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What Postcolonial Theory Tells Us about Haitian History and Struggle

By Professor Matthew Sparke, Geography and International Studies, University of Washington

Reading Note: Terms such as globalization that are shown in these notes in bold have longer definitions provided in UW’s online Mountains Beyond Mountains glossary.

One of the standard starting points of introductory texts on globalization is that global interdependency is not new. What has changed instead is the scale, speed, volume and impact of the global connections (see Held et al, 1999). In this respect, the most significant earlier round of globalization in terms of its overall impact on the world system was the period of European colonization that started after 1492 (see Wallerstein, 1974). While the speed of the connections at this time was slow and while only very few people were involved at first, 1492 remains of course an impressively fateful day in world history. Yet, while much is made in history Painting of Columbus Landing in the New World books of Columbus’s so-called discovery of the ‘ New World,’ we are not generally taught to think of this initial encounter from the point of view of the native inhabitants for whom the land was not so new (see Wolf, 1982). It is no doubt also partly for this reason that we are rarely told that one of the places Columbus landed in 1492 was the north coast of contemporary Haiti. The local Taino (Arawak) people apparently called it Ayiti (Dubois, 2004: 13). But from the European perspective such native names were unimportant. All the lands were simply ‘new’ and they could all therefore be christened with new names. It was in this way that Columbus named the island La Española, the name that later became rendered as Hispaniola in the English speaking world and a name which as such is still used today for the whole of the island that Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. This process of naming was one of the first representational moves in the process of colonization. Along with it came Johann Ruysch World Map, 1508Columbus’s mapping of the island from the sea, and with this process too there was a representational colonialism at work, a semiotic power grab that put the island within a European map of the world ahead of transforming the place into a colony through settlement. The Taino did not take all this passively. Indeed, the first group of sailors that Columbus left behind with a Taino chief were discovered dead when he returned a year later (Hulme, 1986). But it was not long before the Europeans turned the Taino into an unpaid and brutalized workforce. As a result, through a mixture of overwork, disease and deadly dehumanization, the original Taino population was decimated from the estimated five to seven hundred thousand that inhabited the island in 1492 to just twenty-nine thousand by1514 (Dubois, 2004: 14).

