Legacies of San Domingue: Emancipation in the Caribbean
Introduction: What makes (is) a revolution?
CLR James’ book The Black Jacobins stands as one of the most thorough analyses of the Haitian revolution to date. It is a significant work not only for the depth of historical information it contains but also for the theoretical contributions James makes to questions of revolution and broad historical flows that allow revolutions to occur. As a Marxist, James remains one of the most relevant authors on topics of race in a tradition that has unfortunately paid too scant attention to the relationship between class and race. For the purposes of the discussion of emancipation in the Caribbean, several themes from James are relevant to bring out into the light:
Do revolutionaries make revolutions, or do revolutions make revolutionaries?
James opinion on this subject is very clear. Extraordinary individuals may crop up in periods when revolutions cannot occur, but without the necessary objective conditions (which James outlines in Haiti as being the peculiar historical position held by the slaves in trans-atlantic, intra-bourgeois rivalries) a revolution cannot succeed. In fact, James is critical of Toussiant in Jacobins. He discussed Toussiant’s initial hesitation, only being pulled into the revolution by the revolutionary fire emanating from the revolting slaves’ fervor. Toussiant’s exceptional background, as a relatively privileged slave, allocated to him the responsibility of taking the revolutionary mantle. He was versed in administrative affairs, charismatic and possessed a forceful personality. He was a natural leader, and lead he did.
James is especially critical of Toussiant’s leadership as the Haitian revolution took its course. James laments Toussiant’s “failure of method” while reminding the reader that at no point did Toussiant waver in his principles. And yet, if we are to take James’ historical framework to its fullest, the best of intentions from Toussiant do not detract from the impact of his counter revolutionary behaviors. As a not-so-uniquely Haitian “terror” wrecked havoc on the revolution, James chastises Toussiant’s behavior by saying that “[instead] of reprisals Toussiant should have covered the country, and in the homely way that he understood so well, mobilized the masses, talked to the people, explained the situation to them and told them what he wanted them to do. As it was, the policy he persisted in reduced the masses to a state of stupor. It has been said that he was thinking of the effect in France. His severity and his proclamation reassuring the whites aimed at showing Bonaparte that all classes were safe in San Domingo, and that he could be trusted to govern the colony with justice. It is probably true, and is his greatest condemnation”(286). To call this class collaborationism might seem harsh, but not altogether untrue.
An important aspect to the question posed by James is that revolutions are what forms revolutionaries, not pure exploitation. It is in the revolutionary fire that revolutionary consciousness is forged, and this inferno is sparked by existing exploitative social conditions—a nuanced position to be sure but one of fundamental importance. The case of Antonio Maceo provides another opportunity to try to answer the penultimate question of the origin of revolutionaries. Maceo similarly came from a relatively privileged background, but was far more involved in underground activities prior to an open outbreak of rebellion than Toussiant. Rather than acting as a testament against James’ ideas, Maceo’s subversive activity began as a response to the brutal Spanish colonial regime in Cuba.
The case certainly isn’t closed on which comes first, exemplary individuals or extraordinary social conditions. Surely the answer lies somewhere in the dialectic between these two. The individual does not come about in a vacuum, and the individuals we look back to as “heroes” or “revolutionaries” were certainly as much products of their time as they were shapers of it.
Class or Race?
The method in which Toussiant failed, James argues, was with regard to Toussiant’s way of analyzing the struggle. As James states, “the race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous. But to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental as an error only less grave than to make it fundamental” (283). Here again, we are seeing James’ Marxist roots but the keyword here is his disclaimer about the error of neglecting the racial question. James argues elsewhere that the racial framing of the situation in Haiti was built by the clear contrasts between levels of exploitation. Blacks were always exploited more than whites, even the poor whites. It is also significant then to consider that James rarely uses the classic Marxist term proletariat and never uses it to describe the revolting slaves. To discover the significance of this omission, we need to first come to a realization of how socialist revolutions occur within a Marxist paradigm.
