It is widely known that the Haitian Revolution generated such devastation that the nation never recovered, and Haiti became the poorest country in the Americas. But it is not always appreciated that it was not the black revolution led by Toussaint that caused the devastation, for as we have seen (“Toussaint L’Ouverture” 12/10/2013; “The problem of dependency” 12/11/2013), Toussaint came to power through the formation of a black revolutionary army, and cultivation had been restored to its previous level during Toussaint’s government. However, the colony subsequently was invaded by Bonaparte, and Toussaint was removed from power. James writes that the war unleashed by Bonaparte “would devastate San Domingo as no war had ever devastated it before, ruin [Toussaint’s] work and let loose barbarism and savagery again, this time on an unprecedented scale” (1989:262-63).
Toussaint purchased 30,000 guns from the United States, and he armed the masses, in preparation for an anticipated large-scale invasion by Bonaparte that would seek to restore slavery. Yet he continued to hope that Bonaparte would not invade and that he would provide support for the development of the colony. James writes that Toussaint “worked feverishly, hoping against hope, writing to Bonaparte, begging for skilled workmen, teachers, administrators, to help him govern the colony. Bonaparte would not answer, and Toussaint could guess why” (James 1989:262-63).
The invasion began in February 1802. After four months of various battles and heavy losses on both sides, Toussaint surrendered to the French. He was arrested and taken to France. The French government decreed the restoration of slavery and the slave trade in the West Indian colonies. The decree stimulated a renewed insurrection in San Domingo that was led by Toussaint’s general Dessalines. Both sides were bent on extermination: the blacks under Dessalines, with the intention of expelling everything French from the island; and the French, with the intention of replacing the black population with new slaves that had not been imbued with the slogans of liberty and equality. When a renewed war between France and England broke out, the French forces in San Domingo were captured by the British. Thus the French forces failed in their mission of reestablishing control over the colony in order to restore slavery (James 1989:295-369).
During the devastating war, Toussaint, sick and in prison, still thought of himself as a part of the French Republic, and he wrote to the French government, hoping that it will see reason. Toussaint died in prison on April 7, 1803 (James 1989:364-65).
On December 31, 1803, black revolutionary leaders declared the independence of the colony, and they renamed it Haiti. In 1804, Dessalines was crowned Emperor of Haiti. In the first months of 1805, Dessalines ordered massacres of whites, although British and American whites, priests, skilled workers, and health officials were exempted. The massacres resulted in international sanctions and the isolation of Haiti (James 1989:369-74). James considers the massacre to have been a tragedy not only for the whites but also for the blacks. “Haiti suffered terribly from the resulting isolation. Whites were banished from Haiti for generations, and the unfortunate country, ruined economically, its population lacking in social culture, had its inevitable difficulties doubled by this massacre” (1989:374). Subsequently, the plantations were broken into small subsistence plots, resulting in economic decay and political disorder (James 1989:393). For the next two centuries, there would be little possibility for the development of the impoverished nation in the context of an evolving world-system in which global powers have used all possible means to maintain the core-peripheral relation and colonial and neocolonial structures. Today, with a new political reality being forged from below in Latin America and the Caribbean, the support that Haiti receives from Cuba, Venezuela, and the other nations of ALBA points to an alternative more just and democratic world-system.
The principal actors in the tragedy of Haiti did what is normal: they were pursuing their interests. The slaveholders sought to preserve and later to restore slavery; the French bourgeoisie endeavored to preserve and restore the lucrative slave trade; the slaves used armed force to attain their emancipation, and they subsequently found revenge. Rising above the normal tendency to pursue particular interests, Toussaint was developing in practice an alternative way: armed force to eliminate the barbarity of slavery, followed by cooperation, forged on a foundation of military strength, with ex-slaveholders and those who had benefitted from slavery, for the benefit of all in the long run. In forging this just and democratic alternative in theory and in practice, Toussaint demonstrated that he was a person of exceptional capacities of understanding and leadership, whose charismatic gifts were appreciated by the people from whom he came.
There is a lesson in the tragedy of Haiti: when all pursue particular interests and do not seek common ground for the good of all in the long run, everyone loses. In the context of the structural crisis of the world-system, which has been expressing itself since the 1970s, humanity today more urgently than ever confronts the challenge of finding common ground. As in Toussaint’s time, the key is to listen to, appreciate, and take seriously the insights of the charismatic leaders that have been lifted up by the neocolonized peoples: Fidel, Chávez, Evo Morales, and Rafael Correa.
James, C.L.R. 1989. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, Second Edition, Revised. New York: Vintage Books, Random House.
Key words: Third World, revolution, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, democracy, national liberation, sovereignty, self-determination, socialism, Marxism, Leninism, Cuba, Latin America, world-system, world-economy, development, underdevelopment, colonial, neocolonial, blog Third World perspective, French Revolution, Haitian Revolution, Toussaint L’Ouverture, terror