In today’s post, Julia Gaffield, Assistant Professor of History at Georgia State University, interviews Marlene L. Daut on her new book Baron de Vastey and the Origins of Black Atlantic Humanism, which was recently published by Palgrave Macmillan’s series in the New Urban Atlantic.
Julia Gaffield: The Enlightenment is both central to and in conflict with the emergence of Black Atlantic humanism. What is Black Atlantic humanism? How does it inform our understanding of universalism?
Marlene Daut: In his writing, Baron de Vastey (1781-1820) highlights how Enlightenment-era thinkers attempted to categorize all manner of objects (plants, birds, rocks, flowers), which in turn led them to create hierarchies of humanity. The hierarchies created by natural historians like Comte de Buffon, Edward Long, and M.L.E. Moreau de Saint-Méry ended up being used to support slavery and justify racial prejudices. Instead of promoting universal liberty and equality among humankind, which many so-called philosophes had gestured towards as the goal of enlightenment, the Enlightenment writ large was responsible for the development of entire racial taxonomies that placed white Europeans at the top of humanity and Black Africans at the bottom.
The Black Atlantic humanists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, of which Baron de Vastey was a distinct and important part, contested this so-called Enlightenment by revealing it to be utterly devoid of the humanity in whose name it was developed and proclaimed. In this book, I return to some of the first writers of African descent who criticized the Enlightenment, as such. Those authors were people like Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797), Ottobah Cugoano (1757-1791), and Baron de Vastey. This movement of counter-Enlightenment is what I call Black Atlantic humanism precisely because of the tension involved in that formulation. Humanism has a bad name today because it is associated with the Enlightenment, which many scholars now acknowledge reflects the racisms of the early modern world, and because it suggests the primacy of human beings in the animal kingdom and in the environment, more broadly. But Black Atlantic humanists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries thought that the universalisms of the Enlightenment were good—liberty and equality for all human beings—but that the practices of slavery, colonialism, and prejudice were undermining them. That is to say, the metaphysics of Enlightenment universalisms, in theory, were absolutely central for “civilization” to someone like Baron de Vastey. But, he recognized the Enlightenment as a failure thus far because European society, consumed with racism, pride, greed, and a corruption of the soul, had deemed a large part of humankind unequal and therefore not subject to universalities.
Gaffield: Why is Baron de Vastey’s historical role marginalized in the twenty first century?
Daut: After the Haitian Revolution, many abolitionists from the Atlantic World grappled with the fact of Haitian independence. It was easy for writers of the early nineteenth-century to oppose early Haitian sovereignty on the grounds of the absolute violence that had been used to achieve it. Vastey was one of the first writers of color to say, well, hold on a minute: the Haitian Revolution was violent, yes, but that’s because the French colonists had committed “unheard of crimes that made nature shudder.” In his most important work, Le Système colonial dévoilé (1814), Vastey called out the already voluminous writings on the Haitian Revolution that decried the violence of the formerly enslaved while forgetting the inherent violence of slavery itself. It is telling that Vastey’s most damning exposé of the inhumanity of colonialism was never fully translated into English in his own era and has only recently been translated in our own. The catalog of abuses he records is in large part responsible for that, to my mind.
Vastey was a complex historical figure for other reasons, too. He was a phenotypically white writer with a French colonist, slave-owning father and a free woman of color as a mother. This son of an enslaver ended up being the principal secretary of Haiti’s King Henry Christophe I. I think there is still some uneasiness about the role of the state, even, or maybe especially, a Black state, in the Black radical tradition. If Vastey was a state actor, then was he truly a radical? This is not a question that my book seeks to answer. Instead, I think we should try to understand who Baron de Vastey was, as a man of his own era, and less who we would have wanted the person who wrote these amazing avant la lettre anti-slavery, anti-colonial, and pro-Black sovereignty texts to be in our own era.