Annotation: Jeremy D. Popkin’s “Facing Racial Revolution” (2003)

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This annotation was written in reference to my paper: “Looking Behind the Bedroom Door: Productive Sensationalism and Domestic Violence in Leonora Sansay’s Secret History.” See my prospectus here.

Popkin, Jeremy D. “Facing Racial Revolution: Captivity Narratives and Identity in the Saint-Domingue Insurrection.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 36:4 (2003): 511-33. Print.

In his article Popkin discusses how the success of the Haitian Revolution deeply challenged Euro-American conceptions of race and the racial hierarchy itself. Whereas blacks were previously considered inferior, irrational beings, the insurrection showed that they could successfully organize to overthrow a white colonizing power and in effect seize one of Europe’s most lucrative colonial possessions at the time. Popkin specifically analyzes how first-person testimonies about the revolution reveal a crisis in identity as these authors struggle to reconcile their understanding of the Western “self” against the new black “other.” Because it was before inconceivable that blacks could even stage a revolution there was no formula for how to discuss or even think about it when it actually happened so writers needed to create conditions where it “became thinkable” (515). In his first-hand captivity narrative, Historick Recital, M. Gros suggested that “the real instigators of the insurrection were either the educated mulattoes or counter-revolutionary whites” (521). He asserted that the officials sent to St. Domingue deliberately acted passive because they wanted to spark chaos in the colony to demonstrate the inefficiency of the revolutionary party in France and precipitate the restoration of the monarchy. Popkin emphasizes, however, that Gros’ account also revealed that blacks could be just as skillful political and military leaders as whites, particularly with respect to Toussaint L’Overture. Popkin further notes that in Gros’ attempt to reach the highest ranks of administration and influence policy, he achieved “a position that required him to identify, at least to some extent, with the goals of a black-led movement,” as well as the black leaders themselves, who he recognized as generous, intelligent, and rational (518). Popkin also discusses how Michel Etienee Descourtilz’ first-person captivity narrative demonstrates a similar crisis in identity, where he encountered blacks who deeply challenged his preconceived racial stereotypes. While Descourtilz took comfort in his medical knowledge as evidence of the superiority of European science, like Gros, he was also deeply implicated in the black revolutionary movement as he helped the army resist French forces. Popkin ultimately contends that the most unsettling aspect of Gros’ and Descourtilz’s accounts is that they not only revealed how people of color could successfully repel a white colonizing power but also how they could manipulate whites into employing their knowledge about law and medicine to further their own revolutionary movement.

While Popkin focuses on how first person narratives “represent not only the construction but also the deconstruction of the autonomous white male personality” with particular regards to race, I am interested in examining how Sansay’s Secret History differs as a female account of the revolution, one written from the perspective of an American woman who writes about captivity from a detached position (527). I believe her novel offers a means of analyzing the fraught gender relations between men and women in St. Domingue as well as white women and women of color, which Popkin largely overlooks in his own article.

Prospectus: Leonora Sansay’s Secret History (2007)

This is my prospectus for Leonora Sansay’s Secret History. Some of my ideas are a little diffuse at the moment and I may be trying to accomplish too much in this paper but as always constructive criticism and other secondary source suggestions will be greatly appreciated.

In Secret History or The Horrors of St. Domingo, Leonora Sansay complicates our understanding of the Haitian revolution as a colonial race war by foregrounding gender relations and narratives of domestic violence. Rather than the brutal massacres and military conflicts of the times, Sansay suggests that the true “Horrors of St. Domingo” pertain to the repressed history of female oppression, particularly through the tyrannical institution of marriage. By embroiling acts of patriarchal violence in the context of a broader revolutionary struggle, Sansay troubles the conventional conception of the “domestic” as a closed, private sphere. In my paper I am interested in exploring how male-female relations are politicized in the novel, how they are shaped by colonial power structures and deeply implicated in the colonial project.

Many of Mary’s letters describe an intense “public joy” for impending balls (71). The prospect of participating in such a social engagement seems to enable Clara to physically overcome her yellow fever and emotional depression. Mary further emphasizes that this is the first time Clara appears to be truly happy since their arrival on the island. Therefore, rather than frivolous, peripheral events, I argue that these balls serve as a crucial space for the performance of “normative” male-female relations—structured dances, courtship, and romance—to reinforce the fantasy of colonial control and social order. Despite the constant uprisings and threats from Haitian revolutionaries, Sansay suggests that these extravagant displays of wealth, fashion, and culture are necessary to uphold a sense of European supremacy and indeed a means for the French to convince themselves of their ability to recapture their colonial possessions.

