An Islandwide Struggle for Freedom: Revolution, Emancipation, and Reenslavement in Hispaniola, 1789-1809

An Islandwide Struggle for Freedom: Revolution, Emancipation, and Reenslavement in Hispaniola, 1789-1809

An Islandwide Struggle for Freedom: Revolution, Emancipation, and Reenslavement in Hispaniola, 1789-1809

An Islandwide Struggle for Freedom: Revolution, Emancipation, and Reenslavement in Hispaniola, 1789-1809

Synopsis

Reinterpreting the Haitian Revolution as both an islandwide and a circum-Caribbean phenomenon, Graham Nessler examines the intertwined histories of Saint-Domingue, the French colony that became Haiti, and Santo Domingo, the Spanish colony that became the Dominican Republic. Tracing conflicts over the terms and boundaries of territory, liberty, and citizenship that transpired in the two colonies that shared one island, Nessler argues that the territories' borders and governance were often unclear and mutually influential during a tumultuous period that witnessed emancipation in Saint-Domingue and reenslavement in Santo Domingo.

Nessler aligns the better-known history of the French side with a full investigation and interpretation of events on the Spanish side, articulating the importance of Santo Domingo in the conflicts that reshaped the political terrain of the Atlantic world. Nessler also analyzes the strategies employed by those claimed as slaves in both colonies to gain liberty and equal citizenship. In doing so, he reveals what was at stake for slaves and free nonwhites in their uses of colonial legal systems and how their understanding of legal matters affected the colonies' relationships with each other and with the French and Spanish metropoles.

Excerpt

In October 1806, a refugee from Haiti named Rozine dite Alzire appeared before a notary in Santo Domingo (modern Dominican Republic) and presented him with a curious document. This document, a notarial act that had been drawn up on 19 August 1803 before another notary in Cap Français (now Cap-Haïtien), the commercial capital of French Saint-Domingue (today Haiti), declared that Rozine’s mother, Rosalie dite Dufay, had purchased her daughter for the sum of 2,500 colonial pounds “on the Express condition” that Rosalie free Rozine. Why did Rosalie purchase her own daughter in order to free her, even though both had presumably been freed by a law passed in 1794 by the French Republic that had outlawed slavery in all French territories—the first such sweeping emancipation act in the Americas? Why did the daughter then deem it necessary to present this document to a notary three years later on the other side of the island of Hispaniola (shared by Santo Domingo and Saint-Domingue/Haiti)?

Encounters such as these at the notary’s office are emblematic of struggles over the lived meaning of freedom during a collection of events that Anglophone and Haitian scholars typically call the Haitian Revolution. The revolutionary processes of 1789–1809 involved slave revolt, foreign war, and political upheaval that engulfed the entire island and the region. They resulted in the overthrow of French colonialism and the destruction of slavery in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, and the temporary abolition of slavery in the neighboring colony of Santo Domingo (which passed from Spanish to French rule and then back to Spain in these two decades). Though the former slaves and free-born persons of African descent who liberated their land from French rule founded the free nation of Haiti in 1804, French aggression on the island was not over, as a reactionary French Napoleonic regime tried to reimpose slavery in Santo Domingo for the next five years. This regime’s efforts represent a brutal coda to what was arguably the most radical of the “Atlantic Revolutions” of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Indeed, in spite of its unprecedented attacks on slavery and institutionalized racism, the Haitian Revolution gave rise to new struggles for freedom . . .

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