I have to remember to tell my mother how much she influenced me as a historian. Mary Ellen Tamari lived in and studied a rural community, Bellevue la Montagne, in the mountains above Port-au-Prince, Haiti for the better part of a decade. One of the many insights she shared with me before I had any inkling of its importance is how Haiti embodies so much of the world. Among its fewer than ten million people and in a space that is six times smaller than that of Illinois, it manages to be thoroughly African and, at the same time, European and Caribbean to the core.
Last year, the social sciences lost a powerful intellect and writer in the Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot whose Silencing the Past: Power and Production of History (1995) amplifies my mother’s point many times over. He offers a critique of West-centric modern history that is one part theoretical, even philosophical (he proposes a “theory of the historical narrative”) and one part super empirical and grounded in the details of the Haitian Revolution, a field in which he has few peers. (Nod to Wikipedia: I just discovered that his first book, a history of the Haitian revolution, was the first book-length monograph published in Haitian Creole.)
By “silencing the past”, Trouillot wants to point to a reality that may not be obvious to the lay person. History is not, as some might imagine and as we are usually led to believe in grade school, “the past”. History is what a society collectively remembers about the past. It is, to some extent, a purely human creation. One popular reflection of this truth is the commonplace “history is written by the victors.” This does not mean, Trouillot cautions, that history is fiction, as some postmodernists might have it. The past is retrieved selectively to serve certain purposes and certain interests.
As a way of reaching his American audience, he begins with the story of the Alamo. There are at least three completely different versions of this story and it is no coincidence that the one staring Davy Crockett is best known to most Americans. “Remember the Alamo!” was a call to arms issued by a grossly outnumbered crew of freedom-loving patriots who were willing to fight to the death. Now it is Texas’ main tourist attraction where sales of coonskin caps fortify what is probably a myth. There are other, completely legitimate, versions of what happened that have totally different implications. The souvenir shops may be located on a native American burial site. If that’s the case, perhaps the story is really one of violent US westward expansion. Or did the defeat of the Anglos at the mission actually serve as a pretext for annexation of the territory from Mexico? Trouillot points out that as Texas’ Mexican-American population grows (it more than a third now), Davy Crockett may be unseated.
What matters, says Trouillot, is not what actually happened but what is remembered and… what is silenced. (One consequence of this observation for historians is that professional scholars have little impact on the outcome. What gets remembered (or forgotten) has to do with forces far beyond the academy).
To illustrate the power of silence, Trouillot offers two compelling examples from Haitian history.
The first is offered as a criticism of Haitian nationalist versions of the Haitian revolution. According to this version, Louverture and his band of rebels launched the first successful slave revolt and defeated the mightiest army on earth to create the first black republic in history.
Actually, demonstrates Trouillot, Louverture and the other revolutionaries, including Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe, actually tried to squelch the slave revolt after they were initially defeated by the French.
Troulliot unravels this singular case of a lost history with such care and precision this chapter alone is worth the price of the book. It all hinges on the name “Sans Souci” which has three “faces”. Sans Souci is best known to Europeans as the name of Frederick the Great’s palace in Potsdam near Berlin. To Haitians, Sans Souci is the name given to King Henry (Christophe) I ’s palace in Milot near Cape Haitian, the capital of northern Haiti. It lies in ruins in the shadows of Henry’s famous fortress, the Citadel. Finally, Jean-Baptiste Sans Souci was an ex-slave who refused to compromise with the French and kept on fighting until he was killed by forces loyal to Henri Christophe.
Here’s the chronology: the Haitian revolution started in 1791. A French expeditionary force quelled the revolt between 1802-1803 and managed to enlist former revolutionaries, like Louverture, Christophe, and Dessalines. (The French officially abolished slavery in 1794 so there was a carrot added to the stick.) But, unlike these Creole leaders (who were born into slavery), slaves born in West Africa like Jean-Baptiste Sans Souci never surrendered and were only subdued at the hands of former revolutionaries like Christophe who had Sans Souci ambushed and killed. Once a lieutenant of Christophe’s, Sans Souci refused to continue serving one whose allegiance to the cause of freedom was suspect.
The significance of the story hinges on why Christophe, once he became one of independent Haiti’s first rulers, named his palace “Sans Souci”. Most historians, Western and Haitian, assume it was in tribute to the Prussian king whom he emulated. Trouillot argues, however, that the evidence suggests Christophe built it a few yards from where he had Jean-Baptiste killed as a transformative ritual (with West African roots) to absorb all that his rival represented.
Henri Christophe effectively erased Jean-Baptiste Sans Souci from history twice. Once by killing him and once by naming his palace after him. Haitians (politicians, journalists, and historians alike) have prefered to leave him silenced as his story illustrates the uncomfortable reality of revolutionaries who were not as revolutionary as they would like to believe.
Though Trouillot’s telling of this story is more finely wrought, his chapter on the world historical significance of the Haitian revolution will give pause to anyone who thinks they know modern history.
The events of the Haitian revolution made real the principle that racial or ethnic or geographical categories were irrelevant to who could govern. Any group can rule itself. The deeds of the Haitian revolutionaries also embodied for the first time in history the right of all peoples to self determination. Did you get that? The first time. Ever.
These principles were not part of the American Revolution, the French Revolution or even widely held until the middle of the 20th century. More, the idea that anyone but Europeans were able to rule themselves was unthinkable to Europeans before the revolution, during the revolution, and more than 100 years afterwards. Europeans had no conceptual framework for this kind of eventuality. So, it was not simply forgotten, it was a non-event. It did not fit. IT could not be accomodated to the patterns of thought shared by European intellectuals and elites… since and up to the present.
The significance of the Haitian revolution remains unacknowledged. Western historians have basically retooled 18th- and early 19th-century ”formulas of erasure” to ignore its power. The fate of Haiti since (as a pariah state, as an economic and political basket case) invalidates the revolution’s accomplishments; blacks were not up to the task. Or, the revolution was really inspired by external influences. In 1996 Eric Hobsbawm, English Marxist historian extraordinaire, published The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848, which many consider a classic. It scarcely mentions Haiti. It is still in print and widely used as a textbook. Western historians of Haiti have done little better. In the hands of specialists, the Haitian revolution has suffered what you might call “death by historiography”. Working in their empirical fields of expertise they have uncovered masses of data and have yet to see the forest for all the trees. Or, it is still “unthinkable” to the Western mind.
Trouillot ends this chapter on this very point:
“The silencing of the Haitian Revolution is only a chapter within a narrative of global domination. It is part of the history of the West and it is likely to persist, even in attenuated forms, as long as the history of the West is not retold in ways that bring forward the perspective of the world.” (107)
How could I resist this meme? I wonder if Michel-Rolph Trouillot ever considered that he might be remembered in this way. Jean-Baptiste Sans Souci and the Haitian revolution may have been silenced but not Trouillot himself.