The reasons for summarizing the first few years of colonization in Haiti here are two. First, in following Farmer’s own care for context, it is worth remembering the longer term historical patterns of violence that have characterized Haiti’s ties to other parts of the planet. Seen in this light, the country’s location on the cutting edge of long distance domination clearly goes back much further than neoliberalism. Second, in terms of identifying some of the main themes of post-colonial theory, the story of Haiti, Columbus and the Taino seems especially telling because of the themes of geographical representation, dehumanization and resistance that it involves. This may seem counter-intuitive insofar as post-colonial criticism has emerged in disciplines such as Comparative Literature, English, History, Geography and Anthropology as a set of scholarly enquiries into the political struggles and cultural concerns of societies that have successfully won independence from European and American colonial control. However, in their attention to the legacies of colonialism on representational politics, in their commitment to theorizing anti-colonial resistance, and in their related concerns with the influence of European-American modernity in shaping hybrid third world counter-modernities (in which the racist and dehumanizing double standards of ‘west is best’ enlightenment thinking The Colonial Present book coverwere challenged), post-colonial theorists have proved especially adept at examining how colonialism was both advanced and resisted through various forms of cultural representation (for an especially comprehensive introduction see Young, 2001; and for UW courses on the topic consider SIS 202, HSTAA, 225, HSTAA 461, GEOG 270, GEOG 375, ANTH 316, ANTH 345, WOMEN 339, ENGL 302, ENGL 494). Within this vast field of studies the three themes that can be traced in Haiti’s violent immediate post-contact years have been examined in ways that also help us come to terms with the country’s subsequent colonial and post-colonial history. Beginning with the theme of geographical (mis-)representation, then moving to the themes of dehumanization and resistance, I now want to show how some of the key concerns of post-colonial theory help us to better understand Farmer’s own approach to “Narrating Haiti” (Kidder, 2003: 29).
One of the most important scholars in introducing post-colonial theory to American academia was the recently deceased professor of comparative literature at Columbia, Edward Said (for a good way into his work see Barsamian and Said, 2003). It is impossible to do justice to Said’s many contributions here, but it needs remembering that one of the signature themes of his writing, from his brilliant debunking of Orientalism (1979), to his critical study of how the western media misrepresents the middle-east (1997), was his critical concern with what he called ‘imaginative geographies’. By these he meant misleading but captivating geographical visions such as the ‘New World’ and ‘the Orient’: the latter being a geographical space holder, Said showed, for all kinds, of western myths about the exotic ‘otherness’ of Arabs and Asians. Indeed the very way in which orientalist representations massed so many different cultural communities into a single geographical block of ‘otherness’ – ‘The Orient’ – indicated to Said that they were really better seen as a form of systematic misrepresentation in which othering – turning distance into difference into a definition of one’s own identity – always trumped accuracy. Many other scholars have seen the relevance of Said’s argument to their own work, and whether they have focused on the misrepresentation of the ‘New World’ in Elizabethan England (Greenblatt, 1991) or the misrepresentation of the Middle East in contemporary America (McCalister, 2001), such studies have shown that the imaginative geographies involved both reflect and reinforce deeply held ideologies about identity. Geographers such as Derek Gregory (1994) and Joanne Sharp (2000) have shown in turn that the resulting imaginative geographies also have significant consequences for real people and places, not least of all when it is Americans who are doing the imagining. Making a critical post-colonial argument in his most recent book, Gregory (2004) argues thus that we can see the ongoing wars in Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine and Iraq as comprising a ‘Colonial Present’ in which older colonial ideas about uncivilized Arabs have licensed the barbaric treatment of people by coding them as pathologically authoritarian and terroristic barbarians (see also Fisk, 2005). Adding to this post-colonial geopolitical argument with my own interests in economic interdependency, I have further argued that this same pattern of othering also works repeatedly to obscure ongoing economic links – most obviously through oil exports and the recycling of petrodollars in the U.S. bond market – that account for so many of the authoritarian regimes in the Middle East in the first place (Sparke, 2005 Chapter 5, see also the brilliant article on ‘McJihad’ by Mitchell, 2002).
It seems to me that much of Paul Farmer’s concern with debunking images of Haiti as some sort of pathological place is inspired by a similar post-colonial concern about the violent impacts of misrepresentation. In this sense, he sees geographical misrepresentations – most notably, the geography of blame that depicted Haiti as the island incubus of AIDS – as the dominant and damaging alternative to examining global-local ties (see also Farmer, 2006). By blaming the locals and pathologizing their society, he argues, foreigners can let themselves and their own economic interests escape enquiry. Farmer sees such pathologization as operating by dehumanizing the poor and powerless. Post-colonial theorists have likewise argued that by depicting such ‘others’ as outcasts or unformed infants some of the original intellectuals of western liberalism (such as John Locke and John Stuart Mill) were also able to justify denying slaves and other colonial subjects full human dignity (see Metha, 1999; Gregory, 2004; and for a powerful critique of the contradictions between Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s liberal 1762 Social Contract and the French Code Noir that was applied simultaneously to African slaves in Haiti, see Sala-Molins, 2006). Connecting this critique of western liberalism to contemporary forms of dehumanization, Farmer argues similarly that: “The liberal political imagination has rarely included the powerless, the destitute, the truly disadvantaged. It has never concerned itself with those popularly classified as the ‘underserving’ poor: drug addicts, sex workers, illegal ‘aliens’, welfare recipients, or the homeless, to name a few” (Farmer, 2005: 6). Likewise, in speaking out more generally himself against treating Haitians as outcasts from humanity, Farmer in a sense rearticulates the famous early criticisms of Spanish colonialism on the island made by Bartolomé de Las Casas who arrived in Hispaniola in 1502. “It was a general rule among the Spaniards,” said de Las Casas, “to be cruel; not just cruel, but extraordinarily cruel so that harsh and bitter treatment would prevent the Indians from daring to think of themselves as human beings (quoted in Dubois, 2004: 14). But in making his own case against dehumanization five centuries later, Farmer’s narration of Haiti is also informed by a clear recognition of all the ways in which Haitians have themselves revolted against subhuman and second class treatment. It is this persistent rebellion against dehumanization which brings us to the theme of anti-colonial resistance.
The history of Haiti’s transition from slave colony to post-colonial republic is an absolutely remarkable story of successful anti-colonial resistance, a classic case and indeed the original case that has inspired many post-colonial and anti-racist theorists ever since (on how his Haitian experience affected the writings of Frederick Douglass – the American-American US ambassador to Haiti of 1889, see Gilroy, 1993). Having had this history of Haitian resistance explained to him at length by Farmer, Kidder summarizes the account as follows:

The history of the country seemed worthy of a Homer or a Tolstoy, or, especially to Farmer, a Tolkien. The landing of Columbus on the island that he named Hispaniola and the extermination of the Arawak Indians that followed. The division of the island between France and Spain, which left the French in possession of the island’s western third, where they created an immensely lucrative and gruesome slave colony – a third of every new shipment of West African slaves died within three years. The slaves’ long and bloody revolt, which began in 1791 and which not even Napoleon and forty thousand troops could put down. And at last, in 1804, the creation of Haiti, Latin America’s first independent nation and the world’s first black republic (Kidder, 2003: 63).

This summary is fine as it goes, and I for one was glad to be reminded by reading this passage that the Haitian revolution happened very soon after the American and French revolutions. However, the Haitian revolution was also a black revolution against whites that, as such, reworked the meaning of revolution itself by both invoking and, at the same time, radically expanding Euro-American concepts of Freedom and Progress – this reworking process being a focus of post-colonial theories of ‘hybrid modernity’ (see Young, 2000: 81). By expanding the right to liberal freedoms to non-white colonies and by thereby revealing the double standards of Europeans and Americans who argued they had no place amongst so-called ‘primitives’, the Haitian revolution has generally been disavowed and neglected in traditional western accounts of the so-called Age of Revolution (see especially Fischer, 2004, and Trouillot, 1995; and for a related critique of the disavowal in treatments of Hegel’s famous philosophical depiction of ‘the master-slave dialectic’ see Buck-Morss, 2000). For anyone who wants to go beyond the disavowal and understand the process of revolutionary reworking in Haiti there are nevertheless some powerful post-colonial histories that help make it clear, including the excellent Avengers of the New World by Dubois which I cited above and which Farmer (2004a) highlights in his own commentary on the forced removal of Aristide. The classic text, though, is The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James. Both texts highlight how the Haitian revolutionaries drew inspiration from the French revolution and the American revolution. However, they also underline that in successfully forming an independent republic where slavery was abolished the Haitians also challenged key aspects of the other two revolutions. They clearly threw off the yoke of colonial control by the French republic that was established in 1789. And at the same time, they ended slavery in a way that the American republic – most of whose revolutionaries were slave owners – continued to resist for almost another century. Indeed, Jefferson himself talked in Washington in 1801 about how Saint Domingue (Haiti’s French colonial name) might be maintained under the joint control of the U.S., France and Britain who – despite their many differences – might thereby work together to stop slave emancipation from spreading and, as Jefferson put it to the French ambassador, “confine this disease to the island” (quoted in Dubois, 2004: 225). Dubois points out that the colonial-post-colonial complexities go further still than this: noting, for example, that in certain economic ways the highly profitable sugar plantations of Haiti provided much of the new wealth in France that enabled bourgeois merchants in cities such as Bordeaux to side against the monarchy and support the 1789 revolution that in turn inspired and enabled the Haitian uprising that in turn destroyed the French profits from the plantations (for much more on how the Caribbean sugar boom underpinned the capitalist industrialization of Europe see the brilliant book by Mintz, 1985). In a different, more macro-political way, C L R James further nuanced his own account (which was originally written in 1938 when anti-colonial resistance movements were gathering force around the colonized world) by making some small changes and adding a preface (in 1963) that registered a subtle shift in political outlook: a shift from a hopeful and redemptive vision of anti-colonial resistance leading to a free republic to a more tragic vision in which winning a republic was no longer seen as inevitable and final, but