upon the whites of the South, to disseminate insurrectionistic [sie] pamphlets" and, generally, to wreak ruination. He also detailed the role Haiti "was to play as a site for training the leaders of the approaching insurrection and in raising money for a black college to be built in Boston. Finally, after the rebellion, Haiti would offer 'an asylum for those who survive the approaching carnage. "'
Obviously, word got around about the Haitian Revolution even among slaves. For one thing, they would have overheard fearful slaveowners talking about it. But Horne's account could expresses less caution about sources than one might have wished. On the one hand, slave conspirators were scarcely attempting to leave careful documentation of their plans and motives. On the other, domestic insurrections are always blamed on a Foreign Power by those with a stake in the established order. And the Virginia authorities of 1831 weren't exactly scrupulous in how they compiled incriminating evidence against murderous slave rebels. As Horne notes in his article:

It is possible that it became easier, and less immediately terrifying, for malevolently guilty slaveholders to point the bloody finger of accusation at Haiti when seeking to understand domestic revolts, rather than blame the murderous scheming of those who served them food. Painting Haiti in drastically distorted colors at once allowed slaveholders to rationalize the continuation of a brutal enslavement, while comforting them in the falsehood that it was the Caribbean "vampire" that was singularly responsible for seditious discontent.
But slaveowners' ambitions against Haiti took very public, verifiable form:

But in 1844 tbe United States struck back forcefully by allying with the founders of what became the Dominican Republic, assisting this new nation to independence. The fire-breathing Edmund Ruffin confided to his diary that when his comrade, John C. Calhoun, was Secretary of State in 1844, "[Calhoun] used the secret service fund to supply arms" to Haiti's foes in the east with the ultimate aim being "the conquest of Hayti," a plan that overmatched Port-au-Prince's own capacious ambitions and which did not exclude the possibility of re-enslavement, and rolling back the revolution dramatically.
All in all, Horne is giving the Haitian Revolution more weight in the process that led to the American Civil War than it can bear: "Haiti hailed the raid led by John Brown in Virginia in
late 1859, which portended slavery's collapse, a process arguably set in motion in 1791."

In the article's concluding paragraph, he declares, "discussing U.S. emancipation absent a consideration of the Haitian Revolution is akin to Hamlet without the Prince."

Doesn't this mean that he's holding up the Haitian Revolution was the main actor in the abolition of slavery in the US? Or did he just let a literary simile get away from him?

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