This essay appeared in Griffith Review 76: Acts of Reckoning. My thanks to the excellent editing team.
ANGRY MEN GATHERED in the dark of night at Bois Caïman, the Alligator Woods, under the shadow of the mountain Morne Rouge in northern Saint-Domingue on 14 August 1791. Two hundred slaves transported by boat from Africa, forced by French plantation owners to tend sugarcane in an alien land. That night in the Alligator Woods, violence hung on the air and a storm thrashed the swamp trees.
A leader rose from the febrile mass formed round the bonfire they had kindled – Dutty Boukman, the ‘Book Man’, the Vodou hougan or priest, chief servant of the guardianspirits. Boukman transfixed the plantation slaves with his burning eyes. He bid them slit the throat of a sacrificial pig and ordered that each drink from the gushing wound. The ritual complete, Dutty Boukman spoke to the assembled slaves in his sonorous voice:
The Good Lord Hath ordained vengeance. He will give strength to our arms and courage to our hearts. He shall sustain us. Cast down the image of the god of the blan [foreigner], because he maketh the tears to flow from our eyes. Hearken unto Liberty that speaketh now in all our hearts!
The slaves knelt round Boukman. They promised they would kill their masters. Kill every blan in retribution as their Good Lord ordained. The heavens opened and a monsoonal torrent pounded the bonfire to an ashy pulp. As shadows in the rain, Boukman and his followers slipped back into the rustling cane fields where their brothers and sisters died every day under the whip.
On 22 August 1791, the drums in the slave quarters across the northern province of Saint-Domingue changed their rhythm. The signal given, the slaves, armed with sugarcane scythes and machetes, set to slaughter. A slave owner was nailed to his gate as if to the cross, another dismembered with axes, a carpenter cut in half with his own sawblade. Rape and robbery and arsonist fires roared across the sugar plantations. The sky turned molten, fissured with vortices of smoke.
The slave army purged the countryside, growing, the revolt spreading, and marched on Le Cap, the fortified capital of the north. French artillery repulsed them. Guerrilla struggle set in between the French-held towns and the insurgent countryside. Gallows were erected along the roadways, bodies dismembered, broiled, fetishised and raised on stakes cutting through the cane spears. This first phase of the revolutionary war continued for two years. Approximately 100,000 slaves and 24,000 French colonists died.
THE REVOLT ON Saint-Domingue – or, as we know it today, Haiti – is a gruesome tale. It is also one of history’s most extraordinary stories, in which a ramshackle band of slaves bested three of Europe’s mightiest colonial powers. The slaves of Saint-Domingue sustained an uprising for thirteen years without allies or reinforcements; they expelled the French colonists and defeated invasions by Britain, Spain and Napoleon. After thirteen years they claimed victory and liberty. The Haitian Revolution is the only successful slave revolt in modern history and was the first successful act of decolonisation.
Library bookshelves groan under the weight of our obsession with the French and American revolutions. These landmarks feature in every major work of democratic theory, from Immanuel Kant to Hannah Arendt and Chantal Mouffe. But the Haitian Revolution – which shows the struggle entailed by democracy far better – is largely unappreciated, forgotten in popular memory and erased from history. The Haitian Revolution is a tragedy of great expectations crushed by reality. It contains a very important message about the political system most of us take for granted as an unalloyed, unproblematic good.
The Haitian Revolution was a brutal, inhumane and ultimately pointless endeavour. The new nation, stitched together after the agony of revolution, never fully realised the promise for which so many sacrificed so much. On the other hand, what happened on Saint-Domingue is exemplary of everything we hold the Enlightenment to be. The African revolutionaries were inspired by the idea of personal freedom and political equality. They held both as transcendental, transracial ideals for which it was worth paying any price. This is the purest form of idealism, the kind necessary for democracy to work. For that reason, because of its great contradiction, the Haitian Revolution perfectly encapsulates the tortured soul of democracy.
The core of democracy is political equality – a proportionate vote, an unrestricted public voice. It sounds simple and is simple. However, political equality contradicts every other structure and undercurrent in human society, from social status to free-market economics, from achievement to judgment to the unequal distribution of attributes that makes each of us unique. We claim to desire democracy, yet we stamp it out wherever it might appear because equality is fundamentally alien to our way of life.
The Haitian Revolution captures the paradoxes of this bewitching idea in the drama of revolution and counter-revolution, human striving and inhumane cruelty. It’s a tale that should be at the forefront of our lexicon, on the tip of every tongue, one that deserves to be told over and over because it epitomises the overlooked tension at the heart of our political world. What follows is a real-life horror story of the greatest revolution of them all.
