LAURENT DUBOIS. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, York: The Dial Press, 2004. Pp. viii, 357. $17.95.
Avengers of the New World is the first book written by Laurent Dubois, the historian, anthropologist, and literary scholar of France, the French Atlantic, and the Caribbean. Dubois wrote Avengers as a new history of the Haitian revolution (1791-1804), updating the anticolonial work of the Caribbean scholar C.L.R. James with Atlantic and African scholarship and social and cultural methodologies. Whereas James tended to “essentialize the differences” between groups within San Domingo, and focus on defending the actions of black revolutionaries and condemning those of planters from within a racialized discourse, Dubois is interested in creating an understanding of the revolution’s wider context within the “Age of Revolutions.” Although his book lacks the passion, verve, and spontaneous philosophical insight that characterized The Black Jacobins, it succeeds at drawing a more holistic portrait of the transatlantic republican forces that contributed not only to the “crucial moment” of the Haitian revolution, but to “the overall destruction of slavery in the Americas,” and to our ongoing battle for global democracy and human rights.
Dubois dedicates the first third of Avengers to creating a detailed portrait of the colony. For this he uses the writings of the creole lawyer Moreau de Saint-Méry, who recalled prerevolutionary San Domingo with all the prelapsarian splendor of a disinherited planter. While James was content to discuss the brutality of slavery as an explanation for revolt, Dubois wants to recreate island society from a bird’s eye view. He explains everything from the division of labor, to the process of producing sugar, to the makeup of Sunday markets and masses in Le Cap, to the geography of the island and the plans of the harbors and cities. In these pages, the reader witnesses the profound impact of social and cultural methodologies. Instead of merely planters and slaves, there are petite blancs, grand blancs, commandeurs, procureurs, gérants, économes, ménagères, affranchi, absentee landlords, and more. Readers learn everything from how slaves celebrated with the “Danse Voudoux,” to what they ate, where they slept, and how they protected themselves with wooden figurines called garde-corps.
When James wrote The Black Jacobins in 1938, scholars in the Western world were still addressing African-American history from the perspective of “the Negro Problem.” Just as the anthropologist Melville Herskovits looked for basic “Negro” traits among the maroon colonies in Suriname, James framed the story of the Haitian revolution as a drama with universal racial implications, a profound model for African decolonization. After centuries of growth in the field of African history, Dubois can break this homogeneity. Slaves are no longer “black laborers.” They are Ibo, Allada, Senegalese, Kongo, and Bambara. They wear African talismans like the makwonda, they create fetishes like the ouanga, and they participate in Vodou ceremonies like the Bois Caïman. As Dubois declares, the Haitian revolution was an African revolution, as “two thirds of Saint-Domonigue’s slaves—and therefore more than half of the colony’s population—had been born in Africa.”
The “cross-fertilization between the revolutionary transformations that took place in France and the Caribbean” is central to Dubois. While the abolitionist society La Société des Amis des Noirs was lobbying against the “Third Estate,” epitomized by the Club Massiac, in France, slave rebels were captured with both African amulets and French pamphlets, which included the Declaration of the Rights of Man. With Dubois, this transatlantic circulation of republicanism is center stage. He positions the “thriving system of merchant capitalism” as a regime that oppressed slaves and white entrepreneurs. Planters struggled against the exclusif, monopolistic policies that fixed the prices of commodities (for profitable resale in Europe) and prohibited planters from trading with foreigners. Meanwhile, the promises of the French revolution engendered resistance from mulattos, who lobbied for republican citizenship and felt betrayed when the National Assembly abandoned its promises of enfranchisement. Finally, Dubois is quick to demonstrate how intellectuals in France, like the writer Louis Sebastien Mercier, after whom the book is named, presaged that people “oppressed by the most odious slavery” would transform into transatlantic avengers of liberty.