Saint-Domingue Lost: Imperial French Narratives of the Haitian Revolution

Introduction

The Spring 2018 version of Vanderbilt’s FREN 3621: Enlightenment and Revolution course explores the historical forces, motivating ideas and consequences relating to the events of the French revolutionary period of 1789-1794 and the Haitian revolutionary period of 1791-1804.

In 1995 Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote “An Unthinkable History: the Haitian Revolution as a Non-event,” a chapter in his book Silencing the Past that has featured prominently in course discussions this semester. Trouillot writes: “The Haitian Revolution did challenge the ontological and political assumptions of the most radical writers of the enlightenment.”[1] Subsequently, Trouillot continues, the Haitian revolution became a non-event; that is to say, over time following the revolution, its episodes and ultimate result of French defeat were effectively forgotten, or even erased, from historical “narratives”. Following Trouillot’s diagnosis, we have focused heavily on the events of the revolution in the French colony of Saint-Domingue in an effort to better understand the significance of the events there in the context of colonial and racial relations and popularity of Enlightenment ideas among leaders of the French and Haitian revolutions.
     
As participants in the course, we have undertaken a semester-culminating project coordinated under the direction of our course’s teaching assistant Nathan Dize. The following site contains six excerpts from primary source texts about various aspects of the Haitian Revolution written by French writers. The excerpt subjects vary widely, each revealing a different perspective of one of the more under-recognized world events. All texts are preceded by an introduction that provides context and background information to aid readers in their discovery of these important texts and contribute to a better understanding of the Haitian Revolution itself.

Our primary goal in providing a place where these excerpts are made readily available and translated is to begin to cultivate and create accessible academic documents surrounding the Haitian Revolution. This semester’s studies have revealed a significant need for more comprehensive information on the Haitian Revolution in the hopes of expanding studies of this event and the history of the most successful slave revolt in world history. By translating these texts and providing some context via our introductions, we hope to provide a starting point for high school and university classes taught both in English and in French to make use of these primary sources so that students choosing to write on these topics will have even more access to primary sources for which excerpts are translated and easily available for their use.
     
We would like to thank Nathan Dize and Professor Paul Miller for their guidance throughout the course and over the course of this project as well as the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University for the use of their “Haiti Collection.”
 
[1] Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995., 82.

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