Curriculum History

It’s complicated

Teaching the Haitian Revolutions reveals complexities that we should not avoid. Students should understanding that history is complicated, all simple answers are incomplete.

Enlightenment, Slavery, and Revolution in the Caribbean

My favorite questions from students are those that I cannot really answer. I have fielded the query “Is China still communist?” often enough to have developed a pat answer, but I always preface it by saying “it’s complicated.” Students need to that many questions do not have simple answers.

Rendering a coherent story from the complexities of history is one of world history teaching’s greatest challenges. It may be why history teachers often resist or are apprehensive about new scholarship that challenges received narratives. Classroom teachers have many demands on our time, and for many of us expanding our understandings of areas that we did not study in high school or college absorbs the time that we do spend on content knowledge. As World History teachers work to incorporate more of the world into the Eurocentric legacy curriculum, the master narratives of that curriculum often remain.

History is complicated, and we need to make this clear to our students, especially when incorporating the experiences of historically marginalized groups. Several years ago I began incorporating the Haitian Revolution into my world history classes, and other teachers in my building and district have been part of this broadening of the story of an Age of Revolutions. Incorporating this event has complicated the unit. The Haitian Revolution was very, very complex, involving many organized groups and shifting alliances over more than a decade of conflict.

Historian Laurent DuBois persuasively argues that the Haitian Revolution best represents human striving for freedom during the Age of Revolution. I want my students to understand DuBois’s without simplistically assuming that it was a consequence of Enlightenment thinking. It’s complicated.Cover of the book Freedom's Mirror by Ada Ferrer, with text on top of an image of color painting of Havana harbor

Reading Ada Ferrer’s Freedom’s Mirror, a history of Cuba and Haiti during the Age of Revolution caused me to confront anew the complexity of the revolutionary Caribbean. Ferrer makes clear that there was no single cause or narrative of the Haitian Revolution. For instance, Ferrer explains that Haitian rebels initially fought against the Revolutionary government of France, allying themselves with Spain, and its King. Some groups even declared their allegiance to the King of France before his beheading.  In a 1993 Journal of World History article John Thornton suggested that Africans in St. Domingue had ideas of kingship that formed in their homelands, particularly the Kingdom of Kongo. These African ideas, not just Enlightenment notions of individual rights, influenced the Haitian Revolution. In fact, according to Ferrer some Haitian groups did not see revolutionary documents from France until after they began rebelling.

Ferrer also documents how Cuban planters and officials viewed enslaved people from Africa as less prone to revolt than those who had spent time in St. Domingue or Haiti. This view was probably mistaken given the role of Kongolese insurgents in the Haitian Revolution. 

[Spanish colonial] authorities and their local allies identified no greater threat than the people they called negros francesses or French blacks, the term which Spanish and Spanish American contemporaries referred to African and creole slaves from the French colonies. In Madrid, Havana, and across the Spanish empire, authorities became convinced of the wisdom of keeping out people of color, free and enslaved, associated with the French colonies. (60)

When classroom teachers attribute the motives of Haitian Revolutionaries to French influence we reinscribe the racism of the Spanish colonial state which assumed that black people could only articulate their rights under the influence of French thinking.

Although Spanish colonial officials erred in asserting that enslaved people would only revolt under the influence, oppressed people in the Caribbean continued to rebel. Cristina Soriano’s recent book, Tides of Revolution, traces one such rebellion in Venezuela: the Rebellion of Coro, 1795. Colonial officials in Venezuela blamed foreign influences for the revolt of black and indigenous people, but the descendants of the rebels are currently pushing back against this.

Today more than eight African-descended cultural organization in the northern sierra of Coro commemorate the rebellion and celebrate the memory of its leader. These organizations challenge the traditional understandings of the movement as a local political revolt that fed on ideologies imported from the French and Haitian Revolutions. Instead, they argue that the rebellion was an organized movement for social justice—a reaction to an oppressive colonial system and, in particular, a rejection of the abuses of colonial tax agents.

Our representation of the past matters to our students. My students who see themselves in the Coro or Haitian rebels need to understand the rebels as possessing dignity and agency. We must avoid suggesting otherwise by colonizing all revolutions with European ideas.

Moreover, Enlightenment ideas sometimes worked against human freedom. Ferrer tells the story Cuban and Spanish elites successfully arguing for easing mercantilist restrictions on the slave trade, thus making this odious commerce freer. Ferrer explains how the Spanish monarchy adopted the Bourbon reforms in a climate of what has been called enlightened despotism” (21). The Age of Reason produced a slave society.

As one might expect, every reflection on how precisely Spain might develop and expand colonial commerce and agriculture led to one place: the slave trade. Prosperity required agriculture, and agriculture required laborers. From across the Spanish world, from high ministers in Madrid to military officers sent to survey the state of the colonies, came insistent calls for the “liberation” of the slave trade…most colonial officials concurred: if the state wanted to develop commercial agriculture, it needed to “facilitate by all means means possible the entry of blacks.”

In 1789 King Carlos IV “issued a decree opening the slave trade  and eliminating monopoly arrangements in the transfer and sale of masses of black men and women” 24-25). The resulting increase in slave trading turned late eighteenth-century Cuba into a slave society.

Enlightenment thinking was also less implicated in ending slavery than is implied in many history classes.  Before starting Freedom’s Mirror I enjoyed Vincent Brown’s Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery. Brown discusses the emergence of the British abolitionist movement in the 1780s as combining ideas within and counter to Enlightenment patterns of thinking:

 …arguments about deaths among the enslaved showed an interpenetration of feeling and reason, of sentiment and calculation, that blended new styles of thought  and speech with very old—indeed, one could say unenlightened—impulses. Discussions of the sin of slavery were intertwined with consideration of judgement and afterlife. Fear of damnation thus helped spur legislation to abolish the slave trade, register all slaves on colonial plantations, and finally end slavery in British colonies (157)

In other words, it was complicated. Enlightened notions of freedom within an ordered society both encouraged the slave and provided some of the language for abolition. In the chapter that follows this quotation Brown develops the relationship between evangelical Christianity, a counter to secular rationalism, and British abolitionism. World History teachers should include ideas from the European Enlightenments in the history of revolutionary ideas and documents, but I will continue to work to complicate the Enlightenment as a key step in my plan for decolonizing the Age of Revolutions in World History.  My results this year were decidedly mixed, as many of my students conflated “the Enlightenment” with simplistic notions of freedom. Stories of the Atlantic World as seen from the Caribbean, including those in Freedom’s Mirror, Tides of Revolution, and Reaper’s Garden will be a part of this.

Headline from the Haitian Declaration of Independence, 1804 , via

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

3 replies on “It’s complicated”

[…] I have intended to introduce students more explicitly to contingency. I already mention that events were contingent on many factors, and try to undermine facile causal chains. But, this is not yet a concept that I formally introduce students, and I would love to hear from teachers who have. History teachers should frequently remind students that the past, like the present, is complicated. […]

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