Photo Post: René Depestre in Paris

(Former) Haitian Communist René Depestre at the Sorbonne for the first international Congrès des écrivains et artistes noirs, 1956.

Image: Courtesy of article “La France et Haïti: Le mythe et la réalité.” by René Depestre 


New Beginnings

As it stands, my co-mod and myself have decided to migrate Haitian History on Tumblr to WordPress. While we do not intend to close the blog as announced (not only because it is, in and of itself, a useful reference tool but also, because we will continue to post picture related material), we should keep our presence there to a minimal.

Though Tumblr offers many advantages and helped us gain a certain following, it seems the platform itself is not well design for more intellectually driven discussions. We hope to attract a new user base with this WordPress and look favourably at the future.

All our best wishes to our readers for this holiday season,

– La Revue Indigène Team

Haiti: State Against Nation, A Louverturian legacy or the paradoxical origins of Haiti?

In 1990, Haitian scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot published Haiti: State Against Nation Origins and Legacy of Duvalierism. In it, Trouillot argued, that the foundations of Duvalierism started long before the “election” of François Duvalier in 1957. Indeed, as he contended in the first few pages of the book “the Duvalier state emerged as the result of a long-term process that was marked by an increasing disjuncture between political and civil society” (Trouillot 1990, 15). This disjuncture, more than being the sole work of Haiti’s most infamous dictator, was in fact a process, which evolved over time, yet, remained rooted in Haiti’s colonial and revolutionary history. While the book itself does not present Toussaint Louverture’s leadership in great detail, it does point to his headship as a clear example of the state against nation paradigm existent, according to Trouillot, throughout Haitian history. Hence, even before the advent of the “formal” Haitian state under Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Toussaint Louverture presented a “state structure” that would be followed by subsequent leaders. This state structure, as the 1801 Constitution can best attest to, was largely a militarized one, where the needs to agricultural production were put above the individual “rights” of the newly freed black population (nouveaux libres).

This portrait of Louverture, which seems to echo the work of generations of Haitian historians who have seen him as the “original despot” (most notably François Dalencour), contrast sharply with the recent work of many scholars, where Louverture is romanticized as this heroic figure.

As expressed by Philippe R. Girard:

“Louverture needs to be seen as a Creole planter who came of age during the ancien regime. Emancipated long before the slave revolt, he made a living as a slave-owning planter for at least fifteen years. He was not the one-dimension abolitionist described in some biographies but a much more complex character who was deeply influenced by colonial thought” (Girard 2009, 92).

Hence, as expressed in this quote, any assessment of Louverture and the regime he sought to establish, should take into consideration his complex position as a black, ancien libre leader. Questioning his leadership (especially through his Constitution of 1801) is essential when considering whether Toussaint did (or to what extent he) contribute to the “state against nation” paradigm identified by Michel-Rolph Trouillot and others. Was Toussaint the chief architect of Haiti’s future of political despotism? Or was he, perhaps unwillingly, an actor behind the paradoxical origins of the emerging Haitian state (that is, a state which violently shocked sensibilities of its time by becoming “the first modern country born out of a successful slave rebellion” and had universal freedom as its most fundamental principle, yet, managed to become a state where most of its citizenry enjoyed very few liberty and often found itself at the mercy of its political elite vagary)?

While Toussaint did not live to see Haiti (as he was captured in the Leclerc expedition and sent to France where he died in 1803), his influence on Haiti cannot be minimized. By 1801, given the changing situation in the metropole, Louverture felt it necessary to give Saint-Domingue a more appropriate “legal” footing to reflect its new circumstances. It should be remembered that, by then, Louverture had removed most of the competing French authority in the island, had succeeded in the war with mulatto forces lead by André Rigaud, had taken advantage of the Treaty of Basel to annex Santo Domingo (modern-day Dominican Republic) and most importantly, was aware of Napoleon’s Constitution of the Year VIII (Constitution of 1799) which stated that colonies should be governed by “special laws” (hence leaving the door wide open for the possible restoration of slavery). Before those “special laws” could be crafted, Toussaint, aided with a group of white and mulatto advisors, fashioned the 1801 Constitution.

