A spectacular corner of history: writing the Haitian Revolution

Issue: 145

Christian Høgsbjerg

A review of Philip Kaisary, The Haitian Revolution in the Literary Imagination: Radical Horizons, Conservative Constraints (University of Virginia Press, 2014), £25.50

Haiti is the country where Negro people stood up for the first time, affirming their determination to shape a world, a free world… Haiti represented for me the heroic Antilles, the African Antilles… Haiti is the most African of the Antilles. It is at the same time a country with a marvellous history: the first Negro epic of the New World was written by Haitians, people like Toussaint Louverture, Henri Christophe, Jean-Jacques Dessalines.

So declared the Martinican poet Aimé Césaire in a 1967 interview with the Haitian poet René Depestre, stressing the inspiration for him of the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, which led to the birth of the world’s first independent black republic outside Africa. Césaire’s classic anti-colonialist 1939 poem Notebook of a Return to My Native Land was a founding poetic text of the négritude (“blackness”) movement—a movement that influenced Depestre himself—and contained a powerful tribute to the tragic hero of the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint Louverture, evoking his period of imprisonment in the French Jura mountains at the treacherous Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s command: “a man alone, imprisoned by whiteness/a man alone who defies the white screams of a white death”.

From William Wordsworth’s mournful sonnet “To Toussaint L’Ouverture”, published in the year of Toussaint’s death in captivity in 1803, to musicians such as Sidney Bechet, Santana, Wyclef Jean, Charles Mingus and Courtney Pine, the Haitian Revolution has generated an “extraordinary and voluminous cultural archive”. As Philip Kaisary notes in this accessible and thought-provoking work on 20th century representations of this revolution, “a diverse array of writers, artists and intellectuals” were fascinated by an epic liberation struggle that “overthrew slavery, white supremacy and colonialism”.

The Haitian Revolution was a world-historic event, abolishing slavery for good in what was then the prized French sugar plantation colony of Saint Domingue. But with all too few exceptions it has tended to be overlooked or “silenced” amid the other great Atlantic revolutions of the period such as the American War of Independence and the Great French Revolution.That the Haitian Revolution went far further than the other two revolutions in its commitment to the principle of universal emancipation and human rights for all only reinforces what the late Haitian scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot called its “unthinkability” to prevailing Eurocentric modes of thought.

However, in the 20th century, from the inter-war period onwards, the combination of the brutal US military occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934, coupled with fascist Italy’s barbaric war on the people of Ethiopia in 1935, meant the collective memory of the Haitian Revolution took on new importance, meaning and inspiration for writers, artists and anti-colonial activists internationally. Some sense of the cultural impact here can be registered through the work of two legendary film directors, Orson Welles and Sergei Eisenstein. In America the Federal Theatre produced Welles’s play “Voodoo Macbeth” in 1936, which transferred the “Scottish play” to post-revolutionary Haiti, while, in both Mexico and then the Soviet Union, Eisenstein, the outstanding director of classic films about the Russian Revolution such as Strike, October and Battleship Potemkin, battled with first corporate Hollywood studios and then the Stalinist bureaucracy to try and make a film about the Haitian Revolution with Paul Robeson in the title role, surely one of the greatest movies never made.1

This intense inter-war period was a critical moment in what Kaisary has called “the development of a radical restoration of Haitian history” which articulated “a narrative of emancipation in which black agency and universal intent were central”. Within this radical tradition, Césaire looms large, with not only his Notebook, but also his 1963 play about Henri Christophe, another key figure of Haitian revolutionary and post-revolutionary history. The Tragedy of King Christophe is hailed by Kaisary as a play “that successfully combines a magnificent poetic symphony with a progressive-critical analysis of political decolonisation”. A foundational work in this radical tradition of writing about the Haitian Revolution was, of course, The Black Jacobins (1938) by the Trinidadian Marxist C L R James, who in the 1930s also wrote a remarkable dramatic representation of the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint Louverture (1934), a play later rewritten and entitled The Black Jacobins (1967). Kaisary rightly has a great respect for James’s work as a revolutionary historian, though he is not quite as generous to James’s skills as a playwright as I think is probably deserved.2

The Haitian Revolution also inspired many radical black American icons of the Harlem Renaissance including Paul Robeson (who starred in the title role of the London production of James’s Toussaint Louverture in 1936) but also Langston Hughes, who wrote a play The Emperor of Haiti (1936)—centred on Dessalines, who is restored by Hughes to something like his full importance as a fighter for black liberation—and an opera Troubled Island (1936). Another key Harlem Renaissance figure, Jacob Lawrence, undertook a famous series of 41 paintings entitled The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture (1938). This radical tradition, which defends the idea of the Haitian Revolution as a “decisive and transformational historical moment”, and which Kaisary identifies with, also includes such representations of the Haitian Revolution as René Depestre’s 1967 poem A Rainbow for the Christian West, which “mobilises the memory of the heroes of Haiti’s independence within the context of 200 years of global black resistance”. Kaisary also engages usefully with the visual art of black British artist Kimathi Donkor, whose 2004 series Caribbean Passion: Haiti 1804 is also located convincingly as a more recent and contemporary contribution to this rich radical tradition.

