Comments on Herman Bennett’s “Slave Insurgents and the Political Impact of Free Blacks in a Revolutionary Age”

by Greg Livingston Childs, History, New York University

As recently as fifteen years ago, historical interest among US scholars regarding the importance of Haiti to the aptly named “Age of Revolutions” was still minimal.   Aside from several important edited volumes and monographs, there was very little interest in discerning the impact of the Haitian Revolution on conspiracies, rebellions, and revolts by persons of African descent in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.   In our current intellectual and political moment, however, new works on Haiti have appeared in rapid succession across a range of disciplines.  The tide has changed greatly, and where it might have seemed out of place some years ago to link black politics in Anglophone, Hispanic, or Lusophone America with the revolutions of Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Christophe, today it seems to be a given that part of our methodological approach should entail an inquiry regarding what enslaved and free blacks knew about rebellion in Saint Domingue and how they responded to it.

Yet what happens to the importance of local politics in such a transatlantic perspective?  How can we do the work of considering the impact of Haiti on black life in the Americas without running the risk of collapsing the colonial past into narratives of the nationalist present?   These are the sorts of questions that animate Herman Bennett’s paper as he asks us to think about the international contexts of Haiti and France in conjunction with, as opposed to over and above, local politics.  Doing so, Bennett asserts, will enable us to situate the 1795 revolt in the city of Coro, Venezuela within what he terms a “continuum of political possibilities imagined by slaves and free blacks…” (8).

According to Bennett, local politics in Coro in 1795 revolved around securing titled deeds to provision plots and questions of freedom.  In pressing for these rights and characterizing Spanish masters as recalcitrant subjects of the king who knowingly disobeyed royal decrees regarding land and liberty, participants in the 1795 revolt situated their violence within a context of colonial discourse and expectations.  Furthermore, that free or freed persons would take the lead in a movement that was fueled by talk of emancipation struck at the heart of a colonial fiction that equated “social status [freedom] with social selves” (21).

Unfortunately, as Bennett demonstrates, the archival record does not permit one to see this critique of freedom clearly.  Official chroniclers of the event were intent on casting it as a slave revolt.  This brings us to one of the more pertinent dilemmas that one comes away with after reading this paper:  how are we to make sense of the fact that substantial numbers of free blacks organized and revolted with the enslaved as a response to what they perceived to be a denial of freedom, while at the same time not falling into the same pattern as contemporary observers who needed to employ the discourse of ‘slave rebellion’ in order to comprehend what happened?

The implications of the preceding question reach far beyond what took place in Coro in 1795.  For all intents and purposes, Bennett is not only concerned with how the free black population influenced “the definition of politics in Coro,” he is implicitly concerned with how they influenced public politics (19).  The issue of slave rebellion, by its very name, takes private property relations as the starting point for an inquiry into the politics of African descended persons.  Here, however, we see free and enslaved persons moving from hacienda to hacienda, and finally into the city with their revolt.  Furthermore, their movements were not conducted in secret, but during the middle of a neighborhood festival (14).

Did many of the free men move back and forth between the city and countryside like this regularly?  Similarly, did they often meet to discuss politics in the open as on this occasion, or were they normally more circumspect with their gatherings?  Knowing this sort of information would help us better understand how we should discuss cases like Coro that defy our typical categorizations of struggle and resistance.  There is more at stake in addressing these sorts of questions than a mere politics of naming, however.  While it is certainly important to know what we mean when we speak of things like conspiracy or revolt, it is more important to outline a set of discourses from which we may begin to theorize about black life in the public sphere before the rise of the nation state.