Slave violence: moderate?
James himself notes the controversy of his claim that, in regards to the violence in slave uprisings, “[slave revolts] were surprisingly moderate” (88). There is a tendency when discussing slave rebellions to focus, almost fetishize, the violence of these rebellions. The slitting of throats, burning of building, the martyrdoms—and yet, James argues, these acts are more appropriately understood as acts of passion. They are about destroying the instruments of oppression, whether they be technological, personal or social. They are entirely moderate when compared to the institutionalized system of violence which had perpetuated their suffering—for slave uprisings were not about establishing similar systems for whites. Instead, they were about emancipation. The violence directed, while at times carnal and vicious, was directed positively—towards the freedom of those ensnared with the matrix of exploitation.
Cuban Emancipation: An Overview
Cuba was the last Caribbean society to abolish slavery. As in Haiti, emancipation and independence were intertwined, but the two countries had starkly different paths toward freedom. One was able to legalize emancipation and gain its independence through a single revolution, and the other became locked in a protracted battle that ended with less than clear results.
The end of slavery in Cuba began in 1868 when Carlos Manuel de Céspedes began an uprising against Spanish rule by freeing his own slaves and calling on them to fight with him for both freedom and independence against the Spanish in what became the Ten Year War. The rebels maintained Céspedes’ policy of freeing slaves that joined the uprising against Spain, but the enticement proved not enough to win the war decisively. The Spanish accepted the freedom of those slaves who had fought in the insurrection as a means of negotiating peace. Soon afterward, in 1880, the Spanish passed a “Free Womb” law, which meant that all children of slaves would free, and put in place a process of gradual emancipation. In 1886 slavery was abolished outright in Cuba with many slaves having already secured their full freedom. Many former slaves took part in the second war of independence in Cuba from 1895 to 1898, and some of the great leaders of that struggle, most famously Antonio Maceo, were men of African descent.
Taken and adapted from:
1. Caribbean. LAURENT DUBOIS. Europe 1789-1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of Industry and Empire. Ed. John Merriman and Jay Winter. Vol. 1. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2006. p363-366. Word Count: 2123.
The Fight for Emancipation and Cuban Independence Through the Life of Antonio Maceo.
Antonio Maceo was born in Santiago de Cuba on June 14, 1845. He was the son of Marcos Maceo, a Venezuelan mulatto and Mariana Grajales, a free Cuban black. The island was experiencing revolutionary turmoil as Cuban patriots conspired to rid themselves of Spanish control. Unhappy with Spanish domination and horrified by the exploitation of the black slaves, Maceo entered the Masonic lodge of Santiago in 1864 and started to conspire with Cuban revolutionaries. When, on Oct. 10, 1868, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes and other leaders began Cuba’s Ten Years War, Maceo joined the rebellion.
By 1872 Maceo had achieved the rank of general within the rebel army. His prominent position among revolutionary leaders soon gave rise to intrigue and suspicion. Conservative elements that supported the war efforts began to fear the possibility of the establishment of a Negro republic with Maceo at its head. The example of Haiti still loomed in the minds of many, and though the Cuban Creoles desired independence, the institution of Spanish racism was still prevalent. The fear of the possibility of a black head of state was enough to keep some supporters of the rebellion weary to lend their efforts. When Gen. Maximo Gómez advocated an invasion of the west to cripple sugar production and liberate the slaves, he met determined opposition. Maceo was ordered to wait and the invasion of the west was postponed until 1875.
Even after the invasion got under way, it reached only to Las Villas Province in central Cuba. After a prolonged silence, Maceo finally answered those who accused him of attempting to establish a black republic. “In planting these seeds of distrust and dissension,” he wrote on May 16, 1876, “they do not seem to realize that it is the country that will suffer…. I must protest energetically that neither now nor at any other time am I to be regarded as an advocate of a Negro Republic…. This concept is a deadly thing to this democratic Republic which is founded on the basis of liberty and fraternity.”
