Historian shows slaves’ role in their emancipation

January 11, 2012
Image depicting a scene from the Haitian revolution.

The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights
By Robin Blackburn
Verso, 2011
502 pp

Robin Blackburn has written another masterful book on the history of the slave order in the Americas and the emancipation struggle that ultimately vanquished it.

The American Crucible is described by the author as, “an overview of the entire rise and fall of the slave regimes of the Americas from the early sixteenth century to the end of the nineteenth century”.

Blackburn's previous two books on slavery The Making of New World Slavery (1998) and The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery (1988) cover much of the same period. What is new is his treatment of the rise and fall of the 19th century slave systems in Cuba, the United States, and Brazil.

Slavery survived and prospered in the Americas after the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804 (which had won abolition throughout the French Empire for a period of time) and other similar, though unsuccessful, revolts.

It withstood the ban on the Atlantic slave trade by Britain and the US in 1807 and the success of the mass abolition movement in Britain in winning abolition through most of the British Empire in 1833.

In an interview with the International Socialist Review in May 2011, Blackburn explained, “what I do here is offer a broad synthesis tracing the contradictory impact of capitalist growth on the one hand and the surge of antislavery politics on the other, with the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804 being the central event, breaching the slave systems but also clearing an opening for new producers in the U.S. South, Brazil and Cuba”.

Large sections of The Crucible grant the Haitian Revolution a central place in the anti-slavery cause and the anti-colonial revolt in the Americas that opened with the American Revolution of 1776-1883.

Blackburn is unique among many scholars of slavery in arguing the central place of the Haitian Revolution in the demise and eventual downfall of slavery.

He was also something of a lone voice at the outset of his research and writing on the topic in arguing slavery’s importance to the rise of industrial capitalism.

Many scholars have heretofore accorded to slavery a secondary place in the accumulation of social wealth (agriculture, trade and transportation, creation of the world’s first, mass-traded consumer luxuries, etc) that laid a part of the foundation for the Industrial Revolution.

Blackburn says: “Plantation slavery was a form of 'primitive accumulation,' as described by Marx in the first volume of Capital, being a form of exploitation based not on wage labor but on the direct appropriation of the labor of the exploited …

“I call the intensified systems of slave exploitation a regime of 'extended primitive accumulation,' feeding industrial growth.”

The American Crucible extensively documents the critical role played by Black peoples in their emancipation. He says there has been significant research and publishing on this subject in recent decades.

Blackburn says: “I think in the last two decades, things have changed a very great deal. African-American agency is being recognized. I think the attention given to the Haitian Revolution is part of this awareness …

“Black witness and Black abolitionism were in fact central to the development of white abolitionism, especially the more radical currents of white abolitionism. White abolitionists acquired deeper understanding of the slave regime by reading the life stories of Olaudah Equiano, Mary Prince, Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, Linda Brent and about one hundred others.”

Of the Haitian Revolution, he writes: “While most of the well-known leaders of the revolution in Saint Domingue (the name given by the French colonizers to the western half of the island of Hispanola) were American-born, some commanders were African-born (Macaya, Sans Souci, Belley*), and the same was true for many rank and file soldiers and middle-level leaders.

“They brought with them African ideas and methods of struggle. The insurgents often employed guerrilla tactics that they might well have practiced as soldiers in Africa, prior to capture.”

Summing up the history of Haiti, Blackburn quotes David Geggus’ The Caribbean in the Age of Revolution as follows: “Of all the Atlantic revolutions, Saint-Domingue’s most fully embodies the contemporary struggle for freedom, equality and independence, and it produced the greatest degree of economic and social change.

“Beginning as a home-rule movement among wealthy white colonists, it quickly spread to militant free people of color seeking political rights and then gave rise to the largest slave uprising in the history of the Americas.

“Its narrative is a succession of major precedents: colonial representation in a metropolitan assembly, the ending of racial discrimination, the first abolition of slavery in a major slave society, and the creation of a Latin American state.

“By 1804, colonialization and slavery, the defining institutions of the Caribbean, were annihilated precisely where, for three hundred years of unchecked growth, they had prospered.”

Blackburn says he is working on a book on the African societies that were raided and pillaged by the European slave traders and colonizers.

He pays tribute in the new book to recent authors of Haitian history. He writes: “The first decade of (21st century), helped by Haiti's bicentennial (2004) was marked by publication of important new works by Haitian and overseas historians.”

Many of those books in English are listed in the books section of the Canada Haiti Action Network website, CanadaHaitiAction.ca. Reviews of some of those appear on the site's book reviews.

A new history of Haiti’s post-independence history by Laurent Dubois, entitled Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, will shortly be published.

The publisher says of the book: “Maligned and misunderstood, Haiti has long been blamed by many for its own wretchedness. But as acclaimed historian Laurent Dubois demonstrates, Haiti’s troubles owe more to a legacy of international punishment for its original sin: staging the only successful slave revolt in the world.”

Blackburn writes of Dubois’ 2004 Avengers of the New World, “There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of books about the Haitian Revolution, but only a handful are indispensable. Avengers of the New World joins that select company.”

* Belley is featured in the iconic 1797 portrait by Anne-Louis Girodet. He poses beside a bust of the anti-slavery Abbe Raynal, the editor of the multi-volume, anti-colonial History of the Two Indias, published in 1770 and considered the single most widely circulated work of the French Enlightenment.

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