Scott’s classic The Common Wind shows the world-historic impact of the Haitian Revolution of 1791, the first successful slave revolt in history, finds Dominic Alexander
Julius S. Scott, The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution (Verso 2018), xxi, 246pp.
Great moments of social revolution seem to attract seismic metaphors, none more famous than John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World, which gave a first-hand account of the October Revolution in Russia. The much older phrase for egalitarian upheaval was ‘the world turned upside down’, conveying the bewilderment of ruling elites when faced with sudden, if often temporary, reversals of social hierarchy. It is perhaps this phrase which resonates particularly with the material of Julius S. Scott, The Common Wind, on the period of the Haitian revolution of 1791, when slave-owning elites were terrified of a cataclysmic end to their brutal system in the Caribbean.
Certainly, the Haitian Revolution, the only successful slave revolt in history, deserves to be placed alongside other world-historical moments of liberation. Like the French Revolution, when asked about its impact, it might well be considered legitimate to say: It is too soon to tell (even if Zhou Enlai did not in fact say this of the French Revolution). The Black Jacobins certainly opened up a new phase of slave resistance which, although it took about a century, did inexorably lead to the end of that system across the Americas. Any yet, the racial hierarchies and oppressions which were laid down through slavery are still very much active in shaping capitalism, and so the story of the Haitian Revolution remains vitally relevant today.
The classic account of all this is, of course, C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins (1938), on the Haitian rebellion, and its famous leader Toussaint L’Ouverture. The Common Wind is itself a classic; although published now for the first time, it has been known by specialists for decades in its form as a PhD thesis. James’ story of the Black Jacobins is not directly retold by Scott, but, in The Common Wind, we find the whole context of resistance to slavery across the Caribbean, before, during and after the overthrow of slavery in the French colony of Saint Domingue. This is meticulous and wide ranging social history, which provides a vivid and illuminating account of the ways these societies worked, whether under British, French or Spanish colonial rule.
Rulers fear the ruled
All class systems based upon slavery entail not only the vicious treatment of the exploited class, but also the constant fear of the exploiting class that their slaves are plotting behind their backs. Hence it was said in 1791 by one slaveowner that there was an ‘unknown mode of conveying intelligence amongst the Negroes’ (p.xi). Scott shows that this was not in fact some mysterious underground power, but the networks and connections that arose out of the very nature of the society created by the plantation system, and all its trading connections within the Caribbean, and across the whole of the Atlantic.
The mode of conveying news, ideas and plans becomes the metaphor of the book’s title, ‘the common wind’, evoking the dependence of colonial society on the sea winds, which connected them all together. News of the rebellion in Saint Domingue reached Jamaica with the ‘strong winds and currents and the short distance from the French colony’ bringing ‘eyewitnesses to revolution’, some of whom ‘remained slaves in the custody of their emigrating owners, while others had taken advantage of the disorganization of the planters in order to escape slavery’ (p.144).
Slaves had been and remained well informed about world events relevant to their lives. Planters and other supporters of the slave trade were deeply concerned about the impact parliamentary debates in London would have on the attitudes of the slaves. One wrote in 1788 that ‘during the time this business is agitated in Parliament, the slaves will be minutely acquainted with all the proceedings’, and far from passively awaiting freedom from above, they would be liable ‘to strike while the iron is hot, and by a sudden blow finish the business themselves in the most expeditious and effectual manner’ (p.87). The constant travelling of slave-owners and their enslaved servants between Britain and Jamaica offered continual opportunities for abolitionist pamphlets and other material to find their way into the hands of plantation slaves (p.90).
It wasn’t only slaves themselves who conveyed useful information, but a remarkable range of other people connected to plantation society. Sailors themselves, subject to harsh on-ship regimes, were a rebellious, and frequently racially mixed workforce, and so provided lines of communication and aid of various kinds. Of general concern in the seventeenth century and later was the presence of ‘masterless men’ amid the increasing degree of labour mobility required by capitalism: ‘employers on both sides of the Atlantic, though flushed with economic prosperity, still worried about the many ways which individuals and groups found to protect and extend masterless existences’ (p.2). This was an issue in the Old World, but was even more so for slave societies where the constant example of a ‘masterless, mobile existence’ was directly subversive (p.3). In Cuba, free rebels known as cobreros (elsewhere more often called maroons) were able to build ‘a network of news and rumor which stretched even across the Atlantic’ (p.12).
