Jeremy D. Popkin’s Facing Racial Revolution: Eyewitness Accounts of the Haitian Insurrection (2008) is a revealing compilation of primary sources related to the uprisings in Haiti during the 1790s and the early nineteenth century. The work is useful for both the primary sources themselves and for Popkin’s commentary at the beginning, end, and throughout the chapters. Without Popkin’s commentary, in fact, it would be difficult at times—perhaps impossible—to appreciate the historical context of the accounts. The accounts themselves range between those of slave masters, plantation laborers, women, and childhood accounts. Because of the historical reality that it tends to be the privileged who are able to leave a record, the recollections are of whites who survived one stage or another of the uprising/insurrection/revolution. This fact does not diminish their worth, however, in achieving a sense of the culture and psychology of the white ruling class and the white labor class. It also reveals some insights into the lives of the free people of color who played an integral role in the uprisings and initial demand for rights.
Reading of the events of Haiti in this era, including Popkin’s commentary, the thought arises that the Haitian Revolution is not dissimilar from that of the French Revolution. Not only are they inexplicably tied to each other for the obvious connection of Saint Domingue being a French colony at the time of the uprisings, but they are also connected in how they are both cases of revolution that transpired in relatively rapid succession, transforming both the political and economic realities of its participants. The ever-shifting ground of alliances, priorities, and sense of nationhood—as well as the rampant bloodshed—also connect the two Revolutions. It is indeed interesting that, as the French Revolution precipitated the Haitian Revolution, the Haitian uprisings forced issues of slavery and racism to become a point of focus for the French Republic. Though these were topics of discussion prior to 1789, the re-establishment of the Estates General and the inception of the National Assembly that followed brought more focus to the problem of French colonialism. France’s ill-fated attempt to regain control of Haiti and return it to a state of slavery during Napoleon’s rein also demonstrate how far France betrayed its ideals of liberty that soon faded along with the eighteenth century.
The reality of Saint Domingue’s importance to trade in the eighteenth century cannot be overstated. As Popkin observes, at the time of the French Revolution, Saint Domingue produced half the world’s supply of sugar and coffee and also produced other valuable exports, including molasses, indigo, and cotton. The importance of production facilitated an extraordinary and constant influx of slaves. Historians (Popkin and others) have noted that the brutality of treatment slaves endured in the West Indies meant a short lifespan and thus a continuous flow of new slaves imported in. This brutal treatment, combined with the lack of political status of free people of color (many of whom ran their own plantations and owned slaves as well), contributed to a social, economic, and political powder keg.
The primary sources within Popkin’s work are often made up of people attempting to make sense of the chaos. People like M. Gros sought not to simply record his experience as a prisoner of black insurgents in the early stages of the insurrection but, as Popkin suggests, “to indict the white authorities he held responsible for the loss of the eastern part of Saint-Domingue’s North Province” (107) and who claimed of a royalist plot to encourage the black uprising. Other primary sources, themselves fictional in nature but nevertheless revealing for what they might imply about the author’s psychology, comment on the final stages of the Haitian Revolution. “Mary Hassal’s” (Leonora Sansay) Secret History, for example, (who, it is presumed, had an affair with Aaron Burr while she and her husband stayed in the United States between fleeing Haiti and returning for a time in 1802) recounts the brutality of Rochambeau upon the Haitian population during Napoleon’s attempt to reclaim the territory as a French colony.
Other accounts attempt to make sense of cases when slaves chose to stay and defend their masters. This is one of more fascinating and most difficult aspects of events to resolve. Slavers themselves sometimes used their slaves’ loyalty in the face of insurrection as proof of their inherent nature to be servile. As one plantation owner argues, maintaining that his “blacks, in working daily on my property, ran even greater dangers in case of a sudden appearance of these enemies [revolting slaves], who had the twofold interest of taking vengeance for this infidelity, which stood in opposition to their insurrection… They never stopped working for me, from the beginning of the black until the proclamation of general emancipation… I no longer had the whip to command them… With a word they could have refused to work and left me. Why is it that neither my work team, nor many others in the area, ever took this decision? Our accusers, these redressers of political injustices, will have a hard time finding an answer to this question in their system” (177). The implication being that the (former) master’s (former) slaves remained faithful not for pragmatic reasons but because they were following their natural inclinations and were happy to remain his servants.
Popkin’s compilation of sources, supported with his commentary, bring a focus and an understanding to a time and to events that were without question filled with a lack of coherence or comprehension. As stated previously, the Haitian Revolution is similar to that of the French, in that it can be challenging to make sense of events and ideas that transpired, as well as comprehending its rather complicated timeline. Popkin’s collection of primary sources, and his elucidation of said sources, facilitate a better understanding of events that are, at times, difficult to grasp.