ABOUT this AMAZING REVOLUTION ...
The revolution that created the country now known as Haiti is one of the most remarkable and dramatic events in history. It is full of the stuff of novels: wealth, skullduggery, pirates, fierce battles, politics, love, betrayal and murder. It is also a singularly useful key for understanding the development of the Western Hemisphere over the last 200 years.
Coming as it did hot on the heels of the American and French Revolutions, the Haitian Revolution expressed in violent and radical terms – and perhaps with more earnest purity than her sisters before her – the Enlightenment values of equality and liberty. It was also a rare and intriguing moment. For all of its kinship with the two revolutions that preceded it, paradoxically, it was the first of its kind anywhere on the planet.
So why has this seminal revolution -- and its extraordinary leader, Toussaint Louverture -- been forgotten? Basically because they were way too far ahead of their time. The radical fomenting of a Black Republic only a few hundred miles from the shores of the fragile, fledgling union of American states created a powerful threat to a burgeoning economy that was heavily dependent on servile blacks. It was a direct challenge to America's semi-revolutionaries. If the U.S. acknowledged it, America's entire, wispy house of cards would collapse. Such a thing would have been economic suicide for the great trading nations of the time, as well as for the embryonic U.S.
Called La Española by Christopher Columbus and restored to its original name (Hayti) by the Africans who were its unwitting inheritors, Haiti as a republic seemed to land in the Caribbean like a radioactive meteorite, frightening those who watched its fiery entry from afar, jostling the earth, and altering the DNA of slave societies for thousands of miles. The impact was so extraordinary, it reverberates yet today. The United States doubled its size thanks to the splash she made., setting the stage for its growth from upstart nation then into the world superpower that it is today.
While politicians in the big land to the North debated and deliberated just who the words "freedom and justice for all" should apply to, Haiti knew, and acted. Haiti lent the Latin American revolutionary Simon Bolivar arms, money, and respite to aid his struggle. In return Bolivar promised to spread emancipation in the lands he liberated. He'd given no guarantee, but spread it he did. Slaves in the US, Brazil, and Jamaica rose up, inspired by Haiti's example.
But before we put Haiti on too high a pedestal, though, we must acknowledge her shortcomings. Her revolution wasn't easy, and it wasn't clean. The struggle was scarred by violence. Hatred of the blancs, though fiercely held in check for much of the period by Toussaint Louverture, eventually became the bitter legacy of her independence. Ever since, wildly differing viewpoints and an inability to compromise have kept this little country in almost constant turmoil. Despite coming together for a revolution, Haiti hasn't quite been able to come together as a country. Through a nearly unbroken 200-year stretch, a series of cruel, self-centered and predatory dictators have squandered her resources, she has failed to create a legacy of education and historical knowledge, and she has alienated her neighbors. Though the governments of the US, France, Germany, Spain, Great Britain, and others own large portions of blame for Haiti's stunted growth, Haiti's governments (and to a markedly lesser extent her people) must accept their own share of the blame as well.
So here is what is written in the pages that follow: the glitter, the turbulent history, the failed opportunities of Haiti's people and her leaders, and the failure of those abroad who have kept Haiti within an isolated band of crushing, unrelenting pressure.
Haiti's revolution cannot be read in a linear, straightforward fashion; threads overlap, and many seemingly contradictory things are true at once. In seven months of nearly full-time study of this history and its ramifications, at which point I began assembling this Wiki, I'd only begun to sense the roughest outlines of its form. I had also learned that, as Bernard Bailyn pointed out, the word "revolution" is hardly an accurate descriptor. What happened in Haiti "was the unfolding of a process whose deepest urge was emancipation." (Bailyn, 2004) I have learned that Haiti suffers from more than a lack of food and stability. She lacks also an historical memory. And she desperately lacks any effective interest from the world community.
She also has lacked the scholarly attention that can be instrumental in underwriting her story and nailing it to the forehead of global conscience, where it should have been long ago. Interestingly, this is where the ground has been shifting of late. Over the past two decades, a surge of scholarly interest in Haiti was spurred by the republic's then-approaching 200th anniversary (1 January 2004). The resulting spectrum of interviews, stage plays, newspaper and magazine articles, talks, forums and books have fanned the tiny spark at Haiti's heart. Presenting her history here -- in a living, breathing format -- nurtures that persistent spark. And with that, anything is possible.
For these reasons, the Haitian Revolution is the perfect subject for the experimental history project that you're reading now. The fluid, adaptable, content-rich form of the Wiki provides a boon to readers, writers, and researchers alike.
Most Wikis – like the seminal Wikipedia, whose software engine we are using here – are designed to collect and organize facts and data. The Wikipedia itself aims to be a general-purpose resource, a free online encyclopedia. The Disinfopedia collects information related to propaganda. A few Wikis have also experimented with creating collaborative stories.
This Wiki is different from others in that its narrative is an integral part of the structure. You get the individual encyclopedic facts in context. This, then is a magic book through which you will freely explore topics, characters and claims at any depth and in any fashion you choose.
In true Wiki spirit, we are creating this narrative together, you and I. I've started the ball rolling. You can edit any page, and add links and information, participating in building this online resource. With your collaboration, this site will grow into the definitive online collection of Haitian history. I'd like to include pictures, texts, even photocopies of archival materials; but ultimately all of us – as a community – will decide what stays and what goes, what's included, and what's left out. It is highly appropriate that this radical new tool, the Wiki, matured in the year of Haiti's bicentennial, and thus it is fitting that Haitian history should be collected and expressed with it.
Finally, it may seem odd to create an online history about a country for which the majority of citizens have never even seen the Internet. It's preposterous on the face of it; I know this. Yet the people who most need to understand Haitian history are not Haitians. Even more than its own citizens, the rest of us must comprehend that Haiti is not just the dysfunctional country that we see every few years on the news. Haiti is not just desperate poverty, and wasted land and political turmoil.
Haiti is a land where an oppressed people stood up, against terrible odds, and claimed their independence, their dignity, and their humanity. Haiti was the scene of a startlingly courageous and noble uprising, a revolution that echoed our own and went it one better.
Haiti once was stunningly, evilly rich. She bought her freedom with those riches, and in that one magnificent move she shone as never before. It was, grievously, an accomplishment way before its time. The world was unable to tolerate such magnificence. So were the people who came after Toussant Louverture, the man under whose hand Haiti glittered when it had lost everything but its freedom. Those who betrayed Toussaint after the revolution betrayed Haiti herself.
Ever since, the little republic has been pulled apart, corroding continuously from without and within until there's barely anything left. But there is something. There is its history, the inherent pride of its people, its centuries-old contributions to the world as we know it today. The spark lives. It needs only to be nurtured, intelligently fanned, helped judiciously to relight itself as it can and it must.
And so we in the United States -- we in the entire civilized world -- need to understand this history. We need this project as much as Haiti does, and perhaps more. After all, by errors of omission and commission, we created her. And she, in ways both tangible and tenuous as you will see, created us. We planted the seeds, watered them, and reaped the fruits; and when the land tried merely to reclaim its own, we salted it.
The Haitian Revolution has been ground into obscurity, but it cannot -- will not -- stay there. Two hundred years on, it is high time that we all regain a sense of balance and begin the road to repair. It's time we remembered. And acted. This is the beginning.