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Book Review


Fick, Carolyn E. The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution From Below  (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990). 249 pp, $24.95 hardcover, $16.95 paper.

     Eight years or so ago, I stumbled on Carolyn Fick's study of the Haitian Revolution. It quickly became one of my favorites. I have often assigned students sections of the book for class discussion, though it can be difficult reading for students. The Making of Haiti is not a global or even a regional study, but it is a good example of the kind of monograph with which teachers of World History need to be familiar in order to develop a global perspective for themselves and their students. 1
     Fick's book is an important alternative to the overly-simplistic view of the Haitian revolution often found in textbooks. Usually, the revolution is presented as a conflict between oppressed and oppressor, slave vs. master or black vs. white; as one of the 18th century wars of independence; and as an example of the transference of Enlightenment philosophies across the Atlantic. Fick profoundly disturbs this comforting story. Black slaves fought on the side of conservative white planters in defense of the King and against republican forces. Mulattoes and Blacks fought each other in a war of extermination. In short, there was very little that was predictable. While L'Ouverture held the reins of power between 1798 and 1802, his black generals and their officers instituted a system of forced labor on the plantations that was considered by some harsher than the system imposed under slavery. Dessalines, the man who eventually declared independence, joined with the French in 1802 and fought against the black rebels in the countryside, before once again changing sides. Revolutions are not the neat and tidy battles between progressives and reactionaries, old and new, to which we often reduce them. Fick gets at this complexity. If there is a hero in Fick's study, it is the common masses in Haiti. 2
     Fick's main argument is that after 1791, the Haitian Revolution was driven by the slaves themselves, from the initial eruption of violence in August 1791, through its civil war and rebuffing of Napoleon's invasion, all the way to the declaration of independence in January 1804. Her point is not just that the slaves were important -- it is that they were conscious of their interests and that they forced the leading figures, from French officials to Toussaint L'Ouverture, to act as they did. A second and related argument is that the 1791 slave rebellion, though made possible by the upheaval caused by the French Revolution in 1789, was in fact a continuation of slave resistance that had been going on for several decades. Finally, Fick argues that class or economic interests, rather than race, were the driving forces for all parties. She does not ignore race or racism as an important component, but it is inextricable from and subordinate to economic (class) interests. 3
     The study opens with a review of the literature and the historiography of the Revolution. This is valuable in its own right in terms of enriching our understanding of historiography and shifting interpretations in general, not just on this topic. The book is then divided into nine chapters and three parts. Part one (chapters 1-3) provides background to the revolution. I found this the most valuable part of the book and perhaps the only sections that could be given to students. The opening chapter is a concise history of Haiti's development to 1789 and the different classes and racial groups -- essential for any understanding of the revolution. Haitian society was not a simple world of white masters and black slaves. There were 30,000 whites, 40,000 mulattoes and free blacks (gens de couleur), and approximately 450,000 black slaves. However, these groups had their own sharp divisions based on class. I often use parts of this chapter with my students. Chapter two is an analysis of slave resistance, especially maroonage (escaping to a runaway community). Though the topic is resistance in Haiti, this chapter is clearly applicable to slave resistance in other parts of the Americas from Brazil to South Carolina. 4
     Chapter three, "The Coming of the Black Revolution" is an excellent overview of the immediate impact of the French Revolution on Haiti between 1789 and 1791. It is fascinating to see how different groups in Haiti saw the revolution as a vindication of their own position. It is always interesting to students that groups of whites fought each other as well as the gens de couleur, and that whites and gens de couleur used slaves to fight each other. This is the selection I most commonly use with students. Students find it hard to believe that the free groups did not see the danger of these strategies. 5
     Chapter four is the most interesting, providing an excellent account of the slaves' organization of the August 1791 uprising in the North. It is fascinating to "watch" this rebellion unfold.  Fick correctly emphasizes the role of "voodoo" or Vodun -- an essentially African religion -- but also emphasizes rational planning. The importance of this cannot be overstated. Rather than spontaneous, unthinking, superstition-induced rebellion, slaves are presented here as rational planners. And, significantly, vodun is not treated as antithetical to rational planning. The difficulty in assigning the chapter in its entirety is that Fick is also defending her thesis on the centrality of maroonage to the revolution. Students will find it difficult to follow the story through the occasional discussions of theory. 6
     The most glaring weakness of this monograph is its almost complete lack of visual aides. There are a grand total of three maps, two of which are contemporary maps of little value to the reader. This is an especially glaring problem because geography was such an important factor in the revolution: different combinations of five armies representing three nations, slaves, and mulattoes are fighting in different places for specific reasons.  Thomas Ott's 1973 study of the revolution -- discussed below -- has an excellent collection of maps and there are visual sources available on the web as well. 7
     Though I strongly recommend it, Fick's book can be difficult at times, even for an adult. Teachers of World History should probably begin with Franklin Knight's essay in the AHR forum in 2000. Knight does an excellent job of exploring the major themes of the revolution and placing it in the broader context of the Atlantic World.  David Geggus has published several pieces on the Haitian Revolution over the years, including an overview in Knight and Palmer's Modern Caribbean. Thomas Ott's 1973 book on the revolution is almost the exact opposite of Fick's study. Ott focuses almost entirely on the major leaders and gives almost no attention to the slaves themselves or the social issues. It is, however, a very clear and concise overview of a very confusing revolution. Ott's book also has an excellent selection of maps. [1] 8
     Study of the Haitian Revolution contributes to an understanding of World History in many ways. On the most immediate level, there are the direct ties to the American and French revolutions. The revolution had a tremendous impact on the region and affected policies in South Carolina, Jamaica, and the rest of the Americas (Simon Bolivar sought to avoid the catastrophe he saw in the Haitian Revolution by promoting emancipation in Latin America). Study of the Haitian Revolution, especially in Fick's case, also adds to one's understanding of slavery and slave society, revolutions, and race and class conflict.  Fick's book is an essential part of understanding that revolution. As the subtitle suggests, The Making of Haiti is history from the bottom up.


