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EP 7: Know Your History - America & The Black Republic

Updated: May 21, 2020

Season 1: Foundations

Episode 7: Know Your History....America & The Black Republic

Episode available on Spotify, Apple Podcast, and more!

When tracing your ancestry, it’s important to know your history – especially, the untold aspects. From 1514 to 1866, the Transatlantic slave trade forced 10-12 million Africans across the middle passage and into bondage, trapped in strange lands. That’s more than 36,000 documented voyages. And in that trade, nearly 400,000 Africans were brought to the United States.

But what about the tens of millions of people who were not in the U.S.? What of their history? Their legacies? Even their influence on Black Americans?

Africans were enslaved in many countries outside of the U.S. in North and South America, including modern-day Haiti, Colombia, Brazil, Jamaica, Cuba, Mexico, and more…

On today’s episode of American Origin stories, we will discuss the impact of one country in particular, Haiti (formerly Saint Domingue) – which became the first independent nation run by people of African descent – also known as The Black Republic.

Joining in on the conversation is expert historian, Dr. Brandon Byrd, assistant professor at Vanderbilt University. He draws from the concepts discussed in his recent book - The Black Republic: African Americans and the Fate of Haiti (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019) - which examines the ways in which the Haitian Revolution impacted enslaved and free Black Americans.

The Pearl of the Antilles

Saint Domingue grew to be the wealthiest colony in the French empire, and some believe, the richest colony in the world due to its slave-based agriculture, producing approximately 40% of the sugar and 60% of the coffee imported to Europe. It’s incredible to contemplate how much slave production existed throughout the Americas, (millions of people enslaved!) and still only one third of an island was responsible for so much of the total output of these important crops.

Imagine what kind of conditions would be required to ensure such high levels of productivity. They necessarily would have to be brutal, given that the colony’s economy was derived almost exclusively from the production of exportable crops. So it is no surprise that the slave system in Saint Domingue was regarded as one of the harshest in the Americas, with high levels of both mortality and violence.

Nearly 800,000 Africans were imported to the colony and enslaved, which is more than twice the amount brought to the U.S.

Conditions in U.S. v. the Caribbean

“In the Caribbean, and Brazil, the slave death rate was so high and the birth rate so low that they could not sustain their population without importations from Africa. Rates of natural decrease ran as high as 5 percent a year. While the death rate of US slaves was about the same as that of Jamaican slaves, the fertility rate was more than 80 percent higher in the United States.

US slaves were more generations removed from Africa than those in the Caribbean. In the nineteenth century, the majority of slaves in the British Caribbean and Brazil were born in Africa. In contrast, by 1850, most US slaves were third-, fourth-, or fifth generation Americans.

Slavery in the US was distinctive in the near balance of the sexes and the ability of the slave population to increase its numbers by natural reproduction. Unlike any other slave society, the US had a high and sustained natural increase in the slave population for a more than a century and a half.”

The Rebellion

Lead by military genius and formerly enslaved Toussaint Louverture, the rebellion began on August 1791. Within a few weeks, the fight grew to include more than 100,000 participants, destroying hundreds of plantations. This rebel force consisted of enslaved Africans and free people of color.

In 1792, the French sent troops to quash the rebellion, but the army failed. As France floundered against the militia, Spain and Great Britain attempted to take control of the colony but the rebels fought off the attacks and even freed enslaved people on the western portion of the island – modern day Dominican Republic.

One notable warrior was dubbed the Tigress of Haiti. Born, Suzanne "Sinite" Deblair, she was married to Charles Deblair, military leader and nephew of Toussaint Louverture. The Tigress was hands on in her efforts, acting as a sergeant, then as a lieutenant against the French Army. She is the only woman from the Revolution to be honored as a face on modern Haitian currency.

Sadly, her tale in ends in personal tragedy. She and her husband were captured by the French before independence was won and were shot to death by firing squad while a crowd watched in horror.

In 1802, Napoleon regained control of the island and attempted to reinstitute slavery, but these efforts only ignited a new surge of the rebellion. Louverture since captured, a new leader took the reins of the effort - Jean-Jacques Dessalines – and under his control, the Haitians eventually defeated the French in late 1803.

Four years later, Britain and the U.S. abolished the slave trade. And though slavery would not be abolished as a practice in the United States for some time, enslaved Black Americans were inspired by the notion of a Black Republic. Even after the Civil War, Black American intellectual leaders were shaped by the rebellion. They began to think globally--considering the African Diaspora as a whole.

Unfortunately, no nation can survive in purely romanticized view and the western empires were not graciously welcoming the new independent nation into their fold. The U.S. empire began to exert power over Haiti and eventually had its longest occupation on the island.

Today, many Black Americans do not have an understanding and appreciation of what Haiti meant during U.S. slavery, post-Civil War, and beyond, given the immense negative narratives spread about the former French colony. However, many scholars, including Dr. Byrd, are hoping to reshape those narratives and bring glory back to Haiti and its international legacy.

Revolutionary Row:

Toussaint Louverture

Suzanne "Sanité" Bélair - The Tigress of Haiti

Jean-Jacques Dessalines

Check out the full episode for more on the connection between Haiti and Black America.

Guest Bio:

Dr. Brandon R. Byrd

Assistant Professor of History, Vanderbilt

Dr. Byrd "is a historian of nineteenth and twentieth century black intellectual and social history, with a special focus on black internationalism. His book, The Black Republic: African Americans and the Fate of Haiti (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), recovers a crucial and overlooked chapter of black internationalism and political thought by exploring the ambivalent attitudes that black intellectuals in the post-Civil War era held toward Haiti.

Dr. Byrd’s scholarship has appeared in journals such as The Journal of African American History, The Journal of Civil War Era, Slavery and Abolition, and The Journal of Haitian Studies, and in popular outlets, including The Washington Post. Support for his research has come from numerous institutions and organizations including Vanderbilt University, Marquette University, the American Philosophical Society, the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at UMass-Amherst, the Marcus Garvey Foundation, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations.

In addition to his research and teaching, Dr. Byrd is a co-editor of the Black Lives and Liberation series published by Vanderbilt University Press.

A native of North Carolina, Dr. Byrd earned his BA from Davidson College, an MA in History from the College of William & Mary, and a PhD in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He lives with his family in Nashville, where he is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Vanderbilt University.


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