The Threat of a Free Haiti

The Haitian Revolution sowed fear in the hearts of Cuba's slaveholding class.

In 1791, while France entered the early stages of its revolution, the slaves of its Caribbean colony, Saint Domingue, rose up and took arms. It was the first successful slave revolt in history, one that overthrew white colonial rule and established the new state of Haiti in 1804.

The Haitian Revolution sent shivers through European possessions across the Caribbean and Latin America, and into the newly independent United States. It became a tremendous symbol of hope for slaves throughout these countries, and one of tremulous fear for their masters, particularly those living in the colonies. Its effects extended to the South American independence movement led by Simón Bolívar, and to France, particularly during the more radical periods of its own revolution.

In Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution, historian Ada Ferrer undertakes a comprehensive evaluation of the impact made by the Haitian Revolution on Cuba, then still a Spanish colony located only fifty miles from Haiti’s western sea borders.

Ferrer — whose previous book Insurgent Cuba examines the racial dimensions of the island’s pro-independence movements in the latter half of the nineteenth century —  develops an insightful account of the ways in which the Haitian Revolution spurred the intensification of plantation slavery in Cuba, fostering at once the growing power of slaveholders and a new spirit of rebellion among slaves, encouraging an antagonism that culminated in several failed slave conspiracies and rebellions.

When revolt broke out in 1791, Saint Domingue hosted eight hundred sugar plantations that together produced as much sugar as all of Britain’s Caribbean colonies combined. By its conclusion, sugar production had collapsed in Haiti along with slavery and French rule.

As slave insurgency ground Haitian farming and manufacture to a halt, sugar production took off in neighboring Cuba, as did a new plantation system of coffee cultivation established by white refugees from Saint Domingue in the eastern part of the island.

In the thirty years that followed, approximately 325,000 Africans were brought to Cuba as slaves, more than four times the number brought in the three decades prior. By 1804, Cuban sugar exports had risen from 15,000 metric tons a year to 40,000. Between 1791 and 1810, the population of Havana doubled. Cuba’s economy and society were rapidly transformed.

The growth of Cuban sugar and the massive importation of slaves converted Cuba into a distinctly slave society. White rulers and elites in Cuba became obsessed with the “racial balance” of the population. As early as 1815 the colonial authorities established a Junta de Población Blanca (Council of the White Population) charged with increasing white immigration.

In 1817, the Spanish authorities issued a royal decree, specifically designed to attract white settlers to the island, that extended property rights and tax exemptions to all Europeans who came. Cuban rulers managed to reestablish a white majority after the first half of the nineteenth century.

Bloody Colonies

Among the many virtues of Ferrer’s work is her vivid insight into the minds of Cuban slaveholders as they faced the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution, which instilled terror even as the arrival of some 35,000 white refugees from Saint Domingue (not all of whom remained in Cuba) strengthened their class power.

Haunted throughout the nineteenth century by the specter of Haiti, writes Ferrer, Cuban slaveholders incessantly invoked an image of its revolution, “in which the enslaved rose up, killed masters, covered the world’s richest colony in blood, and turned it into a mountain of ashes.”

This image conveniently obscured the French atrocities that accelerated the slave rebellion, like those recounted by eyewitness Nicolas Geffrard, cited by Ferrer, who managed to escape Saint Domingue in October 1802, when French forces in the port city of Le Cap rounded up and drowned thousands of black and colored members of the French colonial army.

At the same time, Ferrer’s account reveals that behind the racist, colonial ideology of these horror stories lurked a fundamentally rational class fear. Among the many expressions of that fear, she notes the slaveholders’ fixation on the congregation of too many “negros franceses,” meaning Haitian blacks, in Havana, which they identified as a potential source of political contagion for Cuban-born slaves; a concern validated by the discovery of five minor slave conspiracies and rebellions in the region near the capital in 1802 and 1803.

In 1811, the Cádiz Cortes in Spain — pressed to establish a liberal constitutional monarchy by nationalist resistance to the French occupation that accompanied the Iberian Peninsular War — began to consider a number of reforms to the slave system, including the possibility of its abolition.

The Cuban delegate to the constitutional convention in which those discussions took place insisted that the consideration of such measures be kept secret, anxious that the mere discussion of reform would invite catastrophe to the island. His proposal passed unanimously. White Cuban fears of “another Saint Domingue” would delay the abolition of slavery and the armed struggle for independence from Spain well into the second half of the nineteenth century.

The Cuban slavocracy could not bear the very existence of the independent black nation next door. The slaveowners’ primary concern was not the threat of invasion from Haiti or the instigation of revolt in Cuba, but the danger it posed to Cuban maritime trade, which brought slave labor into the island and sugar out. Yet, as Ferrer shows, the Cuban slaveholders’ dread of black rebellion and their suspicion of their new neighbor could never outpace the allure of the slave trade’s profits.

With the complicity of local buyers and government authorities, Cuban plantation owners continued to buy and sell slaves, including free blacks captured in Saint Domingue, former insurgents among them. By an ongoing flirtation with American annexation, Cuba’s colonial ruling class fended off any gesture toward reform by the Spanish empire.

Political Contagion

In one of the book’s most elegantly narrated episodes, Ferrer recounts how the arrival of a slave ship in Cuba during the early stages of the Haitian Revolution brought news of the successful black uprising, along with some of its recaptured protagonists to be sold; the destruction and remaking of the Caribbean slave system in a single moment.

