Representing the Unthinkable: The Haitian Revolution in Print

Marlene Daut, Tropics of Haiti: Race and the Literary History of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World, 1789–1865 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015); 692 pages; ISBN 978-1781381847 (paperback)

• June 2017

Defined by Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot as “unthinkable,” the Haitian Revolution and the creation of an independent black state challenged contemporary European frames of reference (slavery, colonialism, European cultural superiority).1 Grappling with the revolution’s “unthinkability,” authors from across the Atlantic world (and beyond) sought to explain the country’s founding in pamphlets, chronicles, memoirs, histories, plays, poems, and novels. Marlene Daut argues that while their authorial agendas varied widely, many of these writers repeated “‘ready-made’ categories” grounded in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century notions of race (3). Her objective in Tropics of Haiti, a path-breaking multinational, multilingual, and multigenre literary history of nineteenth-century Atlantic representations of the Haitian Revolution, is to deconstruct some of these ready-made categories and “to probe what this immense body of writing might tell us about the way in which the revolution in Saint-Domingue was abundantly discussed as it unfolded and in the half-century after Haitian independence” (3).

Daut focuses on one category that she terms a “mulatto/a vengeance narrative,” in which authors recounted the Revolution not as a struggle for black freedom led by former slaves but as a conflict between mixed-race children and their white fathers (4). Building on the work of Michelle Stephens, Daut identifies four “racial tropics” that form the mulatto/a vengeance narrative: “the ‘monstrous hybrid,’ the ‘tropical temptress,’ the ‘tragic mulatto/a,’ and the ‘colored historian’” (6).2 She traces these four tropes through an impressive selection of revolutionary representations primarily from Haiti, the United States, England, France, and Germany. Her corpus of texts reflects a secondary objective of the monograph: “to write early nineteenth-century Haitian authors back into the literary history of the Haitian Revolution” and illustrate their contributions not just to an emerging Haitian historiography and literature but also to black Atlantic intellectual traditions and nineteenth-century Caribbean literature (33). To further this aim and increase awareness of representations of the Haitian Revolution, Daut is also building two digital humanities projects: a collaborative bibliography titled Fictions of the Haitian Revolution and a story map of representations of the Revolution, The Haitian Atlantic.

Daut organizes Tropics of Haiti into four main sections, one for each of the tropes. The chapters within each section follow a loose chronology from the late-eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century (1789–1865) and concentrate on one or two primary texts. Nonetheless, as Daut builds her analysis, she moves backward and forward in time to illustrate the construction and influence of each trope across imperial, national, linguistic, and temporal borders.

In the first section, Daut investigates the influence of pseudoscientific discourses of race on representations of the Revolution and the creation of the first trope, the “monstrous hybrid.” The hybrid refers to vengeful mixed-race offspring who revolt against France (their fathers) and commit parricide (38). Daut contends that this image of the mulatto/a as monstrous is rooted in naturalist travel literature that portrayed miscegenation and creolization as nefarious acts (74). These racialized depictions and vocabulary permeated nineteenth-century writings on the Revolution, including those by Haitian authors. Daut concentrates in particular on the work of Baron de Vastey (1781–1820) “to prove that his writings are an important part of the literary history of the Haitian Revolution not only because they provide crucial anticipations of modern postcolonial inquiry, but because they reveal how a racialized vocabulary sparked and encouraged by pseudoscientific debates about ‘race’ permeated nearly every discussion of the Haitian Revolution in the nineteenth century” (112). Daut’s examination of Vastey’s and other Haitian intellectuals’ internalization of these discourses is a valuable intervention in nineteenth-century Haitian studies that complicates both the argument for a strict color division between “mulatto” and “black” and the idea that writers simply imitated European styles.

While the “monstrous hybrid” of revolutionary texts was primarily male, Daut turns in the next section to their female counterpart, the “tropical temptress,” who was also a figure conceived in travel literature (39). In exploring the interplay of race and gender in revolutionary representations, Daut makes two critical contributions. First, through her examination of three fictional works, La mulâtre comme il y a beaucoup de blanches (1803), Leonora Sansay’s Zelica, the Creole (1820), and “Theresa: A Haytien Tale” (1828), she illustrates the diverse ways enslaved and free women resisted and contributed to the revolution. Narratives of the Haitian Revolution were and continue to be tales of heroic men of African descent. Daut interrupts this masculine storyline with female figures who demonstrate the opportunities and limitations for women in societies transitioning (violently or not) from slavery to emancipation (218). Second, in her reading of the first African American short story, “Theresa: A Haytien Tale,” published in Freedom’s Journal, Daut sheds light on an understudied text and genre—the nineteenth-century newspaper serial (30, 40, 289). Here Daut focuses on representations of the Revolution in the African American press, yet more work needs to be done on depictions in the Haitian press to better understand memories of the Revolution and the growth of Haitian historiography and literature.

