The Ebb And Flow Of Freedom: Haiti, Cuba, and Jamaica in the Age of Bourgeois Revolution

The Ebb And Flow Of Freedom: Haiti, Cuba, and Jamaica in the Age of Bourgeois Revolution

Guest Piece by: Zach the Red

The power of the Haitian Revolution reverberated across the planet, but the revolution made its most profound and lasting impacts on the neighboring slave societies of the Atlantic world. In the nearby colonies of British Jamaica and Spanish Cuba, enslaved people, free people of color, and white settlers were forced to adjust-materially and ideologically-to an unprecedented, explosive event that upended life as they knew it. In Cuba, the colonial government and the planter class sought to “emulate Saint-Domingue and contain Haiti,” doubling-down on slavery to supplant the former as the economic jewel of the colonized Caribbean while working to ensure the latter would not be duplicated. In Jamaica, which was home to the largest concentration of enslaved people in the region outside of Saint-Domingue, the revolution helped facilitate the slow crawl of British abolitionism, despite the sturdiness of the Jamaican slave regime. In both cases, free and enslaved people of color seized upon the new possibilities cracked open by the unmaking of Saint-Domingue and forging of Haiti. Far off imperial governments, colonial administrators, ruling elites, slaves, poor whites, and free people of color jostled for political space, sometimes in conjunction with one another, sometimes in bloody competition, all grappling with the coexistence of a resurgent slave power along with its antithesis.

Just as the victory of the revolution in Haiti did not translate into full-fledged freedom for the Haitian people, it did not produce linear, straightforward results in Cuba and Jamaica. This paper will show that despite geographical proximity and certain similarities common to any colonial, slaveholding society in the Atlantic, the impacts of the Haitian Revolution on Cuba and Jamaica were drastically different, entrenching slavery in the former while speeding its demise in the latter. Human agency and structural imperatives heightened these differences as the revolutionary masses in Haiti moved towards independence, ensuring that all three countries would chart distinct but linked paths throughout the 19th century.

The wealth Saint-Domingue produced was matched only by the savagery inflicted on the people who produced it. Shortly after Europeans arrived in the Caribbean in the late 15th century, disease and the brutal working conditions they brought with them killed most of the Indigenous population of Hispaniola, ground zero for the colonization of the Americas. To make up for this labor shortage, the Spanish and Portuguese, and later their French and British rivals, began to import large numbers of enslaved Africans to the region.

At first, the number of slaves were limited; only 15 percent of Hispaniola’s population was enslaved at the end of the eighteenth century. The ongoing decimation of Indigenous peoples, the influx of pirates, and conventional colonial expansion ensured the growth of plantations and European settlements, which in turn meant a growing demand for workers. Although many of them would be taken elsewhere, given the often loose boundaries of the colonized Atlantic world, modern studies show indicate that between 850,000 to a million slaves were taken to Saint-Domingue from its foundation as an illegal settlement to the abolition of slavery in 1793. Some 685,000 of those people were brought to the colony in the eighteenth century alone.

The brutal nature of the work imposed by their masters, particularly sugar harvesting and refinement, meant that the mortality rates were extraordinarily high, and replacement labor was always needed. 5-6 percent of slaves on the colony died each year, while the birthrate was only 3 percent. Nearly half of all slave children died on some plantations. For the masters, it was simply cheaper to kill slaves off and find new ones. The cool language of economic rationality, with all its tables, charts, and figures often masks the universe of horrors that capitalist development requires. Over 70 years ago, C.L.R James described the terrors inflicted on enslaved Africans bound for the Americas and trapped on Saint-Domingue, and his haunting prose has scarcely been surpassed since. In many ways, Saint-Domingue was a fitting microcosm for all of modern Western civilization: an island of unimaginable wealth, floating on a sea of skulls.

