Haiti’s “horrid civil war”: The 1791 Haitian Revolution and its Legacy in America

Battle for Palm Tree Hill, Saint Domingue – Haitian Revolution 1845. Wikipedia.org

Following the success of the American colonies in gaining their independence from Britain, an endeavour in which he had played no small part, Thomas Jefferson hoped that people of other nations would follow his countrymen down the road to political revolution. “The tree of liberty,” he wrote, “must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” But while Jefferson famously cheered the outbreak of the French Revolution, and towards the end of his life hoped that his composition, the Declaration of Independence, would serve as an inspiration for anticolonial forces in Spanish America, the uprising of enslaved and free people of color in Haiti filled him with horror. Although Jefferson throughout his life struggled with the ethics of slaveholding, and in 1791, when the Haitian Revolution began, he hoped it might be possible that slavery be gradually abolished in the United States, he was appalled by the onset of the “horrid civil war,” and asserted that the colony’s black population had been transformed into a “terrible engine, absolutely ungovernable.” His words were representative of the public opinion of most Americans, who feared that the “common wind” of black insurrection would soon direct its force towards the plantation states of the new nation. The black republic of Haiti and its citizens became a national nightmare at this foundational moment of American history, and in many ways have retained that identity for over two hundred years.

It would be difficult to deny that both the Haitian revolutionaries and their opponents committed many atrocities, some against civilians, in the course of the struggle for independence. But most white Americans were aware only of the actions of the former, of which they learned from both eyewitness testimony and literary representation. Tens of thousands of white or racially mixed men, women, and children, in many cases accompanied by some of their slaves, poured into the United States between 1791 and 1804; every major city gained a refugee population, with the largest communities developing in Philadelphia, Charleston, and New Orleans. These migrants aroused great public sympathy, as most arrived having lost their money, homes, and possessions, and in many cases having endured horrific violence. To gain friendship and financial support in their new homes, the refugees were encouraged to tell and retell their tales of terror at the hands of bloodthirsty black men. Even white Americans who had no personal contact with the refugees encountered their experiences through texts, particularly those which framed the uprising within the tropes of the newly emerged genre of the Gothic. Memoirs and historical narratives, as well as novels such as Leonora Sansay’s Secret History, or, The Horrors of St. Domingo, offered numberless depictions of Haitian rebels as men who gloried in rape, torture, and murder for its own sake, and of the revolution as an act of unprovoked evil explicable only by its participants’ supposedly innate African savagery.

The images of rebels impaling infants or drinking corpses’ blood may strike modern readers as ludicrous and obviously fabricated, but it was not until 1862, when the continuing existence of slavery had plunged the United States into its own civil war, that the federal government officially recognized Haitian independence. But over the past 150 years, the U.S. has repeatedly questioned and undermined the legitimacy of Haitian nationhood. In 1868, President Andrew Johnson made an unsuccessful attempt to annex the whole island of Hispaniola, on the grounds that the reunited U.S. needed to establish a military and commercial beachhead in the Caribbean. After a decade in which Haiti suffered prolonged political instability, the Woodrow Wilson administration, fearing European intervention, sent in the Marines, who remained as an occupying force from 1915 to 1934. One might have thought that this prolonged Haitian-American encounter might have encouraged the latter’s image of the former to become more realistic, and thus more sympathetic, but instead the image of Haiti was mediated by new forms of popular media, Hollywood films and pulp fiction, in a way which made contemporary Haitians seem as menacing and monstrous as their revolutionary ancestors. Books such as William Seabrook’s The Magic Island (1929) and films such as White Zombie (1932) portrayed Haitians as diabolical “voodoo doctors,” their “zombie” victims, or their credulous worshipers, none of whom could be seen as legitimate participants in a civilized modern world.

First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden toured earthquake damage in Port Au-Prince, Haiti, along with Haitian President René Préval, and Elisabeth Delatour Préval. The damaged presidential palace is seen in the background. 13 April 2010, Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton.

These newer stereotypes, added to those generated by the Haitian Revolution, have ensured that American political and popular attitudes towards Haiti have continued to cast Haitians as either malevolent or incompetent. Haiti has been demonized in popular media as the source of HIV/AIDS in the west, and it is widely believed that American forces backed a 2004 military coup by which Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president, was forced from office. While the catastrophic earthquake of January 2010 resulted in a great outpouring of financial and logistical assistance from American organizations and individuals, many Haitians have been frustrated by what they see as the arrogance and ignorance of foreign aid workers, professionals and volunteers alike, and their tendency to treat Haitians as passive victims of rather than as active agents in the nation’s recovery. An American Baptist charity was accused of child trafficking when its personnel attempted to bring several dozen supposedly orphaned children across the border into the Dominican Republic, from which they would be (illegally) adopted by American couples. Most egregiously, the American televangelist Pat Robertson, appearing on television a few days after the disaster, claimed that the quake was divine punishment on a nation which had made a covenant with Satan in order to gain its independence. While many Americans considered Robertson’s comment to be both cruel and ludicrous, his willingness to make such a comment in the national media is emblematic of his country’s long history of both ignorance of and hostility towards Haiti.

In 2015 French President Francois Hollande announced that his nation, Haiti’s former colonizer, would begin a major program of investment in the island’s development. President Obama’s engagement with the Caribbean region has resulted in a liberalization of relations with Cuba, and he is the first U.S. president to visit Jamaica in over thirty years. At this hopeful moment, might this son of an African anti-colonial intellectual make one element of his political legacy the recasting of a toxic American relationship with Haiti which has persisted for over two centuries? And, considering that, from the beginnings of European settlement, Haiti has been the object of official and unofficial imperialism at the hands of both France and the U.S., will Haitians welcome and benefit from these interventions, or come to resent what they may see as well-intentioned but ill-informed and patronizing schemes on the part of their former rulers? A widely cited Haitian proverb states that “beyond the mountains, there are more mountains,” and it is tempting to see these words as indicative of the future of Haitian-American relations.

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About Natalie Zacek

Natalie Zacek is senior lector and subject leader in American Studies at the University of Manchester. She has published widely on the history of the English and French Caribbean, and is currently at work on a study of horse-racing and regional elite formation in the nineteenth-century United States.
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