Having dealt peremptorily with the French Revolution, we moved on Tuesday in European History Since 1648 at UNLV to discuss some of its aftershocks. Our focus was on the Caribbean, where the language of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” ran up against an entrenched racial hierarchy and the economic interests of the French state in extracting wealth from its colony in what is today Haiti.
Adding some actors—mosquitoes, viruses, and parasites—to our array of historical actors, we discussed both the language deployed by Haitian revolutionaries as they fought first the planter class, the French government in various phases, and also British armies which attempted to both wrest the colony from their rival and stop the flow of revolutionary ideas from reaching their own Caribbean colonies. Students also brought up the role of environmental factors—bad harvests, food shortages—in sparking the French Revolution.
Drawing on the work of J R McNeill, we examined the plantation ecology of the Caribbean and explored the role of environmental and ecological factors in shaping the Haitian Revolution in the Caribbean.
I find this kind of environmental history fascinating because historians describe the environment as an actor (my own practise of environmental history plays it much safer, and simply recounts the politics surrounding environmental issues and politics).
Haitian revolutionaries, who finally wrested their independence from Napoleonic France, are providing our transition into the nineteenth century, which we will explore in the coming week through the themes of industrialization, conservatism, liberalism, and communism.