A Grueling Past: Jeremy D. Popkin’s A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution

In my last post, I admitted that, while I could point Puerto Rico out on a map, I knew nothing substantial about this U.S. commonwealth (i.e. colony) in terms of its history.

In the case of Haiti, I can’t even be 100% sure in retrospect I could have pointed it out on a map.

But I certainly can after reading Jeremy D. Popkin’s A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution. This excellent book tells the harrowing story of Haiti’s tumultuous past – a past that sadly continues to haunt the beleuagured nation to this day.

And Popkin does indeed manage to accomplish all this concisely.

But its reasonable length (for an introductory text) is just one the reasons I wholeheartedly recommend it. Above all else, you owe it to read this book because if you think the American or French Revolutions were instigated by a desire for more freedom and democracy, trust me when I say they’ve got nothing on Haiti.

It’s crucial to take a moment and appreciate the fact that the Haitian Revolution is the only example in modern history – or history that I’m aware of – where a slave uprising was successful. This absolutely vile slave society was overturned by the very slaves who were being exploited. And in the end, they formed a nation of their own.

When I put it that way, it all sounds like a nice, simple story. But of course, the truth is more complicated. Even the uprising in 1791 that kicked everything off was really comprised of two uprisings, black slaves and free men of color (a group who enjoyed far more rights than the black slaves). Each uprising had its own leaders and aims and at times there was conflict between the two groups. Some of these conflicts led to bloodshed. And that’s just one reason why it’s so hard to summarize the revolution without offering the nice, simple story I told above. But it’s necessary to know the details, because they are not only fascinating in and of themselves, but also demonstrate a darker side to the French and Americans of the time, both of whom were engaged in revolutions of their own (which weren’t quite so literal as Haitians about the idea of all men being created equal, let alone women). Haiti continued to be exploited after the revolution as well. In fact, they were essentially forced to pay an absurdly high ransom to France just to avoid them trying to invade again after the country was devastated from the war.

The story of Haiti after the revolution is, sadly, often one of a tiny nation being bullied and abused by more powerful neighbors like the U.S. and Canada as well as old enemies like the French. But Popkin focuses primarily on the story of the Haitian Revolution, which for all its twists and turns is ultimately inspiring, and one that deserves to be far more well known and discussed than it currently is.

But if you read about it, well, it’ll be just a little bit more well-known then, won’t it?

So go read it. Now.



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