In this bicentennial year of Haitian independence, it's a bitter irony that celebrations should be eclipsed by political crisis. French troops, whose evacuation two centuries ago led to the 1804 Proclamation of Independence, are back again patrolling the streets of Port-au-Prince. Once more, Haiti is haunted by instability, foreign intervention, and crushing poverty.
In this exhaustively researched and valuable account, Laurent Dubois, a history professor at Michigan State, looks back to the founding of Haiti. The Revolution, Dubois says, left "enduring scars" that included militarism, a tradition of dictatorship, and widespread economic hardship. In those brutal years between 1791 and 1804, more than 100,000 Haitians were killed. The Haitian economy, once the producer of half the sugar and coffee in the entire world, was ravaged.
In the period described by Dubois, Haiti fought and defeated three great European powers: France, Britain, and Spain. Moreover, the revolution liberated 90 percent of the population, which had been living under a brutal system of slavery. Haiti's was the first, and the only, successful slave revolt in the history of the world. Moreover, the Haitian Revolution would lead to the doubling of the size of the United States. It was Napoleon's loss of Haiti that convinced the overextended dictator to sell the Louisiana territory to the fledgling US.
Dubois opens the book with an impressively detailed description of Haiti's pre- Revolutionary history. Spain and France competed for the island, called Hispaniola, until the 1697 Treaty of Rhyswick granted the western part to France. The French called their colony St. Domingue and created a plantation economy based on sugar and coffee. Slaves were imported from French colonies in Africa, and an oligarchy of plantation owners ruled the land.
As Dubois tells it, the local planters resented political and economic interference from France. When decrees were sent from Paris about how slaves should be treated, the planters ignored them and treated their "property" as inhumanely as they wished. Yet there were changes in France that would have a huge impact on Haiti. In the late 18th century, French intellectuals were popularizing the case against slavery. Enlightenment thinkers such as Condorcet argued that slavery violated the laws of nature. Organizations such as the Société des Amis des Noirs demanded abolition.
The French Revolution changed everything by promoting universal ideals of liberty and equality. Plantation owners in Haiti tried to block the "dangerous" ideas coming from Paris, but the ideas spread among the slaves through smuggled pamphlets and by word of mouth. The Haitian Revolution began in August 1791 when slaves in the northern plains rebelled. Dubois describes how bands of slaves roamed the land, killing plantation owners, burning fields, and destroying equipment.
The slave insurgency escalated into a brutal civil war filled with atrocities on both sides. In early 1793, Britain and Spain declared war on Revolutionary France and so Haiti was embroiled in a larger conflict. The French Republic sent commissioners to Haiti who, hoping to attract ex-slaves to fight against Britain and Spain, decided to abolish slavery.
Haitian history changed forever in 1794 when Toussaint Louverture, an ex-slave, decided to fight for the French Republic. Within a few years, General Louverture would become the de facto military dictator of Haiti. He drove out the British and the Spanish, eliminated his rivals, and asserted control over the island nation.
Dubois adroitly describes Louverture's economic policies: The general chose to maintain the old plantation economy. Ex-slaves were given salaries, but they were forced to remain on the land. Louverture's failure to break up the plantation system was a crucial lost opportunity. The prerevolutionary economic inequalities, as well as a planter oligarchy, would continue to bedevil Haiti.
Napoleon Bonaparte resented Louverture's independence, and he coveted Haiti's wealth. In early 1802, Bonaparte sent his brother-in-law, General Leclerc, with a large army to reassert French dominance. Louverture and the Haitian people came to believe, quite rightly in the author's estimation, that Napoleon intended to reintroduce slavery. Dubois shows how Leclerc's men, some 80,000 in all, were caught in a military quagmire. After a year and a half of savage guerrilla warfare and an epidemic of yellow fever, 50,000 French soldiers were dead (Leclerc among them). Lourverture ended up dying in a French prison. In late 1803, a defeated French Army boarded ships and left.
On Jan. 1, 1804, Haiti proclaimed its independence in a moment of supreme hope. However, the centuries-old legacies of slavery and colonialism would not be so easily dismissed. Dubois, writing in an accessible style and with a wide-ranging focus, has done an impressive job depicting the tumultuous founding of Haiti. Readers wanting to place the Caribbean nation's current struggles in a larger historical context will find Dubois an eminently worthwhile resource.
• Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer in Quincy, Mass.