The Ten Year War drug on and neither the Spanish nor the Cubans were able to win a decisive victory. Feb 11, 1978, the Peach of Zanjon was signed which ended the fighting. Maceo refused to capitulate unless the Spanish agreed to the independence of Cuba and the abolition of slavery. The Spanish refused and Maceo continued to fight. He was eventually captured and exiled from Cuba.
After Cuban emancipation, Maceo joined forces with Jose Marti a Cuban poet, essayist and journalist, and General Maximo Gomez, a leader of the Cuban resistance and launched the last push for Cuban independence. Maceo was killed in battle in 1896, but his efforts were pivotal in swaying the tide of war toward independence. He is remembered in Cuba as a national hero.
The end of the Spanish empire in Cuba in 1898 was combined with the assertion of power over Cuba by the United States, which during the twentieth century ultimately replaced the European empires as the most significant external force shaping Caribbean political and economic realities. One report stated that after the Spanish flag was finally drawn down in Havana, it was replaced with the American flag, which certainly must have been a disheartening and ominous sight to behold.
Taken and adapted from:
1. Antonio Maceo. Encyclopedia of World Biography. Vol. 10. 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale, 2004. p88-90. Word Count: 1270.
Neuner, Thomas. “Santo Domingo/Saint-Domingue/Cuba: five hundred years of slavery and transculturation in the Americas.” Social History 31.1 (2006): 79-83. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 9 Feb. 2011.
Mitton, Steven Heath. “Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba after Slavery/Slavery and the Commerce Power: How the Struggle Against the Interstate Slave Trade Led to the Civil War/The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the American Civil War.” Journal of the Early Republic 29.3 (2009): 565-570. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 9 Feb. 2011.
Scott, Rebecca. Slave emancipation in Cuba: the transition to free labor, 1860-1899. Univ of Pittsburgh Pr, 2000. Print.
von Humboldt, Alexander. The island of Cuba: a political essay. Markus Wiener Pub, 2001. Print.
Klein, Herbert. Slavery in the Americas: A comparative Study of Virginia and Cuba. 2nd. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1969. Print.
British Emancipation in the Caribbean
Rebels in the Caribbean, the British Caribbean in this case, were often tortured and murdered, so it took an extreme level of dedication and will power to rebel against their oppressors. The first major shock for the British colonies came through a revolt in 1816 in the island of Barbados, where the island had experienced peace since 1702. The population had 16 thousand whites to 77 thousand slaves and 3 thousand free blacks. Unlike other islands, the forests were demolished in order to establish plantations, therefore, making it impossible to form maroon communities or even run away like in Jamaica. Moreover, slaves were always at a disadvantage because planters had more technologically advanced weaponry, so it was not an ideal situation to launch a successful rebellion. However, a rebellion did occur on 14 April, 1816, where a few hundred slaves took up arms and in the span of a few hours, a third of the island was in flames. Both the military garrison and its free black militia suppressed it at the end of 3 days. 120 negroes died on the battlefield, 144 were executed, 132 deported and the military also executed up to an estimated amount of over 1,000, men, women and children. Not one white was killed on a plantation and the only white casualty was on the battlefield. “Months before the revolt, the press highlighted the discussions and decisions of the British Parliament, describing the Registry bill as a plan to emancipate the slaves. In 1815 the slaves thought that they were going to gain their freedom when Governor Leith returned from Guadeloupe. They believed that he was bringing a ‘free paper’ with him to set them free.” Causing rumors that “freedom was coming, but the white man was delaying it. The slaves sought to gain control of the island in order to receive support from their powerful allies, believing that the military garrison would not intervene.” The slaves in this case, were heavily influenced by politics within Great Britain, but also did not hope for a bloody war in Barbados. Rather than pursuing a war of vengeance, it is apparent that these slaves sought to gain their freedom with little to no opposition from plantation owners.