By the eve of the revolution, Saint-Domingue had been transformed from something of a backwater for buccaneers to the world’s richest and most profitable slave colony. By 1789, it was the world’s largest producer of sugar and coffee; its plantations produced twice as much as all of the other French colonies put together; and its trade accounted for more than a third of France’s foreign trade. The French state, and more importantly, the colonial elite and French bourgeoise, grew fat on the suffering of black slaves. Much like India would be for the British in later centuries, Saint-Domingue was the jewel in the crown of the French Empire. To nearly all white eyes, it stood tall as the epitome of what colonialism and slavery could achieve in terms of material prosperity and a seemingly untroubled racial hierarchy, where nearly half a million slaves could be ruled by a handful of white settlers and free people of color. In nearby colonies like Cuba and Jamaica, colonial officials and planters looked on with a mixture of envy and awe.

But as James once observed, “economic prosperity is no guarantee of social stability. That rests on the constantly shifting equilibrium of the classes...with every stride in production the colony was marching to its doom.” This production was only possible through the hyper-exploitation of hundreds of thousands of people concentrated on a small landmass, deprived of nearly every aspect of life that makes human existence bearable. Despite the totalitarian aspirations of their overseers, they had established a distinct and powerful culture of their own, and understood that the whites had far more to lose than they did. Driven by the mass leadership of countless enslaved women and men, Saint-Domingue was poised to explode into a new existence as Haiti, and when it did, the shockwaves would reach far outside the plantations of Hispaniola.

Prior to the last decades of the eighteenth century, Cuba was more a society with slaves than a slave society. According to the sociologist Arthur L. Stinchcombe, a slave society is “a society in which very many of the familial, social, political, and economic relations are shaped by the extensive and intensive deprivation of slaves of all sorts of rights to decide for themselves" and whose "pervasive purpose in many kinds of social relations between more and less powerful people is to keep the others (slaves) from deciding or being able to decide.” In other words, a slave society is not one where slavery merely exists, but where slavery is essential. For Stinchcombe, the degree to which any slave society can be classified as such depends on  1) "the degree to which an island was a sugar island," 2) "the degree of internal social and political organization of the planters," and 3) "political place of the planters in an island government and of the island government in the empire." In other words, slave societies are at their strongest when sugar is booming, when the planter elite is unified and organized as a class, and when planters enjoy relative autonomy from metropolitan interference.

While some 60,000 African men and women had been brought to the island as slaves from its founding as a Spanish colony in 1511 to the middle of the eighteenth century, Cuba could not be described as a slave society until the eve of the Haitian Revolution. Most importantly, Cuba lacked the economic qualifications. Far from being a major source of sugar and other export crops intimately tied to slavery, much of Cuban agriculture was geared towards internal consumption, and in the mid-eighteenth century, only four sugar mills had more than a hundred slaves. Many enslaved people worked in towns and cities or on small farms on urban outskirts, while most of those in the countryside worked in “relatively small concentrations (by Caribbean and later Cuban standards)” on modest tobacco or sugar farms, or sizable cattle ranches with a majority of “free” laborers.

International and domestic developments in the latter half of the 1700s helped set the stage for a true slave society in Cuba. While Cuba was more racially diverse than past scholars have thought, thanks to extensive links between the island and British slave traders, the British occupation of Havana in the Seven Years’ War accelerated and intensified pre-war trends. During the eleven-month long occupation, the British authorities monopolized the slave trade even more severely than the Spanish had, as the military governor conspired with the Havana cabildo for their mutual enrichment. Cuban slave imports increased slightly during the occupation, but the most lasting impacts came with the reassertion of Spanish control. By the time Spain retook Havana, the events of the war had helped fuel the modernization drive within the Spanish empire-with Cuban planters playing a leading role.