Yet Kaisary also delineates a strand of representation of the Haitian Revolution which conveys “visions of obscurity, tragic circularity, senseless violence, and history as eroticised fantasmics”. Examples discussed as “conservative retrievals” of the revolution include works by figures such as the Martinican writer Édouard Glissant, who Kaisary charges with a “later conservative retreat to cultural politics” which is apparently evident even in his relatively early play Monsieur Toussaint (1961). The Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier’s 1949 “marvellous realist” novel The Kingdom of This World, which though written from the standpoint of a slave, Ti Noel, for Kaisary overall “communicates a message of political conservatism” by drawing a continuity between pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary Haiti, as the former slave finally experiences forced labour building King Christophe’s citadel, “a slavery as abominable as that he had known on the plantation of M. Leonormand de Mezy”. For Kaisary, Carpentier is motivated by a cyclical view of history reminiscent of Oswald Spengler.

Likewise the trilogy of plays on the Haitian Revolution, Henri Christophe, Drums and Colours and The Haitian Earth written between 1949 and 1984 by the Saint Lucian poet and playwright Derek Walcott, is ultimately seen as a conservative work. Walcott’s Haitian dramaturgy, influenced clearly by Shakespearean tragedy, does effectively evoke the grandeur of the revolution, with the “black Jacobins” degenerating into “black Jacobean” kings, but for Kaisary it is driven by “theories of cyclical historical fatalism”. Those more familiar than this reviewer with the work of Glissant, Carpentier and Walcott will be able to draw their own conclusions about whether Kaisary’s charge of “conservatism” here is fair, but his arguments to me seemed to make an important contribution to debate, even if they are perhaps underdeveloped in places.

Perhaps most controversially and provocatively, Kaisary turns his critical gaze to another more recent Haitian revolutionary trilogy, the acclaimed historical novels of American writer Madison Smartt Bell, All Souls’ Rising, The Master of the Crossroad and The Stone that the Builder Refused. For Kaisary, Bell’s “efforts to revitalise the traditional historical novel as a vehicle to narrate the story of the Haitian Revolution succeeds only in communicating a conservative message which falls foul of stereotype and cliché”. Certainly, Bell’s more recent 2007 biography of Toussaint L’Ouverture is hardly the most radical portrait of Toussaint available (as Kaisary notes, Bell regurgitates a royalist conspiracy theory “explanation” of the August 1791 insurrection, and has little sympathy with or understanding of one of the most radical and intriguing figures of the Haitian Revolution, Moïse). Yet Kaisary’s judgement of Bell’s work as “a lifeless, violent trilogy, replete with stereotyping, masquerading as a liberal take on a seminal moment in world history” are—to me at least—both unconvincing and unfair.

Kaisary talks of Bell’s “overwhelming presentations of eroticised violence and the obfuscation of emancipatory politics”. Certainly to understand the Haitian Revolution in its full sense with respect to its relationship to both Enlightenment thinking and the importance of the French Revolution it is not enough to read Bell without reference to the historical writings of the likes of C L R James and, more recently, Robin Blackburn and Laurent Dubois. And perhaps in places Bell is unnecessarily gratuitous with respect to scenes of sex and violence. Yet, such foibles aside, Bell’s superb attention to detail, his deep understanding of Haitian vodou practice and his clear sympathy towards and identification with the liberation struggle waged by the black rebel slave army built up and led by Toussaint coupled with his profound skills with respect to literary characterisation mean that these novels are the complete opposite of “lifeless”.

Indeed, there is nothing else I have personally read that evokes such a feeling for how the revolution transformed the lives and fates of characters—some fictional, others based on real people—drawn from across the full spectrum of the slave society of colonial French Saint Domingue, and giving such a memorable sense of the mental, spiritual and physical climate of life in the colony as it underwent revolution. Reading Bell’s novels leaves one with an unforgettable sense of the tropical heat and atmosphere that induced lethargy among the master planter class and so debilitated European colonial troops, while his portrayals of revolutionary warfare easily stand comparison with the writings of Bernard Cornwell, author of the popular “Sharpe” series of historical novels, also set in the Napoleonic period.3 Whether Bell is best described as a “liberal” or a “conservative”, reading his Haitian literary trilogy, one cannot help but be reminded of Frederick Engels’s praise for Honoré de Balzac, who was very far politically from Engels’s Marxism but whose novels (especially The Human Comedy) Engels nonetheless admired, declaring Balzac a “master of realism” in his depiction of the clash between class forces in French “Society”.4

