Haiti’s New Political Worlds

Throughout its history, residents of Haiti, especially those of African descent, imagined and created their own possibilities for new social worlds.

Haiti is, arguably, the birthplace of the modern world. One can no longer speak of issues around slavery and freedom, anticolonial struggle, revolutionary activity, and racial justice without mentioning—or, more decisively, centering—the Haitian Revolution, which began in 1791 and birthed the independent Haitian state in 1804. Prior to the Revolution, Haiti was the first Caribbean island to be encroached upon by 15th-century Spanish conquistadors. For European colonists, Haiti represented an entirely New World, one whose land, people, and other resources they hoped to claim for their own. Spaniards sought to exploit the island’s natural resources, using the labor of its original inhabitants, who rapidly perished from brutality, overwork, disease, and illness. Soon Spanish colonists in Haiti replaced indigenous laborers with enslaved Africans, bringing the first Black people to the Americas and signaling the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade. By the end of the 18th century, Haiti was under French colonial rule and had become the wealthiest—and deadliest—slave colony in the Americas, producing sugar and coffee at unprecedented rates on the backs of enslaved Africans.

But throughout this history, residents of Haiti, especially those of African descent, imagined and created their own possibilities of new social worlds, modeling alternatives to the slavery-driven, capitalist-oriented, colonial project of Western modernity. New scholarship shows how, over the course of more than five centuries, Haiti’s enslaved rebels, runaway Maroons, pirates and smugglers, revolutionaries, historians, politicians, and writers envisioned new worlds, lifeways, cultures, economic orders, and political thought and contributed new meanings of ideals and values long associated with European Enlightenment.

In Islanders and Empire, Juan José Ponce Vázquez explores an understudied period in the history of Haiti (and what is now the Dominican Republic) by focusing on the late 16th to the late 17th centuries, a period long considered a nadir in social, economic, and political development on the island Ayiti/Hispaniola. Ponce Vázquez argues that smuggling and other forms of inter-imperial social, economic, and political activity linked Hispaniola to a broader Atlantic economy and allowed colonial settlers to leverage their growing economic power into political influence. In Haiti’s Paper War, Chelsea Stieber recovers the diverse landscape of political thought that developed in the postindependence era and persisted well into the 20th century. In doing so, Stieber’s carefully argued scholarship provides necessary nuance to our understandings of the internal dynamics of Haitian history and the manifold implications of Haiti’s political significance to the world. Both books reveal how struggles over territory, resources, race, and notions of freedom and liberty continue to shape contemporary social movements and demands for social justice and change.

At the core of the intellectual and political debates that Stieber examines was a divergence in conceptions of liberté. In the movement to end slavery and decolonize Haiti, thinkers across the ideological and political spectrum considered: What should liberation look like? Viewed from a contemporary perspective, Stieber’s deep engagement with postindependence discourse and Ponce Vázquez’s attention to economic networks that shifted local balances of power can inform social movements that are thinking expansively about what a more just world could be.

Academics across a range of disciplines—Black/African diaspora studies, history, Caribbean and Latin American studies, literature, anthropology, philosophy, and even sociology—have come to recognize the centrality and fundamentally transformative nature of the Haitian Revolution as the only political event of the Age of Revolutions, and of modern history in general, to fully actualize the human rights of freedom, liberty, and equality. The authors of Haitian independence immediately extended those rights to those most denied them: formerly enslaved people of African descent.

The first and only slave rebellion to successfully abolish racial slavery and overturn French colonialism has finally emerged from the shadows of a long-standing “silencing” in North American and European scholarship, and has commanded new waves of research and intellectual challenges to academic disciplines. However, as Stieber and many others in Black/African diaspora studies would argue, Haiti and the Haitian Revolution were never silenced within Haitian, Caribbean, or even African American modes of political and intellectual thought. Nor is Haiti’s importance limited to its 1791–1804 revolution, which, specialists often keenly observe, was only one of several Haitian uprisings, rebellions, and revolutions that occurred during the 19th and 20th centuries, such as the Liberal Revolutions that Stieber’s work describes; when speaking of “the Haitian Revolution” to scholars of Haiti, one is likely to hear the reply, “Which one?” Ponce Vázquez and Stieber have contributed to the historiography further testament that Haiti always was and continues to be teeming with political possibilities.

