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(en) France, UCL AL #318 - Sudhir Hazareesingh (historian): "The abolition of 1793 was imposed by the black revolutionaries" (ca, de, it, fr, pt)[machine translation]

Date Mon, 27 Sep 2021 08:31:17 +0300

Mauritian, anglophone and francophone, Sudhir Hazareesingh is a researcher at the University of Oxford. A specialist in the French Revolution and the First Empire, he recently published Toussaint Louverture (Flammarion, 2020), a monumental biography using unpublished sources. He answered a few questions from Alternative Libertaire. ---- During the Domingo insurrection of 1791, we saw multiple leaders emerge - Halaou, Makaya, Hyacinthe, Jean-François, Biassou, Lamour Dérance... What did Toussaint Louverture stand out for? ---- Sudhir Hazareesingh: Toussaint stood out for his charisma (his supporters venerated him), his remarkable talent for civil and military organization (he was a true leader), his moral and intellectual qualities (he was equally nourished by the culture of the Enlightenment of the political and spiritual traditions of Africa and the West Indies), the scope and fluidity of its networks (he had contacts in different circles, even among his opponents), his ecumenism (he could address both rebellious slaves than to whites and people of color), his desire to transcend the ethnic and geographical cleavages that separated his 500,000 black brothers and sisters (the majority of whom were born in Africa), and finally and above all by his strategic vision for the regeneration of Santo Domingo,founded on the great republican principles of equality and fraternity.

Civil commissioners Polverel and Sonthonax resigned themselves to abolishing slavery in August-September 1793. Yet Toussaint waited until May 1794 to join the republic. Why this delay?

Sudhir Hazareesingh:Toussaint was rightly suspicious of the commissioners, because when they landed in Santo Domingo they refused to recognize the legitimacy of the insurrection of 1791, which they wanted to fight. They declared that they did not want to abolish slavery, even going so far as to translate the Black Code into Kreyòl. The abolition of 1793 was imposed on the commissioners by the black revolutionaries. The Spaniards, for their part, initially treated Toussaint and his men with much more dignity and respect. Louverture finally saw General Étienne Laveaux as an interlocutor to really trust, and it was then that he felt sufficiently reassured to change sides. But I would say that it was not he who went to the French: it was they who rallied to the ideas of the insurgents in Santo Domingo.

Why didn't Toussaint try to export the anti-slavery revolution, especially to Jamaica?

Sudhir Hazareesingh: For five reasons. First, he always acted cautiously, and only committed when he thought he could succeed. Second, he saw the expansionism of the Directory[1]as a metropolitan strategy unsuited to West Indian realities, where the naval domination of the British was unavoidable. Third, he knew that the Directory wanted to weaken its power by sending it to war outside. Fourth, he did not want to give the English or Spanish imperialists a pretext to attack Santo Domingo. Quinto, he believed that insurgencies could only succeed if they were anchored in the mentalities and practices of local societies. Robespierre had said that no one liked the "armed missionaries"; I don't know if Toussaint knew this sentence, but he fully shared this feeling.

"It was the French who rallied to the ideas of the insurgents in Santo Domingo"
It is commonly said that Toussaint Louverture was an excellent warlord, but that, when peace was established, he greatly disappointed the peasantry. Do you share this opinion?

Sudhir Hazareesingh: I do not dispute that the last years of the Louverturian regime disappointed the peasantry. But we have to put things in context, and look at the situation from an objectively revolutionary point of view. In 1795, after four years of revolt in the plantations, agricultural production had completely collapsed in the colony. Without it, Toussaint was aware that Saint-Domingue and its revolution would perish: fine principles are not enough in themselves. The only way to restart the agricultural economy quickly was to restart the plantations, and Toussaint applied this policy with method and rigor.

The economic successes, indisputable, allowed Santo Domingo to revive fully from 1799-1800, in particular by exporting its products to France and the United States. It was thanks to this economic revival that Toussaint succeeded in rallying the white settlers, in avoiding the diplomatic isolation of the revolution, and in obtaining the political and military support of the United States from President John Adams.

