Late 18th and early 19th century was the age of revolutions. As historians and the public acknowledge that the American Revolution in 1776 and the French Revolution in 1789 gave birth to democracy and thus shaped the modern world, somehow the importance of the Haitian Revolution in 1804 was overlooked. Not only was it left out in history textbooks, it did not gain attention in the academic world until a few decades ago; in fact, the term “Haitian Revolution” was not used at all.

This week professor Jeremy Popkin took us back in time to this largely neglected historical event. Regarding its outcome, the Haitian Revolution can be said to be the most successful revolution in the Atlantic Revolutions. Beginning at 1791, the slave rebellion fought tenaciously until it finally expelled the French colonial government and established the independent Empire of Haiti. The revolution rebelled against colonial rule and slavery, and eventually reached its ideal of liberty, independence, and equality. In this sense, the revolution was as successful and glorious, if not more, as any other revolution. This made the question of why the Haitian Revolution was overlooked more intriguing.

In his lecture Professor Popkin offered a few possible answers. The Haitian Revolution was ignited from below by black slaves, who at the time were the majority. This was different from other revolutions, which were led by white middle class. The success of the Haitian Revolution also challenged the belief of black inferiority. Therefore, the significance of it was overlooked by western historians. Also, the brutality of the Haitian Revolution, which involved extreme violence of both sides throughout the revolution, challenged the commonsensical idea that democratic revolutions are moral and noble. Though the Haitian Revolution was inspired by Enlightenment thought, and did reach its goal at last, the process was so brutal that it was not considered one of the important Atlantic democratic revolutions.

The academic reactions to the Haitian Revolution shed light on historical studies in general. History is generally assumed to be the objective recount of the past. However, the nature of history automatically leads to historical studies, because historians must interpret the limited evidence to reconstruct the past. Moreover, the ambitious historians are not satisfied with reconstructing the past, they often try to understand why things happen in a certain way. This requires more selection and interpretation of information. In this process, they are biased inevitably. However, by and by some of the biases become common sense. Then later historians base their interpretation on these common-sense biases. Eventually historical study becomes an intricate web of interpretations, which rest upon facts and older interpretations. The whole process might be unavoidable, so what we can probably do is to try to be critical.