THE HAITIAN REVOLUTION succeeded and the French Revolution failed because the slaves of Saint-Domingue had nothing. This thesis can be proven quite easily because the two events overlapped in history and began in similar fashion. They both started when the marginal actors of society declared war on the centre. Unusual moments such as this signal the total collapse of a social order, the chaotic opening of space in which the dream of democracy can manifest. The slaves of Saint-Domingue had been transported from Africa; they had no stake in the existing social hierarchy. The French Revolution strayed from that simple opposition of margin against centre, became entangled and confused by the echoes of the past, fell into anarchic cannibalism and eventually became a dictatorship.
The French Revolution properly began three months after the fall of the Bastille, on 5 October 1789, when Parisian women gathered in the rust of dawn at the Les Halles market. Some months prior, the unrepresentative Estates-General had transformed itself into the more egalitarian National Assembly. However, its representatives had been moved outside Paris, to the King’s retreat at Versailles, and were being stalled by monarchists who wanted to protect the status quo. The people of Paris were hungry, the principled debates of the assembly were deadlocked and suspicion was growing that King Louis XIV was trying to undermine the nascent revolution.
That morning in Les Halles, a child beat a disobedient drum and told the crowd her family had no bread to eat. Rumours and conspiracies swirled hungry mouth to angry ear, triggering a convulsion in the body politic. Two thousand women from all parts of Paris – fishwives, bourgeois, young, old, radical, conservative – commandeered the parish church and surged through the city hall, rioting and ransacking to the strident toll of the bells.
There was no bread in the city hall. No promise that the bureaucracy would deliver the people of Paris from starvation. A veteran of the Bastille persuaded the rioters not to execute the captured administrators, pointing instead over the horizon in the direction of Versailles. A great column formed outside the city, its rioters armed with knives and pikes, mallets and brooms. The women of Paris marched twelve miles through heavy rain to the Palace of Versailles, where King Louis XVI was hiding. They dragged two cannons in their wake. The column lengthened as it moved, swallowing up onlookers intoxicated by the spectacle.
The mutinous tide washed around Versailles. Granted an audience, six fishwives were ushered inside the ramparts to present their demands. Louis XVI conciliated with them and a portion of the mob, but it was too late for some. In dead of night, the militants broke through an outer wall, fighting corridor to bloody corridor with the King’s guard. The following morning, the royal court was forced back to Paris amid a sea dotted with pikes bearing the severed heads of guardsmen. The King had become a hostage of the revolution. The Ancien Régime was broken.
AT THIS POINT in world history, democracy loomed monumental on the horizon, as yet unrealised but primed to manifest onto the tabula rasa of a fallen monarchy.
For a brief moment after the Women’s March on Versailles, France gave form to the ideals that we still aspire to today. Edict after edict poured forth from the National Assembly, building on the existing foundation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, creating a ripple effect that would be felt all over the world for generations. On 15 May 1791, the National Assembly declared persons of colour born to free parents also free by inheritance. With this law, the racial caste system in the colonies was swept away. The only legal barrier to freedom was slavery. Half a world away, the French colonists of Saint-Domingue suppressed the declaration, but knowledge of the occasion slipped through, borne on the trade routes and through marketplaces and homesteads to the slaves labouring in the plantations under the Morne Rouge. Before the year was out, the rebels were gathering in Bois Caïman to break their chains.
After 1791, the two revolutions diverged from one another. France, locked in self-defeating wars of aggression and endless schisms between ever-more radical partisans, devolved into a totalitarian state. Burdened with the aristocracy, the monarchy and the weight of existing institutions, momentum stalled and fear took over: fear that no one could be trusted and no one was a true republican. Body after body fed the guillotine. King Louis XVI was offered on 21 January 1793. The libation of his blood was not enough to save the foundling democracy. The last remnants of the French Revolution gave way to moral panic, bankruptcy, war and the Terror.
By contrast, the Haitian Revolution was a war against colonial oppression from beginning to end. The same year King Louis XVI was executed, Spain and Britain, already at war with France, made plans to partition Saint-Domingue between them. A three-sided European war in the Caribbean provided momentary grace to the African slaves. The rebellion on Saint-Domingue had stalled outside Le Cap, the rebels unable to strike a decisive blow against their former masters. Besieged on all sides, France finally abandoned the colony.
