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.]

Film: “Marie-Louise Christophe: A Haitian Queen in Great Britain”

Related to our discussion of Alejo Carpentier’s Le Royaume de ce monde [El reino de este mundo / The Kingdom of This World], here is a documentary on the first Queen of Haiti, Marie-Louise Christophe. Marie-Louise Christophe: A Haitian Queen in Great Britain (2021) is now available via YouTube. The film, a collaboration between Nicole Willson (researcher at the University of Central Lancashire) and the Haitian Chamber of Commerce in Great Britain—was released on January 1 to coincide with Haitian Independence Day. [Many thanks to Dr. Peter Hulme for bringing this item to our attention.] 

Description: Step back in time with Wilford Marous and Michelet Romulus of the Haitian Chamber of Commerce in Great Britain and Dr Nicole Willson, Principal Investigator on the Leverhulme Trust funded research project ‘Fanm Rebèl: Recovering the Histories of Haiti’s Women Revolutionaries’ to learn more about the exile experience of Marie-Louise Christophe, first Queen of Haiti, who immigrated to Britain in 1821 with her two daughters.

You may view the film here:

Joël Karekezi « Rwanda : Portraits du pardon »

Joël Karekezi est un scénariste, réalisateur et producteur rwandais. Il a reçu sa formation en cinéma à l’ecole Cinécours (au Québec, Canada). Son court-métrage Imbabazi [Le Pardon / The Pardon, 2009], qui porte sur la réconciliation après le génocide de 1994 contre les Tutsis, a été produit en long-métrage en 2012. En 2018 Karekezi réalise le long-métrage La Miséricorde de la jungle [The Mercy of the Jungle]—soutenu et financé par la Belgique—et en 2019, il réalise le moyen-métrage Rwanda : Portraits du pardon [Portraits of Forgiveness].

Dans cette vidéo, Karekezi parle de ses films, du pardon et de l’universalité du sujet qu’il explore le plus souvent : l’importance de raconter nos histoires et d’arrêter le cycle de la haine.

Il explique : « C’est important que nous Rwandais, Africains, puissions raconter notre histoire, partager notre point de vue. Et nous devons mobiliser les soutiens qui nous permettent de nous exprimer. »

Pour en savoir plus : et

Le génocide du Rwanda

La semaine dernière, nos étudiants à Marist College ont commémoré le 27e anniversaire du génocide du Rwanda. Dans ce cadre, nous partageons ici un article du 7 avril 2019 (« Le Rwanda commémore le 25e anniversaire du génocide ») quand le gouvernement de Rwanda a décrété un deuil de 100 jours, « le temps qu’il a fallu en 1994 pour que 800 000 Rwandais soient massacrés. » À la fin de l’article, une femme rwandaise raconte comment un voisin a massacré ses enfants, et comme elle a décidé de lui pardonner ses actions. (Voir « Au Rwanda, la victime qui a pardonné à son bourreau ».)

« Djadja » Aya Nakamura

Ciana Stagon (FREN 322) partage cette chanson d’Aya Nakamura. Elle nous explique :

« Nakamura exprime une franchise sans effort mais ferme avec ses paroles, une franchise qui est clairement reflétée dans sa musique. « Djadja » a été un méga succès en France et au monde entier. La chanson est reconnue comme un hymne pour mouvement pour les droits des femmes. Son image a été utilisée sur des affiches lors de manifestations françaises contre la violence faite aux femmes. »

The refugees feeding a nation

Notre Séminaire d’études francophones (FREN 322) se concentre sur les histoires changeantes, la pluralité des idées et la diversité du monde francophone. « The refugees feeding a nation » —un film de Daisy Walsh, Tommy Chavannes et Jilla Dastmalchi—suit la migration des familles Hmong du Laos à la Guyane, et leurs contributions à l’économie guyanienne.

Description: After the Vietnam War, France relocated a small group of 45 Hmong refugees from Laos to its overseas territory in South America, called French Guiana.

The Hmong people were fleeing persecution from [Vietnamese] Communists, because they had been long-time allies of France and had fought alongside US forces.

Forty years later, French Guiana is now heavily reliant on the food that these refugees and their descendants grow in farms deep in the Amazon jungle. It’s said they are a true immigration success story, but this happy ending was not always guaranteed.

“Madan Sara”: Film Screening/Discussion with Etant Dupain

The LCS-Speaker Series: Conversations on Social Justice at the University at Albany (SUNY) presents a screening of Madan Sara and a discussion with the director and filmmaker Etant Dupain, on Thursday, April 22 at 1:00pm (EST). [See trailer above. Register in advance for this event here.]

Description: The women known as Madan Sara in Haiti work tirelessly to buy, distribute, and sell food and other essentials in markets through the country. The Madan Sara documentary tells the stories of these indefatigable women who work at the margins to make Haiti’s economy run. This film amplifies the calls of the Madan Sara as they speak directly to society to share their dreams for a more just Haiti.

Zoom LINK: (Register in advance for this meeting.)

Also see our previous post For more on the director, see

La créolité selon Raphaël Confiant

Romancier martiniquais et professeur à l’université des Antilles, Raphaël Confiant est aussi—et surtout—un militant de la langue et de la cause créoles, depuis au moins trois décennies. Pour Culture Prime, il revient sur l’origine du concept-manifeste de créolité.

En 1989, Jean Bernabé, linguiste, Patrick Chamoiseau et Raphaël Confiant, romanciers, sont invités au même festival. Ils préparent un texte commun. Intitulé « Éloge de la Créolité », publié ensuite par Gallimard, ce manifeste est aujourd’hui traduit dans une quinzaine de langues : « Ni Européens, ni Africains, ni Asiatiques, nous nous proclamons Créoles. Cela sera pour nous une attitude intérieure, mieux une vigilance, ou mieux encore une sorte d’enveloppe mentale au mitan de laquelle se bâtira notre monde, en pleine conscience du monde. »