Sansay presents the courtships that occur in the ballroom as a revealing lens for understanding the broader revolutionary conflicts of the times. In one letter Mary notes: “the gallantry of the French officers is fatiguing from its sameness. They think their appearance alone sufficient to secure a conquest, and do not conceive it necessary to give their yielding mistresses a decent excuse by paying them little attention” (77). Here, the deliberate embroiling of the rhetoric of colonial conquest in situations of courtship and romance compels a political reading of these lines. When Mary suggests that the French believe their “appearance alone” is enough to ensure victory, there is an ambiguous conflation between physical appearance, in terms of the attractiveness to win ladies’ hearts and literal arrival on the island as sufficient to defeat the Haitian insurgents. Mary critiques the French for being totally absorbed in the fantasy of European white supremacy and failing to recognize the precariousness of their situation, an insight made possible by her position as an American woman in Haiti.

But while the balls perpetuate a colonial fantasy, they also have real political consequences as funds are drained to pay for these lavish social events and soldiers’ attention is drawn away from the riots and military conflicts. Clara’s relationship with General Rochambeau particularly demonstrates how male-female interactions are not only shaped by the conditions of the Haitian revolutions but also directly influence colonial politics. In the novel, Rochambeau uses unsafe wartime circumstances as an excuse to lure Clara to his home and later imposes an embargo to prevent her from leaving the island. Sansay therefore re-writes women into the colonial race narrative of the Haitian revolution, not as simply subjects of private domestic abuse but rather figures of public, political consequence.

In her essay, “The Secret History of the Early American Novel: Leonara Sansay and Revolution in Saint Domingue,” Elizabeth Maddock Dillon further discusses how the depiction of “elite, white domestic relations” parallels and intersects in interesting ways with the “anti-colonial revolution” (78). She asserts that while Clara is initially introduced as a “French colonial wife,” General Rochambeau’s continual pursuit and attempt to conquer her, transforms Clara into an oppressed subject whose body faces the threat of colonization (91). Dillon also notes that in the novel, Sansay figures female liberation as the surprising, simultaneous consequence of the Haitian revolution: “when Mary and Clara flee Saint Domingue for Cuba, they repeatedly find themselves in the company of unhusbanded women who appear to blossom in the absence of the men who previously controlled them” (92). By the end of Secret History we do see an emerging transnational, cross-racial network of women that strongly parallels the “Underground Railroad” in helping oppressed peoples attain freedom. In my paper, however, I want to shift the focus to a more nuanced analysis of the complex and highly antagonistic female relations depicted at the beginning of the novel, which can be problematically overlooked if we too readily embrace the feminist fantasy Sansay leaves us with. The Secret History does not present the Haitian revolution as merely a racial, colonial conflict or even a simple battle between the sexes. Sansay also vividly describes the brutal acts of violence that women commit against each one another.

Jeremy D. Popkin, in “Facing Racial Revolution: Captivity Narratives and Identity in the Saint-Domingue Insurrection,” asserts that the Haitian revolution sharply destabilized Euro-American conceptions of race by demonstrating that people of color were capable of successfully organizing a revolt and defeating a white colonizing power. Sansay’s novel reveals another interesting facet of this argument by presenting accounts where women of color pose a real threat to white women, emerging as competitive rivals for male desire and affection. In my paper I intend to examine the colonial structures that fuel the murderous jealousy and ruthless competition between the women in Haiti. I will particularly explore the implications of Mary’s systematic, almost anthropological observation and classification of women and whether the common vulnerability towards patriarchal violence and domestic abuse can transcend national, racial and class difference to serve as unifying link for the establishment of a transatlantic female network.

Works Consulted

Buck-Morss, Susan. “Part One: Hegel and Haiti.” Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009. 3-75. Print. (Annotation)

Dillon, Elizabeth Maddock. “The Secret History of the Early American Novel: Leonora Sansay and Revolution in Saint Domingue.” Novel 40.1/2 (2006): 77-103. Print. (Annotation)

Drexler, Michael J. “Haiti, Modernity, and U.S. Identities.” Early American Literature 43.2. (2008): 453-65. Print.

Fischer, Sibylle. “Introduction.” Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. 1-38. Print. (Annotation)

Gaul, Theresa Strouth. “Recovering Recovery: Early American Women and Legacy’s Future.” Legacy 26.2 (2009): 262-83. Print.

Popkin, Jeremy D. “Facing Racial Revolution: Captivity Narratives and Identity in the Saint-Domingue Insurrection.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 36.4 (2003): 511-33. Print. (Annotation)

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. “An Unthinkable History: The Haitian Revolution as a Non-event.” Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995. 70-107. Print. (Annotation)

Woertendyke, Gretchen. “Romance to Novel: A Secret History.” Narrative 17.3 (2009): 255-73. Print. (Annotation)