On 29 August, an unnamed leader of the Haitian Revolution stood in Le Cap and watched the French ships retreating. ‘The slave drivers and cannibals are no more,’ he proclaimed. However, he spoke almost a decade too soon. For the next seven years the former slaves of Saint-Domingue held off the Spanish and British invaders. Their superhuman endurance was fuelled by the dream of democracy and self-government. An African stablehand called Toussaint Louverture became the figurehead of the revolution. By 1801 he had butchered Saint-Domingue to a position of independence and proclaimed himself Governor-General for Life. His new government ruled over a wreck of ash and rubble. Every township was ruined, the loss of life unquantifiable. The exhausted revolutionaries set to rebuilding.
Several months later, Napoleon sent an invasion fleet of 21,175 men to conquer and reimpose slavery. The Emperor of France instructed his generals: ‘Rid us of these gilded Africans and we shall have nothing more to wish.’ Louverture was captured by the French and died in prison. The Haitian Revolution outlived him. Napoleon’s armada, unable to gain ground, began a campaign of genocide. A plantation foreman, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, took command of the defence of Saint-Domingue and implemented a simple counter-strategy: ‘Cut off their heads! Burn down their houses!’ The former slaves won the war of extermination in 1803 and went on to found the Republic of Haiti, the first free black state, in 1804.
In their book Written In Blood,Robert and Nancy Heinl estimate that, all told, ‘the revolution in Saint-Domingue devoured at least 50 per cent of its children.’ An almost unimaginable sacrifice for the promise of freedom and equality. A sacrifice that seems impossible under any circumstances but the bleeding edge of extinction, when those who have nothing leap towards an inspiration that is everything. It seems almost impossible for anyone living in a peaceful democracy to imagine what the same word meant to the slaves of Saint-Domingue.
THE FRENCH REVOLUTION is remembered as the turning point in modern political history, the vital seed from which mass democracy grew. This wishful thinking contradicts the facts. As the liberated slaves were founding their Republic, the French Empire was sallying forth to visit the Napoleonic Wars on Europe. It would be more than fifty years before democracy crept back into the Old World. Meanwhile, in the Caribbean, in 1804, the first act of decolonisation and democratisation had taken place. What happened next underlines the deep fear imperialists have of democracy – a fear that is still with us today, to a lesser extent, despite the end of empire. European authors twisted Haiti’s triumph into a cautionary tale designed to hide the emancipated slaves from history and deny their equality.
The word ‘zombi’ made its debut in 1797 in a book published by a French slave owner called Médéric Louis Élie Moreau de St Méry. Zombi is the French transliteration of the West African word zamby, which roughly means ‘benign spirits’, often those that can communicate with the living. Particularly in Haitian folklore, these spirits were believed to be susceptible to the black magic of Vodoun bokor, or witches, who could reanimate and enslave the dead. It should be noted that St Méry was more than just a writer. He represented Saint-Domingue as a member of the National Assembly of the French Revolution, during which time he advocated the interests of slave-owning colonists and resisted the abolition of slavery.
After France was expelled from Saint-Domingue, and after Paris took up the guillotine, St Méry fled to America, where he published his book on Haitian history. In that book he gifted the Western world not only the propaganda kernel of the zombi but also a theoretical caste system that ordered humanity into 128 categories of descending superiority based on the darkness of one’s skin. In St Méry’s book, the zombi plays a very minor role. It is part of a constellation of Vodoun beliefs he attributed to the slaves to justify their relegation to the bottom of his race hierarchy. He likened the African zamby to the European ‘revenant’ – a being that, in medieval belief, symbolised a dead person returned to life.
In her book The Transatlantic Zombie, Sarah J Lauro notes that St Méry was neither the first nor the last author to use Vodou mysticism to dehumanise African slaves. For example, Lauro notes that an entry in the 1765 French Encyclopèdie under the entry Nègre makes reference to the zamby:
Under the subheading ‘Caractère des nègres en général’ is written, ‘If by chance one encounters honest men among the nègres of Guinea, (the majority are nonetheless vicious.) [sic] they are for the most part inclined toward debauchery, vengeance, and lies…the fear of death moves them not at all. Despite this kind of immovability, their natural bravery doesn’t guard them against fear of sorcerers and spirits, which they call zambys’.
St Méry was innovative on two fronts. He was the first to transliterate zamby to zombi and the first to use the zamby to soothe French defeat and the loss of Saint-Domingue. Petty revisionism is a pattern that repeats more generally through the history of colonialism. Franz Fanon observed the phenomenon in Algeria after the Algerian War of Independence: ‘The colonialist bourgeoisie, when it realizes that it is impossible for it to maintain its domination over the colonial countries, decides to carry out a rearguard action with regard to culture, values, techniques, and so on.’
