3d ser., 69, no. 3 July 2012
Papers from the 2011 William and Mary Quarterly and USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute Workshop, “Women in Early America,” reconsidered the history of early American women in the context of advances in studies of gender and sexualities, the influences of cultural history, and the expansion of early America into Atlantic and continental frameworks. The workshop papers exemplified how and why we write women’s history in light of these advances and illustrated new models for refiguring women as subjects in early American history. Workshop participants reconsidered women as agents in marriages, households, and communities at the frontier of imperial expansion and native resistance; revisited the relationship between the domestic and the political realms in the era of democratic revolutions; and reexamined women as figures of print, objects of reform, and subjects on the auction block. As the participants considered these new approaches to the study of early American women, their discussions flagged the persistence of historians’ use of normative categories in studying early American women and men and raised recurring questions about the relationship of women’s history to early American history. The workshop papers and the methodological, political, and substantive concerns that they identified testified to the ways in which a refiguring of women as subjects, while important in and of itself, also advances our understanding of early America.
This article revisits the question of how American Indians are faring at the hands of colonial historians, which I first considered in the January 1989 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly. It argues that, despite the wealth of scholarship being done on Native peoples and the growing awareness of that work in the wider field of early American studies, understanding of the Indians’ experience, of their place in early America—and therefore of early America itself—is still handicapped by historians’ use of an archaic, Eurocentric vocabulary. A look at some of the scholarship published since the turn of the millennium suggests how pervasive and pernicious this biased terminology remains, and how it stands in the way of efforts to fathom that strange place conventionally called “early America.”
Andrew Cayton, Wendy A. Warren, Juliana Barr, Michael Witgen, and Mark Peterson comment on James H. Merrell’s essay. The Forum concludes with Merrell’s reply.
Revered in Haiti as a founding father committed to his countrymen’s freedom and independence, decried by his white contemporaries as a bloodthirsty brute, Haitian revolutionary Jean-Jacques Dessalines was actually a multifaceted historical figure who borrowed much of his worldview and many of his policies from the colonial plantation system of the Atlantic world. In particular, archival findings in France, Britain, and the United States reveal that Dessalines encouraged France to arrest fellow black revolutionaries, was long ambivalent about advocating independence from France, and maintained close relations with some white Frenchmen even after the 1804 massacres. He conducted extensive diplomatic negotiations with his neighbors in an effort to maintain the trade links inherited from the colonial era, strove to preserve the integrity of the sugar plantations even though he had himself been a slave (probably of Toussaint Louverture’s son-in-law), enforced a strict feudal system among former slaves and tried to import African laborers, and was inspired by a multicultural environment that incorporated American and European as well as African elements. Dessalines was thus a complex character whose conduct was motivated by his economic, political, and diplomatic interests in addition to the racial and ideological factors that tend to dominate the historiography.
The Haitian Declaration of Independence on January 1, 1804, explicitly challenged long-standing systems of European colonialism and slavery in the Caribbean. In the complex diplomatic and economic negotiations between Haiti’s first leader, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and the lieutenant governor of Jamaica, George Nugent, the two sought to answer unprecedented questions in the months before and after Dessalines’s rebel forces defeated the French army. Nugent considered how British officials would regulate trade between British merchants and Haitians but was concerned that Haitian merchants and sailors would spread the spirit of rebellion throughout the New World. Could slavery and universal freedom coexist in the Caribbean without dramatic consequences for the British Empire? The full documentary evidence of how both sides aggressively pursued their objectives during 1803 and 1804 casts a new light on why Atlantic world empires and nations settled on policies of diplomatic isolation for Haiti by the end of the first decade of the nineteenth century. The Haitian Declaration of Independence raised profound questions about revolutionary legitimacy and national sovereignty and drastically expanded the ideals of the age of revolutions.
By Deborah Jenson
According to the standard interpretation of mid- to late twentieth-century historiography, Jean-Jacques Dessalines was literally Creole—born in the colony—yet performatively and ideologically African. The vexed narrative of the origins of the first leader of independent Haiti shapes our understanding of the Haitian Revolution as what Laurent Dubois calls “an African revolution,” whose African-born majority is only obliquely reflected in the historiography of revolutionary leadership. Analysis of sources and interpretations reveals that the few individuals from Dessalines’s lifetime who spoke of his background at all described him as African-born. Some accounts traced his origins to the “Gold Coast” (in its eighteenth-century French acceptation), and others alluded to his tribal scarification. Political tensions over Haitian elites and their relationships to the nonelite majority heralded the gradual transition from the African to the Creole narrative of Dessalines’s origins in the middle of the nineteenth century. The possibility that Dessalines was not Creole but African represents a critical link for renewed theorization of how the Middle Passage informed African revolutionary agency in colonial Saint Domingue. The oral traditions of Vodou provide a valuable source of alternative historiography for study of the African character of the Haitian Revolution.