By Jesse Walker
Maroon Nation: A History of Revolutionary Haiti, by Johnhenry Gonzalez, Yale University Press, 302 pages, $40
“In media and popular consciousness, Haiti has become identified with hunger,” Johnhenry Gonzalez observes in Maroon Nation. But in the 19th century, after the revolution that drove out the French slaveowners and before the invasion that brought in a U.S. occupation, the country saw “a free system of decentralized, small-scale agriculture that allowed for unprecedented demographic growth.” In the century that followed Haiti’s 1804 declaration of independence, the country’s population more than quintupled. This, Gonzalez tells us, was “the steepest and largest instance of demographic expansion in Caribbean history” to that point.
This was not because the revolutionary state pursued enlightened policies. Slavery was formally abolished, but forced labor initially continued: Cultivators were still compelled to work the fields, were denied the right to leave without permission, and were legally restrained from choosing their own employers, let alone striking out on their own. To enforce these rules, post-revolutionary rulers pioneered new forms of state control, creating what Gonzalez, a historian at the University of Cambridge, says may be the world’s first “mandatory system of identification documents for all citizens.” They also conscripted soldiers, seized the former slaves’ property at will, deployed brutal forms of corporal punishment, and cracked down on “vagrancy”—that is, on freedom of movement. “In practice,” Gonzalez writes, “the universal declarations of equality and liberty that grew out of the Haitian Revolution were universally violated by all early Haitian regimes.”