Overall, Kaisary makes a bold and brave bid to “draw out the situation and ideological thrust” of various representations of the Haitian Revolution “along a single axis of distinction, the radical and the conservative” to explore how “certain aesthetic modes of recuperating the Haitian Revolution have enabled or hindered particular political visions”. One of the strengths of Kaisary’s work is the wide range of cultural representations under discussion—history, poetry, theatre, novels, biography and visual arts, including even commemorative postage stamps produced to pay tribute to Haitian revolutionary history in Haiti itself, by the Republic of Dahomey (now Benin) in 1963, and Cuba in 1991. Anyone interested in Haiti and its history will find this work stimulating and an encouragement to delve deeper into the rich cultural archive inspired by what Kaisary calls “this spectacular corner of black revolutionary history”.

Though Kaisary maintains that he is “mounting a materialist critique that has been concerned to pay proper regard to the texts’ and artworks’ internal logics”, this critique could perhaps have been developed through a more detailed examination of the wider historical context in which these texts were written, and a more profound exploration of the kind of politics influencing each of the writers and artists. So we learn that Depestre’s youthful revolutionary politics—which produced his great poetical challenge to the imperialism of the “Christian West” in 1967—had given way by the 1980s to disillusion, disenchantment and an embrace of the French literary and even political establishment, but this political shift is not analysed.

In general, more needed to be said about the wider disillusionment with, for example, the new post-colonial regimes across Africa and the Caribbean following decolonisation in the post-war period, and how the hopes of statist, top down models of African and Caribbean “socialism” in the 1960s and 1970s were well and truly dashed by the 1980s. These unhappy developments undoubtedly had an impact on writers and artists engaging with the collective memory of the Haitian Revolution in the late 20th century. If Depestre is ultimately claimed by Kaisary for the “radical” camp, despite his later “conservative” political shift, perhaps there is something problematic about the way in which Kaisary attempts to draw such a fixed binary “axis of distinction” between “radical” and “conservative” camps more generally. Any artist drawn to the Haitian Revolution in a serious way it seems to me must at some time and on some level have been inspired by the revolutionary spirit of what Paul Foot once called “perhaps the most glorious victory of the oppressed over their oppressors in all history”, and a desire to honour and pay homage to that spirit. In our 21st century world of permanent war and imperialist barbarism the memory of the Haitian Revolution can serve as an inspiration still, and one can only echo Kaisary’s sentiments when he concludes by declaring that “it is _imperative to restore the voices of a revolution still resounding today, as radical founders in a still unfulfilled project of dignity, justice and liberation”.


1: On Eisenstein’s Haiti project, see Forsdick and Høgsbjerg, 2014.

2: This is not the place to develop this argument, but see the recent discussion around C L R James’s Toussaint Louverture in SXSalon: A Small Axe Literary Platform 16 (May 2014), http://smallaxe.net/wordpress3/discussions/2014/07/09/sx-salon-issue-16-may-2014/. For more of my thoughts on James’s masterful The Black Jacobins, see Høgsbjerg, 2010 and Høgsbjerg, 2014.

3: For further discussion of Madison Smartt Bell’s work, see Newsinger, 2006 and the discussion by various scholars of the Haitian Revolution in Small Axe 23 (June 2007). As an aside on Bernard Cornwell, it is a characteristic of the general “silencing” of the Haitian Revolution that while Cornwell’s hero Richard Sharpe has fought for the British army in the Napoleonic wars almost everywhere humanly possible, the one place he has not yet turned up is Saint Domingue. Here the mighty professional British army in the glorious age of Wellington suffered its greatest and most humiliating disaster in the whole Napoleonic period at the hands of Toussaint’s black rebel slave army when it tried and failed in its attempt to seize this prized colony for the British Empire and to reimpose slavery in the mid-1790s. Perhaps if Cornwell ever did write such a volume, it could be called Sharpe Outsmarted.

4: Engels, 1888.


Engels, Frederick, 1888, “Engels to Margaret Harkness In London” (April), www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1888/letters/88_04_15.htm

Forsdick, Charles, and Høgsbjerg, Christian, 2014, “Sergei Eisenstein and the Haitian Revolution: ‘The Confrontation Between Black and White Explodes Into Red’”, History Workshop Journal 78 (autumn).

Høgsbjerg, Christian, 2010, “C L R James and the Black Jacobins”, International Socialism, 126 (spring), www.isj.org.uk/?id=639

Høgsbjerg, Christian, 2014, C L R James in Imperial Britain (Duke University Press).

Newsinger, John, 2006, “Liberty and Equality in Haiti”, Socialist Review (February), www.socialistreview.org.uk/303/liberty-and-equality-haiti