Despite the limited data, Ferrer is able to marshal a variety of sources that attest to the impact made by incoming Saint Domingue slaves, and the written and graphic materials from the revolution that came with them. She describes encounters between newly arrived captives from Africa and slaves, both those Cuban-born and those transplanted from Haiti; the news (at times false or incoherent) and opinions they exchanged as they sought to anticipate what Haiti’s emergence would mean for Cuba, and to mobilize the news as a symbol of their own forthcoming liberation.

People and printed matter arrived quickly to Cuba from Haiti. Ferrer describes how black dockworkers would carry printed images of black leaders like Toussaint Louverture, and share them with slaves when able. Despite attempts at censorship, the Haitian Declaration of Independence was translated into Spanish and published in a newspaper that circulated among Cuban blacks, free and enslaved.

Slave rebels in Saint Domingue as well as in Cuba drew from diverse array of ideological influences. Ferrer cites the well-known example of a rebel slave captured and executed in Saint Domingue in 1791, who was reported to have carried gunpowder, an African talisman, and pamphlets on the Rights of Man: symbols of modernity, African tradition, and the French Revolution in a single pocket.

The mounting French Revolution seems to have exerted the single most significant influence, particularly in its more radical phases. But the signal traveled in both directions: though Ferrer does not mention it, in January 1794 the multiracial Saint Domingue delegation was received, as C. L. R. James movingly describes in The Black Jacobins, with great enthusiasm by the French Revolutionary Convention, which proceeded to abolish slavery throughout the empire.

Similarly syncretized intellectual and political traditions influenced slave conspiracies and rebellions in Cuba. In this context, Ferrer discusses at length the most important of these rebellions, the 1812 insurgency led by José Antonio Aponte, a free man of color, who was a carpenter, artist, and possibly a priest in the Afro-Cuban religion of Santería.

Aponte and his associates devised a plan to burn the sugar mills and attack the fortresses and armories of Havana, seizing weapons to arm the four hundred men who, according to Aponte, were organized and waiting to rise up when called. When the appointed moment arrived, Aponte issued a public declaration of freedom for the slaves that was later nailed to the doors of the palace of government.

The movement was violently defeated and Aponte was hanged on April 9, 1812. His rebellion took place in the period of ascendant anti-slavery activity throughout the Atlantic colonies that followed the Haitian Revolution, alongside plots and conspiracies in Trinidad, Jamaica, the United States, Puerto Rico, and Brazil.

Revolutionary Leadership

In the years leading up to the formal establishment of the Haitian state, Ferrer shows, the island’s revolutionary leadership adopted a militant, anti-slavery foreign policy, ordering attacks on Spanish ships involved in the slave trade, and possibly sending agents to agitate against slavery inside Spanish colonies.

This policy was renewed in 1809, after the colonial authorities in Havana, against instructions from Madrid, refused to recognize and establish friendly relations with Haiti. In response, Henri Christophe, the ruler of a state established in the northern part of Haiti, began to intercept slave ships destined for Havana and redirect them to Haitian ports, inviting the slaves on board to disembark as free citizens, and returning the vessel and its crew to its port of origin.

For his part, Alexandre Petion, president of the southern Haitian state, offered moral and material assistance to Simón Bolívar in his struggle for independence from Spain in exchange for the Venezuelan revolutionary’s promise to abolish slavery in the liberated countries, and to refrain from selling as slaves the Africans on board vessels taken by Bolivarian insurgents.

On paper, however, article thirty-six of the 1805 Haitian Constitution pledged that the country would not “disturb the peace and the interior administration of foreign colonies.” Even earlier, in 1799, Toussaint Louverture had informed the British of a French conspiracy to provoke a slave rebellion in Jamaica, in order to protect Haitian trade with British and American merchants. A few years later, in 1804–5, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, acting in the interests of the Haitian state, proclaimed that anti-slavery would remain a solely domestic policy.

Ferrer points to both long- and short-term considerations behind such policy shifts. In the long view, Haiti was a weak state, subject to armed attack by the French, and vulnerable to economic and political isolation by other slave powers operating in the Caribbean.

But the Haitian leadership adapted their policies in response to immediate concerns. Between 1805 and 1806, they took a cautious stance on slave rebellions abroad. From 1808 to 1811, however, they become more aggressively involved in foreign anti-slavery struggles because they took the new strategic conditions to be more promising.

Ferrer’s analysis suggests that although the Haitian Revolution took place just as the industrial revolution had begun to take off, the young state already faced the pressures exerted by internationally organized capital. Even in the late eighteenth century, a revolutionary state like Haiti confronted the very twentieth-century dilemma of weighing solidaristic internationalism against urgent national interest.

There are striking parallels between the shifting foreign policies of the Haitian revolutionary leaders and those of the leaders of the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Cuban foreign policy shuttled between revolutionary offensive and national defense, both in response to historical changes and in relation to different countries and regions.

An aggressive policy in Angola and South Africa coexisted with a conservative, Cold War–conditioned approach in Ethiopia and Eritrea; support for communist guerrillas in many Latin American countries did not prevent friendly relations with Mexico’s corrupt ruling party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, and with Franco’s Spain. Like Haiti, Cuba was a weak state, vulnerable to the aggressions of an imperialist superpower, and it was dependent on Soviet economic and military support.

However, the influence on Cuba of the Stalinized Marxism imported from the USSR, with its realpolitik political premises, crystallized the shifting Cuban foreign policy into a method that converted necessity into virtue. In the case of Haiti, the limitations that prevented the Haitian Revolution from fully realizing its goals turned the fate of the revolution into tragedy.