By Tom Zoellner
Any study of the march toward freedom in the Caribbean must give a central role to the horror and splendor of the Haitian Revolution – the 1791 revolt of enslaved people in the outpost of Saint-Domingue that turned into a full-blown war against the French slave-owning class.
When I first set out to write a day-by-day account of the consequential 1831-32 revolt in Jamaica that proved the tipping point for abolition in the British Caribbean, I expected to find multiple references to Haiti in the jail cell depositions of the captured rebels. How could it have not been inspiring to them? Here was the motivated leader Toussaint Louverture who responded quickly to the news of a local rebellion, gathered a team of talented co-conspirators to make it even bigger, formed an alliance with the Spanish, repurposed the discourse of the French revolutionaries, used modern European military tactics to foil his oppressors, dictated the terms of retreat to a humiliated British invasion force, and then set his freed colony on a course to be the world’s first republic governed exclusively by freed slaves? He was famous enough throughout the Caribbean to have been an inspiration to Jose Antonio Aponte, the enslaved Cuban rebel leader who had even kept a drawing of Louverture in his house. But to my surprise, in the Jamaican revolt I found barely any mention of the successful revolution next door.
It was not as if Jamaica’s enslaved people were not aware of what had happened in Haiti. As it occurred elsewhere in the Atlantic world, Jamaican slaves learned details of the Haitian Revolution before their enslavers. In The Common Wind Julius Scott convincingly argued how a sophisticated network of intelligence-sharing had already emerged in the Caribbean by the early eighteenth century. Through a complicated brew of overheard dinner table conversations, newspaper clippings, rumors, behaviors observed among the whites, human trafficking throughout the Caribbean, and direct eyewitness accounts, enslaved peoples learned about each other’s situations in great detail. The speed of these underground dispatches was often surprising to the white masters. One British commander warned his subordinates that enslaved people were “immediately informed of every kind of news that arrives” and would know “perfectly well every transaction at Cape Francois.”
Jamaica’s sugar barons tried to cut off knowledge of Haiti, censoring dispatches about it in Kingston newspapers and banning the use of enslaved deckhands on ships bound for Haitian ports, lest they get inspired by the full black independence they might witness. The paranoia was such that an enslaved regiment of fighters accompanying Colonel Thomas Maitland’s ill-fated attempt to help the French regain control in 1792 were freed on the spot and denied passage back to Jamaica. Even the white refugees from Haiti were held at arm’s length; they seemed cursed. Serving as an agricultural prison camp, Jamaican perilous demographics – a ratio of one white colonist for every twenty enslaved people, the quintessential definition of a slave society – proved to be a social tinderbox. Pro-liberty ideology, charismatic leadership, and a united agenda among enslaved peoples had the potential for transforming discontent into revolt.
Servile revolts were not uncommon in the British Caribbean; one erupted every five years or so, and were usually quashed within days by the militia – a paramilitary outfit that had to be joined by every man between the ages of 16 and 60. But three decades after Haitians declared their independence as a sovereign nation, the largest uprising ever seen ripped through the northwestern section of the island without anyone connected with it taking an example from those that had successfully and famously cut off their own shackles.