Primarily political in approach, this major study of the Haitian Revolution of 1789-1803 has two unusual features. First, it focuses on the black masses’ struggles for emancipation and independence, according secondary importance to developments among other social groups, international politics, and the role of leaders such as Toussaint Louverture. Second, and quite uniquely, it concentrates on the colony’s south coast, devoting 40 percent of the text to a region neglected both in colonial times and by historians of the revolution. There, relations between blacks, free coloreds, and whites evolved rather differently than in the North Province, where the great uprising of 1791 took place. Carolyn Fick describes in rich detail the rebellion of Les Platons and presents valuable information on the functioning of the forced-labor regime that followed slavery’s abolition. Owing to a lack of documentation from this period, however, much remains unclear about relations between the black masses of the south and the light-skinned elite, led by André Rigaud, that dominated the region.
Despite this concentration on the south, the author also puts together the most complete account yet of the role of voodoo and marronage (cimarronaje). She does much to sort out the revolution’s confused chronology, though in my view not with complete success. In a desire to emphasize its organization and coordination, Fick fails to see that the revolt broke out prematurely, and thus, paradoxically, she underplays the full scope of the rebels’ design. Especially surprising is her uncritical acceptance of the theory that white royalists were involved in the uprising.
Continuity in slave resistance between prerevolutionary marronage and the revolution is a central theme of the book. Much of the opposing evidence is overlooked, however. Fick modifies her own and Jean Fouchard’s earlier stress on armed bands and maroons’ leadership of revolts and instead makes a case for the political significance of short-term absenteeism, assuming that this type of marronage lay behind the weekend gatherings at which rebellions were organized. Fick sees little difference between maroon wars (even those in Jamaica) and slave revolts.
Focusing specifically on black resistance, the book is not meant to present a balanced picture of slave society (p. 10), and sometimes the author seems unfamiliar with the broader context. Slave men, for example, were not “more than twice as numerous as slave women in Saint Domingue (p. 51). The church was not a major landowner in the colony (p. 278), and the entirely mountainous parish of Plaisance is not in the northern plain (p. 37). The picture of the slaves’ ethnic background reflects the recent trend toward emphasizing Kongo influences on slave culture, but it is a little dated; and the discussion of slave demography shows no awareness of epidemiological factors. Certain individuals (Gros, Hilliard d’Auberteuil) are misidentified, and terms like labor intensive and kitchen garden (pp. 36, 208, 305, et al.) are misused. There is also a tendency to make unsupported and, I think, unwarrantable assertions. Colonial society and its economic links with France were rapidly disintegrating” by 1789 (p. 238). “Numerous slaves could read and write their own language” (p. 39). Petro ceremonies included a blood pact and “vow of vengeance (p. 42). Rarely, if ever” did African-born maroons live alone (p. 51).
With extensive notes and appendixes, this is nevertheless one of the best-documented works on the subject to appear so far. The author makes intensive use of papers of the French government’s Colonial Committee and cites from a wide range of other sources, though few from the French provinces or Britain and none from Spain. Strongly engaged with its subject, this is an important extension of the work of Fouchard and C. L. R. James.