Toussaint Louverture Boarding; painting by Alexandre Grégoire

Private Collection/Art Resource

Alexandre Grégoire: Toussaint Louverture Boarding, late twentieth century

Historians have traditionally considered Western Europe the epicenter of early modern globalization. But in the late eighteenth century, no place had a thicker web of connections to other parts of the globe than the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue—now called Haiti. This small but intensely fertile piece of tropical real estate produced 40 percent of the sugar and half the coffee consumed in the world, as well as enormous quantities of cotton, chocolate, and textile dyes. Its ports teemed with ships from Europe, North America, South America, and other points in the Caribbean. Some five hundred a year sailed to the United States alone, returning laden with American food exports. Sailors from dozens of nations made up roughly 15 percent of the people in the capital city of Le Cap. And a higher percentage of Saint-Domingue’s population was born on a different continent than anywhere else on earth.

This last statistic, however, was no evidence of cosmopolitanism. Rather, it reveals the deadly reason for Saint-Domingue’s prosperity: perhaps the most horrific system of slavery ever seen in human history. French plantation owners literally worked captive African laborers to death—over 5 percent of them died every year. Slave traders, however, more than met the hideous demand for labor. Between 1740 and 1789, the number of the enslaved in the colony more than quadrupled, to well over 450,000, which meant that a territory roughly the size of Maryland had two thirds the number of slaves who lived in the entire United States at the time. The enslaved outnumbered the white population by over fifteen to one, with a majority of the adults born in Africa. Early globalization was powered by captive humans.

Oppressive as it was, the system might have lasted, as similar systems did elsewhere in the Caribbean until well into the nineteenth century. But the French Revolution of 1789 fatally destabilized the political order in Saint-Domingue. It set different groups of white colonists against one another and against free people of color who were demanding the “rights of man and citizen” proclaimed in France, but apparently for whites only. Against this violent background, in 1791 enslaved people in Saint-Domingue staged the largest and most successful slave revolt in history. There followed, over the next thirteen years, the extraordinary series of events that now goes by the name of the Haitian Revolution.

French commissioners in Saint-Domingue, desperate to contain an increasingly brutal, multisided conflict, abolished slavery in the colony in 1793, and the radical French Republic soon extended abolition to the entire French overseas empire. Black forces led by the brilliant, charismatic former slave Toussaint Louverture came over to the republic’s side, and after several years managed to take effective control of Saint-Domingue. Louverture became governor-general, supposedly under the French flag but steering an increasingly independent course. In response to this, France’s new leader, Napoleon Bonaparte, sent a military expedition in 1801 to reassert French authority and reestablish slavery. It defeated Louverture (who died in a French prison in 1803), but was decimated by an epidemic of yellow fever, which allowed black forces to drive it out. On January 1, 1804, the new state of Haiti (supposedly the original Amerindian name of the island of Hispaniola) came into being.

For a long time, European and North American historians paid little attention to these developments. In their view, revolutions in this period involved Western, middle-class revolutionaries overthrowing aristocratic elites and establishing democratic institutions while paving the way for industrial capitalism. Haiti clearly did not fit this model, and it did not help that stories of “savage” Haitian blacks slaughtering innocent white colonists remained distressingly influential many decades into the twentieth century. Over the past generation, however, the old model of revolution has lost its appeal, while historians have become better attuned both to currents of global history and to “subaltern” voices. As a result, they now insist on the importance to world economic history of Saint-Domingue’s prerevolutionary plantation system (itself, ironically, an example of early industrial capitalism) and on the importance to world political history of its enslaved people claiming freedom and the rights of citizens. The “age of revolution” is no longer limited to Europe and the United States.

Two new books add significantly to this process of reevaluation, in very different ways. Julius Scott’s The Common Wind tells the extraordinary story of how circuits of commerce and exchange also became circuits of information and resistance for enslaved people throughout the Americas, both before and during the Haitian Revolution. Johnhenry Gonzalez’s Maroon Nation shows what happened after the revolution ended. Even as the new country’s rulers tried to revive the plantation system and reestablish the old circuits of commerce, Haitians quite successfully resisted. The result was to dramatically turn the country from the most globally connected place on earth into one of the most disconnected in the Western Hemisphere—but not, Gonzalez suggests, altogether unhappily. In other words, one book shows how the enslaved used structures largely created by their masters against their masters. The other shows how former slaves largely escaped these structures.


Scott’s book has a history of its own. He wrote it in the 1980s as his Ph.D. dissertation at Duke, but never revised it for publication. Nonetheless, the dissertation—first xeroxed, later downloaded—achieved levels of readership that most academic authors can only dream of (Scott is now retired after a long career teaching at the University of Michigan, and did not publish other books). Now, thanks to the efforts of the historian Marcus Rediker (who has provided a sprightly preface) and Verso, the manuscript has appeared, largely unrevised, between hard covers.

