Out of isolation

Haitian Connections in the Atlantic World: Recognition After Revolution
Julia Gaffield
2015, University of North Carolina Press
254 pages, paperback

IN THE historiography of nineteenth-century Haiti, there is an influential “isolation thesis” according to which the so-called “black republic” was isolated by the major powers following its declaration of independence in 1804.

This argument speaks to the ways in which the competing Atlantic powers – France, Spain, Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands and the United States – withheld diplomatic recognition of the small island nation established through a rebellion against the slave system on Saint-Domingue, the French colony on Hispaniola. That revolt, beginning in 1791 under François Dominique Toussaint-Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, changed the course of global history.

Author Julia Gaffield argues that the isolation thesis, which assumes that the lack of recognition prevented Haiti from enjoying either diplomatic or economic contact with the outside world, has persisted because of an emphasis in scholarship upon the heightened fears of white societies in this period of racial rebellion, not least because of the sheer profitability of slavery at that time. It undoubtedly owes much to the ways colonial powers such as Spain were subsequently able to defer both abolitionism and independence in neighbouring countries such as Cuba, and thereby cement loyalties, by pointing to Haiti in order to play on the racial fears of the creole plantation elite.

The isolation thesis is important, because it has conditioned the way in which scholarship has treated Haiti, providing a convenient point of departure for what might be called an equally influential “basket-case” perspective, by which Haiti’s problematic contemporary condition as the hemisphere’s poorest country is never explicitly disassociated from this racially informed view of its origins and early years.

There’s only one problem, Gaffield argues forcefully: the thesis may not be correct.

Haitian Connections in the Atlantic World uses hard historical evidence to paint a different picture of Haiti’s early years that tests the notion of isolation. The author argues that the thesis does not capture the many and varied ways in which foreigners interacted with Haiti while it was being diplomatically cold-shouldered. By contrast, she shows that Haitian independence unfolded with multiple connections across the Atlantic world, and demonstrates plausibly that these interactions call into question the established historical emphasis on race in the early nineteenth century.

Gaffield writes: “The claim that the rest of the Atlantic World immediately isolated Haiti has persisted because of an emphasis on the heightened importance of racial fears and the future of slavery elsewhere in the Caribbean and beyond. In the established studies of the postindependence years, Haiti’s identity as a ‘black republic’ often overshadows all of its other characteristics … The evolution of racism over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and, in particular, the specific racism directed toward Haiti in recent history has shaped the way that scholars characterize the initial decades after 1804. Haitian history, from this perspective, becomes a linear path from an unsuccessful experiment in independence to ‘the poorest country in the western hemisphere’.” [p2]

The author sets out boldly to re-establish Haiti’s place in the Atlantic world of that period by tracing the reaction of foreign powers to its declaration of independence and the nature of its less formal interactions thereafter. She writes: “Rather than emphasizing the French-led insistence on isolation and the length of time it took before foreign governments officially recognized Haiti as an independent state, the historical evidence reveals a multilayered strategy on the part of governments other than France and its ally Spain as they grappled with the unprecedented and profound questions posed by events in Haiti.” [p15]

As Gaffield points out, those questions – about human rights and the interplay of economic, political and legal priorities – continue to bedevil the international community two centuries later. – GO’T