In Islanders and Empire, Ponce Vázquez trains our attention on the previously overlooked period of Haiti’s history from the late 16th through the late 17th centuries. This intervention into existing literature frames the island as a place where local struggles for autonomy from imperial trade monopolies and commercial connectedness were part of the fundamental material contexts well before the French converted the island’s western regions—then called Saint-Domingue—into a sugar-producing juggernaut in the 18th century. Rather, Ponce Vázquez identifies the smuggling networks that allowed locals to achieve political primacy in the city of Santo Domingo, the urban seat of an otherwise fledgling, peripheral Spanish colony.

Though Islanders and Empire is not devoted entirely to examination of the indigenous or African-descended population, Maroons and enslaved and free and indigenous Black people figure into the book’s narrative as both agents of their own destinies and subjects of enslavers. Enslavers not only reaped economic benefits from enslaved labor, they also derived symbolic social capital, respectability, status, and prestige from displaying signs of wealth, luxury, power, and control associated with slave owning. For example, Spanish colonists wielded control over indigenous laborers by marrying the daughters of the indigenous political elite, who then legitimated Spanish rule. Later, slaveowners used enslaved African men as enforcers to physically assault political enemies and damage their reputations. Early 16th-century enslaved Africans worked alongside the remaining indigenous peoples in gold mines and on sugar plantations, and at times the two groups escaped from forced-labor sites and revolted together against the colonial labor system. Though the indigenous population had already steeply declined, enslaved Africans continued to express the spirit of resistance through revolt and escape. Ponce Vázquez also suggests that some Maroon, enslaved, and free Black people participated in illicit trading, and others may have escaped during the Spanish depopulation policy of the early 17th century to remain in areas outside the scope of Spanish colonial power.

Though the smuggling networks actively maintained racial hierarchies common to the rest of the island, the spirit and culture of autonomy and freedom was not lost on Ayiti/Hispaniola’s African-descended population and would influence generations to come. Indeed, the late Haitian anthropologist Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique has argued that these 16th- and 17th-century Africans, their escapes and rebellion, their ritual collaborations with the indigenous population, and their participation in the “marginal economy” of smuggling and pirating laid the sociocultural foundation for the Haitian Revolution and the development of the Kreyòl language and the Vodou religious system.1 Islanders and Empire helps retrieve this lesser-known history of the Spanish colonial period that eventually gave way to French domination in 1697, then finally to Haitian rule over the land in 1804.

It is often repeated that 1804 marked the moment Haiti became the first free and independent Black republic in the Americas—but Chelsea Stieber’s Haiti’s Paper War nuances this statement by reminding us that before Haiti was a republic, it was in fact an empire under Jean-Jacques Dessalines’s authoritarian rule. This distinction is significant since questions over the nature and scope of political authority and the role of the citizenry shaped world events during the 18th- and 19th-century Age of Revolutions and are considered a benchmark of “modernity.” The solidarity that ushered in the successful struggle for Haitian independence soon disintegrated; political factions separated into those who sought to model liberal Enlightenment ideals, and those who believed that Haiti’s survival hinged on a united force of obedient citizens under the militaristic leadership of a single authority who could and would resort to violence to uphold the nation’s independence. No mere parse of terminology, Haiti’s Paper War dives into the under-studied diversity of political thought that flourished following independence and produced varying definitions of liberté. Though it is tempting to conceive Haiti’s postindependence political force as grounded in a single stream of thought, because of the unprecedented show of solidarity that led to the Haitian Revolution’s success, Stieber argues that such a perspective engages a teleology that flattens both the pre- and the postcolonial eras. Haitian political thought was not—and remains more than—an undifferentiated body of knowledge and agendas. In fact, the towering achievement of the Haitian Revolution was that it abolished slavery and colonial rule and also brought to the fore a range of new political ideas and practices.

Even during the Haitian Revolution’s unfolding, there were diverse groups who struggled against or alongside each other at various moments. For example, during the War of Knives, forces under Toussaint Louverture battled those aligned with his former ally André Rigaud for control of the colony. Scholars like Carolyn Fick and Jean Casimir have described internal tensions during the Haitian Revolution, distinguishing the political, economic, and social interests of the formerly enslaved African rebels and Maroons, who, after the emancipation of 1793, consistently challenged French authority and later formed a self-directed peasant class in contrast to the landowning military elites, some of whom were already free prior to 1793 and temporarily sided with the French after Louverture’s death. Michel-Rolph Trouillot described this internal conflict between the military elite of Black officers and the masses of formerly enslaved rebels who refused to give in to French command during the Leclerc expedition of 1802 as the “war within the war.”2

The Haitian Declaration of Independence, both the text and the political act, demonstrated that “Haiti’s very existence questioned Western episteme.”

