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Jeremy D. Popkin: Facing Racial Revolution: Eyewitness Accounts of the Haitian Revolution.

Jeremy D. Popkin

Facing Racial Revolution: Eyewitness Accounts of the Haitian Revolution

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007, xv + 400 pp.

Jeremy Popkin, a professor of history at the University of Kentucky, spent most of his career studying the press during the French Revolution. By his own admission (xi), he knew very little about the history of Haiti until he was drawn to the field by reading Madison Smartt Bell's novel All Souls' Rising (1995). Facing Racial Revolution is Popkin's first book on the Haitian Revolution (he is currently working on a monograph on the 1793 burning of Cap Francais). It consists of an annotated collection of (largely white) eyewitness accounts of the Haitian Revolution, ranging from its outbreak in 1791 to the massacre of the white population in 1804.

Many of the accounts Popkin presents will be familiar to specialists. They include Jerome Gros's Historick Recital (on the 1791 slave revolt), Michel Descourtilz's Voyage d'un naturaliste (on the 1802 siege of Crete a Pierrot), and Pierre Chazotte's Historical Sketches (on the 1804 massacre of the white planters in Jeremie). The collection also features some more unusual finds, such as excerpts from Elie Brun-Lavainne's Mes souvenirs, a rare account by a child musician. Few of these accounts are readily available in English, so together they form a valuable reader, one that could be usefully assigned, in particular, to university students taking a seminar on the Haitian Revolution.

The Haitian Revolution was a highly controversial topic in its time, so one must always be on the lookout for bias or outright lies in contemporary accounts. Popkin accompanies each selection with useful introductory paragraphs that give biographical information about the author as well as an assessment of the account's veracity. Popkin aptly mentions (317), for example, Joan Dayan's research that showed how Mary Hassal's oftquoted letters on General Donatien de Rochambeau's romantic affairs during the last days of French colonial rule in Cap Francais were a partly fictionalized rendition of the life of the author (whose real name was Leonora Sansay). Eschewed here are the type of lengthy commentaries, such as are found in Doris Garraway's Libertine Colony (2005), for example, on the hidden sexual agenda of colonial authors. Additional comments are peppered throughout the texts. One can only regret that the editor did not relegate further remarks to footnotes, as they tend to interrupt the narratives.

In addition to his commentary, Popkin also includes a general introduction to the book in which he discusses the nature of the autobiographical genre within a colonial context. He expresses some embarrassment at the use of first-person accounts by white planters, because one naturally tends to sympathize with their authors, who more often than not were racist apologists of slavery (31). Predictably, the accounts (such as that by Gros) dwelled more heavily on black atrocities against whites than on the opposite. Despite the authors' prejudices, however, Popkin notes that many of them looked at their contemporaries as individuals, not solely as members of a subordinate race, and that they cited countless examples where African slaves and other non-whites saved their lives (25). By the end of the Haitian Revolution, the authors increasingly described black rebels as self-directed, thinking individuals with a political agenda of their own, when ten years before they had been prone to dismiss them as puppets manipulated by French and English abolitionists (22).

As with every edited collection, deciding which texts should be included is a difficult, often contentious task. The most controversial aspect of Popkins' collection, in this reviewer's opinion, is his choice to select almost exclusively accounts written by white planters, who represented less than five percent of the colony's population. The introduction briefly justifies this choice by arguing that "hardly any similar texts by black or mixed-race authors have surfaced" (4). Although the endnotes mention two crucial sources (the memoirs written by Toussaint Louverture during his captivity in the Fort de Joux and a history written by Louis Boisrond-Tonnerre, the mulatto author of the Haitian declaration of independence [368, 372]), neither of these is actually included in the collection. Several other documents could easily have been included as well. Among black authors, Louverture's son Isaac wrote an interesting memoir on his participation in the Leclerc expedition and Jean-Jacques Dessalines published two accounts of the capture of Port-au-Prince and Cap Francais in 1803. Souvenirs historiques (1864), a book written by the son of General Guy Bonnet, opens a window into the world of the mulatto supporters of Andre Rigaud.

Popkin dismisses all accounts by white officers from the metropolis (35), but they are often surprisingly useful. Pamphile de Lacroix's Memoires (1819), Jean-Baptiste Lemonnier-Delafosse's Seconde champagne de Saint-Domingue (1846), Christophe de la Poix's Memoires (1913), and the unpublished journal of Charles Vincent (found at the Rouen public library), among others, all deserved a mention. Also missing are accounts by foreign observers such as Marcus Rainsford's Historical Account (1805), Maria Nugent's Journal (1966), Bryan Edwards'An Historical Survey ... of St. Domingo (1797), and Antonio del Monte y Tejada's Historia de Santo Domingo (1853). These omissions do not diminish the value of the accounts that are included, but, because of the heavy emphasis on white planters, this book would be best read in conjunction with Laurent Dubois and John Garrigus's Slave Revolution in the Caribbean: A Brief History with Documents (2006), which includes a more racially and socially diverse cross-section of contemporary documents.

Philippe R. Girard, McNeese State University
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Author:Girard, Philippe R.
Publication:Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2008
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