By Chelsea Stieber
Given the growth in Haitian Studies over the last twenty years or so, the Haitian Revolution and its relationship to the Age of Revolution no longer requires the laborious contextualization and explanation it once did. The civil war context in post-independence Haiti, however, is decidedly less studied. As David Geggus reminds us, the Haitian Revolution was far from a unified effort but rather “several revolutions in one.” Moreover, the period was marked by intense regional and ideological conflict between revolutionary factions, culminating in a civil war between Toussaint Louverture and André Rigaud known as the War of the South or the War of Knives (1799–1800). Though the two sides united briefly in the final years of the battle for independence under the banner of Dessalines’ Armée indigène, the newly independent state of Haiti divided along these same lines: between North and South, between those who envisioned a military authoritarian regime and those who wished to establish an independent republic. These tensions culminated in Dessalines’ assassination in 1806 at the hands of the pro-republican faction, an act that triggered another decade of civil war with Henry Christophe leading the North, and Pétion and Boyer leading the South (1807–1820).
We must think outside of the simplistic, indeed specious, narratives that point to race as the cause of Haiti’s post-independence civil wars. I draw here on recent work from Marlene Daut that tackles the question of race head-on. In her excellent transatlantic literary history of the Haitian Revolution, Daut reveals how race was incessantly narrated “in a particularly ‘racialized’ way,” laying bare the discursive origins of a race-based idea of the Haitian Revolution that prevailed in the Atlantic imaginary. More important, she points to the way these 19th-century racialized narratives get co-opted by longer studies of Haiti’s history, such as in David Nicholls’ race-based explanations of Haitian historiography. As Daut points out, one of the biggest problems with these “racialized” historiographic narratives is that they foreclose other possible avenues for analyzing the Haitian experience. As Daut puts it, the race-based analytic frame “circumscribes our interpretive capacities” for understanding Haitian historiography.
Haitian Revolutionary historiography has long grappled with how to present Haitian Revolutionary agency beyond race. Carolyn Fick calls for a “certain degree of discernment” when approaching the “race question as a cause of civil war,” while Geggus argues that the War of the South was “in essence a regional power struggle.” Haitian historians Gaétan Mentor and Claude Auguste have each explored the War of the South in great detail and, while they do not eschew race entirely, provide a much more complex portrait of Haitian agency. More recently, John Garrigus has zeroed in on Haitian revolutionary historiography’s continued equivocation on the question of race in revolutionary civil war: “Historians have long portrayed Revolutionary-era conflicts between Saint-Domingue’s South and North provinces as racial warfare between ‘blacks’ and ‘mulattoes’ even while acknowledging that these labels were inaccurate.” Of course, these 20th-century historians aren’t the first to point out the problem with race in revolutionary civil wars, either. They are reactivating an argument made by Baron de Vastey in 1819, which concluded that European accounts of race in the Haitian Revolution got it all wrong (“ont tombé dans de grandes erreurs”) when they cast the Haitian civil war as one between “les nègres dans le Nord et les mulâtres dans le Sud.”
Yet if historiography of the revolutionary civil war has long interrogated the question of race, we have yet to broach the question of race and agency in studies of the immediate post-independence period—a moment that remains “in the historiographical shadows,” as Chris Bongie recently put it. How and why did newly-independent Haitians divide up the way that they did after 1804, between supporters of Dessalines’ military authoritarian state, and the “republican” opposition? Even less analyzed is how or why people divided up in the 1807–1820 civil war between North and South. Ever the pioneer, Vastey offered a rebuttal to the dominant race-based arguments of his time. He argued that it was the contingent factor of geography rather than the biological determinism of color that accounted for filiation in civil war: “dans nos guerres civiles, soit avec les blancs ou entre nous-mêmes, la population a pris part dans ces guerres, suivant le territoire où elle s’est trouvée placée, plutôt que suivant les opinions et les couleurs des individus.”