rather a struggle for freedom that was also vulnerable to cooptation and collapse. For anyone interested in these complications and their relation to the changing political outlook of James – from his hopeful 1930s account in which he saw Third World liberation movements following the Haitian model to his more tragic 1960s revision which was overshadowed by a concern with the economic neo-colonization of the Third World – there is an extraordinarily provocative book Conscripts of Modernity (Scott, 2004). As well as underlining the need to theorize the hybridity of post-colonial modernity, Scott’s account with its attention to the suppression of anti-colonial resistance also highlights why scholars such as Farmer are so sensitive to the cooptation of ‘independent black nation’ talk by a coup leader such as Cedras.
There are many more recent experiences of suppressed and derailed resistance in Haitian history that might be discussed here. Most notably there has been the forced removal of Aristide by American and Canadian forces acting in concert with a supposedly civil society group known as Group 184 – a group led by Andy Apaid the owner of Alpha Industries which is the largest garment producer in Haiti, and thus another notable example of how transnational economic interdependencies continue to negatively shape Haitian life (see Lakoff, 2006; and Sprague, 2006: if you are a student and you want to find out more about Haitian suppliers of UW apparel check out the WRC website). Farmer himself has narrated this recent reassertion of elite power with great Image of Worker Rights Consortium web site force (2004a and 2004b). And his critique seems all the more powerful for being sensitive to Haiti’s whole post-colonial history. It is still more powerful, of course, because, as I argued in Globalization and Paul Farmer’s Reframing of Care and What Postcolonial Theory Tells Us about Haitian History and Struggle, it is so careful to connect local Haitian experiences to global processes. In conclusion, I simply want to note here that this will to connect also enables Farmer to turn his critical approach back outwards from Haitian history to provide a much more careful look than neoliberal experts offer of our globalized world. Thus unlike Thomas Friedman with his flat world vision, Farmer sees mountains beyond mountains of privilege right next to poverty, and, unlike the financiers and hi-tech profit makers with whom Friedman mixes, he sees it from the ground, the ground of Haitian history, resistance, suppression and ongoing struggle.

He was staring out at the impounded waters of the Artibonite. They stretched off to the east and the west and out of sight among the mountains. From here the amount of land the dam had drowned seemed vast. Still gazing, Farmer said, “To understand Russia, to understand Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Boston, identity politics, Sri Lanka and Life Savers, you have to be on top of this hill.” The list was clearly jocular. So was his tone. But I had the feeling he had said something important. I though I got it, generally. This view of drowned farmland, the result of a dam that had made his patients some of the poorest of the poor, was a lens on the world. His lens. Look through it and you’d begin to see all the world’s impoverished in their billions and the many linked causes of their misery. (Kidder, 2003: 44).

Bringing a similar care for context as Farmer’s to the especially abstract and decontextualized space of continental philosophy, Buck-Morss reminds readers of the Haitian revolution in order to argue that “given the historical events that provided the context for The Phenomenology of Mind, the [referencing of Haiti by Hegel] is clear. Those who once acquiesced to slavery demonstrate their humanity when they are willing to risk death rather than be subjugated” (2000: 848).


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Useful Websites

For critical accounts that tie Haiti’s political crisis to external, especially U.S., intervention see the ongoing archive of reports maintained at
The University of Washington is affiliated with the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), an organization that helps enforce manufacturing Codes of Conduct adopted by colleges and universities. The WRC works with labor experts to inspect factories and ensure that manufacturers respect worker rights. To learn more, see