Illuminating Haitian Revolutionary Ideas

June 4, 2024

By Natalie DeVaull-Robichaud

In her new book, Awakening the Ashes: An Intellectual History of the Haitian Revolution (University of North Carolina Press), Marlene L. Daut, Professor of French and of African American Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, focuses on the work of Haitian scholars and historians who have been silenced for centuries.

Marlene Daut is accustomed to explaining the Haitian Revolution, a movement that led to the founding of the first nation to ban slavery and colonialism. Many outside the field, Daut finds, are unfamiliar with the Haitian revolutionary philosophies that have profoundly shaped modern ideas of freedom and equality.

This is because, Daut explains, Haitian scholars and historians have been largely silenced in and excluded from Western historiography.

The silencing of Haitian perspectives was recognized even by contemporaries to the revolution. In 1814, Baron de Vastey, secretary to King Henry Christophe, the first and only king of Haiti, declared he would “awaken the ashes” of the dead to share the history of slavery and revolution from the Haitian perspective. And yet Vastey’s account, like so many of his contemporaries and later Haitian historians, has rarely been included or credited in Western philosophies. Instead, Haiti has been presented through the eyes of “visitors” whose white supremacist beliefs were threatened by Haiti’s anti-racist principles.

In Awakening the Ashes, which was recently awarded Honorable Mention for the Mary Alice and Philip Boucher Book Prize by the French Colonial Historical Society, Daut situates the Haitian Revolution within the global history of ideas and explores the reasons for the multi-generational silences surrounding Haitian leaders and scholars’ intellectual contributions to the Age of Revolutions.

She spoke to Natalie DeVaull-Robichaud of the FAS Dean’s Office about why we need to rethink our understanding of history. This interview has been edited and condensed.

What brought you to write Awakening the Ashes?

Daut: I was always very interested in how Haitians wrote and thought about their revolution. In this book, I wanted to follow, through Haitian eyes, the events of the Haitian Revolution as they were unfolding and in the long aftermath. I wondered – what would the story be like? A lot of people have written that the Haitian Revolution must have been inspired by the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights Man –  the ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity –  but, actually, we find that the Haitian revolutionaries were far more inspired by events that seemed to directly relate to what they wanted to do, which was end slavery, rather than the idea of overthrowing the monarchy in France, which would have been very abstract to most people on the ground in Saint-Domingue, as Haiti was then called.

In your book, you describe the widespread influence of the Haitian Revolution’s ideas and principles. How have these ideas shaped modern understandings of freedom and equality?

Daut: Most people associate the ideals of liberty and equality with the European enlightenment and major events like the French Revolution and the American Revolution, even though slavery was ongoing after both. It’s very telling how often Haiti is left out of the story of transatlantic abolition since in 1804 Haitians declared not only independence from France, but directly afterward they created the first slavery-free nation in the world with their first constitution in 1805. Haiti was the first country to permanently abolish slavery and the slave trade.

The idea that human beings should not enslave other human beings, as a principle, only starts with the Haitian Revolution; before that time, people living in practically every area of the world had practiced slavery at some point. What the Haitian revolutionaries did was to declare that slavery was not acceptable anywhere or in any time period. It was not acceptable previous to the revolution; it wasn’t acceptable in their era, and it would never be acceptable in the future. And I think that what’s so powerful about the story of abolition, when we tell it in its fullness, with Haiti at the center, is it’s the moment when the world undergoes a dramatic change, the likes of which have little parallel.  For the first time, an entire nation of people, hundreds of thousands of them said: you cannot treat other human beings this way – not on a small scale, as in what we call ancient slavery, and not on a gigantic scale, as in chattel slavery and the Atlantic slave trade – not on any scale. And that is the difference that we see here with Haiti’s revolution.

What is also often ignored is that Haiti’s government banished colonialism and conquest in its first constitution, and the Haitian government put out the first statements of any country in the world declaring slavery and the slave-trade crimes against humanity. A Haitian writer in 1814 also coined the term “white supremacy,” and another Haitian writer in 1824 coined the term “racism,” which does not appear in French, English, or Spanish until the late 19th century and not in the U.S. until the early 20th century. And so the freedom from slavery that Haitians instituted as a human right, of course, lives on today when we trace the links between the transatlantic abolitionist movement of the 19th century and modern human rights, for example, but Haitians also gave us the tools to understand what undergirded both the colonial system and the terrible regime of slavery: racism and white supremacy, which they named as such.

You explore the role of historical bias in the “forgetting” of Haitian revolutionary philosophers. What advice do you have for contemporary scholars and students in terms of the power dynamics involved in reading practices?

Daut: Read fully and generously. One of the reasons I wanted to write this book was because a lot of the Haitian sources are in French and so the texts remain largely inaccessible to anyone who cannot read in that language; and it is a shame for these writings to not be read because these 18th century revolutionaries and 19th century writers told the story of the Haitian Revolution so beautifully, and I felt that, by using quotes from them translated into English, I could help students and other curious readers want to know more.

