Graham T. Nessler: The Politics of Racial Difference: The View from Revolutionary Hispaniola

An Islandwide Struggle for Freedom: Revolution, Emancipation, and Reenslavement in Hispaniola, 1789-1809, by Graham T. NesslerWe welcome to the blog a guest post by Graham T. Nessler, author of An Islandwide Struggle for Freedom: Revolution, Emancipation, and Reenslavement in Hispaniola, 1789-1809. Reinterpreting the Haitian Revolution as both an islandwide and a circum-Caribbean phenomenon, Nessler examines the intertwined histories of Saint-Domingue, the French colony that became Haiti, and Santo Domingo, the Spanish colony that became the Dominican Republic. Tracing conflicts over the terms and boundaries of territory, liberty, and citizenship that transpired in the two colonies that shared one island, Nessler argues that the territories’ borders and governance were often unclear and mutually influential during a tumultuous period that witnessed emancipation in Saint-Domingue and reenslavement in Santo Domingo.

In today’s post, Nessler draws parallels between racial tensions today and those in Hispaniola over two hundred years ago, calling attention to patterns of fear, violence, and political opportunism. 


As the Obama era nears its end, the politics of racial (and religious) difference seem to dominate the headlines. From the anti-Muslim violence and bigotry that have intensified following the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015, to the heightening of the affirmative action debate to the festering controversies over racially charged criminal justice issues such as policing and mass incarceration, this appears to be a particularly polarized moment in America. As I finished my book this past fall, I often thought of parallels between these current events and my own area of historical expertise: the Haitian Revolution and the counterrevolutionary project that followed.

We in the United States are, after all, only several decades removed from legal racial apartheid, whose legacies still profoundly shape our politics and social life. In this light, it may be instructive to reflect upon the first large-scale effort to build a post-slave and “post-racial” society in the hemisphere: the political and military revolutions that transformed French Saint-Domingue, the world’s wealthiest slaveholding colony, into the independent and emancipationist nation of Haiti at the turn of the nineteenth century.

As I describe in An Islandwide Struggle for Freedom, multiple processes of emancipation and reenslavement transpired across two quite different yet interdependent colonies that shared the island of Hispaniola. Even as black and white French Republican officials sought to turn hundreds of thousands of former slaves in both colonies into French citizens in the wake of the passage of sweeping universal emancipation laws in 1793-94, race remained omnipresent as a social and political reality. This was true not only in the backlash to emancipation that gained steam in the second half of the 1790s but also in the very ways in which the events of the Haitian Revolution themselves were imagined by participants on the ground.

From the outbreak of the massive 1791 slave revolt in northern French Saint-Domingue, which forever transformed the island’s political trajectory, many resorted to the pervasive image of black-on-white violence to morally and intellectually explain the events that were transpiring. These racial anxieties, which were rooted in the ever-present fears of slave revolt and backlash against free-colored mobility in pre-1789 Saint-Domingue, suffuse extant accounts of the revolutionary violence in spite of the fact that only a small amount of the blood shed in the Haitian Revolution was that of whites at the hands of nonwhites.

Observe, for instance, the tellingly titled image “Incendie du Cap. Révolte générale des Nègres. Massacre des Blancs,” which translates to “Fire in Le Cap. General Revolt of the Blacks. Massacre of Whites.” Here we can see images of bloodthirsty Saint-Domingue blacks (mostly men) hunting down fearful whites (many of them women and children) in Le Cap, or Cap Français, the commercial capital of French Saint-Domingue. The historical event apparently described by the image, however, was actually driven by a struggle for political power among whites. Though this event did involve black and colored men, it was hardly the race war depicted in this image.

About a decade later, a white Napoleonic general called Jean-Louis Ferrand attempted to restore the pre-1789 slaveholding order on the island and to crush Haiti, which had become independent from French rule in late 1803 after a devastating liberation war. At the heart of the Ferrand project was racialized fear. In 1804, the year Ferrand assumed power in Santo Domingo (Haiti’s neighbor which became the last redoubt of French power on the island until 1809), Haitian leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines ordered a massacre of surviving French whites in Haiti. This brutality by a tiny minority of Haitians seems to have prompted Ferrand and many whites of like mind to view all Haitians as bloodthirsty savages akin to the depiction in “Incendie du Cap.” This in turn led Ferrand to attempt to create a comprehensive registry of all “French blacks and people of color” (Haitians) in Santo Domingo who were over twelve years of age while his superior, Napoleon Bonaparte, simultaneously sought to bar nonwhites from entering France itself.

In times of crisis, fear and scapegoating of a stigmatized “other” often combine in violent and repressive ways. Just as Ferrand targeted Haitians for violence (including cross-border slaving) due in large part to the Dessalines massacres and resulting racial fears, excessive fear of crime and terrorism in the modern United States, in combination with “othering” and political opportunism, enabled mass incarceration and the present wave of Islamophobia. While there are, of course, many differences between these two historical cases, it is disconcerting to note a modern parallel with Ferrand’s proposed registry and Napoleon’s nonwhite travel ban: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s alleged proposal to create a database of Muslims in the United States (which, as of this writing, he has not yet disavowed) as well as his campaign’s call for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”

Perhaps this is just an ephemeral moment of hysteria, a confluence of a recent wave of terrorist attacks, presidential election cycle hysteria, media sensationalism, and the extremism of a few on the far right. Yet our history, as well as that of many of our hemispheric neighbors, suggests that fear, racism, and opportunism are critical to creating and maintaining systemic injustices in many forms. As a response, a useful start is to maintain perspective: in modern America, one is far more likely to die in a car accident or at the hand of a non-Muslim gunman than by so-called Islamic terrorism, just as most people in Santo Domingo in the Ferrand era were surely more likely to die of disease or exploitation than of an attack by a Haitian. We can also stand in solidarity with those targeted by oppression by supporting projects such as Equal Justice Works and the Border of Lights. Ultimately, when future historians undertake to write the history of the current era, one hopes that they will judge us—and those whom we elect—more favorably than we judge Ferrand and many of his contemporaries.

Graham T. Nessler is visiting professor of history at Florida Atlantic University and author of An Islandwide Struggle for Freedom: Revolution, Emancipation, and Reenslavement in Hispaniola, 1789-1809 (May 2016).