Contemporary actors and, later, historians and critics have long compared the Haitian Revolution to a tragic play. But the model of tragedy they invoke has changed over time. Today the best-known example comes from The Black Jacobins (1963), in which C. L. R. James narrates the events of the Revolution through the lens of a Hegelian definition of tragedy. David Scott has championed James’s “tragic mode of history” for political reasons, arguing that it is better suited to address the challenges of the postcolonial present. But a tragic mode of history can be of use for the postcolonial present only if it is firmly grounded in the world-changing events that it is supposed to illuminate. It should build on what tragedy was in the milieu of Toussaint Louverture and the slave rebels. To lay the groundwork for this critical shift, this essay traces how tragic performances and history intersected during the Revolution and shows how radicalized versions of Voltaire’s Roman-themed tragedies and Afro-Caribbean mythology and rituals played a prominent part in the fight for equality.

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