More than two hundred years after Haitian independence was declared on January 1, 1804, it remains a challenge to perceive the spirit that fueled the first abolition of slavery in the New World and gave rise to the second independent nation in the Americas. As recently as ten years ago, the Haitian Revolution (1789-1804), which created “Haiti” out of the ashes of French Saint Domingue, was the least understood of the three great democratic revolutions that transformed the Atlantic world in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. That is no longer true. In the decade since the 2004 bicentennial, a genuine explosion of scholarship on the Saint-Domingue revolution has profoundly enriched our memory of what Hannah Arendt, in her comparative study of the American and French revolutions, called “the revolutionary tradition and its lost treasure”. It is not clear to what extent this development has affected broader public understandings of the Haitian predicament, however. At the start of 2014, Haiti remains marginalized on the world scene and vulnerable within its own borders, painfully so in the aftermath of the terrible 2010 earthquake that struck such a devastating blow to a proud and resilient land.
Even more so than in the American and French contexts, much of Haiti’s revolutionary treasure is necessarily lost forever. Few sources survive that record the thoughts and sentiments of the tens of thousands of illiterate slaves who carried out the Haitian Revolution. But some of that treasure, something of the Haitian revolutionary spirit–its stirring promise, and also its tragic disappointments–is still preserved in the books, pamphlets, maps, and prints displayed in this exhibition. In many instances the revolutionary spirit can be only dimly perceived through the eye-witness accounts and recollections of literate white colonists and free people of color, but it is there all the same.
The exhibition items have been chosen, and the captions written, so as to provide a running narrative of the Haitian Revolution. The major turning points of the Revolution, its key personalities, as well as its most significant themes and problems, are all explained at the particular moment in which they appear in the narrative.