Points of analysis to use in the classroom:


     A review of three of the texts commonly used for AP World History (Stearns' World Civilizations, Bentley and Ziegler's Traditions and Encounters, and Spodek's The World's History) reveals different approaches to the revolution. Stearns is the most limited -- only two sentences on the revolution itself -- but this is acceptable within the framework he uses. The other two texts cite Fick's book and are clearly informed by her approach. Bentley and Ziegler's is the most thoughtful and complete discussion at a little over two pages. They bring up the different stages of the revolution and some of the more subtle points. In each case, however, the use of selections from Fick supplement the text well and serve as a guide for class discussions.

1)     Influence of the American and French revolutions: in Chapter 3 students can list the organizations and the debates before the National Assembly. Also discuss the point that gens de couleur leaders Oge and Vincent went to the United States to collect arms and support before returning to Haiti and a brutal end in 1791.

2)     Race & Class and social revolution: selections from chapters 1 and 3 discuss the issues that divided as well as united whites in Haiti, that gens de couleur and free blacks were interested in equality for themselves, but not in an end to slavery -- an example of class interests trumping racial solidarity.

3)     Slave organization and goals: selections from chapters 1,2, and 4 give students a chance to explore the complexity of slave society and the methods of resistance. Fick emphasizes maroonage and casts a fairly wide definition that includes almost any absence from the plantation as maroonage. Students are always surprised to find that slaves were able to organize and hold meetings without the planters finding out.

John Wood
McDonogh School
[1] David Geggus, "The Haitian Revolution." The Modern Caribbean, Franklin W. Knight and Colin A. Palmer, editors. (Chapel Hill; University of North Carolina Press, 1989.) 21-50. This account lacks footnotes or bibliography, though there is a bibliography that serves all of the selections; Thomas O. Ott. The Haitian Revolution, 1789-1804. Knoxville; University of Tennessee Press, 1973

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