The next major revolt for the British Caribbean came in 1823, at the island of Demerara. Slaves were convinced that they were given their freedom and revolted to gain the rights they deserved. However, rebel leaders aimed to hold a type of strike, avoiding any unnecessary violence as as not to “blow up possible bridges of understanding and conciliation with the white authorities and abolitionists in the mother country.” During the revolt, only 2 or 3 whites were killed and with the exception of one case, white women were not molested. In total, 12k slaves took up arms, but were suppressed by about 400-500 armed soldiers. After the first encounter, 120 killed, 20 slaves captured and tried, where they were decapitated and their heads were put on poles at plantation entrances or along the roads. Then other slaves were guaranteed their freedom or money if they helped the masters find run away slaves. However, this revolt highlights the hypocrisy of the British public because the media at the time spun the story to revolve around a new influence on the slave community, the missionaries. John Smith, of the London Missionary society, was in charge of the chapel from 1817 onward. Unknowingly, many of the slaves drew revolutionary ideas from the bible. Soon, the chapel became the center in this grass roots movement. After the revolt, Smith was tried and sentenced to be hanged, but was issued a pardon by the King. “When it reached Demerara, the missionary had died from tuberculosis and the conditions he had suffered in jail.” Despite the mass executions of slaves, Smith became the “Demerara Martyr”. This created a huge outcry from the British public and re-energized the slave movement. Collective interest groups who represented the plantation owners of the Caribbean argued that Smith was a renegade priest and their actions did not represent any danger against the church, but merely protecting themselves from an out of control individual.
The most significant uprising for the English government occurred on the 27th of December 1823 and lasted until the 7th of January, 1824. The population was over 300,000 Slaves to around 30,000 whites. Like the other two revolts, false rumors spread quickly and it was believed mulattoes had already received freedom, and the British sailors on the island would not intervene. Rebels aim was freedom, or at least be paid for work. The goal was to avoid attacks on cane plantations and sugar mills, only use violence for self defense and allow whites to enter a town in order to ensure non are hurt. However, in practice, 20k set off for an armed struggle. At the end, 226 properties had been destroyed and damaged, creating a loss of over a million pounds. “Like Demerara, Missionaries were at the heart of the rebellion. While not preaching rebellion, the missionaries taught a doctrine of spiritual equality.” Early in 1832, an evangelist from England was tarred and feathered by the white community. For a while, missionaries had to seek protection from military escorts to travel around the island.” Upon returning as refugees, the reports by these clergymen shaped public opinions against colonists. For the “British heroes”, representatives of Christianity, It was no longer an isolated incident, like John Smith, but wide spread. Since one of the goals of having colonies was to Christianize the “savages”, the public understood that in order to spread Christianity, slavery needed to be abolished. Prompting the British to take immediate action. Passing the Abolition of Slavery Act, effectively ending slavery on 1 August 1834.
This law was political though and very little immediate social change occurred because of it. It was impossible to have immediate social change where plantation owners accepted colored individuals as having individual rights, but with little oversight by the British government, former masters frequently tried to impose ridiculous work wages or ignored workers’ rights altogether. Since the British government offered little to no support, the situations former slaves experienced were dire at best. While giving slaves their freedom and acknowledging their rights, Parliament reimbursed 20 million pounds to slave owners in order to compensate for their loss of property. To make matters worse, slaves who worked as servants needed to be apprentices for 4 years to their former masters, and slaves who worked in the fields were required to work for 6 years. Though the British government created a committee to oversee plantation owners and ensure that they did not abuse their slaves, the fact is, slaves were abused. Women in particular were abused because of their role in the family. Due to children, ex slave women were often clashing with plantation owners. The law forced plantation owners to provide food, housing and medical expenses for their workers during the apprenticeship program, but excluded their responsibility to worker’s children. Plantation owners therefore did not see these children as their liability and would only provide medical care if the apprentices worked to pay it off. Often times, women were forced to work 3-4 Sundays, normally days off since Sundays were considered religious holidays, to pay for one of their children’s medical visits. In other cases, even while pregnant, women were still forced to work, since the law specifically said laborers needed to work for 6 days of the week. Even though women were given “rights”, between these apprenticeships, ex slave rights in general were often infringed upon. Ultimately, the British were the first to abolish slavery, but by not offering financial or social support, former slaves were forced to fend for themselves in an already white dominated system.