There has been a great flourishing of scholarly work on the revolutionary Caribbean since its composition, but The Common Wind still feels fresh. Scott has listened carefully for the voices—sometimes only whispers—that carried radical ideas and information around the Caribbean, leaving faint but distinct traces in the archives. He brilliantly translates to the Caribbean setting ideas originally developed by European historians about “history from below” and the ways “masterless,” itinerant men and women could drive political change. His prose beautifully evokes bustling ports and markets, remote jungle and mountain hideaways, wind-swept ship decks and fetid, cargo-laden hulls. At times there is almost a poetic atmosphere to the book, which appropriately takes its title from Wordsworth’s ode to Louverture: “There’s not a breathing of the common wind/That will forget thee.”

As Scott shows, the common wind of information and ideas proved utterly impossible for European colonial authorities to suppress. Black market women known as “higglers” traded news along with the fruits and vegetables they peddled from town to town throughout the region. Slaves passed on news as they accompanied their masters while traveling. And then there were the large communities of runaways and their descendants known as “maroons.” By the late eighteenth century, tens of thousands of them had established permanent settlements in remote regions of the larger Caribbean islands, in Jamaica even gaining formal recognition from the colonial authorities (although in return they had to agree, among other things, to send new fugitives back to slavery). They generally remained in regular contact with plantation slaves.

Most important for transmitting news and ideas between islands were sailors. Men of African descent, both enslaved and free, made up a sizable percentage of ship crews, especially on the small coast-hugging vessels known as droggers. Scott tells of a Bermuda-born slave named Joe Anderson who escaped his owner in 1779, despite wearing an iron collar and shackles, and spent the next fourteen years largely on Caribbean ships. And some white sailors, especially those “impressed” against their will into Britain’s Royal Navy (one such unfortunate described himself as having been sent into service “like a negro to a slave-ship”), developed a sense of kinship with slaves. On shore, sailors had plentiful contact with slaves. It is no surprise that a Jamaican slave owner in 1791 could speculate about “some unknown mode of conveying intelligence amongst Negroes.”

As this complaint suggested, information could be inflammatory. Enslaved people throughout the Caribbean learned of revolts by their brethren elsewhere. They learned of measures passed in other colonies to ameliorate the condition of slaves, and to put limits on the unspeakably cruel punishments inflicted by masters. They learned about the British slave ship Zong, whose crew threw 130 captives overboard in 1781 when its drinking water threatened to run out.

And especially, they learned about the Haitian Revolution. Jamaican newspapers deliberately did not report on the slave revolt of 1791, but within weeks Jamaican slaves knew what had happened and were adding stanzas about “the Negroes having made a rebellion at Hispaniola” to their traditional songs. The thousands of French colonists who fled war-scarred Saint-Domingue for elsewhere in the hemisphere brought along more detailed news of the revolution—and so did the slaves they often attempted to take with them. Several American states, fearful of the spark of rebellion, banned the importation of slaves from Saint-Domingue. Soon enough, Louverture’s government was itself actively spreading the revolutionary gospel.

As Scott might have noted, American newspapers, in part out of concerns about the Saint-Domingue trade, reported closely on events in the colony. In 1797 a New York City Democratic paper reprinted, in translation, a speech in which Louverture promised to “break asunder the chains of…our Brethren…still…under the shameful yoke of slavery…and to unite mankind into a race of brothers.”1 At the time, slavery was still legal in New York, and the idea of a black general in the American army was utterly unthinkable (the first black person to attain the rank did so in 1940). All this news had an effect. Over the next few years, slaves rebelled in many other parts of the Americas, as far away as Coro on the coast of Venezuela—although everywhere less successfully than in Saint-Domingue.


Had he chosen to revise his dissertation for publication, Scott might have included more about Saint-Domingue itself. He relies mostly on English- and Spanish-language sources and does not draw on the rich French colonial archives. As a result, while he shows definitively how circuits of information spread news about the Haitian Revolution through the Caribbean, he does not investigate how enslaved people in Saint-Domingue itself learned about events elsewhere, and how this information might have contributed to the outbreak and development of the slave revolt there. Much about the beginnings of this revolt remain mysterious, even today, as its leaders left few written records. We can only hope that a historian with Scott’s sleuthing skills will use his methodologies to illuminate it further. But The Common Wind already does an enormous amount to show how enslaved people functioned as active participants in the age of revolution.

