Schneider on Gonzalez, 'Maroon Nation: A History of Revolutionary Haiti'

Author: 
Johnhenry Gonzalez
Reviewer: 
Elena Schneider

Johnhenry Gonzalez. Maroon Nation: A History of Revolutionary Haiti. Yale Agrarian Studies Series. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019. Illustrations. 320 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-23008-6.

Reviewed by Elena Schneider (UC Berkeley) Published on H-LatAm (August, 2020) Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54697

During the summer of 2020, the Haitian Revolution haunts us again. The analogies with Black America’s ongoing struggle are only partial, but the resonance is there. Take for example the sensationalist ways whites have always depicted Black self-defense, the long-standing minimization and marginalization of Black liberation politics, and the ever-present, unavoidable role of violence in radical, systemic political change. That the revolution has entered public discussion in the United States reflects the remarkable outpouring of publications it has inspired in the last twenty-five years or so by such scholars as Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Carolyn Fick, Colin Dayan, Sibylle Fischer, Susan Buck-Morss, Marlene Daut, David Geggus, Laurent Dubois, and many others. The excitement generated by this rich vein of work has in part led to the “rediscovery” of such classics of Black radical thought as C. L. R. James’s The Black Jacobins (1938) and Julius Scott’s The Common Wind (2018). In both academic and public fora, such scholars as Doris Garraway, Brandon Byrd, Ada Ferrer, Alyssa Sepinwall, Jane Landers, Ashli White, Rebecca J. Scott, Jean Hébrard, Julia Gaffield, and Cristina Soriano have all drawn attention to Haiti’s revolution and its impacts. Through this combination of new and reemerging work in multiple disciplines and subfields, the Haitian Revolution has arguably been the most dynamic corner of Atlantic history. Its methodologies and findings have remade scholarship in other fields, including the history of the US Civil War, which scholars have begun to describe for the first time as an uprising of the enslaved.

And yet as much attention has been cast on Haiti’s revolution, far less has been published on the ensuing centuries of Haitian history. In Maroon Nation: A History of Revolutionary Haiti, Johnhenry Gonzalez seeks to fill that gap, building on recent scholarship on nineteenth-century Haiti by Julia Gaffield (Haitian Connections in the Atlantic World [2015]) and Jean Alix René (Haiti après l'esclavage: Formatoin de l'Etat et culture politique populaire (1804-1946) [2019])As Gonzalez claims, historians arguably know more about the impact of the Haitian Revolution beyond Haiti than in Haiti itself. Educators showcase the Haitian Revolution in their US, Latin American, and world history survey classes but then rarely speak Haiti’s name again, letting fall by the wayside the ongoing story of Haiti’s struggle to construct Black freedom in a world built on its suppression. In response to students’ queries—“What happened to Haiti?”—too often professors cite the indemnity that Haiti was forced to pay to France and move the camera (and history) elsewhere. Through this reductive lens, Haitian history becomes another episode in a triumphal Western narrative of the march toward “freedom,” rather than a searing critique of a capitalist and imperialist world system that is very much still with us today.

Maroon Nation responds to this problem by revisiting the revolution itself and then turning to the five decades that came afterward. Gonzalez combines the lenses of political economy, agrarian history, peasant studies, and comparative postemancipation studies to argue for Haiti’s “unprecedented triumph” during the revolution and its immediate aftermath, which saw the demise of sugar plantation agriculture and the surprising rise of sustainable food production and unprecedented demographic growth in a brutalized, postwar society (p. 48). Gonzalez poses a very different answer indeed to the students’ question of “What happened to Haiti?” The book argues that nineteenth-century “Haiti’s overgrown roads and hidden hillside farms were the willful creations of an independent-minded people who historically took advantage of an impenetrable and fiscally illegible landscape in order to flee forced labor, predatory taxation, and state repression” (p. 2). Thus Gonzalez reframes nineteenth-century Haitian history as a success story, whereby Haitians imagined and constructed something radically new and different, before the incursions of US imperialism and profound political dysfunction in the twentieth century.

Chapter 1 lays out what the author provocatively calls “the maroon nation thesis.” During the nineteenth century, the Haitian people effectively established a “maroon pattern of economic and social life” by which they flouted the efforts of governments and elites to coerce their agricultural labor and remade their relationship with the European- and North American-dominated Atlantic world economy (p. 11). Gonzalez connects the dots between the mass uprising of the enslaved during the revolution itself and resistance to state coercion and militarized agriculture during the early years of Haitian history. During this time the majority of Haiti’s population retreated from sugar plantation slavery into rural autonomy and small-scale subsistence agriculture, which led to relative prosperity and dramatic demographic recovery and growth. This made the nineteenth century a time when the jungle grew back over sugar plantations, literally and figuratively, and Haiti actually exported grain. “By settling in the hills and creating their own language, religion, and rural economic order,” Gonzalez claims, “the former slaves of Saint-Domingue made Haiti into history’s only maroon nation—an entire country whose defining cultural and economic institutions were created by runaways” (p. 15). A bold assertion that this review will return to in the final paragraph below, this idea provides the spine of the chapters that follow.