Cross, Malcolm and Heuman, Gad, eds. Labour in the Caribbean. 1988.
Drescher, Seymour and Emmer, Pieter C., eds. Who Abolished Slavery? Slave revolts and Abolitionism. Berghahn Books, 2010.
Hamshere, Cyrele. The British in the Caribbean. Harvard University Press, 1972.
Higman, B.W.. Slave Populations of the British Caribbean 1807-1834. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.
Mullin, Michael. Africa in America. University of Illinois Press, 1992.
Paton, Diana and Scully, Pamela, eds. Gender and Slave Emancipation in the Atlantic World. Duke University Press, 2005.
 João Pedro Marques, Who Abolished Slavery? Slave Revolts and Abolitionism Pg. 27
 João Pedro Marques, Who Abolished Slavery? Slave Revolts and Abolitionism Pg. 27
 João Pedro Marques, Who Abolished Slavery? Slave Revolts and Abolitionism, Pg. 29
 João Pedro Marques, Who Abolished Slavery? Slave Revolts and Abolitionism, Pg. 31
 João Pedro Marques, Who Abolished Slavery? Slave Revolts and Abolitionism, Pg. 32
 João Pedro Marques, Who Abolished Slavery? Slave Revolts and Abolitionism, Pg. 34
 João Pedro Marques, Who Abolished Slavery? Slave Revolts and Abolitionism, Pg. 35
Limitations of Emancipation:
While emancipation is often portrayed and understood as an act of freeing enslaved peoples, we must keep in mind that emancipation is a de jure political realignment more than a de facto social revolution. As Franklin Knight puts it, “emancipation, after all, represented merely the removal of one legal disability…from one segment of the society” (Knight, 338). Suggesting the social and institutional futility of legal emancipation is Loic Wacquant, who argues in From Slavery to Mass Incarceration, that the “peculiar institution” of chattel slavery was subsequently replaced by the similar institutions of Jim Crow segregation, the ghetto, and the carceral system, which sought to “define, confine, and control African Americans in the history of the United States” (Wacquant, 41). In other words, the trajectory from chattel slavery to Jim Crow segregation to ghettoization and finally towards the carceral system was influenced by emancipation, the Civil Rights revolution, and urban rioting in the late 1960s in that these events were catalysts for a superficial change in the continuum meant to “define, confine, and control.” Thus a critical interpretation of the value of emancipation in terms of ending slavery is limited, as the institution of slavery merely changed form to ensure its de facto continuation in the face of de jure challenges.
Deeply connected to mainstream (read: white) history’s over-emphasis on emancipation as the absolute end of slavery is the ambitious and self-serving notion that emancipation always comes from above from the altruistic sentiments of European whites. However, Knight tells us “the conventional view that abolition began as a singularly magnanimous gesture of altruistic goodwill by inspired English humanitarians has lost all validity” (Knight, 340). Refuting the idea of emancipation from above by altruistic Europeans are not only the examples of colonial St Domingue and St Croix, which demonstrated cases of abolition executed entirely from below, but also other colonies like Cuba, where emancipation “was prolonged, ambiguous and complex, unfolding over an eighteen year period through a series of legal, social, and economic transformations,” suggesting that legal emancipation was not hastily motivated (Scott, 10).
