The revolution which created the country now known as Haiti is one of the most remarkable and dramatic events in history, and remains a singularly useful key for understanding development in the Western Hemisphere over the last 200 years. Coming as it did hot upon 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.
Yet the Revolution has been forgotten. The example of a Black Republic only a few hundred miles from the shores of the fledgling and fragile union of American states created a powerful threat to an economy dependent on servile blacks. America's break with Britain wasn't a full revolution, after all. It was, of necessity, just enough of a turn to ensure independence, and the country would have to complete the wrenching final twists towards full emancipation and suffrage over time. The radical example of Haiti in the Caribbean was a direct challenge to America's semi-revolutionaries, one that could not be acknowledged, lest the whole house of cards collapse.
Called Saint Domingue by Columbus and restored to its original name by the Africans who were its unwitting inheritors, Haiti landed 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 United States doubled its size thanks to the splash she made. Slaves in the US, Brazil, and Jamaica rose up, inspired by her example. Haiti lent Latin American revolutionary Simon Bolivar arms, money, and respite to aid his struggle, in return only for a promise to spread emancipation in the lands he liberated. While politicians to the North debated and deliberated just who the words "freedom and justice for all" should apply to, Haiti knew, and Haiti acted.
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. Violence was a hallmark of the struggle, and hatred of the ''blancs'', though fiercely held in check for much of the period by Toussaint Louverture, eventually won out as a legacy of Independence. A society with wildly differing viewpoints and an inability to compromise has kept the little country in almost constant turmoil. Despite coming together for a revolution, Haiti hasn't quite been able to come together as a country. She has squandered her resources, she has failed to create a legacy of education and historical knowledge, and she has alienated her neighbors. Though the US, France, Germany, Spain, Great Britain, and others own large portions of blame for Haiti's stunted growth, Haiti herself can lay claim to as much.
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, I've only begun to sense the roughest outlines of its form. I have 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. It also suffers from such things as a lack of historical memory, a lack of interest by the world community, and from a lack of scholarly attention (though there has been a resurgence in the latter over the past two decades). For these reasons, it seems to me that the Haitian Revolution is the perfect subject for an experimental history project such as the one you're reading now. The fluid, adaptable, and 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 will use 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 will be different from others in that narrative will be an integral part of the structure, so that the individual encyclopedic facts will have some context. The "Big Idea" would be that this is a magic book that allows the reader to explore topics, characters, and claims at any depth and in any fashion he chooses.
Of course, consistent with the very nature of a Wiki, we will be creating this narrative together, you and I. I'm starting the ball rolling, but you can edit any page, add links and information, and participate in building this online resource. I'd like for this site to 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 seems highly appropriate to me that this radical new tool, the Wiki, has matured in the year of Haiti's bicentennial, and that Haitian history should be collected and expressed with it.
Finally, it may seem rather odd to create an online history about a country for which the majority of citizens have never even seen the Internet. It is. It's preposterous, on the face of it, I know this. Yet the people who need to understand Haitian history the most are not Haitians. The rest of the world needs to understand what Haiti is. They need to understand that Haiti is not just the dysfunctional country that we see every few years on the news. Haiti is not just desperate poverty and political turmoil. Haiti is a land where an oppressed people stood up and claimed their independence, their dignity, and their humanity. Haiti was the scene of an impressively courageous and noble uprising, a revolution which echoed our own and went it one better.
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, 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 forgotten. It's time we remembered.