Chapter 2 revisits the period of the revolution, from 1791 to 1804, to trace the origins of what Gonzalez calls “postemancipation marronage.” The author sees the revolution’s assault on sugar plantation agriculture as “one of history’s most successful acts of industrial sabotage” (p. 35). In Gonzalez’s analysis these conflicts between the plantation and subsistence agriculture, or what Jean Casimir has called “the counter-plantation system,” began during the revolution and remained stubbornly present during Haiti’s early years of civil wars and coups.[1] Here Gonzalez leans on Sidney Mintz to argue that these early Haitian subsistence farmers represented a “reconstituted,” “runaway peasantry,” a point that might have been elaborated with more engagement with the scholarship on provision grounds under slavery and West and West Central African agricultural practices.[2]

Chapter 3 shows how from the 1790s to the 1840s, as despotic regimes rose and fell, a “fractious military elite remained committed to creating an economy based on forced labor” and the export of plantation crops (p. 84). The threat of external invasion and civil war served to justify the persistence of the plantation system as the only way to pay for a large military apparatus. “Liberty,” Gonzalez avows grimly, “was merely a word in the mouth of their rulers” (p. 128). Chapter 4 argues that Haitian “runaways” ultimately succeeded in their prolonged war of attrition against the plantation order. Gonzalez demonstrates how civil war and instability provided leverage for the formation of maroon communities and ongoing rural rebellion in early Haiti. Ultimately, the intertwined institutions of forced labor and the plantation system perished “as a result of prolonged civil wars, armed uprisings, land reform, and the rise of subsistence production, alongside the decentralized extraction of coffee and dyewood” (p. 87).

Chapter 5, arguably Maroon Nation’s strongest, addresses the dramatic transformation in land tenure in rural Haiti. Specifically, it deals with the decommodification of land—the breakdown of large-scale landownership into small-scale freeholding and subsistence agriculture, thus providing peasants with alternatives to sharecropping and wage labor, common practices in other postemancipation societies. The focus on land supports Gonzalez’s argument for the “triumph” of nineteenth-century Haitian history, a triumph located in the long-term transformation of space and the reconfiguration of Haiti’s relationship with global capitalist markets. As Gonzalez argues, this chapter may describe the single greatest achievement of postemancipation Haitian history—the rise of rural freeholding. Hand in hand with the reorganization of landholding came the emergence of the Haitian lakou system of agrarian family compounds, which reflected the rise of semiautonomous family communities partially based on African or maroon patterns of social organization.

As chapter 6 further argues, a “maroon economy” of subsistence production, small-scale cash crops, and tax evasion evolved in postemancipation Haiti, as a culmination of peasants’ protracted struggle to reclaim their labor and stake a claim to the land. In this chapter, Gonzalez relies on James C. Scott’s theorization of “the agriculture of escape” to explain how this form of resistance kept Haitians from being taxed and reflected the successes of rural autarky (p. 238).[3] These last two chapters state the importance of vodou as a site of resistance and a crucial part of Haitians’ powerful rural networks, though the religious and African contexts for rural Haiti’s nineteenth-century social fabric could have been developed further.

Gonzalez and Yale University Press have clearly pitched Maroon Nation—with its small trim size and light endnotes—to a crossover academic/trade readership. This choice is both a sign of the field’s success in recent decades and a potential pitfall for the author who must stake out a claim in a robust and dynamic historiography with limited scholarly apparatus. Scholars who have contributed to the vast literature on marronage as a historical phenomenon in Haiti (Carolyn Fick, Yvan Debbasch, Jean Fouchard), the Caribbean, and the rest of the Americas will be disappointed to find their work little mentioned. Often the book made me think of Neil Roberts’s influential work Freedom as Marronage (2015), cited in passing on page 12, which demands deeper engagement. Roberts’s theoretical text and the scholarship on Caribbean and Latin American marronage, particularly for Jamaica, might have helped the book find greater precision in its reliance on the concept of marronnage and its interchangeable use of the terms “maroon” and “runaway.” At times there seems to be slippage as to whether the author is invoking marronage as a writerly metaphor, as a theoretical concept quite similar to that explored by Roberts, or as a hemispheric historical phenomenon with African roots. Gonzalez’s research and analysis provide an intriguing opportunity to extend and deepen Roberts’s thinking on—among other topics—the relationship between marronnage and landholding, but the moment has been missed. Despite these criticisms, Maroon Nation pushes the conversation forward in important and necessary ways. The book deepens our understanding of nineteenth-century Haiti and seeks to understand what the revolution and its aftermath really meant and continues to mean for Haitians themselves.

Notes

[1]. Jean Casimir, The Caribbean: One and Divisible (Santiago de Chile: United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, 1992), 111.

[2]. Sidney Mintz, Caribbean Transformations (Chicago: Aldine, 1974), 146-56.

[3]. James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 178-219.

Citation: Elena Schneider. Review of Gonzalez, Johnhenry, Maroon Nation: A History of Revolutionary Haiti. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. August, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54697

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