Valuable outcomes of the Haitian Revolution:
The benefits of the Haitian revolution were not limited to the Haitian people themselves, but rather affected myriad people across time and space. In one way, the creation of an independent black republic presented an intellectual challenge to the political traditions of western colonizers and a psychological challenge to the supporters of slavery. The possibility of widespread revolt against the institution of slavery, framed in terms of natural human rights, provoked a deep fear, or “terrified consciousness,” within the hearts of the supporters of slavery that they could no longer “maintain the slave trade indefinitely” (Knight, 114).
In another way, the creation of the republic of Haiti from the colony of St Domingue was inspirational to many slaves who had few examples of self-determination in their world, and their descendents throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Self determination can be defined socially as the determination of one’s own fate without compulsion while politically, self determination is the freedom of the people of a given territory to determine their own political status and system of government without compulsion or influence by an outside country. According to Franklin Knight, “Intellectually, the ex-colonists gave themselves a new name—Haitians—and defined all Haitians as “black,” thereby giving a psychological blow to the emerging intellectual traditions of an increasingly racist Europe and North America” (Knight, 105). The self-determination that the St Domingue slaves exercised by declaring themselves free Haitians contributed to a wider Black Nationalism and eventually black militancy and Pan-Africanism. For example, Alfred Hunt in his book Haiti’s Influence on Antebellum America explains:
“American blacks constantly cited the Haitian republic as an indication of the potentialities of black people. Haiti became a primary symbol for those blacks who were striving to counter the argument that free blacks were incapable of sustaining civilization outside the confines of slavery” (Hunt, 3).
Mirroring this account, the hip hop group Black Star in their 1998 track K.O.S. (Determination) declares:
Knowledge Of Self is like life after death
With that you never worry about your last breath
Death comes, that’s how I’m livin, it’s the next days
The flesh goes underground, the book of life, flip the page
Yo they askin me how old, we livin the same age
I feel the rage of a million locked inside a cage
At exactly which point do you start to realize
That life without knowledge is, death in disguise?
That’s why, Knowledge Of Self is like life after death
Apply it, to your life, let destiny manifest
Different day, same confusion, we’re gonna take this
hip-hop shit and keep it movin, shed a little light
Now y’all bloomin like a flower with the power of the evident
Voices and drums original instruments
In the flesh presently presentin my representation
With that what? (Knowledge Of Self) Determination
For Talib Kweli, knowledge of self is the key to understanding the link between the Haitian revolution and self-determination. By understanding black history and its heritage of self-determination, blacks can build upon the legacy of the Haitians and define and represent themselves through empowering images. The knowledge of self leads to an understanding of the “manifest destiny” excuses for colonization, the “social death” theories of slavery, and the power of self representation and determination. The symbol of life after death is echoed by Hunt’s claim that “Haiti was the primary symbol of black regeneration in the New World” and suggests that even contemporarily, knowledge of self-determination is essential for survival and success (Hunt, 3). Another verse,
they tryin to lock you down like Attica, the African diaspora
represents strength in numbers, a giant can’t slumber forever
illustrates a Pan-African viewpoint that acknowledges the importance of black nationalism. These references to self-determination and Pan-Africanism cannot be discounted, for the legacy of the Haitian revolution lives on through its symbolic meaning to blacks throughout the world and across hundreds of years.
Emancipation in the Caribbean was a long, drawn out, and complex process of political, social, and economic change occurring over several decades. While colonial powers were claiming and reclaiming territories, the massive influx of slaves into the Caribbean provided not only a source of labor to the colonizers, but also a potential threat to slave owners and the slave system as a whole. Because slaves often outnumbered slave owners by as much as ten to one, slave owners were aware of, and feared, the possibility of rebellion. By the turn of the 18th century, the slaves of St Domingue had initiated a revolution that would lead to the creation of the first independent black state in the Americas. According to Franklin Knight in The Haitian Revolution, “the revolution deeply affected the psychology of the whites throughout the Atlantic world,” but more than affecting whites, the Haitian revolution influenced blacks throughout the Atlantic world and across generations, fostering the development of Black Nationalism and later, black militancy and Pan-Africanism (Knight, 114).