How Haiti Got Free

I vividly remember the rush I felt after my first encounter with the story of the Haitian Revolution. It was a sudden and miraculous sense that everything was not as it seemed ...

I vividly remember the rush I felt after my first encounter with the story of the Haitian Revolution. It was a sudden and miraculous sense that everything was not as it seemed, that it had never been, and that I had much to learn. A massive uprising of enslaved people became a 12-year fight for independence that ultimately created the first sovereign Black republic in 1804. Haiti was the second nation to cast off colonial rule in the Western hemisphere, and its revolution led to the abolition of slavery across the French empire and laid out a roadmap for independence that would inspire other colonies in Latin America.

Two recently published books examine intellectual histories of the revolutionary Caribbean, illuminating the what and how of Haiti’s rise. In The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution, Julius S. Scott explains how revolutionaries worked from below decks and beneath the gaze of overseers to circulate ideas across vast space, imperial borders, and linguistic barriers. Baron de Vastey and the Origins of Black Atlantic Humanism by Marlene L. Daut heralds a prominent and prolific early Haitian writer, Jean-Louis Baron de Vastey, whose avant-garde, anti-colonial writings eviscerate the philosophical imperialism of the Anglo-North. Daut’s study tracks Vastey’s significant influence on postcolonialism, critical race theory, and the Negritude movement, not to mention abolition and the revolutionary project of Haitian sovereignty itself. Both of these books follow the spread of radical politics, but Scott emphasizes vernacular transmission in the form of rumor, song, and marketplace exchanges, whereas Daut attunes to literary and print cultural transmission.

In Scott’s book, revolutionary thought unfurls across the Caribbean in vernacular forms: rumors of revolt that spread like wildfire across enslaved communities and sea shanties authored by Black sailors that brought insurgent plantation politics to far-flung port cities in Northern Europe. His telling reveals these activities as political theorizing of the highest order. Daut recovers Vastey’s writings not from obscurity but rather from within volumes of French-language tomes that were read and translated in his own day but have not been properly remembered nor revered in all corners of the academy. That is to say that while Scott privileges the ideas of thinkers and world-changers from below and outside, Daut reveals a highly literary philosophy that made it to press and into print and was nonetheless ignored by many who could have stood to pay attention.

When considered together, The Common Wind and Baron de Vastey expose the blurred edges where print culture meets all that is beyond, teaching us why it is vital to think about how knowledge traverses borders. Expressive thought could never be wrested from enslaved people, neither could revolutionary ideas be contained by the fictional borders carving up empires on colonial maps. Given this, knowledge certainly cannot be imprisoned by the walls separating academic disciplines.

How did such radical forms of revolt and cultural expression and economic enterprise coexist alongside violent colonial oppression?

The Common Wind is a new publication, but its manuscript has been in underground circulation for decades. In what was originally a groundbreaking doctoral dissertation completed in 1986, Scott explores the social and geographic networks of a multi-empire Caribbean home to sailors, maroons, musicians, and market women who turned the course of world history from the mountaintop settlements, rowdy taverns, and polyglot ships. The book’s own story as an influential manuscript that passed from hand to hand in in informal scholarly exchange underscores its central argument that revolutionary thought flows across many conduits and most vibrantly from non-elite spaces beyond the grasp of gatekeepers.

The Common Wind’s unique journey from manuscript to print is as unusual and influential as its groundbreaking methods. In a foreword to the book, fellow historian Marcus Rediker recounts that when he first heard that Scott was trying to trace the circulation of revolutionary ideas across the Caribbean and greater Atlantic, he thought “how on earth can someone study that?” Scott’s innovative approach foregrounded the economic and communication networks of the underclasses. This helped to usher in a form of historical scholarship that privileges the complicated realities of cross-cultural exchange across languages and empires in the Atlantic World, or the spaces brought in close contact because of trade and migration during the long eras of colonization and slavery. This “Atlantic turn” made it possible to reveal the importance of marginalized historical actors—especially those of African descent—on world-changing events like the Haitian Revolution, which, as Scott shows, was mobilized by men and women living at the edges of colonial society and under the yoke of white supremacy.

One of the most elegant features of Scott’s book is that while it makes extraordinary interventions into several fields, it does so without organizing the narrative around academic debates. The Common Wind richly explains the geographic specificities of the Caribbean region and how the intraisland maritime networks made possible cultural and political exchanges between enslaved people living on rural plantations and sea-faring free people who spread news of revolt. These same networks helped to create pathways to self-emancipation for people who could manage to get from one island to another because of the close distances and abundant methods of sea travel. For instance, in 1788, a group of 11 enslaved people from Northern Jamaica “absconded in a canoe,” took to sea, and were rescued by a Spanish ship who carried them safely to shore in Cuba, where they found protection by embracing Catholicism. Scott narrates many such thrilling stories grounded in fascinating details unearthed from archives in Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, and the colonial repositories in Europe.

