Researchers discuss impact of Haitian history

By Gideon Bradshaw / News Editor

Historian Marcus Rediker compared Haiti to a black hole because scholars have relatively little of the small Caribbean country’s historical records.

“And I mean that scientifically,” Rediker said. “Astronomers can’t see black holes. The way they measure their power is by observing their impact on the things around them.”

He explained that Haiti has had a significant impact on nearby countries.

Haiti’s history took center stage when Rediker, a distinguished professor of Atlantic history at Pitt, presided over a symposium Monday between John Walsh, an assistant French professor, and Vanessa Mongey, a postdoctoral fellow in Pitt’s history department. About 15 students, faculty and members of the public gathered in the Humanities Center, located on the sixth floor of the Cathedral of Learning, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. to listen to Mongey and Walsh discuss their scholarly work on Haitian history.

Mongey described Haiti as a “nation born out of revolution” and a “pioneer in the idea of universal human rights.” In abolishing slavery after declaring independence in 1804, Haiti advanced that idea further than the American Revolutionary War did.

Haiti, a country that is now home to almost 10 million people, was the second nation in the Western Hemisphere to gain its independence. In 1791, under the command of Toussaint Louverture, roughly 500,000 slaves living in Haiti revolted against French colonial rule. In 1804, the year after Louverture died, Haiti became the first black-led post-colonial country.

But Mongey said she did not think the slaves who revolted against French rule in Haiti did so because they were committed to ideals of liberty.

“They were trying to get to their land,” Mongey said.

One Pittsburgher who came to the symposium and who has worked in Haiti said that he did not understand much about the country when he traveled there as part of an aid program.

Peter Harvey, 58, of Highland Park, worked in Haiti from 1998 to 2000 with the National Democratic Institute, a nonprofit organization that receives its funding from the U.S. government. In Haiti, Harvey worked with Haitian peasants in remote areas as part of an empowerment program that facilitated meetings in which communities could analyze the problems they faced.

He said that he went to a party after he’d been in Haiti for two weeks. At the party, an American who worked at the U.S. consulate asked him what he thought of conditions in Haiti. Harvey said he had only just arrived in the country.

“That doesn’t matter,” he said. “As an American, I can just opine on what’s going on [in Haiti].”

Harvey admitted that he had only read a handful of books on Haiti before he went there with the National Democratic Institute.

Harvey said that while academic research on Haiti’s history may not necessarily lead to a greater understanding of the country for the general public, he has been interested in the country ever since his time there.

Rediker, who has written or edited seven books about slavery, piracy and other topics in Atlantic history, said that when he first started studying Atlantic history about 35 years ago, no one discussed the Haitian revolution. He claims that it is now essential to study the revolution.

Walsh’s book, “Free and French in the Caribbean,” was published earlier this year and deals in part with Louverture. In order to write the book, Walsh went back through Louverture’s personal writings.

He said that the revolutionary leader left behind more than 1,600 documents, which are not stored in a single place. Complicating matters further, Louverture wrote in French using his own phonetic spellings. This makes it challenging to use his documents in research.

Mongey pointed out that Louverture was not a freedom fighter. Even though Walsh agreed, he said the leader still interests him.

“[Louverture] was very authoritarian,” Walsh said. “But his writing is wonderful and beautiful and I was just drawn to it.”