The Theater of the Haitian Revolution / The Haitian Revolution as Theater Print

The theatre had come to a town without theatres, and as a theatre would have to be created, they took advantage of a heaven-sent opportunity. Since its platform would make a good stage, the guillotine was moved to a nearby yard, where it was taken over by hens, who roosted on top of the uprights. The boards were brushed and scrubbed to remove all traces of bloodstains, an awning was stretched between the trees and rehearsals began of the work which was the most popular of their whole reper- toire, as much because of its world-wide fame as because some of its couplets had provided a foretaste of the revolutionary spirit—The Village Soothsayer by Jean Jacques.
—Alejo Carpentier, Explosion in a Cathedral

Alejo Carpentier, who was obsessed with the theatrical dimension of history, provided in this depiction of the revolution’s impact on Guadeloupe this wonderful metaphor of the revolution as theater. The guillotine is scrubbed of blood, since its platform is
meant to serve as a stage for a French theater company to perform a play by Jean Jacques Rousseau. This magical representation of the collision of history and fantasy, real and surreal, may provide a useful way to analyze recent events in Haiti. The bicentenary of the Haitian Revolution has provided an occasion for a tragicomic restaging of the events that led to the declaration of Haitian independence in 1804. Was not one of the most vocal opposition groups, led by a Middle Eastern businessman, called the “group of 184”—one
zero short of 1804? Did not Jean-Bertrand Aristide, when arriving in Bangui, declare,

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“They have cut down the tree of peace but it will grow again”—a near repeat of the very words Toussaint Louverture spoke when he was kidnapped by General Leclerc in 1803? Did not Prime Minister Latortue, in a moment of Dessalinian fervor, proclaim a new era for Haiti in Gonaïves and declare that Guy Philippe’s band of human rights violators was an army of national liberation? And was not the then French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin thinking of reversing Rochambeau’s defeat when he sent French troops into Haiti two hundred years after they were forced to leave?
Let us turn away from this contemporary scene of deadly spectacle, away from the stage of 2004, which is scrubbed clean and occupied by opportunist actors and misguided mimic men. Let us consider instead the meaning of the event C. L. R. James described in his 1962 appendix to The Black Jacobins as that moment when “West Indians first became aware of themselves as a people”—the Haitian Revolution.¹ James remains one of our best guides to the revolution, since he was acutely aware that between 1791 and 1804 a revolutionary ideal had entered the New World and that the Caribbean had become one of those explosive borders of enlightened modernity. As James vividly reminds us in Black Jacobins, the Haitian Revolution would take the French Revolution further than was ever intended, carrying it to its radical conclusion. “Reaction triumphed” in Paris, as James points out, but in Saint Domingue
[The slaves] had heard of the revolution and had construed it in their own image: the white slaves in France had risen, and killed their masters, and were now enjoying the fruits of the earth. It was gravely inaccurate in fact, but they had caught the spirit of the thing. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.²

Despite James’s view that these first “West Indians,” who were not the original inhabitants of the region but the revolting slaves of Saint Domingue, had “caught the spirit of the thing,” that the Haitian Revolution was a nodal point in a global interactive history, we continue to see it as an exceptional moment in a simple, heroic foundational narrative for Caribbean anticolonial resistance. The universalist radicalism of the Haitian Revolution became effaced for a metropole that retreated from a radical emancipatory project and pressed on with its colonial adventures in the nineteenth century. “The spirit of the thing” became equally lost to the rest of the region, which has chosen to ignore the alliance between a revolutionary France and its colonies in 1794. Dreams of apoca- lyptic beginnings or the solidarity of racial suffering inevitably make the cosmopolitan, universalist contours of the Caribbean past ideologically inaccessible.

