Beyond boundaries: Borders and Barriers to Civil Participation in Nineteenth-Century Haiti – Dr Kate Hodgson, University of Liverpool
Venue – M39, Main Building
Researching nineteenth-century Haitian history inevitably means confronting head-on the methodological problem of tracing popular participation in politics and civil life during this period. A general lack of archival sources relating to nineteenth-century domestic politics, widespread illiteracy (especially in rural areas), as well as deliberately covert actions by those who sought to combat the post-revolutionary military state all make understanding the full extent of Haitian political activity in the nineteenth century quite difficult, as the work of scholars such as David Nicholls, Mimi Sheller and Michel-Rolph Trouillot has evidenced. Conceptualizing the problem as a series of barriers (both to popular participation in politics and to retrospective understanding of how this process worked), this paper seeks to show how these barriers have been confronted, and in some cases overcome.
Firstly, the physical borders and boundaries that acted as barriers to free movement of Haitian subjects will be examined. The border between the Northern kingdom of Henri Christophe and Alexandre Pétion’s Southern republic in the 1810s; the border with what would later become the Dominican Republic (officially erased by the unification of the island between 1822 and 1843) and the boundaries that attempted to retain agricultural workers on plantations laid down in legislation such as the 1826 Rural Code were all contested spaces that featured prominently in nineteenth-century Haitian political life and had a concrete impact on the lives of individuals during this period. The Northern publicist Pompée de Vastey described in 1817 how Haitians and Dominicans would meet on a daily basis as labourers in the borderlands and then separate at the end of the day, the Haitians marching off singing songs and beating drums, the Dominicans ‘dancing gravely to the sound of their guitars’ a s they returned to slavery on the other side of the border. The attempted creation of new unofficial internal borders (protecting remote rural spaces of marronage, for example) will also be examined as a counter-strategy to state policies of containment.
The geographical boundaries examined in the first part of this paper functioned in many cases as barriers to the transmission (and preservation) of information about early Haitian domestic politics and interior life. While propaganda was blasted across external and internal borders, the on-going transformation of the social and political lives of the rural, black, African-born and/or Creole masses went largely unrecorded. Strategies for reading and re-reading sources in order to trace and access these hidden forms of civil participation and move beyond the boundaries imposed by both the state and the record thus form the second, exploratory phase of my paper.
Dr Hodgson is a British Academy post-doctoral fellow at the University of Liverpool, and honorary fellow of the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull. Last year, she featured in BBC Radio 4’s ‘In our Time‘ programme on the Haitian revolution
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