Is Caribbean History the Key to Understanding the Modern World?

Working our way backwards, from the 21st to the 19th century, we end the semester with a discussion of the beginnings of the Haitian Revolution in the context of Évelyne Trouillot’s Rosalie L’Infâme. History Today presents the viewpoints of various scholars. Marlene Daut’s section adds valuable information to our discussion, the often-overlooked participation of the indigenous populations (mentioned by your classmate Kaitlyn Wiehe in her presentation) in the Haitian Revolution. Here are excerpts; read the full article in History Today.

‘The Caribbean became a focal point of rivalries among Europeans, a location where imperial contests were fought’

Carla Gardina Pestana, Author of The English Conquest of Jamaica: Oliver Cromwell’s Bid for Empire (Belknap Harvard, 2017).

The Caribbean ushered in the modern world. Most infamously, it was the site of full-blown racial slavery – a horrific institution founded on the commodification of people as objects of exploitation – which was perpetrated on a massive scale. The Caribbean population intermixed not just European, African and indigenous American, but also housed a great diversity from within Europe itself. All the groups that crossed the Atlantic from Europe came to the West Indies, setting up rival colonial outposts, but also living together in specific colonies and achieving levels of diversity only seen in the most polyglot of European cities.

The Caribbean became a focal point of rivalries among Europeans, a location where imperial contests were fought. The value placed on the region fostered these struggles for power. The Caribbean’s high value arose from two facts that also signalled its centrality to modernity. It was a gateway for the silver extracted from the Americas, which funded the Habsburgs’ worldwide empire and fuelled an emerging global economy toward modernity. And (along with Brazil) it was the locus for the creation of plantation economies based on racial slavery. These plantation economies were central to the creation of the factory model of economic exploitation which made the plantation colonies the most valuable holdings of European colonisers in the 18th century, including both French Saint-Domingue and British Jamaica. Sugar and silver had devastating environmental effects as well, another precursor of modern economies of exploitation. 

All these elements – racial slavery, diversity, imperial violence to achieve superiority, oppressive economic exploitation on a vast scale and the resulting astounding profits – heralded the advent of the modern, interconnected, global reality of inequality, mass consumption and disregard for the environment. Only by understanding the pivotal place of the Caribbean in this experience can we come to terms with the legacies that we still grapple with today. 

‘The Caribbean was the birthplace of modern anti-colonialism’

Marlene Daut, Professor of African Diaspora Studies at the University of Virginia

The Caribbean was the birthplace of modern anti-colonialism. Inhabited by humans since 5,000 BC, the island of Ayiti, renamed La España by the Spanish in the 15th century, was the initial site of conflict between Spanish colonisers and the existing occupants of the region. The 19th-century Haitian writer and politician Baron de Vastey located the blueprint for later Haitian independence in the resistance of ‘the first Haitians’.

After Columbus’ appearance on Ayiti in 1492, among the worst of the atrocities his men committed in the name of acquiring the gold residing in the island was the execution of Anacaona, Queen of Xaragua (one of Ayiti’s five main principalities). In 1504, along with 300 Xaraguans, Anacaona was coerced into attending a feast given by the Spanish governor, Nicolás de Ovando. She was arrested, accused of treason and then hanged. Her execution was followed by a war, during which the Spaniards massacred almost the entire population of Xaraguans. Anacaona’s husband, Caonabo, had died eight years earlier on the ship on which he was being deported to Spain. 

Orphaned by the war, Anacaona and Caonabo’s great nephew, Enrique, was forced into servitude at a convent where he learned to admire the Spanish doctor, Bartolomé de las Casas. But in 1519, mistreated in his benefactor’s absence, Enrique rebelled. After acquiring arms, he convinced hundreds of other Ayitians, as well as enslaved Africans, to join him in a 14-year revolt against the Spanish in the mountains of Bahoruco (now Dominican Republic). In 1533, a new Spanish governor was compelled to acknowledge Enrique’s autonomy in what became the first maroon treaty.

The Haitian revolutionaries took up the mantle of anti-colonialism when in their 1804 declaration of independence they discarded the name of Saint-Domingue, given to the west of the island by the French in 1697, and declared that Haiti, named in honour of the history shared by Ayitians and Africans, would be permanently slavery free. Their actions provided inspiration for many 20th-century anti-colonialists, such as Aimé Césaire, who declared: ‘Haiti is where négritude stood up for the first time and proclaimed that it believed in its own humanity.’

‘At the turn of the 20th century, the Caribbean came under the sway of the United States’

Ada Ferrer, Julius Silver Professor of History and Latin American Studies at New York University

[. . .] The Caribbean was also home to the earliest challenges to slavery and colonialism. The Haitian Revolution was the second anti-colonial revolution in the world. But it was the first one founded on anti-slavery and anti-racism, as its Black leaders announced to the world that human rights were their rights, too. It also produced the world’s first modern slave emancipation, initially forced on colonial authorities by the actions of the enslaved. Later revolutions in Cuba – the 19th-century one against Spain and that of 1959 – shared some, if not all, of its principles. 

The Caribbean is key because it contains antecedents of the structures of exploitation that continue to shape our world, as recent projects tracing the profits of slavery into the present make clear. It is key, also, because it launched some of the most consequential attempts to undo those structures and their legacies. Finally, it demonstrates that those attempts can themselves produce new forms of domination. The intertwined histories of colonialism and slavery and of the struggles against them have never-ending, always evolving, afterlives.

For full article, see

[Above: ‘Environs de Leogane et du Port Au Prince dans lsle de St. Domingue’ c.1764, Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library.]

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