1. C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins (New York: Vintage, 1963), 391.
2. Ibid., 81.

J. Michael

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I would like to think that because the Haitian Revolution so challenged the preju- dices of its time, that because it was such an unthinkable phenomenon, it has been either conspicuously consigned to the margins of modern history or simplified and romanticized as an inspiring narrative of black slave resistance. Haiti was the second nation to break away from its European colonizer, but Haitians in the nineteenth century were acutely aware that, unlike the Americans, they were in the process of forging a new identity, that their revolution was about the total transformation of the social and economic order established through plantation slavery. When these “first West Indians,” to use James’s formulation, turned their ploughshares into swords, they did not choose a restorationist model or to return to cultural roots; these New World Africans envisaged a world shaped by the realities of the Atlantic trade and, therefore, sought a hemispheric identity. Would not Haiti’s first leader, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, both declare himself emperor in the manner of his erstwhile enemy, Napoléon, and also change the name of France’s richest colony from Saint Domingue to the Taino name Haiti? In declaring on 1 January 1804, “I have avenged America,” Dessalines firmly located a postcolonial Haiti within a New World reality that harked back to Hispaniola’s original pre-Columbian inhabitants. In anticipating Frantz Fanon’s idea of revolutionary consciousness, Dessalines called citi- zens of the new state “Haitians” and declared everyone to be black, including the Polish contingent, which revolted against the French to fight with his forces.
Yet if Saint Domingue was a colony based on black plantation slavery, it was so because the indigenous population was no longer there. An unbreakable bond had been established with Europe and the West, a bond that brought with it the horrors of human exploitation as well as the heritage of radical Enlightenment thought. The Haitian Revo- lution then becomes, above all else, the first and most dramatic emergence of the ideal of human rights in the modern world. The French Revolution was about social justice. The American Revolution sought an end to colonial rule. Neither seriously considered putting an end to human slavery. While we tend to emphasize the victory of 1804 and the defeat of Europe’s most powerful army at the time, we must not forget that in the early years of the revolution, before Napoléon’s rise to power in France, the slaves fought for freedom in alliance with French revolutionary authority, thereby defeating the colonists in Saint Domingue who were resisting revolutionary change. For a while, the racist culture of plantation slavery was reversed as former slaves and republicans were allied in the same struggle. Toussaint Louverture, in a letter to his ally General Laveaux in 1795, described his defeat of colonists and royalist forces:
My victory has been most complete and if the celebrated Dessources is lucky enough to re-enter
St Marc it will be without cannon, without baggage, in short without drum nor trumpet. He

has lost everything, even honor, if vile royalists are capable of having any. He will remember this republican lesson which I have taught him.

Of course, the rise of Napoléon would change all this. After Toussaint’s imprisonment in
1803, the project of transforming colonial Saint Domingue and defeating the power of the plantocracy turned into a war of national independence. The bicentenary celebration focuses invariably on the last year of the revolution, the declaration of independence, and almost effaces the revolutionary transformation of colonial Saint Domingue prior to Napoléon’s desire to crush black revolt in the Caribbean. The possibility of a postco- lonial transatlantic relationship between republican France and a non-European culture taking shape at the end of the eighteenth century lost out to a racial settling of scores as Dessalines set out to give as good as he got. Ironically, the French state would ultimately make itself the trustee of universal values in the service of colonial expansion elsewhere and banish Haiti to the margins of history and two hundred years of solitude.
It is not surprising, then, that Haiti’s symbolic presence in the Caribbean imagina- tion has never been understood in terms of radical universalism. Rather, the region proj- ects onto Haiti compensatory images of racial revenge, heroic uniqueness, or misguided hubris. For instance, Martinique’s Aimé Césaire, in his Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, written almost at the same time as James’s Black Jacobins, reduced the impact of the Haitian Revolution to the exiled and isolated figure of Toussaint Louverture, imprisoned in the snowbound Fort de Joux in the Jura mountains:
What is mine
A man alone imprisoned in whiteness
A man alone who defies the white screams of white death
(Toussaint, Toussaint Louverture)
a man alone who fascinates the white hawk of white death a man alone in the infertile sea of white sand.⁴
Inevitably, the poet then asks whether this incarnation of defiled blood and racial humili- ation will ever be avenged—“Will the splendor of this blood ever explode?” Haiti is invari- ably the static space of racial agony in Caribbean writing. Arguably the most Caribbean writer of the hispanophone Caribbean, the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier falls back on images of upright Négritude and mystical religious rites when evoking Haiti in The Kingdom of This World. Toussaint is never mentioned in this novel of revolutionary Haiti,

J. Michael

3. Toussaint Louverture, “Letter to Laveaux,” in Libète, ed. Charles Arthur and Michael Dash (London: Latin
America Bureau, 1999), 41.
4. Aimé Césaire, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land (Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 1995), 91.