In part 3, Daut offers a rereading of the “tragic mulatto/a” stereotype and contends that it was not just an American trope but “a distinct part” of an Atlantic literary culture (331). She demonstrates how francophone representations of the Haitian Revolution contributed to the construction of the myth. Similar to the representation of the monstrous hybrid, the tragic mulatto/a also contemplated parricide, but authors imbued their mixed-race characters with a “sense of regret and impending doom,” wedding miscegenation and tragedy in their revolutionary narratives (335). While this portrayal permeated American and European texts, alternative narratives surfaced. Daut concludes the section with Eméric Bergeaud’s Stella (1859), Haiti’s first novel, which critiques the dominant stereotype. The novel repeats elements of the tragic mulatto/a trope through Bergeaud’s invention of an interracial family and the struggle between two brothers (who embody many of Haiti’s revolutionary leaders at various points in the story). Daut contends that Bergeaud recounts a story of redemption and reconciliation, “turning the war for Haiti’s independence into a useful and instructive lesson in nation-building rather than a harmful and deleteriously divisive event of world history” (420).

Bergeaud was not alone in his rewriting of Haiti’s founding. Daut’s final section provides a more sustained analysis of Haitian texts to deconstruct the final trope, the “colored historian.” Daut explains that the term comes from the title page of William Wells Brown’s (1814–1884) The Rising Son (1882) and “was likely meant to convey simply that Brown was a historian of ‘color’” (460). Nonetheless, the label functions as an iteration of the “mulatto/a vengeance narrative.” Building on colonial racial divisions, abolitionists, historians, and travel writers interpreted nineteenth-century Haitian texts based on the authors supposed “color”: mulatto or black. Daut contends that this “(mis)reading” devalued Haitian authors and questioned their objectivity. The trope continues to manifest itself today in David Nicholls’s notion of mulatto and black legends, which further prevents critical studies of Haitian literature and historiography that move beyond racial essentialisms (462). Nicholls spearheaded English-language scholarship on Haitian intellectual and political history in the 1970s, and in his seminal publication, From Dessalines to Duvalier: Race, Colour, and National Independence in Haiti (1979), he presented two interpretative models, the mulatto and black legends. Nicholls’s color binary has been the subject of much debate, yet his typologies have become a “repeated truth” in Haitian Revolution studies (462n2). In part 4, Daut deconstructs Nicholls’s legends and argues that “this brand of racialism—which tell us that we can understand Haitian historical writing based on the skin color of the writer—that has been uncritically repeated in many academic works and is the dominant form in which the ‘mulatto/a’ vengeance narrative—as vengeance of and for ‘mulatto/as’—continues to surface in scholarly discourse today” (463). To counter Nicholls, she rereads the nineteenth-century authors most often associated with the “mulatto legend” and proposes a new narrative of black Atlantic humanism that foreshadows the work of twentieth-century African American and Caribbean thinkers (472, 579).

A literary tour-de-force, Daut’s Tropics of Haiti offers an Atlantic counterpart to Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978). Peeling back the layers of the mulatto/a vengeance narrative, Daut reveals how authors from across the Atlantic world contributed to the creation of racialized tropes about Haiti and its founding event. At the same time, she elucidates how African American and Haitian authors challenged these stereotypes and imagined new narratives of the revolution. Her work proposes new directions not just for the study of Haiti but also race in the nineteenth-century Atlantic world. Moreover, she illuminates the value of (re)incorporating Haitian texts, a project that has begun through a series of new English-language translations.3 In moving beyond Nicholls’s legends, we can re-evaluate what is a rich historiographic and literary period and begin to fill the voids between Haiti’s historical bookends of the Revolution and first US occupation, thus locating and creating new narratives for and of Haiti.4


Erin Zavitz is an assistant professor of history at the University of Montana Western. Her research focuses on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Haiti. She is the author of two book chapters: “Encountering Creole Genesis in the Haitian Press: Massillon Coicou’s fin-de-siècle feuilleton ‘La noire,’” in La Española—Isla de encuentros (2015), and “Revolutionary Commemorations: Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Haitian Independence Day, 1804–1904,” in The Haitian Declaration of Independence (2016).


1 Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon, 1995), 82.

2 Michelle Stephens, Black Empire: The Masculine Global Imaginary of Caribbean Intellectuals in the United States, 1914–1962 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005).

3 See Baron de Vastey, The Colonial System Unveiled, trans. Chris Bongie (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2104); and Eméric Bergeaud, Stella, trans. Lesley S. Curtis and Christen Mucher (New York: New York University Press, 2015).

Gina Athena Ulysses, Why Haiti Needs New Narratives: A Post-Quake Chronicle (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2015).