By Carolyn E. Fick. The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1990. ISBN # 0-87049-658-1 (cloth), ISBN # 0-87049-667-0 (paper).
Reviewed by Bob Corbett
The typical story of the Haitian Revolution told by most historians is a story of the north. North, north, north, north and more north is what one hears. The uprising began in the north with the Bwa Kaiman Voodoo service on the evening of Aug. 14, 1791. It culminated some 12 years later with a victory in the north.
One also hears a great deal about the leadership of Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Henri Christophe, Andre Rigaud and other lesser but important leaders like Jean Francois, Biassou and others.
Finally a third central theme is most accounts of the revolution is the work of the slaves. One is always informed that the mulattos participated, and that some revolutionaries were maroons, but the emphasis is on the resistance, persistence and fighting of the slaves.
Carolyn Fick's exciting book is quite different. While the north is there in point of fact, it seems to play a lesser role than the South and West (in that order). A huge portion of Fick's book details the importance of the struggle in the South in carrying the last days of the revolution, especially after Toussaint was arrested and shipped off to France.
Further, Fick emphasizes not the leaders, but the common rebel, be he or she a slave, maroon or free person of color. On Fick's account this is the story of many small bands of only loosely connected resistors, working slowly and without full consciousness of ultimate outcome, toward the central reward of freedom and land. What is most interesting is the central place to the many many "small" folks who had important roles, and not so much emphasis on the leadership of the famous figures of Haitian history.
Even though Fick tells much the same story most students of Haiti already know, she emphasizes more strongly than almost anyone I've read the role of the maroons, not only in the actual revolutionary struggle itself, but in the creation of an alternative society during the slave period, and the creation, maintenance and growth of a particular form of life, one that came, after the revolution, to dominate the nascent Haiti and define that nation into this very day... the lifeform of simple subsistence farming.
Perhaps it is this last theme that makes Fick's book so different, so challenging, refreshing and exciting. In one chapter which deals with the reaction of the slaves to the emancipation which Sonthonax and Polverel announced in 1794, she points out that the slaves simply did not want to go back to plantation work in almost any form.
One former slave owner whom she quotes, claims that the slaves don't want to work the plantation, not even for wages, but prefer to work a bit for subsistence. Fick goes on to say:
"It may indeed be presumptuous to assert at this point that the popular ideological origins of the emergent Haitian peasantry lie in this immediate post-emancipation period. Extensive research into peasant lifestyles, modes of social organization, the relationship of kinship ties to the land, and much more, would be needed to develop and sustain such an assertion, all of which lies far beyond the scope of the present study. It can perhaps be suggested, however, that the independent attitude toward the land and the implacable resistance to forced labor expressed in diverse ways by the black workers (whether as maroons, as in the case of the Platons rebels, or as plantation laborers, many of whom were themselves ex-Platons rebels) was at once an extension of that small measure of autonomy they had acquired under slavery with their kitchen gardens and marketing experience, and at the same time the beginning of a consciousness that later became manifest in the formation of a class of small, more or less self-sufficient, peasant producers. It was, at any rate, the very antithesis of the plantation regime and its requisite organization of labor." p. 180.
At the very end of the treatise in her summary, she returns to this point, now more confidently and declares that this social system of land use was an important contribution to the formation of later Haitian society, a social structure which survives even to this day.
"Finally, permanent freedom from slavery had been won through independence. But the masses had not yet won the freedom to till their own soil. And this, perhaps more than anything else, sums up what the peasant masses expected out of freedom. A personal claim to the land upon which one labored and from which to derive and express one's individuality was, for the black laborers, a necessary and an essential element in their vision of freedom. For without this concrete economic and social reality, freedom for the ex-slaves was little more than a legal abstraction. To continue to be forced into laboring for others, bound by property relations that afforded few benefits and no real alternatives for themselves, meant that they were not entirely free.
..."Significantly, this individual attachment to the land and expression of opposition to the new system through diverse acts of resistance never substantially coalesced in the South, as it did in the North under Moise, into an organized, collective movement with prominent and vigorous leaders, petitions, assemblies, political objectives, and a call to arms. It was rather, a leaderless phenomenon, a generalized and inarticulate, but deep-rooted and persistent movement of protest against an externally imposed labor regime that clearly went against the grain of their own aspirations. Though the concrete political and economic impact of these undercurrents toward agricultural self-sufficiency was hardly felt during the course of the revolution, their persistence and survival long outdated the revolution itself. This mode of reaction to the new system of freedom suggests perhaps an early manifestation of the pattern of agricultural development, with corresponding peasant life styles and social relations, that eventually characterized Haiti's rural economy. As opposed to most other Latin American and Caribbean countries, a great number of Haiti's ex-slaves did accede to small peasant proprietorship and defined their lives accordingly." (p. 249).
This is a most enlightening analysis. Fick has been at pains to point out the great resistance to Toussaint, Dessalines and Christophe's attempts to revive the plantation system. However, she doesn't address the contributing (if not decisive factors) of Petion and Boyer's decisions to simply sub-divide land among army officers and others owed money by the state, and of taking a "hands off" policy toward the rural subsistence farmers, as an easier way to govern. There is certainly nothing contradictory to these acts of Petion and Boyer to Fick's hypothesis, and it would even explain that the general readiness to acquiesce in such a system was already deeply seated in peasant consciousness from the period of marronage. However, one must be careful of placing too much emphasis on the readiness of the peasantry for such a system, and too little on the actual politics of the 1820-1844 period in creating the acceptance of such a system by the Haitian power elite.
This book is the story of the little people, the unknown and unsung men and women who hung in with their struggle, never much articulating (and perhaps not even consciously framing) their aims, but nonetheless understanding that emancipation and land were the ultimate struggles. Rather than the leaders leading, it is a story, on Fick's view, of the masses making the leaders even possible.
"The masses had resisted the French from the very beginning, in spite of, and not because of, their leadership. They had shouldered the whole burden and paid the price of resistance all along, and it was they who had now made possible the political and military reintegration of the leaders in the collective struggle." (p228).
Carolyn Fick has provided a fresh and rich reading of the Haitian revolution, a revolution from below, as her subtitle points out. It is certainly a story that should not be missed.
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