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which pits decadent France against vigorous, primitivist Haiti. Invoking the nightmare of history, others see the Haitian Revolution in terms of a fatal hubris, the sigh of history over megalomaniac black ruins.⁵ In the vision of V. S. Naipaul, Haiti is nothing but an example of racial atavism in the Caribbean’s “historyless past.” The choice seems to be between reductionist triumphalism on the one hand and reductionist skepticism on the other.
If nothing else, the Haitian war of independence was fought in the name of a uni- versalist ideal that superseded the French state’s appropriation of Jacobin republicanism, which ironically justified France’s “mission civilisatrice” in the name of universal French values. The trajectory taken by French universalism in France’s overseas departments in the Caribbean projected the French as trustees of revolutionary universalism and empha- sized their generosity in offering universal rights to their grateful subjects in Guadeloupe, Martinique, and French Guyana. The idea of the imperialist French as the sole guarantors of universal values and Victor Schoelcher as their ultimate embodiment is what Fanon called the great mirage of French colonialist discourse. It is precisely this false universal- ism, or France’s ethnocentric appropriation of the universal, that Fanon, a revolutionary universalist if ever there was one, debunks in Black Skin, White Masks
However, as James’s Black Jacobins constantly reminds us, revolutionary universalism in Saint Domingue was not linked to cultural and historical difference but made for a radical application of universal human rights. There could be no more French universal- ism than there could be Haitian universalism. Susan Buck-Morss, in her article “Hegel and Haiti,” picks up where James left off by asserting that
The black Jacobins of Saint Domingue surpassed the metropole in actively realizing the Enlight- enment goal of human liberty, seeming to give proof that the French Revolution was not simply a European phenomenon but world-historical in its implications. If we have become accustomed to different narratives, ones that place colonial events on the margins of European history, we have been seriously misled. Events in Saint-Domingue were central to contemporary attempts to make sense out of the reality of the French Revolution and its aftermath . . . The Haitian Revolution was the crucible, the trial by fire for the ideals of the French Enlightenment.

If “colonial events” were to be displaced from “the margins of European history,” as she recommends, then the Haitian Revolution becomes an emancipatory project within a globalized colonial world where ideas were circulating freely and could take root in the most unexpected places. The liberatory possibilities of the Enlightenment were not meant

5. Derek Walcott, “What the Twilight Says,” Dream on Monkey Mountain (New York: Noonday Press, 1970), 14.
6. Susan Buck-Morss, “Hegel and Haiti,” Critical Inquiry, no. 26 (Summer 2000): 835–36.

to be applied in Caribbean plantation society. Global interaction in a modernizing world meant, however, that the periphery could now become the site of a concrete, radical application, the “trial by fire” of ideas from the center, that a local European revolution could be “world-historical” in its implications.
I would like, therefore, to see the Haitian Revolution as both a foundational moment in modern universalist thought and a point of origin for postcolonial Caribbean societies, one that privileged global interaction and transcended ethnocentric models of nation, race, and identity. To this extent, Michel-Rolph Trouillot is right to label it “the most radical political revolution of that age,” since it symbolized the possibility of understand- ing human rights beyond race, territory, and gender as well as the unpredictable nature of globalizing modernity, which made the colonial system totally untenable.
We may need to rethink the way we interpret Haitian thought in the light of the revolution’s ideals. For instance, the most important champion of Haiti’s modernist internationalism in the nineteenth century is Anténor Firmin. No other intellectual seemed as capable of following through on the revolutionary universalism of Haiti’s war of independence. Firmin arguably wished to harness the utopian, emancipatory possibilities
that had been released in 1804 by the unpredictable global interconnectedness of modern

J. Michael

European expansion. His monumental De l’ égalité des races humaines (1885)
was written

in reaction to a theory of biological difference and racial perfectibility that had been put forward by Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau. Against Gobineau’s narrow concept of racial and national determination of human capacity, which was assessed along a single hierarchi- cal scale, Firmin invoked a nonessentializing universalism that rejected the belief that cultural difference can be explained by any innate, genetic qualities. Firmin was acutely aware of what a theory of racial difference would mean for Haiti and the extent to which Haiti’s survival depended on a militant internationalist, anticolonial politics. It is a radical universalist position that leads Firmin to a profound skepticism regarding the question of grounded difference and nationalist identity politics in Haiti. Acutely aware as he was of the world-historical nature of the Haitian experiment, Firmin felt that a new hybridizing modernity was rendering the idea of absolute racial difference obsolete.
Yet some would want to see in Firmin a simple precursor to the biologism that swept through the Négritude and Indigenist movements in the 1920s and 1930s. Similarly, our privileging of a novel of blood and ground like Jacques Roumain’s Masters of the Dew smacks of the persistent desire to fashion Haiti in terms of a cultural politics of racial

7. Anténor Firmin, The Equality of the Human Races (New York: Garland, 2000).
8. Anténor Firmin, Lettres de St. Thomas (Port-au-Prince: Ed. Fardin, 1986).