The economic boon for the planter class was immediate, with the export of sugar in the five years after British intervention averaging more than 2,000 tons a year, compared with a mere 300 tons in the 1750s. The independence of the United States, and the subsequent passage of a limited free trade agreement between the US and Cuba, provided another opportunity for Cuban planters seeking commercial expansion. Pedro Rodriguez, Conde de Campomanes, noted jurist and economist, and later president of the Council of Castile, as well as other influential reformist voices within Spain and across the Spanish world, argued that the future of the Spanish empire depended on a large degree on trade liberalization and the development of tropical commodities, which would necessitate the mass import of enslaved workers. Campomanes “gave Cuba pride of place” in this vision of a more lucrative Spanish colonial project,  “arguing that by cultivating large-scale tobacco and sugar industries, Cuba would be capable of competing with the most prosperous French islands.”

Mainland Spaniards had their influence over colonial debates, but it was the members of the developing Cuban planter class that proved the main and most effective advocates for the expansion of slavery in Cuba. In 1780, barely a decade out from the uprising in Saint-Domingue, Havana’s planters petitioned the king to open up the slave trade, in order to maximize Cuba’s economic potential and give Spain an advantage over France and England. To compete with Saint-Domingue, the blood-soaked jewel of the French colonial empire and the envy of its imperial rivals, the Cuban ruling class had to drastically transform Cuba, making it into a true slave society.

The trajectory of the wealthy creole lawyer and planter Francisco Arango y Parreno was emblematic of this process of transformation. After traveling to Madrid in 1787, he became the apoderado (empowered representative) of the Havana city council, and called on the king and his ministers to implement “an absolutely unrestricted slave trade-” a call which they heeded, already convinced by the changing commercial landscape and the pressures exerted by earlier reformist elites in Spain and the colonies. While the Crown’s decree of February 28, 1789 was initially valid for only two years, subject to further review, it quickly boosted the legal slave trade in Havana, and signified Spain’s commitment to sugar and slavery in Cuba and other Spanish colonies in the Americas, as well as the rising power of the Cuban planter class.

The Crown’s subsequent efforts to regulate the behavior of slaves and masters, and relatively temper the power of the latter over the former, floundered on the rock of planter resistance, and in 1794 Madrid suspended the execution of those laws. Even as the enslaved masses of Saint-Domingue prepared to rise up against their own masters, Cuba was acclimating to its new role as a bastion of the Slave Power.

Arango’s influence did not end there. In the days following the outbreak of the revolution in Saint-Domingue, Arango was in Madrid preparing for the Council of State’s final vote on the extension of the open slave trade. When news of the uprising reached the capital, he quickly composed an essay on the roots of the revolt (as he saw them) and their implications for Cuba and Spain’s rulers, which he was able to put into the hands of the Council. In his influential treatise, Arango argued that the rebellion of the slaves was a logical side effect of the rebelliousness of their French masters, but that the superiority of the Cuban-Spanish system meant that there was no risk of the conflagration spreading. Critically, Arango made the case for an unparalleled opportunity, writing “ it is necessary to view [Saint-Domingue] not only with compassion but also from a political perspective and…announce to the best of kings the opportunity and means by which to give our agriculture on the islands the advantage and preponderance over the French.”

In the opening salvo of an unprecedented slave revolution, opportunism dominated the immediate response of the Cuban elite to the misfortune of their French counterparts. Though this would shift as the revolution spread and deepened, the initial reaction of the Cubans and the Spanish state was that of vultures, ready to swoop in and pick the bones clean rather than maintain class solidarity with their fellow slaveowners. While this approach ultimately benefited the slaves of Saint Domingue, who could take advantage of the divisions among the masters, it did not bode well for the tens of thousands of African women and women who would suffer under a resurgent and emboldened Cuban slave regime.

A thwarted uprising in 1812 illustrates the lingering aftereffects of the Haitian revolution in Cuba. Documented in over 6,000 pages of court testimony, the Aponte Rebellion-named for its alleged ringleader, the free moreno (black) artisan José Antonio Aponte-is significant here not so much because of its achievements, which were limited to a few torched plantations and dead colonists, but for its symbolic power: for black Cubans and white Cubans. Shortly after Aponte was arrested on March 19, the authorities’ interrogations led them to his home. Inside, they found an item several of the arrested conspirators had described: a book of drawings, containing maps of streets and garrisons throughout Cuba, illustrations of black soldiers defeating whites, images of George Washington, Aponte and his father, and King Carlos III, portraits of black kings from Abyssinia, and most shockingly of all, portraits of the Haitian revolutionary leaders Henri Christophe, Toussaint Louverture, Jean François, and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, all of which Aponte produced or replicated himself. Officials later discovered that Aponte regularly showed this book to fellow free black militiamen and others during meetings at his home.

