Avengers of the New World

For the two hundredth anniversary of Haitian independence, Laurent Dubois provides an excellent detailed account of the revolution in Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Writing for the general reader, he relies on printed sources and summarizes scholarly research.

Dubois proceeds chronologically, after three chapters describing the French colony of Saint-Domingue in 1790—the world's largest producer of sugar and coffee, populated by 465,000 slaves, 31,000 whites, and 28,000 free coloreds. Plantation owners believed it profitable to work slaves to death and replace them with new ones. Owners, especially those sitting in the Paris National Assembly, tried unsuccessfully to keep knowledge of the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man from reaching slaves.

On August 24, 1791, a revolt broke out near Cap François; in eight days all plantations within fifty miles were destroyed and many overseers, owners, and families brutally killed. Whites and free-coloreds expanded the revolt into civil war in 1792 by arming slaves to fight for them. Dubois rejects simple racial labels as inadequate to describe the complex diversity within armies and factions.

Black and free-colored generals raised personal forces and dominated entire regions. Most successful was Toussaint Louverture who, while proclaiming allegiance to France, independently defeated a British invasion and conquered the Spanish part of the island. Dubois admires Louverture, but also describes him becoming increasingly dictatorial. When Napoleon sent an army to reestablish French control, the struggle degenerated into a savage race war with atrocities by both sides. Louverture was captured and imprisoned in the French Alps, where he died. Other black leaders, aided by yellow fever, defeated the French, proclaimed independence on January 1, 1804, and changed the name of the country to Haiti.

Readers unfamiliar with the history of Haiti will find this thoughtful, gracefully written book an eye-opening account of the complexities of the Haitian revolution.