Saint-Rémy, Joseph -1816-1858.
October 30, 2014 1 Comment
The following is an entry that John Gillespie, a student in my Critical Issues in World History (The African Diaspora), wrote with me for the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography from the Oxford University Press. It has already been accepted for publication.
Saint-Rémy, Joseph (1816-1858), lawyer, activist, and historian, and known as “Saint-Rémy Les Cayes,” was born in 1816 in Basse-Terre, in the French colony of Guadalupe to free mulatto parents. Saint-Rémy’s family soon moved to Les Cayes in southern Haiti, to claim Haitian citizenship as a person of African descent. The family was responding to a new provision included in the Haitian Constitution of 1816, much touted by Alexander Pétion, then president of Haiti. When he reached maturity, Saint-Rémy traveled to Paris, where he studied law, before returning to Les Cayes to serve as an avocet (lawyer) under the government of Jean Pierre Boyer. Saint-Rémy sympathized with the liberal revolution of 1843 in Haiti, which opposed the long-lived rule of Boyer. Saint-Rémy’s connections with the regime of Charles Hérard led to his arrest, imprisonment, and eventual banishment of Haiti by Jean-Louis Pierrot. When Faustin Soulouque rose to power in 1847, Saint-Rémy returned, but left soon afterward for Paris for a time. He returned to Haiti for the final time in 1853 to practice law in Gonaïves, where he died five years later in the year 1858.
Saint-Rémy lived through Haiti’s early formative period and played an important role in shaping it through his writings and his political activities. His primary work as a scholar revolved around his studies of the lives and events of Haiti’s early leaders. Saint-Rémy’s most important and influential works were his historical texts La vie de Toussaint Louverture (1850) and Pétion et Haiti (1855). These volumes describe the lives and deeds of two of the most important and influential men in Haitian history. Though he also edited a number of historical works and published pamphlets during his time, his five-volume work on Pétion and the book he wrote about Toussaint Louverture have received the most attention, and criticism. He, along with fellow Haitian historian Alexis Ardouin and Joseph Bonnet are described by David Nicholls and other twentieth first century historians as being central in a cultural movement to vindicate and justify the leadership positions that mulattos played in the Haitian Revolution, and the positions of power they still held when Saint-Rémy and Ardouin were writing. To a large extent, Saint-Rémy and Ardouin were writing in response to Thomas Madiou’s Histoire d’Haiti. In contrast to Madiou, Saint-Rémy and Ardouin presented a narrow and stylized picture of the past favoring mulatto rule. Nicholls placed their works within the Anglo-American Whig interpretation of history, crafted in a specific way to paint a certain portrait of the mulatto leaders. Nevertheless, he is among those early Haitian writers that forcibly and eloquently countered the emerging racist ideologies of the time.
As a part of his attempt to paint the actions of mulattos in a positive light, Saint-Rémy attempted to play down the racial tensions of post-revolutionary Haitian history. Like Pompée Valentin Vastey, and Madiou who were also mulattos, but open to the black perspectives of history, he identified white colonial rule as the source of all forms of segregation in the postcolonial nation. Yet, differently from them, he ignored the mulatto prejudice and paternalism, and presented the black leaders’ contributions unsympathetically. Thus, he wrote the history of the life of Toussaint Louverture in a tone that was condemning of his political decisions, while also admiring his skills and accomplishments. While he approved of Louverture’s role in exercising control over the French colonial government in 1800 and keeping French imperialism at bay, Saint-Rémy showed Louverture’s decision to preserve Haiti as a French Colony as a sign of his willing submission to European rule. But, that does not mean he favored of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the black leader who led the final separation from France in 1804. Rémy’s treatment of Louverture is ambiguous at best, but his handling of Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe, Dessalines’ successor who became emperor of northern Haiti, is downright scathing. Saint-Rémy painted both as tyrants, and described Dessalines’ assassination and Christophe’s suicide as a “cause of liberty.”
In contrast to his description of Louverture and Dessalines, Saint-Rémy’s five-volume work on the life of Alexandre Pétion is an absolutely glowing endorsement of everything that is good and right about a Haitian leader. Saint-Rémy hailed Pétion and Jean Pierre Boyer, Pétion’s successor, as being the paragons of good governance for Haiti, and once again, Nicholls attributes this to his attempt to “vindicate mulatto ascendency.” Despite the fact that he is painted as a “Whig” in his interpretation of history, Saint-Rémy’s lasting impression in the minds of most historians seems to be somewhat more positive than one might expect. Saint-Rémy was at least willing to admit that there were racial divisions in Haiti; he simply desired to get rid of them. This is a somewhat less whiggish than Ardouin, who refused to acknowledge any racial issues in Haiti once the whites were gone. And for this Saint-Rémy was even rebuked by fellow mulâtriste writers for straying from the path of mulatto ideology. His writing style and skill also earned him great praise, as Joseph-Anténor Firmin later wrote of him in his book, The Equality of the Human Races: “Saint-Rémy is clearly a gifted writer who uses the French language to magnificent effects. His style is that of the craftsman. His diction is pure and correct, and often charming. With brilliant turns of phrase, always tempered by the sober rhythm of the sentence, he highlights the points that he wants to clarify and to which he wishes to draw the reader’s attention.” And as important, Saint-Rémy consistently attacked white rule, giving historical examples that undermined ideas of racial purity and white supremacy.
- Bongie, Chris. Friends and Enemies: The Scribal Politics of Post/colonial Literature. London: Liverpool University Press, 2008.
- Firmin, Joseph-Antenor. The Equality of the Human Races. University of Illinois Press, 2002. Print.
- Gregory, Steven, and Robert Sanjek. RACE. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994.
- Lewis, Gordon K. Main Currents in Caribbean Thought: The Historical Evolution of Caribbean Society in Its Ideological Aspects, 1492-1900. University of Nebraska Press, 1983.
- Nicholls, David. From Dessalines to Duvalier: Race, Color, and National Independence in Haiti. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1996.
- Reinsel, Amy. “Poetry of Revolution: Romanticism and National Projects in Nineteenth-century Haiti.” Pittsburgh: Ph.D Diss. 2008.
- Saint-Remy, Joseph. Pétion et Haïti, étude monographique et historique, par Saint-Remy (des Cayes). Paris: l’auteur, 1864.
- Segal, Ronald. The Black Diaspora. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1995.
Dennis R. Hidalgo