While some of the defendants in the trial claimed ignorance about the meaning of the images, either to themselves or Aponte, and Aponte himself frequently gave innocent explanations for them, the importance of revolutionary and African iconography to free and enslaved people of color in this period (not to mention the exigencies of testifying under threat of more torture and likely execution) puts their words in a different light.

More importantly, the fact that Aponte apparently took the time and energy to replicate images of Haitian revolutionaries, likely knowing full well the repercussions if they were ever discovered, and regularly showed them to his friends and comrades, is telling. At this time, rumors of Henri Christophe as a liberating monarch and anti-slavery bogeyman were rampant across Cuba, as well as other colonies like Puerto Rico. Many slaves and planters alike believed that the king and other Haitian revolutionaries planned to not only inspire revolt through example, but through material and organizational aid. One of the leaders involved in the Aponte rebellion actually claimed to be the famed (but quite dead) Haitian rebel Jean-Francois, known to Spanish speakers as Juan Francisco. However, Christophe’s relatively conservative foreign policy, which severely constricted Haitian intervention in foreign slave regimes, suggests that rebels and the authorities alike exaggerated the role the Haitians truly played for their own purposes.

Regardless of where Aponte first saw those drawings, such a stark tribute to the Haitian revolution should not be downplayed. For Aponte, and perhaps for many of the people he shared them with, these images served as a powerful reminder that only a short distance away, slaves and free blacks had led a successful revolution, toppling not only their masters, but multiple white armies, and abolishing slavery once and for all in the process. Even for a free black Cuban like him, this must have been tremendously important. For white Cubans, who had so quickly embraced a reenergized slave system and adopted the mantle of the leading counterrevolutionaries in the Caribbean, the fact that a free black man in the middle of Havana not only had these images in his possession, but actively used them to inspire slaves and free people of color to revolt, must have been terrifying. Even in the heart of regional Slave Power, all was not well. Although Aponte and the other supposed plotters were executed by the state and turned into a public example, the ghosts of Toussaint, Dessalines, and Juan Francisco-indeed, the living specter of Haiti itself-continued to haunt 19th century Cuba.

Unlike Cuba, the British colony of Jamaica was a longstanding slave society on the cusp of the Haitian revolution. In fact, it had a great deal in common with Saint-Domingue, the only European colony more profitable than Jamaica in the late eighteenth century. Like Saint-Domingue, sugar dominated the Jamaican economy.

As Julius Scott noted, by 1740, the planters had contained the elite factionalism and black rebelliousness of earlier years enough to attract more white settlers, clear and cultivate new land for plantations across the island, and purchase hundreds of thousands of African women and men to work it. Following Stinchcombe’s model, the Jamaican planter class was politically unified, sugar was ascendant, and metropolitan control over day-to-day colonial affairs was not stringent at this time. As with Saint-Domingue, the labor demands of the burgeoning new sugar economy meant that the “demographic balance between black and white Jamaicans shifted decisively in favor of the African population.” This shift was so decisive that “by the eve of the American Revolution almost ninety-four percent of the population of the island was of African ancestry.” The demographic tensions inherent in this situation facilitated a sense of defensiveness among the planters, which would come to a head with the beginning of the revolution in Saint-Domingue.

