This bicentenary year of the great Haitian revolution is rapidly being overshadowed by the political situation of former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. That is a pity. We are losing an opportunity to reflect on the greatest revolution in the history of the world. Don’t weep for the fortunes of Mr Aristide. Weep instead for the disaster and malicious neglect of Haiti.

Regardless of the merit of his constitutional position, Aristide falls into the familiar category of yet another Haitian head of state whose limited abilities and personal qualities seriously eroded the general welfare of the majority of the Haitian people. It is a serious mistake to think that a democratic election (however defined) results in democratic politics. Haiti under Aristide illustrated that. The present emphasis on Aristide overshadows the monumental debt that the western world owes to Haiti.

The Haitian revolution of 1791 to 1804 was unique in history for two reasons. It metamorphosed the colonial situation in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, revolutionising the social, political, economic, and intellectual life of the new state of Haiti created in 1804. It got the world thinking about (if not at the time liking) the notion of human rights. By contrast, the achievement of the United States of America in 1783 was merely the usurpation of political power and the creation of a novel form of government. What happened at Philadelphia in 1776 was, in many respects, a political coup d’état. Nothing much changed other than the expulsion of the British government. The French revolution temporarily eliminated dynastic government but signally failed to democratise the state. In any case, as in British North America, the myopic emphasis on bourgeois rights was savagely exclusionary for women, non-Europeans, and non-orthodox religious beliefs.

Haiti not only abolished slavery but declared a society that articulated, supported and defended a set of human rights far more comprehensive than the limited European and American concept of civil rights at the time. The various Haitian constitutions between 1793 and 1804 advocated an egalitarian society that gave dignity to everyone regardless of gender, civil status, occupation, colour or class. Needless to say, such avante garde thinking resulted in a “terrified consciousness” among white people and slave owners on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Haitian revolution was fundamentally different from the French revolution, although both employed similar slogans and for a short time fought together for similar goals. France and Haiti were, as the saying goes, parts of a common imperial world separated by their common language. In pre-revolutionary France, social status and political power were integrally linked to tradition, lineage and socio-economic class. In French Saint-Domingue, prestige and political power were tied to race, colour and occupation. Liberty, equality and fraternity resonated differently among the different sectors of the colonial society reflecting their varied realities in their common tropical plantation world.

During the French revolution, power gravitated from a collective Committee of Public Safety in 1793-94 to a five-man Directorate, then to a three-person Consulate before concentrating itself in Napoleon Bonaparte, initially as First Consul in 1799 and then as Emperor after 1804.

In Saint-Domingue, political power moved from a small minority of local and absentee whites through a coalition of assorted whites and free coloureds before ending up in the hands of ex-slaves and their descendants. The downward move of political power in the colonies was emphatically towards a more open and genuinely democratic society than in France. It was less exclusionary and intolerant than the metropolis, too. It included the Jamaican Boukman as well as the Grenadian, Henri Christophe. No revolution before or since has so radically altered the social basis of political power. Haiti extended the notion of liberty not just to bourgeois man but to everyone within the boundaries of its community. And it defended itself valiantly against implacable and powerful foes since 1791.

The Haitian revolution had immediate as well as long-term impact. It revolutionised agricultural development in Cuba and the Guianas. It boosted refugees across the Caribbean, the Americas and Europe. It accelerated the abolition of both the slave trade and slavery by shattering the mystique of white superordinacy. Moreover, it affected language, religion, politics, culture, cuisine, architecture, art and medicine throughout the Americas. Thanks to the magnificent example of Haiti, no one seriously thinks that Africans suffered a kind of “social death” on crossing the Atlantic. More to the point, Haiti destroyed the myth of inherent African inferiority.

In an age where the most liberal and intellectually advanced Europeans thought in narrow terms of civil rights differentially allocated to different sectors of society, Haitians thought in terms of universal human rights equally binding on everyone. Such notion was not universally enunciated until 1949 after the formation of the United Nations.

The achievements of the Haitian revolution were simply extraordinary. Haitian ideas failed to gain political or ideological traction at the time, indicating the limited power of the small state of Haiti. New ideas require political and military force for their effective dissemination.

Haiti failed neither as a sovereign state nor as a cohesive culture. It failed in other respects. It failed largely because of man’s inhumanity to man and the malevolent force of international hypocrisy. But in a commemorative year we emphasise not Haiti’s failures, but its magnificent successes.
For that we ought to weep a little for that small, brave, bold, innovative state that successfully defied an unjust, cruel and unkind world. For that reason, we ought to look beyond Aristide to the tragic misfortunes of Haiti and weep. For small countries and small societies in a globalising world, the lessons and experiences of Haiti are all too familiar.

Franklin W Knight is professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, USA.