The Common Wind is the sort of book that will capture the imagination of anyone fascinated by the early Americas, maritime history, and Black history. The book is reminiscent in narrative style to a work like C. L. R. James’s The Black Jacobins, and its iconic status is only sure to grow now that more readers will have access to what is already a field-defining work. For those familiar with the field, Scott’s book will read like a delightful anchoring that helps to make sense of all that came after it. At the same time, the book has not lost its currency and will offer remarkably fresh insight and inspiration to all.

“In tracing the outline of these horrors, I do not hope to soften your hearts  … we know that you will never change.”

Daut’s portrait of Baron de Vastey, secretary in the court of King Henry Christophe (1811–1820) and a prolific early Haitian writer, historian, and political theorist, is not simply a biography of an individual but is rather an engrossing examination of his work: how it came to be, how it traveled, and how it has influenced generations of revolutionary thinkers. Daut shows that while European philosophes were wringing their hands over questions of human agency, Vastey was at their heels, placing critical pressure on the most sacred fantasies of Enlightenment philosophy, like the idea that one might argue—without flinching—that “all men are created equal,” while enslaving men, women, and children. From Haiti’s shores, French and US revolutionary ideals don’t look lofty—they look like lies.

Just as W. E. B. Du Bois has been recognized as the father of modern sociology, and Zora Neale Hurston has been granted the rightful place as architect of 20th-century anthropology’s most innovative methodologies, Daut enthrones Vastey as an originator of “Black Atlantic Humanism,” a theory challenging the white supremacist underpinnings of Enlightenment thought and colonialism. Vastey was not, in every way, a radical, and as Daut argues, he was a shrewd political visionary who worked to shore up state power while dismantling colonial rule. But Vastey’s upward mobility in the young Kingdom of Hayti did not keep him from remembering where Haitian liberty came from—the survival and struggle of enslaved people and their descendants. Born to a free woman of color and a French enslaver in pre-revolutionary Saint-Domingue, Vastey’s writing bears powerful witness to the realities of colonial violence, creating an accounting of the wrongs enacted by French imperials over generations.

While Vastey’s politics and identity fail to neatly fulfill expectations, Daut reveals that his writing also challenges convention. Rather than authoring sentimentalist abolitionist rhetoric of the sort that became popular in US and British slave narratives, Vastey did not assume responsibility for walking white readers through the atrocities endured by enslaved people in order to stoke their empathetic feelings. Instead, he wrote searing criticism: “In tracing the outline of these horrors, I do not hope to soften your hearts, for, we know only too well, your hearts are more hardened than bronze and steel: we know that your degraded souls are incapable of remorse and pity … we know that you will never change.” To say that his quick-witted critiques of white supremacy still resonate today is an understatement, something Daut skillfully makes evident in a Twitter feed she curates to showcase the author’s writing. Vastey envisioned a critical accounting, as he gathered the stories of others, both living and dead, who had suffered at the hands of the colonists and enslavers. Unlike other abolitionist writers, Vastey named names.

Much of the work of Atlantic World history and cultural studies has been to bring world-changing history to consciousness and to try to translate for the disciplinary audiences of the modern North American academy the meaning and importance of African life and thought in the plantation sphere. The inherent contradictions and silences are revisited over and over again by those of us who cite Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s piercing indictment: that for white authorities the Haitian revolution was “unthinkable” as it happened, and, therefore, became written out of mainstream history. But as Scott and Daut remind us, this unthinkability, the silencing, was not, not ever, total. For those living and thinking and writing and creating revolution, be they African-born, self-emancipated sailors, or literary aesthetes writing from court in the face of death, radical thought was always alive and well.

For many of us who study the period, this is what keeps bringing us back: the many rich lessons to be learned about how such radical forms of revolt and cultural expression and economic enterprise could coexist alongside, and, sometimes, even because of the circumstances of violent colonial oppression. These ongoing countercultural practices put pressure on a system that was bound to fail but would never be fully eradicated in Haiti or elsewhere.

We must continue to look to these histories and stories, because they teach us how to imagine better more fluid worlds where power and possibility bubble up from below and across borders by creating solidarities and pathways to liberation that we need as much now as ever. These legacies are imperfect, and there are no pure politics in the revolutionary activities these books document, and, yet, there is ever a well of possibility. Drink long and deep.

(For more on the publication of Scott’s book from top scholars in Haitian and Atlantic Studies, check out this forum curated by Marlene Daut and Julia Gaffield. Listen to Daut discuss Vastey’s legacy on Boston’s WBUR Radio. Visit Twitter for tweets from @LeBarondeVastey.) icon

Featured image: Planting Sugar Cane, Antigua, West Indies, 1823. Painting by William Clark, courtesy of