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A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution

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A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution
By Jeremy D. Popkin. Viewpoints/Puntos De Vista: Themes and Interpretations of Latin American History. (Wiley-Blackwell: A John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., Publication: 2012. Pg. Viii, 202. Maps, Illustrations.) ISBN: 978-1-4051-9821-9.

Reviewed by Harry S. Chou - April 3, 2012

In August 1791, a slave revolt began in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (what is today Haiti), which was to lead to the establishment of the Republic of Haiti in 1804. The Haitian Revolution as this period from 1791-1804 is now called, saw the overthrow of the French colonial government in Haiti and it is considered the only slave revolt that succeeded in overthrowing a colonial regime.

In A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution, Jeremy D. Popkin, a Professor of History at the University of Kentucky, provides a succinct survey of the Haitian Revolution and its aftermath. He begins this narrative by defining what exactly the term "Haitian Revolution" covers. He also describes the founding of Saint-Domingue and how it developed into a slave-owning society, and the harsh and often brutal conditions that slaves were forced to endure in the colony. Popkin examines how these conditions, and other political and economic factors, gave rise to the revolt. He examines the relationship in Saint-Domingue between the white overlords and the large population free people of color who lived in the colony - many of whom owned land, and slaves. Popkin also places the revolution in context with other world events of the time, and how the revolution in Saint-Domingue had repercussions not only throughout the Caribbean, but also Europe and North America.

Of particular interest is Popkin's examination of Napoleon Bonaparte's roll in turning the slave revolt into a full out war, in part by sending in troops under the leadership of Charles Leclerc to restore French control of the Island which was now under the control of Toussaint Louverture and who had freed all the slaves. In 1802 Napoleon declared that slavery in the French colonies was legal, despite it being technically illegal under the French constitution, and order Leclerc to reestablish slavery on the island once he took control. When Leclerc died of yellow fever, his command was transferred to the Vicomte de Rochambeau. Rochambeau's military campaign was one marked with brutality and outright slaughter. His actions helped to galvanize the remaining residents of Saint-Domingue for complete independence from France, and the other colonial powers that were eager to step into the breech and take over the island from the French.

Popkin does not end this book in 1804, in part because that is not where the story stops. Popkin traces Toussaint Louverture's rise to power, and his death, and he traces the efforts that took place after the Republic of Haiti declared independence, to not only form a constitution, but also for the new leadership to consolidate their power base.

The Haitian constitution that went into effect in 1805 effectively gave Jean-Jacques Dessalines dictatorial powers. However, he found himself in command of a country that had been devastated by war, and whose once vibrant economy was in shambles. By its end, Haiti's quest for independence had cost the lives of about a third of the countries population, and had caused most of the islands white residents to flee the island.

Popkin's briefly details the events that occurred in the decade after Haiti declared independence, and he details the lingering colonial influences that still impact Haiti to this day, including the 2010 Earthquake Crisis. Popkin not only looks at the long term impact that the revolution has had on Haitian society and politics, but also the significance that it had for the world at large. This essential text concludes with a brief foray into the current state of research being conducted on the Haitian Revolution. Also included is a detailed set of endnotes, which, along with the essay on recent scholarship, can be used as a guide for further study on this pivotal moment in history.

A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution, by Jeremy D. Popkin is ideal for use in University level courses on a variety of subjects ranging from slave revolts and slavery to the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and Caribbean and Latin American history. It is also serves as an excellent introductory text for anyone with an interest in Haitian history.

Popkin is also the author of two other books that will be of interest to students of the Haitian Revolution:

  • You Are All Free: The Haitian Revolution and the Abolition of Slavery

  • Facing Racial Revolution: Eyewitness Accounts of the Haitian Uprising

    Related Reviews:

    Slave Insurrections in the United States 1800-1865, by Joseph Cephas Carroll.
    Offers a systematic study of some of the most significant slave insurrections that occurred from 1526 onward with a particular emphasis on the period from 1800-1865. He also explores the effectiveness of these revolts and the impact that they had, both economically and psychologically, on the slave owners.

    The French Revolution and Napoleon: A Sourcebook, Edited by Philip G. Dwyer and Peter McPhee
    An anthology of primary texts, translated into English, on the French Revolution and Napoleon

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