The king of Haiti’s dream
How a utopian vision of Black freedom and self-government was undone in a world still in thrall to slavery and racism
By Marlene L. Daut
After declaring independence from France on 1 January 1804, Haiti became the first state anywhere to permanently outlaw slavery and ban imperial rule. By establishing a land of freedom in a world of slavery, Haiti’s founders – the generals Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Henry Christophe and Alexandre Pétion – challenged the contradictions of the western European Enlightenment, whose proponents had pronounced liberty and equality to be only for white men. ‘I have avenged America,’ proclaimed Dessalines, independent Haiti’s first leader.
To this day, Haitian independence remains the most significant development in the history of modern democracy. The theories undergirding it – that no human beings could ever be enslaved – continue to define contemporary political ideas about what it means to be free.
Despite the Haitian Revolution, much of the credit for the eventual destruction of the transatlantic slave trade and the elimination of Atlantic slavery has gone to French and British abolitionists. The Trinidadian historian Eric Williams complained about this in his groundbreaking book Capitalism and Slavery (1944) when he wrote of the abolitionists: ‘their importance has been seriously misunderstood and grossly exaggerated by men who have sacrificed scholarship to sentimentality and, like the scholastics of old, placed faith before reason and evidence’. Many historians have likewise chosen to forget that Haiti’s fight to end slavery in the Americas didn’t cease when the Haitian revolutionaries declared victory over France.