Maroon Nation: A History of Revolutionary Haiti, by Johnhenry Gonzalez, Yale University Press, 302 pages, $ 40
“In the media and popular consciousness, Haiti has identified itself with hunger”, observes Johnhenry Gonzalez in Brown Nation. But in the 19th century, after the revolution which drove out the French slavers and before the invasion which led to the American occupation, the country saw “a free system of decentralized and small-scale agriculture which allowed unprecedented demographic growth”. In the century following Haiti’s declaration of independence in 1804, the country’s population more than quintupled. This, Gonzalez tells us, was “the most abrupt and significant example of population expansion in Caribbean history” at this point.
It was not because the revolutionary state pursued an enlightened policy. Slavery was officially abolished, but forced labor initially continued: farmers were still forced to work the fields, were denied the right to leave without permission, and were legally barred from choosing their own employers, let alone to withdraw. To enforce these rules, post-revolutionary leaders pioneered new forms of state control, creating what Gonzalez, a historian at the University of Cambridge, could be the world’s first “system of documents from mandatory identification for all citizens “. They also recruited soldiers, seized the property of former slaves at will, used brutal forms of corporal punishment, and cracked down on âvagrancy,â meaning freedom of movement. âIn practice,â writes Gonzalez, âthe universal declarations of equality and freedom that emerged from the Haitian Revolution were universally violated by all of the early Haitian regimes.
It would be wrong to treat these post-revolutionary leaders as a unified group with a common vision. They differed, for example, on whether these sugar fields should belong directly to the state. But almost all believed that it was necessary to support some version of the planting system.
Yet they couldn’t, for they ultimately didn’t have control.
In Haiti, unlike so many other rebellions around the world, the revolution did not stop when a new ruling class took power. People continued to resist, sometimes indirectly, just by fleeing to the island’s mountainous interior, and sometimes directly, by burning the cane fields they had left behind. And in the end, most of the time, they won. The plantation economy has not been restored. Hoping to avoid further unrest, the government stopped trying to restrict free movement and free contract, and slowly began to recognize at least some of the informal land claims of the people. With both free labor and free land at stake, the plantations were doomed to failure.
What emerged instead was far from perfect, and Gonzalez refuses to romanticize it. But “for nineteenth-century blacks,” he asserts, “it was the closest thing to a free country that existed anywhere in the New World.” Space was plentiful and land prices plunged. An economy of independent farmers, fishermen, loggers and smugglers emerged, with a pronounced tendency towards privacy, polyculture and less labor-intensive work. In the cities, an urban elite ruled a meager state that Gonzalez describes as “little more than a commercial tax apparatus that supported an inward-looking army.” But in the countryside, power belonged to an anarchic network of secret societies, voodoo assemblies, family precincts, informal markets and other popular institutions dedicated to production, protection, pleasure, worship, to trade and mutual aid.
The runaway slaves known as chestnuts had settled in remote areas for centuries, and parts of that social order evolved from their old institutions. Gonzalez called his book Brown Nation because he sees most of Haiti in the 19th century as a vast brown zone, a place where the types of social organization that are usually confined to the crevices of a country have become the dominant institutions of the nation.
Foreigners often viewed this process with anguish. âFor North Americans and Europeans who visited the first republic of Haiti,â says Gonzalez, ânothing had ever been so tragic as a crumbling candy reclaimed by the jungle or a group of blacks on horseback or napping rather than working hard in the sun. âThese horsemen and lappers, working for themselves on their own terms, haven’t published a rival account of their world, but Gonzalez gives us good reason to imagine that ‘they saw this life not as a tragedy but as a well-nourished freedom.
However, there were limits to their freedom. Despite these smugglers, for example, the urban elite had a virtual monopoly on foreign trade. (Its controls faced both outside and inside: the country’s constitution prohibited foreign ownership of Haitian land.) And there were, as always, social problems, from illiteracy to public corruption. “Rather than a total victory on either side”, argues Gonzalez, there was “a kind of stalemate or protracted and complex war of positions.” Ordinary Haitians have carved out a place for themselves, but the rump ruling class has also strengthened its position. “By denying the rural masses any hope of formal education and confining them to the rustic freedom of decentralized agricultural production and marketing, the elite jealously guarded foreign trade and state revenues which represented the source of their privilege. “
But these rural masses had much more room for free and autonomous activity than their counterparts in other post-emancipation societies. In his influential 2009 study The art of not being ruledYale political scientist James C. Scott, who also edits the Yale University Press Agrarian Studies series, which published Gonzalez’s book, describes a part of Asia, dubbed Zomia, where geographic barriers have allowed hill dwellers to escape slavery, conscription and taxes. imposed by the governments of the valleys. Brown Nation shows something similar 700 miles southeast of Florida: a black Zomia in the Americas.
This social ecosystem persisted for decades, only degrading after two almost simultaneous developments at the start of the 20th century. Just as the population of the country finally began to fill the available space, ushering in a further scarcity of the island’s resources, outside forces intervened: in 1915, US President Woodrow Wilson ordered the invasion of Haiti, and the troops remained there as occupiers until 1934. (A few years after this occupation began, future President Franklin Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, took over the drafting of ‘a new constitution for the country.) The puppet government has enacted a number of repressive policies, including censorship, Jim Crow-like segregation and, yes, forced labor. Elements of the old basic rural order have persisted. But the balance of power shifted, and the corrupt and brutal regime in Port-au-Prince was able to extend its authority without doing much for the population in return.
The results are on display in this desperately poor nation today. But there is no direct line between the revolution against French slavery and the poverty of the present. In the meantime, the country has taken a long detour in a much more attractive direction.
It goes without saying, more attractive does not mean perfect. Gonzalez cautions against viewing 19th century Haiti as “a tropical anarchist utopia, or an ideal libertarian free market.” It’s not just because of the small state that persisted in Port-au-Prince; this is because the same people who avoided the vast hierarchies of the state and the plantation system have sometimes created their own mini-hierarchies. Small-scale servitude persisted, and at times these basic institutions mimicked the forms of the state apparatus. (Some secret societies, Gonzalez notes, “have adopted the ceremonial practice of controlling nocturnal movement in their regions by issuing special passports” – a distorted echo of internal passports limiting movement issued by both French planters and early regimes. Haitians revolutionaries.) Of course, the same topographical and social factors that allowed so many Haitians to escape authorities and adopt a self-sufficient lifestyle may have also facilitated the break with a more intimately located martinet, thus helping to limit these smaller forms of domination. But we don’t have the types of records that would allow us to know how common such circumventions were.
Yet we know a lot more than before, in part thanks to this rich book. Recognizing the action of ordinary Haitians and exploring the world they have built, Gonzalez reveals dimensions that have not been touched by conventional historical narratives. âLike the very political leaders they study,â he says, intellectual and political historians âoften imagine that state authorities are somehow sovereign over larger processes of social and economic change. that it reflected the revolutionary aspirations of a particular leader, but rather that it stood up in spite of all The relentless attempts by Haitian rulers to reconstitute the plantation system. “James C. Scott’s most famous book is titled See as a state. As he probes the activities of the men who have simply sat on top of Haitian governments and shows that the activity is unfolding beyond their reach, Gonzalez turns that around: he lets us see us as an anarchist.