It was no doubt one of the most extraordinary events of the Age of
Revolution: the overthrow of the slaveholding regime in the French
colony of Saint Domingue, the ‘‘pearl of the Antilles,’’ by insurgent
slaves and their free allies and the establishment of an independent
black state in 1804. One might have expected that the Haitian Revo-
lution would figure prominently in accounts of the revolutionary
period, on a par with the revolution in France and the events that led
to the foundation of the United States of America. That is not so. To
this day, most accounts of the period that shaped Western modernity
and placed notions of liberty and equality at the center of political
thought fail to mention the only revolution that centered around the
issue of racial equality.
Why did this happen? And what does it mean for the ways in
which we conventionally think about Western modernity? Some-
times it takes longer to arrive at a question than to produce an
answer. This project started as a study of nineteenth-century Carib-
bean literatures and the beginnings of national cultures. Eventually
I came to feel that at the core of many literary texts and literary and
cultural histories there was a certain mystery: a suspended contra-
diction, an unexpected flight into fantasy where one might have
expected a reckoning with reality, an aesthetic judgment too harsh to
be taken at face value, or a failure to deal with what we know to have
been the main issues of concern. I came to think that there were
more, and more complex, connections between these odd moments
and the ‘‘horrors of Saint Domingue’’ than the cursory references to
the fears of the Creole population in most literary histories sug-
gested. To be sure, the fear of a repetition of the events in Haiti led to
denials of their transcendence and the suppression of any informa-
tion relating to them. But silence and fear are not beyond interroga-
tion. Was this fear directed at the same prospects in all slaveholding
areas? Moreover, is it not the case that our fears often have a greater
hold over us than our positive beliefs and commitments? There is by
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