In Scott’s book, Louverture appears as a largely sympathetic figure whose name became a symbol of hope for African-Americans and who had the “dream of rebuilding the colony after a decade of war and joining the family of nations on an equal basis.” But what did “rebuilding the colony” entail? For Louverture and his principal deputies, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henry Christophe, it meant reestablishing the plantation system and bringing exports of cash crops back to prerevolutionary levels. And this, in turn, meant reestablishing some version of the ferocious discipline needed to run sugar plantations, in particular. Louverture vehemently opposed slavery and promised workers a portion of plantation revenues, but he also imposed a stringent labor code that amounted to a kind of serfdom, prohibiting workers from leaving the land they worked. In 1801 he even ordered all citizens to carry identification cards to help authorities enforce the code, making Saint-Domingue the first country in history to adopt a full-fledged national identification system. Louverture, Dessalines, and Christophe appropriated some of the wealthiest plantations for their own personal property. And while the new plantation overseers did not use whips and chains, they beat recalcitrant workers with vines and subdued them with rope.

This is where Gonzalez’s pathbreaking Maroon Nation begins. As Gonzalez points out, few early leaders of independent Haiti had backgrounds as field slaves. Many had been free before the revolution, and some—primarily mixed-race descendants of white colonists—had even owned plantations and slaves themselves. Others, like Louverture and Christophe, had been skilled workers (Louverture gained his freedom in the 1770s and briefly owned at least one slave). These leaders most likely quite genuinely believed that unless they restored the plantation system the country would not have the resources to defend itself against possible reconquest and reenslavement. As they knew very well, Napoleon did successfully reimpose slavery elsewhere in the Caribbean. But they practiced an authoritarian style of rule enforced by a powerful military caste, accumulated vast personal wealth, and did not take the desires of the plantation workers into account.

These workers had made their desires very clear during the revolution. They did not just revolt against their masters in 1791. They burned plantations, smashed the hated industrial machinery of sugar production, and looked for land where they could grow their own food. By 1796, the value of Saint-Domingue’s exports had fallen to just 5 percent of prerevolutionary levels. Louverture’s “militarized plantation state” made some progress in restoring production, but a new wave of arson accompanied the chaos of Napoleon’s invasion, and by 1802 nearly every sugar plantation stood in ruins. Gonzalez calls the rebels more successful versions of Britain’s Luddite machine-breakers and describes the Haitian Revolution itself as “one of history’s most successful acts of industrial sabotage.”

The conflicts did not cease after independence, even as the country lurched from political crisis to crisis. Dessalines, who proclaimed himself emperor in imitation of Napoleon, continued Louverture’s policies and tried to prevent workers from leaving the plantations for small farms, but with little success. His assassination in 1806 led to Haiti’s partition into a northern state ruled by Christophe (who crowned himself its king in 1811) and a southern republic led by the mixed-race Alexandre Pétion. Christophe pursued Louverture’s policies forcefully, but his unpopular regime fell apart, and he committed suicide in 1820.

Pétion did more to accommodate the former slaves, issuing land grants to former soldiers and giving citizens title to land they farmed, on the condition that they start to raise cash crops. For these concessions, he won the nickname “Papa bon Coeur.” But he too kept trying to revive the plantation economy, as did his successor, Jean-Pierre Boyer, who reunited Haiti after Christophe’s death. In 1826 Boyer issued a repressive “rural code” to keep ordinary Haitians from moving into subsistence farming by punishing those who left their plantations. His efforts, like those of his predecessors, failed. By the 1820s, Haitians were actually buying sugar from Cuba, while as early as 1813, a country that had once needed to import food staples to feed its captive labor force had begun to export grain.

Ordinary Haitians used a variety of strategies, mostly derived from the experience of maroons before the revolution, to resist the attempts to put them back onto plantations. They organized into secret societies, many of which had African roots (for instance the Bizango, who traced their origins to the Bissagos Islands off the coast of Guinea-Bissau). They practiced the syncretic, African-derived religion of Vodou. Successive Haitian governments tried to stamp out these forms of what Gonzalez calls “counterinstitutionality,” but to no avail.

Most importantly, Haitians moved into remote areas of the country, out of reach of the authorities, and began to practice subsistence farming. Sometimes they simply squatted. Other times they purchased land, which had become plentiful and cheap, in part because the revolution had decimated the Haitian population (it almost certainly fell below 400,000 from above 500,000). Gonzalez estimates that a 3.2 acre plot probably cost the equivalent of 80 bottles of milk or 480 eggs. And the land, blessed with abundant sunshine and rain, proved as intensely fertile for subsistence farming as it had for sugar production. Haitians grew corn, beans, rice, millet, bananas, sweet potatoes, manioc, yams, pumpkins, and much else, often mixing crops together on the same small plots.

