The Haitians: The Persistence of the Vocabulary of the Slavers

The following excerpt is from “The Persistence of the Vocabulary of the Slavers” in Jean Casimir’s book The Haitians: A Decolonial History. In this sweeping history, leading Haitian intellectual Jean Casimir argues that the story of Haiti should not begin with the usual image of Saint-Domingue as the richest colony of the eighteenth century. Rather, it begins with a reconstruction of how individuals from Africa, in the midst of the golden age of imperialism, created a sovereign society based on political imagination and a radical rejection of the colonial order, persisting even through the U.S. occupation in 1915. Casimir’s book was also featured on our recent “Understanding Haiti’s Past” reading list.

There is no analytical justification in seeking to explain the history of Haitians on the basis of the concepts brought to the island by the slave traders. The categories white, emancipated, mulatto, black, and slave were key tools of the slave trade and the slave system. From the beginning they signaled what the captives—the future Haitians—were not. But they also pointed to what their enemies wanted to make sure they would never be. They were names for the very things the captives courageously resisted being. They were the product of a process of sociogenesis that our research must unapologetically seek to overturn. I take it as truth that the tools of thought inherited from the slave system can only perpetuate slavery.

In defining the nature of the state in Haiti, my goal is not to point out the evolution or transformation of the French colonial state into a state that was—in principle—national, 

modern, and independent, like all the similar entities of the period. That would mean basing my reflections on something that I in fact have to prove first. I also don’t want to simply offer a description of the transformation of a colonial state built on slavery into an administrative structure whose vocation was to protect the interests of a nation that did not necessarily exist. For if I did that, I would exit the terrain of empirical observation and turn myself into the spokesperson for those oligarchs who wish to impose their nation building on reality.

The plantation economy disappeared from Saint-Domingue nearly a century before it did from the other islands of the region. In observing the behavior of the workers reduced to slavery and of the cultivateurs or inhabitants that succeeded them, I show that life in Haiti was built on an economic model that is less celebrated but just as real as that of the commodity-producing plantation (Casimir 1981). Indeed, it is historically more resilient. Nevertheless, the leaders of the country have persistently reproduced the modes of perception that were so useful to the slave traders, the very authors of the invisibility that has made it so difficult to see the contributions of the captives to their own survival. These leaders have always claimed that they knew what was good for the unfortunate people, better than the population knew themselves. In their opinion, the rural population’s pursuit of a society centered on itself, and governed by itself, has been the cause of their poverty. They have held on to this opinion despite all the proof to the contrary offered by the comparison between this new Haitian life and the life experienced in colonial times, or that of the enslaved in neighboring colonies. This consistent contradiction between the orientation of the near totality of the population and the ideology of the governing authorities produces the impression of a disjointed political system, incapable of mastering the national situation or of orienting it in any particular direction.

In Europe, the modern state was organized during the same period when the world economy was being constructed. In the colony, in contrast, a power structure that was already established and structured in Europe created the local society and built its economy. The state as it existed in France was introduced through the intermediary of the colonial administration. It was as an already constituted entity whose irruption into the new context needed to be managed. It did not conceive of itself as a creation or an arrangement of local political forces working to accommodate one another in an international environment. The modern Eurocentric state that existed in Haiti after 1804 continued this pattern, and saw itself as penetrating into milieu it considered vulnerable and archaic. The modern state had to implant itself in Haiti, a place that was dependent on Europe and had to remain subject to it, because it was backwards and traditional. The splendors of Versailles and the ports of France were never seen as being linked directly to the crucifixion of their Pearl of the Antilles. Instead, they were held up as destinations to travel toward on the path to the production of material wealth and well-being.

The inhabitants of this third of an island had the knowledge and ability necessary to oppose this continuation of colonialism. They refused the reimplantation of the very mercantilist capitalism that had subjected them during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The key, then, is not to study how a modern colonial state might implant itself in an archaic milieu, but rather to ask how these captives developed their alternative to colonial power. Given that the modern state put them in chains with the goal of consuming every last bit of their laboring energy, it makes little sense to assume that they based their struggle to liberate themselves and break their chains on the deceptive promises of the very institutions they were fighting. To carry out their struggle within imperial political structures would have been a last resort, a last plank of wood floating in the water that they might reach for only after admitting their project had shipwrecked. What seems clear is that, instead, their immediate objective was to create their own modern state, and not to reproduce the colonial and imperial, Eurocentric, and racist state that had existed before.

Jean Casimir, who served as Haitian ambassador to the United States and as a United Nations official, is professor of humanities at the University of Haiti; his most recent book is Haïti et ses élites