Rethinking history with Gurminder K. Bhambra: The difference that Haiti makes
By Maria Olsen based on a talk given by Professor Gurminder K. Bhambra in the University of Warwick
“Any theory that seeks to address the question of ‘how we live in the world’ cannot treat as irrelevant the historical construction of that world”
(Bhambra, 2016 p. 2)
By placing Haiti centre stage in her research within the sociology department, Gurminder K. Bhambra explores the vital importance of accounting for the Haitian revolution in our understanding of the process of modernization. Modernity the way we all know it through our history books started with the French and American revolutions of the late 18th century, and we have accepted and come to terms with these historical events as the reference points for political change with the establishment of democracy and the prosperity of economic progress through industrialization. Both of these revolutionary historical events, although different, share the fact that they were substantially ‘democratic’, and therefore important events in our world history, associated with what has become known today as the social democratic welfare state embracing social and economic rights as matters of equality. Interestingly, Bhambra emphasizes that interpreting history in this manner does not have such straightforward implications. She argues that the academic focus on these revolutions has prioritized them for bringing modernity into being, and the Haitian revolution has been excluded as a part of the modern revolution for change. More importantly, she shows that when the Haitian revolution is addressed within the literature of prominent authors (e.g. Christopher A. Bayly in his book “The Birth of the Modern World”), it gets marginal attention as it is often referred to as an episode of the French revolution not necessarily taken seriously in its own right. As such, the core of her theoretical argument is: if we included the Haitian revolution and took it seriously what could we learn from it?
Were the North Atlantic revolutions really democratic?
Bhambra suggests that we need to rethink the impact of the Western revolution(s) on modernity and democracy by taking the Haitian revolution into consideration when thinking about the historical foundations of global change. This is not only because it happened around the same time as the American and French revolutions in 1791-1804, but also because Haiti offers an interesting insight to, and a break from, the dominant world history constructed by the West, including France and the US. By examining previous literature about the North Atlantic revolutions, she points out how these have been portrayed as the origin of transformation of world history and democracy, accompanied by a new understanding of equality. In addition, these revolutions were an uproar against authoritarian behaviour over insignificant others. Bhambra challenges this understanding by pointing to the limited franchise of the new democracies, historical events such genocide and slavery in US, and the colonies of France primarily conducted in the interest of white men. And yet, the revolutions claim their central role in the advancement of democratic values, which are much like a ‘gift’ that Northern Atlantic countries have given to the rest of the world. In contrast, the Haitian revolution in many respects went far beyond the French revolution, in particular in terms of emancipation and equality.
Bhambra draws attention to the main feature of the Haitian revolution: it was sparked by the enslaved people fighting for self-emancipation. One interesting question one might ask is, emancipation from whom or what? Several authors tend to see the Haitian revolution as a direct result of the French revolution. However, Bhambra argues that it was exactly because of its status as a former French colony that Haiti did claim emancipation. It sought emancipation from France, which in many ways problematizes the notion of France as the source of liberty and equality and brotherhood. The Haitians renamed the island according to indigenous history, proving their independence from French colonial power. Bhambra points to Haiti being the first Republic whose constitution made skin colour no bar to political participation. Interestingly, the American and French constitution did not have this degree of racial equality. In fact, Bhambra points to their constitution being racially unequal in terms of political access. It is striking how the Haitian constitution embraces the core of democracy, namely equality, by unlinking citizenship from race, whereas the Western powers which have been acknowledged as democracy’s torchbearers actually did quite the opposite.
Failure to acknowledge Haiti in our understanding of Europe
Building on the important discovery of racial equality in the constitution of Haiti, Bhambra addresses the need to reflect on the implications of omitting the Haitian revolution from the debate of equality when we actually have a lot to learn from it. When we think of the history of citizenship, which is the core of the concept of equal opportunity, we often think of rights as automatically given initially to white males with property, then to men without property, later expanding the same privileges to women, and then embracing the nature of universalism by including rights of migrants. However, Bhambra claims that citizenship is a category that is pre-racialized. She shows how in 1972 France acknowledged full racial equality even though the French perception of equality is based upon the notion of “us“ and the “other”. She mentions debates by the French during the revolutionary period about whether to include black men as citizens by offering them the right to political equality. Even though it was thought that racial equality should be part of French constitution, this was short-lived and lasted only for a brief period, ending with Napoleon’s ascent to power. Bhambra argues that this shows a more complex history, and that citizenship was never a universal concept. Through the omission of the Haitian revolution for independence one ultimately excludes a more comprehensive understanding of citizenship built upon the Haitian constitution embracing the inclusion and representation within the state of people of all kinds.
Haiti served as an inspiration for many who sought to resist European powers. For its brilliance in offering an even more equal and libertarian outset in its constitution than either France or America, the country paid a heavy price for its independence. One example Bhambra mentions is the 20-year-long economic blockade by France, the US and other European countries persuaded to do the same. Because Haiti was the most productive colony of France, punishment followed independence, and for that Haiti needed to pay compensation of 90 million gold coins to lift the trade ban which France had imposed. This means that over 21 trillion dollars were paid by Haiti to France for over a century. This is money which could have been used to rebuild the country. Incredibly, there has never been compensation to the enslaved people of Haiti, only to the French slave owners. Ultimately, Haiti payed France for emancipating themselves from the slavery France had established. One can then ask oneself the question: Where does the wealth from France and US come from? Bhambra argues: from the lives of the Haitians. Haiti has been perceived as a failed state, but it has been produced as such by France itself. Punished and undermined for its revolution rather than appreciated for the benefits of providing a different understanding of equality and emancipation. In many ways we owe Haiti for our liberation. Bhambra argues that we need to address the unfairness in the system and that if we do not do this, we cannot understand corruption within this system. Ultimately, corruption in many ways is the relationship of Haiti to France.
Bhambra sends a strong message for a clearer understanding of our historical foundations and concepts such as revolution, democracy, equality and citizenship. Haiti is one puzzle piece to the larger whole of our world history, questioning central elements in our current understanding of how the world has come into being. Bhambra gives new life to the importance of rethinking concepts of our histories. The importance of the Haitian revolution makes us rethink historical processes, and the origins of revolutions as well as their impact on modernity and democracy. Indeed, we need to take the Haitian revolution seriously, and, Bhambra suggests, we have to show the implications of undermining Haiti and demand reparations for its people. Our wealth and privileges rest on Haiti and it is up to all of us to bear responsibility of that.
Bhambra, G. K., (2016) ‘Undoing the Epistemic Disavowal of the Haitian Revolution: A Contribution to Global Social Thought’, Journal of Intercultural Studies, 37:1, 1-16
Image: Toussaint L'Ouverture, a key figure of the Haitian revolution, holding the Haitian constitution.From U.S. State Department [public domain], available at: https://history.state.gov/milestones/1784-1800/haitian-rev.