Free trade policies inadvertently encouraged these tensions in Jamaica. While white settlers were perturbed by the growing numbers of French, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese seamen, merchants, and commercial agents that began to arrive after Jamaica opened its first free ports in 1766, the threat posed by black and brown foreigners was even greater. In 1782, for example, Jamaica’s Grand Jury of the Quarter Sessions called on the legislature to compel foreign Blacks to carry “tickets to be produced on demand, or, better, that ‘they should have a label round their necks describing who and what they are.’” In the eighteenth century Caribbean borders and other boundaries were often more fiction than fact, and in Jamaica as much as its neighbors, the colonial authorities could not easily abide large numbers of mobile “masterless” people, particularly of unknown origin, and particularly in uncertain times.

When word of the revolution arrived in Jamaica, less than two weeks after the start of the uprising (and probably sooner for the island’s black majority, whose networks of illicit communication often outpaced those of the more “literate” settler society, in Jamaica as elsewhere across the region), whites reacted with much less confidence than in Cuba. Governor Effingham wrote to the British Secretary of State about the “Terrible Insurrection of the Negroes” in Saint-Domingue, which compelled French emissaries to plead for assistance from the Jamaica Assembly. William Dinley, a surgeon trying to secure passage back to England, wrote to a Bristol merchant of “rebellion…in some of the French Settlements,” and how “the Negroes had killed a great many white people.” Given the conspicuous absence of sustained or detailed references to the revolution in public media at the time, Julius Scott argues that “there appears have been an effort on the part of Jamaican whites to suppress discussion” of events in Saint-Domingue. Even as the government prepared open defensive measures to prevent the spread of the rebellion, whites in Jamaica seem to have agreed on a “conspiracy of silence.”

Jamaican slaves did not share their reticence. While it is difficult to locate the direct voices of enslaved people, unmediated by elite or white interpreters, there is significant indirect documentation of how enslaved black men and women responded to events in Saint-Domingue. Writing on September 18th, 1791, the commander of the British garrison on the island observed that “many slaves here are very inquisitive and intelligent, and are immediately informed of every kind of news that arrives. I do not hear of their having shewn any signs of revolt, though they have composed songs of the negroes having made a rebellion at Hispaniola with their usual chorus to it.” Two months later, the situation had evidently not improved, since the same commander wrote “[The slaves are] so different a people from what they once were … I am convinced the Ideas of Liberty have sunk so deep in the minds of all Negroes that whenever the greatest precautions are not taken they will rise.” Other authorities made similar reports. In Kingston, “slaves were said to be ‘perfectly acquainted with every thing that has been doing at Hispaniola,’” while parish magistrates in Clarendon arrested several “head Negroes of some of the Plantations” for speaking “very unreservedly” about the rebellion. The prisoners also confessed their hope that a sister uprising would soon happen in Jamaica. For enslaved Jamaicans, the revolution in San Domingue was a harbinger of hope, even when it was by no means clear that it wouldn’t be crushed like so many other acts of slave resistance had been and would be in the future.  

In Britain, the ruling class and their representatives in the press responded to news out of Saint Domingue with a mixture of mild concern and scarcely concealed glee. In a report published in The Times of London on October 28, 1791, the paper blamed the uprising on the reckless pursuit of racial equality by the French National Assembly, with all the timeless blind arrogance of white racism. Pointedly, the author(s) allege that “it is most certain that the inhabitants [of Saint-Domingue] will invite some foreign power to come and take possession of them” if the rebellion grows more serious. That power, in the unbiased opinion of The Times, should be Britain. In the meantime The report goes on to chastise the more excitable British capitalists who, falling prey to “the apprehensions which timid minds are apt to entertain where there is only the appearance of danger,” caused some disturbances on the stock market. Speaking as a leading voice of British imperialism and capital, the Times took a stance not unlike that of the Cuban elite in the early days of the revolution: mild concern, subsumed under excitement at the chance to snatch victory from the jaws of someone else’s defeat.

Although the report makes a passing reference to the declaration of martial law in Jamaica, the overwhelming sense of confidence is common among many European observers in the first weeks and months of the revolution. They could see something was coming, but they mistook a hurricane for a squall.

