Defiant Haiti: Free-Soil Runaways, Ship Seizures and the Politics of Diplomatic Non-Recognition in the Early Nineteenth Century

Johnhenry Gonzalez has written an article with engaging stories and on a topic that deserves even more attention.

I finally got to read Johnhenry Gonzalez’s article published in the latest issue of Abolition & Slavery 36:1 (2015): 124-135.  It deals with an understudied topic, but one that is important to me.  If this is an indication of a trend, I am glad for the budding interest in post-revolutionary Haiti (1820s) and the Atlantic World.

Runaways escaping by boat

Runaways escaping by boat

It is only at the end of the article that the reader notices that Gonzalez had nicely weaved in pirates’ and runaway accounts into a foreign policy study. Gonzalez knows that Prince Mary’s remarkable autobiography fits perfectly when talking about runaways from the Caicos’ islands. So, there she is, explaining readers that a lack of a sugar plantation system does not mean a more benevolent slavery, which only existed in the imagination of a few slavery apologists.  Attention to stories like hers bubbles up more than curiosity. It helps contrast the appalling lives of slaves on the Turks and Caicos islands with the freedom that boat-runaways most had gained in Haiti.

Gonzalez insists that Jean-Pierre Boyer’s prolonged regime (1818-1843) should be considered as part of an epoch of sputtering transition toward emancipation.  How did his rule managed to survive for so long in the midst of the sugar archipelago, encircled by the very same islands that were models of intensified slave labor?  And what about the legendary internal divisions? To explain his case, Gonzalez builds upon Ada Ferrer’s work on early Haitian Free-soil policy but does not stay there.  He soon moves toward a more time-honored position and brings with him an underlying assumption.  For Gonzalez, Haitian leaders (principally Boyer) quietly manipulated the “organic” 1816 Constitution for diplomatic ends (more like a bait):

While Pétion and Boyer’s policies of emancipation, free soil, and land reform grew organically from the aspirations of Haiti’s formerly enslaved citizens, these leaders also tacitly used these policies to threaten and punish the hostile British and North American governments. (132)

Here he reminds me of John Edward Baur’s article “Mulatto Machiavelli, Jean-Pierre Boyer, and The Haiti of His Day.” Baur focused on Boyer and presented him as the ideal Haitian practitioner of realpolitik, with an innate talent to negotiate Haiti’s survival.  Thankfully, Gonzalez’s portrayal of Boyer is more nuanced.  He showed Boyer as part of his time and in a mix with the masses of people who are not short in historical agency. But generally speaking, Baur would have agreed with Gonzalez’s main arguments.  It is at the moments when Gonzalez differed strikingly from Baur that the reader notices the author’s major contributions to historiography.

For example, Gonzalez highlighted a point that should have been obvious but is often ignored, one that Baur also assumed: Boyer’s Free Soil policy resulted in a better survival strategy than that of Jean Jaques Dessalines or Henri Christophe’s.  However, differently from Baur, Gonzalez’s understands that Haiti behaved defiantly against the US and British authorities (through consuls and traders) simply because it could do so at this time in history.  No imperial power was dominant enough in the Caribbean to submit Haiti into raw obedience– a situation clearly different after 1915 with the US invasion.  In other words, Gonzalez places Haiti solidly within a more nuanced milieu.  Still, Baur would have supported Gonzalez when explaining Pétion and Boyer’s motivations for their foreign policy of defiance: it was a retaliation against the British and US non-recognition policy.

Haitian officials sign a treaty with France. Date 1825.

Haitian officials sign a treaty with France. Date 1825.

One of the most interesting points in Gonzalez’s article is where he offers a distinct angle for considering the 1825 Indemnity Treaty. Far from justifying getting the country in (eternal) debt, he shows Boyer in a contrasting light. On the one hand, his Free-Soil policy makes him look like a successful postcolonial leader. On the other, however, Boyer looks like a fool when he gave in to French demands. On this point, Gonzalez departs from Baur, who had seen Boyer in 1825 as a prisoner of circumstances.  Boyer had alternatives.

Though many scholars and non-scholars have returned to this moment (see Joan Dayan, page 161 and Frédérique Beauvois). and have wondered about Boyer’s thoughts, most have deemed it as a mistake. Gonzalez makes Boyer’s submission seems even more absurd.

In this light, the French indemnity of 1825 appears especially tragic not simply because it siphoned away Haitian wealth and helped it along the path towards economic ruin, but also because Boyer’s government may have had sufficient military power, domestic political support, and neutral or clandestine trading partners to have continued defying France and Britain well beyond 1825.

Regardless of how inconsistent Boyer’s regime appeared, the most obvious beneficiaries of the Haitian revolutionary legacy were the few runaways from nearby islands, particularly those from the Turks and Caicos.

As with every good piece of scholarship, this article leaves many unanswered questions, which are the seeding grounds for future research.  How much can we speculate about Boyer’s authority and actual power? What role did the people play in shaping the law and foreign policy? How did enslaved families learned about the news in Haiti? Fortunately, recent research is helping find and better understand the runaways’ flights.

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About Dennis R. Hidalgo
I am a historian of the Atlantic World. I am passionate about people, those alive in the present and those who left little trace of their past.

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