Closely following the spirit of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the Constitution only made more explicit to former slaves what they had already experience in full scale with the French commissioners Sonthonax and Polverel: their emancipation was tied to the needs to the economy. Toussaint pushed the commissioners’ logic a step further by militarizing agricultural production (Leslie Péan 2009, 160). As article 14 states clearly: “The colony, being essentially agricultural, cannot allow the least interruption in its labor and cultivation.” Given that very few nouveaux libres were interested in working in the same plantations where they had once been enslaved, the military was required to force them into submission (Fick 2007, 411). By favouring the economy over the individual desires of the black masses, as stated by Trouillot, Toussaint contributed to the creation of a gap between the state and the nation. Indeed, the author argues that “the fundamental contradiction in his regime [Toussaint’s] was the leadership’s failure to face the fact that the goal of unconditional freedom was incompatible [emphasis added] with the maintenance of the plantation system” (Trouillot 1990, 43).

As much as those charges are founded and should not be obscured for the sake of painting Louverture as a monolithic abolitionist, we should ask: can his leadership between 1798-1802, truly be described as that of a leader incapable of grasping the “incompatibly” of seemingly contradictory objectives? The question may well be, what other choices were presented to him in 1801 in the context of the Atlantic world?

While we should be careful not to fall into historical generalizations, and should appreciate the specific historical contingencies of each Haitian leadership, Louverture does provide an important space to understand the “paradoxical origins” (to repeat Lynn Hunt’s phrasing) of the Haitian state. If Louverture did contribute to the militarization of the emerging state and the creation of an “unbridgeable gap” between state and nation, he did so in a very particular context.

To protect general emancipation, Louverture appeared convinced that Saint-Domingue needed a robust army. To pay this army, the continuation of the plantation economy was imperative. To “encourage” workers to stay on those plantations, the army was indispensable, and thus, the entire process of economic production was militarized. This however, was not enough, and as the 1801 Constitution indicates, while few individual “rights” were guaranteed, the entire society was largely militarized and social mobility was rendered largely impossible. Thus, as it stood, general emancipating could only be guaranteed if Saint-Domingue continued to export and maintained a resilient army. This vicious circle, while repeated under different circumstances, persisted well into Haiti’s early independent era. This is the “strange paradox” of the Louverturian regime and of most of Haiti’s history:  in the name of freedom, almost no real freedom could exist if it went against the imperative of possessing a strong state tied in to the military.

To be sure, the path followed by the emerging Haitian élite, largely (but not exclusively) divided both in “color lines” (blacks vs. mulattoes) and in class (anciens libres vs. nouveaux libres) cannot be simply attributed to Toussaint Louverture. However, without falling into any “original despotism” theory, those élites did find themselves faced with problems similar to that of Toussaint and chose solutions, in many respect, very close to his.

Thus, while we can critic (and it has been criticized) Trouillot’s state against nation archetype and add some nuances, especially when considering the extraordinary nature of the Louverturian regime, Trouillot’s theoretical framework cannot altogether be dismissed. Exploring Louverture’s leadership provides a useful window into understanding the centrality of the military in Haitian domestic affairs. Furthermore, it helps, if even partially, explain the paradoxical origins of the Haitian state, a country founded in the name of liberty where, to this day, very little liberty in fact exists.

See Also

  1. Read Constitution of 1801
  2. Read Constitution of the Year VIII (Constitution of 1799)
  3. Read Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen


Welcome to La Revue Indigène (named after the 1920s Haitian revue of the same name). This blog is a space dedicated to discussions on Haiti’s political history. “Political history” here is understood in larger terms and encompasses questions relating to society, governance, facets of legal history, intellectual history and foreign relations forged between Haiti and its neighbours in the Americas.