Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 28, No.10

February 12, 2004


Carolyn Fick on Haitian bicentenary

By Frank Kuin

Photo of Prof. Fick

Carolyn Fick
Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

The triumph of the Haitian Revolution was the emergence of the first independent black state in the New World, says Carolyn Fick, a professor in Concordia’s History Department.

That remarkable historical feat, which culminated in Haitian independence 200 years ago this year, will be commemorated with an exhibit next week in the atrium of Concordia’s Samuel Bronfman Building.

The exhibition, titled The Road to Freedom: A Bicentennial Celebration of Haiti’s Independence, has been organized in co-operation with CIDIHCA, the Centre international de documentation et d'information haïtienne, caraïbéenne et afro-canadienne of Montreal.

An historical overview of the events leading up to the Haitian Revolution will be on display, along with maps, coins, engravings and artifacts made by the indigenous Taino Arawaks of the island. The event is held in conjunction with Black History Month.

The struggle for independence in Haiti, once a plantation-based, slave-holding colony of France, was a “marking point in Atlantic history,” explained Fick, an expert on the Haitian Revolution and co-organizer of the exhibit. “Here was an independent former slave colony, run by former slaves and free coloureds in the midst of an Atlantic world where slavery was still viable and expanding.”

The series of slave revolts that began in the 1790s became a drive for independence in the wake of the French Revolution. The struggle led not only to the overthrow of slavery in 1793-94, but it went on to produce the second independent nation in the New World, after the United States. It was won after a war of independence waged against French troops sent in in 1802 by Napoleon to re-establish slavery.

The revolutionary leader, Toussaint Louverture, “was aiming at something that was entirely unheard of in those days: a black, self-governing French territory,” Fick said. “He was at least a century ahead of his time.”

By adopting the French revolutionary goals of liberty and equality, the Haitian revolutionaries turned European notions of these concepts on their head, she observed.

The French Revolution was framed in the context of a more equal distribution of property, but slaves were property themselves. In the United States, prominent political thinkers like Thomas Jefferson were ambiguous about the contradiction between equality and slavery. Seen in this context, the Haitian Revolution was “entirely unprecedented. That former slaves could defy and test the limits of French notions of liberty and equality was unheard of.”

Indeed, events in Haiti bolstered abolitionist movements elsewhere in the Atlantic world. “It made known to the world that former slaves could take their destiny into their own hands.”

As such, she said, “the Haitian Revol-ution represents a testimony to the universality of the rights of man.”

Still, not everything went well in Haiti after the Revolution. Though slavery was permanently abolished, forced labour persisted in Haiti, which had only its former plantation system to build on after the struggle left its economy in tatters.

Moreover, the historical triumphs of the Revolution are a stark contrast to the situation in Haiti today. The Caribbean nation is plagued by extreme poverty and recurring political upheaval.

In recent weeks, celebrations of the 200th anniversary of Haiti’s independence have turned into violent protests, with demonstrators demanding the departure of president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

“The situation is extremely tense,” Fick observed. “It doesn’t look like it’s going to be resolved without further violence.” However, she rejected the notion that little good has come of the Haitian Revolution in the long run.

“The mistake one should not make is to interpret the outcome of Haiti’s independence in terms of where Haiti is today. The Haitian Revolution and Haitian independence need to be understood and commemorated in the context of their own time.”

“The Road to Freedom: A Bicentennial Celebration of Haiti’s Independence” opens on Monday, Feb. 16. The public can visit from Tuesday until Sunday from 1 to 9 p.m., at the Samuel Bronfman Building, 1590 Dr. Penfield Ave.