In response to:
Democracy’s Demagogues from the January 14, 2021 issue
To the Editors:
There are some dangerous misstatements and curious falsehoods in Ferdinand Mount’s recent review of David A. Bell’s Men on Horseback [NYR, January 14]. Mount states, “Haiti did eventually achieve independence, but only because Napoleon’s troops died of yellow fever by the thousands.” Although thousands of Napoleon’s troops did die of yellow fever, this is not the reason that the Black troops ultimately succeeded to create the first independent, slavery-free nation of the American hemisphere. Many of Napoleon’s troops also defected from his army due to lack of provisions. The Haitian revolutionaries strategically prevented the French from acquiring munitions and other necessary goods for subsistence, referred to as vivres. Moreover, calling themselves the indigenous army, under the leadership of General Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the Black troops used their superior military tactics and intimate knowledge of the terrain, both of which helped them to capture multiple strongholds across the island, to eventually force General Rochambeau (Leclerc had died of yellow fever in November 1802) to evacuate in November 1803.
Mount also introduced two other errors, astonishingly, in the same paragraph. First, no serious historian of the Haitian Revolution “hotly debate[s]” or even contests that Napoleon’s troops gassed people of color by the thousands. Second, the claim that the French troops got the gas from the “island’s volcanoes” is quite simply erroneous, as Haiti has not had an active volcanism for more than 10,000 years. On the whole, it is distressing to see that in 2021 nonspecialist historians are still using what Michel-Rolph Trouillot called “formulas of erasure” and “formulas of banalization” to silence the radical import of the Haitian Revolution: in other words, essentially claiming that Haiti’s independence only happened because of French mistakes rather than Haitian achievements. I hope that in the future interested readers might seek out accurate information on the meaning and significance of the Haitian Revolution.
Marlene L. Daut
Professor and Associate Director, Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies
Professor, Department of American Studies
University of Virginia
Ferdinand Mount replies:
I began by describing Toussaint Louverture as “liberator of Haiti and leader of the greatest slave revolt in history after Spartacus.” Not exactly “a formula of erasure”—or of “banalization,” come to that. I then pointed out that Louverture and the other charismatic leaders covered in David Bell’s book “were adored in the first place because they were genuine military heroes,” whose remarkable exploits “were accomplished with dash and daring, brilliant organizational and tactical skills, and often miserably ill-clad and ill-trained soldiers.” I don’t think, though, that the death of half the French invaders from yellow fever can be brushed aside as irrelevant to the victory of the Haitian Revolution. I am sure that Professor Daut is right about the details of the French atrocities, and I may well have been wrong in my hasty reading of the sources. But the real point that I wanted to make was that Louverture, like the other charismatics except for George Washington, cannot escape his share of the blame for the failure to establish a durable democracy after his death. The miserable later history of Haiti owes much to the greedy and brutal intrusions of the colonial powers, but quite a lot surely to Louverture’s own dictatorial tendencies.