This week, Barbados removed Queen Elizabeth II as head of state and elected a president as it moves towards becoming a republic. The government announced that it was ‘fully leav[ing] our colonial past behind’. In fact, the process of decolonisation from European overseas empires can be said to have started in the early modern period, at least in a few areas in the Americas. Of course, the best known example is the United States of America, but let us consider a couple of other places which made a Haisti Mexit.
Besides the American Revolution, the other anti-colonial revolution occurred in Haiti (depicted above). Columbus arrived in Hispaniola in his first voyage crossing the ocean blue in 1492, sailing on behalf of the Castilian crown. Hispaniola thus became a colony of Spain. As in so many episodes of world history, piracy shifted the balance of power. The western part of Hispaniola was settled by French Buccaneers (who derived their name from their practice, learned from native inhabitants, of smoking meat on a boucan). The Buccaneers were both pirates and privateers, stealing treasure ships and raiding settlements for their own profit and in service of the French crown. Given the rise of French power over the course of the seventeenth century, the French settlement of Saint Domingue was officially recognised in the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697. French pirates were thus a thorn in the side of Spain, and we might say gave the Castilians a persistent Buccan-earache until Saint Domingue was officially recognised.
Things did not go smoothly for the French in Saint Domingue. While the colony provided the eagerly-consumed commodities of sugar and coffee, labour was in short supply. European colonisers decimated the Indigenous inhabitants of the Caribbean through conquest and disease. The French, like their European counterparts, brought in slaves from Africa. Conditions for African slaves were, unsurprisingly, deplorable and brutal. In the meantime, the French economy was on the brink of collapse by the end of the eighteenth century, leading to revolution in France but continued dependence on overseas colonies and slavery. As recounted in CLR James’ 1938 study The Black Jacobins, French revolutionary ideals inspired Toussaint-l’Ouverture–a self-educated son of slave parents–to organise a struggle against French planters in 1791. By 1793, Haiti was a Black-governed French protectorate. This revolutionary leader was the overture to the opera of Haitian liberation, which sought to consign the hypocrisy of French colonialism to the dust-Jacobin of history.
As Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall has pointed out, historians have since questioned the approach of James to the Haitian Revolution: his conception of revolution led by a single leader, attributing its ideological basis to the French Revolution, and his reliance on Marxist analysis. Historians of the revolution have sought to emphasise the role of race rather than class in the uprising, and to uncover the contributions and experiences of Maroons, women, and mixed-race Haitians during the rebellion. In any case, Napoleon Bonaparte, who became the supreme ruler of France, sent French forces to suppress the Haitian Revolution in 1802. Lasting independence would not be achieved until later in the nineteenth century. Only then would the French be forced to beat a Haiti retreat.
More happily, though Mexico fell under Spanish dominion from 1521 to 1809, the city which became known as Yanga achieved a measure of independence from the late sixteenth century. Gaspar Yanga was born in Africa but enslaved and transported to a plantation 150 km from the port of Veracruz. In 1570, Yanga organised a rebellion against the stern and violent system of slavery in New Spain. He and his fellow rebels fled to the mountains and created a small independent settlement, where they grew crops and raised livestock while raiding Spanish caravans for other supplies. In 1609, the colonial authority attempted a military push to eliminate these rebels, but Yanga and his followers–the Yanguícos–effectively resisted such efforts. Yanga negotiated a ceasefire in 1618 in which the liberated city was left in peace, as long as other slaves were not permitted to join them. These Mexiters compelled the authorities to allow a form of Mexi-coexistence of free and colonised peoples in New Spain. Yanga has thus been celebrated as pioneering figure with a Mexican-do attitude.
Early Modern Times will return on Nov. 13!
Till next time,
Early Modern Yanga-doodle-dandy Studies Program