By W. T. Whitney Jr.
February 13, 2019
People leave the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, cross waters and land masses, and confront physical and legal barriers in the United States and Europe. Rulers’ economic and political arrangements spawned both migrants and the means to block them. The resulting confrontation and turmoil may or may not lead to forms of political and social transformation. Historians have the job of weighing causative factors leading to any such outcome. In doing so they might evaluate the relative importance of realities on the ground versus good ideas.
Julius S. Scott did exactly that with the PhD dissertation he submitted in 1986 about struggle in the Caribbean accompanying the 1791 slave rebellion in Saint-Domingue – present day Haiti. Observations he made then could well have applied to happenings along the U.S. southeastern border today.
Scott wrote of “people on the move [who] challenged the social control which symbolized imperial authority.” They represented “submerged traditions of popular resistance.” Authorities were “circumscribing the boundaries of human mobility in the region” to ward off “masterless” people and “strangers – especially strangers of color.”
Historians applauded Scott’s thesis even though it was accessible only through photocopies and the Internet. Tributes included: it’s “a lens through which to view the era and the region,” and it “forever changed our intellectual landscape.”
Verso Press published Scott’s work in 2018. The full title is “The Common Wind – Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution.” Historian Marcus Rediker pointed out that Scott “read these archival and published sources against the grain to see what they could reveal about the agency of working people and what role they played in this age of revolution.” He underscored the book’s usefulness in elucidating processes of political change.
The actors in Scott’s narrative are escaped slaves, free blacks, sailors, deserters, hawkers, and wharf people. Having abandoned Europe or been stolen from Africa, they crisscrossed the Caribbean and even arrived at U.S. ports. Elusive but close at hand, they carried newspapers, passed on rumors, and communicated news. There were rebellions, escapes, and plots. Fearful colonial authorities and plantation owners took precautions.
Scott’s narrative proceeds in tidal fashion – unhurried and wide-ranging. Citing letters, newspaper reports, official documents, and the research of others, he traces both official responses to unrest and the impact of repression on the underclass. Scott largely withholds interpretations and enables readers to make sense of things on their own. His language is precise, unadorned, and understated.
The setting is that of port cities and their docks, trade routes, the sugar boom, ocean and coastal voyages, and communities of deserters from plantations and ships. An early chapter on the sea and ships tells of “sailor Negroes,” slave transportation, the inter-island slave trade, shipboard solidarity between slaves and white sailors, and failed attempts at “driving a wedge” between European and Black mariners.
Tiny anecdotes and segments of contemporary observations testify to islanders’ reactions to the American and French revolutions, abolitionist agitation in Britain, Spanish regulations beneficial to slaves, war between France and both England and Spain, and the emancipation of slaves in Saint-Domingue in early 1794.
Scott’s account gradually focuses on repercussions occasioned by the exodus of planters and slaves from Saint-Domingue. Slaves arriving in Spanish and British colonies and in the United States faced restrictions, including imprisonment. Slave rebellions broke out in the Caribbean, Spanish Louisiana, and the United States. They would continue.
Scott concludes by noting that, “Nineteenth-century Afro-North American historians like ex-slave [and abolitionist] William Wells Brown characterized the revolution in Saint-Domingue as the pivotal event in the history of Afro-Americans.”
Historian Peter Linebaugh views the title “Common Wind” as a metaphor for ideas, agitation, and persons in motion. The words are those of British poet William Wordsworth who in 1802 dedicated a sonnet to the leader of the slave rebellion in Saint-Domingue, Toussaint L’Ouverture. He was dying in a French Prison. The sonnet says in part: “…Though fallen Thyself, never to rise again, / Live and take comfort. Thou has left behind / Powers that will work for thee: air, earth, and skies / There’s not a breathing of the common wind / That will forget thee; …”
“The Common Wind” is history from below centering on agitation mostly on behalf of masses of enslaved people. Early signs of unity and long-distance solidarity surfaced. Marcus Rediker, who prefaces Scott’s book, writes that eventually “the winds of revolution would blow in the other direction.” There would be a “tempest created by the black revolutionaries of Saint-Domingue [and] communicated by mobile people in other slave societies.”
The notion of “wind” morphs into a more serious weather event. Peter Linebaugh indicates that, “In that year of 1802 more Acts of Parliament enclosing common lands were passed than ever before in human history.” In fact, the European and especially British bourgeoisie had been doing so for well over a century. Displaced rural inhabitants became factory workers, sailors, and colonial settlers.
The hurricane had merchants and ship owners transporting stolen Africans and selling them to plantation owners. In the 19th century, says Linebaugh, “The cotton plantation supplanted the sugar plantation as means of exploitation.”
So the narrative follows parallel historical threads. To grow their wealth, powerful forces were oppressing masses of working people. Meanwhile, victims or their proxies were busy shaping a countervailing force. The conflict of course continued long after the era Scott was writing about.
Scott contributes by detailing the ingredients of struggle preceding actual resolution of the political conflict. He makes the case that any political and social change ushered in at the climax of the conflict he was dealing with would stem from historical realities. For Scott manifestations of palpable, really-existing oppression weighed more than did ideology framed by well-intentioned wordsmiths. His book is bereft of ideas of morality, legality, decency, humanitarianism, and beneficence.
Scott, in scientific fashion, recorded evidence bearing on an analysis of outcome and cause. He betrays an affinity with Frederick Engels, that pioneer of scientific socialism. Engels wrote that, “the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men’s brains, not in men’s better insights into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange.” He added that, “the law according to which all historical struggles, whether they proceed in the political, religious, philosophical or some other ideological domain, are in fact only the more or less clear expression of struggles of social classes.
Julius S. Scott, The Common Wind, (Verso, London-New York, 2018); ISBN-13: 978-1-78873-247-5; Verso – 20 Jay Street, Suite1010, Brooklyn, NY 11201; 246 pp; $34.95