We’re talking a lot about slavery at Yale and around the world, but specifically, in terms of these university contexts, we should also consistently bring Haiti into the story so that eventually there will be less of those aha moments, particularly for students, regarding the basic principles of the Haitian Revolution. I truly look forward to the day when everyone knows about the Haitian Revolution and we’re having a different conversation in the classroom because the lesson would turn to some of the more complex and nuanced ideas. But for now, we usually must start with: here’s this event, and here’s what happened and why. While we’re still at an early stage in terms of being able to ensure that the Haitian Revolution is a part of standard curricula, I think we can get there because we’re talking more about the Haitian Revolution than ever before in public. And I hope that continues.

Baron de Vastey’s phrase “awakening the ashes” refers to hearing the voices of the dead. How do we talk with the dead rather than about them?

Daut: I started to feel a weight and responsibility as I was writing this book. I don’t work with living subjects, so I’m not asking permission or showing them what I’m going to say to make sure that what I write is a faithful rendition or interpretation of what my sources told me. I’m not interviewing people. But the people I’m writing about had many perspectives, points of view, and ideas. I wanted to honor their thoughts, and I wanted to bring in their analyses. I felt as if I really imbibed the principles that the Haitian revolutionaries and other intellectuals from the time period insisted upon: to honor the dead and their stories and to try to tell the story of the Haitian Revolution with as much humanity as possible. Baron de Vastey, who coined that phrase “awakening the ashes,” was saying to the dead: I’m going to get justice for your story. I can’t get justice for your life, but I can get justice for your story. And how prescient was he in 1814 to essentially say, I know, colonists and enslavers, your hearts are more hardened than bronze and steel; I know I will not reach you, but I will write this down so one day, someone somewhere will read it, and they will know of these crimes. And today, every time I teach his book, The Colonial System Unveiled, my students are blown away – they can’t believe it was written in 1814 because of how modern and forceful it seems, and how, at the same time, it’s very theoretical and historical, in terms of theorizing slavery and documenting with incredible precision the everyday torments enslaved people experienced at the hands of their enslavers. And so here we all are, in the twenty-first century, reading the testimonies he collected and spreading his words more than two hundred years later.

Why do you think Haiti and Haitians have been regarded as “inconvenient”?

Daut: It was very inconvenient for the Haitian revolutionaries to point out that no one should ever enslave anyone else. It’s strange to think about how if Haitians wanted to be the enslavers themselves, the Atlantic world powers would have understood that more than declaring that slavery should not exist at all and legislating that into reality. The French economists and politicians were saying: If we lose Saint-Domingue, what is this going to do to our economy? The economy will be destroyed. Great Britain and the U.S. were saying: If slavery is abolished in our lands, as in Haiti, it’s going to destroy our economy. They could not conceive of a world in which forced labor didn’t exist; it had existed for so long in their minds, in fact, that they could no longer think back to a time when that wasn’t the case. That’s why the Haitian revolutionaries took so much inspiration from the first inhabitants of the island where Haiti sits, the indigenous population. The Haitian revolutionaries looked back to a time when chattel slavery did not exist on the island, pre-Columbus, and chose to take that era as their inspiration for what modern Haiti could be: a land free of European invaders and enslavers.

The book ends with the lines: “The Haitian Revolution did not fail the world. The world failed the Haitian Revolution.” Can you share your thoughts on this?

Daut: The principles of the Haitian revolution are good and right – and we know that because we live in a world in which almost everyone accepts that slavery is wrong. It’s a crime against humanity and should not be allowed to exist anywhere. But the principle has not been universally followed. Modern human trafficking exists, even though it is not any longer sanctioned by nation states; but many nations, our own included, do continue to engage in state sanctioned practices of neoimperialism and neocolonialism. And the latter has harmed the Haitian people immeasurably. It continues to do so. I would say we can live up to the ideals of the of the Haitian revolution – we don’t have to fail them, but then we do have to commit to the end of slavery and the end of colonialism.

What do you hope that readers will take away from Awakening the Ashes?

Daut: A lot of people don’t really think about the 18th and 19th century as a period of outgrowth and flourishing in Haitian writing; when people think of Haitian literature their notions are usually more tied to the 20th century and to now the 21st century. And when so when people say, it was great to discover all these writers and thinkers and take inspiration from their fight and their struggle, it’s very gratifying to me. There were so many thousands of people writing about the Haitian revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, but Awakening the Ashes is about highlighting the Haitian voices in the story.

Marlene L. Daut is Professor of French and of African American Studies in FAS. Her book, Awakening the Ashes: An Intellectual History of the Haitian Revolution, is available from University of North Carolina Press.

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