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redemption. Could not one persuasively argue that one of the most important Haitian works of the imagination is Jacques-Stephen Alexis’s L’espace d’un cillement, in which both protagonists are Cuban and the setting is La Frontière, on the outskirts of Port-au- Prince, where grounded belonging yields to proletarian identities derived from the smell of displaced workers from across the Caribbean and Central America? The acceleration and proliferation of cultural and racial intermixing that Firmin saw as the fate of modern Haiti is surely better represented in Alexis’s musically and sexually interactive “Sensation Bar” than in the pastoral isolation of Roumain’s “Fonds Rouge.”
There are various ways of celebrating Haiti’s revolutionary past. You could cynically exploit it, as many inside and outside of Haiti have done, by turning the bicentenary into a tragic farce. We could also, somehow, try to look beyond the present back to the ideals of those C. L. R. James called “the first West Indians.” Haiti is the Caribbean’s and the hemisphere’s place of memory and origin, and Toussaint arguably the only regional hero. Napoléon’s imprisonment of Toussaint in the cold, darkness, and damp of the Fort de Joux was meant to bury and efface all that Haitian revolutionary universalism stood for. Ironically, however, this fatal imprisonment only demonstrated the distance between the pretension to Enlightenment ideals and the postrevolutionary practice of the French state. Toussaint’s imprisonment, exile, and death were also a foretaste of the fate that lay in store for Napoléon himself.
Since I started this article with a reference to theater, I would like to conclude with an image of Toussaint that we find in that very unusual play by Édouard Glissant, Monsieur Toussaint. The play is set in the Jura mountains, the revolutionary Caribbean re-sited in Europe. Contrary to Napoléon’s expectations, Toussaint’s cell is not a space of exile and imprisonment. It is not a static or confining space but rather it stages the events of the Haitian Revolution and puts Toussaint in constant dialogue with all its major figures, living and dead. In response to the invitation by the dead Macaia, Mackandal, and Bouk- man to return to Africa and eternal rest (“Come. We will descend the paths unknown to the living. The rebel Macaia summons Toussaint. . . . Come don’t walk on the wrong side of life’s road”), Toussaint says, “Leave me. I will undertake my work once again. I will cross the seas in the other direction.”⁹ By choosing to head west, toward the eternal restlessness of his revolutionary roots, Toussaint gives the Atlantic crossing a new mean- ing. In so doing, he also brings to the marronnage of Mackandal and Boukman the new dimension of black modernity. As he dies at the end of the play, tortured by the freezing

9. Édouard Glissant, Monsieur Toussaint (Washington, DC: Three Continents, 1981), 41.

cold, Toussaint says, “I am burning up,” alluding to the explosive force of the revolution in Saint Domingue lying under Napoléon’s wintry counterrevolution. He urges all in Saint Domingue to “plough the highlands” not to escape into a world of heroic negation but to give a modern revolutionary meaning to earlier acts of marronnage
For Glissant, Toussaint’s deterritorialized cell is meant to be seen as an island in the New World archipelago connecting the Caribbean’s Atlantic and hemispheric begin- nings, truly a prophetic vision of its revolutionary past. This “island,” a Caribbean lieu if ever there was one, should, after two hundred years of solitude, neither be quarantined nor serve as a stage to be cynically exploited by political opportunists. Rather, it should be freed from the prison house of imperial narrative. It might be useful to remember that the legacy of the Haitian Revolution is neither confined to a country called Haiti nor contained in the date 1804 but is truly “world-historical” in its implica- tions. The revolutionaries of Saint Domingue were indeed “the first West Indians,” and
we in the Caribbean region are likewise all Haitians.

J. Michael

  • Saturday, 07 June 2014

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