An Unthinkable History (Pages 70-88)- Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Entry Question

Can you think of a current social issue to which there seems to be no solution, that is, it is extremely hard to conceive a world otherwise, beyond it?

“[In Silencing the Past] Trouillot suggested that the Haitian Revolution was (and in many ways remains) an “unthinkable” event: that the idea of enslaved populations rising up and not only resisting slavery but also achieving self-determination and forging entirely new conceptual categories of freedom and equality was beyond the grasp of both observers and participants. ”

-Yarimar Bonilla, “Burning Questions: The Life and Work of Michel-Rolph Trouillot 1949-2012”

There were doubts at times. But the planters’ practical precautions aimed at stemming individual actions or, at worst, a sudden riot. No one in Saint-Domingue or elsewhere worked out a plan of response to a general insurrection.

Although by no means mono­lithic, this worldview was widely shared by whites in Europe and the Americas and by many non-white plantation owners as well. Although it left room for variations, none of these variations included the possibility of a revolutionary uprising in the slave plantations, let alone a successful one leading to the creation of an independent state. (73)

The Haitian Revolution did chal­lenge the ontological and political assumptions of the most radi­cal writers of the Enlightenment. The events that shook up Saint-Domingue from 1791 to 1804 constituted a sequence for which not even the extreme political left in France or in England had a concep­tual frame of reference. They were “unthinkable” facts in the framework of Western thought. (82)

Oral presentation on “An Unthinkable History” (Pages 70-88)

Thiam, Fatou

Torres, Brian A

Vargas, Ricardo

Group Discussion

What is your understanding of these key concepts discussed by Trouillot: the west; Man; black; abolition and resistance?

The West

The West was created somewhere at the beginning of the six­teenth century in the midst of a global wave of material and symbolic transformations. The definitive expulsion of the Mus­lims from Europe, the so-called voyages of exploration, the first developments of merchant colonialism, and the maturation of the absolutist state set the stage for the rulers and merchants of Western Christendom to conquer Europe and the rest of the world…

These political developments paralleled the emergence of a new symbolic order. (74)

What is Man?

Philosophers who discussed that last issue could not escape the fact that colonization was going on as they spoke. Men (Europe­ans) were conquering, killing, dominating, and enslaving other beings thought to be equally human, if only by some. (75)

In the horizon of the West at the end of the century, Man (with a capital M) was primarily European and male. On this single point everyone who mattered agreed… westernized (or more properly, “westernizable”) humans, natives of Africa or of the Americas, were at the lowest level of this nomenclature. (76)

The lexical opposition Man-versus-Native (or Man- versus-Negro) tinted the European literature on the Americas from 1492 to the Haitian Revolution and beyond. (82)

Black

By the middle of the eighteenth century, “black” was almost univer­sally bad. What had happened in the meantime, was the expan­sion of African-American slavery… Blacks were inferior and therefore enslaved; black slaves behaved badly and were therefore inferior. In short, the practice of slavery in the Americas secured the blacks’ position at the bottom of the human world. With the place of blacks now guaranteed at the bottom of the Western nomenclature, anti-black racism soon became the cen­tral element of planter ideology in the Caribbean.  (77)

The Enlightenment, nevertheless, brought a change of perspec­tive. The idea of progress, now confirmed, suggested that men were perfectible. Therefore, subhumans could be, theoretically at least, perfectible. More important, the slave trade was running its course, and the economics of slavery would be questioned in­creasingly as the century neared its end. Perfectibility became an argument in the practical debate: the westernized other looked increasingly more profitable to the West, especially if he could become a free laborer. (80)

Abolition

Behind the radicalism, of Diderot and Raynal stood, ultimately, a project of colonial management. It did indeed include the aboli­tion of slavery, but only in the long term, and as part of a process that aimed at the better control of the colonies. Access to hu­man status did not lead ipso facto to self-determination. (81)

The sole sustained campaign of the self-proclaimed Friends of the Blacks was their effort to guarantee the civil and political rights of free mulatto owners. (87)

Resistance

Resistance did not exist as a global phenomenon. Rather, each case of unmistakable defiance, each possible instance of resistance was treated separately and drained of its political content. (83)

Built into any system of domination is the tendency to proclaim its own normalcy. To acknowledge resistance as a mass phenomenon is to acknowledge the possibility that something is wrong with the system. Carib­bean planters, much as their counterparts in Brazil and in the United States, systematically rejected that ideological conces­sion, and their arguments in defense of slavery were central to the development of scientific racism. (84)

The evocation of a slave rebellion was primarily a rhetorical device. The concrete possibility of such a rebellion flourishing into a revolution and a modern black state was still part of the unthinkable. (85)