There was certainly a political price to pay: Toussaint imposed a regime of hard work, with an almost military discipline that forced agricultural workers to remain on the plantations - while being paid of course. But there was no viable alternative in the short term: if Toussaint had confiscated and redistributed the land to the peasants, there would have been no economic recovery after 1795, the settlers would have left (taking with them the know-how necessary for agricultural production), and the revolution would have been wrecked.

It is difficult to understand why and how the skilful Toussaint allowed himself to be stopped by the French in 1802, instead of going into the maquis while waiting for the rainy season to regain the advantage. What is your hypothesis?

Sudhir Hazareesingh: I admit that I still don't quite understand how he got caught. Perhaps he thought he had done enough militarily to impose a lasting truce, which would ultimately work in his favor with the onset of the rains. He had also undoubtedly underestimated the treachery of the French soldiers - Toussaint conceived "the honor As the noblest of virtues - but also the compromises of his own subordinates, in particular Dessalines, who clearly made a pact with the French to satisfy their own ambitions. I have Haitian friends who think that Toussaint let himself be taken, having led his own revolution to its end, to pave the way for the general insurrection. It's a bit of a romantic and fatalistic view, but maybe there is some truth to it.

Let's do some story-fiction. According to you, what could have happened for the rest of the revolution if Toussaint Louverture had not been captured? If it was he, and not Dessalines, who had led Haiti to independence?

Sudhir Hazareesingh: That's a great question. I first note that the strategy that led Santo Domingo to independence is the one that Toussaint himself had developed in the first months of 1802: the retreat inland, the scorched earth policy, the political unification of the various components of the resistance, in particular the alliance between blacks and people of color. It is this policy that Dessalines will put into practice. But the latter was much more sectarian than Toussaint: he eliminated those from his own camp who could give him offense (like Sans-Souci), and after the final victory, the white population was put to death.

Toussaint Louverture, for his part, would have sought to continue his policy of "national" cooperation between whites, people of color and blacks, and therefore to build a multiracial republic where power would have been shared between a black political elite and a white economic elite (a much like post-apartheid South Africa). It would have been necessary to compromise with the white owners, and without doubt it would have been difficult and painful. But Toussaint would have tried this experiment, and perhaps he could have carried it to the end, like Nelson Mandela.

Sudhir Hazareesingh, Toussaint Louverture, Flammarion, 2020, 576 pages, 29 euros.
It should also be remembered that the solution adopted by Jean-Jacques Dessalines will ultimately lead to a confrontation with France, which will demand and obtain, in 1825, the payment of a heavy indemnity by Haiti (150 million gold francs) as compensation to the French colonists for the loss of their slaves - a shameful diktat which will completely plague the economy of the black republic until the end of the XIX Ecentury and beyond.

We can therefore imagine another road, louverturienne, towards Haitian independence, more consensual and potentially richer in possibilities. Napoleon, exiled to Saint Helena, himself admits that he was wrong to send the military expedition of 1802, and that he should have trusted Toussaint. A letter to this effect, naming him "captain-general" of the colony was moreover ready (I found it in the archives); it was never sent.

If Bonaparte had listened to his reason rather than his racism and the cries of the colonial lobby, and had forged a lasting alliance with Toussaint, what an interesting prospect would have opened up in 1800: one can imagine a Louverturian regime in which the coexistence between different ethnic groups would have taken place. imposed, and the colony would have slowly but surely emancipated itself from the metropolis, leading to independence in fact if not in reality (one of Toussaint's favorite Kreyòls proverbs had "slowly gone far" ).

And the most attractive in this scenario: no reestablishment of slavery in the French colonies, because Toussaint Louverture, allied with the French, would not have allowed it. The contradiction between the French Revolution and slavery would therefore have been overcome in a more creative way, giving an even stronger impetus to abolitionism across the Atlantic world, notably in the United States and Great Britain. And instead of being founded on white power and racial hierarchy, French colonialism could have taken a rather different turn.

Interview by Irène (UCL Haute-Savoie), Benjamin (UCL Marseille) and Guillaume (UCL Montreuil)

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