As we have spent months focusing on the theme of Revolutions, I have thought back to countless history classes detailing the revolutions of developed nations worldwide. However, as the semester went on, and I as listened to Professor Popkin’s lecture, I recognized the degree to which Western schooling marginalizes and suppresses the narrative of non-white revolutions, such as that which occurred in Haiti. This post will explore why Western learning ignores the stories of oppressed non-white populations, and why the Haitian revolution has meaning and context today.
“He only listens to the suffering of his own people.” I remember as a young learner in middle school, my 8th grade American History teacher opened our course with an aphorism that was meant to guide and contextualize our learning for the year. In his mind, history was indeed a story told by the victorious, that the suffering, the subjugated, and the seriously underdeveloped were, in the annals of history, the voiceless. My teacher wanted us to acknowledge that suffering was not a path to having your story told in a favorable, or empathetic manner: instead, suffering almost guaranteed your story would not be told at all. Indeed, in conflicts amongst the greatest political bodies, there are losers, too. However, the Napoleonic Wars that produced the Vienna Conference, which established balance of power politics as the governing ideology in international relations, did not produce a loser that for decades after would suffer from complete government instability and widespread disillusionment in the population. The point here is that when the dust settled from the Battle of Ticonderoga, or when the streets were finally filled again after the Battle of Trafalgar, no state was left considering whether the structure of their country would prevail, whether their ideals would find their way to the next generation, and most importantly, whether it was safe enough to engender a next generation.
Enter here the story of the Haitian Revolution, the largest slave rebellion in world history, and a tale of grassroots collaboration and the fight against colonialism that not only saw the little guy emerge victorious, but managed to be hid under the volumes of textbook readings that would rather discuss the “enlightening” and “democratic” French revolution. The Haitians fought tooth over nail for 12 years to gain their independence from a country that was at that point, growing disinterested in the daily proceedings of their colony (France), but was nonetheless unwilling to slight their pride by giving the Haitians independence. In this incredible irony, that France did not care but cared enough to protect pride, we see a major struggle of oppressed groups. Only when the dominating, first world power grows tired of expending resources does an uprising become an option, and even still, if that option becomes a victory, the story will not be told, for it is a dangerous precedent in the mind of the colonizer to let the colonized win, and even more costly to let them spread the tale of freedom to other subjugated groups. This is why we see the tale of history ignore the various Latin American revolutions that gave independence to millions and a hero to a country, such as with Simon Bolivar. Because for those countries that will always be on top, letting the little guy get the notion that somewhere in the distance, after the battlefields and funerals, freedom lays in the form of a revolution, is paramount to passing around “get out of jail free” cards in the international arena.