Session 4B: Romanticism and Slavery

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4B. Romanticism and Slavery: Interventions and Representations

Deborah Kennedy (St. Mary's): "Helen Maria Williams and the Long Campaign against the Slave Trade"
Mary Kelly Persyn (The University of Virginia's College at Wise): "Can the subaltern be heard?: The Haitian Revolution and the Romantics"
Terry Provost (Concordia): "The Imagi/Nation in Naming: Re/Veiwing the Enlightenment through Negresse or Portrait of a Negro Slave"

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Can the subaltern be heard? The Haitian Revolution and the Romantics
Mary Kelly Persyn
The University of Virginia's College at Wise.

In the context of links between the European Romantics and the New World, I will ask whether the Caribbean subaltern can be heard or, alternatively, becomes a spectacle--an objectified picture--to the metropolitan observer. The paper examines a poem by Wordsworth, an autoethnographic letter by the Haitian Baron de Vastey, and a painting by the Haitian-European artist Guillaume Guillon-Lethière.

Architects of a revolution that stunned the world and disabled the British navy, Black Haitians still began the new century bereft of the most powerful leader they had ever known. General Toussaint l'Ouverture was deported to France in 1802, where he died (probably of cold and neglect) in the Fort de Joux in 1803. The 1792 rebellion that he led followed closely upon the heels of the American and French revolutions to complete a triumvirate of eighteenth-century struggles for freedom and self-determination, yet the new French republic and even the ardent English abolitionists turned their backs upon this infant nation. The legacies of those choices haunt Haiti to this day. To a large extent, the tragic history of this island nation echoes within one question made famous by Gayatri Spivak: can the subaltern speak? Can a subjectivity capable of communication with the metropolis be created and sustained within the conditions of colonialism, slavery, and empire? Will that voice, if created, be heard?

My paper will open a consideration of these questions in the context of Haiti by examining three examples of 'contact zones' within which Haitians and Europeans meet and fail to communicate--or, more accurately, fail to hear. By doing so, I hope to elucidate Haiti's role in the development of the 'silent Other' of Romanticism. The most direct link between Haiti and the English Romantics is Joseph Johnson, who was Thomas Clarkson's publisher (Clarkson was not only an abolitionist, but was also an important advisor to King Henry of Haiti). Clarkson was himself connected to William Wordsworth on one side and to the Haitian Baron de Vastey and the rest of the Haitian court on the other. In making use of these connections, I am interested in discussing three Romantic figures--two writers and an artist--who participated in the construction of the Haitian image: William Wordsworth, an establishment Englishman who was a lukewarm abolitionist; Baron de Vastey, an important member of King Henry's court; and Guillaume Lethière, a Haitian artist trained in Europe.

Wordsworth is apparently alone among the English Romantics in his sympathy for l'Ouverture, expressed in an 1802 sonnet written while he was in Calais. Nevertheless, Wordsworth takes on a paternalistic and concessionary tone as he advises the prisoner to live and take comfort from the fact that the natural world will not forget his efforts. Wordsworth recommends that he wear a cheerful brow in the midst of his bonds, seemingly addressing the entire Haitian nation (recently reconquered by Napoleon) through their fallen leader. Unconcerned with the political and military might that l'Ouverture represents, Wordsworth counsels passivity and silence; the Haitian is perhaps to be a speaking picture, a silent statue that can appeal to European sentiment without threatening its safe assumptions about African powerlessness. The English poet's underlying argument is that slavery will simply go away of its own accord; this contention appears much more clearly in The Prelude, where slavery becomes a rotten branch that will eventually fall off the tree of human shame as a matter of course. Late in life, Wordsworth refused to help Thomas Clarkson distribute anti-slavery tracts due to a lack of interest in his home district and his own unwillingness to encourage black rebellion in the Caribbean. His refusal provides ample confirmation of his lukewarm opposition to slavery, despite a lifelong friendship with the abolitionist Clarkson. The sole prominent image of Haiti produced by a mainstream English poet thus leaves intact the sentimentalism of empathy for l'Ouverture even as it excuses the English from taking action on the infant nation's behalf. L'Ouverture himself becomes an object indistinguishable from the natural world, and certainly one incapable of speech.

Sixteen years later, a Haitian response to European inaction appeared in London in the form of a book by the Baron de Vastey; the Duke of Limonade sent a copy to Clarkson a year later (1819). Vastey's text is an autoethnographic letter to the French court protesting their treatment of Haiti; clearly, though, English readers were the primary target. This book-length letter combats in key ways the paradoxical characteristics of passivity, lawlessness, and brutality alternatively projected onto the Haitian people by responses like Wordsworth's and like the French journals'. De Vastey's intent was to give the Haitian people a character of their own by deploying typical European Romantic sentimentalist values against his European audience. The most important examples involve families and children, but de Vastey also called upon the French (and English) reader to recognize Haitian desires for profit, private property, education, and simply for existence. De Vastey delineates countless political and social principles followed by Europe and America but disallowed when dealing with Haiti. His attempt to build a character for Haiti within a space previously filled only by the vacant colonial non-subject is valiant, but failure is inevitable; he is trying to make Haitians speak a language already disallowed by the fact of their subjugation (which prevents their subjectivity). Spivak's question-- can the subaltern speak? --must here again be answered in the negative: the Haitian subaltern could not speak, if to speak is to be heard (again, one notes contemporary ironies).

De Vastey's paradoxical use of European rhetoric and sentimentalist ideals to create a fiercely separationist message is both echoed and twisted by another Caribbean Romantic self-representation. In 1822, the black artist Guillaume Guillon-Lethière, born in Guadeloupe and trained in France, painted Le Serment des Ancétres, which features two Haitians shaking hands over a stone tablet that represents the constitution of Haiti (ratified in 1805). Guillon-Lethière himself embodied some of the cruelties and contradictions of imperialist colonialism; he was a natural (illegitimate ) child and thus a mulatto. The family romance of an affair between a white man and a free or enslaved black woman formed the sentimentalist backbone of many eighteenth-century accounts of slavery and colonial race relations. In many ways, Le Serment does not break with classicism even as it portrays two powerful and independent black Haitians taking part in a scene that was not at all common in classicist painting. The contradictions continue in the iconography of the painting, which reflects Lethière's complex relationship with his racial and national identity. One of the Haitians depicted is black, one mulatto; shackles and chains lie broken at their feet; a white, patriarchal, European God hovers overhead in the clouds. Did Lethière intend for us to read the God figure as a repetition of the chains at the other limit of the frame? Or are the two symbols in profound contradiction of each other? Because Lethière was a Haitian-European, perhaps this iconographic blending was an inevitable result of his classical training. Then again, perhaps it was the only way to speak and be heard: the European still governs the scene of writing.

From the silenced l'Ouverture to the unheard de Vastey and finally the (perhaps) co-opted Lethière, Romantic-era Haitian-Africans tried, but repeatedly failed, to make themselves heard. European characterizations of the Haitian as a 'brigand' and a brute aided in the effort to resist any constitution of Haitian subjectivity. To allow a Haitian subject would be to allow the possibility--indeed, under revolutionary Enlightenment protocol, the necessity--of Haitian independence. Again: the Haitian subaltern cannot speak--if to speak is to be heard.

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Last updated May 31, 1999
by Kathleen McConnell