To St Méry and his fellow history writers, the zombi was a mere footnote, one of a cast of tropes that denoted the unworthiness and inferiority of the colonised subject. Safe in the metropole, they were concocting a balm for the immense ego of imperialism. They were also proving the fundamental incompatibility between democracy inequality. Inequality – be it in military power, economic ownership or control of culture – almost always overwhelms political equality. Colonialism combined all three kinds so that even in victory, Haitians could be written into the margins of global history. This is evident even in the symbol of the zombi itself, which has an alternative, Haitian role that has long since been forgotten.
The zombi played the role of a healing figure for those immersed in the gothic hell of Saint-Domingue. The process of decolonisation was bloody, violent and savage, leaving a legacy that demanded some form of expiation. Thomas Madiou’s 1848 Histoire d’Haïti revised the zamby to suit the visceral horrors that haunted his country. Madiou, a Haitian-born historian, also wished to counter the racialised history being fabricated in Europe and America. To aid his undertaking, Madiou created a fictional revolutionary called Jean Zombi. This character helped to redeem key participants in the Haitian Revolution by absorbing their crimes.
For instance, the revolutionary leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines, having seized control of the entire colony, ordered and personally oversaw the infamous 1804 massacre of between 3,000 and 5,000 French and mixed-race citizens. The massacre spanned almost two months and progressed town by town, engulfing the liberated colony in horror and shame. In Madiou’s telling, Jean Zombi participated in the 1804 massacre with such unfeeling brutality that even Dessalines, the butcher, blanched in revulsion, revealing in this moment of restorative fiction the guilt and human compassion so lacking on all sides during the struggle. Other zombi warriorsassisted in the retelling, unburdening real historical actors of the evil they wrought in service of freedom.
The zamby spirit-creature of African faith was transformed by the madness of the colonial world. The zombi it became perfectly encapsulates the monstrous effect of colonising and being colonised, of the slave and the slave owner, two beings utterly alienated from each other. The zombi is a monster born of the most execrable inequality, of such a degree that it renders humanity void. It is a standard bearer of forces that democracy must assert itself against but that overpower it with few exceptions, rendering its brief victories unknown and its full institution untenable.
THE SLAVES INSPIRED by the French Revolution were historic actors of equal, if not greater, significance than the American revolutionaries, the patriots of the Bastille and the women who marched on Versailles. Unfortunately, their sacrifice was not honoured. The promise of democracy was never fully realised.
Haiti single-handedly liberated herself from colonial rule. But the battered population could not enjoy the self-government they deserved. Throughout the nineteenth century Haiti’s fortunes zigzagged between chaos and calamity, dictatorship and fragile peace. Wave on wave of civil war rolled across the vista. Haiti’s postcolonial struggle is an extreme example of the general rule that democracy only ever exists outside of history, as an ideal, a utopia of the imagination. When applied it simply fails or is dramatically curtailed, either due to the legacy of the past, the maze of existing social institutions or the nature of humans.
For over a century, the industrialising world turned away as Haiti tried and failed to move on from its colonial past. Then, in February 1915, a man called Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam orchestrated a coup. The new dictator installed himself as Haiti’s fifth president in five years. He massacred his opponents in the capital, Port-au-Prince, and was in turn disembowelled by a furious mob. America used the violent anarchy to its advantage: on 28 July, US marines invaded the capital. Their mission was not humanitarian. America intervened to protect the financial interests of New York’s National City Bank and transform the strategically located isle into an American outpost. The marines overran the countryside, defeated a native uprising and reintroduced the ancient French law of corvée – unpaid labour in service of a feudal lord.
Haiti’s new feudal lords orchestrated the election of a puppet government. They built roads and infrastructure and stabilised the economy. Over the period of occupation – from 1915 to 1934 – an estimated 15,000 Haitians died from forced labour, guerrilla combat, assassination, repression and deprivation. Tens of thousands more fled to Cuba.
With the new occupation came a new iteration of the zombi myth. In 1929 an American author called William Seabrook published a book called The Magic Island featuring a word with which we are all familiar: zombie, the Anglicised version of zombi.
Seabrook expanded on St Méry’s work. He was the first to redescribe the zombi as a mindless labourer stolen from the grave. He wrote that Haitian Vodou practitioners used the zombi as ‘a servant or slave, occasionally for the commission of some crime, more often simply as a drudge around the habitation or the farm, setting it dull heavy tasks, and beating it like a dumb beast if it slackens’. The Magic Island conveniently displaced America’s neocolonial project in Haiti: the backbreaking labour imposed by corvée paled beside these new allegations of soul-stripping servitude. For a second time, the imaginative world of Haitian religion was misappropriated and used as a weapon by an occupying power.