Back in Jamaica, white settlers could not enjoy this spirit of entrepreneurial complacency. Shortly after the revolution began, French planters began to flee to Jamaica, bringing their slaves with them. Other slaves from Saint-Domingue came to the island after liberating themselves in the chaos. White Jamaicans reacted harshly to these so-called “French Negroes,” who they feared would contaminate their own with rebellious ideas, particularly republican. Governors Effingham and Williamson ordered that authorities do everything in their power to prevent communication between slaves from Saint-Domingue and English slaves, while a royal proclamation issued in December 1791 prohibited “free people of color and free negroes” from settling in Jamaica unless two whites could testify on their behalf.

The Jamaican Assembly attempted to track the names, whereabouts and permits of all French-speaking blacks and mulattoes in the colony, and passed a law in 1792 setting strict guidelines on the purchase or hiring of any foreign slaves brought to Jamaica after the rebellion in Saint-Domingue began. These restrictions were regularly violated by slaveowners and employers, not to mention slaves themselves. On the island’s north side, historically a hotbed of insurrection, whites established inter-parish safety committees and raised the local militias for the first time in nine years. Numerous reports confirmed that slaves in the area were well-informed about what was happening in Saint-Domingue, thanks in part to foreign small traders and sailors who traveled to Jamaica. In the late 18th century Jamaica, like much of the Atlantic world, rumors and other forms of information traveled fast and furious, especially among slaves, and masters could do little to stop it.

The feverish early responses of British Jamaica to the Haitian revolution contrast sharply with later events. After the National Convention abolished slavery in 1794, the French began to see emancipation as a tool of imperialist maneuver, with Jamaica as a main target of French expansionism. French ministers of the navy and other state officials urged attacks on Jamaica in the late 1790s, and the French commissioner Phillipe Roume plotted with the mixed-race general Martial Besse and the noted Jewish abolitionist merchant Isaac Sasportas to invade the British colony and abolish slavery there once and for all. Unfortunately, Toussaint Louverture didn’t share their priorities. Striking a secret agreement with the British general Maitland, Louverture promised not to attack Jamaica or encourage rebellion there, in exchange for an end to the British blockade of Saint-Domingue.

Furthermore, Louverture requested that British slave traders import more African workers to Saint-Domingue to make up for wartime losses, and encouraged other forms of trade. In the ever-shifting Age of Revolution, politics made for even stranger bedfellows than normal. The white elite in Jamaica may have hated the revolution, but they and the metropolitan British could break bread with someone like Louverture, as long as their interests were assured. Negotiations between Haitians and the British in Jamaica did not end with Louverture’s secret deal. More radical than Louverture, Jean Jacques Dessalines nevertheless continued his predecessor’s diplomacy with the British in the spring of 1804. Though Jamaican governor George Nugent and his envoy were unable to secure British dominance over Haitian trade or a military base on the island, Dessalines’ stringent defense of Haiti’s sovereignty did not prevent him from promising non-intervention in Jamaican affairs. While the elite bargained behind the scenes, the people had other ideas.

In his 1807 History of Jamaica, Robert Renny writes that the following song was frequently heard in the streets of 1799 Kingston: “ One, two, tree, All de same; Black, white, brown, All de same: All de same.”

More so than in Cuba, where the colonial ruling class enjoyed more autonomy from Madrid and exerted a greater impact on imperial policy, the impact of the Haitian revolution on Jamaica can be best understood as a process of negotiation. Despite their position as the premier global slave traders and their staunch opposition to republicanism, the British could see the writing on the wall, and decided that détente with Haiti, however unsteady, was the wisest course of action. To this end, they struck bargains with the Haitian government; these agreements did not give Britain the level of control over Haitian affairs that they desired, but they did ensure that Jamaica and other Caribbean colonies would be safe. At the same time, Haiti continued to act as a source of inspiration and refuge for self-emancipating Jamaican slaves, who often made the short journey by boat to take advantage of Haitian free-soil asylum policies. In the Jamaican slave imagination, Haiti stood tall as an ideological and physical source of salvation, however complicated Haitian politics could be. Slavery in Jamaica would not be abolished until 1834, spurred on by post-Haitian slave uprisings and the incremental developments of British parliamentary politics, but the possibilities that the Haitian revolution created could not be easily controlled.

