Freedom's Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution

By Girard, Philippe R. | The Journal of Caribbean History, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Freedom's Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution


Girard, Philippe R., The Journal of Caribbean History


Ferrer, Ada. Freedom's Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014, 384 pp.

More than ten years in the making, Ada Ferrer's Freedom's Mirror examines the interplay between the Haitian Revolution and Cuba from the time of the Revolution's outbreak in 1791 to the aftermath of Haiti's 1804 independence. Though detailed descriptions and analyses of sources occasionally weigh down the narrative (the description of a single document occupies 25 pages, 299-324), Ferrer's work is based on impressive multi-archival work in Cuba, Spain, and France and it will prove invaluable to specialists of abolitionism and colonialism in the Caribbean and beyond. Her conclusions are nuanced: though the Haitian slave revolt provided a powerful counter-example to the dominant slave-holding paradigm of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the period also saw the economic take-off of a Cuban sugar economy based on slave labour.

The traditional view that the Haitian Revolution left every white planter in the Americas shivering in fear of a second Haiti seems well on its way to being debunked. Ashli White has shown in Encountering Revolution (2010) that many US slave owners were confident that no similar outbreak could take place in the United States of America. Ferrer adds that Cuban planters viewed the 1791 slave revolt in French SaintDomingue (Haiti) not only as a threat but also a business opportunity. Eager to replace the beleaguered French colony as the Caribbean's leading exporter of sugar, they hoped "to emulate Saint-Domingue but to contain Haiti" (p. 38). The Cuban booster Francisco Arango y Parreño was in Spain negotiating for looser slave-trading rules when the 1791 slave revolt occurred. News of the event, far from scaring him, prompted him to double-down on his plan to replace Saint-Domingue as the Caribbean's sugar juggernaut. "The hour of our happiness has arrived," he exclaimed (p. 4).

Ferrer also spends much time discussing the ways in which news of the Haitian Revolution was disseminated among Cuban slaves, whether in print, orally, or through commercial exchanges. Some historians have debated whether slaves knew much about the Haitian Revolution because of widespread illiteracy and official censorship, but Ferrer convincingly argues that the black population was well aware of events in Saint-Domingue, though not always accurately because wild rumours circulated as freely as truthful ones. Because Cuba continued to import slaves from Saint-Domingue throughout the 1790s despite official bans and the obvious security risk, many "negros franceses" (French blacks) who had personally experienced the great slave revolt in SaintDomingue lived and toiled in Cuba, where they could inform their brethren of the momentous events that had taken place in SaintDomingue.

The middle part of the book is equally well researched but less informative because other scholars covered similar ground in the time it took for Ferrer to complete her study. Spain's use of black auxiliaries during its invasion of Saint-Domingue in 1793-1795 was already the subject of Jane Landers' Atlantic Creoles (2010). …

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