This resistance succeeded and had long-lasting effects. Gonzalez writes, “No other society in the Americas experienced such a widespread transition to small-scale freeholding, and no other witnessed more than two centuries of total breakdown in formal, elite-directed systems of landownership.” Even a nineteen-year occupation by the US Marine Corps in the early twentieth century did not result in a restoration of the plantation system. Haiti never cut itself off entirely from networks of global commerce. It continued to export coffee, which required less intensive methods of production than sugar. It also became an important producer of such goods as tortoiseshell, beeswax, mahogany, and dyewood. The profits allowed the country’s small elite to pay their soldiers and purchase luxuries from abroad. But the ruins of the sugar plantations quickly rotted in the tropical climate, and the large majority of Haitians lived as a “maroon nation”—well enough that in the century after independence, the population grew more than sixfold, to roughly 2.5 million people.

Gonzalez is still cautious about how well maroon resistance ultimately served the Haitians. Nineteenth-century Haitian society was “neither egalitarian nor democratic,” he writes. Most Haitians remained very poor and subject to abuses and exploitation by successive military dictators, whose rule several times collapsed into bouts of civil war. Of course, the fault hardly lay with Haitian elites alone. The Western powers shunned Haiti, with the United States extending diplomatic recognition only in 1862. France did the same in 1825, in return for crippling reparations for lost colonial property, including human property (Haiti did not fully pay off its debt until 1947). In agreeing to the deal, Gonzalez comments acidly, President Boyer “signed away his country’s future.”

In general, Gonzalez has little sympathy for the ruling elites. His work sits uneasily with recent scholarship that treats Dessalines and Christophe relatively favorably, although he in no sense endorses older interpretations of them as brutal buffoons.2 His views of Louverture recall biographies by French historians that have emphasized the man’s acquisitiveness and authoritarianism, rather than recent English-language works that are far more admiring.3 Louverture was a highly complex, imperfect leader, but he had an implacable commitment to liberating his people from slavery, and arguably pursued the policies he did because he believed they were the only way to make Saint-Domingue strong enough to preserve its freedom.

Even so, Gonzalez’s work superbly illuminates the condition of ordinary Haitians, and how their views and interests could differ from those of their rulers. It shows how African ideas and practices continued to shape Haitian society, and how these ideas and practices differed from those of the self-consciously Europeanized, French-speaking elites. It reminds us once again that revolution and capitalist economic development did not necessarily go hand in hand in the age of revolution. And it demonstrates forcefully that “globalization” has not always moved inexorably forward. It has had its reverses, its low tides, its eddies.

The Haitian story that Gonzalez recounts has an intriguing parallel elsewhere in the history of French colonialism. Before its annexation by Britain in 1763, French Canada was a remarkably cosmopolitan, economically advanced place, drawing ambitious migrants hoping to make fortunes from fur or fish and then to return to Europe. But after the annexation (to which France agreed, after losing the Seven Years’ War, in return for keeping the far more profitable Caribbean colonies), trade quickly passed into the hands of British merchants. French settlers, cut off from Europe, moved from trapping and trade to subsistence agriculture. Their community, increasingly dominated by the Catholic clergy, turned in on itself. As the historian Leslie Choquette argued in her aptly titled book Frenchmen into Peasants (1997), the most outward-looking and mobile French-speaking community in the world soon became the most closed-off and sedentary.4 Here too, then, globalization was reversed. And here, too, by one elementary measure the reversal proved amazingly beneficial. In the century and a half after 1763, the French-speaking population of the province may have grown as much as thirtyfold, to roughly two million.

In the twentieth century, of course, the fates of Haitians and French Canadians diverged radically. By 1900, the Haitian population had reached the limits of what subsistence farming could support, putting it under renewed strain. Unlike French Canadians, Haitians had few technological resources to increase agricultural productivity, and no industrial economy to migrate into (French Canadians particularly flocked to the mills of New England). The Haitian state remained little more than an army and a tax-collecting system, while the US occupation and successive dictatorships gave ordinary Haitians few opportunities to take control of their own destinies in the way French Canadians did in Quebec’s “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960s (which led to provincial autonomy and strong protection for the French language, among other things). In Haiti, natural disasters such as the 2010 earthquake, which took at least 100,000 lives, have only added to the misery.

But this immiseration can hardly be blamed on the country’s turn away from the plantation system, and it is hard to imagine that Haiti would have fared any better if its elites had succeeded in rebuilding that system. The maroon nation was always, in the eyes of the Western powers, a pariah nation, feared as an example of slave rebellion and black empowerment. These countries were not going to help it return to its previous levels of prosperity. And in the nineteenth century, at least, Gonzalez argues persuasively, “maroon” strategies served Haiti relatively well. “For black people in the nineteenth century,” he writes, Haiti “was the closest thing to a free country that existed anywhere in the New World.” It was not the sort of freedom toward which revolutionaries strove in Europe and North America, but it was a significant form of freedom nonetheless. It lacked, however, access to a “common wind,” based in circuits of commerce, to bring news of it to other shores.