The Haitian revolution was an international milestone. For the first time in history, slaves had led a successful revolution, one which produced the world’s first black republic and abolished slavery years before most countries did. The symbolic and material weight of this act, which shook the global order, cannot be underestimated. It inspired fear, hatred, and hope in equal measure, among whites and people of color, free and enslaved people alike.

In Cuba, which had only recently begun to transform itself into a true slave society, the outbreak of the revolution provided a clear and unparalleled chance for the colony to supplant Saint-Domingue as the wealthiest in the world. Indeed, the destruction of much of Saint-Domingue’s plantation economy, the disruption of legal and illegal trade, and the sheer loss of human life in the colony meant that the Cuban planters were ideally positioned to realize their dreams. Paradoxically, then, the victory of the slave uprising in Haiti meant the retrenchment of slavery a stone’s throw away in Cuba. Cuban slavery would not be abolished until the royal decree of 1886.

In Jamaica, which had been a slave society far longer than Cuba and contained nearly as many slaves as Saint-Domingue, white society’s initial response to the revolution was much more fearful. While the British ruling classes in the metropole did not share their trepidation, the Jamaican planters were much closer to the front lines, and vast demographic disparities engendered a sense of insecurity for them white Cubans couldn’t understand. As the revolution progressed, and it became clear that Toussaint L’Ouverture and to a lesser degree Dessalines were figures the British could compromise with, political, social, and economic exigencies would push white Jamaicans into a stable status quo with the Haitians. In another seeming paradox, the world’s leading slave trader would be the first European power to come to terms with Haiti. Slavery in Jamaica would eventually be abolished in 1834, a fact that was due as much to fears of another mass slave rebellion and the declining economic benefits of the system as it was the Damascene conversion of the British Empire.

In Cuba and Jamaica as in Haiti, history was made through collective and individual human agency but shaped by structural factors. The paths Haiti, Cuba, and Jamaica took during and after the revolution were marked not by a steady march forward, but movement in fits and starts, in several directions at once. Freedom and slavery, bondage and emancipation, could and did exist simultaneously. There was no firm division between an essential Slavery and Freedom, whatever the rhetoric of abolitionists and slavers or the strictures of legal codes. Freedom was, in most cases, better understood as a practical set of possibilities, or a spectrum instead of a hard category. Slaves could be more or less enslaved under different conditions, while “free” people could be more or less free. In the world of the Haitian revolution, slaves, free people of color, and whites discovered a new range of possibilities, made feasible by the collective leadership of the enslaved Haitian masses.

These possibilities would often prove contradictory in practice. In Cuba, the counterrevolution established a firmer foothold, but the revolution continued to inspire insurrectionary plots like the Aponte Rebellion. Beneath the surface of a resurgent slave power, dreams of another Haiti stirred. In Jamaica, the British and the colonial planters would come to terms with the Haiti government, and the threat of further slave revolts would help propel the slow process towards abolition. But the end of slavery hardly translated into freedom or democracy for the black Jamaican majority, as the imposition of direct rule from Westminster later in the nineteenth century showed. Stage-managed abolition did not bring true liberty.

In the end, the Haitian revolution rippled outwards in ways that only seem obvious with the benefit of hindsight. Even the most astute observers, regardless of race, could not hope to fully grasp the ramifications at the time, since no one can truly understand a revolution in the midst of it. For some in Cuba and Jamaica, the fall of Saint-Domingue and the rise of Haiti was an apocalypse. For others, it meant freedom was on the horizon. For still more, it was a new opportunity to be navigated and exploited as best as they could. The story of the Haitian revolution’s impact is the story of all of those experiences, the story of how an unprecedented event produced unpredictable results.