But less scholarship has brought attention to ideologies across the political spectrum that led to and fueled the early 19th-century civil war between northern and southern Haiti—from the Enlightenment republican ideals represented in the south to the monarchist models set forth by Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henry Christophe that wholly rejected republicanism. As the Haitian Revolution unfolded and the French crown granted emancipation throughout its Caribbean colonies, several rebels embraced monarchal tropes and avowed loyalty to French, Spanish, and Kongolese figureheads.3 Despite the promises of the republican revolution in France, Dessalines viewed republicanism as an outgrowth of plantation slavery and therefore rejected it and its premises in Western modernity. Monarchal rule was familiar to many revolutionary leaders, and though egalitarian societal arrangements prevailed among the masses of Haiti’s formerly enslaved population, republican thought, to Dessalines, was uniquely situated as a Western political formation.

To be sure, both the republican and monarchist factions remained staunchly opposed to slavery. But here is where the divergence in conceptions of liberté gained prominence in these intellectual and political debates. While republicans aligned with the Western meaning of liberté, as entailing personal freedom from slavery and from government impositions, monarchists affirmed liberté from slavery but prioritized anticolonial independence over individual liberties. Stieber argues that by elevating sovereign statehood, Dessalines and the political thought and writings that he inspired offered the most salient critique of the premises of republicanism and Enlightenment ideals, because of their foundations in chattel slavery, thus engaging in a true anticolonial critique of modernity.

The Haitian Declaration of Independence, both the text and the political act, demonstrated that “Haiti’s very existence questioned Western episteme: the first Haitian words, the first Haitian acts pointed out the system’s fundamental structural flaws. From the very beginning, Haiti resisted organizing itself according to Western principles.” For this reason, Haiti’s Paper War emphasizes an exploration of what Stieber calls “Dessalinean thought,” because of its critique of the West and creation of new sociopolitical possibilities that continued to reverberate inside and outside Haiti, in ways that were liberatory but at times oppressive.


Atlantic Slavery: An Eternal War

By Julia Gaffield

In keeping with the work of contemporary scholars of 19th-century Haiti, Stieber draws upon the Haitian intellectual tradition, relying on printed matter like pamphlets as well as visual culture, to bring to the fore the internal dialogues about processes of self-definition and self-determination, to uncover the world of Haitian political ideas that have often been marginalized in historiography and literary histories, and to complicate the narratives about Haiti’s political history and significance within the modern world. Not satisfied with framing sources as achieving the standards of what scholars deem worthy of inclusion in the “literary” world, Stieber employs an approach that centers both the production of text and the texts themselves as a performance to “(re)define themselves as human, independent, postcolonial, black writing and publishing subjects.” These new meanings informed Haiti’s self-conception in a world defined by racial slavery and capitalist exploitation.

Where Islanders and Empire emphasizes the tensions between colonial and mainland Spaniards, Haiti’s Paper War centers Haiti’s internal struggles as the significant point of conflict. Ponce Vázquez does discuss people of African descent and their role in shaping Haiti’s early history, but Stieber’s focus on Haiti’s political discourse gives insight to Black intellectual thought in ways that those interested in Black/African diaspora studies may find particularly stimulating. Both Ponce Vázquez’s Islanders and Empire and Stieber’s Haiti’s Paper War draw attention to important yet understudied periods of Haiti’s history. They also call on audiences and specialists to not only center Haiti in their understandings of racial slavery, the Atlantic world, and discourses of freedom but to center the ways in which Haiti continues to define and grapple with itself to advance its own causes and new possibilities.


This article was commissioned by Marlene Daut and sponsored by the UVA Institute of the Humanities and Global Culturesicon

  1. Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique, “The Social Value of Voodoo throughout History: Slavery, Migrations, and Solidarity,” Museum International, vol. 62, no. 4 (2010).
  2. See Jean Casimir, “The Sovereign People of Haiti during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” in The Haitian Declaration of Independence: Creation, Context, and Legacy, edited by Julia Gaffield (University of Virginia Press, 2016); Jean Casimir, The Haitians: A Decolonial History (University of North Carolina Press, 2020); Carolyn E. Fick, The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below (University of Tennessee Press, 1990); Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Beacon, 1995).
  3. John Thornton, “‘I Am the Subject of the King of Congo’: African Political Ideology and the Haitian Revolution,” Journal of World History, vol. 4, no. 2 (1993). The work of Jesús Ruiz also sheds light on royalist politics among the Haitian revolutionaries.
Featured image: Drapeau d’Haiti (2010). Photograph by abdallahh / Flickr