The Magic Island became the inspiration for a glut of American pulp fiction. Perhaps the most ambitious was a short story called ‘Salt Is Not For Slaves’, published in 1931 under the pseudonym GW Hutter. Hutter rewrote the Haitian Revolution around the new device of the zombie, the corpse snatched from the grave back into bondage. ‘Salt Is Not For Slaves’ spun a tale of revolutionaries who, having claimed their freedom from France, immediately devolved into libertine anarchy. They robbed and ran riot and, serendipitously, flouted a prohibition against eating salt imposed by theirformer French masters. For their blasphemy, the revolutionaries were transformed into a horde of mindless, walking dead. The fictional zombie horde burnt and butchered Haiti before lying down to sleep, en masse, in freshly dug graves. The moral of Hutter’s story is simple: Haitians do not deserve freedom; they lack the wisdom and ability to self-govern.
We have all been introduced to this message in a general form. GW Hutter was a pseudonym of Garnett Weston, the scriptwriter credited with Hollywood’s first zombie movie, White Zombie, a reworking of The Magic Island that wasreleased in1932. Hollywood’s rendition of the zombie became a phenomenon spanning dozens of films. It spread into the membrane of American – then global – popular culture. The citizens of Haiti were erased from their own real-life horror trope by Hollywood. The zombi is no more. It has been consumed and reanimated by the same general system against which the Haitian revolutionaries inflicted a passing defeat.
In the twenty-first century, the Hollywood zombie has been reworked again into an ironic postmodern dig at Western consumer culture. A mindless, ravenous beast patrolling supermarkets and strip malls, luxury villas and quiet countryside retreats. At the same time, the zombie has been subverted and redeployed as a source of catharsis for us, the audience, deeply enmeshed in the frustrations of that consumer culture. The faceless, denuded, cathartic zombie is an acceptable target for violence in family-friendly movies and video games. A new breed of Tolkien’s orc, a blank canvas onto which the customer can project a fantasy of individual heroism, self-assertion, significance. All the qualities that democracy demands of its citizens, which we sublimate rather than strive to fulfil.
The American military pulled out of Haiti in 1934. The US government continued to control Haitian fiscal policy until 1947. It then abandoned the atrophied state to another procession of dictators. Today, Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere. Frequently rocked by natural disasters and shot through with the exploitative feelers of global capitalism, the home of the only successful slave revolt has been well and truly reabsorbed into, and resubordinated within, the world order.
THE HAITIAN REVOLUTION is a horror story that twists further the deeper one delves. A harrowing account in which the identity of the monster shifts from object to subject to narrator and audience as the plot unfolds. The particular horror that I have tried to translate from this forgotten chapter of history, above and beyond the hellish legacy of colonialism, is the realisation that many of my – many of our – pre-existing notions about democracy are wrong.
We have built a peculiar myth since the turn of the twenty-first century: that democracy became universal after the end of the Cold War, that it represents the best form of government, that it is both ubiquitous and inexorable. One need only recall the slaves of Bois Caïman and how hard Europe and America fought their legacy to know otherwise. Democracy is something that makes us deeply uncomfortable. It runs counter to everything that we call the advance of civilisation. Democracy is much more than no kings and no rulers: it is the crowning of the mob and the enthronement of uncertainty, compromise from all in kind, the surrender of some freedom by the most privileged, a system that demands a great deal from everyone.
The Haitian Revolution undercuts the fairytale we tell ourselves about the steady, reassuring march of democracy from its modern birthplace in America and France and out across the world. We are not the inheritors of a democratic revolution: more like the benefactors of a slight revision – a moderate embellishment – of a fundamentally non-democratic way of life. Think how anaemic equality is in countries that today profess to be democratic. What we call democracy is a small subsystem, or more truly a counterweight, in the shadow of larger cogs that turn everyday life.
The revolution that began in Bois Caïman is the greatest of all because it revolutionises the way everything that came after is interpreted. The birthplace of the zombie provides a fearful reminder of the monstrosities that have been perpetrated to prevent democracy. It further intimates that we have never truly known the liberté, égalité, fraternité that inspired the slaves of Saint-Domingue in large part because we fear the prospect.
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Image credit: Farmland photo created by wirestock – www.freepik.com