Contradictions of capitalist slavery
There was no real way out of this problem for the ruling class here, since their prosperity depended upon the vibrancy of the trade in commodities produced by slaves. This trade necessitated the growth of towns, where free labour predominated. Slave owners did always use slaves in a variety of capacities, but, in particular, ‘the vital work of coastal commerce involved slaves and free people of color at every level, from loading and unloading to navigation’ (p.70). The context tended to undermine the cohesiveness of the slave system as ‘black workers on the shoreline hammered out a semi-independent status which their employers were forced to recognise’ (p.71).
These urban contexts, where news circulated most freely and uncontrollably, were part of the wider world where an egalitarian ethos was spreading and strengthening, and here Scott sees ‘a political voice’ emerging in the period of the French Revolution, not just in the French colonies, but all over the Caribbean. The contradiction of a slave society within a capitalist system were being laid bare:
‘Caribbean port cities were natural magnets for all types of people seeking personal independence … Whereas country life revolved around the predictable and steady regime of the planation, cities turned these work values on their heads in ways most inimical to the slave system’ (p.19).
News of the French Revolution ran through the trading towns of Saint Domingue, bringing agitation among the free black and mixed-race people there. The authorities feared this would soon spread to the plantations, as it did. Even in less dramatic times, the connections were crucial to resistance to the system. Slaves routinely sold surplus from their garden plots, and wandering, usually female, traders would buy produce from slaves and sell it in the town markets. François Mackandal, a maroon leader in Saint-Domingue decades before the revolution, was able to create a strategic information network out of these activities (p.28). None of this could be simply suppressed in the interests of the plantation system:
‘planters found the links between city and country both vexing and essential. Acutely aware that cities with their free populations loomed as ever-present enticements to desertion for dissident slaves, they also recognized that the survival of their plantation depended upon the access to markets and the sea which port cities provided’ (pp.26-7).
It is not a part of Scott’s agenda to consider the issue of slavery and capitalism as a mode of production, but his analysis highlights how little sense it makes to see slavery in the eighteenth-century Americas as somehow distinct from that system. Slavery was an integral part of an Atlantic, if not an already global, capitalism, rather than representing any alternative formation. Capitalism may be predominantly and centrally one based on free labour, but other forms of exploitation can be integrated within it, and even be essential to its functioning.
The tradition of resistance
Nonetheless, the contradictions of a capitalist slave system were certainly prised open by the reception of the French Revolution in the Caribbean. The existing history of resistance and rebellion clearly fed into this, with a number of leaders of the Haitian revolution being identifiably ‘plantation dissidents’ sold away from their original colonies. Boukmann, the religious leader who organised the initial revolt, had been a slave in Jamaica, while Henry Christophe was born on British St Kitts. A Spanish official in Venezuela tried to prohibit the importation of slaves raised in other colonies as ‘it has been observed that creole slaves … are harmful to these provinces’ (p.53).
News from overseas seems to have not just sparked revolt, but been actively used to spread enthusiasm for rebellion. This was most likely the case in Caracas in 1749, where a rumour of impending freedom was followed by a slave revolt (p.78). Rumours of the revolt in Haiti and the French slaves’ achievement of freedom were accompanied by the news that British slaves were due to be freed, and only the planters stood in the way (p.152). Rebellious slave rebels can furthermore be seen as being a part of Atlantic-wide ripples of revolt. A French speaking slave in Jamaica identified himself as ‘John Paine’, clearly after the English author of The Rights of Man, Tom Paine. In the 1790s, unrest among Irish sailors and soldiers in the British navy and army appeared alongside nationalist unrest in Ireland, and lay in the background to the very dangerous naval mutinies in 1797. Echoes of these connections reappear in the Caribbean also. In one instance, an Irish deserter was part of a ‘motley crew’ which ‘preyed on British and American shipping’ and had ‘made common cause with the black rebels’ in Haiti (p.33).
Cracks in the racial order
The role of divisions within the white population of the Caribbean is therefore also worth attention, because while the plantation owners needed white racial solidarity to maintain the slave system, this could not always be depended upon. Sailors were notably unreliable in respect, underlined by the ubiquity of mixed-race companies of pirates. In Saint Domingue, slaves learnt of the emancipatory meaning of the tricolour from sailors, and began to wear the revolutionary cockade themselves (p.114). Substantial numbers of whites were deserters from the army, and so ‘deliberately masterless’, and predisposed against slavery as an institution. Those who were subject to unfree regimes themselves could feel the same. In Jamaica, white indentured servants encouraged slaves ‘to desert their masters’ in 1717 (p.29).
