Sovereignty and the Haitian Revolution in Jean Casimir’s The Haitians: A Decolonial History

Reviewed by Julia Gaffield

Casimir, Jean. The Haitians: A Decolonial History. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2020. 452 pp.

Can we really say that the Haitian Revolution was a success?

We’ve all heard the question. The person asking it either points to Haiti’s contemporary status as “poorest country in the western hemisphere” or to the restrictive labor regimes implemented by Haitian heads of state in the first decades after independence. The implication is that perhaps Haiti would have been better off remaining a French colony and that Haitians did not experience any meaningful change because of the Revolution.

Book Cover of The Haitians by Jean Casimir.

The questioner blames Haitians for this perceived failure. They suggest that Haitian revolutionaries should have been more diplomatic, or, conversely, that they should have been more radical. The questioner argues that the revolutionaries were too accommodating to the imperial powers or they that were not accommodating enough.

But we must redirect the focus to properly answer the question.

“The Haitian Revolution did not fail,” Marlene Daut concluded on the You’re Dead to Me podcast, “the world failed the Haitian Revolution.”

European empires and the United States tried to sabotage the success of the Revolution by withholding official recognition, restricting trade routes, levying heavier trade duties, and—in the case of France—forcing Haiti to pay for the independence that it had already won. As Daut accurately argues, the responsibility for many of Haiti’s perceived failures lays squarely in the hands of foreign nations and empires.

There’s a second way to answer this question—one that requires the questioner to look at little more closely at the Revolution and its aftermath. In his new book, The Haitians: A Decolonial History, Jean Casimir asks us to reorient our perspectives away from the colonizers and the state in Haiti and instead to look to the Haitian people to evaluate the “success” of the Haitian Revolution.

“The modern, racist, capitalist, and Christian world could never accept the Haitian state,” Casimir argues, “And the more the Haitian administration knocked at its door and managed to accelerate efforts at rapprochement, the more Haiti found itself subjugated and humiliated” (22). The Haitian government’s unsuccessful bid to participate in the Euro-American “family of nations” is, of course, part of the alleged “failure” referenced by our initial questioner. Casimir asserts that the state in Haiti in the nineteenth century—which he also calls the Haitian oligarchy—was an extension of the colonial system.

But that is not the end of the story.

The state succeeded in protecting the country from invasion but failed to impose its colonialist priorities on the nation. Haitians resisted the reimposition of the plantation economy, Casimir reveals, “by reconstructing our sovereignty and the institutions that supported it, and by prioritizing them over our relationships with the outside world” (4). These “institutions” were not those outlined in Haitian constitutions and laws, but instead in the cultural and social landscape of the nation. 

The nation sustained “survival mechanisms,” Casimir shows, that were rooted in the colonial period when “captives” learned how to resist their roles as “slaves.” “Daily life became the soil in which the imprisoned cultivated and harmonized their counterinterpretations of the plantation and colonial society” (327).

The institutions and mechanisms with which the nation resisted the state, which Casimir collectively calls the counter-plantation system, included “gender relations, family, the lakou [clusters of homes around a central courtyard], indivisible collective property, Vodou temples, rural markets, garden-towns, leisure, crafts, [and] the arts” (351). Casimir also notes the importance of a common language, Haitian Kreyòl, that sustained these forms of resistance over time. 

The initial question—“was the Haitian Revolution successful?”—asks us to judge the Revolution from a perspective that centers the European and US version of sovereignty and “democracy.” But now, perhaps more than ever, scholars need to challenge this perspective. “The dominant way of thinking,” Casimir insists, “takes care never to veer too far from the colonial vision of the world” (264).

By centering the worldview of the rural population in the nineteenth century—the “True Haitians”—Casimir shows us the possibilities of alternative forms of freedom that reject the legacies of colonialism and slavery. “What was critical to them [the Haitian nation],” Casimir concludes, “seems to have been the establishment of an institutionalized mastery of social relations that would eliminate the insufferable and uncontrollable commodification of their labor in a relation of dependency to capital and the market” (387).

As we consider the failings of our own “democracy” in the twenty-first century United States, Americans would do well to look to Haitian history for examples of revolutionary sovereignty. “The community organized itself,” Casimir insists, “in open struggle against the alienation of human labor.” Haitians did not need the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizens to conclude that tout moun se moun (every person is a person). And the majority of the population rejected the nation-state system that sought to reproduce imperial hierarchies and institutionalize racism on a global scale.


Julia Gaffield is a historian of the early-modern Atlantic World and an associate professor of history at Georgia State University. She is the author of Haitian Connections in the Atlantic World: Recognition after Revolution.

Title Image: Attack and take of the Crête-à-Pierrot (4 – march 24, 1802). Original illustration by Auguste Raffet, engraving by Hébert.

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