The revolution further undermined the racial divisions essential to maintaining the plantation system; immigrants from France of artisanal rank fiercely resisted the British invasion of 1793 that was intending to restore slavery. However, it had always been the sailors who were most problematic. Active steps generally had to be taken in particular to restrict and control their behaviour in port. The regulations were:
‘aimed at driving a wedge between the mariners from Europe and local blacks and browns and at preventing any mutual sharing of interest or information. Subject to arbitrary punishments (including the lash) and often pressed or tricked into merchant vessels against their will, sailors might have easily found some common cause with local slaves’ (p.41).
The racial order was not constructed easily, and had to be done in opposition to the political currents which were flowing in the opposite direction. In Jamaica, while news of the revolution in Haiti was still fairly fresh, and amid mistaken reports that the British parliament had voted to abolish the slave trade in 1792, ‘officials observed a disturbing “air of insolence” among blacks’ in Kingston. In attempting to hold the line against these twin threats, whites ‘burned Wilberforce and Tom Paine in effigy side by side’ (p.98). This practice spread widely through the British Caribbean, with a Paine effigy burnt holding the Rights of Man in 1793, and a similar public display in Grenada shortly afterwards. These kinds of reactionary demonstrations were clearly a necessary way of rallying those who could be convinced to defend and maintain racism and the institution of slavery.
Even before the Haitian revolution, the spread of French revolutionary ideas among slaves was seen as so serious that, for example, Spanish colonial officials put up unprecedented barriers to the importation of slaves from other territories (p.68). After 1791, the ‘seeds of sedition’ continued to be fruitful, with the largest mass rebellion of slaves in North America occurring in Louisiana:
‘In 1811, in St. John the Baptist and St. Charles parishes, between 200 and 500 rebel slaves marched on New Orleans, setting fire to plantations on the way. Authorities later identified Charles Deslondes, a driver and “free mulatto from St. Domingo,” as one of the principal leaders of the uprising’ (p.187).
Outside such spectacular events, the atmosphere of plantation societies everywhere had changed. In 1795, the mayor of Norfolk, Virginia was alarmed that he had ‘detected “the squint of freedom” in the eyes of some French negroes’ who remained enslaved in America, despite the French revolutionary declaration of emancipation (p.200).
The interests of slaveowners led to a policy of containment of Haiti, by all the powers, European and American, committed to maintaining slavery. Thus, while Haiti attained independence in 1804, it was punished by a determined policy ‘to limit Saint-Domingue’s contacts with the rest of the Americas by denying the black rebels access to the sea’ (p.202). Not only did this prevent a more immediate overthrow of slavery in the region, but the seeds of Haiti’s continuing poverty lay in this quarantine.
While the spread of the Haitian revolution was limited in an immediate sense, its repercussions were certainly profound. There are, of course, those who wish to minimise its importance, and so argue, for example, that the slave revolution actually delayed the British abolition of the slave trade in 1807. Certainly, reform demands of all kinds of varieties could be lumped together as subversive Jacobinism in the 1790s, but to see this rhetorical counter-attack by the reactionary and propertied as being strengthened by successful resistance, is to adopt a historical myopia of the most blinkered kind.
Resistance to abolition would have been ferocious in any circumstance, but it is more convincing to see abolition as hastened rather than slowed by resistance. Abolition followed from the acceptance on the part of the British ruling class that the slave trade, and then slavery in 1833, was becoming too problematic to maintain. The classic argument was made by Eric Williams in Capitalism and Slavery (1964) that slave resistance contributed very significantly to a calculation that slavery was becoming unprofitable. The deeply researched and wide ranging evidence of The Other Wind immeasurably strengthens the case on this side of the debate.
It has the further lesson that it makes no sense to consider the history of a European colonialist power like Britain without a wider lens that puts it in the context of the whole Atlantic economy. The lines of connection between Jacobins in France and in Haiti, between the British naval mutinies in 1797 and networks of communication and resistance in the Caribbean colonies, connect the racial and class struggles of the different regions together. At this early stage of capitalism, racial and class exploitation were deeply intertwined, which is a lesson that continued resistance to its injustices must be so also.
Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire book, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018).
More articles from this author
- The South Sea Bubble: England's first stock market crisis 300 years ago
- Liberalism At Large: The World According to the Economist - book review
- Democratic history challenges imperialist and racist history
- Invisible Leviathan: Marx’s Law of Value in the Twilight of Capitalism - book review
- Crisis capitalism: why state intervention is not socialism
- Why are key workers so low paid?
- Winston Churchill: he fought for his class, never ours